The question kept coming up, in different forms, throughout the con, as it keeps coming up in my study of geek culture: what do you do when the hobby you love, the medium you flourish in, the art form you live for, is dying financially? The most promising answer in the gaming world is to Go Punk. The happiest and most successful booth in this year's DunDraCon Dealers Room, the booth with the biggest buzz, was run by Cheapass Games, a company based in Seattle and founded by former professional juggler and current freelance game designer James Ernest. They're a tiny firm, but cast an increasingly large shadow over a gaming industry now dominated by a large, quasi-Microsoftian empire. (To recap: Wizards of the Coast, the filthy rich publishers of Magic: the Gathering (and a game called Filthy Rich), bought out its largest competitor in the trading-card-game-space, as well as the ailing, formerly dominant TSR, the Dungeons & Dragons publisher that, in turn, bought up and dominated competitors back in its prime. James Ernest's wife works for Wizards.) I was delighted to hear that one of Cheapass's first major convention presences (by "major" I mean a table six feet long or more) would be at my home con. My only pre-planned convention purchases - most con-goers worth their salt have a "wish list" - were Cheapass products. Rather than quote their mission statement here at length, I'll just link to it. Go there. It's so obvious once you read it, and once you know a little more about the obstacles facing a game designer, it seems even more so. Strip game publishing down to the absolute essentials of cardstock, one color of ink, some hi-quality xeroxes for rules, and an envelope, and you might have a chance. CAG's success is due in part to the kinds of games they design: innovative, unashamedly weird, a little more complex than the latest toy-line-inspired boardgame you might pick up at Target, but basically beer-and-pretzels joints, sometimes of classic caliber. They are "gateway drugs" to the woollier world of elaborate foreign-import games and the role-playing world.

buttons!
buttons!
and more buttons!
Cheapass' idea of a high-production-values game is two full-color buttons in a plastic baggie. Button Men was their hot new product for the con. (I remember back when everyone had hot new products at this con. Now there are no hot new products.) It's a great game - ingenious, fast, funny. It plays with that geek-gaming staple, polyhedral dice (sold separately). Here's a quote about one of the pin-backed fighters: "Clare is an international spelling and thumb wrestling champion. She enjoys hiking, fishing, and beating people up." Their other big hit was Devil Bunny Needs A Ham, a board game that sells for two dollars. The plot: you control a team of sous chefs who are trying to scale a building. Devil Bunny is knocking you down because he needs a ham. To quote from the online catalog, "how much of a story do you really expect for two bucks?" Their humor is their greatest marketing genius; it doesn't restrict itself to geek humor - you know, quote-driven in-group signals. (I bet you know someone who can recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail or a Red Dwarf episode from start to finish.)

Cheapass general manager Nicole Lindroos was working the booth, as well as appearing at this year's installment of the regular seminar on "Women in Gaming." I attended the second half of this one, but didn't do a drawing. Instead I took notes, like an actual reporter - imagine that. The crowd was maybe about a 60/40 ratio of females to males. When I first walked in, the subject was geeks! Or, how young women interested in RPGs should deal with a playing group full of undersocialized adolescent boys (typical roleplayers?). Happily, the conclusion reached was one that I, as a nerd-rights zealot, can endorse: manners can be taught, and a young woman who is willing to take a stand will usually find that people are receptive. That brought up the fact that many of the women at the seminar had gotten into the hobby when they were considerably younger than the men that they played with, making it tougher to stand up to people who run games in a sexist or non-inclusive way.

I asked the group why LARPs seemed to draw so many more women than other gaming scenes (and real women, too, not scary chainmail-cleavage-having people). The answers I got are, in retrospect, obvious: LARPs include many more people, so even if the game sucks, is run by incompetents, or is mostly played by incompetents, you'll probably find a bunch of people with whom you can have a decent, social time. Some people suggested that the theatrical sense of LARPs, their frequently more cooperative nature and the fact that no one person is really in charge all tend to draw more women. There is also the obvious, broader appeal of not having to spend the entire game time sitting around a table munching chips. Don't forget: at a LARP, as one attendee pointed out, "you can get further away from your boyfriend!"

(Final note from Women in Gaming: if you are, or were, deep enough into gaming to want to own "leads" (pronounced like lead, the metal, and meaning tiny cast-metal figures that sell for a few dollars each), and if you are curious to know if anyone sells leads of female characters that are actually wearing more than a ludicrously small amount of clothing, the company that makes the leads you should seek out is named Mithril Miniatures. Now you know.)


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text and drawings © copyright 1999 Mike Sugarbaker