The Man Who Wants Another "Life"

Retroman James Taylor
PHOTO BY JENNIE WARREN

Like most everybody hawking a board game these days, James Taylor is having a tough time getting a publisher interested. We found the 25-year-old killing time recently between classes at the USC games laboratory in the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts. Inscribed on the building's threshold is a scuffed, barely readable sentence, "Reality Ends Here."

Yes, it does. Practically every fun board game you could think of is stacked on shelves against the walls of the laboratory, but the place is about as lively as a morgue. The boxes are dusty. Of his classmates in the Film and Interactive Media master's program, half will go into video games, and half will go into mobile-phone games. Taylor is the odd duck out, the only one working on old-school board games.

"People who design games are always a little bit deluded," he says. "Lawyers design games about the law. Real estate agents design games about real estate. But it doesn't necessarily translate into a successful game."

The board-game industry is suffering because there isn't much turnover. "There aren't new, big board games coming out," Taylor laments. "Americans tend to look back for games. Parents look at Monopoly and remember their past and give it to their kids."

A good board game is a story, which is like a skin stretched over the rules. Taylor's game, The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, is about two Victorian gentlemen trying to talk to a lady. But he could have easily made it two spies trying to recruit a diplomat.

The big publishers of games tend to sand them down, smooth out the nooks and crannies and minimize the story. "In the U.S., there aren't any small or midsize game publishers," he says with a sigh. "It's 'Go big or go home.' "

Lately manufacturers have been turning movies or TV shows into board games. If people understand the characters from a show, slipping into the game play is easy. For a while, Taylor toyed with the idea of a board game based on the HBO cop show The Wire, but infused with his own self-referential spin: "They always talk about 'the game' on that show. The police, the drug dealers, the politicians are players. A theme of surveillance runs through it."

Germany is the hot spot for board games at the moment. There, the game designer's name appears on the box in the same way an author's name appears on a book. Taylor wonders if climate factors into the current German board-game craze. Do they play more board games there — an indoor activity — because it is colder? Or maybe it's about their concept of family time.

On that note, Taylor is reminded of how American manufacturer Hasbro once encouraged people to institute a weekly family games night. It was a ploy to get people to change their lifestyles to buy Hasbro products.

"The guy who designed Apples to Apples, Mark Austerhaus, said that. A game should fit into your lifestyle, not the other way around. It took Austerhaus 10 years to get his game off the ground," Taylor says. "People have triple-mortgaged their houses for their games."

In America, interest in board games surged after 9/11. Wistful for a time before terror, people got together to play nostalgic "evergreens" like Monopoly and Scrabble.

Taylor spends a lot of time thinking about games and watching people play games. At the Chicago Toy & Game Fair, he met the luminaries of the industry: the woman who invented Jenga, the man who invented the Razr scooter and the lunatic who invented the Tickle Me Elmo doll.

He pays particular attention to how games unfold. Chess is "a silencing game." Deep-strategy games are often abstract, while others are rich little story lands. Clue, one of his favorites, is both.

He reaches for a nearby Monopoly board, picks up the tiny pewter shoe. "People are surprisingly good at investing themselves into that piece," he says, pinching the shoe between his fingers. "That shoe. That's me."

Play them long enough, and the games get into your head. Tetris "is about organizing shit." It puts him in a cleaning mood. Recently, he played the German game The Settlers of Catan, which is all about negotiation and managing resources. Afterward, he needed a ride from his roommate, Josh. "What resources do I have that I can offer Josh?" he found himself thinking. "Maybe I can do groceries."

Games are serious business, but hardly anyone studies them seriously. Taylor, however, is a deep-thinking, intense kind of guy, and a student of systems. "If you design a set of rules, there are values inherent in them. There are things that get rewarded, and things that get punished. Designing rules can be a profound philosophical thing."

Ordinarily soft-spoken, Taylor brightens when talking about the stories behind the games. "Just the history of some things. Like the history of dice? You can't imagine the amounts of money lost on dice."

Roman emperors were addicted to dice. The first dice were animal knuckles, and the practice evolved from fortune-tellers throwing seeds to divine the future. Nowadays, at gaming conventions, people spend small fortunes on dice carved from meteorite fragments and woolly-mammoth ivory.

Checkers was designed as a play on the "checkered game of life." Each square represented Christian virtues and vices. In the 1880s, the golden age of parlor games, there was usually one light source in people's parlors and the whole family would gather around it. In the early 1900s, the stock-market games emerged, and the goal became the accumulation of money. Then in the late 1990s, two former Microsoft employees struck a deal with the devil. They sold their game Cranium at every Starbucks across the land, making it one of the most successful independent board games of all time.

A faraway look comes into Taylor's eyes as he speaks. "What is it about people that they invent these games to play?" he asks.

In this digital age, Taylor is fighting the good fight to keep board games around. He has even tried his own game out as a drinking game (it works).

For now, he has decided to market his game himself via the Internet (Google the title). He notes that he successfully avoided the classic newbie mistake — ordering boards the exact size of the box. They don't fit. (Oh, the sob stories.)

In a few weeks, his West Adams apartment will become the shipping warehouse for 500 copies of The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands. "I will be living with those games," he says. "They will be my dining table and stool."

In the meantime, his place is set up perfectly for friends to come over to play. The television tucks away, facing the corner "like a little kid who has done something bad." And the sofa and coffee table are ready to accommodate Taylor's favorite aspect of board games, "the slow sitting around, where the situation is sort of brewing."

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