News of the gaming world is often centered on the slickest, freshest new video games, but the unusual swag handed out at the recent TableFlip Conference in San Francisco — a vintage board game — was a coy subversion that set the tone for the gaming conference.
TableFlip, held over the weekend at the Apportable offices on Bryant St., focuses on "design, play, and tabletop games," eschewing the exploding culture of video games while still embracing its aesthetic values. It's also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for tabletop game lovers to see some of their design icons in an intimate setting.
Conference organizer Tim Hwang said, “The intent is that it should be really intimate. You should be able to talk with other people who are designing games and have these long play sessions.”
Saturday's speakers underscored the breadth of tabletop games played and discussed at the conference. The first speaker, David Malki, came to game design from the world of webcomics and used his understanding of good theme and narrative to complexify the card game War in a play session following his talk. Malki introduced more and more twists into War's simple framework so that, in the final round, attendees were adding a rule and entirely new narrative to the game.
War and its narratives were also present in Saturday's second talk, presented by Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train, co-creators of The COIN Series. Ruhnke designs commercial wargames when he isn’t doing his day job as a CIA analyst. Ruhnke explained their design aims, saying “I’m trying to say, it can have pretty, bright wooden pieces and still be a decent historical simulation. Similarly, If you like a game that looks that way, it can be about Afghanistan and still be fun. It can be about something consequential and still be fun.” With their game, A Distant Plain, they tried to bridge the gap between everyday tabletop fans and hardcore wargame lovers, as did the conference itself.
Tabletop darlings Max Temkin and Matt Leacock spoke on Sunday. Temkin, the creator of improbable gaming success Cards Against Humanity, recently pranked the video game industry — at a video game conference, he distributed a Cards Against Humanity expansion pack called Pwnmeal: Extreme Gaming Oatmeal.
Humor, Temkin said, is key to his success. He mused, “I don’t think that comedy is ever just funny. I think that comedy is always about the shock of recognition and the release of tension in learning that other people feel the same way that you do about new or shocking ideas. I think there’s always some truth in good jokes and good satire.” His talk pointed out that the Pwnmeal satire was successful only because the Cards Against Humanity team knew and understood the convention. From a place of genuine affection and recognition, they could critique it.
But although TableFlip offered an intimate and cheeky look at the board gaming world, it lacked diversity — an absence that was made all the more clear by two other conferences taking place the same weekend. Across the country, AlterConf, in New York City, sought to underscore issues of diversity in gaming and tech. And across town, Arse Elektronika was exploring sex, tech, and gaming in a conference with the theme “Trans.” TableFlip, on the other hand, drew an audience of mostly white men.
When pressed about the lack of diversity in speakers, Hwang admitted, “It’s something we tried hard on. I’d say we didn’t do good enough, because that’s how it turned out. It’s something we’ll continue to try hard on. There’s a lot of people doing really cool stuff in tabletop.” Indeed, the independent gaming space is full of diverse voices which could broaden future iterations of the conference.
The lack of diversity was a blow to the very audience TableFlip purports to attract: aspiring game designers. With a steep $175 entry fee, the conference wasn't accessible to broke up-and-comers. TableFlip is not for casual fans of board games or the cash strapped, but it did highlight the depth and range of experiences that are emerging and will continue to come out of the board game space.