Tabletop Gaming Manual Review

I have one of those fuzzy childhood memories of visiting my grandparents house and finding what I think was some kind of children’s encyclopedia. It was a delight to my knowledge-hungry child self. I remember learning all kinds of fun facts and interesting information as I turned through its pages. Last night, while perusing Matt Thrower’s Tabletop Gaming Manual I was hit with the faintest hint of that memory.

The Tabletop Gaming Manual is a delightful book that feels somewhat out of its time. It feels out of place in the internet age where nearly all of the information contained within it could be gathered with some wikipedia and BGG searching. Indeed there wasn’t much in there that I didn’t already know, apart from the chapter on painting miniatures (something I’ve never tried), but I still enjoyed reading it. I suppose that’s a good measure of success, but I kind of wish the book was even bigger and had more for people already immersed in the hobby like me.

That’s sort of criticizing it for something it’s not even trying to do, so what is the aim of this book? I think it would be a delight for people interested but ignorant about modern board games. Here they’ll find a treasure trove of information that won’t be overwhelming. Matt has a clean style of writing and deliberately organizes most of the chapters to speak broadly and simply about the topic before slowly getting more complicated and more niche. He’s careful to point out when he’s delving into costly or time-intensive specifics (like when discussing ways to modify your game) without sacrificing a constant attitude of true enthusiasm.

Thrower starts with the beginning of board gaming itself in the opening chapter titled, of course, “Through The Ages”. Honestly I could have read two or three times as much about ancient and not-so-ancient old games. I love learning about games history and this was only a cursory examination. Given how much space is devoted later in the book to games storage and customization I think some more space could have been given to the development of board games over the years. Though I suppose that might have betrayed the book’s purpose as a mostly practical guide.

But the history parts are so fascinating! I learned so much about the history of RPG design that I never knew before, and I imagine board game novices would find the board game histories similarly engaging. Did you know that there’s been a huge controversy/argument in RPG forums over how to classify games, centering over a tri-classification system of gamism, narrativism, and simulationism? What a benign thing to fight over! I guess petty pedantry happens in every nerd group. Also, Spirit Island is a Eurogame.

After the first couple chapters focusing on history, the book shifts permanently to a very practical outlook, trying to help people navigate the world of tabletop games and tabletop game accessories. People new to the hobby might find information about how certain games go out of print and then fetch high prices on the secondary market interesting, but I felt like these kinds of pages sucked the air out of the book every time they popped up. The Tabletop Gaming Manual lives and dies on its enthusiasm and love of the hobby, but it’s hard to maintain that when it’s also trying to be broadly, and often shallowly, comprehensive.

But that doesn’t mean that the practical advice segments are all lifeless. I found the chapter on painting minis utterly fascinating, perhaps because it’s something I’ve never explored before. But I think it benefits from being one of the longer chapters of the book. Thrower talks about specific techniques for painting, the culture surrounding it, and progressively more and more detailed ways in which you can fiddle over your personal piece of miniaturized art. Reading this chapter I felt like I had a good view of what drives people to paint scores and scores of miniatures. I felt that I was temporarily immersed into that culture. I have to admit that, for the briefest moment, I actually considered going out and buying some of the paints and brushes recommended and trying my hand at it. Then I remembered that I don’t have the time or money for that right now. Maybe someday…

Contrast this chapter with the previous one about pimping out your board game components, and you can see that there’s a big difference between the chapters that go in-depth on an interesting topic and the ones that jump from topic to topic trying to cover a lot of ground.

One missed opportunity is near the end of the book with the chapter on maths. Thrower, quite reasonably, doesn’t want to overwhelm his audience with complicated statistics, but I wish he had gone just a bit more in-depth. There’s some great stuff in there about basic dice randomness and how that’s informed various RPG systems, but it doesn’t go much beyond looking at a couple different uses of xd6 rolls. Like the book as a whole, this chapter is an appetizer, designed to whet your appetite and inspire you to research deeper into the topic on your own.

I know that I’m not the target audience for this book. I’ve learned most of the information within it by immersing myself in this hobby for years. But who is the target audience? It’s the person interested in a new hobby and wanting to know more about these modern board games. It’s the person who played Pandemic with a friend, had their mind blown, and wants to dive in head first. It’s for the kid who stumbles across this book at the library and finds a world they didn’t know existed.

In fact, Thrower talks about an experience he had as a child with a similar book about Dungeons and Dragons. It introduced him to an incredible game that changed his life. The Tabletop Gaming Manual wants to be that for somebody, and I think it certainly can be. But in the internet age where you can find out more or less anything you want from your phone, of what utility is an old fashioned book? The beautiful pictures that flood every page, the solid feel of a nice hardback in your hands, and the anticipation that comes with turning a physical page, perhaps. Nostalgic? Naive? Probably. But I don’t really care. I doubt Matt Thrower does either.

I wish I had this book 5 years ago.

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