Way back in February (insert joke about the inevitable yet mysterious passage of time during a pandemic here), I was delighted to see Board Game Geek embark on a series of shout-out posts on Black game designers, illustrators, producers, and reviewers. There were big names like Omari Akil and names you’ve never heard of—honestly, it was mostly names you’d never heard of as our hobby tends to be predominantly white in all levels of creation and play.
I can imagine this statement might bring up feelings of guilt in you, dear readers, or irritation. Why do we keep talking about Black designers and disproportionate representation and racism? What are we supposed to do to fix it? Fair questions, it seems to me, and I don’t think we can fix it, at least not quickly—but as first-century Rabbi Tarfon wrote, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Simply paying attention to race and wondering aloud about how it has affected gaming or any other subject is about opportunity—it’s an invitation to do better. What is the possibility of the present moment? Not to fix everything, not to make folk miserable in the process, but what’s the next good thing right now? What does this person or situation need?
We need more variety of voices and experiences in our games, both in the art and in the production. We need to take the time to look for designers of color, to subscribe to reviewers of color. We need to let down our defensiveness in favor of curiosity: Whose story is being told? What Black designers are doing interesting things and how can I support them?
On the third day of BGG’s series, I got excited about a company called Water Bear Games—how could you not? Tardigrades for the win, y’all!—and their first published game Discount Salmon. Designer Marcus Ross and artist Cara Ryan made a fast-paced, trick-taking game themed around competing fried fish stands at Lake Miasma, the world’s most polluted lake. Every fish that comes out of the lake is disgusting in some way—dry, toxic, ugly, stinky, and even not a fish at all—but you’ve still got to fry it up and sell it to make those fat stacks of cash. To make the fish palatable, you’ve got to play fix-it cards from your hand—lotion, antidote, makeup, perfume, and a fish costume—but only the player who plays the last fix-it card takes the trick, so it’s very quick. Think 5-Minute Marvel or similar. You can even throw the fish in a blender to solve all its problems and take the point! Delicious.
The game won 2013’s Tabletop Deathmatch and it’s easy to see why. The art for Discount Salmon is charming—the card backs an abstracted greenish-gross-lake or lovely blue bubbles, the card faces full of comically bewildered, cartoony fish. I appreciate when cards communicate quickly—I don’t like stopping regularly to read a lot of text—and these cards are hilarious and clear from multiple angles. It’s straightforward yet engaging, with players throwing down even more obstacles on whatever fish they’re vying for to make it more difficult for others to claim. My best friend’s 7-year-old loves it as does my mother. The game itself is a quick 10 minutes, and so can be played several times before you settle down to something longer and meatier. Unlike the question of race and racism in America, Discount Salmon is very much about a quick-fix!
The designers are first cousins and have created several games over the years. Ross is a gamer from way back; Ryan a graphic designer. I’m eager to play their Kingmaker: The Reluctant Coronation that I just downloaded, all about making one of the players King, but not you, that’s a terrible job. You win if you’re the one who makes someone else King! Their game ColorSpiel (unpublished, I think) won HABA’s 2017 design competition. They published Beeeees! In 2017 which has precisely the correct number of e’s in the title and, according to friend Josh, is fast-paced and enchanting. I can’t tell if Water Bear Games is currently active but you can access both Discount Salmon and Kingmaker on their website.
Water Bear Games is a very small press company with big ideas. I absolutely recommend Discount Salmon, particularly at its $20 price point. Buying a single game from a tiny company doesn’t fix what’s wrong in our systems, but it is a step full of possibility. It’s an invitation to those designers to design something else. It’s an opportunity for us to try something new. As my dad used to say, “Try it, you’ll like it.”