Humans of the Tabletop: John Gonzalez

You know how you just get along immediately with certain people? That’s how it is with me and John Gonzalez. I’ve known John (aka Book Of Nerds on Twitter and Instagram) since August of last year, but it feels like we’ve been friends for much longer, thanks to random conversations on social media.

A former teacher, John is also a writer, miniatures painter, and podcaster. While I’ve gotten to know him through the many hours we’ve spent playing Twilight Imperium Fourth Edition, I asked John to talk about his journey into the board game hobby for this re-launch of Humans of the Tabletop.

Fifteen years ago, John Gonzalez, his wife Lorena, and his sisters would gather at his mother’s home for family game nights. Well-worn classics like Monopoly, Clue, or The Game of Life usually hit the tabletop during their regular gatherings.

“Eventually, I bought Betrayal At House on the Hill,” John recalled. “It was an illuminating experience as far as teaching goes. I had a really hard time teaching the game, mostly due to inexperience.”

When work and school began to take up everyone’s time, the game nights ended. It wasn’t until a train ride in 2009 that John re-discovered modern board games, learning Dominion during the trip to Seattle for PAX. Although he loved the deck-building classic, he had doubts about his family’s response to game.

“At the convention, I learned how to play Munchkin,” he said. “Knowing that it would be a hit with my family, I bought a copy and we started having family game nights again.”

Fast forward a few years and John found himself at the newly opened Game Haus board game cafe in Glendale, California, thanks to an invitation from Oscar, a friend of Lorena’s sister. After playing Indigo, Chinatown, and Bohnanza, John and Oscar began meeting up for more games together.

“Lorena and I started playing more games at home as well,” he said. “Our collections have grown these past few years and it’s been our main hobby since then.”

As his passion for the hobby grew, John began honing his skills as a board game teacher. Drawing on his years of experience as a substitute teacher, John utilizes techniques from the classroom when he’s teaching games.

“When I learn a new game, I start thinking about how to teach it, breaking it down into digestible chunks,” he said. “I make an outline in my head and identify the tricky bits. I think about the student, their familiarity with modern board games, and how convey the rules in a way that is approachable.”

Even when he’s not teaching a game, John is constantly analyzing how people teach a game to him, watching the methods they use. He loves learning games for two reasons: “I’m learning a new game (yay!) and I can pick up new teaching techniques.”

His enthusiasm for learning new things helped him make the leap into podcasting, as he recently joined The Five By board game podcast. “I’m a huge fan of the podcast, so I’m very excited about being one of the hosts,” he said. “Writing a five-minute review is decidedly different than writing one for a blog. I found myself having to be more succinct and to the point. It’s a different beast and I’m still learning, but I’m really energized and I love learning and developing new skills.”

Outside of board games, John and Lorena are regular participants in Extra Life, a 24-hour gaming marathon where gamers raise money to support local children’s hospitals.

“Gaming means gathering around a table with friends and having a good time, sharing some laughs, and having a bit of friendly competition.It’s an opportunity to be social and meet new people.”

Inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New YorkHumans of the Tabletop is an ongoing series about the people I’ve played games with. Click here for past Humans of the Tabletop.

November Writing Challenge Day 25: Game Häus Cafe

I’m blogging every day this month. Some will be game-related, but this challenge is different than my most recent play-a-game-and-blog-about-it challenge. I’m writing a single post every day: no topic guidelines, with some posts being a collection of random thoughts. Click here to read yesterday’s post.

Six years ago Game Häus Cafe in Glendale opened its doors to the public. I was just getting into modern board games back then and even though it was an hour away, I was excited about my first visit.

My niece and nephew were staying with us during their winter break and my wife and I took them to Game Häus before they went home. I was blown away by how many games there were (“only” 700 then, they now have double that amount) and I loved the comfortable vibe of the cafe. We played a bunch of party games with the kids and I remember having a fun time playing a game of Taboo.

It’s funny reading my Yelp review that I wrote back in 2014: “Speaking of hardcore gamers, I’m assuming they take over the place later in the day/night and on the weekends. I saw multiple copies of Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and other popular games on the shelves.”

Now I know that Settlers and TTR are more commonly known as gateway games but looking back I see how I thought those were more hardcore games since I had no idea what most of the games on the shelves were. I slowly got into games from that day on, occasionally surfing on boardgamegeek.com or watching Wil Wheaton on Tabletop. The board game bug eventually bit me in January 2015, when I ordered a copy of Pandemic as a birthday gift for myself. I haven’t looked back since.

While the games and the menu have changed over the years, the outstanding service and welcoming atmosphere remains the same at Game Häus. I recognize owners Rob and Terry now; they and all of the staff have always been kind and friendly to me over the years and I couldn’t be happier for their success. Thanks to this community hangout spot, I’ve played a lot of awesome games and I’ve made new friends.

Tonight Michelle and I went to the Game Häus sixth anniversary party. I thought how much has changed since our first visit; mainly, how I got involved in the industry. I’ve been fortunate to have great opportunities, from writing for various websites to appearing on the occasional episode of Game the Game on Geek & Sundry. Life really is an incredible journey. If you’d told me during our first visit that my favorite game would be one that can take all day to play or that I would be part of a great podcast team, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Game Häus has been and continues to be an inspiration. It’s easy to point to the staggering number of games and the delicious desserts they offer, but really it’s the people that make this place so special. Sitting for hours and actually engaging with others over the tabletop is something that’s been taken for granted over the years as our electronic devices have become embedded into our lives. Thankfully, Game Häus has been offering a space over these last years that offers an alternative to the daily technology overload.

Cheers, Game Häus! Here’s to many more years of tabletop memories. And shout out to Amanda, Jose, Oscar, Benji, Jackie, Al, John, Lorena, and friends at the celebration tonight. Let’s do it again next year!

November Writing Challenge Day 22: Court of the Dead: Mourners Call

I’m blogging every day this month. Some will be game-related, but this challenge is different than my most recent play-a-game-and-blog-about-it challenge. I’m writing a single post every day: no topic guidelines, with some posts being a collection of random thoughts. Click here to read yesterday’s post.

Thanks to the good people at The Op, I was able to play a pre-release copy of Court of the Dead: Mourners Call earlier this year (I also wrote about it for Geek & Sundry). It was a terrific game; basically, it’s a next-step Blood Rage. There’s this whole back story about the ongoing war between heaven-and-hell and how you’re trying to restore balance to the universe.

Sideshow Collectibles did an amazing job with the artwork and components. The cards are beautifully designed and check out the player board trackers in the photo above: they’re these cool skulls that fit right into the theme of the game.

Along with the box art and the rulebook, this is a fantasy game that reminds me of the summers I spent hanging out with my friend Dave. We were teenagers with nothing to do during the summertime except listen to heavy metal, play games, and talk about girls. It was a lifetime ago, but we’re still friends to this day and while we don’t really listen to heavy metal or talk about girls now, we recently started playing games again.

In fact, we played Blood Rage on his birthday this year and I’m looking forward to introducing him to Court of the Dead: Mourners Call. I’ve already got the soundtrack ready for our game.

November Writing Challenge Day 19: Party Games

I’m blogging every day this month. Some will be game-related, but this challenge is different than my most recent play-a-game-and-blog-about-it challenge. I’m writing a single post every day: no topic guidelines, with some posts being a collection of random thoughts. Click here to read yesterday’s post.

I love me a good party game. At last night’s gaming event, I played two of my favorites: Just One and Blank Slate. Both are easy to learn and both are not easy to win. Just One is a cooperative game that gives you a ranking based on how many cards out of 13 you answer correctly. Our group last night did well and scored 9. I always play our one house rule, which is that there is no passing when it’s your turn to guess. If you answer incorrectly, you still lose two cards.

For me, the “let’s pass so we don’t lose another card” goes against the spirit of the game. What’s the point of everyone writing down clues if the guesser is just going to pass? I’d rather have them take a stab in the dark and risk losing two cards than playing it safe and losing only one card.

Blank Slate is another word game that’s been well received with my main gaming group and everyone I’ve played it with. The last two Mondays it’s hit the table with a lot of new and casual gamers.

For a competitive word game, Blank Slate is outstanding. It’s easy to learn and it’s perfect for a casual game night. Game play is simultaneous so there’s not much wasted time: reveal a card, which has a word and a blank, then everybody secretly writes a word to fill in the blank. For example, the clue may be “salt [blank].” See the photo above for what I wrote.

After all players have written an answer, they all reveal them. If your answer matches with exactly one person, then you each get three points. If your answer matches with two or more people, all the matching players get one point each. If nobody matches you, then you get zero points. The first player to collect 25 points is the winner.

I love the Dixit-style scoring in Blank Slate. It creates this fun dynamic of trying to be original in your answers, but not so original or obscure that nobody matches with you.

Games usually take 20 minutes to play and it’s also an excellent icebreaker. The group I played it with last night are new-ish gamers and they absolutely loved it. One of them messaged me tonight to say that one of their friends went out and bought it today!

Nothing makes me happier than hearing someone bought a great game. Whether they decide to dive deep into the hobby or not, we’ll see. But it’s always nice to see them take that first step.

November Writing Challenge Day 18: Wingspan

I’m blogging every day this month. Some will be game-related, but this challenge is different than my most recent play-a-game-and-blog-about-it challenge. I’m writing a single post every day: no topic guidelines, with some posts being a collection of random thoughts. Click here to read yesterday’s post.

My first play of Wingspan was at Orccon, the first of three yearly events hosted in Los Angeles by Strategicon. I played with my friends Jac and Ben, who taught the game.

I’d passed on Wingspan when it was announced. The pitch was interesting: a game about birds that was an engine builder between Gizmos and Terraforming Mars. Although I’m a big Stonemaier Games fan, I didn’t think a lighter Terraforming Mars game about birds would be that great.

I was wrong.

After that first game with Ben and Jac, I played it twice at Dice Tower West and it confirmed that Wingspan was something special. The smooth play and the gorgeous components are Stonemaier staples, and I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I loved this game. But I was.

From the bird feeder dice tower to the beautiful artwork on the cards, Wingspan is a beautiful game on the tabletop. I love that it’s more than just a bunch of nice bits, though; the game play is rock solid and features an easy-to-learn ruleset.

When the European Expansion was announced, I knew I’d be the first in line when it went on pre-order. I received my copy last week and after three games (at the two-, three-, and four-player counts), I’m happy with the expansion. It adds just enough new birds with new actions, both during your turn and at the end of the round, to keep the game fresh.

Best of all, everything I’ve seen while playing the expansion makes for a better and more interactive experience. I love expansions that don’t change too much of the base game; I prefer enhancements to the base game and I’m not a fan of expansions that change things so much you wonder if the base game was properly play tested.

While the European expansion isn’t essential, I recommend it for fans of the game. The additional abilities and bonuses make it easy to re-learn the game on the fly. It makes a great game ever better.