“Being geeky is slightly hipper than it used to be”
Senet is an unexpectedly chic magazine about board games. There are detailed game reviews in here, and geeky jokes (“knights of the Rondel Table, anyone?”); but there are also lush, full-bleed illustrations, and deeply researched essays on topics that might pique the interest of even the most game-averse. The central essay in this issue, for example, is about the disturbing celebration of colonialism in game culture. In 2019, war games publisher GMT games announced plans to release ‘Scramble for Africa’, in which players took on the roles of European powers battling for control of the continent.
Taglined “board games are beautiful”, Senet was founded by Dan Jolin and James Hunter, who both have backgrounds in journalism, because they want people to see that board games are an artform, just like film and literature. Over zoom, we chatted about the new issue — Senet’s second — and why games aren’t all “lasers and magic”.
Dan, you’ve written in the Observer about the cultural renaissance around tabletop gaming. Why has it become more popular in recent years?
Dan: The old stereotype of the pasty fat middle aged white bloke in his bedroom with his mates moving little miniatures about: yes, ok that still happens, but it’s broader than that. Before covid, you had a proliferation of board game cafés, as people saw that games can be a really constructive social experience. Partly that has to do with a new wave of board game designs. In these cafés, you even have a sommelier to help you choose your game.
Like a wine sommelier — but for games? Are they actually called that?
Dan: Well I call them that.
James: The renaissance feels to me like a post-digital thing. Maybe it has links to the way people are buying more vinyl. The boom in independent magazines is another example. Being geeky is slightly hipper than it used to be. There are talented designers and illustrators working on these things. A board game can be like a magazine cover or a piece of album art.
Your strapline is ‘The art of board games’. Why do you think board games should be treated as an artform?
Dan: Games can definitely have the production quality, the artistry and the intellectual rigour of film. Of course there’s variation within the form, in the same way as in cinema you have pure ‘movies’ — popcorn movies — and then you have masterpiece art films. One of the joys of board games is that you put them out on the table and they’re a pleasure to look at. The components are made in such a way that they feel great to handle. It’s tactile as well as visual.
So you’re appealing to new players to recognise the beauty of gaming, as well as audiences who are already immersed in that world?
Dan: Board game magazines already exist, but they tend to be for the entrenched. For people who won’t get scared by a little picture of orcs and dwarves hitting each other. We felt that there are many people out there who actually would be more into board games but might be put off by that. It isn’t all just lasers and magic.
James: We cover the people behind the games, the creativity, the philosophy, the ethics — and that could appeal to someone who knows nothing about board games.
What’s your favourite board game of all time?
Dan: My favourite board game changes all the time, but at the moment it’s Scythe. Inspired by the paintings of a Polish artist called Jakub Różalski, it’s set in an alternative 1920s eastern Europe where huge mechs wander a war-torn land. It has a progressive approach to warfare, where the more aggressive you are, the more penalties you take as the mood of the populace turns against you — so it’s possible to win without fighting at all.
James: My favourite games publisher is Oink Games. Each little box contains a fun game that’s fast to teach and easy to carry around when out. The box art has a bold graphic nature – much like a magazine cover. A fun one is ‘A Fake Artist Goes to New York’, designed by Jun Sasaki: the idea is that you’re all artists, but one of you is a fake.