I’m almost a decade late to the party—which means I’ll probably be signing up for a Substack newsletter in 2029—but as an experiment I’m posting my product management pieces on Medium. I write about product management and strategy from my background as a project-turned-product manager who writes fiction and has a doctorate in anthropology. Feel free to follow me there, subscribe for notifications, all that stuff.
Further below, recommendations for reading and watching, plus thoughts on maids, the gig economy, board games, deep work, and FOMO, though not all at the same time.
Olga had encountered formidable enemies in her lifetime, many of whom were summarily felled by Rusviet military might, but never before had she faced in battle a man who talked to his pet musk ox. Would he grip both horns first, before bending closer to reveal his deepest confidences into the ox’s ear? Or was one horn sufficient? And though this awakened the smallest smidgen of curiosity in Olga—who was this mysterious Bjorn from the frigid Nordic wastes?—she quickly flicked it aside to concentrate on the task at hand. Ox-whispering aside, she still knew she would reach the Factory quicker than anyone else.
I really, really love this game. When I finally opened the box—after sitting on my Shelf of Shame for months—it didn’t leave my table until after 18 hours of pure gaming pleasure. (Those weren’t consecutive hours; I’m not that kind of a nut.) The art and components are just gorgeous, and this also happens to be the first game I’ve ever blinged out, with upgraded coins and resource tokens.
Even now, whenever I take out the board and lay it out on my table, I’m already queueing the epic movie soundtrack in my head. “And so the battle of wills begins,” I say to myself, even if my Automa opponent is acting and moving according to random card draws.
Scythe doesn’t really lend itself well to the narrative fantasy I wrote in the introduction, for the gameplay is a bit drier than what I imply above. (The heroes have a backstory and special abilities, but that’s about it.) But boy does Scythe inhabit its milieu of an alternate-history 1920s Europe, with its cast of squabbling factions; I would love to read fiction set in this world where advanced military technology coexists with agrarian peasant society. (Wait: isn’t that the Global South, but without the mechs?)
Growing vegetables and selling vegetables were two quite different things, and his parents had never let him forget it. As a boy, he not only helped his father with the harvest—an easier process, in his opinion—but had also accompanied his mother at their makeshift vegetable stand at the Luoyang gates, watching her receive the largesse, or ire, of their patrons. “And you gave that casual customer my leeks?” the regular customers would grumble, and his mother would murmur an apology and pay them two coins for their trouble.
Nonetheless he knew his family was still making the smallest of profits and assiduously saving the money, in accordance to what Confucius had said: “When prosperity comes, do not use all of it.” But Confucius was long gone, and so were his parents, and the work of growing and selling vegetables was now solely his responsibility.
I never thought I’d be so enamored of a game about vegetables, but this game is just superb. Beat-your-own-score engine builders are slowly chipping away at my preference for narrative games.
In the game In the Gates of Loyang you are a farmer trying to advance up the path of prosperity by growing and selling vegetables. (I can’t imagine this is historically accurate—though you have at your disposal an awful lot of untilled land—but I digress.) You also have a particularly finicky set of customers who actually demand money from you if you can’t satisfy their demands, so you commit to a customer very carefully. Some form of polyculture farming is key.
She looked out the window of her stone house at the fields bathed in the soft amber glow of sunset, and at her children coming home with their arms full of sheaves of wheat, and with smiles on their ruddy cheeks, and her husband not far behind, his stride tired but confident, leading a cow back from pasture. Her heart was full.
But there was just one thing, one trifle of a thing that bothered her about this otherwise wonderful and patient man with whom she had chosen to spend the rest of her life, and she told herself that in the morning, she would finally take him aside, and point out how the cow in her living room simply took up too much space.
What a delightful game this is. I must confess that a big reason for that delight must be Agricola’s evocation of some long-buried childhood memory of playing with little sheep and little cows and little pigs and little wooden fences.
My delight comes also from the satisfaction at the end of the game of looking at my farm and my animals and my house and see what I had created. The fact that I call it “my” farm and “my” animals says a lot; I’m looking at my shelf of board games right now and can’t think of a game where I use the same possessive pronouns. (My mechs? My investigators? My mage knight? It’s just not the same.)