The day I met Daviau, he was hustling from game to game, a slim 46-year-old dressed in a black hoodie and glasses. In an industry that cranks out products by the thousand, Daviau has done the seemingly impossible: created a genuinely new way of playing board games. His “legacy games” unfold over months, changing as you play them. They have a beginning, middle, and—most shockingly—an end, completely overturning the fundamental idea that a board game must be eternal and endlessly replayable, an object you can inherit from your grandfather and play with your grandchildren. Daviau is the co-designer of Pandemic Legacy, which was released last year and almost immediately became the highest ranked game of all time on the influential site Board Game Geek. The Guardian said it “may be the best board game ever created.”
For Daviau, however, all that is just prologue. For years, he has been laboring over Seafall, a swashbuckling game of exploration that will be the first legacy game that isn’t based on an existing property. He first announced the game in 2013, hopeful that it would come out in a matter of months. Since then, it has been delayed over and over. It topped some fans’ “most anticipated” list in 2014. Then 2015. Then 2016. For a certain segment of board game nerds, the wait for Seafall has been like the wait for the first Kanye West album or the first George Saunders novel: a sense of anticipation mixed with a touch of anxiety, fear that an artist’s early promise won’t be fully realized.
In the late summer of 1928, Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, received a curious proposal. George Melendez Wright, a twenty-four-year-old assistant naturalist at Yosemite, was offering not only to conduct a multiyear survey of wildlife in the national parks but also to pay for the work himself. Wright had been with the Park Service for barely a year. The orphaned son of a sea captain from New York and an heiress from El Salvador, he had been raised in San Francisco by a great-aunt who encouraged his early interest in birds, allowing him to ramble alone through Bay Area marshes. Later, as an undergraduate at Berkeley, Wright had studied under the pioneering field biologist Joseph Grinnell, adopting his mentor’s famously meticulous note-taking habits. In short, he was the perfect man for the job he was offering to create, and Mather, who was in the last months of his tenure, could hardly refuse. In 1929, Wright opened an office in Berkeley, ordered a customized Buick Roadster fitted with a truck bed and a water-resistant gear compartment, and hired two colleagues to help carry out the Park Service’s first system-wide research project.
Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.
However, there are many ways that a story can harm. When an author writes a black woman who shows up only to be angry in two scenes full of sass and pilfered vernacular, divorcing the anger from its cause and playing to the worst of tropes, he is performing a violence. When an author conjures up a Latina cleaning woman who is old and slow and barely speaks English but leaves her home, the people who love her, and the dignity of her life on the cutting room floor, he is performing a violence. When an author rests a book on the thinly drawn metaphor of black bodies being torn asunder by some mysterious force that ends their lives just before adulthood, they are engaging in the ugliest exploitation of black trauma in America.
No social encounter delights me more than meeting a doctor at a cocktail party. In clinical settings, doctors tend to be guarded and aloof. Catch one with a whiskey in hand, though, and you might find yourself in possession of all sorts of inside information. Among the nuggets I’ve gathered in this fashion are: that salt and butter aren’t really bad for you; that nicotine is a marvelous antidepressant; that vegans are no healthier than the rest of us; and that early cancer screening may be pointless, since many small tumors vanish on their own and some grow so slowly that their human hosts will die before they do major harm. Some of this may be inaccurate, perhaps, but most of it is worth repeating at other parties.
“I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the Dutch scholar Erasmus declared in 1528 in his treatise “On Handwriting.” As Anne Trubek’s new book, “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” demonstrates, 500 years later the debate simmers on. Trubek traces Western script from Sumerian cuneiform to the Roman alphabet and on through Carolingian minuscule, Spencerian and Palmer scripts. When an Ohio second grader joins in to whinge about achy pen-holding fingers, handwriting — and specifically cursive, now eradicated from the Common Core curriculum — becomes as hot a topic as in Erasmus’s day.
Tom Wolfe has always believed in “saturation reporting”, getting out there among the people you are writing about, whether in fiction or non-fiction. In his manifesto for the novel, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, he disdained novelists who never left their studies, contrasting them with Zola who, to write Germinal, literally descended into the coal mines.