A story about COVID depression, cooking excitement, and then a clam

So I’ve been sinking deeper into a pit of COVID parenting exhaustion and numbness and world nausea and work burnout. One of the signs of depression for me is losing that weird obsessive aesthetic fire that always usually drags me along through my life. Like normally there’s something – some new music or cooking project or book – that I’m simmering with interest in. But that’s been more and more distant. Without that life is a slog.

But last week I pulled out a cookbook and had a glimmer of excitement. It was a Korean cookbook that I’d tried to use and failed with before. Normally when I get into a cuisine, I can figure out the basics in a few weeks and get minimally competent and start to get some instincts. But I’d failed twice with Korean. But I decided: this time I’m going to really do it. I’m going to get better, less arcane cookbooks; I’m going to ferment all kinds of kimchee and panchan. If COVID has me trapped in the house then at least I can go all in and finally learn to cook Korean.

So I indulged my growing sense of excitement. (“Indulged,” in COVID era, means buying a few cookbooks.) I read up. I made a list. I hit the Korean grocery. And yesterday night was going to be the first attempt: I was going to make soontofu – silky tofu stew. One of my favorite dishes. And in my excitement and perhaps hubris, I decided I wasn’t going to make the easiest soontofu. I was going to make the one with clams.

Cooking at first teeters on disaster. I don’t really know the ingredients and the kids are distracting. Mistakes are made. But I compensate a bit and things are looking good, and smelling right, and OMG it suddenly smells exactly like my old favorite soontofu joint in LA, and I suddenly feel awesome and so jazzed.

And then I add the clams.

The clams are supposed to simmer for 10 minutes and open all up. I am supposed to discard the ones that don’t. After 5 minutes, one opens up. At 10 minutes, still there is only one open. The pot is full of tightly closed clams. This seems suspicious. I give it a few more minutes, and decide it’s probably safest to discard all these unopened clams, but this seems weird to me, so I pull out one of the clams and inspect it and – and here is my biggest mistake – I cautiously poke it.

The clam explodes. It falls open and inside is this whole mass of noxious queasy grey molten sludge. The goopy death-mass hangs in the clamshell for a moment and then slides off, down the shell, down my spoon, right into the pot full of stew. It is pure despair.

Most of it is sitting above the liquid on a piece of tofu. I quickly spoon it out and chuck it. I look suspiciously at the rest of the stew. How much clam-death-goop got in? Maybe it’s fine? It could be fine. I cautiously taste it. And for one brief moment, all the spice and savor of the stew make things seem alright. And then, as the spice fades, what’s left in my mouth is the single worst flavor I have ever tasted. It is decay. It is ashes. It is the nightmare tide pool. It is the saddest part of mold. And it won’t go away. I drink booze. I drink the harshest dank amaro I have. Nothing helps. I can taste it after our second improvised dinner. I can taste it in the night. I wake up the next morning and I can still taste it.

And this is when I realize that my emotional arc with Korean cooking and the clam is the exact same shape as my emotional arc with the election and coup.

Board games: so many recommendations

After a recent professional pivot, I am now literally an academic specialist in the philosophy of games. (Here’s my new book on games as an art form.) The main change in my life is that everybody now asks me for board game recommendations at Christmas. Or maybe it’s because I have so many damn boardgames that I actually have to keep a spreadsheet to remember where they all are.

Here’s my recommendations for people putting their first or second feet into the modern boardgames pond, tilted towards the accessible, the crucial, and the still in-print or easy to find used. Sadly, a majority of my favorite games are currently out of print and painfully expensive. Boo hoo. (If you want to see what I think about hundreds and hundreds of game, I have an account at Boardgamegeek where I’ve been reviewing games for like a decade.)

Here’s the difficulty scale:

E = Easy (Simple family games not much harder than Monopoly. Often teachable in a couple of minutes)

M = Medium (Your average modern Euro boardgames. Some mild effort to learn, but not too intimidating for the average moderately intelligent adult. Think Settlers of Cataan)

H = Hard (Hobbyist territory. Long rule-books, complex and emergent play)

UH = Ultra-hard (Mega-geek territory. May involve 20 page rulebooks, war-games with thousands of exceptions, actual spreadsheets)

A brief word on pricing: some people here may not have dipped their toes into modern boardgames before, and might be shocked at the prices, especially for some of the more esoteric games. Fifty bucks for a boardgame? But let me suggest the following calculation: if you play such a boardgames only once, and 5 people have two hours of fun together, that’s already cheaper than going out to a movie together, or even a modest dinner out together. If you play it ten times, then you’re already into one of the great entertainment bargains.

Party games and family games

Spyfall (E): Hysterical ultra-simple game of bullshit and bullshit detection, that is possibly the hardest I’ve ever laughed in a game. All but one players are on a team together. You are secretly assigned a single location together: like, you’re all at the Opera together, or in a Submarine, or at an Amusement Park. One of you is the SPY, who is the only person that doesn’t know the collective location. The assignments are all random and secret. Only nobody else knows who the spy is, and the spy doesn’t know the location. The spy wins if they figure out the location. Everybody else wins together if they figure out who the spy. And then you just talk. What follows is a delicate dance of subtle questioning, concealment, bullshittery, and passing hidden information in plain sight, and it has never failed to reduce a group of grown adults into hysterical fits of laughter.

(Or, if you want a more structured experience for your bullshitting, try Coup (E): a slick, fast, sharp little bluffing game where everybody has two secret roles with special powers, but you can try to claim any kind of special power, unless somebody calls bullshit on you.)

Codenames (E): Team party game, where one big group takes on another big group. Every team elects a Spymaster. Together, everybody faces this random 5×5 grid of words:


The Spymaster has to try to get their team to touch specific words, but they can only communicate to their team using a single word and a number. For example, if I’m the Spymaster, and I’m trying to get you to touch MUG, PIE, and FISH, I might say: “DINNER: 3”. That’s all I’m allowed to say. And then my team has to loudly and miserably argue out all the possibilities of what I meant and try to figure out the right ones to pick. And they’ll probably pick something stupid like PIE, FISH, and JACK, because they were thinking of “Monterey Jack”, and they all somehow were thinking MUG meant like a robbery, and basically they’re all stupid. Except it’s me that’s stupid. Because I didn’t notice that possible interpretation ahead of time, and I didn’t plan for it. This is a game about the difficulty of communication, and how much we don’t understand each other, and how wildly easy it is to misunderstand another person’s intention. It is also just this a perfectly satisfying thing to try to do with your mind. It’s like… a game of data compression, where you’re trying to squeeze extra information into a little package, through the magic of patterns and implication.

Hamsterolle (E): Kind of like Jenga, but played inside a round wheel that keeps rolling. And as a partnership game. Subtle, strategic, gives rise to bounteous amounts of shit-talking.


Bandu (E): Kind of like Jenga, but where you each have your own stack, and people force each other to add increasingly oddly shaped objects. Hysterical, fascinatingly strategic, a hell of a lot of game for, like, three rules.

Blokus (E): Four player attack Tetris, where you try to carve off space for yourself and slip and slide around other people’s shapes to sneak into their territory. Everybody likes this.


Wits and Wagers (E): Genius trivia game design. Somebody out there realized that Trivial Pursuit was the worst possible game, and took it on themselves to actually make an interesting trivia game that was interesting even for people that don’t know any trivia. Questions are bizarre, super-hard, and quantitative. “How many gallons flows through the Amazon on the average year?” “What year was the NAACP founded?” Stage 1: Try to guesstimate the closest answer. Stage 2: Reveal all the guesses, don’t read the answer. Instead, arrange the guesses in numerical on an odds board. The middle answer gets 1:1 odds, the next two out get 2:1 odds, etc. etc. Then you bet money on which answer will turn out to be right.

There are loads of ways to strategize. You can actually try to get the right answer. You can bet based on who you think might actually know the answer. You can put out a spread of bets based on the odds and point spread. You can even give lie answers to screw with other people. Like when the question was literally, “What is Immanuel Kant’s birthday?” and I wrote “1673” and everybody bet on my answer because I’m the philosopher and they trusted me and then I was like HAHAHAHAHAHA.

Dixit (E): First, the game has the single greatest deck of cards in all game-dom. The cards look like this:


I would buy this game just for the cards to do other things with them. I once drunkenly made up the game of playing Texas Hold’em with these cards, and the winner had to use their two hole cards and the river to tell the best story.

Anyway: the real Dixit game is fabulous and simple. It’s a kid’s game. Basically it’s Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity’s basic mechanic, only not stupid and boring. Everybody has a hand of five of these magical dreamy image-cards. When it’s your turn, you pick one image-card, say an ambiguous line of story that’s vaguely related to it, and put your card face-down. Everybody else tries to match your fragment of story with an image-card from their own hand. We mix and reveal all the image-cards, and everybody tries to successfully pick which one was the real, original card. Lovely.

(Also, if you want an adult version of this game, try Mysterium (M), which uses a similar deck of image-cards to play something like Clue. Most of the players are detectives puzzling out a murder. One of you is the ghost of the murdered and has to communicate clues to all the other players only by making ghostly inchoate noises and picking image-cards from the deck. You’re a ghost sending useful dreams.)

Catacombs (M): This has almost enough rules that it should be in the next category, but it’s just so gleefully stupid. Catacombs is a dungeon crawl. You play your stock heroes – fighter thief, mage. There’s a dungeon master. Except, instead of rolling die to attack, all the heroes and all the monsters are different discs. And you flick to attack. And there are obstacles. And archers get little extra arrow discs, and the wizard’s fireball spell lets you pull out this MASSIVE HUGE DISC and just SHOVE IT, and you can level up and get better discs and more discs, and it’s so fucking stupid, and I think one time I laughed so hard playing this game that I strained an ab.

Real board games, multiplayer

Hansa Teutonica (M): If I had to give one exemplar of clean, wonderful, well-designed, slick modern German-style board gaming, it’s gotta be Hansa Teutonica. It’s got a lot of the standard features of modern Eurogaming – different special powers, opportunities for picking up a steady stream of little points versus pulling off an on-board epic big final pattern for one massive point-splosion at the end. But instead of being locked into a pattern, or solitarily calculating out your own little private economic machine, Hansa puts most of the special powers on the board, where you have to spend your moves competing for them. Which means that you constantly have to be shifting your plans based on what’s being overvalued and undervalued, and play fluidly, and dance around the other player’s intention. The game builds in this wonderful, dynamic, ever-shifting way. Not a moment of boredom. If you’ve been playing Settlers of Cataan and thinking you’re having “fun”, please try this instead.

(Other very fine modern slick Eurogames with various kinds of special powers and resources include Lancaster (M), The Voyages of Marco Polo (M), Dungeon Lords (M), and like a billion more.)

Modern Art (M): OH MY GOD IT’S FINALLY BACK IN PRINT. From Reiner Knizia, the master, the Mozart of German game design, the never-ending fount of elegant game design masterpieces, the master of auctions. Modern Art is perhaps the loveliest sharp-edged little horror in his massive catalogue of auction games. The theme is marvelously cynical: you’re all modern art dealers trading paintings by five hot contemporary artists. In each round, you auction art to one another other. And then at the end of the round, the art-hungry public buys that same art from you dealers, hopefully for much more money. The trick: what the public pays is based entirely on how many times you dealers traded that particular artist. And that value is cumulative over the rounds, making the game into this long-term strategic market manipulation. You might think, at first, that the game was all short-term math. This is false. I kill at this game, and I never do any math. The game is all about long-term market manipulation, playing the psychology of the other players, setting off market-rushes, predicting the flux of the market. (PS: Be aware that Knizia’s “Modern Art: The Card Game” is a different game – a simplified offshoot.)

There’s a billion Knizia games to try after this. Tigris and Euphrates (H) is probably the true classic that people will be playing in a hundred years, but some people find it mind-bending to learn. Ra and Medici and Tower of Babel and Amun-Re are more auction (or auction-ish) games, each with its own special feel, each elegantly constructed and and fantastic. And my very favorite of all his games, Taj Mahal, is finally back in print! It is a brutal piece of post-poker Knizian fuck-you that puts all of you in each others faces for an endless auction of interpersonal screwage, that I love with all my evil little game-playing heart.

Broom Service (E): Broom Service has turned into my top pick to ease people who are, uh, games-curious but game-nervous, into the world of legit Eurogames. The whole game is built around this single guess-bluff-outguess mechanic. You’ve got this stupid little task to do on the board. (You’re witches, flying around delivering shit! It’s adorable as hell!) In order to do it, you have to play a card – like the Meadow Witch card or the Mountain Druid Card, each of which lets you do a single, very specific thing. But whenever you play a card, you have to declare, in a very loud voice, whether you are the cowardly or brave version of that card. (“I am the brave Meadow Witch!”) If you go cowardly, you get a little reward immediately, definitely. If you go brave, you go brave, you’re claiming the big reward – but if anybody has else has that same card, they can go brave and steal the reward from you. Unless somebody else has that same card, and also goes brave, and steals the reward again. And: every round, you construct your hand of four cards from the a set of ten cards, that everybody has identical copies of. So basically: it’s a complicated trick-taking game, but you consciously construct your hand each turn. The hand construction is this wonderfully intention-guessing, outmaneuvering task. Then, every turn is this delicious risk-management task: play it safe, declare cowardly, and get a little definite reward — or play big, declare brave, and take the risk. Super fun, super chill, and it is somehow extremely funny to spend the entire game shouting, “I am the cowardly Hill Witch!” “I am the brave Weather Witch!” and slapping down your chosen card.

Brass (H): “NGUHAIRHFA” is the sound of four serious game-players’ minds melting as they try to cope with the intricate tensions of Brass. Brass is everything I love about weirdo Eurogames, with none of the boring gristle. Maybe it’ll make sense if I start with the gristle. You know what kinds of games I hate? The games where there are a thousand moving pieces, and everybody basically has their own separate little economic engine, and they’re busy optimizing their own economic engine in their own corner, and they barely pay attention to the other players, and after couple of hours of fine-grained optimization pass and you look up and count up the victory points and think to yourself, “Huh, I guess I won,” because you had no idea what anybody else was doing of the entire game.

Brass is not that. Brass is the opposite of that. Brass is all of you thrown into a network of interdependencies, where you have to use each others’ railways to transport each others goods, and sell goods to each other into a vastly fluctuating market, and where every moment you have to desperately predict what the fuck the other players are about to do because you need to get an edge and predict where the market is going. And it is one long, tense, pure, absorbing ride. Deep, difficult, intense, radiant. Also a Martin Wallace game, which means that it has weird little historical modeling in the rules, that’s annoying to learn but gives the gameplay this deep, weird flavor and odd, delightfully sticky mechanical texture. (If you love this kind of thing, also consider The Great Zimbabwe, which is perhaps even deeper and better and more elegant, but currently out of print and expensive. Might come back though.)

Imperial 2030 (H): Imperial (set in Europe in World War I) and Imperial 2030 (set across the world-stage, in the “future”) are maybe the best multiplayer board-games ever? Imperial 2030 is probably the slightly better? Anyway: the game, at first glance, just looks like Risk:


There are six nations on the board, they have factories that build armies and navies, and little armies and navies march around the world colonizing shit and fighting each other, right? But you don’t play the nations. No no no. You play the evil bankers buying bonds and controlling the fates of nations for your own personal profit. Perhaps you mostly control the fate of Germany. Is England about to attack you? Perhaps you should let the banker who mostly owns England get a little easy stock in Germany. Now you are co-invested. Now you are partners. Now you are safe. Unless they decide to do a sudden hostile takeover of Germany to suicide it into Russia. Oh dear. Now you are not safe. Now the world is in chaos and burning, and everybody is shifting their investment portfolios, and perhaps you need to drain Germany’s bank into your own coffers, to buy some stock in Spain. Spain is starting to look like a nice, stable investment. Oh yes. Spain.

(If you want to do much less intricate, more chilled out and fun world war-mongering, consider the ultra-slick Quartermaster General (M), a team game of World War II, where every country gets it’s own ultra-special deck that lets it act in a completely different way. Germany blitzes! Russia doesn’t need supply lines because it EATS ITS OWN DEAD!)

Race for the Galaxy (M): A Modern Classic. Boils the whole Civilization, building-your-tech-tree and getting-your-economic-engine rolling into one slick, tight, hyper-pleasurable forty minute experience. Plays super fast, constantly forces you to make fascinating trade-off decisions about which direction to take your empire, and then ends the moment before it gets boring. Wildly addictive – I’ve played this thing hundreds and hundreds of times, and I am certainly not alone. It also has this ultra-nifty opportunity-cost mechanic, where the cards in your hand represent both opportunities for new technology, and the resources to build new technologies, so every time you build something you literally have to pay for it by throwing away other opportunities. Delightfully painful. Warning: annoying as hell to learn, but worth it. (Also great as a two-player.)

If you dug RftG, you’ll also probably love that designer’s new game, Res Arcana (M). Res Arcana is a zippy, delightful economic engine game. It resembles a deck-builder, except the game randomly builds a deck for you, and you just have to cope. There are a few things you can buy and adjustments you can make, but mostly, it’s about desperately trying to figure out how to put together an engine from the random pieces you’ve been shove. It’s a perfect couple’s game, too. Once you know it, each game is a slick, fun half-an-hour. But the game really accumulates depth over dozens of plays. A game-loving couple can pound this thing into the ground with hundreds and hundreds of plays. (We have.)

Galaxy Trucker (M): Galaxy Trucker is possibly the most sublimely ridiculous game I have. In Galaxy Trucker, you are a space trucker. You have to build your truck, and then race it. I mean that you have to really BUILD YOUR TRUCK, under time pressure, desperately, out of a pile of tiles that represent all these weirdly shaped parts, none of which will fit quite how you want them to.


All the players build their damn truck simultaneously, desperately grabbing one tile at a time and trying to make the connections fit, and to get the right parts to make your truck go, have life support, have weapons, have batteries, what have you. It’s timed. It’s desperate. You’re all digging through the same set of tiles. Your trucks all suck. The pieces barely hang together and your truck’s off-balance. And then you race them, and they run into asteroids and shit, and whole halves of them fall off into space, and you all laugh, because you’re TRUCKING IN SPACE.

Chicago Express (M): There’s this company, called Winsome. Winsome turns out nothing but train games. Every game has very clean, simple rules, and almost all of them involve trading stocks in some train companies and building track for those companies. Most of them permit this complex dance of co-investing, complex stock portfolios, and incentivizing other players to do what you want by screwing with the market. And all of them involve incredibly intricate, mathematical, emergent play, full of sharp edges and precision and the opportunity to screw or be screwed, to pull off a brilliant subtle manipulation of the entire market, or to have the weight of the world dumped on you by another player.

Chicago Express is probably the best Winsome game that’s readily available. The rules are simple, probably easier than anything else in this section. It plays fast – once you know it, under an hour, easily. The play is rough, precise, and incredibly emergent, as tiny choices have complex butterfly effects down the line.

A lot of modern Eurogames are engineered to be nice and polite to everybody. Even if you don’t understand the game, or are doing poorly, things will be fairly pleasant for you and you can do pretty well. Not Winsome games. In Winsome games, the cliffs are everywhere, you can drive off one with a bad move in your first one, and other players can shove you off the nearest cliff if you’re not careful. If your mind tends towards, say, Chess or Bridge, but you want to be able to manipulate alliances through co-investment, you might love this game.

El Grande (M): One of the great classic Eurogames from an earlier era. Before the modern Eurogame technology made everything easy and safe and gave everybody something interesting to do in a thousand quick little turns, there was this monster. There are only nine goddamn turns in the entire game. The basic board-play is simple: you’re trying to dominate areas with the most pieces to get points. But each turn, the game unveils you five very starkly different possible actions for everybody to consider. Some actions are extremely weak, some are near useless, some let you do one clever thing, some are catastrophically powerful. Everybody stares at the possible actions, and the board state, and try to figure out all the things that could possibly happen.  And then you have an auction to decide what order you’re picking your actions. Which is basically the single deepest, coolest, complexest decision I know in any multiplayer boardgames.

Crucially: everybody starts with the same pot of money for this auction, and you don’t ever get any more. So you have to time it right, go cheap when you can make good use of a weak action, and really time your one power-play just right for maximum effect. Profound.

Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right (M): So Root is the best new game I’ve played in years. It’s a kind of profound political/economic/hearts and mind simulation. Where each side is completely different, and playing by different rules. It’s about the struggle between the Marquise de Cats – a bourgeois industrialist who rules the forest, and who is literally a fat cat. Versus the Eyrie – who are brittle and rule bound warlike old aristocrats. Also they are eagles. Versus the Woodland Alliance, a loose collection of, like, underground (literally!) critters, like squirrels and mice and shit, who are trying to win over the people to their cause and create a fucking revolution. It’s based on the COIN games – a set of massive, ultra-elaborate asymmetrical war-games, built to model wars of counterinsurgency. But all of this boiled down to a simple, clean, easyl-to-learn rule-set, playable in 60-90 minutes.


The Marquise de Cats is playing an infrastructure and troop movement game. They build buildings, collect resources, make troops, and brutally suppress any opponents. They’re wealthy and powerful, and they have a ton of troops. They are the status quo, and get a steady stream of easy points. The Eyrie are the brittle warlike old aristocracy. They are playing this weird planning game. They have to program way in advance all their moves. Once they have a plan in place, they get to execute the whole thing every turn. So they get to do a ton of shit for free. And they can keep adding complications to their plan. But they have to execute the whole plan every turn, and they can never simplify it. And if they ever can’t execute one tiny bit of their plan, then they fall into turmoil, their plan falls apart, they lose a ton of points, and they have to start planning from scratch. This simulates a turbulent society with constant regime changes and inflexibly dogmatic regimes and massive leadership instability. The Woodland Alliance starts with no troops or bases on the board. They slowly start building the people’s sympathy, creeping it across the board, while the Marquise and the Eyrie ruthlessly try to use their troops to stamp out that sympathy. But if the Woodland Alliance can get enough resources together, they can create mini-revolutions, which kill all the other players’ troops and create Alliance bases. And then you can pump out warriors who can scamper off to other spots and melt away into the woods and create more sympathy.

Anyway, it’s incredibly tasty. The Marquise just needs to keep things stable to win. The Woodland Alliance is super weak at first, but if they can get enough of sympathy, they can just explode and take over everything – so the other players have to stomp on them constantly to keep them from a foothold. The Eyrie are hysterical – desperately concocting more and more convoluted plans, which are at first super powerful, until they have to start doing insane and nonsensical stuff to match their plan, and then everything falls apart and their leadership collapses. The degree to which the class politics and the nature of counterinsurgency warfare emerges naturally from the system is… amazing. (Interestingly, the COIN games on which this was based have been criticized for baking a hard right wing ideology into their mechanics. But Cole Wehrle, the designer, was a history grad student with a taste for Foucault, and… it shows.)

Two-player games

Star Realms (E): Star Realms is candy. Star Realms is crack. I have played so many hundreds of games of Star Realms that I have worn out my deck and may never be able to play it again. When Melissa was planning to do unmedicated labor for our child, her plan, instead of medication, was just to bring Star Realms to the labor room. And it worked.

OK, backing up. There’s a relatively new family of games called deckbuilders, where you build your deck of special powers cards from a market during the game itself. It all started with Dominion, which other people love, but which I find the gaming equivalent of stale toast. In Dominion, you start with a simple deck of ten boring cards. The game randomizes for you a market of ten very fancy cards with all kinds of weird special powers, and you and your fellow players go shopping for thirty minutes to improve your deck as quickly as possible. You buy cards into your deck, which let you do crazy things to buy even more cards, and onwards and onwards. Lots of room for clever tricks and special-power combinations. Dominion hit big, and now everybody’s making deck-builders. There are ultra-deep deck builders, like the majestic three hour fantasy role-playing deck builder Mage Knight. There’s the ultra-fun quick two-player deck builder Ascension, which introduced the idea of having an ever-changing market of random new special power cards, instead of Dominion’s stable market. And then Star Realms came along and distilled the Ascension formula into a pure, gleeful 20 minute gaming crack.

I’m not saying that Star Realms is the best or deepest deckbuilder, but it is surely the most perfectly addictive. I recently introduced Star Realms, and it’s sequel Hero Realms, to a couple we’re friends with, and they report that basically they spent the last three weeks not leaving the house and just playing round after round of Star Realms and Hero Realms and, like, not really showering. Or sleeping.

If you dig this kind of game, there are tons of deck builders out right now. I have a particular affection for Tyrants of the Underdark and Knizia’s very elegant, simple multiplayer take, The Quest for El Dorado, both of which add spatial boardplay to all that card shopping. The deepest game in the whole deckbuilding space is probably Puzzle Strike, which is a little clunky to learn and a little clunky to play in the physical version. But I played a few hundred games of this on the iOS version, and felt like I was just starting to see the profound depths of the strategic space.

Lost Cities (E): Another elegant Knizia masterpiece. Incredibly simple rules. Read the rules, and it seems like there’s almost nothing there, and no interaction. Play is quick and snappy and easy, and suddenly you realize how much you can subtly screw with the other player. Simple, sweet, clean fun. Very chill and calming. I’ve played this hundreds and hundreds of times. Along the chill fun line, also try Jaipur (E).

Battle Line/Schotten Totten (M): Possibly my favorite Knizia two-player game? Astoundingly elegant game of playing nine simultaneous mini-poker hands at once. A game of brinksmanship, bluffing, and information flow. A dense, fast, but very profound gaming experience, and you can learn it in about four minutes. This one makes my armpits sweat and my adrenaline surge. Amazing.

(PS: Schotten Totten was the original version, and has a kind of stupid theme of Scottish Highland Games. Then they brought it to the US and released it as Battle Line, with a Roman war theme that much better fits the mechanics. But the stupid American publishers demanded Knizia add special powers cards. Fuck the special powers cards. They take an elegant, vicious classic of calculation and turn it into this stupid random chaotic silly thing. They ruin the game. Just play without them.)

YINSH (M): Kris Burm is a genius at spitting out actually genuinely new abstract game ideas. They’re all clever, and some of them are super deep. YINSH is one my favorites – kind of like Othello amped up with flipping pieces and rings jumping around flipping everything and absolute chaos. It’s super-easy to learn the rules, but good game-play is tough, counter-intuitive. Once you figure it out, it will rewire your brain. Other marvelous games from Burm: PUNCT, the brain-melty game of flying, rotating, three-dimension stacking of bridges, and GIPF, a sublime and subtle game of sliding rows and quietly shifting relationships.

Twilight Struggle (H): Years ago, my best friend from college had moved to New York, and I was going out to visit him for five days. We had all these plans to go experience the wonders of the city. But I’d also brought a copy of this new war-game, Twilight Struggle, see. And instead of doing anything useful with our lives, we stayed in his cramped and sweaty apartment and knocked out game after game and game of Twilight Struggle, because it had colonized our brains.

Twilight Struggle models the cold war. Twilight Struggle is Russia and the US subtly manipulating the political infrastructure of the world in a careful tug-of-war, pushing everybody to a state of near war while trying to stay under actual nuclear oblivion. Twilight Struggle is a wargame built around the clever use of cards to do stuff on the board, where each card can do a bunch of different things, and every action involves this endlessly painful set of choices about how and where to use your cards. Twilight Struggle is amazing. It is long and tense and an utterly fabulous, sweat-drenching gaming experience.

Also: if you’e loved Twilight Struggle, seek out Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (UH), the earlier game design which inspired Twilight Struggle. Hannibal is harder to learn, harder to play, and takes longer, but is even better. It is maybe the best wargame I’ve ever played – an astoundingly deep experience of fast armies fluidly fencing and dancing around each other, ripping up the terrain for political advantage. And it’s back in print!

Polis: Fight for the Hegemony (H): A slick, slick combination of wargaming and European  resource management, where you spend most of your time stomping around with your armies blocking each others trade-routes and choking off each others’ ability to get the necessary resources to build some fucking infrastructure. Part wargame, part Civ-type economic engine builder, but where the two strands are perfectly interwoven. Elegant, subtle, awesome.

Android: Netrunner (H): Also in the running for the Greatest Modern Game Design. Insane, gorgeously thematic, ultra-tense design. One of you is the evil Corporation, trying to take over the world. The other of you is the hacker, trying to break in and expose the corporation. Completely asymmetric play. The Corporation can only build its infrastructure and set its traps. The hacker has to desperately scrounge up money and then break in, taking wild risks. The Corporation player has to be stealthy, full of bluffs, to hide their intent. The hacker has to use their limited resources to scout, to finagle information, has to take massive risks. The mechanics are gorgeously thematic. The hacker can hack anything – they can try to break into the Corporation’s draw deck, hand, discard pile, steal anything. The Corporation can use evil defensive software to deliver brain damage to the hacker, which the game portrays by reducing the hacker’s maximum hand size. Every part of this game is delicious.

This is a constructed deck game, like Magic: the Gathering, but without the worst of the collectible wallet-destroying part. You can actually, if you don’t want to compete at a high level, grab a relatively small and affordable set and play it. Another option, if you want to do the Magic-but-not-collectible thing, is Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn (M). It’s quicker to learn and slicker than Magic, with lots of subtlety and flair. There’s a cool dic that give you how much of the various sorts of power you have to spend each turn And also you can just buy the damn box and never buy another thing.

Julius Caesar (H): This is standing in for a whole bunch of Columbia Block Wargames. The world of wargames is full of historically accurate monsters with 40 page rulebooks and fine-grained simulatory madness. The Columbia Block Wargames are usually good at simplifying that down to a manageable level, of leaving in just enough historical grit in the rules to give the play some of that particular texture. And the blocks themselves have an orientation, like Stratego, so a lot of information about troop distribution is hidden.


Julius Caesar is a particularly nice place to start. Not many rules, relatively speaking. Lots of mobility and strategic flexibility, lots of feinting and bluffing and head-fakes, and really interesting, strategically specific play. A lot of this game comes down to how many troop movement clogs up the roads differently, and which roads can handle a lot of troops and which can only handle a little, and where mobility choke-points are.

There’s tons more to play after this one, but my favorite of all the Columbia games is Rommel in the Desert (H). It’s significantly more rules than Julius Caesar, but what you get is this fabulous particular game, about tanks that can blitz over the roads but bog down in the desert, about desperate supply lines stretching between oases, and about the fact that there’s never enough fuel to do all the moving you want, and trying to figure out how much fuel your opponent has stockpiled, and it is pure unrelenting tension, broken by explosions of motion.

Sekigahara (H): Sekigahara is maybe the new the creme de la creme –maybe finest development of the whole modern wargames movement. It combines a lot of the mechanics from all the stuff above – the hidden units of the Columbia Block Games, the delicious card-based strategy of Twilight Struggle – into one utterly elegant, crisp, and profoundly playable and deep wargame. It simulates the war of unification in 1600’s Japan. It was a conflicting loyalties, of different commanders trying to gather the various clans to their side, and the whole game is built from the ground up to model that that struggle for lotalty. You get cards at the beginning of every round, and each card bears a clan-marker. You have to spend cards to move troops. But each of your troops comes from a clan. If you get into a fight, you need to have the matching clan card, in order to actually get a given troop unit to fight. So your general might be sitting on a massive pile of troops, but utterly unable to get them to do anything because they don’t trust you. And if you spend all your loyalty in one fight, your opponent knows you’ve used it up, and you can’t call those troops to battle. And if your opponent has the right cards, they can steal your troops from you in the middle of a battle. AND you get extra cards from having your troops die nobly in battle, because that’s… what inspires loyalty? The game is tight, fascinatingly strategic, and absolutely captures the political particularity of that war. And it’s a thrilling, deep nail-biter of a game, full of thoughtfulness, but also moments of bluff-y daring.

Star-Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (M): OK, this is the stupidest game that I’m going to recommend. First of all, this is a money trap. It’s got collectible miniatires and there are lots of them and if you’re going to play competitively, or if you’re the kind of person that can get trapped by this kind of capitalist dodge, then you might be screwed. (Though you can have a great damn game with only a few pieces.) Also, the rules are kind of clunky, and also the play is kind of clunky and stop-start-y and you have to keep track of all these stupid data points with these stupid chits that clutter up the play space and it’s just kind of all very ridiculous.

BUT: if you can get through all that, the game itself is… unique, and hysterical, and has its own very special magic. It’s STAR WARS, first of all. One of you is the Rebels, with your choice of X-Wings and B-Wings and maybe even the Millennium Falcon. The other of you is the Imperial forces, with all your TIE Fighters and shit. First, all the pieces move differently. Each ship comes with its own little secret programmable dial, which shows all the moves that particular ship can make. X-Wings are big and heavy and clunky but tough. B-Wings turn on a dime, but they’re slow as hell. TIE Fighters are fast and ultra-maneuverable, but they die like gnats. The Millennium Falcon is massive but ultra-maneuverable, and can do crazy shit like nothing else in the game.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: both sides program all their movements at once, on the secret programmable dials. Then you unveil and unleash. There are these adorable cardboard ruler-type thingies to actually physically move your pieces around the board.


And, after all the clunkiness – where you have to keep track of which pilot is tired, and which ship has a lock on which ship, and where you’re shuffling all these differently shared rulers to move the ships around, and you have to use other stupid ruler to figure out if you’re in range or not – after all that, when the game works, it really goddamn works. It actually genuinely feels like being in a Star Wars dogfight. The pieces zip around, the X-Wings cruise and stalk, the TIE Fighters dodge and weave and roll like crazy fucking insects everywhere. And it’s mental, too. Because you’re programming the ships simultaneously, and it becomes a super-complicated version of The Sicilian Encounter from Princess Bride, where you’re trying to triple-quadruple bluff the other side about where you’re going to go, and sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you fail completely and end up with your ass hanging out helplessly in the face of your enemy’s biggest gun and you get toasted. But when you pull it off – when you take a crazy unexpected turn and barely whiz your Millennium Falcon through like 8 hairpin turns through a tight asteroid field – then, then you feel like a god.

I hear this game goes really deep, and there’s a good competition scene with really high-level play, but basically I only play this game drunk.

(Another goofy and very fun miniatures game is BattleLore (M), which doesn’t have the simultaneous movement thing, but does have this nifty system where cards slightly randomize which part of the battlefield you can send commands to. It’s supposed to simulate the difficulty of command communication. Super fun and very fantasy-nerd.)

“Fuck you, Thi, this isn’t a fucking boardgames, this is torture”

Food Chain Magnate (UH): Absurdly complicated, wild game of building up your own fast food empire. Ridiculously complicated, wildly chaotic emergent play, and utterly fantastic. You need to hire employees to do things. You need to hire middle managers to manage your employees. You need to hire people to make burgers, or pizza, or soda, or lemonade. You need to create advertising on the map to create the demand for your burgers, or pizza, or soda. And then shit goes crazy, because desire is general. That means I can create a massive marketing campaign for burgers, but if my opponent swoops in and cuts the prices on their burgers, then all those burger-mad people will instead go to their shop in droves and I’m shit out of luck. Dense, calculative, wild, thrilling. Also a candidate for the best board game ever. I am not alone in thinking this.

Currently out of print and super-expensive, but worth getting on any waiting lists at Splotter Games for the next reprint, when it happens. More importantly: there’s a cheap iPad version out! If you’re into this kind of thing, there are plenty of other Splotter Games that are also dense, amazing pieces of economic wonderment, especially Indonesia. You usually have to get on a waiting list. They’re expensive, it takes forever, but I have played the hell out of every one I have and loved them all passionately.

1830: Railways and Robber Barons (UH): This is a particularly sterling, and usually findable, example of the most majestic of gaming mega-elephants, the 18xx series. (Another good place to start is 1889, which was specifically made to help people learn this style of game, and it’s a delight.) 18xx is ludicrous, and perhaps, in the end, my actual Favorite Game Experience of All Time. First, there’s a railway game. There are railroad companies, which need to build track, improve their train technology, and operate their trains to make money. Layered on top of that is a stock trading game, where the various players buy and sell stock in those railroad companies. The stock market is wildly mobile and interactive. When companies do well, they pay out dividends and their stock prices surge. When companies do badly, their stock prices drop. When players sell stock, the stock prices drop.

You can manipulate the market. You can trigger a mass sell-off and destroy a company’s stock value. You can manage your company beautifully and steadily chug to the top. You can raid your own company for profit and dump it on somebody else. And the entire stock system creates this complicated system of subtly shifting alliances, as you’re co-invested with other people on the board in a slowly shifting manner – and the alliance structure, you can also manipulate. There’s also this elegant technological obsolescence mechanic, where as higher-tech trains come into play, lower-tech trains stop working, and the whole thing drives the game to this endlessly desperate, manic pace.

If there’s a multiplayer game from the modern era that I think will prove, in the end, to offer the depth of Chess and Go, and still be played hundreds of years from now, I’m betting on 18xx.

This stock mechanic may seem familiar by now. A lot of my other very favorite games – Imperial, Chicago Express – are descended from this one. But this is The Original, the Mothership Connection, and still probably the most intense and thrilling game experience I know. But a warning: it’s complicated. The game takes forever to learn. Playing them takes like six hours, at the very least. There’s math. I mean, I literally hand out cheap scientific calculators to every player at the start of the game, to do various dividend calculations and run possible payoff models. There’s slower sections of the game where everybody is just carefully developing train companies and cautiously watching for possible stock market shenanigans. But everything matters, everything builds towards this climax, and at some point the game kicks into this ludicrous gear, where stocks are flying and portfolios are shifting and the whole game is alive and screaming and insane.

But also: there’s a lot of math.

A Theory of Hot Sauces, with Recommendations

OK, so one thing I’ve been doing during pandemic era is trying out hot sauces. Like a lot of hot sauces. Like a really unbearably large number of hot sauces. Like setting up hot sauce tastings where lunch is me making sad fish tacos out of my toddler’s abandoned day-old fish sticks but there are 15 different hot sauces to try with it. Like, when I got the new dream job, I was like, “I need to celebrate!” and… immediately went to an online hot sauce store and bought ten new hot sauces. This is apparently how I pandemic when I’m cut off from exploring restaurants and stuff.

I’ve also gone through stages of… Hot Sauce Theory.

STAGE 1: “Boy, these boutique/craft hot sauces are really incredible and complex and full of complicated flavor notes! Not like my old hot sauces!”

STAGE 2: “Boutique hot sauces are mostly a scam. They’re built to taste really good in the store or a tasting competition, on their own, but they totally overwhelm most food. Too much broadband complexity. A lot of the thinner, more traditional hot sauces actually work better to complement a dish without overwhelming it.”

STAGE 3: “Holy shit, overwhelmingly complex boutique-y hot sauces are great to have when half your meals are, like, Annie’s Mac and Cheeses that you’re splitting with your toddler.”

OK, here are my current favorites, after having gone through *a lot* of bottles recently. Sorted from least-spicy to most-spicy, and also vaguely by use-category.




TABASCO-IMPROVED: Louisiana Gold and Slap Ya Mama

The precise vinegar-clean of Tabasco is still one of the most useful and flexible hot sauces. Louisiana Gold and Slap Ya Mama are both old-school Louisiana hot sauces that provide the same balance, but with way fuller flavor. Louisiana Gold is more exactly like Tabasco plus and I use it all the damn time. Slap Ya Mama is balanced away from the vinegar, but towards hitting you with the rich and particular flavor of fermented pepper.


SRIRACHA-BUT-GOOD: Yellowbird Jalapeno

It’s Sriracha, but good.


PERUVIAN WONDER: Chiporro Sauce Co. Rocoto Hot

This is with rocoto peppers, which I haven’t dealt with a lot. Where a lot of the habanero-school sauces have this sharp, scalpel hit, the rocoto gives is a much more broad, rich, low, umami-warming hug, but with a nice bite. I love this. This is one of the newer hot sauces that has completely captured my heart. Works with so much stuff. It doesn’t taste exactly like Tapatio, but it works in the kind of contexts Tapatio does. In the running for Best Sauce Ever.


CHIPOTLE-ISH: Born to Hula Ghost of Ancho
This isn’t a chipotle sauce, but it does what I wish a lot of chipotle sauces did. It’s got that low, toasty, toasty bass-note rumble. Goes with a lot of stuf


TROPICALIA: High River Sauces Tears of the Sun
This is one of those craft-sweet-tropical fruit sauces, with mango and papaya and some habanero. The whole category of sweet-tropical sauces doesn’t work in 90% of applications, but once in a while you find something it absolutely just lights up. This is basically a sweet sauce, with the heat providing just a bit of backbone and balance. It’s power-ketchup.


HABANERO: Marie Sharp’s Belizean Heat
If I could have only one hot sauce, probably the most flexible and usable is Marie Sharp’s – either the Original hot sauce, or the slightly sharper and punchier Belizean Heat. These are in the classic Carribean carrot-and-habanero style. They are at the center of what I mean by “lean, traditional sauces”. The kind you’re more likely to find in a ethnic-y grocery store, and not on some gourmet magazine’s recommendation list. The flavor is precise and narrow, instead of multilayered and complicated. It will never win any kind of hot sauce competition, or impress you in when you taste it, by itself. But it just punches up so many dishes, without interfering. It’s been around forever. And it’s cheap. (PS Marie Sharp’s has pretty much replaced Aardvark’s in my heart.)


FUNKY GHOST: Melinda’s Naga Jolokia
Classic hot sauce, made with bhut jolokia a.k.a. ghost pepper. A lot of ghost pepper sauces have this, like, very bro-styling, where the whole point is to exaggerate the intense knife-burn of the thing. This starts to make every sauce, and every use of the sauce, taste the same. (Kinda like the Great Hop Wars of the Mega IPA Beer era.) Anyway, Melinda’s NJ is instead about the peculiar funky vegetal flavors of the ghost peppers, fermented into extra-richness. Reminds me of certain Vietnamese fish pastes, in their funky splendor. But very hot. Also fantastic: Melinda’s Hot Sauce, which is also a slightly denser-funkier take on the carrot-habanero style.


This is my favorite in a certain modern craft style: loaded with ingredients, super-intense, obvious complexity. Lots of roasted garlic in ones. Definitely one where you imagine YouTube hot sauce reviewers screaming MASSIVE FLAVOR BOMB at the camera or something. It will destroy the natural flavors of any dish – total tidal wave. On the other hand, for like Annie’s Mac and Cheese or tired tired leftovers, sometimes what I want is the tidal wave. This is a really, really good tidal wave.


Really. I think this is my favorite sauce. It’s brutally hot and super-rich, and also a little bit sweet, in lovely singing balance. It’s halfway between the “traditional lean” and “craft rich” categories. And it’s just… amazing. Like, something this full-tasting shouldn’t work with as many things as it does. But it somehow merges with almost everything. It uses Trinidad 7 pot chiles, which I have had no experience before this, but now believe is like habanero but with magical pixie dust sprinkeld over it. (A runner-up in the ultra-hot-but-tasty category is Hellfire Devil’s Own, a searing pineapple-habanero sauce.)



Louisiana Hot Sauce, Rocoto Hot Sauce, Marie Sharp’s Belizean, Melinda’s Naga Jolokia, Bigfat 708.

GAMES: AGENCY AS ART: A Reader’s Guide

Now officially out: my first book, Games: Agency as Art. Thanks to Oxford University for making this all happen!

The book says that games are a distinctive art form — one very different from the traditional arts. Game designers don’t just create an environment, or characters, or a story. They tell you who to be in the game. They set your basic abilities: whether you will run and jump, or move around your pieces geometrically, or bid and raise. And, most importantly, they tell you what your goals will be. By specifying the points and victory conditions, the designer sets the players’ core motivations in the game. The designer shapes our practical struggle by manipulating our practical interests and abilities, and the challenges we will face. Game designers work in the medium of agency itself. Games are the art of agency.


Game designers aren’t just telling stories. Game designers are sculpting a specific form of practical activity. They are deciding what we will do within the game and how we will do it. They do so by designing the basic shape of our agency within the game, and then designing the obstacles that we will encounter. A game designer says, in Super Mario Brothers, your goal is to go right, your abilities are running and jumping — and the world is full of dangers to run past and jump over. In poker, your goal is to get money, and your abilities are strictly limited to bidding and raising, and careful surveillance of the other player’s actions and expressions — and the world is full of other people doing the same to you.

Games, then, have a special place in our ecosystem of artifacts. Games enable a distinctive kind of communication. Every form of art lets us capture a different aspect of our experience and being. Paintings capture sights; music captures sounds; fiction capture stories. And games, it turns out, can capture and transmit different ways of being practical. Games are our technology for communicating modes of agency. And players can use games to try out new modes of agency. Big conclusion: games are a library of agential modes and practical styles, where we can explore and learn different styles of agency.

But if we see why real games are good, we’ll see why gamification should trouble us. Games grant us many of their pleasures by offer us a narrowed, simplified set of goals. They offer us value clarity – a brief respite from real life. In games, for once, we know exactly where we’re going and exactly how well we’ve done it. But to achieve those pleasures in gamified real life, we need to simplify our real life values. And that simplification can be incredibly destructive. It can transform us – as when Twitter changes us from caring about communication and connection, to caring about going viral.


A reader’s guide

Different parts of the book might interest very different audiences. So here’s a chapter breakdown. Different people might be interested in different bits.

1. Agency as Art – An overview of the whole thing. (Currently open access and free online)!


2. The Possibility of Striving Play – An analysis of the motivational structure of games. The book hangs on a distinction between:

-achievement play: playing for the value of winning
-striving play: temporarily adopting an interest in winning for the sake of having the struggle.

Striving play is possible, which means we can enter into a strange kind of motivational inversion, where we pursue a goal for the sake of the experience of going through the struggle. 

3. Layers of Agency – Striving play has all kinds of implications! Like: it turns out that we have the ability to forget our normal values and absorb ourselves in a temporary value-construct.

4. Games and Autonomy – Argues that games are a medium for communicating agency. Thus, playing games lets us explore a library of agencies. Suggests that games help us be more autonomous by giving us access to a larger inventory of practical styles and mental modes. Suggests that often, in life, we need to switch between between differently focused practical modes for cognitive-resource limitation reasons, and that games help us learn these different modes.


5. The Aesthetics of Agency – Argues for an aesthetics of action – for the possibility of aesthetically appreciating our own choices, movements, and decisions. Argues that games can construct such an aesthetics deliberately. Focuses on the possibility of constructed *practical harmony* – of the game designer creating world and agent to fit beautifully, for once.

6. Framed Agency – Extended in-the-weeds philosophy of art discussion about how it might be possible for games to communicate agency. We use the rules and conventions of game-playing to encode actions and practical modes.

7. The Distance in the Game – Every medium of art has its own special difficulty. The characteristic difficulty of the medium of agency is distance. The game designer has to achieve their effects through the free agency of – and often in collaboration with – the player.


8. Games as Social Transformations – Argues that multiplayer games, by working in the medium of agency, are also working in the medium of sociality. Game designers can create temporary social arrangements. It is the original social art. And: Mill thought we needed to have “experiments in living” where we tried out, experientially, life under different conceptions of the good. Argues that games let us do this in a particular, quick, formalized way. They are miniature political experiments.

9. Gamification and Value Capture – Argues that games may be good, but gamification is bad. Discusses the gamification of Twitter – which offers points for going viral – and the gamification of research – which offers a game-like scoring system of citation rates, H-index, REF, etc. Introduces the notion of “value capture”, which is when your rich values get put in a social/institutional setting which presents you thin, quantified, simplified versions of those values – and the simplified versions take over. Suggests that there are epistemic consequences to the value capture of discourse on Twitter, and the value capture of academic research. Argues that it’s OK to accept thin, simplified values for pleasure in games proper, but that it’s terrible to do in a real-world domain. (Currently open access and free online!)

10. The value of striving: Suggests that attitudes of playfulness and aesthetic joy in games may partially protect against value capture and the institutionalization of values.

Interested? Buy the book!


Salt Lake City: food favorites, 2019

This is my food recommendations for Salt Lake City list, updated for 2019!

I arrived in SLC seven years ago in a tumble of culinary sorrow. I’d been writing food for the LA Times during graduate school, and I had to give up that half of my life in order to stay on the academic track.

Except, as it turns out, Salt Lake is actually kind of great. There’s more weird little ethnic neighborhoods and hidden communities entangled into the Utah Suburban Monolith than you might think. And every year I live here, the streets get a teeny bit more diverse, and the food scene gets a little bit better.

So, here’s my best of, as of right now:



Alas, Hot Dynasty, I loved you well. You had godlike Sichuan. I was perceptually shocked that you managed to exist in Utah. Turns out, you were too good for this world. Now you’re dead, and we’ll have to content ourselves with merely quite good Sichuan: Sweet Ginger. It’s legit, though, numb-tingly flavors and all. Order your heart out – it’s all good, and way better than you’d think Utah capable of in the Sichuan department. All the fish boiled in hot chili oil and the masses of chicken in pickled pepper and dried chiles and fresh chiles and more piles of chiles. Definitely hit the cold tray for all the weirdo Sichuan cold snacks, like husband-and-wife slices and seaweed. (WARNING: Comment from Stuart, below, indicates that the good chef might have left. I will check soon. Please hold.)

There’s a lot of good Taiwanese in this town. Best choice: Mom’s Kitchen. It’s even better since they made, like, a real picture menu for all us non-Chinese speakers. It’s stuffed with all the Taiwanese comfort food favorites. The beef roll is, like, jellied sweet beef rolled in an onion scallion pancake with plenty of raw cilantro and crispy green onion. Dumplings are fantastic, boiled or fried. Freshly made noodles in all the soups – I particularly like the subtle, rich sourness of the sour mustard and ground pork soup. The leek pancake turnover thing is a wonder – the soft leeks and the wiggly vermicelli and that lovely near-crumbly texture of finely chopped filling inside a crispy, crispy, chewy, crispy shell. Eat this and think of what a pathetic thing the Hot Pocket is, that tried to be this leek turnover and failed.

Also: super-special Taiwanese bonus: Sasa Kitchen! A tiny menu, but they’re specialists! Most important thing: the “shaved noodles”, which are fresh made, sliced thick and full of chaw, and have just that right mouth-filling heft. Noodles this good would be like $30 if you were in an Italian place, but since it’s Chinese, it’s like $8. My personal favorite: the clean, subtle, fragrant, warming lamb and shaved noodle soup. Also, get the hot and sour dumpling soup if they have it.

SLC now has a spectacularly good fresh-made Chinese noodle house in One More Noodle. The best noodles, as noodles, are probably those thick, dense ones that come with the braised beef soup, all full of chaw and noodle-y vigor. But the best gestalt dish is the dan dan mien. Peanut-y sauce, Sichuan tingle, thin little wiggly noodles, and pure raw goodness. Best in its beef incarnation, but the veggie version is also deliriously good.

Also: best dim sum is probably Red Maple House. Definitely go when it’s busy for freshness – Saturday and Sunday brunch time. They nail those gossamer-bouncy textures.



For my first two or three years, I just mostly ate at the taco trucks – the two clustered around the Ocean City Market at State and 9th are probably still my favorites. I eventually found Victor’s Restaurant, the well-known tamale specialist inside Victor’s Tires. They’re awesome for many standards – their menudo and their chilaquiles are particular favorites).

Incredibly good tacos at Mi Carmelito. If this place were in East LA, I would probably still hit it up on the regular. It’s a little weird if you’re not used to this style of place – there are different lines for different kinds of meat. Al pastor is great, tripatas is perfect for those of you that dig that dig that kind of thing. But their true excellence is in their soft beef dishes. Cabeza, definitely. But if they happen to have cachete – beef cheek – when you’re there, then you are truly blessed.

But the real magical winner for Mexican in SLC is Mi Lindo Nayarit. It is a Nayarit specialist, and once again, HOW THE HELL DOES THIS EXIST IN UTAH? Nayarit is a region in the Central Pacific coast of Mexico. Nayarit food (and the food of neighbor Sinaloa) is completely distinctive, especially if you’re used to the kind of northern Mexican food that suffuses the American imagination. Nayarit food is seafood, in a thousand subtle variation, balanced right on the edge between crispness and hyper-complexity. Even in Los Angeles, Nayarit and Sinaloan places were rare finds. I have no idea why there’s one way out here in Utah. Things to try: the empanadas, which are stuffed with ground shrimp, deep-fried, and topped with an avocado. The dozen variations of shrimp, all delightful. The fish ceviche, which is unlike any other ceviche I know. It’s a mixture of citrus-soaked fish and finely shredded carrots and lots of other raw bits of veg, and it’s like a raw fish carrot slaw, and it’s totally awesome. (Beware: as with other raw fish, much depends on your relationship to market-day. I wouldn’t get this on a Sunday.) And the fish chicharron, which is small pieces of fish fried so deeply and intensely that they take on the heft, crunch, and chaw of fried pork rinds. Special bonus: they make the best michelada in town, which is kind of like a beer bloody mary served in an enormous stein rimmed with chile powder.

Best Oaxacan in town: the tiny, delightful La Oaxaquena. Great mole, but their true speciality is the tlayuda – which is basically a super crispy thin Oaxacan pizza. You have not lived till you’ve hit a tlayuda with real hunger in your heart. La Oaxaquena also shares a kitchen with my favorite Salvadorean place, discussed below, so you can actually order from both menus from either restaurant. Also, really good mole at the chicken specialist Don Pollo.



The whole Wasatch area has freakishly great Peruvian all over the place. I’m not going to list them all – just go and try any you can find. They’re everywhere, and they’re mostly all great. The fanciest and finest is Del Mar al Lago, which is another “WTF is this doing in UTAH?” kind of place. High end, pretty, immaculate Peruvian. Beautiful and zippy ceviche, excellent piles of fried seafood, and all that stuff. Definitely the more future-facing, more inventive, and more respectable place. It’s fantastic.

But if I had to be honest, in my heart of hearts, my absolute favorite Peruvian out here is the Bountiful branch of El Rocoto. It’s just more heart-felt. I never know exactly what that means, and why certain food feels merely clinically perfect, but other food feels full of love and life. But El Rocoto has that mysterious perfect hunk o’ soul. The stuff all feels just the right amount of chunky, hearty, and chewy; all the flavors are full-throated. Things to try: the platter of fried seafood. The ceviche. Lomo saltado, that glorious Peruvian stir-fry of french fries and beef in red wine, soy sauce, garlic, and tomato. Pretty much anything.

2019 update: El Rocoto has a challenger, which is even homier and even more heart-felt: Rubi’s Peruvian! I would go here just for the hot crispy fried hominy bits they bring out for you, which are the true version of what Corporate America would destroy and then call Corn Nuts. But the ceviche is great here, as are the saltados and the huge pile of fried seafood. Completely soul-satisfying.


Middle Eastern

Afghan Kitchen is spectacular. It is unnervingly good. Salt Lake City has no right to have an Afghani place this good. Actually the best Afghani mantu I’ve ever had – dumplings, with these astonishingly fresh, delightful wrappers, topped with yogurt and sauce, stuffed with your choice of beef or pumpkin. Everything I’ve had here has been pretty much perfect, but I remember most the Kubali Palow – a chicken pilaf dish studded with little bits of carrots and raisins and pure goodness.

Karim Bakery: WTF is this?! Salt Lake City now has an incredibly good Arabic bakery, which turns out absolutely delightful fresh lavash and pita? And they make baklava and other bakery treats that are completely perfect and full of bakerly love? And you can get an absolutely excellent lemahjun – a flatbread topped with a thin mix of ground meat and spices – for two bucks? Or an even better zataar flatbread for a buck-fifty? Rolling fresh out of the oven every day starting around 11 AM?

Mazza is well known and good, especially if you need things to look fancy. 15th and 15th branch is a little better and cozier. Excellent Middle Eastern groceries at Black Cherry. O Falafel is great at a lot of things, but, perversely, least at falafels. Look to the cooked entrees, like moussakka, chicken banana squash, mughrabiya, and my very favorite, makshi – gorgeously soft eggplant in a yogurt tomato beef gravy sauce thing.



Probably the most important Hipster Culinary Experience in SLC is Cafe D’Bolla, which is one of the very few genuinely world-class culinary experiences in Utah. It’s a coffee bar. I mean, let me say this again, it is a Motherfucking Coffee Bar where you are going to go and pay a lot of money for a Coffee Motherfucking Experience. It has extremely good espresso at a decent price. But the thing you’re really here for is to have the hands of the master make you an earth-shatteringly superb cup of vacuum press siphon coffee, for which you will pay a modestly princely sum. I mean, like, $8-$12 or something. (Though it perpetually irritates me that people will slap down that much for a glass of wine without even thinking about it, but then proceed to loose their collective gourds over the idea of paying that much for a cup of coffee.)

It’s worth it. He knows what the fuck he is doing. He will do you a full process and ritual with explanation. Perhaps too much explanation. He roasts all his own coffee to spec (and he thinks that it’s crucial, if you’re brewing at SLC elevations, to roast with that in mind.) He gets weird coffee rarities. He brews them superbly. He will also, unless you ask firmly, loom over you and shout at you all the tasting notes that you’re supposed to be tasting. He also won’t let you sip the hot cup of coffee because he’s going to tell you that it’s much better after 5 minutes of cooling – and it turns out he’s COMPLETELY RIGHT. He also serves his coffee in these very specific antique Japanese tea cups that he decided give the best aromatic experience and, once again, he is COMPLETELY RIGHT.

So: it’s weird. Also only for the kind of fanatics who like light roast, high acid, very sculpted coffee profile. But if you are, this is totally a pilgrimage worth making. Taste at the feet of a true master.



Salt Lake City is strangely blessed with what, as far as I know, is the best Jewish deli west of the Rockies: Feldman’s Deli. Highlight: maybe the absurdly good, perfectly textured knishes? There’s manner of deli delights, from traditional stuff to more gonzo inventions (potato latkes smoked salmon benedict?). They make a tiny batch of perfectly fluffy bagels each morning, though they run out fast. These are also, without a doubt, the best bagels I’ve had outside of the Northeast. Deli meats are flown in from NY, and they truly understand the essence of the pastrami sandwich.


Other White People Stuff

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because my favorites are well-known and well-covered elsewhere. Tulie has impeccable croissants and other Euro pastries. If there’s a criticism of them though, it’s that they’re a little cold in their version of impeccable, professionally crafted, and perfectly French-correct bakery arts. My deepest affections have lately shifted to the new Amour Cafe, from those people that brought you that shockingly good jam you bought in the farmer’s market. Homey, deeply felt, subtle and soul-punchingly good baked goods. Among the best scones I’ve had in the States. Also, sometimes, they have the most magical thing: a beet walnut cake, which is basically like a red velvet cake, but profound. And the single best baked good in SLC is Eva’s Bakery’s kougin amann, which is a godhead baked good. It’s often available at a few other places around town, like our branch of Campo’s Coffee.

Most expensive and also best place for super-boutique groceries is Liberty Heights Fresh. Most importantly, they are home of the best cheese counter in town. (Caputo’s is also very good, but they’ve lately gotten really into their ultra-funkifying cheese cave thing. I suspect they’re beginning to proceed down the More Funky Than Thou path which reminds me, worryingly, of the Late Stage Craft Beer Quadruple IPA Bitter Fuck You Manly Arms Race of Doom.)

Salt Lake is also, importantly, home to like the second best butcher and charcuterie in all of America, as far as I know: Beltex Meats. Ungodly good classic cuts and oddball cuts and all kinds of glorious in-house pates and charcuteries and headcheeses and blood sausages, all with that deep profound modulated wild funk that I crave. This place is a treasure, and when I have friends coming back to visit me from the culinary hotspots of the world, what they demand, perpetually, is to gorge themselves on Beltex shit. (My very favorite charcuterie maker in America is Fatted Calf in SF, and it turns out some of the Beltex gang trained there.)

Best tea selection in town: Tea Zaanti, without a doubt. Nice places to spend medium to large amounts of money on conventionally nice food in a setting with “service”: Manoli’s, Provision, Veneto’s.

There are two excellent cocktail bars in SLC: Water Witch and The Rest. Water Witch is the kind of place where they’ll chat you up and make you a cocktail to your weirdo requests, and they’ll nail it. The Rest is a speakeasy hidden oh-so-adorably underneath The Bodega, where you have to, like, call ahead and speak the secret words and be lead to a secret passageway in the back. The Rest is fancy and very I-dream-of-New-York and has quite good food. The Water Witch has a much more half-drunk bartenders ranting about their lives and shout at the audience vibe. The Rest offends some people with it’s excessively twee preciousness (it does feel a little bit like somebody ordered an interior decorator to “Make me feel like I’m drinking in a Wes Anderson film!”). Water Witch offends some people for its hipster-bro man-ergy. I go to both, because I’m a terrible person, and I just like drinking. (For the true cocktail fiend, though, I give a definite edge in pure cocktail craftsmanship to Water Witch.)



There’s not a huge amount of Korean in this town, but what there is, is surprisingly great. Far and away my favorite is Jang Soo Jang. Superb homey-style Korean food that would hang with some of my favorites in LA’s Koreatown. Favorites: spicy squid, sundae gook (blood sausage soup with bits of offal, shockingly clean and deep), spicy goat soup, spicy rice cakes, Korean dumplings, kim chee pancake. Super spread of lovely homemade Korean pickles, brimming with fresh ferment-y life. But: if you go here and only order Korean BBQ because you think that’s the beginning and end of Korean food, I will personally hunt you down and shoot you in the head with a pickle.

Other good choices: Myung Ga is pretty good and more conventionally “nice” location, with a bigger menu with pretty good versions of all the standards. For some reason, the name It’s Tofu! subtly creeps me out on like five levels that I don’t fully understand, but they have a pretty nice dol soat bi bim bop – that’s bi bim bop in a hot stone bowl that you mix up and let crisp.



There’s a huge Vietnamese population in SLC, and tons of great Vietnamese. A few favorites: Pho Thin for pho, with that radiant, subtly sour clean-quiet tang of a really well-executed beef broth. Pho Tay Ho, set in just the kind of chilled out remodeled house that reminds me of Vietnamese joints from my San Jose childhood, for heart-warming pho with really nice noodles. Little Saigon for excellent Vietnamese sandwiches, vermicelli noodles, and bun bo hue, the heartier, beefier, spicier soup of central Vietnam.

And, from left-field, there’s an excellent Viet-Cajun crawfish boil place! It’s called Bucket o’ Crawfish. You can get all manner of seafood – including crawfish, clams, and crab legs – boiled in anything from the Vietnamese take on Cajun spice mix to Chinese black bean sauce. Don’t go and tell me it’s not genuinely Cajun. Because it isn’t, and it never claimed to be. It’s goddamn Viet-Cajun, and you’ll enjoy it for being the heartfelt representative of this new gorgeous melting pot world, you motherfuckers!



Japanese in this town is currently suffering, ever since Naked Fish died. The best we have is probably a pair of tonkatsu ramen joints: Tosh’s and Jinya. If you haven’t had tonkatsu before, it’s nothing like the standard thin Tokyo-style ramen. It’s this mega-long cooked, ultra-rich bone-and-meat-fat, like, velvet or something. Both places are quite good, but I’m going to give a slight edge to Jinya, for getting just the right profound velvety-ness in that rich, rich, bone-mineral broth. I particularly like the ones that mix their pork broth with their chicken broth.

One sneaky surprise, though: Kobe. It is in the middle of a completely white mall complex, so you might not be willing to believe in it. And it’s one of those places that clearly is serving both a clientele interested in Americanized Japanese food, and a more savvy clientele. Here’s the big secret: they have two sushi chefs who are amazing, and they get a special box of sushi delights flown in from the Tokyo sushi markets every Wednesday or Saturday. Get a seat at the sushi bar, make it known that you’re interested in the Real Stuff, ask about that specials box. Also, very very important – do not assume that a white person cannot be a godlike sushi sushi chef. You’ll know who I’m talking about really, really quickly.



I used to live in the Salvadorean part of East Hollywood, where I acquired an undying hunger for pupasas that can never be adequately quenched. I think I have tried every Salvadoran place in Salt Lake City. For me, there is only one choice: Fernando’s Cafe Guanaco. Everything else there has been great too, especially the beef soup.



Imagine my total mind-melted surprise when I found out that the greater SLC area actually has a genuinely great place for chaat. It’s Turmeric Indian Cuisine. Chaat, if you don’t know, is Indian street food. All the chaat here is absurdly good – fresh and vivid, like little spikes of clean brilliant freshnesses shooting through your skull. In its previous incarnation, as “Pastries ‘n Chaat”, this place was all chaat, all the time. Now it’s transformed itself into a fancier sit-down place, cut its chaat menu in half, and added an array of really stunningly good curries. Try any of the goat curries – especially the ones you’ve never heard of. Fantastic biryani, too. (The Avenues branch of Saffron Valley also has extremely good chaat and dosas.)



There were once two utterly fantastic Ethiopian places in SLC. They both closed. Sad face. I have some new possibilities though. Watch this space.


Best rotating stand to watch out for

Spice Kitchen Incubator is this great non-profit thing that helps immigrants start up restaurants. They have a stand at the farmer’s market that rotates through new start-up food gigs. Often, they’re fantastic. Best West African food I had was from one of their gigs. I’ve also had super nice Indonesian, and good Filipino. Always try whatever’s on offer.



New paper: “Games and the art of agency”

My paper, Games and the art of agency, is now forthcoming at Philosophical Review. The paper argues that games are the art form of agency. Game designers don’t just create worlds, or stories. They tell us who we will be in the game. They design for us an alternative agency, which we submerge ourselves during the game. Games work in the medium of agency.

The big outcomes: first, we learn about the fluidity of our own agency. We can take on the ends of a game temporarily. We can care about things we don’t normally care about, for the sake of having the struggle. Second, games turn out to be a distinctive form of art. Game designers are sculpting forms of activity for us. They are designing structures of practicality, so that we can enter into them, and experience beauty in our own actions. And third, games turn out to be our technology for recording agencies. Narrative lets us write down stories, paintings let us record sights, and games let us record forms of agency. Games, then, let us explore new forms of agency.

This paper was the seed that grew into my forthcoming book, Games: Agency as Art. Incidentally, this paper was written first. But it turns out that the review process for a philosophy paper can be so long, that you actually might be able to expand a paper into a whole book before the original paper finally gets accepted.

The book will expand a bunch on the major themes of this paper, spending a lot more time on the aesthetic theory and my worries about gamification. The book also spends way more time on the discussion of how games let us explore alternate agencies, thus forming a library of agencies, which we can use to develop our own freedom and autonomy. The book is also written in a more accessible way, with lots of long, loving discussions of specific games.

This paper version is more compact, more scholarly, and hits a lot of the key points much faster. If you want all the ideas really fast, read the paper version. It also contains some very technical stuff that won’t appear in the book. There’s a discussion of why game desires don’t count as fictional, on Kendall Walton’s theory of fiction. And there’s a discussion of why games break certain traditional arguments that you can’t desire at will, from the literature on practical rationality. I argue that taking on a game goal temporarily is a kind of desiring at will. And games expose some crucial lacunae in traditional theories of practical reasoning. As it turns out, lots of traditional models of rationality don’t make room for play.

New paper: “Monuments as commitments: How art speaks to groups and how groups think in art”

My new paper, Monuments as Commitments: How Art Speaks to Groups and How Groups Think in Art, is forthcoming in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.

The paper argues:

1. That there are some kinds of art that primarily *address groups*, rather than individuals.

2. That monuments are an example of such. And that they are often made by groups to address *themselves* – to commit themselves to a value. Monuments aren’t just memories, they are collective value commitments.

3. This has consequences for the “tear down the monuments” debate. Because if a monument isn’t just a historical memory, but the live commitment by a community to a value, to guide itself by…

4. That art makes it possible for groups and communities to commit themselves to subtle, emotional values.

5. That art is often a better vessel for collective value than shitty mission statements, explicit “learning outcomes”, and crappy corporate value statements.

6. That, in this way, art makes deeply emotional group agency possible.

Echo chambers as trust manipulators

My analysis of echo chambers as trust-manipulators is now available in two exciting different versions! First, there was Escaping the Echo Chamber, the short version written for a general audience. And now, fresh off the presses, there’s Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles, the long scholarly version written for philosophers and social scientists, full of citations and more careful versions of all the arguments.

In Escaping the Echo Chamber (published in Aeon Magazine), I claim that the whole discussion about this stuff has been confusing two very different social phenomena. An epistemic bubble is a structure that limits what you see. When all your friends on Facebook share your politics, and you don’t get exposed to the other side’s arguments, that’s just a bubble. An echo chamber, on the other hand, is a structure that manipulates trust. Members of echo chambers are taught to distrust everybody on the outside. An echo chamber functions more like a cult. It isolates its members, not by restricting their access to the world, but by alienating them from the outside world.

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined.

This is crucial, because you have to know the disease to pick the right cure. Epistemic bubbles can be broken by simple exposure. But echo chambers cannot; members of echo chambers have been prepared to resist exposure to evidence from the outside. This radically overinflated their trust for insiders.

Crucially, this thing that people are calling “post-truth” – where people just ignore the outside evidence? Epistemic bubbles can’t explain that. Only echo chamber effects can explain it. And if that’s what’s actually going on, then the solution isn’t just to wave “the evidence” or “the facts” in an echo chamber member’s face. They’ve been given a basis for rejecting such outside evidence as corrupted, malignant. The only way to fix an echo chamber is by repairing the broken trust at its root.

In Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles (published in Episteme), I offer extended versions of all of the above arguments. This is the scholarly director’s cut. The definitions are more carefully fleshed out (and, admittedly, much longer and uglier and less memorable). The arguments are laid out in more detail, with citations. There’s also an extended discussion of the social science literature, where I point out a lot of places where people have conflated these concepts. I target a lot of recent papers which claim to have disproved the existence of echo chambers and epistemic bubbles, and point out that they’ve studied only exposure, and not distrust. Finally, there’s a much longer discussion of who’s responsible for the beliefs of echo chamber members. I take on Quassim Cassam’s story about epistemic vice and laziness in conspiracy theorists. He thought that, basically, all conspiracy theorists were just lazy and corrupt. I argue the opposite; the echo chambers story shows how a person could be blameless, because they were caught in a bad social network.

If you’re really interested in going all the way down the rabbit-hole, my analysis here is based on some earlier work. In Cognitive Islands and Runaway Echo Chambers, I analyze those domains where you need the help of experts, but you can only find experts by exercising your own abilities. This opens the door to a harmful sort of runaway bootstrapping, where people with bad beliefs use them to pick bad experts, and this only compounds their error. In Expertise and the Fragmentation of Intellectual Autonomy, I lay out the case for why we have to trust in experts, and why perfect intellectual autonomy is no longer possible, given the massive sprawl of scientific knowledge.

A preview of my book, Games: Agency as Art

My book, Games: Agency as Art, is now forthcoming from Oxford University Press! Oxford has given me permission to offer the first chapter as a preview. Now available for pre-order!

The book is a sustained defense of the value of games and game-playing, from several perspectives. The book says that:

  • Games are the art form of agency. Game designers don’t just create environments and obstacles. They set our goals in the game and our abilities; they create the agency which we will inhabit in the game.
  • Games can work in the medium of agency to create aesthetic experiences of acting and doing. They can offer us crystallized, designed, and refined versions of our everyday experiences of practicality.
  • One way that games are satisfying: they let us inhabit a world that’s easier to make sense of, one in which the values are clearer, simpler, and easier to apply. Such games offer us are rare experience of clarity of purpose. They are an existential balm against the rest of our lives, which are full of a plurality of subtle and competing values.
  • This also leads to a danger: games can seduce us into expecting that simplicity elsewhere. They can serve as a morally problematic fantasy of clarity. 
  • The fact that we can play games teaches us something remarkable about ourselves. We have the capacity submerge ourselves in alternate agencies, to slip in and out of temporary agencies. We can take up ends that we don’t usually care about and dedicate ourselves to them, for a time. We can adopt different modes of thinking, acting, and deciding. And then we can put them all away when then game is over. Games teach us that our agency is notably fluid. 
  • A big bonus: it turns out that stupid drinking games and party games are incredibly important to understanding the nature of our own practical rationality and agency.
  • Just as narratives are a technique for writing down stories, games are a technique for inscribing and preserving modes of agency. With them, we can create an archive of agencies – we can experience different ways of being an agent. Games are a technology for us to help develop each others’ autonomy.
  • The book offers a unified account of the art form of striving games. It discusses, under a single conceptual umbrella, computer games, board games, card games, party games tabletop role playing games, live action role playing games, and sports. (There are many other sorts of games besides striving games, however, and the book doesn’t purport to cover them all.)
  • Also: discussions of the aesthetic ontology of games, the nature of interactivity in games, a taxonomy of game types, and a comparison of games to contemporary practices of relational aesthetics and social practice art.

What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews

My post at Aesthetics for Birds on What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews:

“Read enough cookbook reviews, and you’ll start to notice a curious gap. Cookbook reviews mostly focus on how the recipes turn out — how tasty the dishes are, or how authentic they are. Sometimes they’ll also talk about the quality of writing, or how much you learn about some region’s culinary history  or food science or the author’s childhood or whatever. But usually they leave out what it feels like to actually cook the goddamn things…”

Later, it talks about how we ignore how food makes us move:

“Why do we legitimize aesthetic commentary, in conversation and reviews, on the taste, smell, and look of food, but refuse to legitimatize aesthetic commentary on the quality of the physical movements that food urges on us? The movements you make on the plate with your fork and knife are a tiny little dance, and dances can be graceful and awkward, and choices that a chef makes about how to plate will push on you more awkward or more graceful forms of dance.”

Keep reading it at AFB.