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Climbing the Dork Tower: An Interview with John Kovalic

March 29, 2013

Going OverBoard began in 2010, and I’ve since learned that Board Game Culture is a pretty big place. The more I learned, the more excited I became. Much too late in my life, I discovered The Dork Tower and found out that John Kovalic has been making board game comics since 1996. It has since become part of my daily comic consumption.

I spoke in a panel at PAX EAST 2013, “Wood for Sheep: The What and Why of Board Game Culture”, and gathered a lot of information from a variety of sources. The Board Game Industry has undergone some pretty significant changes since 1997, and there’s a reason Dork Tower is still up and running. It was an absolute treat for me to ask John Kovalic a few questions about his perspective on Board Games and Board Game Culture.

When you started Dork Tower, how did you feel it fit into gaming culture? Did you bump elbows at all with other gaming comics?

JK: I’m not sure I was worried about that at all. I just wanted to do a fun, funny comic strip – something that was based on my own experiences as a gamer. At the time, there weren’t a lot of other gaming comics. Knights of the Dinner Table and What’s New are the only two I can think of that weren’t “Adventure” strips, or “Humorous Adventure” strips (like SnarfQuest). There are hundreds of “Gamer” comic strips, now. Back in the mid-90s, though, not so much. I had known Jolly Blackburn (of Knights of the Dinner Table) for a while, and had done some panel comic strips for him, when he was at Shadis Magazine. And I’d met Phil Foglio (of What’s New) a year after Dork Tower began. They were both wonderful and welcoming – which is how I hope I am when new cartoonists meet me.

With such a long history, Dork Tower seems to have developed quite the
community, how would you describe the audience you reach?

JK: It’s awfully varied. I’m touched by the responses I receive. The feedback I get is always friendly and positive. That’s been nice. And it’s a very mixed crowd, both age-wise and gender-wise. Dork Tower has touched on many different topics over the years, even with the emphasis on gaming; the crowd that’s gathered around the strip is hard to define. I imagine them all as smart, handsome folks. That’s for sure.

Dork Tower historically centered on role-playing games, but these days it seems to have taken a turn towards Eurogames like Catan and Ticket to Ride. Can you describe the transition?

JK: My inspiration depends on what I’m playing or what I’m into. I don’t want to force strained role-playing humor on people if I’m not actually in a game or if the humor doesn’t arise naturally. These days, with a young daughter and friends who are married, it’s a lot easier to play some board or card games after a dinner party than it is to make it to my weekly role-playing group.

One of the great paradoxes of the gaming industry, by the way, is this: often, the more successful you are (or want to be) designing, running, and writing games, the less time you have left to play them.

I’ve read some of your interviews about your inspirations as a cartoonist, but I’m interested in what drives you to gaming and gamer culture specifically. What are some of your motivations for sharing in gamer culture?

JK: I care a huge deal about this group of people – gamers – I associate with. And I care about gaming. It’s meant a lot to me, over the years – from playing WWII miniatures games in school, to finding the famed “little white books” of Dungeons and Dragons in a store in London and discovering role-playing. It’s been a hobby that inspires creativity and passion, and I’ve made great friends though it. 15 years ago, I wanted to try and create a comic strip about the trials and tribulations of gamers, misunderstood and at times vilified by the world at large. These days, Geekdom has become more mainstream, but there’s easily as much humor in this new situation we find ourselves in.

Beyond Dork Tower, what other sites, shows, magazines, etc. do you identify as centers for board game culture? Have these changed over time?

JK: I think the big change over the years is that shows, like Wil Wheaton’s TableTop on the Geek and Sundry web network, have a massive influence on sales of games in mainstream outlets like Target and Barnes and Noble.

Think about that for a second. Fifteen years ago, the hobby was based around fanzines and a couple of professional magazines. The main gaming news you could hope to glean was buried inside miniature modeling publications. Now? A-list actors and actresses name drop hot games on the red carpet.

It’s been an amazing, weird journey for gaming, and it’s not over by a long shot.


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