Every community, no matter how big or how small, has its founding myths, a filter through which it comes partly to define itself. For what is, after all, a relatively small community, The Fortress seems to have rather a lot of them. I’m not sure quite why this should be the case, but after having had a user suggest it might be of interest to some of our newer members to go over how this site came to be, and not being one to pass up an excuse to bang my own drum, I figured to might be a good time to clear the matter up.
The birth of this site is, curiously, related to the birth of my eldest daughter in early 2006. Neither of my girls have been good sleepers, and both managed to keep me largely housebound for the best part of three years (still ongoing with the youngest). So, as a result, I stopped playing games. This had the unexpected side effect of making me think about games a lot more, and that in turn meant I felt compelled to write about them a lot more. So I started increasing the volume of lists, reviews and sessions that I was posting on boardgamegeek.com. But I didn’t want to limit myself to reviews and lists: there seemed to be so many more interesting and worthwhile things you could say about games. Analysing mechanics, looking at historical trends, assessing wider social impact, talking about gamers themselves. Opinion/editorial material, in other words. The trouble was that BGG was a bad place to showcase this sort of material - it had to go in the site-wide forums where it was likely to be rapidly buried under avalanches of crap.
So I started to think about writing my own blog. The trouble was that I didn’t feel I had either the time or the inspiration to write enough to make a whole blog for myself worthwhile. So here comes the first of a number of lucky breaks that we got: these thoughts happened to coincide with the emergence of what you might call the “Ameritrash consciousness” in the BGG community. A group of vocal people who decide they didn’t really like a lot of the dominant Eurogame genre on that site, and who were tired of being told that the sorts of games they preferred, heavy on randomness, excitement and narrative, were old-fashioned and worthless and were starting, individually to buck against the trend.
There was no defining moment to this. The first time I became aware of it was in the response to something I’d written, a geeklist called Seven Reasons to hate Eurogames in May 2006 but that’s not trying to take credit for it, just natural I should have first spotted it relation to one of my own pieces. If you look at the comments on that list, you’ll see a number of people who would later become prominent in the development of this site. Another important milestone was another geeklist, Robert Martin’s A Tribute to Ameritrash not only because, again, you got the same rough group of people chiming in, but because that’s the very first time anyone used the term Ameritrash to define the genre. And as these sorts of posts went up, I started to get a sense of a group of talented people around who shared my tastes and opinions, and with that I got the idea that rather than starting a blog on my own, I could start a team blog and the subject could be these newly-resurgent Ameritrash games.
The first person I approached about this was naturally the man who was rapidly become something of a figurehead for Ameritrash, thanks to the high volume, eloquent construction and devil-may-care, rabble rousing attitude of his posts. That was, of course, Michael Barnes. Once we’d agreed this was a good idea, the next order of business was to find some more like-minded people to join us. Robert Martin was top of both our lists, but beyond that we had rather different ideas. I don’t now remember exactly who was on each of our lists but what I do remember is that pretty much everyone who went on to make substantial and ongoing contributions to this site were on Michael's list, not mine. That, if for no other reason, is why he’s rightly entitled to claim co-founder status here even though I made the first move: without his suggestions and contributions in those early pre-launch days, then my team blog would certainly have rapidly fizzled due to a death spiral of declining participation and declining interest, and come to nothing.
There was a small exception. One of my nominees was a guy called Brady Severns. He was on the team in the early days and had access to the blog engine but, as far as I recall, didn’t post a great deal. What he did do though was come up with the Fortress: Ameritrash moniker when we were discussing names, and it ended the discussion instantly, one of those perfect moments where it’s obvious someone’s stolen the show and no-one else is going to cap it. And for that his place in the mythology of this site is forever assured.
It was decided fairly early on in proceedings that in order to differentiate ourselves from other gaming blogs that, aside from the Ameritrash focus, there would be two principles. First is that we’d spend some time covering what we called “trash culture”: films, books, comics, music, video games and the like that were of general interest to gamers and geeks. Given the frequent tie-ins between those genres and games it seemed a bit crazy that no-one had done it before, and an obvious void to fill. Second was that although the people writing preferred Ameritrash we were going to try hard and make sure we gave coverage to all games that were worth the time, regardless of mechanics or theme. Good games are good games, and we didn’t want to repeat the Euro-exclusiveness found on other sites in reverse.
So we had a team, a name, a vision, a plan and a blogger account and were all ready to launch. And then came another one of those co-incidental strokes of fate that have helped define the site. Just prior to us getting ready to make the first post, Michael got banned from BGG. This is probably the biggest myth in circulation about F:AT so it bears repeating: all the bones of this site were in place a considerable time before he got that ban, and the fact we launched right afterwards is a complete coincidence. We didn’t initially build this to give Michael a new platform, or as a place for people appalled by the moderation politics over at BGG a refuge, but the fact we launched after that ban meant that we became both. It also meant we had a ready-made and eager audience as we launched at a time of maximum publicity around one of our members. That’s been a two-edged sword all along. On the plus side, it almost certainly meant we got a bigger audience than we would otherwise have had. On the negative side, it’s meant that disaffection with BGG became a central theme of this site's community which has haunted us since day one. It’s not good to be defined by what you’re against rather than by what you’re for.
The honour of the first post went to Michael Buccheri whom some of you may know better as Malloc. I wanted to get in there myself, but he beat me to it. So I sulked for a few days before making my own first contribution on the subject of the Euro-domination of “best games” charts. On re-reading it’s not a great piece and not a particularly important subject but what is interesting about all these early posts is how they accurately foreshadowed a lot of the things that eventually became running themes for the people who write here. In the early days those people were me, Michael Barnes, Robert Martin, Ken Bradford, Frank laTerra, Tom Hancock and Michael Buccheri. A few others made one or two contributions and then drifted out of sight. After we realised that we’d lost a number of contributors and could perhaps do with some new blood to fill the gaps and someone - I think it was either Michael or Ken - suggested we get Ubarose on board. At first we figured she’d just be another great writer to add to the stable. Little did we know she’d quickly become the primary motivating force, at first for moving the site from the blogger engine to its own address and platform, and later for pretty much everything we do, putting an enormous amount of unrecognised and unpaid effort into keeping the site and the community together. As I said recently to our newest recruit, the only rule we have here is that you do what Shellie tells you, and that’s only because she’s always right.
And the rest, as they say, is pretty much history. I imagine most of you will know most, if not all, of what followed. We’ve had our ups and downs, our trolls, our eruptions of disagreement over internal politics but we’re still here, still posting stuff about games and most importantly of all, still growing. I was reflecting recently that, biased as I am, I think I can claim hand on heart that Fortress: Ameritrash has the best quality written articles on board and card gaming anywhere on the internet (these guys are also pretty amazing, but they largely do video). Authors on other sites and blogs are sometimes interesting and sometimes entertaining, but only here are there people who regularly manage to be both. The other thing I think we do better than other board and card gaming sites is community. We veer from intense, serious debates about game mechanics to politics to family stuff to cock jokes and, amazingly it all seems to work. You make it work. All of you. Whether you contribute pieces or post in the forums or just come here to read, the continuing success of this site is down to you.