Dan Jolin, Senet
Freelance writer/editor Dan Jolin launched boardgaming magazine Senet with art director James Hunter in January 2020. He tells us how he got involved in games and how his magazine offers a different take on the subject as issue eight goes on sale.
As well as running his quarterly, Dan is also a contributing editor fo move mag Empire, where he previously worked for 12 years, and is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in film and board games.
What are you up to this morning?
As I primarily work from home in a small office at the end of my garden (aka ‘The Shedquarters’), I’m lucky enough that I can switch a commute for a dog walk in the Chiltern Hills, where I’m based. So that was a pleasant way to start the day (except for the nettles).
My first task now is to check in on any customer/subscriber queries I need to deal with, and after that I’ll be cracking on with commissioning Senet’s next issue, the Winter 2022 edition (out in late September), as this week marks the first of its schedule.
Later today, I’ll be doing an interview with an actor in a major upcoming TV show, but that’s nothing to do with Senet (I balance my magazine editing/publishing duties with freelance writing/editing, mainly about film and TV), so I won’t get into that!
Describe your desk and your workspace
It’s a double desk, which I share with my wife, Lucy, who is also a freelance journalist—and a very good proof-reader, responsible for catching a few errors that might have slipped into Senet’s pages!
The desk is not as tidy as I’d like, but not as messy as it could be. I have a Blue Yeti mic parked just behind my monitor, ready for my regular Zoom chat with Senet’s hugely talented art director and co-founder James Hunter (who lives in Amsterdam), and there is a tub chair in the corner which was my ‘phone interview chair’ in the pre-covid/Zoom days, but is now where my dog mostly sits, when he isn’t pressed up against the door barking at squirrels.
The shelves behind me are crammed with files, reference books and magazines, and there is a large cardboard box full of unplayed board games in another corner (terrible, I know).
Which magazine do you first remember?
White Dwarf. This was in the magazine’s early era, before it was irritatingly transformed into a promotional pamphlet for Games Workshop’s miniature wargames (which I wasn’t really into), and covered a variety of tabletop role-playing games, including Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller and Call of Cthulhu. I remember loving the ‘homebrewed’ content it provided for these titles, and especially enjoyed its cartoons, namely Thrud the Barbarian and Gobbledigook.
Which magazine matters the most to you this morning?
Well, that would have to be Empire, for whom I’m interviewing the aforementioned actor. But Empire is hugely important to me, in that I was on its staff from 2004 to 2016 (as Reviews, then Features editor), and it was there that I honed my magazine craft, in a very competitive commercial environment… And made some good friends, too.
Can you remember first playing a board game, and how often do you play games today?
My first board-gaming memory isn’t exactly a positive one. It was my birthday (I can’t remember which one, so probably pre-double-digits), and we were playing Frustration, which is basically a souped-up Ludo with a dice-popper device. It lived up to its name, and I burst into tears when things didn’t go my way.
Happily, modern board games—the prime focus of Senet magazine—are far less dependent on chance, and far more focused on strategy, usually contained in pleasing and immersive themes. I play at least once per week (I have a local gaming group), usually two or three times, either just for fun, or for review purposes—I’m currently enjoying a Miyazaki-inspired game called Bitoku for the next issue’s “Unboxed” section.
Describe Senet in three words.
Can I cheat and have four? ‘Board games are beautiful”’ is our tag line, you see. If not, then I’ll tweak that to ‘Board-game beauty’.
Where does the name come from?
Senet is the oldest known board game, dating back to around 3,000 BCE in Egypt. No-one’s certain exactly how it was played, or what the theme was, but it appears to be slightly Backgammon-ish, and involves the journey of the spirit into the afterlife. So I like to think of our name as meaning ‘gateway to paradise’.
Also, typographically it looks very pleasing and symmetrical, with that central ‘N’ placement.
The magazine does a great job, opening up a whole world that I'm largely unaware of. What are the other sources of games info, and how does Senet contrast with them?
Thanks, that’s really encouraging to hear. It was entirely our aim to make this hobby more accessible to people who otherwise might be put off by its perceived ‘geekiness’, but also to treat board games seriously as an art and entertainment form, giving them the same kind of editorial and graphical attention lavished on movies, music, literature and video games in other publications.
In terms of other mag-based board-games info, there is another UK-based board-gaming magazine (that I write a few things for) called Tabletop Gaming, which is monthly and more commercially focused; then there is Tabletop Spirit, another independent which comes in free pdf form. Senet, by contrast, is print-only – we believe in being a physical, tactile experience, like the games we love – and we concentrate on evergreen features, rather than hooking our content to imminent releases.
Board gaming retains a slightly geeky reputation – is that unfair?
It’s a little unfair, to be honest, though I try not to treat the word ‘geeky’ as pejorative! Board gaming has undergone a renaissance during the past six or seven years, where more accessible and enjoyable modern games (like Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Wingspan and Quacks of Quedlinberg) have massively broadened its appeal.
Also, it’s a wonderfully social activity—far more so than online video gaming, which has turned pretty toxic in some quarters. If anything, I’d say sitting down at a table with friends, family, or even strangers to share the joy of a board game – whether that’s at home, down the pub, in a board-game café, or at a gaming event – is less ‘geeky’ than sitting at home by yourself and playing on the PlayStation.
What advice would you offer somebody wanting to launch their own publication?
One thing I found super-useful right at the start was to draw up a ‘manifesto’ for the magazine. This really helped to crystallise who it was intended for, what its editorial tone should be, and how it was different from anything else out there on the market. It also gave us our tag line/catchphrase, which was smartly plucked from the document by James for our dummy cover.
More generally, I would also advise them to be prepared to learn new things, suddenly and unexpectedly. Editing and/or designing your own magazine involves so much more than editing and/or designing your own magazine!
What are you most looking forward to this coming week?
Last Friday, I was sent a new game called Merchants of the Dark Road (actually featured in the current issue of Senet), so I’m looking forward to learning the rules and getting it on the table.