Counterpoints – An interview with Stuart Dagger

While the internet is an incredible resource for those who want to find out more about games, the opposite is true for those who seek something a little more tangible. Physical magazines, especially those that cover niche markets like gaming, are a rarity. Of course there’s Spielbox, the German magazine that has recently started producing an English language edition. White Dwarf is there for the Games Workshop crowd, but you’d almost think that was it. However, you may not have heard of Counter, a magazine produced here in the UK. Released every three months, each issue of Counter is filled with reviews and features – I spoke with the magazine’s editor, Stuart Dagger, all about how it came to be.

Could you tell me a little about Counter? When did it begin and have you been involved from day one?

Counter was conceived as a successor to Mike Siggins’s magazine Sumo, and so the story really has to begin there. As you’d expect in view of the geography, British gamers discovered the new breed of games that began coming out of Germany several years before they did over in America. For us it happened in the late 1980s, and in 1988 a professional, glossy magazine was launched to help spread the word. This was Games International and Mike Siggins was one of its core team of contributors. Unfortunately, as with other attempts in Britain at a professional games magazine, they didn’t sell enough copies to be financially viable and after a couple of years, they changed their name (to Strategy Plus) and switched over to computer games.

However, before that happened, Mike had struck out on his own. He wanted to write about the games in greater depth than was possible in a magazine that was hoping to achieve a mass circulation, and so he launched Sumo’s Karaoke ClubSumo, for short. This was to be a no-frills, amateur magazine for keen players of this new breed of games. About 30 copies of the pilot issue went out towards the end of 1989 and, since I was an occasional contributor to GI, one of them came to me. In that first issue, Mike said that though he was prepared to do most of the writing, he couldn’t do all of it and so was looking for volunteers to help. I put my hand up, as did Mike Clifford. Sumo struck a chord and quickly acquired an international readership. The magazine ran for eight years until it was bought by Theo Clarke and Paul Evans. They ran Britain’s other amateur games magazine, Games, Games, Games, and they wanted to go professional, combining a professional G3 with a business that would be both a distributor and a mail order seller of boardgames. Acquiring Sumo would help them achieve the sort of circulation numbers they were going to need.

From Mike’s standpoint, not only was the offer a good one, but it came at a good time. A few months previously his father had been struck down with an inoperable brain tumour. He was needing full time care and Mike was the one doing the caring. He had much more important things to worry about than continuing to run a boardgames magazine. So, after consulting with Sumo‘s regular contributors, he accepted the offer. This was at the end of 1997, and the last issue of Sumo appeared in February 1998. However, the month before, I received a phone call from Mike Clifford. He and Alan How had been talking about the situation and decided that, although they wished Paul and Theo well with their attempt at a professional magazine, they were fond of Sumo‘s ethos and didn’t want to see it die. They were planning a successor with the same spirit and format, and they wanted me to join them. Alan would handle the finances and I would be the editor — a job I’d done for Sumo for twelve months from Summer 1994 to Summer 1995, when Mike’s health wasn’t so good and he was under orders from his doctor to cut down his work load.

We saw the magazine as “Son of Sumo“, but obviously couldn’t call it that, as Paul and Theo now owned the title. So after a fair amount of head scratching, we opted for the name Counter and published the first issue in May 1998, which is when the next issue of Sumo would have been had it continued.

So there was quite a long history before the magazine even began officially! Can you remember the kind of content you had back in the first issue of Counter?

Well, not remember off the top of my head, but I have .pdf files for all the issues and so I was able to look it up! The first issue was 68 pages, and we were able to get off to that sort of fast start because of the year I did as stand-in editor for Sumo. During that time Mike still handled the finances and the mailing list, but I organized the printing and did the mailing. Each issue he would send me sheets of address labels, and, in order to be able to deal with any queries over copies that had failed to arrive, I used to photocopy the sheets before using them. I still had the file containing those photocopies when we started Counter, and that meant that although we didn’t have an up to date mailing list for Sumo, we did have one that was only two and a half years old. We were able to write to people to see what they thought of our plans and enough of them responded to convince us that we were right to go ahead. It also ensured that we wouldn’t have to write the whole of the first issue ourselves.

That first issue contained 18 reviews, 14 articles and a 5 page letter column. 14 of the reviews were written by one of the three of us and the remaining four by former Sumo subscribers who offered to help. The articles included the late Dave Farquhar (who was then Reiner Knizia’s chief play tester) on the games that Reiner would be having published over the next twelve months, Francis Tresham on the new company he was starting as a successor to Hartland Trefoil, Chris Farrell on the Middle Earth CCG and Derek Carver talking about some of the games he’d designed over the years for play with his own group.

So, since that first issue, we can assume that things must have changed a bit… How has the magazine evolved over the past few years? Any major changes to speak of that come to mind?

The decisions we took at the beginning were that we would continue with the Sumo formula of reviews, articles and a letters column; that the magazine would stay at A5 size; and that, like Sumo, we’d be text only. The reason for the last of these is that while pictures are nice, they are difficult to do well in black and white, and going for colour significantly increases production costs. Our aim was to produce a magazine that was a good read, rather than one people flick through.

Our readers seem to approve, and so we have stuck with that. It makes us a niche product, but that is something we are happy with. For everyone involved, writing for and producing Counter is something we do as part of our hobby. It was never intended to be a business, and so the important thing is that we are all happy with what we are doing. That way it continues.

It’s certainly a magazine that’s heavy on the information front, but that’s by no means a bad thing – every issue is packed out with plenty of stuff to read. I also find that the fact you have a range of writers means you get a broad sweep of opinions. Do you find the contributors ever surprise you?

What each of us tries to do when writing a review is to give the reader enough information so that they can decide for themselves whether or not a particular game is for them. And one of the reasons for that is that we have been together long enough as a team to know that we don’t always agree among ourselves, so how likely is it that a game that a particular reviewer thinks is wonderful will be thought so by everyone who reads his opinions? This is also why I attach great importance to the letter column and to the “early reactions” that are often to be found attached to the bottom of a review. It helps to provide the reader with other points of view.

Having said that, there is another consequence of our having been together for a long time and that is that we have each learned over the years which of the others has tastes closest to our own. However, no two people agree on everything and so yes, there are times when you find yourself thinking, “I’m surprised that he liked/disliked that one”, but it’s happened often enough by now for it not to be a great surprise, just one of those things that happens every so often.

So what’s the future for Counter, Stuart? When’s the next issue available?

Who knows? Forecasting the future is best left to people who bet on horses! We continue for as long as we want to go on writing and our readers enjoy reading what we have to say. The next issue, which is the post-Essen one, was just sent to the printers and, if all goes to plan, should be in the hands of subscribers by the second week of December.

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Cheers to Stuart for taking time out to tell me about the magazine. If you’d like more information about Counter, including details on subscriptions and where you can get hold of copies, you should get in touch with Alan How by clicking on this link. Many local game shops carry it as well, so be sure to check and ask. In the UK, your best bets are Leisure Games and Board Game Guru. If you’re in the USA, get in contact with Funagain Games – they stock it too! It’s always a fantastic read and well worth picking up. As an extra bonus, you can have a read of an article Stuart wrote about the magazine for their recent 50th issue by clicking the link below.

Fifty from Fifty

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30 November 2010 · 12:01

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