Louis Sylvester


Professor and author uses board games to connect to students

LEWISTON, Idaho – By today’s standards, Louis Sylvester would be considered an old-school gamer. Even more old school than “Donkey Kong”, “Pac-Man” or “Pong”. We’re talking board games old-school.

That’s just fine with the assistant professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College because board games helped him overcome some social awkwardness as a youth and develop into a person today with many talents, including co-authoring a western-themed four-book series for teenagers, the first of which – “Legends of the Lost Causes” – came out earlier this year.

Sylvester has turned his childhood passion of board games into a hobby that he shares with the LCSC community. He owns more than 1,900 board games from across the world and brings some of his collection to a monthly Game Night at the LCSC Student Union Building. Residence Life sponsors the event and provides snacks.

“I just grab a bunch of games, some that none of the students have ever heard of, and bring them,” Sylvester says. “We usually have a pretty good turnout. A lot of the students come to learn and play the weird games. It’s a fun evening.”

Sylvester admits there is a hidden value to this event because students interact face-to-face rather than through technology.

“I’m a firm believer that humans need to interact with each other face-to-face,” he says. “It’s in our DNA that we need to see faces. Half of our brain cognition is built to recognize faces and facial expressions. We are social creatures.

“We have created this technology that puts us in front of screens. Even though we are chatting to our friends, we are talking to screens. I think that what has happened, and there is a lot of scholarly work to support this, is that we have created a generation of human beings who have less developed social skills. Table-top gaming allows people to interact face to face. It’s a great way to develop social skills and become more confident interacting with people.”

Sylvester knows this from experience. He says he was very shy and nerdy as a child. It was hard for him to hang out with kids his own age because they wanted to be active outside. He preferred to read books.

“I started playing games at a very young age,” he says.” I think I was nine years old when I first discovered ‘Dungeon and Dragons.’ It’s a great game for people struggling with social skills. I met a few other friends who liked to play ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ but also board games, so I spent my free time as a kid playing games. It was a way for me to practice social skills in a safe environment as opposed to out in the real world. So when I did go out in the real world as a kid, I didn’t need to hide behind my mother’s leg.”

Sylvester says technology has made it easy for people to say something mean through social media or their devices with very little consequences. He says he’s never seen a semi-sensitive issue on Facebook not turn ugly almost immediately.

“When you say something mean to a person’s face and see them react, there’s a consequence,” he says. “Seeing someone cry because of something you said makes you think to yourself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t talk that way. Maybe I should be more thoughtful in my words.’ Sitting around playing games, you can hear and see when something is harsh. That’s why I am a big proponent of board games. It doesn’t have to be a game. If you just want to sit around and talk, that’s great, but students pull their phones out. Game Night is a way for them to finally put their phones away. Gaming has been helpful for my own social development, and I think it can be helpful for new generations.”

Sylvester says what really hooked him on board games was a game called “Settlers of Catan,” which came from Germany, which wasn’t allowed to have war-themed board games after World War II.

“While America was playing ‘Risk,’ Germany had to invent different kinds of games,” Sylvester says. “Germans have a very scientific aspect to their thinking. If something isn’t working, let’s fix it. I grew up with a game called ‘Monopoly,’ and a game session could last for six hours, even though I knew I was losing in the first 10 minutes, yet I had to play for the whole six hours. It was miserable.

“Then Germany developed games mitigating that kind of negative feedback. They built in natural time limits, they created rules that encouraged more player interaction, they mitigated luck by taking out dice, or making dice rolls apply to everyone and not one person. The first time I encountered these improved rules was with ‘Settlers of Catan.’ I thought this game was really good.”

Sylvester eventually discovered the website called boardgamegeek.com, which ranks board games from across the world. Sylvester started to order games and through the years, his collection has grown. He and his wife eventually turned their basement into a game room.

“At this point it’s no longer about fun. It’s become a hoarding issue,” he says, laughing. “Think about it. You can’t play 1,900 games. Even if you played three new games a day, you can only play about 1,000 games a year. I have two years’ worth of games. It’s too much.”

The games Sylvester brings to the college usually last about 30 minutes so the students have an opportunity to play a variety of games during the evening session.

Sylvester grew up in Utah and received his bachelor’s from the University of Utah in Film Studies. He put himself through school working part time as a substitute teacher and found that he loved being in the classroom. He earned his master’s degree at North Texas and his PhD in English at Oklahoma State. After he finished his PhD, he accepted a job at LCSC.

Sylvester teaches classes on fiction, non-fiction, and screenwriting in the creative writing program at LCSC. He also teaches courses that focus on film, art and college writing.

“In my mind, all my classes are closely related because they are all about story-telling,” Sylvester says. “Thinking and expressing yourself through writing. That’s what I do here.”

While at Oklahoma State, he met another graduate student, Brad McLelland. It was at a party shortly after graduation where the two struck up a conversation. McLelland asked Sylvester what we wanted to do with his life and Sylvester responded that he wanted to write a book. McLelland said he shared the same goal and the two decided to write a book together.

“When I was in college, I took a lot of writing classes, screen writing classes specifically,” Sylvester says. “I wanted to be a screen writer and write movies. So I wrote a number of screenplays. Later I started writing short stories and tried my hand at a novel or two. They were terrible and I burned them, which I think everyone needs to do. If you want to be a writer, you had better write a novel or two and then burn them because you have to learn the process. It may seem like a waste of time, but it’s an exercise. It’s like playing the guitar. You don’t get on stage with the first song you ever write. You have to practice.”

Before Sylvester left for LC, he met with McLelland and they came up with an idea for a book series. They agreed after they moved apart they would take turns writing chapters, which would help keep them motivated. McLelland wanted to write a western, so they agreed to write a western-themed book for middle school-aged students.

“We went back and forth writing chapters. Of course, you don’t get a chapter and just accept it,” Sylvester says. “We made lots of changes to each other’s work, trading back and forth until we were both happy with the chapter. And boy you learn to swallow some hurt. You can write something that you think is your favorite line, and when it gets sent back, that line is cut out. You both have to learn to be okay that.”

The two created a first draft book that was more than 500 pages. McLelland took the book to a literary agent’s conference and met an agent from New York, Brooks Sherman, who agreed to read it. He told them they have the ability to write a good book, but this one wasn’t it. He gave them some suggestions and told them to rework the book.

“We ended up basically rewriting the book from scratch,” Sylvester says. “I’m not sure we kept more than a few pages. We showed it to Brooks again and he told us that we took really good notes from his suggestions and that we have something he could work with.”

He gave them more suggestions and Sylvester and McLelland rewrote the book a third time. Sherman took that version and sold it to Henry Holt & Co., a New York publishing company. Henry Holt liked the book so much they bought the entire four book series from the co-authors.

“That was a really nice thing for them to do,” Sylvester says. “Brave is maybe the right word because we were untested. They didn’t know if we could write a second book, but we agreed to it.”

Sylvester and McLelland had to rewrite the book a fourth time for Henry Holt & Co. The book, called “Legends of the Lost Causes,” came out in February this year. The book, as Sylvester describes it, is a rip-roaring western-fantasy adventure set in the 1850s.

“It’s intended to be read by 12-year-olds, so we try to keep the thrills and spills going,” he says. “And I love the fact that we don’t have romances. That’s why we went with the slightly younger age. We could ignore the romance and get into the relationships that people have on adventures. But it’s a great book for all ages.”

The second of the four-book series is in the final copy edit stages and is scheduled to come out in February 2019. That book is called “The Fang of Bonfire Crossing.” The co-authors just submitted the third book in the series to the editors, which will come out in 2020.

“It’s been a real second job for us,” Sylvester said. “It’s been interesting.”

Sylvester says the first book has earned praise, including from the Middle School Library Guild. The book is on sale at Barnes & Noble and online through Amazon. Sylvester says when the second book is published, the first book will be reprinted in paperback form.

“Overall, it’s very enjoyable to write. But it’s not enjoyable when you sit down for eight hours and work on a chapter and it’s Saturday and everyone else going to see a movie and you have to spend your whole day in front of this computer screen,” Sylvester says, laughing. “But it is fun to create. I like writing. I like the process of putting together a scene and seeing vague notions solidify on the page. I think that is a great thrill.”

Sylvester laughs at the notion of possibly turning the book into a board game.

“We’ll see,” he says. “I have some ideas.”