Game designer Max Fefer based Hanukkah Goblins on Eric Kimmel’s classic children’s book, "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins." (Art/Kali Hayes, KH Illustration)
Game designer Max Fefer based Hanukkah Goblins on Eric Kimmel’s classic children’s book, "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins." (Art/Kali Hayes, KH Illustration)

Take on the Hanukkah goblins in Oakland designer’s new tabletop game

If you’re looking for something to do during the long nights of Hanukkah under lockdown, how about becoming a goblin with a sufganiyot launcher? That’s one option if you play indie game designer Max Fefer’s new tabletop role-playing game, which is debuting on the first night of the holiday, Dec. 10, with some of the proceeds going to charity.

Fefer said the Hanukkah Goblins game, made during the pandemic, is all about finding a way to let your imagination run free, while using the framework of the holiday to welcome everyone, Jewish or not, to celebrate Hanukkah.

“This is rooted in real Jewish tradition,” Fefer said.

The 26-year-old Oakland resident was inspired to create the game after attending a party last year where the highlight was a reading of the classic 1989 book “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” by Eric Kimmel. In it, the award-winning author relates how a man named Hershel comes to a village plagued by goblins who don’t let the people celebrate Hanukkah. He uses his smarts to defeat them, finally trumping the goblin king himself.

“I grew up reading that book,” Fefer said. “My mom and dad, they read that book to me.”

Fefer’s game, though, takes a different slant. In this version, Hershel inspires the goblins to become Jewish, and pro-Hanukkah. Armed with powerful tools like the aforementioned doughnut gun, as well as “the babka of persuasion,” a good-luck hamsa and more, players create the story of the game through their interactions.

“I really like the freedom of that kind of storytelling,” Fefer said.

In tabletop role-playing games (the best known is Dungeons and Dragons), the players aren’t constrained by a predesigned plot, as in a video game, nor do they have to follow a host of rules, as in a board game, Fefer explained. Instead, Hanukkah Goblins is more like a framework used to tell a communal story. Players decide which kind of goblin they are through a series of prompts that are included with the game. There are scenarios to get the game started, and dice can be used to create uncertainty, if players want.

Max Fefer of Oakland is the designer of Hanukkah Goblins, a new tabletop role-playing game. (Photo/Wesley Guo)
Max Fefer of Oakland is the designer of Hanukkah Goblins, a new tabletop role-playing game. (Photo/Wesley Guo)

“It’s all there to help you tell a story,” Fefer said. “That’s all that games like Dungeons and Dragons are.”

Fefer’s take on the tale is different from the original, and not just because the players are Jewish goblins (players don’t need to be Jewish, of course, and plenty of resources are included to explain the holiday for non-Jews). Fefer wanted to delve into the subtext of the book and use it to create something that subverts stereotypes about Jews and helps people think about othering and exclusion, all wrapped up in a story. Fefer, who is queer, said tabletop games are great both for exploring new identities within the game and examining your own.

“Role-playing is a way to kind of figure things out,” Fefer said.

The ability to take the story wherever it wants to go is something that drew Fefer, who grew up in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael and went to synagogue at Temple Or Rishon, to gaming back in high school. Fefer’s game also is deeply Jewish beyond the Hanukkah theme; there are multiple prayers and rituals incorporated into the game as ways for the goblins to gain extra points.

“These are things people can put in their stories to make it a really Jewish experience,” Fefer said.

All ages can play the game, whether over Zoom or together as a family, and they don’t have to have any experience in tabletop gaming. There will also be a live play-through on Twitch, the game streaming platform, on Dec. 15 (Fefer will link to it on Twitter).

“Anyone can pick it up and play with their kids, play it with their siblings, play it with their grandma, even,” Fefer said.

The art for the game was commissioned by Fefer from Kali Hayes (Kimmel’s book was illustrated by the late Trina Schart Hyman). Fefer was also awarded a small grant by a gaming mentorship program that supports up-and-coming game designers from underrepresented communities. The game can be preordered; it will cost $8 for an electronic copy of the instructions and $18 for a book version. The paper copy will be mailed out in January.

Fefer is donating $2 from every electronic purchase and $4 from each game book purchase to People’s Breakfast Oakland, which provides much-needed food, clothing and hygiene items to people without homes. If $500 is raised in game sales, Fefer will up the donation level even more. After reaching $1,000, donations will go to Urban Tilth, which provides agriculture job training in Contra Costa County.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.