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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, April 03, 2006

Game Group: Boardgamers' Pastime

Boardgamers' Pastime
Submitted by Mario Lanza
Edited by Dave Eggleston

How did the group get started? How does your group find new members?

Turning 30 got me reflecting on life and goals and such. I remembered playing games through my teens: Games Workshop games like Talisman, Block Mania, Chaos Marauders, and a few other games from various publishers. I remembered how much I liked these atypical games to which I was introduced by a friend whose father owned a game. Despite having tried to track down game clubs at various times through my twenties, I had never found the doorway back into the hobby. At 30, I simply decided I was either going to find a club or start one.

I began calling around ― bookstores, game stores, and libraries ― for places that might be willing to offer their facility. The bookstores were a no-go since they couldn't see what was in it for them. All the game stores were willing, but I had high hopes of finding a place that had good lighting, a wide open space, and nice ambiance. I didn't want the typical dingy back room of a game store that is often filled by role-playing, acne-encrusted teens. So when my local library agreed to lend us their Foundation House, an unattached building that met all my requirements, I was overjoyed. I called the club "Boardgamers' Pastime" and promoted it as an opportunity for people 16 and older to come out and test their wits, find good mental exercise.

The wife of the family that donated the Foundation House had just read an article about how boardgames were a healthy pastime for aging seniors; while I didn't expect seniors to be our primary demographic, I certainly was open to having anyone come a join us and learn these games of ours. So with her approval I had a place.

Shortly after, I discovered a group called PA Strategists that met on the other side of the Susquehanna River. It was run by Charlie Hickok, an older gamer who is an excellent player and a true gentleman. I arrived at one of their events and participated in a few games and made the announcement about my new club. Since their club was meeting on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, they suggested alternate weekends. I chose the first and third Sundays and this arrangement has worked out quite well.

With the library as our sponsor, it posted regular announcements in the small local newspapers―a blessing for sure! Additionally, I set up a website as an Internet billboard that I recently converted into a blog. Though we have drawn a mix of gamers and non-gamers over the years the club attendance has plateaued and settled at around 12 to 15.

How would you describe your group?

The best analogy I can come up with is a recreational volleyball league where you get a mix of shapes, ages, and abilities. The club invites people 16 or older; however, most of the members are over 30. The average age is probably 35. Some of the regulars bring the kids, so we do, in fact, have a couple teenagers on occasion. We meet in the Foundation House beside the New Cumberland Public Library on the first, third and (periodically) fifth Sundays from noon till 6 pm. Everyone likes to win, and so that is a goal, but it is not one we take too seriously. The main goal is that we all want to have fun. The secondary goal for many of us is that we like to try new games. We are primarily about the business of games. We share a few off-topic conversations just before we get started playing while we are waiting for stragglers to show up, but mostly we just concentrate on playing and having fun.

How do you decide which games to play?

Charlie and I buy the vast majority of the new games though everyone brings their own tote of favorites. Because my taste differs from Charlie's, he and I do not often play games together. He likes the longer (3-6 hours) and usually more complex games and I like the shorter ones (1-2 hours). More than half of the time, I bring a new game. I set it on the table to showcase it right at the start of our meeting and this usually brings a few players who are more than happy to try it. A few of the regulars have a love affair with certain games and will routinely be suggesting and playing them.

How do you select the start player?

Sometimes we abide by the rules (e.g., "youngest player"), but mostly one player cups his hands from which another draws an unseen bit. The owner of that bit goes first.

What do you consider your group’s signature games?

A few in the group have their own signature games:

● Steve is always trying to stir up interest in Acquire, his personal favorite. His son Jon Shambeda won the Acquire event at the World Boardgaming Championships in 2002. Because he has played thousands of times and can memorize the complete hidden information, he usually cannot get a game going. His fallback is Union Pacific.
● Fred suggests Ra a lot, but his all-time favorite is Medici. He brings it, suggests it, and plays it whenever there are takers; if Jim is around, there are.
● Larry seems to play Settlers at least every other meeting.
● My favorites―La Citta, Tikal, and Tigris & Euphrates―are not well liked enough to often see the light of day.

The standby fillers seem to be Bang! and Citadels. The most popular games among the lot of us are Union Pacific and Settlers. Several in our group will make it past the first round U.P. qualifiers each year at WBC, and a couple have made it to the finals. Railroad Tycoon, which follows Charlie wherever he goes, has recently become popular. Personally, I usually avoid familiar games in favor of fresh ones.

What games were featured in your most memorable gaming sessions?

I remember once getting a perfect rainbow of colors on the first round in Medici and thinking I had no way of winning. Unbelievably, I was wrong!

Cliff: What is memorable to one person is not to another. What I like the best is coming to the group and seeing two or three games going with at least one person waiting. So a game can start anytime and the variety of games played is good too. Everyone who brings games is always willing to let anyone play any game they bring. That's memorable. Unfortunate is when someone is so concerned with winning that they will sacrifice their good will with the group by leaving, shouting, or arguing a moot point.

Steve: I remember an excellent game of Colorado Rails: tons of competition and fun. Union Pacific is always challenging and memorable as the “kids” try to (and usually do) beat the old timers.

Jim: For me personally, it was the first time I beat Fred - the resident expert and former WBC champion - in Medici. The more memorable gaming sessions are when, win or lose, I learn a game that I just love. It is hard to beat that feeling of discovery coupled with the camaraderie of a good mix of players. Learning Tigris and Euphrates from Mario and Puerto Rico from an enthused group of people are two such memories that come to mind.

What games were featured in your most unfortunate gaming sessions?

For me, the most dreaded game sessions begin with a poor rules explanation. My biggest pet peeve in gaming is having to sit through confusing game explanations when, I feel, with a little practice anyone could do a decent job. This prompted me to write “The Finer Points of Teaching Rules” for The Games Journal. My second biggest peeve (only because it occurs less frequently) is when rules are so poorly written or ambiguous that it muddles the first experience. I remember spending almost six hours trying to absorb American Megafauna from its rules and then teaching it for almost an hour with much difficulty. Once underway, the game fell flat. Prior to that first play, I was eager to try it from having read several positive reviews. I felt disappointed and it bothered me that I had sunk so many hours of effort into producing a lackluster result.

Also, I have this terrible (although irrational) feeling that dice work against me. I avoid games where outcomes are largely dependent on rolling better than the competition. Though I am not superstitious, nor do I believe in jinxes, people wail in laughter when my prediction for consistently bad dice comes to pass. I have experienced memorable bad luck in Manifest Destiny, Pirate's Cove, and Silverton. Some games allow chancy dice to be reasonably mitigated, so the inclusion of dice mechanics does not necessarily exclude me from a game.

Steve: Playing a 5-hour game that is advertised by members as a 2- or 3-hour game, thus wasting valuable gaming time. Not in a specific game, but if someone has had a bad day, or bad luck, they can sometimes get an attitude and exhibit a moment of poor sportsmanship. It ruins the game for everyone. This is an unusual situation for our group.

Jim: Easy: it was the day we playtested Manifest Destiny for Charlie, which took all afternoon. I like Charlie – he's a challenging opponent and just fun to play with – but I found that game laborious, and to sit through an hour of instruction before even playing was excruciating. I remember just trying to stay awake learning the rules.

What games have created the biggest love/hate division among members of your group?

Mario: Citadels stands out. Along with Fluxx and – appropriately – Plague & Pestilence, I avoid it like the plague. We predominantly play Eurogames; some play card games and others wargames.

Steve: Ticket to Ride (both versions), Union Pacific, Acquire, Attila: there are always people who make sure these games can be played every gaming session. Titan is another love/hate game, as is Risk. The newer versions of Risk (2210 A.D., Lord of the Rings) are better than the original according to many group members.

Jim: Wargames... I would like to play more of them but there is definitely a line there that some of the group will not cross. I generally do not like train games, so I guess everyone has a line drawn somewhere.

What do you do about food and music at your gaming sessions?

Mario: We provide neither food nor music. People bring their own lunches and snacks. Many eat while we are waiting for the rest of the clan to arrive. Sometimes, one of us will make a run to a nearby fast food joint.

Steve: I think this group is very serious about having fun with the mental challenges in games, and some think that music is distractive.

A closing note:

Mario: Because I laud the gaming pastime, I initially had the notion that I could evangelize it and grow the group. After several failed attempts―our National Games Week program brought one man and his little girl who consequently never returned, and the boardgames awareness class I was to teach for the township produced zero signups – I have aimed simply to make our club a light and to allow the moths to come. Helping people discover games is a matter of making the public aware more than it is about campaigning and door-to-door sales. Those who will have an affinity for games will ultimately discover them; in this, I have faith. I am an opportunity broker, that is all. Meanwhile, several times a month I personally have a great time playing games. For what more could I ask?

Luann: To me the group seems to have a larger percentage of females than most gaming groups and a fair number of family combinations. I am also impressed with the variety of ages and personalities. Plus I always have a good time! Last Sunday was hilarious playing Settlers.

Jim: Roll well and live.

Game Group is a monthly series, providing unique profiles of established gaming groups. It was inspired by the “book group” feature in the (most excellent) bookmarks magazine. We want to hear from you about your gaming group! If you would like to participate, send an inquiry to ripcitygamer@comcast.net.

Game Group index:

01/2006: Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club
02/2006: Long Island Boardgaming Organization
03/2006: Boardgamers' Pastime


  • At 1:12 PM, Blogger Fred said…

    I have never actually won the Medici Tournament at the WBC, but I have been to the finals a number of times.

  • At 3:04 PM, Blogger dave said…

    Yes, I researched this prior to posting (along with the Acquire claim; I had to adjust the year on that one). I didn't find anything, but I didn't have time to review it with Mario.

    Lesson learned: Don't believe everything (anything?) you read in blogs! :-)


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