Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Rebirth of Boardgaming

Life goes in cycles. Fashions come and go. Music that was long forgotten is exposed to a new generation and these classics return to popularity. Oftentimes, people rediscover the joys of something that they loved to do many years ago, but which has fallen off their radar for awhile.

I'm a firm believer that if you really, really love something, it never goes away completely. There's always a part of it that stays with you forever. Those of you who have lost a close loved one know just what I'm saying. Those people stick with you... always. But not all losses are permanent. Some "lost loves" eventually return to you and rekindle a passion that has been hibernating inside of you for many years, possibly even decades. And so it is with boardgames and me. After years of sporadic contact with boardgames, I've experienced an honest-to-goodness "board game rebirth".

During the mid 1970's through the mid 1980's, I played a lot of boardgames and role-playing games. The only RPG that I got deeply absorbed in was Dungeons & Dragons. I was the Dungeon Master for our group. Many a summer day or late winter night was spent crafting maps, designing scenarios, creating non-player characters and special house-rules, and brainstorming plot lines that tied into the fictional world of Severnia that I had created. D&D was a real blast and my friends and I played it endlessly.

But the majority of the tabletop games that I played during my youth were board games. Between Risk, Stratego, Pit, Acquire, Feudal, Breakthru, Pro Draft, Slapshot, Talisman, Warhammer, Win-Place-&-Show, Sports Illustrated Football, NHL Strategy, Thinking Man's Golf, Executive Decision, Othello, Facts In Five, Pinochle, and countless games of Statis-Pro Baseball and Strat-O-Matic Hockey, my early board gaming life was chock full of creamy goodness.

But post-college, my gaming life diverged into computer games and fantasy sports, with rotisserie baseball and fantasy football taking up huge chunks of my free time. That has been the case for the past 20+ years. In fact, I got so enamored by rotisserie baseball that I built a software business around it. During that period, I also delved deeper into miniature wargaming, especially as a minis collector and wargames rules buff. I've been attending HMGS East conventions and dabbling in tabletop wargame design for 20+ years as well. While I still played the occasional board game when the opportunity arose, I readily admit that my immersion in the boardgaming hobby was not anywhere close to what it had been many years before. After all, there's only so much time to squeeze in all the fun things that I like to do!

From my perspective, I also looked at that time period (the late 80's and 1990's) as a "down period" for board games in general. The demise of Avalon Hill and the fading of Games Workshop's excellent board game division was very discouraging, as sports games, wargames, and fantasy/sci-fi adventure games really appealed to me. Here were two past stalwarts who produced games in my favorite genres seemingly being phased out of the board game market. Plus, a simple lack-of-time made playing in or running a D&D campaign a no-go, and made it quite hard to start up a Strat-O-Matic league with my adult friends.

So with all of that going on, what got me excited about board games again? If I were to put my pinkie finger on just what re-lit my fuse of boardgaming passion, I would point to these five factors:


#1 = Longing for Social Interaction

Well over a dozen years ago, I moved out of my safe & secure job as a software systems analysts in corporate America and ventured into the unknown and wacky world of entrepreneurship as a self-employed software application developer. Working solo has many advantages, but one of the major disadvantages is that you lose the day-to-day contact with your co-workers, many of whom I fondly considered as dear friends. I did my best to keep in touch with my closest friends, and many of them have played in the fantasy sports leagues that I've founded and managed over the years. But aside from occasional get-togethers, regular interaction with my old circle of friends has been on the wane for several years.

Rather than sit around and feel sad and alone, I figured that I must be able to do something to change that. That's when the idea of forming a board game club popped into my head. There's no better form of face-to-face fun than playing board games with your buddies. The competition & challenge is great, but the social interaction is just as important (perhaps even more critical for someone like me who works alone 8-10 hours each day).

#2 = BoardGameGeek.com

I can't pinpoint the exact date when BoardGameGeek (BGG) caught my eye. All I know is that roughly 4 years ago, I stumbled upon this gem of a web site while surfing the net, probably looking for information about wargames. When I found the site, I couldn't believe it's sheer depth. BGG is like an onion, you keep peeling away layer upon layer, delving deeper into its core, and crying all the time (this time with tears of joy and wonder).

The Geek is undoubtedly the mother lode of tabletop gaming. If you want to learn about tabletop games, read other people's opinions about them, or find out where to buy them, there's simply no better place to go. The excitement of uncovering this treasure-trove of gaming info spurred me to dive down deeper into a hobby that had obviously evolved a great deal since I had last been a die-hard member of it.

#3 = The Dice Tower podcast

I've never met Tom Vasel, Joe Steadman, or Sam Healey in person, but those guys are as responsible for the resurgence in my fondness of board games as anyone else that I can think of. If you've never listened to an episode of the Dice Tower, a podcast whose focus is squarely on board games, do yourself a favor and download a show and listen to it. You don't even need an actual iPod to listen to the show; you can play it right on your PC using WinAmp or a similar media-player.

The whole field of podcasting is relatively new. About 3 years ago, you were very hard-pressed to find any interesting shows about hobby games. The Dice Tower was one of the very first shows that I discovered, and although there are dozens of podcasts about games now available, Tom Vasel's show remains one of the most polished, informative, and wide-ranging shows out there.

#4 = Game Conventions

I've been going to the three miniature wargames conventions sponsored by HMGS East (Cold Wars, Historicon, and Fall In!) for a very long time. While the hobby of miniatures gaming is separate from board gaming in a technical sense, the two of them are definitely closely related cousins. Over the past several years, I've seen more and more convention vendors carrying board games (usually war-themed or adventure-themed) in the dealer hall. That certainly exposed me to a few board games and game companies that I had never previously heard of.

Researching these games on the internet was the proverbial "trip down the rabbit hole"; I kept uncovering more and more games that piqued my interest. In 2005, my wife and I made the 6-hour drive to Columbus, Ohio to go to Origins. I hadn't been to Origins for eons; I think the last one I had attended was back when it was held in downtown Baltimore. Anyway, I purchased a batch of new board games and from that point on, there's been no looking back.

#5 = DOW, FFG, and HASBRO

When I was growing up, companies such as Avalon Hill, SPI, 3M, TSR, Games Workshop, and of course Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley were all the rage. There were no "Euro games" designed in Germany available for us to play back then. Eventually, there was a palpable petering out of new and engaging board games to play, as cool computer games such as Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, and Diablo dominated the market and became the new primary focus of the gamers of my generation.

But something began to change in the games market in the mid-to-late 90's. Euro-games, with their simple and elegant mechanics, short play-times, and family friendly themes, began to make their way to tables across America. Combine that with a video game industry that continued to churn out the "same old, same old" stuff and was suffering from a major lack of innovation. But more than anything else, at least for me, was the arrival of two terrific hobby games companies on the scene and the revamping of an old stand-by.

It was just a few short years ago that I encountered Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight Games. Both of these companies produce games that scratch my thematic itch, and do it with richly produced games chock full of fantastic components (boards, tokens, miniatures, and other pretty bits). Games like Shadows Over Camelot, Battlelore, Ticket to Ride, Arkham Horror, Descent, and War of the Ring became instant classics for these companies. And then there was Hasbro. It revived Avalon Hill, and some really nice games came out of that company (Nexus Ops, RoboRally, Risk 2210, and Monsters Menace America come to mind). But by far, the best thing to come out of Hasbro in recent years has been HeroScape. Yes, it's really more of a miniatures wargame than a true board game, but wow, what a fun game! Board gaming has suddenly become cool again.

In Conclusion...

Over the past 3 years, I've probably purchased 25 new board games and/or card games. That's a lot for me, especially since the lion's share of my gaming budget goes to buying nicely painted miniatures (toy soldiers), terrain, and other supplies for wargaming. I've only gotten the chance to play a few of these board games so far, but at least I'm trying to game on a much, more regular basis now. Once I can get a fire lit under the butts of the people in my fledgling board game club, I should be playing games at least once a week. Sweet!

I'm happy to see board games and miniatures games experiencing a golden Renaissance. A great deal of the credit, interestingly enough, needs to go to the Internet of all places. The web has made it a thousand times easier to learn about tabletop games, hear game enthusiasts talk about the games they love via podcasts, buy games from online vendors and via eBay, and share your views with a community of like-minded hobbyists.

And as us computer geek, 40-somethings grow older, we realize that there's an isolation and lack of variety in computer/video games. No, we won't be jettisoning our X-Box, Playstation, or Wii anytime soon, but the allure of tabletop games can no longer be ignored. Tabletop games offer us much greater mental challenges, a tactile feel that isn't present in digital games, and face-to-face social interaction that makes us feel human again. There's definitely room for both types of games in our lives.

My name is Steve, and I'm a born again board gamer. It sure feels good to be chucking the dice, drawing the cards, and exercising more than just my trigger-finger again. Maybe you should give it a try too. There's a whole bunch of great games out there just waiting to be played.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Statis Pro Football still lives. See my site at http://www.geocities.com/diceq/DiceqsStatisProFootballPage.html

or Lee's site at http://www.bombersgolf.com/StatisPro/FootBall/home.html

There are 2 internet based leagues running-1 with NFL type off seasons and modern cards

Diceq@comcast.net