Las Vegas Board Games Group Meetup – May 23, 2012

Every Wednesday night here in the Las Vegas Valley, a local bar called the Juke Joint plays host to the Las Vegas Board Games Group Meetup. May 23 was my first time attending. The board gamers use the side restaurant area of the Juke Joint and it was quite informal in comparison to the Vegas Game Days, which have table signups and a block schedule. Instead at the Meetup, board gamers gravitate towards a game that they would like to play or players with whom they want to play. There were 19 gamers there that night including me, which is about usual according to the meetup’s founder, Stephan Brissaud aka Frenchy. While Brissaud lives in Santa Barbara and also runs the Santa Barbara Game Night Club Meetup, he visits Las Vegas often to oversee his game manufacturing and distributing business, WorldWise Imports. Brissaud founded the meetup in August of 2009 and it has grown to 275 members, with 64 active members who attend meetups regularly. There is a suggested donation of a $1 to fund the meetup, but the donation is not actively collected, based on my experience Wednesday night.

More 7 Wonders

Game box for 7 Wonders showing Colossus of Rhodes, Pyramids of Giza, and other wondersThe first table I arrived at having reached its capacity, I moved over to play at another and found out that I would be playing Asmodee Games’ 7 Wonders again.This time I got a chance to see how the leader cards affect the game, but only slightly since I only ended up playing one of mine. There is a draft for leaders at the beginning of the game with players selecting one and passing their cards in one direction around the table. I couldn’t make much sense of their symbols, but my opponents were helpful and either told me from memory or helped me find them in the rules section. The leaders add an extra layer of complexity and further strategies to win the game, but they seem to have very minor effect while the game is progressing . I only played one of mine, the militaristic Hannibal, because I couldn’t pay the cost in coins for the others. Instead I traded them in for 3 coins each. Hannibal granted me 1 Military, so he did enable me to beat both of my neighbors in the First Age.

Some Realizations About 7 Wonders

Cards spread out on yellow and black checkerboard Juke Joint tables

The Military Might of Rhodos Did Not Prevail

In thinking about the game later and discussing it with my wife, I hit upon something that had been nagging me during my three games of 7 Wonders: the lack of oversight and management that goes on during card production. The game avoids a banker or actual tokens for its Clay Bricks, Stone, Papyrus, Glass, and Ore, and so on. Besides the fact that I would like a bank or granary mechanic to store the resources to be able to use them in later turns, I would also like such a mechanic to keep the costs straight and easier. I’ve built the Palace twice. It’s a Blue Card that grants 7 Victory Points and requires a variety of resources to build it, but it has strained my mind each time to figure out where those resources are coming from and who I have to pay and how much. On the other hand, the lack of a banking mechanic speeds the game along and doesn’t force all of the other players to wait each turn. The other aspect of the self-management though is that I am also unaware of who is building what. Now the simple solution to that is to look across the table and try to see whether anyone has put out a purple Guild or not or whether someone is hogging all of the green Sciences, but I would get more out of an announcement personally.

Small World: Underground

Tiny underground monsters on the cover of Small World Underground from Days of WonderWe next moved on to the Underground edition of Small World from Days of Wonder, with one player leaving. The four remaining players had all played the original Small World and three of them had played Underground before as well. As I tried to take in a brief explanation of the rules, I was more interested in observing that there are only two “good” monster races in the game, assuming that the Iron Dwarves are not Duergar and assuming that Gnomes are not inherently evil.

Each monster comes with a random special ability linked to it. I kept eyeing the Flocking Kraken, but my neighbor took them first. I settled for the Mining Drow. The Flocking special ability gives bonus points for units being adjacent to one another in an unbroken group, while the Krakens are unique in that they can claim points for occupying the underground river board sections and there were 10 of them. My Mining Drow on the other hand were few in number (8), and got extra points for occupying Mines. Their racial bonus was extra points for each land held that was not adjacent to an enemy’s occupied area. After garnering a lame amount of points my first turn I was itching to try out the game’s combat and turned on the Kraken in my second turn, just to drive them away from touching my holdings with their tentacles.

Board game Small World with Drow clustered in the corner

My Drow in the First Turn of Small World Underground

The game slowly progressed and then I was trying the other key aspect of Small World, going into Decline. I entered Decline because there was not much else my Drow could do, I figured. When going into Decline you flip your units over and do nothing for the turn, but then can choose a new monster race in your next turn. In the meantime Brian excited all of the experienced players’ animosity by taking Ogres and rampaging through the game collecting something like 23 points one turn. I chose the Adventurous Spiderines, paying some points to do so. I had 12 units of Spiderines and as our glorious racial ability we could burst out of chasms. Burst we did! We rampaged in the silent name of Lolth, kicking the puny Flames to the curb and seizing a Popular Place. My Adventurous trait or special ability meant that I would get a bonus point for being in such places. The next turn we rolled into another Popular Place, capturing some sort of Fountain of Youth, which would restore a dead monster token to me every turn. While I certainly associated the Spiderlines at the time with driders, the half-drow half-spider arcane constructs of the drow, I only just now realized that I had played two closely related monster races.

With the outcry against Brian continuing and then shifting slightly to another player, Zach, I tried to keep a low profile while still bloodthirstily raiding into others’ areas. At the end of the game, I believe I came in second place just 6 points behind Zach. Also at the end of the game, I started to actually realize how the mechanics worked. I would definitely play Small World again, but one of its downsides I noticed was the real disengagement it allows during other players’ turns. There were 4 other players doing things usually for at least 3-5 minutes (if not more), before my turn would finally roll around. During this time, besides politicking, there is nothing you are doing during the game. The combats are usually straightforward and never require the defender to do anything except, perhaps, redeploying a defender to another area. Even in the long, long turns of Axis & Allies you at least get to roll dice as the defender during someone else’s turn if they attack you, but not so in Small World.

Final Impressions

Beer and board games. They make a great combination. If you plan on visiting Las Vegas and love playing board games, you should check the meetup out, even though you would need a car or a ride to get there. I plan on attending more and trying out as many new games as possible in this venue.

Another thing that I took away from the night was how much we sometimes assume about other gamers and their knowledge. I was surprised when I was asked what RTS means (real time strategy, a type of computer game exemplified by Warcraft/Command & Conquer/Age of Empires). This wasn’t a newbie gamer asking, but instead a dyed-in-the-wool board gamer who had been talking about Skyrim moments before. When I started pumping two of the guys for information on Lords of Waterdeep which they both enjoy playing, they were unfamiliar with the background setting for the game they had each played multiple times, but confirmed that Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun was indeed one of the playable Lords of Waterdeep. When I asked whether there was an entrance to Undermountain, I got blank looks, but they acknowledged an empty area on the board for an expansion, if that could be it. I should explain that Undermountain is a semi-famous dungeon that is beneath Waterdeep that connects to the Underdark in the D&D Forgotten Realms setting.

7 Wonders box art copyright Asmodee Games, Small World Underground box art copyright Days of Wonder, both used with permission.

Monster Camp: The World of Seattle NERO

Line art of gaming nerds on the cover of Monster CampWhen I first saw Monster Camp years ago, I think I paused it and quickly Googled for more information about NERO, because I wanted to do what the NERO Seattle players do in the 2007 film. They run around tossing birdseed packets and wielding foam boffer weapons, laughing and enjoying themselves. On screen, friendships are formed and existing relationships reinforced. Director Cullen Hoback and his crew have given us an excellent, entertaining foray into LARPing, capturing the camraderie and storytelling potential of NERO, but ultimately Monster Camp leaves me wanting much, much more.

Questions and Questions

Monster Camp is frustratingly informative. The documentary uses text occasionally to explain the most basic of concepts, such as that D&D is short for Dungeons & Dragons, that WOW stands for World of Warcraft, and that WOW at only $14.99 a month is a “pretty sweet deal”. Any gamer watching should need no introduction to the terms of D&D and WoW, but from these explanations, it is clear that Monster Camp is targeting a wider audience. Boffers are explained as are the use of birdseed packets to represent spells like Fireballs and Lightning Bolts. Holds, pauses in the the game, “happen anytime there is a dangerous situation” the Master of Plot explains; in the example shown, it is when his glasses have fallen off. There are terms like phys-rep, short for physical representation and slain NPC monsters give up loot to their attackers. Hoback offers the most basic, tantalizing amounts of information in an entertaining package, but it’s just not enough.

Lipstick-wearing feather-eyebrowed Shane Macomber in a ruffled shirt costume

Monster Camp “Star” Shane Macomber in Costume

“This is Shane”, white text on a black screen informs the viewers. Shane is Shane Macomber, the owner of the Seattle NERO franchise at the time of filming and an employee at Office Depot. His involvement in NERO began in March of 1998. Much of Monster Camp revolves around Shane, but Shane’s fondness for eyebrow decoration is never explained, though it is shared by other LARPers. When Shane has a sudden medical emergency in a battle later, no explanation is provided. Perhaps he was famished, had low blood sugar, and needs the cold pasta that someone inexplicably hands to him. While Shane’s thoughts on various aspects of NERO are recorded, ultimately the film’s main character remains a mystery. What does Shane feel when a PC “dies”? What are his plans for the future? Where did he see NERO taking him? Unlike other participants, such as the Vorvicks from Portland, Oregon or Fern Zimmerman, Shane’s home life goes largely unseen.

The Strega is introduced early on, a monster played by Becca one year prior. “She killed every player who fought her”, the viewer is informed. There is continued build up through the rest of Monster Camp and then there she is! Strega! Text reminds the viewer that “The Strega is the toughest creature most of them will ever face.” As she battles PCs, a Hold is called. Dave the Master of Plot is apprised by J.P. about the 480 damage he has dealt to her personally and Dave calls Becca over, where there is a mild confrontation with Becca getting upset. And then? Then, there is no resolution captured on screen. Shane has his medical emergency, so the camera follows him in for the odd pasta scene. The viewer has to imagine that outside the PCs killed the Strega, because Becca reveals that she is dead now. How many PCs did the Strega kill this time? What did Becca think of the battle? How did it compare to the last one? Was there actual cheating involved?

Girl with blue skin and odd headwrap from Monster Camp portraying a Sea Elf

Pearl the Last of the Sea Elves

To the right is the last of the Sea Elves played by Cassandra Pearl. Through a powerful ritual, her race has been wiped out. She is quite shaken by this, but there is no commentary from any of the other LARPers. As a GM, I also wonder what Shane was doing in the first place casting the spell that magically destroyed her entire race. Was he taking on the roll of an NPC/monster sorceror? They make a point each time that Shane actually plays the game (instead of running it) when he is portraying an NPC, but his performance of the magical ritual gets little explanation.

A feathered-eyebrow LARPer warrior shows off off his vials and potions on the back of his shield.

Many Vials and Interesting Eyebrows

I could go on and on, but where I think Hoback could have really illuminated NERO’s proceedings is by sticking with an entire encounter or fight from start to finish. Instead there are only glimpses. A monster is killed and turns over loot, but what the loot actually is remains a mystery. Was the fight worthwhile to the PCs? How many potions are players going through? Is this guy with a shield full of vials reasonable or is he even excessive by NERO LARP standards? What do non-Seattle LARPers think of Shane Macomber’s operation?

IC Politics Absent, OOC Politics Slightly Unexplored

Compared to Darkon or even the fictional The Wild Hunt, Monster Camp’s lack of in-character politics on screen is refreshing. The closest thing to politics between characters seems to be the in-game romantic relationships which occasionally spill out of game. The viewer meets J.P. and Holly, as well as Becca and Damien. The former pair met in game and have been together for 5 years, while Becca and Damien went out for over 2 years, at least as far as Damien sees it. From Becca’s and Hoback’s telling though, the pair were engaged. In what might be one of the most pointed moments in the documentary, another player questions Damien’s account of his relationship, “Weren’t you engaged? Briefly?” Damien considers, looking away and says, “No.” While Becca acknowledges that there’s “all kind of hostility there”, the viewer fortunately does not have to endure too much of it, either from their characters or out of character with the players. The topic of in game relationships could make for a documentary in of itself, but this is also another example of Monster Camp scratching the surface of a possibly deep subject.

Out of character though, there are more political battles between the staff. The latter third of the movie hinges on Shane’s surprise announcement that he will be taking a hiatus from Seattle NERO. Ultimately he sells the company to Dave, but there is conflict between the two arising in part from Dave’s no-show at the final event that Shane runs. There are undercurrents of discontent and politics that run through the behind-the-scenes talk on NERO, but they also remain unexplored. The transition in the NERO Seattle franchise ownership is also the closest that the documentary comes to having a narrative and anything approaching a climax. Hoback focuses on documenting rather than storytelling, which is fine, but again, I just wish he had documented more of the LARPers whether behind the scenes or at the events.

Capturing Gamers’ Good and Bad Sides

Two LARPers dressed up in green costumes as either lizardmen or finfolk

Monsters: Carter Taylor (L) and Matthew Green (R)

Monster Camp does do a great job in capturing the oftentimes dysfunctional and interesting lives of gamers. Something is amiss in many of the film’s subjects’ lives. Dave acknowledges that World of Warcraft can be addictive, but never quite admits that he has an addiction himself. As his eyes tear up and he explains that his (8 year old) daughter came to him about his problem, he explains his solution, that he will be putting together a PC for her use, so she can join him in Azeroth. Then there are the two friends, Carter and Brandon. Both play NPCs/monsters at NERO Seattle and both are still high school seniors. They spend their time playing World of Warcraft and LARPing. This leaves them little time for their studies. As a result, this is Carter’s fifth year as a high school senior and Brandon’s fourth! Both seem like nice guys and remind me of friends and gamer acquaintances, but there is no way that their lifestyle can be described as healthy. It would be wrong to think though that Monster Camp paints its LARPers in a negative light. Instead, they come across as decidedly human, despite some of their bizarre monster costumes.

Father and son enjoy a laugh while in costumes at a LARPing event in Monster Camp

Father and Son LARPers: Steve and Paul Vorvick

The father and son duo, Steve and Paul Vorvick, seem better adjusted, while J.P. who plays Sir Trevor has clearly benefited from LARPing. Formerly shy and reserved, the make-believe world of LARPing allowed him to develop a more outgoing, flirtatious personality which he has taken with him out into the real world. Likewise, Val Anderson, another LARPer is confined to her wheelchair and has a caregiver, Eric, who joins her in game. Monster Camp does not dwell on her or her disability, but it also doesn’t shy away from the opportunities that LARPing gives her. As she says, “it’s a chance to ignore this for a little while, where in the reality world I can’t.” Above all, LARPing is about the community for NERO’s players, who oftentimes only connect with each other at the special events once each month, traveling from afar to do so.

Bonus Feature: Dragons are Real


One of the extras offered on the DVD is the short film Dragons Are Real which Hoback filmed at his first exposure to the Seattle LARP group at their summer event in July. It is the formative version of Monster Camp and actually has a number of more in-depth explanations not offered in the main film, while still featuring many of the same players. Indeed, probably a quarter of its footage or more made its way into Monster Camp. The importance of energy drinks in fueling the players and monsters is mentioned to explain the propensity for Plot to stage night time attacks on sleeping players. While Dragons are Real ends abruptly it does answer a few more questions I had about NERO and is definitely worth watching.

A “Monster Camp” of My Own

As I write this, in my 20 years of gaming, I have LARPed once and even that was without boffers or combat. However I feel comfortable in saying that Monster Camp is probably a must-see movie for those intrigued by the possibilities of live action role-playing. I know as I try to get some LARPing experience under my belt I will be referring back to what I have seen on screen. I also look forward to answering all of the questions I had while watching Monster Camp.

All images copyright and courtesy Hyrax Productions.

Miniature Building Authority Tudor Inn and New Double Townhouse

The two newest Miniature Building Authority buildings that I have added to my collection are the Tudor Inn and the New Double Townhouse. Like all Miniature Building Authority European series buildings they are pre-painted on the outside, feature removable roofs, have open window areas for true Line of Sight, and feature wooden inserts for wargaming action on multiple stories.

The Miniature Building Authority Tudor Inn

Red tiled roofs on miniature houses in a city market scene from Miniature Building AuthorityThe Tudor Inn has a hefty list price of $119.95. For that you get a three story inn with a double-wide front entrance and a rear scullery exit. The Tudor Inn’s paint scheme is quite stark and austere, only black and white on the sides, with the characteristic MBA red-tiled roofs. The inn would benefit from some drybrushing and/or a wash to help give it some variety. Structurally it is a fairly nice specimen, as it should be for $119.95. The inn has a slight tilt in its second and third floors, but the slant only affects the portion overhanging the street so it will not pose any problem for butting the inn up against other buildings.

The Tudor Inn has a rough footprint of 6.5 inches by 7.5 inches, reaching 8 inches to its third story roof with the chimney pot adding about 2 more inches, for a total height of just under 10 inches. I have complained about the red chimney pots on all of the other MBA buildings, but the Tudor Inn thankfully has grey ones.

The Miniature Building Authority New Double Townhouse

Two miniature buildings as one from Miniature Building Authority with its double townhouseCarrying the idea of adjoining buildings to the next level, Miniature Building Authority has released the New Double Townhouse, which combines two buildings into one resin piece. The two story half has black tiles on its roof and a green door, while its attached companion has red tiles and is only one story, with steps leading up to its door. The New Double Townhouse also offers some nice surprises. The first is that the smaller building has a cut-away floor leading to a recessed cellar or area beneath the floorboards, which is a little under three quarters of an inch deep. I was able to put a Games Workshop Rat Swarm in there, one of the low Pegasus Hobbies crates, and a Hirst Arts crate, as seen in the Youtube video below. There was room for more surprises though. You could have a skeleton down below, a dungeon entrance, sacks of grain or gold, or even dwarves and halflings lying in wait The second, related surprise is the small archway leading out of this recessed area, connecting to the street outside. There is also a wooden barrel with a black pipe to drain off rain water.

The New Double Townhouse is approximately 4 inches deep and 8 inches long, standing about 6.5 inches tall. Overall the sculpted details on its stonework, as well as its paint job point to a promising trend in the newer MBA buildings. It has a list price of $74.95 from Miniature Building Authority.

Pegasus Hobbies Large Village House 5071

Approaching Chaos Warriors threaten the prepainted Pegasus Hobbies Tudor-style houseLike its taller cousin, the Mcrae’s Large Two Story House, the Large Village House (#5071) from Pegasus Hobbies comes fully pre-painted on both its exterior and interior, but also is sadly out of production. The Large Village House originally retailed for $30, but I found mine on eBay for $25. Even had it cost $40 now, it would be worth every penny and easily has the most value for its price of any prepainted miniature building.

The house measures 8″ by 6″ at its base and stands just under 6.5 inches tall to the top of its chimney. Like the Mcrae’s House, the chimney is the least attractive element consisting of sharp craggy “rocks”. The front and back walls measure 2.5 inches up to the roof’s eves. Aside from the chimeny, everything is painted to a uniformly high standard. All that the Large Village House lacks is some furniture and occupants for an adventuring party to rescue or terrorize. Its other obvious use would be in wargaming where you can comfortably move the battle indoors as it easily allows Large Warjacks to fit within, though how they would be allowed inside based on the size of the two doors or their Large bases is something to discuss with your opponent. It may be a slight stretch, but it could also serve as a European house in a 25mm WWII wargame too.

The 8 inch by 6 inch large prepainted miniature house from Pegasus Hobbies has a Tudor feel to it

The Large Village House Has 2 Entrances Allowing for Quick Escapes… or a Flanking Manouver

I would love to have at least one more of these and even if it means competing against me on eBay, I would suggest that any fantasy or historicals wargamer snatch the Large Village House up if he or she should see one. Have a look inside at the house’s interior on my Youtube video for it below.

The 2012 GAMA Trade Show: What Went On and Who Did It

Sparse "crowd" at the 2012 GAMA Trade Show Exhibitor's Hall with maybe 12 people milling around

The 2012 GTS Exhibitors’ Hall Was Easy to Navigate

Two months after the 2012 GAMA Trade Show, I am just now posting my final article about it. There was a lot of information, both formal and informal, to take in at the trade show. Ultimately it was an incredibly positive experience for Craven Games, generating 24 direct articles and interviews, including this one, and helping to spark some future interviews and product reviews. I think that 95% of the attendees also shared my enthusiasm for the GTS and got as much out of it as I did.

Part of understanding the GAMA Trade Show is recognizing the last two words in its name: it’s a trade show. The public is not admitted. Instead the atmosphere is professional without being corporate, for the most part. Most members of the game industry – whether retailers or manufacturers – seem to be gamers themselves and just as liable as the next fan to be excited about Fantasy Flight Games’ new Tie Fighter space combat game, for example. With one or two exceptions, everyone was friendly and welcoming. The other half of the GAMA Trade Show is recognizing that GAMA is the Game Manufacturers Association, a non-profit trade organization for manufacturers. GAMA exists to “advance the hobby games industry” and while it has a retail division, it is not an association of game stores. From attending the GTS, I can say that the members of GAMA want to see the gaming industry succeed and will help each other and newcomers to do so.

Sparse crowd is typical at the GAMA Trade Show

Easygoing Relaxed Atmosphere at the GTS

In preparation for attending, I carefully read over Living Dice’s coverage of the 2010 GAMA Trade Show. In general, I found my experience to be very similar. As seen in these two pictures of the Exhibitor’s Hall, there aren’t throngs of people to push through. Add a couple of people into each shot and you would have the GAMA Trade Show Exhibitor’s Hall at its busiest. The hall was only open on Wednesday and Thursday. I spent the rest of the time at the show at seminars, meals, or Wednesday’s Game Night.

GTS Seminars

Almost all of the seminars were quite helpful. From the manufacturing seminars, to Dave Wallace on competitive edges for retailers, to the intellectual property seminar, there was a lot of advice and other information to digest. Some of the seminars got quite crowded and some ran over time. For attendees who miss a seminar or two, there was a table with hand-outs on it, including many in-depth ones from seminars that David Wallace ran. I attended a few seminars without writing separate articles about them. Jim Crocker chaired one such seminar called “You Get What You Pay For”. Essentially it was about accounting and tax implications for retailers who use barter transactions as well as the legal implications. There were enough questions raised that I have considered the viability of a tax guide for gaming stores PDF as a possible Craven Games download. There was actually a separate seminar on taxes, “Death and Taxes” provided by Chip Bowles of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP, which I did not attend.

One thing that I noted about the seminars that I haven’t brought up elsewhere is that unfortunately it is hard to know just who is giving the advice. Many of the seminars are presented as speaker-audience, but just as many have members of the crowd making their own contributions. I think it is vitally important to know whether a retailing tip is coming from someone who has only had a store for a year or two or whether it is coming from a 15 year veteran. This is still the case across the aisle in manufacturing seminars, where it is important to differentiate between someone who has Kickstarted a PDF of a $5 RPG supplement to someone who has sold 20,000 units of a game. Unfortunately if you do not know the faces of the attendees or don’t check their badges after a seminar, you may try to follow some bad advice.

GAMA Trade Show Meals

While I enjoyed almost all the other parts of the GAMA Trade Show, I do have to say that the meals were remarkably lackluster. The meal ticket cost $65 for 3 lunches and 2 dinners. The meals seriously consisted of hamburgers and hot dogs for at least one meal. All I can remember about the food is how disappointed I was. Fortunately I am not a vegetarian nor a vegan. They had the meal “choice” of salad and by salad, I mean lettuce, if I recall correctly. I stopped going to the lunches after the first one and went to one of my favorite places to eat on the Strip, a short walk away at the Paris, to its expensive creperie. As a Las Vegas resident, I am also embarrassed by the ridiculous prices being charged to the trade show, such as $72 for a gallon of coffee. Yikes. That definitely explains how back in 2002, banquet waiters were making six figure salaries here. I still am incredulous that over $50,000 of the GTS meals were subsidized by GAMA. However, if coffee is $72 a gallon, how much are hot dogs? Maybe each hot dog cost $5. Even then, that wouldn’t begin to explain the $50,000 figure brought up in Friday’s analysis of the GTS.

GTS Meal Talks

The other reason I decided to skip out on further lunches at the GAMA Trade Show was the talks. Each of the meals is sponsored by a number of manufacturers. On Tuesday of the show, several sponsors came up and made presentations. Andre from Games Workshop came up to address concerns about Citadel Finecast melting in cars. A Warhammer Fantasy Battles Empire Captain was passed out to those with BUYER ribbons. Loren from Catalyst Games got up to promote Leviathans, their steampunk 1:1200 scale combat game and Aldo Ghiozzi promoted this year’s Free RPG Day.

The GAMA Trade Show Dinner on Tuesday night was more of a non-event than a highlight of the show. This could be because I arrived right before it began, found a seat in the back of the room, and along with my tablemates had trouble hearing the speakers. Instead we started talking business which spawned my interview with David Stennett. The keynote speaker was Scott Knoblich, Vice President of Sales for Wizards of the Coast. The blurb about him in the GTS guide was almost longer than his “speech”. Several other manufacturers came up to talk about their products, but I missed most of it. I also missed out on further “freebies”, like Wizkids’ Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Heroclix, again due to lack of a BUYER ribbon. From all that I attended and many conversations with other attendees, Thursday’s Online Retail Event was the actual climactic can’t-miss event of the 2012 GAMA Trade Show.

The GAMA Trade Show Game Night

While the Online Retail Debate was pretty poignant, inspiring stuff, the Game Night was a lot of fun. Manufacturers sign up for tables (and pay for them too, I believe) to run their games. It can be slightly daunting and I strolled around to take in what the offerings were; someone at the wrap-up on Friday suggested having a map of manufacturers and tables, which would be wonderful.

P.O.W.E.R. Attack

While playing and getting the hang of P.O.W.E.R. the Game, a Canadian distributor came up and asked about the game. Its creator PK Torretto gave a little spiel as I waited for him to take his turn. “It looks boring,” she told him. Now admittedly the game’s box and the card’s backing give no hint of anything about the game, much less its modern military nature. Then the distributor surprised me, putting me on the spot and asking what I thought of the game and whether it was boring or not. I told her I thought that she was very blunt. She was as taken aback as I was seconds before. Having long since finished the game those two months ago, I would now tell her that I found the game to be very entertaining and that I have thought about P.O.W.E.R.’s mechanics and playing it again quite a bit, much like my recent experience with Munchkin.

Sirius Games: Monkeyland and
Jabba-Dabba-Dû!

Brown monkey playing pieces and fruit cards for Monkeyland board game by Reiner KniziaFrom there, I moved on to trying out several of Sirius Games’ offerings. Sirius Games is a subdivision of Zvezda. First I tried Monkeyland which is basically a fruit-based Memory game with shifting playing cards. Every time a piece is flipped over, it moves across the circle of fruits. I had a hard time with it, but would play it again against a child with a short attention span. It was soon abandoned in favor of
Jabba-Dabba-Dû!
.

Jabba Dabba Du. There is just something special about this weird caveman hunting board game which, like Monkeyland, is also designed by Reiner Knizia. The caveman playing pieces are nothing special and the artwork should possibly appeal to a 4 year old, but I love its secret bidding mechanic. With two players the game is not exciting, but with three or more it starts to take off. I ended up playing two different games of it with Arel and Roel Cordero, the inventors of Yards the Game of Inches, as well as Tommy Raedin who had come out from Russia with Konstantin Krivenko.

Line art cavemen cavort around a fresh kill in Reiner Knizia's bidding mechanic board gameBasically the game has 5 or so hunting locations. Each turn, you select two cards, playing them face down until they are revealed to the group. The cards are the 5 hunting locations with the 6th card being another caveman hunter, allowing you to double up at that location. The cards are revealed and you transfer your cavemen figures to the marker. Each turn there is a winner at the hunting ground based on the highest number of cavemen there. The winner gets the highest number of victory points, which varies from hunting location to hunting location. Think Baltic Avenue and Mediterranean from Monopoly versus Park Place and Boardwalk. I had a hard time grasping the odd squirrel mechanic that pops up in the game, but essentially you can be rewarded for past victories at the hunting grounds.

Jabba-Dabba-Dû!has a few basic strategies and recognizing them was part of the fun for me that Game Night. Outside the game mechanics, there is the social aspect of predicting your opponents’ likely course of action. In learning your opponent(s) and also bluffing, the game is slightly reminiscent of poker. I doubt I would ever buy the game myself, but I would gladly play it again and again if someone else had a copy. Of course, if I were to have children, that might be a good cover-up for having the childish game.

The Lords of Waterdeep or Lack Thereof and Other Games

Not everyone had as good a time at Game Night as I did. Wizards of the Coast left Modern Myths owner Jim Crocker and others hanging. WotC had advertised that they would be bringing copies of Lords of Waterdeep to Game Night, but in Crocker’s words they “not only didn’t have the game, but their tables in the hall were completely empty. They didn’t even have the foresight to ask a few interested WPN stores to run demos on their behalf. When they tell us at their presentation how interested they are in our feedback and how important organized play is, but then blow it off themselves when it really matters, that’s a very mixed message.”

Glowing blue crystals illuminate a mining cave complex for Dark Age Games

The Dark Age Games Demo Board

I myself didn’t notice Wizards’ absence, probably because I was so busy enjoying other games. I also managed to get a game of Dark Age in and experienced something that was lacking at the other tables. The Game Night had two bars set up inside the room. You could pay for your drinks, but manufacturers also had tickets to give out to get free drinks. Maybe the other vendors were being selfish, but B.J. Kourik shared a couple of tickets with me for playing what is already my favorite miniatures game. He has since left Dark Age, but I had fun that night playing Forsaken against one of the Cordero brothers on the scenic demo table that Cool Mini or Not had brought for Dark Age. My newbie opponent was playing with the Outcasts. Of course, I brutally smashed the poor Cordero. When it comes to demos, I don’t believe in holding back, but as in all things Dark Age, he also took out a few of my models. It is not uncommon in Dark Age for the victor to have only a few models remaining. I finished the night off by watching PK Torretto play a game of Yards: The Game of Inches on one of the four empty tables, possibly empty because of Wizards not showing up.

Kicking gress donkey on the social game cover for Donkey It's a KickAnother highlight of Game Night that most attendees will probably recollect and smile about is when a player stood up and shouted “I AM A PRETTY PONY!” He was playing the game Donkey: It’s a Kick from the Cleveland Kids. The Cleveland Kids is a family business headed by Cleve Cleveland who has been playing Donkey for 50 years now. His mother came up with the game which involves cards and pucks. It’s designed for ages 8 and up for 3-8 players, though they’ve had 14 players. Basically there is a “puck ruckus”, a mad scramble for the puck. The “loser” each round of the game is the Donkey, but as Cleve explained “even though you’re out, you’re still in.” The Donkey can try to tempt other players into talking to him or her and otherwise interfere with the game. If another player talks to the Donkey, he or she becomes the Donkey. The reason that the attendee yelled “I AM A PRETTY PONY” was because of one of the Kicker cards. The Cleveland Kids will be releasing a second set of kicker cards, but for now the game has 54 different kickers and will have a suggested retail price of $24.99 with a wholesale cost of $14.95.

Paizo’s Black Eye

Jim Crocker’s disappointment in Wizards of the Coast’s no-show for The Lords of Waterdeep was also expressed towards Paizo. “Paizo’s message was essentially the same [as WotC]: demos and teaching people our games is incredibly important, except when those people are retailers who could benefit from being taught how to run a demo.” Crocker went on to say:

If anyone at the show was unsure of why RPGs are being increasingly marginalized in hobby retail, they needed look no further than that demo room, where not a SINGLE RPG company was represented with even a quick-play demo of any of their games, despite the presence of numerous dedicated RPG vendors in attendance or being repped in the hall.

While there are many other RPG companies that could also have remedied the lack of demos of their upcoming games, I was struck by Paizo’s name coming up again in another negative context. In the Online Retail Debate, David Wallace pointed out that he doesn’t “like it when a manufacturer starts trying to cut into my customers and cut me out of the loop,” citing Paizo as a company that does so.

Those are two well-respected retailers. I am neither a retailer nor well-respected. Perhaps someday I might be both, but I have my own Paizo GTS story to share. I crammed into one of the meeting rooms to attend Paizo’s Premier Seminar. I listened. I took notes. I hefted the very hefty Bestiary Box. Paizo announced that players would soon be able to play Rise of the Runelords as Pathfinder and not Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. They talked up Liane Merciel’s new Pathfinder novel. They promoted the Pathfinder Comics from Dynamite. The Pathfinder MMO should have a “very quick” turnaround of 12-15 months before launch. Find out more at goblinworks.com. There will be a Goblin Plush from Diamond Select Plus in either 8″ or 2-3″ size for keychains. It might be a special Gen Con edition. Pathfinder Society is being played in 13 different countries. Attending this Paizo seminar, in fact, contributed directly to me trying Pathfinder at a Vegas Game Day. The owner or manager of Galactic Quest, a 24,000 square foot gaming store in Lawrenceville, Georgia saw his Pathfinder Society grow from 4 players to 32 players in 14-15 months. “Without stores, you don’t have Pathfinder Society” either Mike Brock or Pierce Watters said. I don’t know who to attribute that comment to though, because despite giving out their email addresses at the seminar, and my emailing them, I have never heard back from either person. A picture of the Bestiary Box would look good right here, but not even Paizo’s Customer Service got back to me about arranging for some Paizo images. So I must agree with Jim Crocker that Paizo talks the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

The 2012 GAMA Trade Show Theme: Staying the Course

One of the oddest things about the GTS was its theme or motto of “Staying the Course”. GAMA’s Executive Director John Ward wrote in the GTS booklet “This year’s theme is “Staying the Course,” reflecting the bold determination of the talented people in our industry regardless of business and economic challenges.” Now to me, “staying the course” is missing something, and while it doesn’t reflect any failure or negativity, it could almost be “We’ve Hit a Plateau” or “Plodding Along”. I can understand that if the gaming industry isn’t thriving or going gang busters, GAMA might want to avoid an extremely positive message and the backlash that would cause from its frustrated members. However the irony is that with one exception, every single indication at the GAMA Trade Show pointed to a thriving gaming industry. Wizards of the Coast were trumpeting the Dark Ascension set for Magic: TG. In Helene Bergiot’s words, “Magic has never been a stronger brand.” Wizkids was pumped up about Heroclix, the Hunger Games, and Pathfinder Battles (and so were retailers)! At the Online Retail Debate, Dave Wallace said “My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it.” Speaking about the entire gaming industry, he also said, “Our industry is not hurting. We’re not in trouble.” I only spoke to one retailer that felt that he was in hard times. In fact, everything at the GAMA Trade Show was up; 100 percent of exhibit hall space was purchased and the seminar meeting rooms were separate from the Exhibitor’s Hall because of the success of the GTS, it having outgrown a smaller, more compact location. One manufacturer said he had “four times more orders this show than last year.” There were 52 people in the 3-hour New Retailer Orientation and 50 in the New Manufacturers’ Orientation which also was 3 hours long. Six of the seminars also ran over the capacity with attendees standing in the back to hear the information presented. The number of attendees was also up, according to GAMA Executive Director John Ward. He cited a figure of 883 attendees at the 2011 show and said that 2012 show had grown by 10 percent.

The Dirty Word of the GAMA Trade Show

On the other hand, despite the success currently being enjoyed in the gaming industry and despite the overall welcoming nature of most members, there were odd moments of invective and scorn at the GTS. The object of GTS retailers’ derision are hobbyists. No, not hobby gamers or hobby modelers, but hobbyist retailers, shop owners who don’t run their stores as professional businesses. When Paul Burdick popped up in my interview with Luke Warren from Northstar Games and said “Some retailers hate me ’cause I’m only open for Christmas.”, I thought he was exaggerating or joking. By the end of the GTS, I knew he was being dead serious. Serious retailers can’t stand other retailers who run their stores as a hobby. Part of the resentment can be understood by reading the Online Retail Debate. Store owners who take pride in their professionalism and who who pay electricity, plumbing, wages, shipping, and other overhead costs can’t stand a 12 year old running a business from a home. While I can appreciate the sentiment, when retailers complained of “hobby” retailers or “hobbyists” they really sounded as though they were describing Al-Qaeda or Nazis.

The Other Hidden Side of the GTS

You have to use a bit of inference and deduction to recognize the hidden aspects of the GAMA Trade Show. There were something like 900+ registered attendees, but each seminar room only holds 60 or so people and there were maybe six of those rooms. A lot of the “action” at the GTS is happening outside the seminars. It could be a manufacturer and a retailer discussing business over coffee downstairs at the Bally’s deli, Nosh. This could be happening up in a hotel suite, or it could be happening at the craps table or over at a strip club. Unfortunately, I don’t have a secret insider whispering in my ear on this. I know from speaking to an employee at one prominent game company that his boss was present in Las Vegas the night of the mixer and the next day, but I only ever saw him at the Exhibitor’s Hall. This must be quite typical at the show.

As someone from GAMA pointed out at the wrap-up session on Friday morning, manufacturers don’t want to have multiple Game Nights, because they want to use that time for networking. There must be a ton of networking going on outside the established convention spaces. Of course, seminars aren’t great avenues to meet and get to know one’s peers; many of my interviews or articles happened because of the communication out in the hallways right after a seminar.

Who Comes to the GAMA Trade Show?

For the most part the GAMA Trade Show is actually attended by its intended audience: professionals in the game industry. There were several “buddies” of store owners I ran into, not that they advertised themselves as such. They had been pressed into service to help their friend out at the show or came along possibly to enjoy Las Vegas. Attendees came from across the country with a strong contingent of Canadian store owners present. Europeans like Konstantin Krivenko with Zvezda or Dave Stennet from Playford Games made the journey. Retailers and manufacturers were mostly male, but there were a number of women involved in various aspects of the trade show from Wizards of the Coast’s Helene Bergiot, to the GTS PR Director Erica Gifford, to the co-owners of the Comic Shop in San Leandro, California. I was struck more by the gray hair at the GTS; many of these attendees have been at this for over two decades since RPGs were in their infancy. There are some younger faces, but I would estimate that the mean age was 40 if not older. GAMA seems to be split between retailers and manufacturers with seminars devoted to each side of the industry, but then there is a third group comprising the distributors and other assorted individuals and companies that service the gaming industry. Fellow gaming websites and services like GameHead and Pulp Gamer were present. Mike Webb from North America’s biggest game distributor Alliance attended as did the owner of America’s largest gaming fulfillment house, Aldo Ghiozzi from Impressions. Anthony from Crystal Commerce contributed many suggestions or facts during seminars. Greater Games Industry Magazine exhibited and ran a seminar or two. However, the largest constituents of the GTS definitely are manufacturers and retailers.

New Manufacturers and Retailers

Logo for Disaster Looms a new space exploration game on Kickstarter and GTS attendeeEric Salyers came to the GTS for the first time as a new manufacturer “hoping to learn more about domestic manufacturing, and to have the chance to network with store owners and distributors.  I was also hoping to get to meet others that were Kickstarting their game, as well as successfully Kickstarted.”   Did Salyers feel that the trade show was worth it? “Definitely!  This was the first time our game had been put in front of the industry… We learned that we are on the right path, we also learned a lot of things we can improve! We would not be nearly as prepared as we are now if we had not been at this show.” Arel Cordero, another game designer attending for the first time, also found the GTS to be of great value, “Attending GAMA significantly moved us closer to producing Yards by helping demystify the process of becoming a new game manufacturer. I found several of the seminars especially valuable, but being in the company of others doing the same thing was the greatest value.” He also learned that sports and board games are a hard sell to the hobby game industry as the brothers discovered at the trade show.

PK Toretto also made a number of discoveries himself. He had P.O.W.E.R. the Military Tactical Card Game manufactured before coming to the GTS and arrived expecting to sell to members of the public, not recognizing that the GAMA Trade Show is purely business to business. All of his card packs and merchandise were unnecessary for selling to brick and mortar retailers. His game did get picked up by Alliance though and for Toretto, distribution is “worth every penny” of his expenses in attending the GTS. In retrospect, he would have liked to have had more printing options before producing P.O.W.E.R., as the GTS exposed him to more manufacturing options in that area, with printers giving samples of their work at the GTS. This has provided Toretto with more leverage. Many of the seminars at the GTS addressed areas which Torretto had studied and researched himself. He “still went to every seminar” that he could though, to ensure that he was on the right track and to check his work. He had “no clue” about just how informative the seminars would be. Torretto pointed out a problem with the GTS seminars though: exhibitors cannot attend the seminars scheduled during Exhibitor Hall hours. He would like to see repeats of seminars to enable attendees who missed one because of exhibiting or attending another seminar to have the chance to hear the material. One other benefit that Toretto found at the GTS was meeting the top distributors in the industry and learning about them and seeing how they pitch gaming products.

There were also a number of new retailers attending the GTS for the first time with some attending in anticipation of opening a store. I met Brian Wampler and Chris McCartney of B&C Games who will be opening their store in Indiana. Wampler feels better prepared and “more pumped now to open” B & C Games’ storefront. He explains that after “seeing so many people there that either were in our shoes or had been at one point and getting to talk to them, it made the decision pretty easy.” He found “anything with Dave Wallace” to be especially valuable at the GTS. As Wampler says, “The man is a legend in the industry, and I attended nearly every one of his speaking engagements. Pat from Gnome Games also had a lot of insight to share with us.”

Experienced Professionals

The husband and wife team of John and Lynn Dorney were new to the GAMA Trade Show, but not new to the gaming industry. Treefort Games in Fayetteville, Georgia has been in business for three and a half years. They came because, as Lynn puts it, “We had hit a bump. We seemed to be at a point where we needed to either close the store or do something to keep it going and growing.  We thought GAMA would be able to help us figure out which direction to go.” Treefort Games has decided on the going and growing with the pair returning home to Georgia with a renewed sense of purpose. Among the seminars they attended at the GTS were Getting the Most Out of Your Employees, Social Networking, and the GAMA Education Certification. The GTS had a number of seminars on Games in Education, which I did not have time to attend, but both of the Dorneys did, because as Lynn says “We view our store as much a community center as a place of business.  It seems only natural for us to reach out to our area schools.”

Shawn Rhoades of Game Haven in West Jordan, Utah has a bit more experience at the GAMA Trade Show, if not in retail. This is his second year in business and his second time at the GTS. He also cited David Wallace’s classes as among his favorites, saying that they were definitely “the most useful.” For Rhoades the box of demo products was also a draw. Instead of retailers going from booth to booth collecting free product at the GTS, they now receive a crate of games delivered to their stores. However the big box of games also requires retailers to collect stamps from attending various Premier Presentation seminars. After each Premier Presentation a line of retailers would form trying to get their special sheet stamped. In Rhoades’ view though, this was “a total waste of time” as the presenting companies “covered exactly the same things at the luncheons and dinners”. The exception for Rhoades was Mayfair Games. He pointed out that “their seminars are always fun.”

Trevor McGregor had been to the GAMA Trade Show 7 times as a manufacturer, but the 2012 show was his first as a retailer. McGregor now owns The Gaming Pit and is very realistic in his expectations within the game industry:

Running your own small business is a daunting task for anyone in any industry. GTS offers a place for retailers to pick brains of other retailers, including some very successful ones. Even if the other retailers aren’t out of the park successful there is quite a few things you can learn by just hearing what other retailers have done that worked or even hasn’t worked. I really wanted the experience of networking and finding out information I didn’t know. It was also nice to get face time with manufacturers and see their upcoming products but that was secondary.

McGregor found Michael Stackpole’s seminar on marketing with social media to have “quality information”, but also learned from every manufacturer’s seminar he attended. His favorite seminar he attended though was the Wizards of the Coast Organized Play seminar, citing WotC’s candor with their goals for events like Friday Night Magic, Magic pre-releases, and some of their own marketing data about player behavior as the reasons why.

Tom Anders from Impact Miniatures has been in business a number of years, but this was his first GAMA Trade Show. For him, the show was “very beneficial” allowing him to connect with several stores that weren’t aware of Impact Miniatures’ existence. Talking about his roller derby board game, Impact City Roller Derby, he said “We were leaning, based on quotes that we were getting, that we would charge $45 for the base game. I got really good feedback that said ‘You know what, this looks like a $40 game to us,’ from multiple stores.” Anders has taken the feedback to heart, trying to find a place to shave off $5 from his MSRP. Again, the identity of the persons providing that feedback probably made a huge difference as it was coming from multiple experienced retailers and not neccessarily fans of Impact Miniatures. “That’s valuable feedback because at the end of the day, you want game stores to buy it and you want game stores to tell you who’s going to buy it,” Anders confirmed.

And the Industry Veterans

Rick Loomis is the head of Flying Buffalo, the publisher of Nuclear War and Play By Mail giant. He is also the President of GAMA. What does the President of GAMA do at the GAMA Trade Show? Loomis answers “As President of GAMA, I attended two Board of Directors meetings, two meetings regarding the Origins Awards, attended the “Intro to New Manufacturers” seminar and had several long conversations with our executive director and other officers. As owner of Flying Buffalo Inc, I set up my booth, and sat at the booth during exhibit hours, having conversations with retailers and distributors.” Another veteran of many GAMA Trade Shows, John Mansfield is a retailer and the owner and operator of Pendragon Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba for 38 years. He has been coming to the GTS since it was held in the Tropicana Casino and comes mostly to “look at new stuff” and “see the new ideas”. He also comes to “listen to all the ideas that never happen”.

Dave Wheeler, CEO of Dragon’s Lair Games, has also been coming to GAMA Trade Shows for many years, since the “fateful” Miami show when an extremely small number of retailers attended. In business since 1986, like many other attendees he cites the personal contact that comes from meeting face to face with other retailers and manufacturers at the GTS as a draw. He has increasingly found that “socialization is becoming more important to me”. Wheeler also benefits from attending manufacturer seminars because they provide a window into understanding the challenges that game publishers face. Like the Dorneys of Treefort Games, he finds the GTS reinvigorating: “Besides learning about new ways to do business and finding out about new products, GTS is very energizing for me! I go in, I am around people who share the same challenges that I experience. I find out how they overcome their challenges. I share how I overcome mine. I become enthused about going home and trying out new ideas and bringing in new products!” One other thing that Wheeler is still enthusiastic about is Michael Stackpole’s Social Networking seminar and the growth in crowdfunding he saw at the show, which inspired him to create the Crowd Funding Friendly Retailer Mailing List. Interested retailers can still join the list by emailing him at info at dlair.net.

While Rick Loomis is GAMA’s President, John Ward is its Executive Director. He also spent much of his time at the GTS in meetings; in fact, he spent most of his time at the GTS in meetings. He did circulate around the GTS and felt that “there was a lot of good energy at the show this year”. He was pleased with the strong attendance at the seminars offered on Monday and Friday. Those two days really are more of travel days, I think, for most attendees with Friday being a half-day and Monday really being registration and the mixer. Ward also points to the overseas traffic this year as a marker of the GTS’s success, citing a European manufacturer’s pleasure in being able to meet with all of his European distributors at the show. “That’s the kind of setting that we really want to help foster,” Ward enthused. While Ward did “quality control” by sticking his head in at a few seminars and walking the Exhibitors’ Hall, he was already busy planning for Origins later this month, and in fact, for the 2013 GAMA Trade Show and Origins 2013. Of course, the GTS and Origins are not the only things that GAMA does and the other activities in promoting game manufacturing were a big part of his meetings here in Las Vegas. I also know how pleased he was with the Online Retail Debate and the direction it took. He is also already looking forward to having a representative from Kickstarter at the 2013 GAMA Trade Show, as a response to requests from the membership.

GAMA Trade Show 2012 Final Thoughts

If you are a game designer with aspirations of manufacturing your own game, the GAMA Trade Show is the place to be. You will meet your distributors and a good number of your best retailers at the GTS. The members are friendly and welcoming. If your product is not good or ready for the market, someone will probably tell you and offer constructive criticism. Friendly people may take an interest in you and take you and your game idea under wing and help you in your efforts. If you can, bring a working prototype of your game with you. Eric Salyers was able to show Disaster Looms! to a number of distributors and already has four distributors lined up to distribute the game post-Kickstarter. He adds “This was a direct result of having the game in hand.  We also generated a lot of interest with store owners and store employees – again a benefit of having the game in hand and being able to demo the game all week.” The GTS is just as much a place to be for an aspiring game store owner offering quality information, strong contacts in the industry, and a chance to rub shoulders with like-minded helpful individuals.

The other thing to do if you are considering attending the GTS is to plan ahead and possibly bring your business partner, an employee, or a spouse. Separate to work the trade show and attend double the seminars or have one person in the Exhibitor’s Hall while the other is networking or attending a seminar. I found myself incredibly busy throughout the four days and can only imagine that a visitor to Las Vegas will feel pulled in many more directions with all the distractions that Vegas offers.

Jabba Dabba-Du and Monkeyland images copyright Sirius Games. Donkey: It’s a Kick copyright Cleveland Kids. Disaster Looms! graphic copyright Break From Reality. All images used with permission.

The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board & Table Games

Variant cover for Games We Played showing 1800s cartoon characters wrangling over the American eagleAside from a two page foreword by Kenneth T. Jackson, there is little in the way of lengthy text in Margaret K. Hofer’s The Games We Played, other than in her introduction which covers the economic and social factors that led to the Golden Age of board games in the 1880s as well as each chapter introduction. This is not a bad thing. Instead, the reader gets 159 pages of rich illustrations of games like Rival Policemen, Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York, and Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater. Published in 2003 by Princeton Architectural Press, The Games We Played uses the New-York Historical Society’s Liman Collection of games as its basis and indeed resembles a large museum exhibit catalogue. As such, it makes for a great coffee table book, but it would also be a valuable addition to a classroom or school library for a glimpse back into the Gilded Age of America as well as the early Progressive Era with games celebrating American victories in the Spanish-American War.

While Hofer links the 1887 game The World’s Educator to Trivial Pursuit and Monopolist from 1885 to Parker Brothers’ Monopoly, The Games We Played is refreshingly devoid of many other references to “classic” games that most modern board game enthusiasts consider stale or dead. Looking at the Monopolist board or The Checkered Game of Life (1866), it is hard to envision their latter-day descendants. Even Anagrams from Milton Bradley in 1910 does not bear much resemblance to Scrabble, aside from letter blocks. The only game I recognized was Tiddledly Winks, which I played in the 1980s as a child. From Hofer I now know that the game was patented in England in 1889 with the New York-based McLoughlin Brothers patenting Improved Game of Tiddledy Winks in 1890. Parker Brothers had a version copyrighted in 1897 as The Popular Game of Tiddledy Winks.

The McLoughlin Brothers company dominates The Games We Played, just as they “dominated the industry with sumptuous eye-catching packaging that was frequently more compelling than the games it contained” in the period between 1858 to 1920 according to Hofer. Milton Bradley went on to purchase the company in 1920. This may also explain why McLoughlin Brothers games are so unfamiliar and seem so novel, as Parker Brothers probably did not continue to produce their older titles. I say probably because readers interested in a detailed account of the Golden Age of board games will be disappointed by Hofer’s lack of a historical narrative with any detailed information on the game manufacturers or designers themselves or their economic battles with each other. For that we do have David Parlett’s The Oxford History of Board Games, which Hofer used in her research.

Hofer’s chapter introductions though do make connections between the board game offerings of the era and the changing social and moral values in America of the time period. Her chapter “Morals to Materialism” ties board games like The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1893) and Game of the District Messenger Boy, or Merit Rewarded (1886) to the nascent idea of the American Dream and self-made men. Hofer sums up the game Cash: Honesty is the Best Policy: “Cash provided those who could afford the simple $1.50 game with the opportunity to climb the ladder from errand boy to millionaire.” As such, games like Cash were echoes of Horatio Alger Jr.’s series of popular “rags to riches” stories prevalent at the time, emphasizing hard work and clean living as the paths to success. On the other hand, of course, many of these games were just plain materialistic and about wish fulfillment, such as the early 1850 game Yankeee Pedlar, or What Do You Buy? from John McLoughlin before starting McLoughlin Brothers. Is Yankee Pedlar really so different than a Barbie game about shopping at a mall? Hofer’s sixth chapter,”The Urban Experience”, details board games specifically about New York, prosperity, and navigating one’s way in increasingly complex cities. To Hofer, “these games betray the sense of dislocation felt by Americans experiencing rapid urban growth and suggest their collective aspirations for worldly urban sophistication.”

Brother and sister play with paper village buildings while mother watches on the cover of the New Pretty Village

The New Pretty Village, 1897

Though the games are presented in the first chapter, “Parlor Amusements”, I think the McLoughlin Brothers games of The Pretty Village in 1890 and 1897’s The New Pretty Village also reflect the materialistic longing of the later chapters, as well as dreams for success. With my fondness for miniature buildings, how could I not be fascinated by the Pretty Village series? Essentially the “games” were packs of card buildings that could be assembled for play. Hofer identifies that the “quaint stuctures in this popular game reflect a new nostalgia for a simple, agrarian past.” I imagine though that the designers chose the village for more practical reasons. Modeling skyscrapers and other “modern” marvels to the scale of cut-out figures or toy soldiers would have been impractical. The boy in the illustration in his cowboy outfit is able to join his younger sister’s genteel play probably because he will have a small army of cowboys and Indians to raid her peaceful village. It is charming to see the forerunners of World Works Games and other paper terrain efforts as early as the 1890s.

Three card village buildings from The Pretty Village published in 1890

Three Card Buildings from The Pretty Village Published in 1890 by McLoughlin Brothers.

War Games

The other particularly captivating section of The Games We Played for me was Hofer’s exceedingly brief fourth chapter, “War Games”. Historical war gamers will find the tiny chapter interesting as it has games covering Napoleon through to the Spanish-American War. Napoleon: The Little Corporal from Parkers Brothers in 1895 traces Napoleon’s life. What fan of Napoleonics doesn’t love the Battle of Wagram in 1809 or the 1805 Campaign at Ulm? This is a board game though, closer to The Game of LIfe than any tactical war game, This is the case for all the games featured in the “War Games” section, though the playing map for Game of War at Sea or “Don’t Give up the Ship” looks promising for chit-based war games. Players must battle in the Atlantic and Carribean for dominance in this Spanish-American war title from 1898. I can’t help thinking though that there is some possibility for Civil War, Mexican-American War, or even earlier conflicts on its playing surface, which features a checkerboard gridded sea and American and Canadian cities. The playing board’s map goes as far west as Austin, Topeka, and Sioux City.Uncle Sam at War with Spain was also released in 1898, the same year of the Spanish-American War. These Golden Age board games were very topical as patriotism soared. The subjects also seemed to be mostly real and historical. Roosevelt at San Juan and Schley at Santiago Bay were two other titles, this time released in 1899 from Chaffee & Selchow. Schley’s name should be famous to students of American naval history for the Sampson-Schley controversy. At the time of the game’s printing though, Winfield Scott Schley was an accomplished naval hero.

There are a few exceptions to the historical battles and figures covered such as the generic Mimic War which contained 30 paper stand-up soldiers, which Hofer explains were for children “to act out their favorite war battles”. “Advance and Retreat also seems to be a non-specific game of battle. Earlier in the book, Hofer includes Chivalry from Parker Brothers in 1888, which “had complex rules and demanded strategic skill to win”. Unfortunately one of Hofer’s other notes is frustratingly not illustrated by her choice of images; she captions the innocuous cover for Game of The Little Volunteer with the note that, “Grisly images showing bloodshed were apparently not troubling to children and parents of the 1890s.” On the game’s cover, a child beats a drum, a cute dog stands with a rifle in paw and a party hat on its head, and there is a mounted cavalry officer with his sword at his side diagonally opposite the angelic pair. I would like to see the “grisly” depictions to which Hofer alludes. This may be possible, because in her Selected Bibliography she references the actual catalogue of the Liman Collection from Marisa Kayyem and Paul Sternberger, Victorian Pleasures: Nineteenth-Century American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection.

For Game Designers

I think any game designer might enjoy at least thumbing through The Games We Played just for examples of past game mechanics that can be gleaned from studying the boards. Again, Hofer does not explain how each particular game was played. Also half of the illustrations at least are merely cover art. However for those more interested in the visual side of game design then, a perusal of Hofer’s book might be of value. Moving back to game mechanics, while a few games resemble Candyland such as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall St. Game (a precursor to Monopoly) has a bit more to it. The Yacht Game Race and The Post Office Game both have New York as their setting and could be used to learn its geography, but a designer could extrapolate their game boards to fantasy and science fiction settings. Looking at the two boards for the New York games, I think something interesting could be done with a Minas Tirith or King’s Landing board game. Mystery at Hogwarts and Hogwarts: House Cup Challenge don’t begin to scratch the surface of what could be possible with a strong Hogwarts-based game.

In the Classroom

Lastly as a former long-term substitute teacher married to a teacher, I think The Games We Played has a place in a teacher’s library in any school setting. I see it as more of a topical temporary addition in an elementary school classroom with a teacher showing a few relevant pages to address a student’s question or accompany an area of study, though social studies is woefully inadequately taught at the elementary level. Older students will obviously get more out of the book. A middle school social studies teacher I once studied under was fond of using political cartoons to frame her students’ study of American history. Board games and their history could likewise frame a study of the post-Reconstruction period.

The only really questionable content in The Games We Played is on page 20 in the introduction with the cover of Jim Crow Ten Pins or possibly depictions of Native Americans. Of course, there is also the sexism of some of the games, but these are all approachable in their own right as topics of history handled by a veteran teacher. Most students however, encountering the picture of Jim Crow Ten Pins, will react to it and want to share it with their neighbors.

All images copyright Princeton Architecture Press, used with permission.