Friday, January 22, 2016

Through the Ages: A board game biography

In the spirit of my recent foray into exploring my early experiences as a music enthusiast, I thought it might be similarly entertaining for myself and others to recount my journey through the world of board gaming, starting with my roots in my childhood and culminating with where I am today. I also thought that for many people who have attempted (or even perhaps succeeded) to weave their way through my rather dense analytical board game posts that a narrative approach might be a little more approachable and preferable as an entry point; consider this, then, my "gateway" post to my world of board gaming. (That's the second board game pun for you; the first was in the title.) Enjoy!

My formational years of gaming (1990-1996)

I have played board games since I was a kid, almost as long as I can remember. By the time I was eight and my sister was six, we started amassing a decent collection of games - I have started trying to keep track of them on a GeekList on BoardGameGeek - and we played card and board games together a surprising amount, at least for a couple of years until we got a Super Nintendo. We played a lot of basic card games like Rummy, Crazy Eights and War, and for some reason I remember that we quoted lyrics from Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" and giggled at shaking butts on the catwalk. We had some dexterity games, some junior versions of popular games such as Monopoly Jr. and Scrabble Jr., and a lot of thrifted games, like this glorious piece of work from the 70s:

Sure, it's basically a nastier version of Monopoly, but I probably liked it because that kid on the cover reminded me of myself; that, and I remember usually skunking my sister quite handily when we played.

I also played a lot of games at school, especially because I chose to stay inside as many recesses as I could rather than playing battleball or shinny with the other boys. I was convinced for some reason that sports were beneath me or that I didn't enjoy them or something, so I didn't play sports at recess until I was in Grade 8; in a completely unrelated development, I didn't have any friends until I was in Grade 8. At any rate, I played games like Pente and Set - which was brand new at the time - when I could, and I devoured games like Whatzit?, which required the type of lateral thinking that I thoroughly enjoyed with my advanced intellect.

My Grade 5 teacher also used puzzles from GAMES Magazine in class, which led to me designing my own puzzles and having her photocopy them for the class; they weren't very good, but I was trying something creative, and I was experimenting with design even at a young age. I think I must have been one of the only twelve-year-olds ever to request a subscription to GAMES Magazine for Christmas; my grandmother ordered it for me and I enjoyed every issue, even though I had little of the knowledge of trivia or pop culture to be able to do most of the puzzles inside. I still enjoy GAMES to this day, and I still have kept copies of some of my favourite puzzles from the past two decades to use in my classroom as I can.

Party on, Wayne! (1996-2000)

My family also enjoyed playing a lot of party games, of which there was a boom in the mid-to-late 1990s. We played most of the popular hits from those years, including a number of games that focused on movies and pop culture: Taboo; Outburst; Scattergories; Mad Gab; TriBond; Act One (movie and TV quotations); Planet Hollywood; and various pre-DVD versions of Trivial Pursuit like the Genus IV. As I was learning more historical facts in school and reading more books with trivia, I became formidable at these kinds of games, especially when Cranium was released a few years later; in fact, I don't remember ever losing at Cranium (an assertion that I'm sure someone will gleefully contradict in a recollection of victory over me in the comments on Facebook). My success at these kinds of party games was due partly to my general trivia knowledge, but also in being able to predict the kinds of information that might be asked for in a question, so I was apparently understanding game theory even as a preteen.

Party games were great for getting to know others, and for many years they were a staple of my game collection, especially since there were so many variations of party games available at thrift stores. At one point I owned several dozen party-style games, although most of them remained unplayed until I returned them to the thrift stores from whence they came. I don't have many in my collection anymore, since I have cleared most of them out in my interprovincial moves, but the ones I have kept are among my favourites to this day: Apples to Apples; Things...; and True Colors. Every so often, I add a party game to my collection at a rate of about one per year - notable examples in the past few years include Dixit, The Resistance, Anomia, Geek Out!, and Codenames - and I have one or two more that I would like to find in a thrift store at some point (namely Wits and Wagers and Word on the Street). Although they may not have a place on my shelf, those 90s party classics will always have a place in my heart - and my classroom, actually, since they make great filler games during down times.

4X: Exploration, expansion, expenditure and exposure to Eurogames (2000-2006)

When I moved out on my own in 2000, I started to build my own collection of games, a large portion of which consisted of thrifted party games and mainstream card games - lots of card games. Some were more animated, active games, like Dutch Blitz or Pit; I still enjoy a good round of Blitz to this day, and I still hold the distinction of having had the worst round possible (-20 points, no cards from my Blitz pile or my hand out on the piles) and still coming back to "Blitz out" and win the game in the end. Some card games, such as Mille Bornes, Phase 10, or Skip-Bo, were more laid back, to the point that I now find them close to unplayable except with children (and even then not really that playable).

I played a lot of trump-based games like Rook and Kaiser - probably hundreds of hands of each - which helped teach me how to count cards, how to read other players, and how to play these kinds of games strategically. I even remember experimenting with game design on one bus trip by creating six-player Kaiser with a six-suited deck of cards that included crowns and anchors; the catch was that the extra suits each included a 4 card that doubled your score for the round if you won that trick with that suit. It seemed to work well enough, but I'd like to try to play it again; a cursory Google search reveals that no one else seems to have created such a mutation, as well as some difficulty in tracking down a deck with six suits, so I might have to put this on my "to do sometime" list.

I started playing European strategy games during those years (roughly 2000-2006), but I did not get really invested in them just yet. Even though I don't remember my first time playing Catan, I do remember really enjoying it whenever I played it (which was infrequently enough that I still enjoyed it), enough so that I bought the two-player Card Game version, which I still own; I figured, after all, that with everyone else owning Catan that I did not need to own a copy for myself; to this day, I have not bought Catan and I do not own a copy of my own (I have been given copies twice, which I have then passed forward to others).

I was exposed to other Euro-style games infrequently over those years, but it was mainly the popular ones: Carcassonne; Alhambra; Bohnanza (which quickly became one of my favourites); and Ticket To Ride. I purchased a number of smaller games, such as Coloretto, Corsari, and Bang!, mainly because their low cost made them easy to afford and their small packaging made them easy to move. I even posted a short blog entry in July 2006 in which I confessed to being a "board game geek" in which I linked to the BGG site, even though I did not sign up for a BGG account for another two years.

The quest for the magic board game: the transitional years (2007-2010)

By the time I finished university and started my first teaching job, I owned a lot of thrifted and smaller games and I really enjoyed playing games, but I still was not fully entered into the much wider world of board gaming. My then-fiance (now wife) and I made some friends who also loved games, so we started playing certain games more frequently. Our game of choice for that year was Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, which we played sequentially, adding an expansion each time until we played with all 800+ cards; we enjoyed playing it so much that we made the entire set one of our first purchases after we were married, and we played it many times over the ensuing year. We bought Thurn and Taxis, the 2006 winner of the Spiel des Jahres, just before we moved, and my wife bought Carcassonne for me for our first Christmas as a married couple. We began to add a few more games to our shelves and games slowly became more significant in our lives with our new friends. We even planned a game night at our church on our first Valentine's Day as newlyweds; she thought it was a good idea, too, and it turned out to be a success since it was a great way for people to connect. We continued to run games nights intermittently, and we really enjoyed connecting with our community through board games.

What really sticks out to me over those years is that I could (and still can) remember a lot of the experiences playing those games, especially when I was playing them for the first time. I might not remember the results, but I remember the context, the other players, and the feelings of many of those plays. I remember my first (mostly unsuccessful) foray into the world of 4X games (a shorthand for games, often space themed, that let players "explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate") in an abbreviated game of Twilight Imperium, and though I did not have the skill set to appreciate how to play the game, I still remember that experience fondly. I remember the game of Apples to Apples in which a friend attempted to connect "Chickens" with "Nasty" by exclaiming that "Chickens is sons of b*****s, yo!" I remember moments of many different games, and I feel like I really started to understand just how special board games were. By the time November 2010 came around, I wrote a short post entitled "A Gamer's Lament", in which I expressed dismay at not playing enough board games; little did I realize the world I was about to enter...

Earning the title of "Board Game Geek" (2011-2014)

I am not sure how long I was on BoardGameGeek before I started tracking my collection, but it was somewhere near the end of my transitional phase that I started adding my games and expansions to my profile. I don't remember exactly what launched me into the next level of the hobby - that of tracking my plays and being much more conscious and intentional about my board gaming; I think it was mostly curiosity, but also the realization that there was a whole new set of data that could be recorded and analyzed. I do know that I recorded my first play on BoardGameGeek on December 21, 2010; it was Citadels, which I bought within a few days. Two days later, I played Puerto Rico for the first time, and I received it as a birthday present two weeks later. And with that, I feel like I really launched into board gaming as a hobby, rather than simply an activity or a pastime as it had been in previous years.

It probably helped that at the same time that I was making the shift into board game geekery that I met a close friend, Jordan, who helped propel me in that direction as he was going in that same direction. Over the course of 2011, I played a number of new games - Agricola, Dominion, Dixit, Innovation, Power Grid, Tikal - and by the end of the year, I included board games in my year-in-review posts for the first time. That post was still far more oriented toward video games, but the board games hook was in, and it wouldn't leave; in fact, it only took another month or so for board gaming to emerge as my dominant hobby.

In 2012, board gaming exploded for me in a big way: my plays rocketed to an average of almost twenty a month, and my year-in-review post went from parenthetical mentions with video games to a full-blown analysis of its own. My "Want to Play" list went from very small to very large, and I added many new games to my collection and my repertoire. I went to a convention for the first time - GottaCon in Victoria, BC - and I developed friendships with others who were also expanding their collections and with whom I was exploring this amazing new world of games. By early 2013, I started ordering games on Kickstarter, and my collection exploded as I found deals, made trades, and started putting more time and resources into board games in general.

My gaming took a step back in the remainder of 2013, and I'm not quite sure why; there must have been a few factors that affected it, but I don't recall what they could have been. At any rate, I continued to refine my palate and my collection, and even though I did not play as many games that year, my hobby orientation remained significantly toward board games. I had a strong collection, a constant gaming group, and many opportunities to play, and I made the most of those opportunities. I had a return to form in early 2014, but that resurgence was tinged with sadness as I also prepared to move back to Saskatchewan later that year. It was disappointing to leave the friends and those gaming possibilities behind when I made the move at the end of the summer of 2014, but I was excited for the road that lay ahead - even though I was not sure what was in store for me as a gamer or as a person.

To SaskGames and beyond (2014-2015)

The first two months after the move were the most desolate gaming I had experienced since emerging as a gamer several years earlier; then again, I suppose that's what happens when you move over a long weekend and start a new teaching job in a new province the next day. After a few months, I started to recover and stabilize in my new surrounding, and I discovered SaskGames in December 2014, and lo and behold, there was a weekly game night only a two-minute drive from my house! A new chapter in my gaming started, and I launched into hyperdrive in my new digs, which now included a new Kallax shelf from IKEA upon which I could finally display my entire collection; my wife laughed, as it was one of the first things I set up in our new house - we didn't have living room furniture, but we had our gaming shelf in place. I quickly made new friends and started connecting with old friends (I had moved back, after all) who had also picked up board gaming as a hobby in the interim.

SaskGames quickly became one of the best ways for me to connect with new people and to find more stability in my new setting. I started to play more frequently, and I had access to many others' collections, which allowed me to whittle away at that ever-growing Want to Play list (which of course, also ended up ballooning with the number of new games I now could actually potentially play). I ended up playing over a hundred new games over the course of 2015, and I recently recorded my thousandth play on BGG, just a week or so after the fourth anniversary of my first play, and you bet I wrote a ridiculously intense analysis of those plays. I have also found myself refining my collection and clearing out games that I owned and enjoyed for several years but that I rarely ever play on my own, including a number of games from that first wave of acquisition in 2011, such as Power Grid, Puerto Rico, and Dominion, and I am currently happier with my collection than I ever have been.

I had to balance this new found euphoria of my new gaming surroundings with grief, as Jordan, the friend with whom I had entered into the hobby back in 2011, was dying from cancer; eight months after my big move, he passed away. I was able to visit him one last time in February and we played our final game of The Castles of Burgundy - our favourite game together - on Valentine's Day; he won, which seems fitting. I was able to share about our friendship and our experiences at his funeral over the Victoria Day long weekend, and even now, I still think of him often as I play games that he wanted to try, play games from my collection that we discovered together, and when I hear of new games are released that I know would have been right up his alley (like the upcoming card game version of Burgundy). He lived, died, and played well, and he will always be a part of my story and my legacy as a gamer.

In the midst of these conflicting emotions of wonder and loss, I have found that gaming seems again to be moving into new territory for me. I love gaming as a hobby, and I still love the games for what they are and for the intellectual and creative outlet that they provide, but gaming is also opening new doors for me personally and relationally. I am starting to step into some new roles of leadership with SaskGames, and I am making genuine friends in the process. I am starting to find new creative outlets in game design, and I am hoping to finish my first (of many) designs this year. I have started writing more about games, and I am considering new creative outlets for writing or podcasting about games (and possibly other subjects). There are many possibilities for me here, and I'm excited to see the splendor of what board gaming looks like for me in the future.

I am enjoying being an experienced gamer and the knowledge and understanding of what the past few years - a lifetime, even - of gaming have given to me, and I am excited to pass my passion for gaming onto others. I love learning new games and I love teaching new games. I love meeting embryonic gamers who are at the point I was at several years ago and seeing their eyes widen as they realize what it possible in this world of board games. I love being a part of a community that not only values games, but that also values relationships, and I love seeing how board gaming doors in so many ways. And, as always, those doors - as well as my table - are open and you are welcome to be part of my board games, no matter your current status as a gamer. Thanks for being part of my ongoing journey and for wherever this hobby may take me.

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