Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gaming in Libraries

Gaming in libraries has come a long way since the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”), when the media focused on Dungeons & Dragons and portrayed the hobby as the realm of misfits, geeks, and sociopaths.

Even then libraries were among the first to provide a public meeting place for gamers, especially when gaming was relegated to kitchen tables instead of gaming tables in forward-thinking hobby and game stores. I often regret not getting into D&D until the end of my time in junior high, since the school’s activity program offered a D&D club that used a library meeting room for games once a week (though in later years it was the focus of controversy about D&D in schools). Like many other kids, I didn’t quite know what D&D was all about; my ignorance and the social stigma associated with D&D kept me away from pursuing the hobby in public.

In high school I fully engaged my geeky game hobby and overcame some of that social stigma (I have no recollection of any D&D club there…); but the high school library, even its quiet group study area, did not welcome games. I’d designed a rudimentary roleplaying game of my own (a bit simpler than D&D for the uninitiated I sought to recruit to the hobby) and I enjoyed developing simplistic board games we tested in the library’s small group study area…and we were promptly kicked out by the British librarian for “gambling” because our game used dice (a cultural nuance I more fully appreciated later in life). We adjourned to the cafeteria, a social gathering place for students during free periods outside of lunchtime.

I recall the high school library had two boxed war games I somehow found combing the card catalogs (now relics of ancient information technology); both had the small bits like dice and counters removed, with no notation as to where one could find them for reference or play. Books about games or game design did not exist in the library’s collection.

The town library was somewhat more open to Dungeons & Dragons; it hosted a summer program for pre-teens and teens, organized by the two established gaming geeks who, despite their snobbish attitude toward other people running D&D “their” way, somehow convinced the library to let them organize the program and let other dungeon masters run games. My involvement was an interesting exercise in hosting game events in a more public venue with complete strangers (rather than around my dining room table with friends).   

Libraries Today

Since then libraries, especially public ones, have shifted their focus; they no longer exist as repositories for books to lend, but as community hubs offering a vast array of services and experiences. Libraries have adapted to mainstream media: while they still hold collections of books and magazines, many now acquire and circulate music CDs, film DVDs, and some even digital games. They offer experiences based on their collections: book discussion groups, story times, summer reading programs, writers’ groups, opportunities to explore new careers and apply for jobs online, lectures and performances, book sales, and workshops on topics from doing taxes and navigating the internet to writing grants and researching genealogy.

Gaming has also found its way into the public library experience through gaming programs for teens, adults, and seniors. According to a 2006-2007 survey by Professor Scott Nicholson -- noted library science scholar at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies and the Library Game Lab of Syracuse and one of several prominent voices in a growing gaming in libraries movement -- in 2007 only 35% of 404 libraries participating in the survey used board and card games in library game programs, compared with 64% using console games in such programs (and only 9% of libraries actually circulated board and card games). No doubt these statistics have changed over the years since Professor Nicholson conducted his survey, and I’ll assume that these numbers have increased slightly given the efforts of those advocating games in libraries, the growing popularity of high-quality board games, and libraries’ efforts to evolve their roles in a changing world.

Many libraries involve traditional games with educational applications, like Scrabble, backgammon, and chess; but more are exploring the growing analog board game field. (Many also offer digital games, especially ones with physical interaction that are particularly good at keeping seniors active). I’m within about an hour’s drive to several public library systems; a casual survey among them shows weekly Scrabble meets (for both youth and adults), monthly teen gaming programs hosting both analog and digital games, and even occasional board game events exclusively for adults. Lately I’ve volunteered to host games (Pirateer and Forbidden Island) at the local library’s monthly teen gaming events; of the average 20-25 teens who attend (a good showing), a handful try the digital games offered, while everyone engages in the analog board and minis games.

Game events provide teens with a safe environment with an activity focus, whether analog or digital games, where they can find a temporary respite from the constant pressures of teenage life (including the constant issues of bullying, gangs, suicide, and abuse). Similar programs also give seniors an opportunity to socialize and exercise their mental faculties, and other adults the chance to enjoy new experience and check out family gaming options.

But how can libraries move games beyond the occasional programming event and into the more mainstream collection for circulation? Some might argue that games, as a form of “entertainment,” don’t belong in a public library; but with CDs and DVDs and fiction available in public stacks, that argument falls short. Finding diversions at the library remains a valid use of its resources, especially when it can offer opportunities to learn and broaden one’s horizons. The library enables patrons to more closely examine materials they could potentially purchase for their permanent home use. This applies especially to CDs, DVDs, video games, magazines, and games. Making analog games available at the library encourages subsequent game purchase and further repeat play, not only at home but at library programs, further reinforcing the library’s role as a community hub.

Games offer some practical challenges in the context of the library’s usual lending paradigm. Books, CDs, DVDs, and digital games have few components; analog games have many components in the box that, if lost, often render the game unplayable. I’m no librarian (as I have been told in no uncertain terms that without an MLS I shouldn’t even consider applying for a part-time library job); but from what I’ve seen and read, perhaps the best method might involve treating a library game collection like reference works: lending them within the library only -- not for outside circulation -- and providing a welcoming environment in which to read and play them (a meeting room or other area for group study where more vocal interaction is acceptable). In some cases libraries separate the more fiddly game components into separate, re-sealable bags, allowing patrons to examine the box, rules, and board before checking out the game components for in-library use.

Game stores sometimes employ similar “limited circulation” models. Many keep opened store copies available to borrow, unbox, examine, and play in the gaming area (which also provides a generally welcoming atmosphere that encourages people to try new things and talk about games, much like a gaming “community hub”). On a recent visit to my Friendly Local Gaming Store, the owner found an opportunity to explain to me the store’s board game loan policy (one I wish she’d posted somewhere so more folks might take advantage of it): patrons can “check out” a game with a $5 deposit, redeemable toward the price of the game should they eventually purchase it. Both models show that, with a little respect and responsibility, board games can enter limited circulation to the public.

I’m sure I’m missing some of the more nuanced arguments about various “Gaming in Libraries” issues: whether games belong there, how to integrate them into programming and circulated collections, how to find funding to acquire relevant games, creating an acquisition rationale for building a collection. I’ve not yet had a chance to read some of the more academic literature on the subject (Professor Nicholson’s Everyone Plays at the Library is out of stock at Amazon.com…), but I know forward-thinking librarians out there are dealing with the issues of expanding their role and relevance in the community, and I like to think gaming plays some part in that.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Banned Books Week

I wanted to remind everyone that Sept. 24 - Oct. 1 is Banned Books Week. Why does this matter to gamers? Because roleplaying games have incited similar controversies in school and public libraries since the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”).   

I recall the controversy raised by the “Mazes & Monsters” made-for-TV movie, given legitimacy by rising star Tom Hanks; debates in my hometown’s public schools, notably the junior high/middle school, about whether to host a Dungeons & Dragons club; the general stigma toward geeks of any type, particularly gaming geeks; and the complete lack of gaming books, even non-fiction titles, in the school and public libraries. Roleplaying games might have more general acceptance in today’s society, but they still suffer from varying degrees of stigma.

Banning or challenging books isn’t something from the Golden Age of Fascism; it’s alive and well today in our supposedly enlightened society. We still hear about fundamentalist forces challenging books on the news with alarming frequency. Even here on the medieval frontier of Northern Virginia (the medieval side…) we recently had a controversy over having the unabridged version of Anne Frank’s diaries in the public schools, a story that briefly went national.

On a personal note, in reading over the American Library Association’s list of “Banned and Challenged Classics” various moral groups have contested over the years, I’m pleasantly surprised at how many “challenged” books I read as part of my public school curriculum (including To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, In Cold Blood, Brave New World, and A Separate Peace) and how many I’ve enjoyed on my own later in life (among them Slaughterhouse Five, The Lord of the Rings [!]).    

I’m not going to preach about the subject much more than to say an ideology that bans books prefers its followers -- and indeed everyone -- to remain manipulated by fear and ignorance, something all too abundant in our world.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Short & Sweet RPGs

As kids we have more time to fully absorb something as involved and complex as a roleplaying game with its original mechanics and setting. I remember when I got my first Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, oddly enough as an Easter present from my parents, who noticed I was already creating my own basic kind of roleplaying game. I was in junior high school. I spent nearly every hour of an entire weekend reading, absorbing, and wrapping my head around the rules and concepts of D&D. I couldn’t get enough. That entire summer I immersed myself in the Basic and then Expert sets, creating characters, charting new dungeons, and running adventures for friends. Ah, to have that kind of time again….
As we get older and pile on the commitments and responsibilities, we no longer have time to dedicate to that degree of immersion; we’re lucky if we find time to actually play a game, let alone get lost in its game mechanics and setting. I’m finding my personal preferences for roleplaying games head in two directions: the first toward using some iteration of the D6 System, with which I’m familiar both as a fan and in working with it with West End Games; the second toward short-and-sweet game materials where I can quickly get a practical sense of the mechanics and setting, at least enough to run a decent gaming session.
I won’t discuss the first direction beyond saying that everyone has their preferred game system, and some folks continue using it in both its original settings and ones they port to the game engine. Though I’ve played my fair share of other games, the D6 System remains for me intuitive second nature (as evidenced by one of my recommendations below); it also benefits from being one of the easiest game engines to teach others, especially new players interested less in game mechanics and more in an engaging setting.
(Another option -- one I won’t explore here -- moves players interested in a game or setting to rely on a gamemaster with more time who can shepherd them through the system and weave exciting storylines in scenarios. Admittedly this option assumes you know enough people unlike yourself who actually have time on their hands to do this.)
Short-and-sweet games provide a basic framework of mechanics and setting to give readers enough working sense of the game that they can run a scenario. Those materials should have the potential to inspire gamemasters’ imaginations to further develop the setting and campaign if they choose. They don’t require much time to learn the system or become familiar with the setting -- at least for experienced roleplaying gamers -- and provide some basic campaign or scenario notes to both guide and encourage gamemasters in creating adventures with the right atmosphere. Additional resources for sale and free online and in the Friendly Local Gaming Store help improve the overall gaming experience, but shouldn’t be required elements for a successful game.
Here are some of my recommendations for short-and-sweet roleplaying games; most assume some working knowledge of roleplaying games, and some setting-neutral systems require additional development for the specific genre. They also all share another common denominator beyond being short and sweet…they’re all available as free PDFs online:
Old School Hack replicates a game experience reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons during the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”). Its layout aids quick reference to a rules set that focuses on different bonuses to a core combat mechanic; but its basic game engine also allows for skill rolls, individual talents, and varied monsters, weapons, and treasures. It’s best for gamers more interested in gaming with the classic stereotypes of fantasy roleplaying games (“the Fighter,” “the Thief,” etc.) rather than those focused more on storytelling. Although it offers few setting details beyond those inherent in character classes and combat mechanics, anyone familiar with medieval fantasy roleplaying tropes can run with it (also, check out “One-Page Dungeons” below). Old School Hack is available as a free PDF download.
Mini Six from AntiPaladin Games provides a streamlined version of the venerable D6 System, with plenty of options to customize it to the players’ particular flavor of D6. While it presents a system appropriate for cinematic action in nearly any genre (and easy to port to most settings), Mini Six also presents a host of original campaign environments, each a handful of pages yet complete with sample stats for adversaries and heroes, suggested skills to use, unique perks and complications, scenario hooks, and other game notes to help gamemasters. Mini Six is available as a free PDF download or an $8 printed game book (for those of us who still cherish books).
Risus: The Anything RPG offers a wide-open, freeform system with a clever core mechanic and the ability to adapt to any genre. Character stats take the form of broad-ranging clichés used for task resolution and opposed rolls. While the game’s presentation lends itself to light-hearted, humorous genres, the core mechanics work with nearly any setting. Given its basic nature, Risus requires gamemasters to create their own setting, allowing them to take a general game concept and dive in relying on clichés common to the genre. In fact, the cliché’s help define the setting as much as a broadly described setting can influence the clichés. Risus is available as a free PDF download; an active online community offers plenty of additional material, if you desire, customizing the system to different genres. A $10 PDF Risus Companion elaborates on many concepts with bits on an amusing array of game topics.
One-Page Dungeons
offer concise, entertaining, and often well-illustrated dungeons to go with any medieval fantasy roleplaying game, whether one’s favorite incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons or some of the other setting-neutral offerings I’ve mentioned above. The dungeons aren’t released by a game publishing company, but the result of an annual contest where designers of all ability levels submit their dungeons; some focus on amazing graphics, others clever dungeon premises, and still others on traditionally non-dungeon-oriented genres. The website publishes free PDF compilations both of all the winners (across a broad range of categories) and all the entries for readers to judge themselves. Aside from providing some ready-made adventure material, these one-page scenarios can also inspire gamers to quickly create their own.
Lady Blackbird provides simple rules and a basic setting framework with the invitation to further develop and explore the game universe. A rather freeform roleplaying game, Lady Blackbird’s nine pages provide some basic premises of the heroes’ opening situation, the setting (part steampunk, part science fiction space adventure), the characters (with all relevant rules right on the sheet), and one page with guidance on running the game. Like other offerings above, Lady Blackbird assumes participants know how to run a roleplaying game. Its minimalist approach offers an innovative, basic game system self-contained on each character sheet, with enough guidance on improving characters to use the setting as a launch point for further adventures. It has inspired a host of similar games (many modifications or “hacks” of the basic game engine concepts into new yet quite specific genres), including ones employing themes of pirates, westerns, zombies, espionage, and post-apocalypitc; The Mighty Atom blog maintains links to several such hacks.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Exponential Game Growth (Part II)

The coming of the “Internet Age” further encouraged the already exponential growth in the gaming field and changed the way gamers enjoy their hobby. The internet increased the number of publishers of all calibers and backgrounds, the number of gamers and the ways they interact, and the number and varied quality of games available. It provides consumers many different ways to acquire games beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar hobby stores and mail-order catalogs.
The internet expanded the scope of games in numerous ways. It brought many key innovations to game production and distribution as well as the way gamers interact on all levels. They parallel the general changes the internet brought to everyday life in other areas that we often take for granted on a daily basis. This is in no way a comprehensive examination of these factors, but a general overview of the ways gaming has changed over the years.
Information Dissemination
The internet serves primarily to disseminate information, not simply from publishers to consumers, but among gamers themselves. Gone are the days of print catalogs and newsletters; today anyone with a website uses it as a promotional tool, from game companies and conventions to enthusiastic fans and gaming clubs. Publisher websites, blogs, news sites, and social networking sites help spread the word about the latest releases, events, debates, trends, and other relevant issues. Company websites function as their primary marketing tool, a central location for official publisher news and supplements, rules downloads, and fan discussions. Few businesses could survive and succeed today without some kind of web presence to support and promote its activities. (Many theorize, and I agree with them, that West End Games’ lack of an official web presence in the late 1990s contributed to its financial demise, especially when other game companies were starting to use the internet as a promotional tool to reach tech-savvy consumers.) In many cases fan-produced sites compiling news, fostering online discussion, and hosting files with scenarios, rules supplements, and other resources offer a gathering place where fans can engage their enthusiasm for a particular game or aspect of the gaming hobby, further reinforcing the corporate online presence.
(Most of the subsequent categories below fall under the broad description of “information dissemination,” but they have more specific and interactive qualities).
Example: Back in the 1980s, if I wanted to find out what products a particular company was releasing next, I’d have to wait for my monthly copy of Dragon Magazine to check out the ads or the occasional column on new releases (which disappeared as the publication increasingly focused editorial content on TSR games). Today I simply surf on over to the company website and check out its new releases, assuming I haven’t already registered with the site to automatically receive updates.
The internet also serves as a vast repository for resources people can download, print, and use away from their computer (though mobile phones and tablet devices can bring these resources to the gaming table). Most of these take the form of PDF publications, though some simply reside on web pages with limited print formatting, or download as MS-Word documents. This content includes game rules, variants, entire print-and-play board games and accessories, cardstock miniature soldiers, some as free downloads and some as paid. Whether officially released from the company producing the game or published by inspired fans, these materials further enhance the game experience, maintain interest in a particular game, and encourage continued play, even after a game passes into the realm of “dead games” with no official corporate support. Aside from making current print releases available as PDFs to purchase, many companies turn old print materials in their archive into PDFs to satisfy customers’ nostalgic urges.
Example: Back in the late 1980s, Steve Jackson Games released a free quick-start version of its Car Wars games; Mini Car Wars was a six-page, tri-fold piece measuring 8.5 x 11 inches, in full color, featuring the rules plus counters one could cut out and mount for roads, cars, wrecks, and obstacles. I don’t remember where I noticed the advertisement for it -- probably Dragon Magazine -- but I dutifully sent my dollar and self-addressed, stamped envelope and received it a few weeks later in what we would call today “snail mail.” Today we’d search the internet for a free Car Wars quick-start rules (found at the Steve Jackson Games e23 website), purchase, download and print them, and be done with it all in about five minutes; and this version, still $1, includes “scans of the vital components re-orientated to allow for easier printing.”
With greater dissemination of resources comes a new means of publication, especially for independent game designers offering their works free or paid, through downloaded PDFs. No longer must aspiring, fan, amateur, or even professional game designers rely on publishing houses with limited budgets, mercurial editors, ulterior ambitions, and other quirky personalities standing in the way of an individual producing his dream gaming project. The ability to create and distribute PDF game publications -- from roleplaying games, supplements, and scenarios to print-and-play board, card, and war games, even miniatures games with printable armies and terrain -- has lowered the financial threshold for producing a game. Granted, this removes some degree of professional vetting, editing, production value, and distribution, but also eliminates the necessary financial limitations of producing printed product. Thus consumers must wade through a great torrent of material, much of it mediocre and otherwise sub-par, to find the true gems; but PDF publishing enabled the talented creators of those gems to share their work with a wider audience in a field where, traditionally, their creative vision might not have found a more demanding corporate sponsorship.
Would such innovative games like Risus: The Anything RPG, MiniSix, and Old School Hack ever reached physical book publication and bookstore distribution through the upper tiers of game industry publishing houses? Would resources for personal play and in-school use like Junior General be so accessible to a broad audience?
Although I personally wouldn’t advocate gamers solely taking advantage of the myriad of free game resources on the web, one could conceivably spend the rest of one’s life playing free games of numerous kinds all downloaded from the internet. Note that I’m not advocating only playing free games; the Friendly Local Gaming Store still serves as the focal point not simply for perusal and purchase for games and game-related supplies but as a community hub for gaming activities.
Example: In high school I immersed myself in Dungeons & Dragons; as an offshoot, I created my own gaming newsletter (in flattering emulation of the venerable Dragon Magazine) with a typewriter and some original line art. As it was, I photocopied my magazine and sold it for a quarter to friends, fellow high school kids who shared my gaming geekery. Today I’d produce it with desktop publishing tools, PDF it, and upload it to my website, then promote it through various online networking venues for distribution through the internet to readers across the globe.
The internet brings together the greater gaming community at various levels. Where once we had to rely on meeting and interacting with gamers at the Friendly Local Gaming Store, rare library gaming programs, and extended circles of friends (usually through school), now we simply have to look online for a variety of interactions: finding new gamers in our area, discussing news in the industry, finding and connecting with area conventions, getting advice on rules and gamemastering, floating or sharing ideas for new mechanics or scenarios.
Publisher websites often host forums where fans can discuss all aspects of their favorite games with input from the designers. Fan websites like RPG.net and BoardGameGeek not only offer messageboards for open questions and discussion, but host additional content from bloggers, reviewers, and other contributors. Some sites encourage creativity with game design contests featuring forums for posting progress reports, discussing individual game mechanics, and ultimately releasing new games to the community.
Example: In high school my gaming buddies consisted of a few geeky friends I’d made, and our extended circle gamed throughout our time in college. We mostly met as friends of friends who all enjoyed roleplaying games or the settings we played. Many years later I find myself in a relatively new community where I don’t know many people, and certainly haven’t met many in the normal course of things who care much for any games, let alone roleplaying games and high-end board games. So I frequently surf the website for the Friendly Local Gaming Store (alas, a 45-minute-drive away) to check the calendar and message boards. A little interaction there brought to light several people right in town who enjoy gaming, and led to a few meetings with another gaming couple who have a son close to our own son’s age.
High Production Values
Three factors -- additional gamer activity, the general growth in the gamer-consumer population, and the surge in innovative games -- have enabled several companies to release games with high price tags and correspondingly high production values. Many companies expanded and some emerged entirely dedicated to high-quality games described by a number of terms (Euro-games, family strategy games, “battle games”) that I’ll simply call high-end board games. It’s also encouraged the proliferation of new game forms, including battle games like Wings of War and Memoir ’44 with impressive visual components and “cooperative” games like Pandemic and Forbidden Island, where the players try beating the game itself, winning or losing together.
With price points a minimum of $20 and often as high as $60 (and some near $100, like the late NG International’s Battles of Napoleon), they’re extraordinary über-board games when compared to the usual fare one usually sees for traditional family board games; and an increase in the game consumer base and its buying power has enabled the market for these high-end games. With more involved gameplay and strategies, they offer a richer gaming experience and frequently higher replay value. Some, like battle games, come with multiple scenarios to play; gamers can often download additional ones by the game publisher or avid fans. Would these high-end board games been possible in the 1980s with limited production values and a gaming consumer base used to paying $6 for roleplaying game modules and $15 for the Dungeon Master’s Guide?
Example: In the Dawn of Roleplaying Milton Bradley released a host of “Gamemaster Series” games, huge boxed affairs with beautiful, oversized boards and hordes of plastic pieces for epic play (titles included Conquest of the Empire, Fortress America, Broadsides and Boarding Parties, Shogun -- recently released as Ikusa -- and the now-popular Axis & Allies). Their success remains debatable, but they didn’t reach the popularity of today’s games (at least until reworked to today’s standards). Now such games might fall into the category of “battle games,” though current versions employ terrain tiles, cards, and scenario books to extend the replay value. Other, non-battle-oriented games with similarly high-quality components have drawn in an audience from both the ranks of hard-core gamers and more casual consumers looking for a play experienced more advanced than traditional board games.
Online Play
The Internet Age also heralds a transition for some traditionally analog games to electronic formats, particularly board games. These aren’t computer, console, or other games designed exclusively for electronic play, but high-end board games initially produced with physical components ported to digital formats for play on computers, smart phones, and tablet devices. Some offer apps for personal devices, while others provide an online community where play occurs among people across the globe. Days of Wonder comes to mind as one of the pioneers of online play, with web versions of popular games like Memoir’44, Ticket to Ride, and Smallworld; no doubt other companies have expanded their menu of online games. Whether these constitute “computer games,” online “softboard” versions of board games, or some completely different construct is open to debate among the more academic-minded gamers (see Professor Scott Nicholson’s column on the subject). Other technologies have flourished on the internet, including computer mapping programs, character creation apps, solo board and story game interfaces, and even dice-rolling applications.
Example: The Dawn of Roleplaying was also the dawn of personal computing. Heck, I remember a neighborhood kid, who also incidentally introduced me to D&D, had a home computer with a cassette tape drive! Easy, affordable internet access was 10 years away, at least, and playing games on computers was limited to Atari console systems and very simple PC games with ASCII graphics. Today personal electronics are ubiquitous and used for everything at any time, especially playing games. Playing contemporary board games against other human opponents in an online community, however, remains a fairly recent development. I’ve toyed with trying Memoir ’44 online given my interest in World War II, but I just don’t have time.
Information Overload
While gamers can bask in a renaissance of our hobby through the internet, they can also become overwhelmed with the deluge of content: news and material from company websites, a proliferation of blogs on a host of gaming-related subjects, discussions on message boards, new product reviews, online communities devoted to specific games or genres. They all update periodically, some monthly, some irregularly, and many weekly or even daily. One could spend all day surfing the web, checking out regular haunts and seeking out new content. Many websites might claim to function as a central clearinghouse for content of a particular subject; but they’re not as focused or professionally vetted as old print periodicals, which used the editorial process both to select quality articles written by competent authors and sift through the vast “slush pile” of material to determine what out of that huge pile would capture reader interest.
Example: I used to look forward to receiving Dragon Magazine in the mail (or finding other gaming magazines at the Friendly Local Gaming Store), and I’d read it thoroughly for the articles, columns, letters, and news/ads about game company releases. Today I regularly check dozens of company websites, blogs, and online community forums to keep abreast of the changing gaming landscape. I download lots of free content that looks interesting, but rarely have any quality time (or the attention span) to sit down and absorb it all.
Further Issues
I’ve not expanded on many controversial issues raised by the internet’s role in the exponential growth of gaming: the lack of editorial and content quality control in the a low entry threshold to online PDF publishing; the plague of internet piracy on paid PDFs; the distribution of consumer dollars skewing toward online and PDF sales and away from sales at brick-and-mortar Friendly Local Gaming Stores; the trend to glue oneself to an electronic device to play with others on the internet instead of gathering at someone’s house for an afternoon of snack food and face-to-face gaming. Maybe they’re fodder for future missives here at Hobby Games Recce. Hopefully they encourage some discussion, further understanding, and subsequent positive changes in how we as gamers use the internet to promote and expand our hobby.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Books about Board Games

Sometimes we can benefit from looking back at our roots; board games are no exception. Serious board gamers today focus more on the latest Euro- or German-style games, “battle games” with nice boards, cards, and pieces, designer games, and family strategy games, all of which fall under what I’d call high-end board games (those with high-quality components often retailing above the $20 mark). Yet we don’t always take a moment to look back and examine some of our hobby’s ancient roots in “abstract” board games. Two books highlight for me what are several resources about board games that demonstrate how they can prove just as challenging as the most recent high-end Euro-game.
When I was just getting into roleplaying games a distant relative bought me The Big Book of Board Games: 14 Classic Games To Color & Play as a gift. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and they probably thought it was a good way to engage my interest in “games,” even if they didn’t really understand the concept of roleplaying games. Yes, it was an oversized softcover book with nice cardstock pages containing the rules for 14 games with boards one could color and use to play. (The same relatives also gave me an oversized science fiction coloring book with summaries of classic sci-fi novels with huge line art to color, so they were at least pretty spot-on with their assessment of my interests at the time.) While I might have been a bit old for coloring books, the information inside engaged my interests and further inspired me in both those fields.
The board game book offers an entertaining introduction to the history and rules of board games from the past, with the invitation to sit down and play them. These include perhaps the two earliest board games, the royal game of Ur and senet (of which I later acquired more substantial versions); those that later evolved into more abstracted, modern forms like nine men’s morris, asalto, and alquerque; and games that still persist in some popular form today, like snakes and ladders, pachisi, go, and backgammon. A few others (Glückshaus and shove ha’ penny) I found uninspiring, usually because they relied either purely on luck or manual dexterity.
The book’s format worked particularly well. Each two-page spread offered the rules -- including an introduction with some historical context, a list of pieces needed, and any set-up diagrams -- and a sizeable board for practical play. I regret the book isn’t easily found for purchase (it was published in 1979) since it might provide some inspiration for today’s youth to engage in analog games instead of the ubiquitous electronic ones.
R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (1969) serves as a more comprehensive if less-playable reference on board games. It offers overviews of numerous board games throughout history and across cultures, including diagrams and photographs of game components, historical notes, rules (some extrapolated from sketchy sources, but still playable), and numerous variants in painstaking detail.
Bell’s work represents an exhaustive study and catalog of games. One is struck by the vast range of game concepts and mechanics from civilizations we might consider “primitive” by our modern, personal-electronics-addicted society. Its broad coverage includes American Indian games, numerous iterations of mancala, variations of draughts, chess-like games, dice games, backgammon-based games; and I’m only almost halfway through the tome, which combines two previously published volumes. Reading the comprehensive table of contents provides some insight into exactly how much the book covers and how Bell categorizes games into particular groups based on play mechanics and origins.
I keep both these books on my office shelf reserved for more “academic” references on gaming, including H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, Medieval Games by Salaamallah the Corpulent, a.k.a. Jeffrey A. DeLuca, Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, and Dr. Stuart Brown’s Play. Bell’s compendium seems perhaps among the most scholarly of these works. Schick’s Heroic Worlds serves as a good catalog for roleplaying games up to its publication date (1991), though it focuses more on publication and content information than describing gameplay. Given the proliferation of high-end board and card games today, I’d love to see a similar record of such games for future reference; old fogeys like myself would prefer such a descriptive catalog in print, but children of the Internet Age, however, can settle on the impermanent, mutable, and highly useful BoardGameGeek website.