Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wanted: Family Game Expo

Americans have nothing like Germany’s Spiel Essen…and we should.
Internationale Spieltage SPIEL has been held in Essen, Germany, since 1983. With more than 150,000 attendees and 750 exhibitors from 30 countries, it is hands-down the largest gaming convention in the world (with GenCon Indianapolis a distant second). It occurs every October, giving German families the chance to try and buy board games for the coming holiday season.
I regret I’ve never attended -- and given that roleplaying games are a small subset of what Spiel Essen does, I’ve never had the opportunity -- but from everything I’ve read and heard, it sounds like one huge game demo. Spiel Essen is a gaming expo geared more toward families playing games than gaming hobbyists, like many American conventions. Much of its vast space is devoted to board and card game manufacturers demonstrating their games, most newly released for the show, first-hand to consumers. Additional areas highlight comics, some computer games, and play areas for kids, rounding out an overall family friendly experience. According to the expo website, Spiel Essen centers on “the idea of inviting the consumer and gamer to play new games and toys and make up his own mind about the quality of the individual game.”
I’m not advocating some organization running an exact copy of Spiel Essen here in America, but I think some group should try, even at the regional level, operating some portion of even an existing convention as a family oriented games expo to encourage greater participation in the hobby.
Americans Versus Games
Americans don’t play games like the Germans; this remains a primary obstacle keeping analog games of all kinds from becoming too mainstream.
Despite occasional campaigns to promote some semblance of a “family game night,” Americans spend more time “with” each other on cell phones, by e-mail, texts, and video chats than we do in person. People who are constantly plugged in don’t have the necessary face-to-face interactions in their social dealings. For games this means learning to show good sportsmanship whether winning or losing, figuring out how to play a game using printed instructions and physical pieces, cards, and boards, interacting with each other spontaneously and not by how quickly we can type or transfer our words and images over the internet. Part of this emerges from our hectic society that emphasizes productivity and money making instead of actually living and enjoying life. (And in these troubling economic times, our society gives us little choice but to obsess on our simple financial survival.) With our encouragement our kids are obsessed with over-achievement and over-involvement in school and sports; as parents we’re often diverted and consumed by our own interests, which we pursue from time carved out of other necessary obligations.
What we don’t always realize is how much recreation -- of all sorts, not just analog gaming -- helps recharge and re-invigorate us, providing a break in the middle of our hectic lives (much like recess used to in elementary school) so we can get back to work with renewed energy and focus.
Family Gaming Options
Occasionally we’re reminded and encouraged, if only for a fleeting moment, of the importance of gathering for games.
Hasbro in particular has long advocated having a family game night, using everything from television commercials to website resources. It’s an uphill battle dependent on the American family, which has more than enough stressors working against it, as noted above. Too often family gaming is relegated to the likes of toy department standards like Monopoly, Sorry, Scrabble, and Risk (including the re-tooled, re-licensed, and re-imagined versions of those games capitalizing on established brand recognition). While I’m an advocate of German-style designer board games (or high-end board games) and other gaming diversions, if a family game night with what many gaming hobbyists would consider “mundane” games is all people get, I’ll accept it.
Gamewright still offers the Gamewright GameNight program for schools, as outlined in a past Hobby Games Recce feature. School groups schedule and promote a game night program, learn to demo age-appropriate games using copies provided by Gamewright, and then run them at the event, selling copies of those games and keeping 50% of the proceeds for their fundraising coffers. It’s a fantastic model for a small-scale family game expo, providing both demo and sale copies as well as financial incentive to the organization administering and promoting the event. Gamewright’s titles are particularly well-suited to families with young children (as opposed to most high-end board games, which often have a minimum recommended age of 8 or 10).
Many conventions -- whether strictly gaming cons or sci-fi/fantasy media cons with gaming elements -- cater more to the gaming hobby, not the family market, and thus their offerings remain more focused to the dedicated hobbyist and not the casual gamer. Some provide children’s program tracks with appropriate games and activities, but they’re not geared toward promoting family board and card games. The most conducive con environment for getting families involved in games comes at conventions hosting open gaming areas supported by a game library; families can check games out of the collection, sit down at an open table (usually in the general board gaming play area), learn the rules at their own pace, and play the game. Right now this remains the closest American conventions get to Spiel Essen’s family friendly game demo environment.
Granted, the cost in attending a convention can become prohibitive (even assuming the entire family is interested in the con’s programming offerings) for what isn’t really an exclusive family event. In our neck of the woods, February’s Prezcon, a huge board gaming tournament convention, offers an open play option; while the adult prices are in the $30-$65 range for one to two days, the convention does offer free “Junior” badges for kids playing in Junior events or the open gaming area (though we’re assuming this requires a paying adult).
Other local family gaming options might exist in your area from two usual sources, the Friendly Local Gaming Store and your local library. Some game shops host events for families and children, but these remain few and far between, with little interest from parents who might not normally visit such “fringe” venues as comic and game stores. They often require more promotion than store employees have time, especially when reaching out to a new market. Occasionally libraries host gaming events, though most remain focused on teens, the most likely sector of the population to play board and card games for recreation. This makes sense for libraries just beginning to explore the role of games and play in their hallowed halls in an attempt to evolve their space more into “community hubs” than hushed repositories for books. Branching out to offer game programs for younger kids, adults, and seniors -- and particularly events for the entire family -- pushes the bounds of the current comfortable (and fundable) paradigm.
Promoting the gaming hobby -- whether tabletop roleplaying, board, card, or war games -- to the general, non-gaming public remains a grassroots effort. So I’m issuing a few challenges focused on you, the local gamer, store owner, librarian, and convention organizer, to make a concerted effort to offer family friendly events to encourage gaming.
Aren’t there gaming-oriented trade organizations that exist to promote this kind of agenda? I’m not going to challenge the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) here, since it already has its hands full running two conventions, one a strictly industry trade show each spring in Las Vegas and the Origins game convention at the beginning of the summer in Columbus, OH (in addition to numerous other duties as a trade organization representing a disparate crowd of creative types). Granted, GAMA would be the logical choice to spearhead such a family gaming expo, but right now it’s too consumed trying to serve the vast American gaming “industry,” much of which is still focused on pen-and-paper roleplaying games (though board and card game publishers have been an ever-growing population of its constituency).
So my challenges go out to more grassroots sources. Not sure where you fit in? Check out my last challenge:
To Friendly Local Game Stores: Make an effort to host well-publicized family-friendly events to encourage families to game together using board and card games purchased from your own shelves. Spread the word in the schools if permitted, local newspapers who are always looking for interesting features, and online websites and social media. Find some incentive to get families into stores: provide free pizza or even raffle off a prize game with one ticket per attendee.
Offer flyers recommending games you frequently stock that are appropriate for families rated by age and time needed to play.
To Local Libraries: Use your existing teen gaming base as volunteers to learn and demo games at a weekend afternoon gaming event for families. Let them help choose games recommended for appropriate age groups, help them familiarize themselves with the games and with effective ways of presenting them, and tap their enthusiasm to promote games to families already using other library resources. Create a brochure available at the event and elsewhere recommending games (particularly ones in your collection) appropriate for families with kids of various ages.
To Game Conventions: Consider increasing your offerings for kids and families. You don’t  have to design an entire programming track along these lines, but find and promote some events ideal for young people. At the very least make sure you offer an open board gaming area with some family appropriate games to check out. Perhaps even recruit an area organization like a board game club to help promote this aspect of your convention.
To Gaming Enthusiasts: Get involved, volunteer for existing events, and advocate that local organizations (game stores, libraries, schools, conventions) host family gaming programs. Start with the venues you’re already using, the Friendly Local Gaming Store and local library. If you’re a parent of appropriately aged kids, establish a regular family gaming activity and find some special events to attend…even visiting a gaming store and trying out a demo game counts as a good family, game-related outings.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bettering Ourselves: Gaming Academics

I’m a casual Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, so I’m aware of Jean Luc Picard’s frequent admonition that humans of his era strive to better themselves, which always strikes a chord in the idealistic recesses of my brain.

In the interest of improving myself, I’ve endeavored to acquaint myself with some of the academic-level scholarship about analog gaming. My interest emerges from two objectives I’ve informally pursued most of my professional life: designing roleplaying and board games, and introducing people to games as a popular, social form of entertainment (sometimes through educational and library venues).

I suppose this pursuit began back in 2008, when I first took note of Professor Scott Nicholson, associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and a very public advocate of games in libraries. Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers will recall him from several posts, including “Library Gaming Resources.” During the summer of 2008 Professor Nicholson offered a Gaming in Libraries course, 22 online video discussions plus several bonus videos from other librarians working with games. (The course videos remain available free online.) His insights on both analog and digital gaming in the library’s social setting, player interactions, and general organizational and promotional strategies inspired me to look at games more critically, beyond the sole perspectives of designer or player, and in the context of entertaining social interaction.
I’ve continued following Dr. Nicholson’s public work examining and promoting games, including his blog, Play Matters, about work and activities during a year-long sabbatical as a visiting faculty member at the department of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.
Since then I’ve been collecting a number of resources on gaming scholarship and reading them as time permits; I’ve also obtained a few hard-copy books on the subject to add to a small library of volumes about gaming.
What can I learn from all this, and how can I apply it as a game designer and advocate? I believe that exposing oneself to a variety of ideas and experiences helps broaden our minds and thus our approaches to different challenges. Even if I’m not interested in a particular type of game or philosophy of looking at them, such diverse perspectives might enhance or inspire my own work. Perhaps I’ll find a solution to a design problem in a current project, or explore a new strategy in developing an upcoming game. Maybe this material offers new approaches to presenting games to a broader audience at conventions, libraries, schools, and other venues. It might challenge me to re-think my stance on core issues that remain integral to my game design and advocacy objectives.
We have a lot to learn from each other, especially since humans are still instinctively “tribal,” staying loyal to the various groups to which they belong, whether religious, ethnic, socio-economic, or professional. We’re ego-centric creatures, and the groups to which we belong tend to remain insular and defensive of both authority and mindset.
So when it comes to games -- whether designing them or introducing them into a particular non-gaming venue -- every professional sub-set seems to approach gaming from their particular insular perspective without necessarily looking to other disciplines for ideas or alternate approaches. Game designers, librarians, and educators all know the advantages and pitfalls of their individual professions, but don’t always appreciate what others have done and why, or whether a particular approach might work in their own field. By examining other perspectives and remaining open-minded to different approaches, we might gain new insight into the problems we face in our particular professions. Gaming enthusiasts can also gain insight from looking at games from academic perspectives…it’s not simply a professional pursuit, but an endeavor for anyone interested in gaming and expanding their appreciation for it.
Like learning through play, we should always learn through living; every day should bring a new lesson or some previously unnoticed (or suddenly rediscovered) bit of knowledge to improve our lives. In the hopes of inspiring others to broaden their gaming horizons, I’ve listed a few resources I’ve investigated during my pursuit of more a more academic perspective on gaming:
Scott Nicholson’s Work: As mentioned earlier Professor Scott Nicholson maintains an extremely visible presence on the internet and is generous in sharing his scholarly insights and projects, primarily about gaming in libraries but also including gaming and social engagement. He’s a wealth of knowledge about games, including how games, people, and spaces (like libraries) interact. He remains on the cutting edge of gaming scholarships with his year-long sabbatical at the department of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, with his insights shared through his weekly blog posts about his activities, experiences, and newly developed materials. Don’t let his friendly façade fool you…he might focus on games and play, but he has some serious academic work going on. He and his work remain extremely approachable to non-academics and game enthusiasts. Professor Nicholson’s vast scope of online materials for self-edification include more than 70 videos about board games at Board Games With Scott; Play Matters, a weekly blog showcasing his scholarly work with games during his sabbatical at MIT’s department of Comparative Media Studies; the Library Game Lab of Syracuse, Scott’s academic exploration of gaming and libraries, including his publications on the subject and several online talks; and his 22-video online course on Gaming in Libraries, with its related publication Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages. I heartily recommend his work for any librarians or gamers seeking to volunteer at a library gaming program; his material’s also a solid critical look at how we play games.
Bernie DeKoven & Deep Fun: One of Professor Nicholson’s inspirations is Bernie DeKoven, a game designer, author, lecturer, and “fun theorist,” whose book The Well-Played Game is going on my Amazon Wishlist. He has inspired other game design scholars (notably Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, authors of the game-design textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals…see below) and consulted on the design of toys and games, including Lego’s recent entries into the board game field. DeepFun.com is a blog that takes a light-hearted yet thoughtful look at the importance of play and fun for everyone (not just kids or gamer layabouts like myself). Deep Fun offers a source of playful inspiration and stimulating resources, including current insights on play, excerpts from his lectures, books, and CD, quotations about fun and play, and Playing for Laughs, a page of group games particularly suited to library programs and workplace workshops. His joyous philosophy emerges in both his blog entries and his approach to the games listed at Deep Fun. DeKoven encourages people to think about games not in an academic frame of mind but from a playful perspective.
Books About Games: I have a small yet growing library of books about games, few of which would rate at the academic level, but all of which I find essential to a general knowledge of games, their evolution, and design. Among those I’ve found most useful are R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, 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: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. I’m currently reading Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s game-design textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals; it talks from an often abstract yet important perspective of what games should accomplish, elements to a successful game, and other aspects essential to game creation, all using examples from well-known analog and digital games. Thus far I’m finding it a kind of guide to life, if you will, outlining broad, core concepts and explaining how they work, and leaving it up to readers to apply them in their daily, practical lives. My Amazon.com wishlist has a few more titles I hope to acquire in the future (though one can’t really purchase additional time in which to read them…).
Library Journal: LibraryJournal.com provides a different perspective on games, examining issues like game programs at libraries, electronic access to resources, censorship, the changing role of libraries as a gathering place or “community hub” -- issues that also affect gamers in both their use of the library and the pursuit of their hobby. Aside from offering news from the world of libraries to further illustrate the challenges they face, LibraryJournal.com hosts several library-themed blogs: among the ones I find most engaging are Annoyed Librarian’s frank yet critical discussions of issues facing libraries and game industry veteran and librarian Liz Danforth’s Games, Gamers, & Gaming blog with gaming-specific insights. For those of us dealing with analog games (and in some aspects digital media as well), one theme in its article and blogs remains the role of a physical library (with space, books, staff, programs) in a swiftly evolving electronic age. It encourages us to look at the physical spaces and components for our own gaming lives (libraries, Friendly Local Gaming Stores, conventions, and other venues hosting our gaming activities) and how they might evolve given technological developments and changing political-economic conditions.
American Journal of Play: A quarterly, interdisciplinary journal examining the history, science, and culture of play, the American Journal of Play offers yet another perspective on issues related to gaming in articles from scholars across a wide range of specialties. The first three volumes (12 issues total) remain available free online; review the contents and abstracts online and download PDFs of individual articles that appeal to your particular interests. I have several from the most recent issue on my hard drive waiting for me to find time to read them: “Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let Them Play: An Interview with Hara Estroff Marano and Lenore Skenazy,” and “Marbles and Machiavelli: The Role of Game Play in Children’s Social Development.” These might seem a bit highbrow for some, but reading current scholarship on games and play might offer a different perspective on issues related to our own gaming and game design. The Journal is one branch of an educational institution called The Strong. According to its website, “The Strong is a highly interactive, collections-based educational institution devoted to the study and exploration of play.” It includes several “play partners” in Rochester, NY, that support this mission: National Museum of Play, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, and the American Journal of Play (all of which are worth exploring online).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Love for Thieves’ World

The popular Thieves’ World fiction anthologies stand out as one of the major developments in fantasy fiction that coincided with the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”). Thieves’ World was one of the first “shared universe” settings for fantasy that invited authors to contribute right from the start (as opposed to numerous others derivative of established, licensed media properties).
Conceived by the late Robert Lynne Asprin and co-edited by him and Lynne Abbey, the series was first published in 1979 with subsequent anthologies released throughout the 1980s (and a continuation in the early 2000s). Each collection presented short stories from established and up-and-coming fantasy authors featuring the setting’s favorite characters. Working from a central continuity bible outlining the basics of the city of Sanctuary, its neighborhoods, and the factions and notable personalities living there, authors infused the setting with their own characters, short tales, and overarching meta-plots that, despite a core continuity bible, began ranging far and wide across both the cityscape and the themes of fantasy fiction.
The stories ran the gamut from court intrigues and rogues’ conspiracies to gods playing with mundane mortals and strange magic that seemed to allow everything from petty enchantments to near-cataclysmic spells. Memorable characters included the well-armed thief Shadowspawn; the naive yet diplomatic Prince Kadakithis; former gladiator turned crime lord Jubal; cursed shape-shifting mage Enas Yorl; the prince’s bodyguards, the Hell Hounds, and their leader, Zalbar; the near-immortal Hell Hound Tempus; One Thumb, owner of the debauched Vulgar Unicorn tavern in the midst of the dangerous Maze neighborhood; and the alluring yet mysterious Myrtis, proprietor of the Aphrodisia House brothel and unofficial ruler of the infamous Street of Red Lanterns.
As with any shared-universe anthology the quality of the stories varied and fans followed their favorite authors, characters, and storylines. As the authors and editors released new anthologies the “meta-plot” of the setting rapidly changed: factions and characters from earlier stories adapted to or disappeared in the face of evolving developments in the setting’s larger world, from political maneuvering in the imperial capital to invasion by foreign powers.
Sanctuary Game Setting
In 1981, after publication of the first two anthologies, roleplaying game company Chaosium released the Thieves’ World Complete Sanctuary Adventure Pack, an ambitious boxed set with three books (guides for players and gamemasters, plus a tome about the city’s personalities) and numerous maps, including a poster-sized map of the city.
The boxed set provided a continuity for the setting that the anthologies could not (and would not as the series progressed and meta-plots ran roughshod over beloved characters and storylines). This came from the marked difference between a roleplaying game “guide” and literary short stories; one provides a definitive setting in which players can game while the other offers a linear, reading experience where the background details emerge through events in the story.
The boxed set components distilled the setting into two distinct features, the geography of Sanctuary and its notable denizens, the detailed setting and “non-player characters” necessary for a rich gaming environment. For roleplaying gamers, the city of Sanctuary offered untold possibilities for urban adventures, something new roleplaying gamers like myself hoped to explore after the dungeon and wilderness adventure formats in Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. The gamemaster guide in particular provided two interesting systems of tables generating random results, one for different establishments in various neighborhoods within the city, and one for creating random encounter throughout the different locales, each one, incidentally, a potential adventure hook. Although it was working with previously established material, the boxed game setting went one step beyond its source material; where the anthologies invited different authors to contribute stories based on a core setting and characters, the game box invited designers to provide stats for the city’s denizens in numerous popular roleplaying game systems of the time, each one providing its game-stat interpretation of the literary characters (whose roles and personalities were also conveniently summarized in the players guide).
The boxed set also included several additional elements that further appealed to gamers. The poster-sized city map was great to spread out on the gaming table for everyone to examine during an adventure, while the smaller maps, including a two-page spread city map in the player’s guide, were perfect for gamemaster reference. The random business and encounter tables led to unexpected twists and turns as characters roamed the city streets. Victoria Poyser’s artwork brought to life the personalities of Sanctuary to a degree far beyond simple character portraits.
Personal Reminiscence
I suppose I discovered Thieves’ World backwards. After immersing myself in Dungeons & Dragons right before starting high school, I saw an ad for Chaosium’s Thieves’ World boxed setting in a magazine and bought it without hesitation the first time I saw it in the local hobby shop. The boxed set introduced me to the setting concept, locations, and characters, though I’d heard and read a little about the anthologies from fellow game geeks.
My friends and I explored Sanctuary on several roleplaying game forays. Their heroes slipped into the city seeking fame and fortune and bumbled from one random encounter to another, resolving storylines along the way and inevitably running afoul of the city watch and the Hell Hounds. Aside from trying to break into the governor’s place, the most frequent goal for the characters was to find some way into Enas Yorl’s subterranean residence beneath the Jewelers Quarter.
I came across the Thieves’ World anthologies the summer before my senior year in high school, when I frequented a local, independent bookstore in town, bought a science fiction or fantasy paperback each week, enthusiastically read it, and returned for more (the proprietor was perceptive and encouraging enough to make sure his offerings in these genres were ample, and, when I started a particular series, he stocked all the relevant books). Having explored Sanctuary of the first two anthologies through the roleplaying game boxed set, I found the stories added depth to the gaming environment, much  like fiction vignettes help illustrate settings in a roleplaying game book; I still enjoyed them as stories, but I appreciated them as supplemental to the roleplaying game setting, rather than most folks who read the anthologies first and, if they were so inclined, used the boxed set as a concise guide to gaming in a literary based setting.
Years later I revisited the boxed set and the Thieves’ World setting to run a prototype fantasy system based on what would eventually become the D6 System. It was a short but more focused campaign that relied on the denizens of Sanctuary (and their hidden agendas) rather than random encounters to inspire the action.
In retrospect the Thieves’ World anthologies taught me several important lessons. I learned shared universes can roam all over the place; aside from varying qualities of the literature itself, the subject matter and tone can offer a very bumpy reading experience. I later learned as a editor (mostly of games, but also of two short story anthologies) that individual authors plot their own courses that don’t always fit the continuity or even spirit of the shared universe in which they’re writing.
The anthologies also helped me realize I’m not a fan of meta-plots. After reading the first two Thieves’ World collections I missed a few anthologies and picked up a book right after the Beysib occupation of Sanctuary, a setting shift that severely changed the focus of stories and motivations of characters and political factions. I like a static environment to game in. If an overarching plot element changes things, I prefer it do so in subtle ways, or in a manner affecting small portions of the setting and characters. I do not like jarring meta-plot changes that alter the setting’s core paradigm and require me to constantly adapt my perception of the literature or game setting. (It’s one of the reasons the recently re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series started losing me when humanity’s survivors settled on New Caprica; to me the series was all about a grittier “ragtag fugitive fleet” and not plopping down on a planet for half a season.)
I admit I was sorely tempted to pick up the new Thieves’ World roleplaying materials produced by Green Ronin Publishing in 2005. Several things deterred me. The cost of roleplaying game books has risen significantly since the “Golden Age of Roleplaying,” when I purchased the original boxed set for $19.95; the Player’s Guide to Sanctuary from Green Ronin alone cost $34.95. Although I was interested in the d20 System for a while, primarily as a freelance game author, I didn’t care much for it as a player. But ultimately I really didn’t want to sift through all that information to extract what to me was most vibrant about Thieves’ World…the first two anthologies, when both the fictional world and my own roleplaying game experience was in its naïve, wide-eyed infancy that took enjoyment in an urban medieval fantasy setting unsullied by complex meta-plots and chaotic campaign evolution.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Library Gaming Resources

Last week I opined on the subject of “Gaming in Libraries,” prattling on about my own sordid library gaming past and looking at the issues of offering games in libraries both as the focus of programming events and as circulated items (albeit as “limited circulation” items like reference materials). To follow up that discussion, I’ve pulled together some online resources for the academic and casual reader interested in bringing games to libraries.

I’m being lazy; I’ve mentioned some of these resources before in my “Gaming Ambassadors” missive here at Hobby Games Recce. Gaming in libraries is one way to serve as a Gaming Ambassador, seeking to introduce games to a new audience and advocate their continued play elsewhere. I feel it’s an important mission on several levels; it promotes the game industry; inspires learning through different, more engaging means; and encourages people to play analog games to alleviate the hectic, harried nature of their busy, plugged-in lives.

ALA Resources: The American Library Association offers two websites with strategies and resources for introducing gaming in library settings, The Librarian’s Guide to Gaming and an ALA wiki page on gaming. The former offers for general tips and best practices, though it doesn’t seem to have been updated in a while. The ALA wiki site offers more updated resources from the ALA and other relevant online and print sources. Given a library’s more public role in the community, the ALA perspective focuses on presentation, administration, and fundraising as well as the practicalities of offering gaming as a library activity, from making games available for the public to explore to drawing teens and other groups into gaming events.

Gaming in Libraries Course: Professor Scott Nicholson has helped mainstream the games in libraries movement, and the Gaming in Libraries course he developed and released online in 2008 remains the cornerstone reference on the topic (as well as the book that evolved from the course, Everyone Plays at the Library). The course remains available online for free, though it takes a while to view all 22 episodes plus the bonus material. Professor Nicholson includes digital games (primarily console games) as well as analog games in his strategies, and some classes exclusively cover electronic gaming. His insights on gaming in the library’s social setting, player interactions, and general organizational and promotional strategies serve as useful tools and inspiration.

Board Games with Scott: Professor Nicholson’s board games site, Board Games with Scott, provides video reviews of single or groups of similar games, a good way to research different games that might be better suited to a particular library event or collection. Video reviews are also great ways to examine game components without having to purchase the game itself.

National Gaming Day @ Your Library: The American Library Association established an annual day to celebrate gaming in libraries “to reconnect communities through their libraries around the educational, recreational, and social value of all types of games.” This year it falls on November 12, 2011 (it generally comes the second Saturday in November). Aside from bringing people into the library for one day of gaming, the event encourages libraries to explore offering gaming programs throughout the year.

Games, Gamers, & Gaming Blog: Librarian and longtime gaming artist Liz Danforth writes a blog for LibraryJournal.com on various aspects of gaming, especially in the library. She covers a variety of material interesting to her as both a gamer and librarian, from game reviews and interesting developments in design to gamer culture and the role of games in libraries. Danforth offers a unique perspective as a game industry and library professional.

BoardGameGeek.com: This website stands above many others as an online encyclopedic community for hobby games and a resource for libraries to peruse popular or requested games for basic information. It relies on fellow game enthusiast members to submit reviews, rank game popularity, discuss games on forums, and provide links to other resources, videos, and images of game components. Though overwhelming at first to new visitors, Boardgamegeek.com offers a wealth of resources for those playing tabletop games.

Games for Educators: This online newsletter for teachers, librarians, and parents, presents the more academic side of gaming, primarily as a teaching tool. The site runs links to interesting stories about games and education, offers a monthly newsletter, and maintains a comprehensive archive of past submissions categorized by audience (teachers, librarians, home-schoolers and parents) plus reviews and free game resources. Given its academic origins, the site offers a different perspective on bringing games into an educational venue.     

Five Board Games Every Library Should Have     

Here are five games I’d recommend each library have in its collection, both for limited circulation and events. 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); people like Professor Scott Nicholson and Liz Danforth are more qualified gaming and library scholars, and I encourage readers to immerse themselves in their contributions to the field. I’ve made these recommendations based on the games’ popularity, impact on the board game field, and distinctive play styles (many being either cooperative or indirectly competitive). They embody several characteristics of German-style board games many find appealing, including engaging themes, family friendly gameplay,  and a lack of player elimination.

The total retail cost to obtain one copy of each of these games is $173.96…less than $200; granted, this doesn’t cover the salaries of staffers willing to learn and teach these games to program participants, or the time to unbox them and sort components into acceptable reference and circulation formats; but it’s a core collection for circulation and events. One can find most of these at a discount at various online vendors; many Friendly Local Gaming Stores offer discounts to regular customers and might be willing to offer games below retail price for library gaming endeavors as a community partnership. (And The Librarian’s Guide to Gaming has some good ideas on strategies for funding game acquisition.)

Carcassonne (retail $29.99): Players pick and position tiles depicting cities, roads, monasteries, and fields, placing their people-shaped markers -- the original “meeple,” a blend of “my people” -- to claim features and territories for the highest score. It involves both spatial skills and territorial acquisition, and encourages making the best of the tiles players draw given the evolving “board” configuration and various strategies (building one’s own features, denying other players territory, etc.). Carcassonne won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001.

Forbidden Island (retail $16.99): A cooperative board game where the players, as explorers, attempt to retrieve four treasures from an island before it sinks below the ocean waves. The most affordable game of these recommendations, it serves as a fantastic example of a cooperative game in which players work together to “beat the game.” It’s much more thematically gentle than designer Matt Leacock’s other excellent cooperative game, Pandemic, which is also good but probably not appropriate for younger library users (or adults, for that matter, who might be disturbed by playing a game about global contagion). Forbidden Island is a 2010 Mensa Select winner and a nominee for the prestigious 2011 Spiel des Jahres prize.

Ra (retail $34.99): Players draw tiles and bid on sets to collect various elements of ancient Egyptian society, from agriculture and civilization to monuments and dynasties of pharaohs. German game superstar Reiner Knizia designed this classic bidding game that demonstrates the concept of indirect conflict between players with an alluring ancient Egyptian theme.

Settlers of Catan (retail $42.00): Many credit this game with introducing the Euro- or German-style board games to an American audience. Players intent on colonizing an island collect resources to build settlements, cities, and roads and become the dominant force on the island. Gameplay encourages interaction to collect sufficient resources yet fosters indirect conflict among players through territorial control. Settlers won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres prize in 1995 and an Origins Award in 1996 (among a host of other honors).

Ticket to Ride (retail $49.99): Players collect card sets to claim different railway routes across America, create links between particular destinations, and build the longest rail line. Designer Alan Moon created a game with simple core rules but elegant strategies balanced between hoarding resources and claiming routes before competitors. Although the board depicts a map of American, it encourages participants to have a serviceable knowledge of geography. A host of similarly themed sequels and supplements exist for various geographical regions, including Europe, the Nordic countries, Switzerland, Asia, and India. Ticket to Ride won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2004 and the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming in 2005.