February 14, 2020 Features & Images » Feature Story

Game On 

Put away your cellphone—board games have exploded over the past decade

click to enlarge Game On - Put away your cellphone—board games have exploded over the past decade - STORY AND PHOTO BY NICOLA JONES
  • STORY AND PHOTO BY Nicola Jones
  • Game On - Put away your cellphone—board games have exploded over the past decade

I'm standing clutching a red token secretly in my palm; a terrorist in hiding. If only I could work out which of my fellow terrorists has the bomb. And who the President is. And get the bomber in the same room as the President. But, so far, I have very little information: my only co-conspirator is a nine-year-old girl.

Two teams of 15 people each are playing Two Rooms and a Boom in the middle of a very noisy Vancouver Convention Centre. We are here for the now-popular board game convention SHUX, an expo run by and named after a popular (and amusing) British YouTube series about board games: Shut Up & Sit Down. But you don't need to be at this convention to play: this is a party game you too can purchase and take home. Our tokens, randomly assigned, mark us out as terrorists (red) or government (blue). Notes on the tokens let us know who the bomber is, the President, spies, co-conspirators, and more. We have a few minutes to chat, share knowledge or keep it secret, before sending small groups of hostages over to the other side. The blue team tries to save the President; the red team tries to wipe her (or him) out. Meanwhile, in real life, everyone is making friends.

When most people think about tabletop games, they tend to think of the classics: Monopoly, Trouble, Snakes and Ladders. People like me, born in the 1970s, are aware of a handful of card games; dexterity games like Jenga; party games like Charades or Pictionary. These are games you might pull out at a family reunion, or save for the annual Christmas party. The assumption is that video games have overtaken the next generation; that board games are fusty and musty and maybe a bit geeky. Dungeons and Dragons still conjures the image of nerds locked in a den with shag carpet, rolling dice on a card table jimmied between the laundry racks.

Things have changed, and the stereotypes are breaking down.

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"Which do you like better, board games or video games?" I ask my nine-year-old co-player, Vancouver-based December Goodkey. "Board games!" she says with split-second consideration. Her dad, Kennedy, is a fledgling game designer. "He makes me test them. I like most of them," she admits grudgingly.

The world today has been over-run with new tabletop games. "It is unbelievable how much the industry has changed," says Mark Wootton, a freelance game developer from the Comox Valley. Fuelled by popular television shows like The Big Bang Theory, gaming has become cool, or at least something to no longer be ashamed of. A-list celebrities have come out of their gaming closets to openly disclose their passions: The Rock, for one, loves Dungeons and Dragons (and was even in talks to star in a D&D movie.) Meanwhile, the rise of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter has given indie game developers (basically every hobbyist with an idea) an easy entry into the market. Gaming is one of Kickstarter's biggest categories, raking in US$1 billion for 17,000 projects from 2009 to 2019, more than two-thirds of which were board games as opposed to video games (one hit was the now-popular card game, Exploding Kittens). All this has filled tabletops worldwide with cards, boards and colourful plastic tokens.

The global market value of tabletop games was US$7.2 billion in 2017, and is forecast to reach $12 billion by 2023. Okay, sure, digital games blow that out of the water with global value set to hit $265 billion by 2023. But the boom for board games is still outpacing what might be expected in a high-tech, 5G-enabled, digital world.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY NICOLA JONES
  • Photo by nicola jones

Breaking out of the basement

As the market for tabletops expands, the audience is diversifying, too. "In the last 10 years, gaming has moved out of a basement of antisocial white men to a broader group of women, all genders, all kinds of people," says Aurora Borin, a freelance music teacher from Calgary who has flown in for the SHUX convention and who generously agrees to play War Chest with me while my brain explodes over its complex rules. She is wearing a kind of Steampunk-inspired sexy aviator costume, and a badge that says "She/her."

"I tried to get everyone to do cosplay," she laughs (practically everyone else is in jeans), "but here I am!" SHUX in particular, she says, has proven really welcoming to a more diverse audience. "The vibe at this convention is the most friendly."

For three days each October, the Vancouver Convention Centre plays host to thousands of gamers (6,000 this year); a handful of gaming companies demo'ing their games; dozens of indie game developers hawking their inventions; and a library stacked tall with more than a thousand games that can be checked out and played at hundreds of tables, spread out cafeteria style. In the back rooms, people play mass multiplayer role-playing games, or listen to stage shows for panel talks and live podcast broadcasts. At one point, people line up to get their gaming swag autographed by the Shut Up & Sit Down personalities. Here, Shut Up & Sit Down co-founder and SHUX regular Quintin Smith is famous. (Too famous, it turns out, or at least too busy, to accept an interview request from this local journalist.)

The atmosphere is friendly, with people randomly sitting down to play together: there's no antisocial wallflowers hiding behind a convention itinerary. Everyone seems open to playing just about anything with anyone else. And there's an almost audible buzz from brains working overtime. Many of these games require intense concentration. I walk by one table and comment on the lush game pieces (there's an actual wooden birdhouse in this edition of Wingspan, and tokens that look like pastel Cadbury Mini-Eggs) and they nod, mentioning it has taken an hour just to figure out how to play. "We watched a 20-minute YouTube video," one says. "That helped."

There are games for everything. In the library, I saw games inspired by puns (Keeping it Saxy), games with boxes that look and feel like a pirate's treasure chest, and games jammed into a box the size of a pack of gum. There is a dexterity game for flicking counters around a race track that requires a space the size of two dining tables to set up, and one with a wooden board so beautiful you could hang it on the wall in your living room as art (Crokinole). There are games that help you talk about emotions with your kids (The Color Monster), and improv-based comedy games with titles designed to shock (Someone Has Died). Games that teach you about birds (Wingspan) or quilting (Quilt Show), the Periodic Table, carbon dioxide, and endangered species. Some take 10 minutes to play, a day to master. Others take more than six hours to pan out.

This convention is just one of many. One held in Essen, Germany called SPIEL (German for "play") tops the list: it had 190,000 attendees last year. GenCon, in the U.S., typically hosts more than 60,000 people. People pay hundreds of dollars to attend ($150 for SHUX), and much, much more on the games themselves. Stephen Wells, who works for Community Living BC in Abbotsford, used to spend $1,200 a year on games (though with a library of 180 games now stacked in his home, his spending has slowed down).

"When I was 13, we'd start playing Diplomacy at midnight and go to 6 a.m. You'd make more mistakes as you got tired; that's part of it," Wells notes somberly. These days, he has given Diplomacy up for more collaborative games. "I can't play that anymore. You make too many enemies." His wife Pamela Wells, meanwhile, jokes that she only recently "married in to gaming." But she loves it. "Since I married you, I've gotten smarter," she says to Stephen. "Seriously." Their son, meanwhile, taught himself to read so he could play Pokemon.

He's not alone. Game-based-learning is a popular idea in education circles these days, and everyone agrees that playing a game is way more fun than filling out homework sheets, while often just as productive. Games boost vocabulary (Scrabble), math skills (see Point Salad in the sidebar, Do Try This At Home), memory (um, Memory), patience (um, Patience), and heaps of strategy (Risk, chess, etc.). Poor parents driven mad by endless games of Candyland now have far more options at their disposal.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY NICOLA JONES
  • Photo by nicola jones

Politics and pandemics

At lunch, I find myself in a queue behind someone with an unusual nametag: "Chief of the Department of Intelligence" it reads. I have to ask. Turns out she's halfway through a six-hour roleplaying game called Sworn to Serve, "a megagame of legislative action and US federal oversight." Players are assigned to be members of Congress, and work to make bills and attempt to get re-elected. "Um, is that...fun?" I ask. She winces a little. "I don't think we defined our roles as well as we could have," she admits. "But it's heating up now." When I pop in later, someone is being accused of embezzlement and the media corps is firing nasty headlines at a crowd that's booing with glee. It does look fun.

When the congressmen troop out, a batch of dwarves troops in for the next six-hour adventure, with fake beards, blow-up pickaxes, and homemade spectacles.

Meanwhile, outside the door, the World Championship Pandemic Final is playing out (yes, a real international final, with teams literally flown in from Italy, Germany, France etc., each with a national flag at their table). They are locked in concentration for timed turns as epidemics start wiping out large swaths of Europe, and moderators in actual lab coats oversee play. France—the only team with custom T-shirts—wins the day, to much applause. "It was down to the wire; it was very tense," says Beth Erikson, who was overseeing the game. Dozens of teams compete in national competitions in about a dozen countries, she says, with the winners being flown out to compete here. In today's 1.5-hour battle, Canada was wiped out at the last minute by the Black Plague, leaving France as the last country standing. The prize hasn't yet been determined; in previous years, the winners got an all-expenses-paid trip but that, Erikson says, "has proven unsustainable from a business perspective."

Later, these tables will be filled with teams attempting to crack codes on a set of nested boxes, trying to get to the prize nestled inside. They have two hours to complete this tabletop version of an escape room. I watch them—teams composed of people who haven't met before—work together, brows furrowed. It is seriously hard. The first puzzle involves matching cut-out letters from a ransom note with a picture of a host of popular board games, then working out that if the cut-out letter is, say, the fourth in a word, then you need to write down the fourth letter from the name of the corresponding board game, then eliminate half the answers based on some obscure logic and re-order it into a word and...there's no way I would have got it.

But these guys are having fun. And the mood, though intense at times, is still more open and less glazy-eyed than in a room full of video screens. A lot of the people here who have developed games seem to be, perhaps ironically, software developers. Gavin Vickery, for one, makes apps through his company Input Logic on Vancouver Island, and is trying to start up Input Games (he is here at SHUX showcasing his new hunting card game DuckBuckMoose, which is now on Kickstarter: kickstarter.com/projects/inputgames/duck-buck-moose-card-game). But for Vickery, cards and other physical games both have a similar logic to them that "scratches my software itch," he says, while being far more inclusive and open than video gaming. "I like the analog feel, especially with my kids," he says. "Board games are a really powerful way of connecting people and getting them talking."

Like fishing, or even a meal, a board game provides an excuse for people to gather, and a framework on which to hang discussions about other, more important things. So, if you're stuck in a hotel room on a rainy no-ski day, pull out a box and dig into some rules. It might stretch your brain, and let you get to know each other. In short: Game on.

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Mountain Mystery Games

Jacqueline Maartense sometimes teaches entrepreneurship to teenagers in the Whistler community, getting kids to invent things out of piles of scrap or to compete in Dragon's Den-type scenarios through a program called Junior Achievers. As a mom and self-employed strategy consultant for start-up companies, she sees a future world in which many traditional jobs will fade away and people, like her daughter, will need to be more creative and proactive about finding or making work, and reinventing themselves as times change. So what's the best way to teach those skills to her daughter Ciara Giesebrecht? Invent a board game.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY NICOLA JONES
  • Photo by nicola jones

The duo has so far scripted and made two how-to-host-a-murder-mystery-style games, through their Mountain Mystery Games company, launched in 2019. The first, Avalanche, sets participants on track to figure out who triggered a deadly snowslide. The second, the Circus Pique Mystery (no relation to Pique Newsmagazine), aimed at a younger audience, invites guests to work out who set free a band of mischievous monkeys from a visiting circus. Both operate on the same basic principle: guests are assigned a character, and given a set of limited information about themselves (such as where they were at a given time, or why they might hold a grudge against another character; no one knows whodunit, not even the perpetrator him/herself). Guests then simply mingle and chat, always answering questions honestly, to figure out who amongst them has the means, motive, and opportunity to be the culprit.

The scenarios come with pre-game videos that guests can watch to help set the scene and describe the mystery. You can buy access to the materials online for as little as $35, or pay more to borrow pre-printed booklets, name tags and more from the mother-daughter team. For now, they are focused on getting the games played at fundraisers or at corporate team-building events, though it's also a good option for birthday parties, and general "phone-free fun for friends and family," says Maartense.

"Ultimately we'd like to make money, but that will be a long road," she adds. "Also, we're just trying to have fun and inspire kids to run their own businesses." Thirteen-year-old Giesebrecht says she enjoys the scriptwriting and playing ringmaster when they roll out the game for a fundraiser. The best bit? "Having more experience than most 13-year-olds in business," she says, "and doing it with my mom."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY NICOLA JONES
  • Photo by nicola jones

Do try this at home

Some popular and ski-themed games to while away a rainy day (price estimates based on Amazon.ca for basic game).

Ski Run: Ski the mountain and be back first for après. A piste map makes up the board; gameplay is with cards. Watch out for ice and wipe-outs.

(2-5 players; light; $40 on Amazon.com.)

Code Names: Wordplay game in which spies compete to make contacts with secret agents. Provide a single-word clue that points to multiple codewords on the board.

(2-8 players; light; 15 minutes; $20.)

Point Salad: The name for this game is an inside joke for gamers: games with complicated scoring schemes are often called a "point salad." This card game takes that literally: players collect vegetables and scoring cards that provide complex point totals for different salad mixes.

(2-6 players; light; 15-30 minutes; $30.)

Ticket to Ride: A series of games that let you build trains between stations in cities from London to New York. Simple rules and scoring, plus strategy, makes it great for the whole family.

(2-5 players; light; 30-60 minutes; $35 and up.)

Tiny Towns: Construct a tiny town in a forest inhabited by woodland creatures

(1-6 players; medium-light; 45-60 minutes; $50)

Settlers of Catan: A consistent favourite and long-running top seller, Catan involves a lot of strategy while still being easy to learn. Build settlements by exploiting resources (wood, ore, etc.).

(3-4 players; medium-light; 60-plus minutes; $50.)

Treasure Island: A game of bluffing; players question each other about the location of buried treasure.

(2-5 players; medium-light; 45 minutes; $80.)

Wingspan: A sumptuous game featuring bird-egg pieces and complex cards that actually teach you about birds and ecology. Complex tactics makes it fun for serious gamers even if they don't like birds.

(1-5 players; medium; 60 minutes; $95.)

Gloomhaven: A tactical combat game that runs like a choose-your-own-adventure. Players with sets of specialized skills clear out dungeons, and explore and loot ruins.

(1-4 players; medium-heavy; 60-plus minutes; $120.)

Whistler Challenge: Be the first to complete a day trip to Whistler: drive up the Sea to Sky Highway, ski some runs, and drive back. (I can't find any copies of this for sale, but the fact that it exists is fun. Learn more at boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/21167/whistler-challenge.)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY NICOLA JONES
  • Photo by nicola jones

Sea-To-Sky Gaming Hotspots

Re-Use-It Centre: This always-popular shop usually has a good stack of board games for sale, some of which have never been played. ($1-5.)

The Library: Libraries now have decent stacks of games to play in-house or check out (a dozen in Whistler). The Whistler Public Library hosts a Games Night every other Monday, from 7 to 9 p.m., with free snacks. The whole conference room typically fills up with between 10 and 60 people. "It's a very popular program," says program coordinator Jeanette Bruce. (Free.)

Escape! Whistler: Puzzle your way out of a locked room with a group of friends. There are four scenarios to try: Pirate Ship, Pinball Machine, the Rabbit Hole, and the avalanche-themed Buried Cabin. ($33/player; free on your birthday.)

Social centres: Plenty of cafés and venues in town have board games available for play, from the Pangea Pod Hotel to Fitzsimmons Pub. (Free.)

Whoola Toys: The local toy shop sells close to 100 different board games, aimed at three years to adult. ($20-80.)

Facebook: The Board Game Exchange group on Facebook sees a lot of action with nearly 25,000 members: facebook.com/groups/boardgameexchange.

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