The Best of Times
Like many I received my initiation to the world of gaming through Dungeons & Dragons. My first introduction to the game was an article in Discover magazine. I read and reread that article several times over and it wasnít long before I convinced my parents to buy me a copy of the game. It didnít matter that I had no one to play with, I enjoyed reading the books and making up my own scenarios and adventures. Iíd spend hours at the local game shop looking at the new modules and expansions but I also began noticing the other games sold there. I really had very little idea what these games were like but they seemed exciting and full of adventure. Eventually I took a chance and purchased The Beastlord by Yaquinto. As with D&D I didn't play with other people so much but I enjoyed setting it up and playing both sides myself (even if I manipulated events so that the Beastlord always won). The rules were complex and seemingly full of holes but still, I was hooked. Gradually I bought a few more games and even managed to meet a few other players. Of course, having someone to actually play with helped dramatically. In these early years I was especially fond of Steve Jackson Games; Car Wars, Ogre and Illuminati were my favorites and I looked forward to each new issue of The Space Gamer with relish. In a lot of ways these high school years were the golden age of gaming for me, there were plenty of new, interesting games and a group of friends willing to waste hours playing them over and over again. To this day whenever I think of Star Fleet Battles it reminds me of countless hours spent in a windowless basement pushing counters around that blue map.
Graduating from high school spelled an end to most of this. My gaming group grew older and apart and we played less and less. The interests of a fourteen-year-old are far and away different from those when you're eighteen. While I had enjoyed those years I never really felt any regret about confining those games to a closet. I imagined that it was something that I had outgrown and would forever remain in my past. Still, I'd always be interested whenever a game would cross my path but it sort of felt like the old high school football star that would wander down to the school to catch a game. More of a sentimental sort of experience than having any thoughts of actually playing again. Similarly, Iíd stop into one of the game shops to have a look around. More and more they mutated into comics shops with very little shelf space devoted to games, most of that roleplaying games. This, of course, made it pretty easy to dismiss as something that was long gone. It was during one of these nostalgia trips that I decided to purchase a copy of Pyramid magazine. This was the new periodical that Steve Jackson Games published, having sold The Space Gamer years earlier. It was an interesting read although, once again, its focus was on role playing games. There was one little advertisement that caught my eye however. It was from "The Three Trolls" and stated that they had a large catalogue listing all their games. I gave them a call and had them send me a copy. I have to say that I was actually a little excited and looking forward to receiving it. I sort of assumed that it was simply my local shops that didn't carry games and that surely there would have had to have been a vast number of new and innovative ones that I'd never heard of. Well, a week or so later it arrived and it proved to be somewhat disappointing. I recognized most of the games from years earlier! There wasnít a whole lot that caught my eye or seemed new and exciting. As I had considerably more disposable income at this point I decided to buy a couple anyway. After another phone call and a couple of weeks my package arrived. Titan, Wizard's Quest and Wiz-War all stared up at me. I read the rules and called a couple of friends and over the course of a couple of weeks gave them a try. Only Wiz-War garnered much interest and even that was somewhat lukewarm, it was interesting but not something that you yearned to play. Overall a disappointing re-entry to the world of games.
Something that was new and exciting to me around this time were personal computers and specifically bulletin board services (BBSís). I was lucky enough that there was a large, well-organized local club with about 1500 members. The newsgroups were a favorite of mine and I used them quite extensively. There were the local groups but also other worldwide links via links such as FidoNet and the like. You could actually read and leave messages with people all over the world. At the time this was certainly a novel and fascinating experience and it didn't really matter what you were talking about so much as you were talking at all. As the system grew they started to add groups from something called Usenet which I hadnít heard of before. Of all the different "nets" this seemed to be one of the biggest and most populated. The Usenet group that seemed the most interesting to me was rec.games.board. I didnít realize it at the time but this was truly the dawn of a new era for me. If ever there was a moment in my life at which Also Sprach Zarathustra should have been playing this was it.
Alas, life's soundtrack does not seem to be as accurately cued as in the movies so I remained largely ignorant of how much my life was to change. (The hobby side of it anyway.) I read RGB occasionally and was somewhat interested in what was being discussed. Only somewhat because I still didnít have a good understanding of what was being talked about. I could recognize some of the games being discussed and a few new ones kept being mentioned over and over. Not actually having seen or played them proved to be the hurdle. Like most hobbies thereís a sort of "common language" that needs to be established, a set of reference points you can use to communicate. Something along the lines of "If you like this game then you should try this..." This happens any time you enter an ongoing conversation. (Which is what most newsgroups are - endless cocktail party conversations that having been going on for years.) Persevere and eventually you get up to speed with everyone else. I did and the one game that seemed to be getting the most attention at the time was Die Siedler von Catan. Everyone seemed to be singing its praises and best of all, Mayfair had recently released an English language version. None of the local stores had it but I did see it on a trip to Vancouver one weekend and decided to buy it. I unwrapped it and was pleasantly surprised at the contents including the cool little wooden pieces. I mentioned the game to several people and after a week or so managed to finally try it out. I donít think that it was quite the revelation that some were reporting but I was very pleased with how it played. There was something about its mechanics that appealed very strongly to me. I felt more than anything else the same way I had felt so many years ago in high school. Suffice it to say that the game was played and enjoyed many times more. Say what you like about Settlers but one undeniable fact is that its a game that most people, gamers and non-gamers alike, enjoy the first time they play.
With this first success I continued reading RGB with renewed vigor. Eventually I discovered a Top 100 list of games that was compiled by Brian Bankler. This was a godsend to me and probably the single greatest help in "hooking" me. I was able to quickly get a feel for what were the "best" games out there. Now I understand the problems that certain people have with "best of" lists especially ones that are popular opinion polls. However, as I mentioned earlier as a newbie you need to start somewhere. For me it, was Brian's list. It didn't matter if the ranking system wasn't the most scientifically accurate or anything, it gave me a rough idea of certain games to check out. This "checking out" was also handled via the Internet, I'd become Web-aware and visited many sites Iíd heard about. Chief among these had to be The Game Cabinet. There was such a wealth of information available here that it was somewhat overwhelming. Reviews, translation and discussion about all these wonderful new games! I very quickly established a "want to buy" list that grew much faster than I was able to keep up with. This of course brought up the problem of finding out where to actually purchase these games. At first this wasnít too much of a problem as I was most interested in the games Mayfair was releasing. (In retrospect I wonder if it was these games I was most interested in or if it was because they were readily available that piqued my interest?) In any case, I bought most of their line of European games as well as discovering overlooked games from years before. The most obvious of these was Acquire. I canít believe that I had seen the game so many times without suspecting what a wonderful game it was, I mean the thing just looked so boring! Eventually, I took the real plunge and ordered my first "real" German game: Drunter & Druber. None of this sissy translated stuff now, here was the real deal: undecipherable and nearly unpronounceable German text! It felt exotic and exciting.
Before long I had a small stack of games just waiting to be played. So many that it was a hassle always trying to get people together to play them. People were always interested in playing them but it was purely the organizational aspect that proved troublesome. Danny couldn't make it one night because he was playing Hockey, Roger couldn't make it another because his wife had already made plans. Eventually I decided that the best solution would be to set aside a particular night for gaming. This way anyone that was interested in playing would know that they could just show up and get a game in. Iím not exactly sure of the reasons but we picked Tuesdays and so the appropriate but unimaginatively titled Tuesday Night Games was born.
From there it's been a steadily increasing obsession, err, hobby that's taken over much of my free time. Not only was I able to read about and buy all these new games but I had a regular venue in which to play the darn things. Membership grew and shrunk but Tuesday Night Games had became an institution. There was no question of what I'd be doing that night, my girlfriend made sure not to expect my attention and even out of town friends knew not to phone after 7:00pm, I'd be busy! It really became a large focal point of my week and provided me with a great deal of enjoyment. If you don't have a regular group I heartily recommend starting one up.
During this time, I had become a little more involved in discussions on RGB and via e-mail. I'd subscribed to print magazines such as The Game Report and Sumo and even talked to Alan Moon about a couple of his games. It was these conversations that led him to invite me to The Gathering of Friends that he organizes each year. When you're willing to travel across the continent to play games for five days straight you should realize just how deep you're in. I knew when the big German toy fairs were and when the new games would be released. It wasn't enough having a great pile of unplayed games on my shelves, I still needed more, more, MORE! Yes, I was hooked alright.
So where are we now? I currently own about 120 games (down from about 200) but would be VERY hard pressed to reduce this to less than 80. Iím definitely in the frame of mind that Iíve got too many games but theyíre all so damn good! Come October and February at the Essen and Nurnberg fairs several more games will be released, many of which I'm certain to order. In fact, if anything, this has caused a whole new concern I hardly could have conceived of a few years ago: there are just too many games! Now don't get me wrong, I love it and still get excited reading about what's coming up. The problem is that with all these great games, I have, by necessity, become elitist. There've been many games released in the last two years that are good solid games but its hard to justify buying them because they've got such stiff competition. Its no longer enough for a game to be merely "good", its got to be great. While I have fond memories of my high school gaming days, its now that that I consider the best of times.
This article originally appeared in Counter #8.