Do Pass Go my BBC Radio 4 documentary, airing on Friday April 14th 2017, has its origins in a piece I wrote about the Libyan dictator General Gadaffi playing chess on TV in the run up to his toppling, and in my bemusement about the global success of Settlers of Catan. I had built up a big collection of old boardgames from my own youth and was intrigued by the new generation of youthful players that were spawning board gaming cafes and carving out their own terrain separate to online or video games. This post features some of the many amazing designers and players we didn’t always have time for in the final edit. Thanks to everyone who made the time to talk to us.
All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use without permission
If you’re ever wondered why the city of Essen features on so many game board maps, such as Pandemic and Ticket To Ride, that’s because it and Germany remain the heart of the boardgaming world. Producer Michael Surcombe and I started our journey in Essen at Spiel 16, where new games are launched, judged and players gather.
Vikings and terraforming Mars were the big trends, with several different competing games, such as Mission To Mars 2049. Its creator Dagnis Skurbe from Latvia, who’s been living and working in London for several years, was inspired by recent NASA missions. You realize how long some of these games are in gestation.
On the train from Dusseldorf to the Essen Messe I met Grant Dalgliesh, proprietor of the Canadian boardgames company set up by his father in 1972; one of the many small board game entrepreneurs among the giant corporate brands. He was relaunching The Last Spike, a railway building game inspired by the Robber Barons of the American railroad. The game has a focused 20 minute running time, cash and strategy and much more fun than Monopoly.
Dalgliesh observes: “The choices that a designer has to make are the hardest part. It’s easy to make a complicate game with endless rules. Less is more. That’s what I believe to be the skill.” So lots of insight into how a good game works, and the balance between ease of play and challenge to make you want to return. I notice it’s one that the teenagers I know choose to play again and again.
I meet groups of friends trying out great new versions of Pandemic. There’s Legacy where the board is adapted and changes permanently, Cthulhu based on HP Lovecraft, and the slower period version Iberia – set in a 19th century pandemic – where you can’t just dispatch a medical team on a jet plane, but must build your own railroad between cities.
Friedemann Friese – a big and literally green name in board games – tells me how he began designing them aged 11. Power Grid is one of his many successes.
There are first timers in Essen too, some with an activist agenda. It was great to meet Jessy Bradish and a team of Northern Californian environmentalists who were still crowdsourcing funding for Climate Oasis, a climate change awareness and avoidance game. Beware the flaming tornadoes. This rather appealed to me having grown up with 60s and 70s SF dystopias like Beneath the Planet of the Apes. You can follow their progress on twitter @climateoasis.
Adult boardgames from Eastern Europe were quite a thing. Neon Limbo redemption which its Croatian promoter described to me as “a medieval strategy game with neon”. So think Victorian steampunk mixed era. I think this involved drinking and getting a bit sexy.
There was much praise from our game experts for the multi award winning CodeNames, a Czech code breaking game that seemed to build on the challenge of the old 70s Mastermind, and has the purity of a simple idea behind the addictive play.
On the shortlist for the Deutscher Spiele Prize 2016, T.I.M.E. Stories by Manuel Rozoy epitomized another big trend – for puzzle solving locked room boardgames played by a group. (A bit like the old BBC TV Adventure Game?)
The overall winner Mombasa – a German game about land grabbing in imperial Africa – has cover art focused on a white imperial hand with a quill pen, while basket carrying natives toil in the background. It seemed a strangely specific Settlers of Cataan with a deeply odd lack of colonial awareness, which, I am told, is quite a thing with German games and players, where historical focus in schools has always been on the Nazis rather than earlier imperial atrocities.
Speaking of Nazis, what did German students make of Revenge of the Dictators, a fun game from the Netherlands based on stealing radioactive material, trying to take over the world and retiring to a desert island? This group of German friends I met were insightful, witty and thoughtful. I’m sorry our conversation didn’t make the final edit.
I seek out Tom Vasel, mathematician ex-pastor and guru of The Dice Tower gaming portal, for some spiritual enlightenment and context. He says board games have become very international. It used to be the USA v Germany. Then France, Italy, Eastern Europe. But there are more Polish publishers here. Then Japanese, Taiwan, Korea and even some from Africa.
He says he can usually guess where games are from as they have a certain feel. American games,observes Vasel, are usually about conflict. German games are very analytical. The French mix the two. Japan is about unusual weird things like the rabbits getting a divorce. Polish games mix everything together – war, historical, fantasy eg Cry Havoc. “It’s like Avatar. People are going to a planet mining the minerals.”
Ethics have a strange relationship with boardgames as games can be a fantasy escape, a bonding social ritual and a way of thinking out strategy. Autumn, a seriously good Magic the Gathering player offers a personal insight into how the world of semi professional competition has given her confidence.
James Wallis has turned his love of board games into a fascinating business at Spaaace – an agency that uses games in their business consultancy. We had the most wonderful time comparing favourite games from our childhoods and he talks me through why Elefant Parade – a German boardgame from 1983 – is perfection. A simple idea with endless playing satisfaction plus beautifully designed and weighted, quality wooden pieces. Don’t start me on cheap tiny pieces and boards. Wallis says you’d find Nine Men Morris boards carved into cathedrals by medieval craftsmen. It’s part of human culture.
So where else to go but back in time to the beginning of games. I seek out the British Museum’s keeper of Cuneiform Irving Finkel, who is also an expert on board games. We’ve previously discussed how the Nazis made horrific anti Semitic family board games (Juden Heraus) and Vasel has pointed out how boardgames after the war were a central idea of German social rebuilding and familial reconstruction.
Finkel deciphered the rules to the Royal Game of Ur off a clay tablet; I guess you could call it the Rosetta Stone of boardgames. It’s like a much faster combination of Ludo and Backgammon; part strategy, part chase. It was to be superseded by Chess and Backgammon. It takes him a minute or so to explain it to me and we play. It is totally compelling. Irving and I ponder our link to the great civilisations of homo sapiens through the prism of boardgames. Sadly the British Museum no longer licenses or sells versions of The Royal Game of Ur. I eye the few copies on his shelf enviously as I leave.