An introduction to hobby games

 

Last updated 2/13/2024 at 10:27am



My last couple of articles covered a bit of game theory and theory of knowledge. While I expect those will be recurrent topics, my main goal with the column is to report on the local scene, and so I’ll limit my technical forays to a fraction of my articles and let you know up front what you can expect. This will be the first of many covering the gaming events at Paulina Springs.

If you’ve visited within the last few months, you’ve probably noticed the expanded offering in board games, Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, and Dungeons & Dragons, and over a hundred board games you can try out free at the nearby tables. If you grew up with classic American games from companies like Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, you might find the options bewildering. What are the games about? What’s the time commitment to play? Do they have anything in common? While the store sells all kinds of tabletop games, the events will focus on three main categories: modern board games, which include both Eurogames — or “German-style” board games — and so-called “Ameritrash” games; Dungeons & Dragons; and Magic: The Gathering.

Classic American games up to the mid-20th century emphasized direct player conflict, with fun treated as a byproduct. In Europe after World War II, German board game designers made a study of interactive fun for its own sake, especially with non-militaristic themes. For obvious reasons, the Germans wanted social entertainment that explored satisfactions other than domination and conquest, both in theme and play style, and novel board games became a more important part of their culture than in the U.S.

The German-style board game — or, Eurogame — genre follows several design principles that classic American games largely do not, namely predictable play time, random starting setup, interesting actions to take for all players when it is not their turn, catchup mechanics to keep the game interesting for lagging players, luck that results in compelling options rather than just arbitrary advancement or setback, and lack of player elimination, among other hallmarks. It’s not that the games aren’t competitive, or even cutthroat at times, but they are designed to stimulate and reward all players in a group of mixed skill.

Settlers of Catan is probably the most iconic Eurogame, and a good introduction to what has become a large genre, which, despite its name, now includes a lot of games invented in the United States.

Ameritrash games synthesize the conflict and heavy luck element of classic American games, with elements from military-simulation games, or “wargames,” and Eurogames alike. From wargames they inherit deep strategy and elements of combat; and from Eurogames, artfully crafted game pieces, economic development or resource management, player interaction through trade or negotiation, and – with notable exceptions -- a reasonably short, predictable playing time. They tend to be quick to learn relative to wargames, but share the wargaming emphasis on strong settings and simulation over abstraction. Examples of Ameritrash games include Betrayal at House on the Hill and Twilight Imperium.

Dungeons & Dragons is a storytelling game without winners or losers, where players each assume the role of a heroic adventurer. The game grew out of wargames staged with miniature figures, but diverged from that genre when its creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson began to explore the possibilities of Arneson’s oddly compelling idea of the Game Master, a player who is also the game referee and whose main objective is to facilitate a satisfying story. Game objectives are negotiated by the players in response to dramatic situations set up by the Game Master, and the outcomes of attempting certain tasks are determined by dice rolls according to probabilities outlined in the rules and interpreted by the Game Master. D&D kicked off the entire roleplaying-game genre, which considered with its computer derivations, and book and movie properties, has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Magic: The Gathering established the collectible card game genre, which combines Eurogame sensibilities and mathematical precision with the fantasy themes and icons of Dungeons & Dragons. It boasts an international tournament league with professional players; tens of thousands of cards, each of which can be considered an amendment to the essential rules; and several different formats variously favoring more casual or competitive play.

I recently met with Lane Jacobson, owner of Paulina Springs Books, to discuss his plans for gaming events. In addition to being a shrewd businessman, Lane is a game-playing expert with professional credentials (something I’ll elaborate on in a future article, if he’s willing). He observes that these games I described, especially Dungeons & Dragons, fit the store’s general theme of storytelling, gathering, and community. Though he appreciates the pure game-theory aspect of games, he also points out that a modern board game can give you what he calls a “wax on wax off” stealth education, like a devious karate master.

First and foremost, games can be fun for fun’s sake — but through gameplay you can, without realizing it, learn critical thinking, creative problem-solving, teamwork, resource and systems management, and myriad other skills that are more applicable in “real life” than one might think. He credits computer roleplaying games with teaching him, at a young age, not only how to read but also practical resource management and prioritization skills that he still uses and considers integral to successfully running a business.

While he enjoys computer games, Lane wants the store to promote games as a tactile experience. We agreed that in a pinch computer-mediated sessions can bridge real-world sessions when it’s tough to meet (like, say, during a pandemic!), but there is no substitute for an in-person, hands-on game session.

The regular store events include Friday-night Magic: The Gathering, from 5 to 8 p.m. (or so), open play of all games on Saturdays, from 5 to 8 p.m., showcase game nights where a featured game will be demoed and offered for sale at a discount, RSVP nights for serious players of selected games, Sunday-morning Scrabble, and some kind of coordinated Dungeons & Dragons group play, maybe involving a campaign world where all adventure groups impact a shared setting and play time is tied to actual calendar time so that players can migrate among groups, or exit and reenter campaigns to accommodate real-world scheduling issues.

To stay in the loop, you can view their events calendar or subscribe to Paulina Springs’ newsletter via their website, http://www.paulinaspringsbooks.com.

 

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