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"Board games provide a small space of time where you can be anyone, go anywhere and do anything," said Steve Zanini, founder and co-organizer of the FallCon Gaming Society.
Michael Issakidis/the Gauntlet

A unique hobby for this generation

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When most of us consider board games, our thoughts immediately rush back to sitting around the kitchen table playing Monopoly with family, or taking Clue over to the neighbour’s to spend the night babysitting. We grew out of these games, believing them to be childish — and once gaming systems became a bigger part of our lives, we disregarded board games completely. Board games should be reconsidered because they offer intellectual and social entertainment for adults, as well as children. Board games include party games, thematic games, strategy games, war games and children’s games. Card games with their own deck — not the standard 52-card deck — are also a part of the genre. 


There is a board game for everyone — all you have to do is turn off your television and gather a group of friends to enjoy this hobby. There is a strong community behind board games. Here in Calgary, a convention called FallCon brings together gamers to enjoy some of the top games available today. FallCon is held annually at the end of September, and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Generally board games are easy to pick up and play, but can encompass a strategic range from Candyland to Chess. 


The idea of a game with pieces and a board has existed throughout history, but the idea of modern board gaming really took off in the 1930s when Parker Brothers published Monopoly. During the Great Depression, this game was a huge success because it gave people the sense of feeling wealthy and powerful at a time when most families had very little. 


Arthur Butts, an artist and architect from New York, was unemployed in the 1930s and set out to design a board game. He noticed there weren’t any word games on the market and came up with Scrabble — a revolutionary idea that soon became extremely successful. 


In the 1960s, a new wave of war games was introduced and immediately became popular. 


“People were able to re-enact historical events and battles and got a glimpse at the struggles faced by military officers,” says Steve Zanini, founder and co-organizer of the FallCon Gaming Society. “The idea of being able to change the course of history is very alluring, and the hobby grew from there.”


In Germany — after the Second World War, when the growth of war games was more limited — German designers began creating strategic games with more substance, vast topics, visual aspects and deliberate appeal to families.


Co-ordinator of the FallCon team and creator of the Canadian Game Design Awards Brent Lloyd says, “European-style games tend to be very mechanism-driven with an emphasis on a continuing storyline, player experience and puzzle solving.” European games are often contrasted with American-style games, which involve more luck, conflict and drama. 


Cosmic Encounter was released in 1977, and it sparked the popularity of science fiction in the board and card game world. In the game, players are alien races seeking to take over five foreign worlds. The game is now considered very original for its time. 


Over recent decades, board and card gaming have taken a backseat to more technology-enabled forms of entertainment such as television, video games and online games. This incredible technology allows us to cut ourselves off from the world and become completely immersed in another setting. People’s focus becomes entirely fixated on the screen. Although this form of entertainment can hold some appeal after a few hours of homework or a long day of classes, it’s generally neither intellectually or socially stimulating. Compared to board and card games, television and movies — even educational programs — are more passive.


When watching a screen, the information is just being absorbed. When playing a game, the mind is more active and involved. In 1969, researcher Herbert Krugman discovered that in less than one minute of watching television, a person’s brainwaves switch from beta waves, associated with active, logical thought, to primarily low alpha waves, which promote relaxation. Too much time spent in this state of alpha waves can cause an inability to concentrate. When a person stops watching television and becomes active, the brainwaves revert back to beta waves.


Board games are a great brain workout. The amount of thought, planning and decision making that goes into a single, simple game differs significantly to that invested in watching Big Brother or American Idol. Stimulating the mind is healthy and intellectually satisfying, and it’s fun to beat friends at a complicated game.


FallCon co-organizer Jasen Robillard says, “most of our present day forms of entertainment are self-based, private experiences. Video games are pushing boundaries on this with massive multi-player online games and some truly innovative immersive experiences, but on the whole, entertainment is consumed privately and then shared after the fact.” In comparison to these privately consumed forms of entertainment, such as movies, television programs and video games, modern board gaming allows meaningful entertainment with maximum social interaction. Gaming grants the opportunity to get to know friends in a different light and puts the players in unique situations. 


“Even with the most fantastical games that provide its players a portal to escapism, the game play is rooted in real, tangible human interaction that cannot be mimicked by reading books, watching TV or movies, or by playing most video games,” states Robillard. This human interaction is often missing in a world that is becoming more and more mediated through computers and digital technology. 


“If you watch a group of people playing video games or watching TV, the focus is on the screen, away from people. If you watch a group of people playing a board game, the focus is in the centre of the group and includes the people in the focus,” explains Lloyd. Board games foster social interaction; television generally limits it. 


Where there is human interaction, the players can read each other’s body language, an element that is lost in video games and online games. Video games are generally more fast-paced and based on reaction time, whereas board and card games focus on planning and strategy. When playing against a human opponent, the player can guess what their opponent’s next move will be based on the opponent’s body language. In a video game or online game, that experience is impossible. 


In addition, board games are increasingly available in electronic form. For instance, Riener Knizia, German designer of hundreds of award-winning games, has seen many of his games, like Ingenious, Battle Line and Keltis, became available electronically. Facebook users can play many board games, such as Scrabble, on their pages. With these online forms, the social interaction is virtually mediated and the element of a group gathering around a table is lost. Although the strategy is still there, the social interaction is not the same as playing in real-time in front of real people. 


“There is nothing like gathering at a friend’s house, shooting the breeze about current affairs and relaxing with a beer and chips, sitting around a board game with your buds,” says Zanini. 


Modern board gaming has challenged the belief that board games are just for children. It appeals to adults and allows multi-generation interaction. Today, there is a board game for everyone. Good at math? Try Power Grid, a complex, economic, strategic, German-designed game. Enjoy storytelling? Play Dixit, a simple game of creative thinking. An ancient history buff? Take your pick between 7 Wonders, Glory to Rome, Roll Through The Ages or Attica. 


One of the elements of player experience when playing a board or card game is the balance between interacting with the game and interacting with the other players. For example, a card game like Dominion is more about the players creating and optimizing their own deck with less player interaction. Alternately, a game like Ingenious has a lot of player-to-player interaction because every move depends on the decisions of the other players. Either way, the social element is a key part of modern board gaming.


Today, board gaming is increasing in popularity, and every year more games are published, more people attend conventions and more designers are recognized for their work. Conventions emphasize and seek to retain the social element, which is a key part of modern board gaming. Each year, the biggest board gaming convention in the world is known as Speil and is held in Essen, Germany. It has hosted a mind-blowing 154,000 guests over four days. Other board and card game conventions are held annually all over the world: the Australian Games Expo is held in January in Canberra, Australia; in April, Fastaval is hosted in Denmark; and SpellenSpektakel occurs in October in the Netherlands. Some Canadian conventions include CanGames in Ottawa, Draconis in Montreal and Pandemonium in Toronto. Each of these conventions are held annually. To attend a convention, a person can register online for the games they want to play, or they can register once they arrive. There are specific time slots set for different games throughout the length of the convention. There’s also a small admission fee — you can pay for a weekend pass or just one day. Most conventions also have areas where both new and used board games are available for purchase.


FallCon is a board game and miniatures convention in Calgary. Its primary focus is to give gamers the opportunity to experience pre-planned and well-executed gaming events. There are over 50 hosted events, and an auction of 300 games. FallCon hand-picks each game to be used at the convention based on the criteria that they are highly playable, have interesting themes, are fun, challenging, social and something that the organizers themselves would be interested in playing. There is a mixture of new games and old favourites. Some of these games are complex, but most of them are easy to just pick up and play. 


“We wanted to host a well-run festival of games, something that gamers can enjoy consistently year in and year out,” explains Zanini.


FallCon has time slots dedicated to open gaming, and the final evening includes a new addition called “Super Happy Party Game Fun Time,” which includes three and a half hours of party games such as Dixit, Wits and Wagers and Time’s Up: Title Recall. FallCon has a strong history of volunteerism and a sense of community, and is a labour of love for all involved.


Two years ago, the FallCon Gaming Society, along with its founding counterpart, the Canadian Wargames Group, decided that Canadian designers should be recognized for their contributions to the board gaming community. 


“We were looking to create our own FallCon Game of the Year Award and looking for what would make it different,” says Zanini.


The annual Canadian Game 
Design Awards were created in 2010, with the first victory going to Roberta Taylor’s Octopus’ Garden. Matt Tolman won with Undermining in 2011. 


“The CGDA was created as a way to promote the board game industry in Canada,” explains Robillard. The award recognizes the best Canadian design, and helps new designers break into the industry. The awards have been a successful addition to the convention. 


The winner is picked by closely examining the rules and mechanics of the nominated games. The prizes include $200 from the FallCon Gaming Society, $200 from Panda Game Manufacturing, a $500 manufacturing allowance from Panda Game Manufacturing and a $500 cash advance from Valley Games Publishing, upon signing a contract with them. This prestigious award is very important for many Canadian designers. 


“The award offers a brass ring to the designers. I have had many of them tell me that our deadlines force them to finish their designs so they can have a chance at winning. The judges are from all across Canada, and they volunteer their experience and time to evaluate and provide feedback to the designers on their designs,” says Lloyd. 


The hobby of board games is a major source of entertainment, competition, camaraderie and enjoyment for a growing number of people. 


“The biggest draw for me is the community of friends I’ve made over the years playing games. Without question, some of the absolutely friendliest people I’ve met have been gamers. I always look forward to game nights with buddies for the camaraderie that ensues around the table,” says 
Robillard.


Board and card gaming is a unique hobby for this generation. It should not be taken for granted or passed over. Individuals around the world spend endless hours promoting, designing, manufacturing, publishing, organizing and creating board games and events. It is an age-old practice that has piqued the interests of thousands of people over time, and is now more advanced and intriguing than ever.


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