The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Best of Times?

Greg Aleknevicus

August, 2001

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 wasn't long before I convinced my parents to buy me a copy of the game. It didn't matter that I had no one to play with, I enjoyed reading the books and making up my own scenarios and adventures. I'd 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 Space Gamer #48 - February, 1982
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 with whom I could actually play 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 anticipation. In many 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. To this day whenever I think of Star Fleet Battles, I'm reminded of countless hours spent in a window-less basement pushing counters around a 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 frequently. The interests of a fourteen-year-old are far and away different from those of an eighteen-year-old. While I had enjoyed those years, I felt little regret confining those games to a closet. It was something that I thought I had outgrown and would remain in my past. Still, every now and again, I'd stop into a local game store to look around. More and more they had mutated into comics shops with very little shelf space devoted to games, and what little they did have were primarily role-playing games. This, of course, made games and gaming even easier to dismiss. However, 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. It was an interesting read although, once again, its focus was on role-playing games. There was one 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 was surprised to find that I was excited and looking forward to receiving it. I hoped that the dearth of games was simply a failing of my local shop and that somewhere out there, there were a vast number of new and innovative games waiting to be discovered. Well, a week or so later the catalogue arrived and it proved to be rather disappointing. I recognized most of the games from years earlier! Certainly there was nothing that seemed new or 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, the package arrived. Titan, Wizard's Quest and Wiz-War all stared up at me. I read the rules, called a couple of friends and over the course of a couple of weeks, we played them all. Only Wiz-War garnered much interest and even that was somewhat lukewarm—it was interesting but not something that you yearned to play. Overall, it was a disappointing re-entry to the world of games.

Something that was new and exciting to me around this time were personal computers, specifically bulletin board services (BBS's). I was lucky in that there was a large, well-organized local club with about 1500 members. The newsgroups were a favorite of mine and I visited them extensively. There were local groups but also other worldwide links via networks such as FidoNet and the like. You could read and leave messages with people all over the world. At the time this was a novel and fascinating experience—it didn't matter what you were talking about so much as the fact that you were talking at all. As this club grew, they started to add groups from something called Usenet. Of all the different "nets" this seemed to be one of the biggest and most heavily populated. The Usenet group that most interested me was rec.games.board. I didn't 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 it is in the movies so I remained largely ignorant of how my life was to change (the hobby side of it anyway). While I read rec.games.board occasionally I remained only mildly interested because I didn't have a good understanding of what was being discussed. As with most hobbies, there's a "common language" that needs to be established, a set of reference points you 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). 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 was Die Siedler von Catan. First edition, Mayfair Settlers of CatanEveryone seemed to be singing its praises and best of all, Mayfair Games had recently released an English language version. None of the local stores had it but I manged to acquire a copy during a weekend trip to Vancouver. I mentioned the game to several friends and after a week or so finally managed to play it. It wasn't quite the revelation that others had reported but I was very pleased with how it played. More than anything else I felt the same as 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 it's a game that most people, gamers and non-gamers alike, enjoy the first time they play.

With this first success I continued reading rec.games.board with renewed vigor. Eventually I discovered Brian Bankler's list of Top 100 games. 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, it gave me a rough idea of certain games to investigate. This "investigation" was also handled via the Internet, I'd become Web-aware and visited many sites I'd 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, translations and discussions about all these wonderful new games! I very quickly established a "want to buy" list that grew much faster than I could handle. This of course brought up the problem of finding out where to actually purchase these games. At first this wasn't too much of a problem as I was most interested in the games Mayfair was releasing. (In retrospect I wonder if it was their games I was most interested in or if it was just because they were readily available?) A
        nice summation of my feelings about German games.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 can't 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 & Drüber. 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 in fact that the chief difficulty was not in finding something you wanted to play but rather finding time to do so. People were always interested in playing but it was 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 who was interested in playing that night would know that they could just show up and get a game in. I'm 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 become 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.

During this time, I had become even more involved in discussions on rec.games.board as well as via e-mail groups. I subscribed to print magazines such as The Game Report and Sumo and had even talked to Alan Moon about a couple of his games. It was these conversations that led him to invite me to the convention he organizes each year: The Gathering of Friends. When you're willing to travel across the continent in order to play games for five straight days you realize just how deep you're in. I knew the dates of the big German toy fairs and when the new games would be released. It wasn't enough to have a great pile of unplayed games on my shelves, I 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. I'm definitely in the frame of mind that I've got too many games but they're 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 this 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. It's no longer enough for a game to be merely "good", it's got to be great. This has led me to conclude that while I have fond memories of my high school gaming days, we're in the midst of the best of times.

- Greg Aleknevicus

(This article originally appeared in issue #8 of Counter magazine.)

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