I had the opportunity to visit the first annual Chicago International Toy and Game Fair over the Labor day weekend. For those not familiar with the event, it was designed to promote board games and the gaming industry to the public at large. After reading information on Mary Couzin's site, the organizer of the event, and from the main CHITAG site I wasn't sure what to expect. I've been to many other shows and could understand what she was trying to do but I wasn't sure that she would be able to pull it off. There are many shows and conventions across the country but this was the first to focus primarily on the promotion and advancement of board games.
The first thing that drew me to the show was the hype that this may be an "Essen in America", a lofty and admirable goal. I was intrigued by the notion that one day we'll have our own event that draws in excess of 100,000 people, all interested in these games we love. Not hearing much about the event before hand didn't exactly fill me with confidence that they were going to "pull it off".
I traveled to Chicago on Friday to be sure that I would get in nice and early on Saturday. As it turns out, I arrived at the show just as the local CBS affiliate was leaving. It didn't really strike me as odd at the time but as I reflect on it now I see some significance to that event (which I'll get to in a moment). I was waiting outside the door and could see the R&R booth, the Out Of the Box booth, a local retailer and thought to myself that this could be pretty good. Mary saw me waiting outside and after purchasing my ticket, allowed me to come in early which gave me some time to roam around the show before the maddening crowd descended down upon the event. (At least that was my thought, after all, this was "Essen in America"!) I opened my camera and was starting to feel a little giddy. It's the same feeling I get whenever I go to any of this type of show. This time though it was a little extra special because I was at an inaugural event which could turn into something really huge. I started snapping pictures as I walked around the hall and I quickly came to realize how small the event was in comparison to my imagined world of Germanic-American board gaming ecstasy. The event was set up in about a third of a large convention hall which didn't sit well with my idea of what it would be, I had thought that it would be huge. Either way there were some important vendors present including R&R, Out Of the Box, Rio Grande Games, Eagle Games and Mayfair Games among many others, about 40 in total. Curiously absent from the list were hard to pronounce (at least to my tongue) German game companies or some easy to pronounce American companies (say it with me... Hasbro). It also turned out that Sony had backed out at the last minute. (They were going to be running a contestant search at the show for Pyramid—A TV game show starring Donnie Osmond.) To say that I was dubious was putting it mildly.
It wasn't until I started to see people come though the door that things became clear to me. This isn't about competing with Essen. This isn't about making a show that devoted gamers will flock to. It's about the general public. The show felt totally different in tone than GenCon or Origins. It felt like Essen, albeit smaller in scale. I felt a "family warmth" that large industry conventions lack. I think that part of it is that those other conventions cater to all aspects of gaming. There are folks there for miniatures, there are folks there for role playing, there are folks there for historic gaming, there are folks there for collectible cards. And yes, there are folks there for board games too. It seems that each of these groups have their dedicated followers and the people who attend are very knowledgeable and are quite involved in the hobby. CHITAG and Essen are different in that they focus on board/family games and CHITAG had a family feeling to it. An indication of this is something that I call the Stroller Ratio. It's a totally non-scientific and arbitrary measure of the number of baby strollers per person walking in the door. There were kids, there were families, there were people discovering for the first time what is was that these games were all about. It was this feeling that I had hoped to find.
I felt totally renewed and my faith in the event restored, I saw it in a new light. There weren't a lot of serious hobbyists to check out what was going on but there were a lot of people with a casual interest in games looking for something more. Sure, they played board games but hadn't explored the vast world of these games of ours. I knew there was something that I needed to do, I was there not only as an observer of the event, a passive participant. I, as an active believer in the growth of the hobby, was an ambassador too. Like my friends at Amazon.com, I was there to "Share The Love". In this regard I tried to help out as much as I could. I demonstrated games for Rio Grande and R&R. I helped to facilitate some events. I discussed my passion with anyone who would listen. In short, I had a fabulous time sharing the enjoyment I receive from these games.
The first day was beautiful and I saw a lot of people out on the pier. For those of you who haven't been Chicago's Navy Pier, imagine a small fair/amusement park/mall all jam packed onto a huge cement pier about three-quarters of a mile long. The second day brought a bit of rain and as a result brought more people inside to the show. It didn't hurt that the show was inexpensive to attend, a individual single day ticket was only five dollars and a family pass was ten. Want to attend for all three days? Only double the amount. I think that this really helped in making it accessible to more people, it's something that more shows should try.
Did CHITAG accomplish what it set out to do? In a word—Yes. How do we measure such a thing? We could measure it in sales generated from the show. Almost every vendor I talked to was tickled pink with the sales they garnered. We could measure success by the number of people who walked through the door. On the first day it might have been a little slower than some had hoped for but by the second day it was in full swing and then some. Although I don't have actual numbers I got a real sense that there were a lot of people coming though the door. We could measure success by the amount of attention that was generated for games and gaming. To this end I was truly amazed, the amount of local coverage on radio, TV and in print was phenomenal. (Thoughts go back to that CBS truck, if I had only shown up a bit earlier then maybe I could have been on TV... oh well.) We could also measure success by growth of the industry and hobby that this event will produce. Only time will tell how successful this show will prove to be but if the number of people who enjoyed games that they had never heard of is any indication, then I can say that CHITAG was a smashing success! After all, Essen started with only 300 people in its first year.
I would also like to publicly acknowledge Mary and her tireless efforts to promote board games and her willingness to stick out her neck, her reputation (and her money) to help make this hobby/industry a larger and happier community. Our hobby wouldn't be where it is today without people like her.
Yes James, that is all well and good but were there any cool games there? I'm glad you asked, it was my first opportunity to see the new Age Of Mythology from Eagle Games. I have to say that the production value is absolutely top notch, not that we have come to expect anything else from Eagle. I would like to take this opportunity to address some concerns that Age Of Mythology is a knock off of Puerto Rico. Although there are some minor similarities I can tell you from watching the game that it doesn't feel or play like Puerto Rico. There are many games that get inspiration from other earlier games—Andreas Seyfarth himself admits getting some inspiration for Puerto Rico from Outpost. Age Of Mythology looks and feels like the computer versions of Age of Empires/Age of Kings/Age of Mythology. If I were going to design a game based on these I might very well come up with something similar, I think they've done a great job.
I saw a few games that have been referred to as the "Starbucks" games. These are games sold exclusively at Starbucks. One of particular note is This vs. That, a game with an electronic gizmo that gives you two categories (like things that are hot and things that are cold) and it is your team's duty to write down five things that fit one of those categories while the other team writes down items for the other category. The electronic gizmo records how long it takes your team to write down these things. The other team then has that long to give clues and guess the words (as on $100,000 Pyramid). I liked it enough that I picked up a copy the next time I went to Starbucks.
At R&R's booth it seemed that Smarty Party was "all the rave". There were people playing it left and right. It's a fun, light party game.
I also picked up some "games" from some small publishers. The first was Playing Up from a small Australian company and another was called Spinergy from GnuGames. They're about as much of a game as Once Upon a Time but they're fun and certainly worth a look none the less.
I walked away from CHITAG energized and excited about the future of board games in America and I anxiously look forward to what tomorrow may bring. However, the topper didn't occur until I got home from the event but it sealed everything that I had been thinking about all weekend. When I walked past my neighbor's apartment I saw that they were playing board games and having a blast. Here were people who live right next to me and I never thought that they might like playing board games. How many of your neighbors are playing games? How do you know?
- James Miller