Listening to the Dice Tower and Spiel podcasts and reading forum entries on Boardgame Geek, I’ve come across two central aspects of US boardgaming culture that have me kind of baffled. One is the ubiquity of open-to-all gaming groups, and the other is the emphasis on the FLGS, the Friendly Local Gaming Store.

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To begin with the gaming groups, to me gaming is something I do with my friends at our houses – usually mine. The varying cast of gamers having tea at my table once a week are my guests. A recent Dice Tower episode (#205), however, featured a long discussion about what to do if your gaming group gets saddled with a member that nobody wants to play with. These club-like US groups seem to convene on public premises – universities, church basements, pubs, game stores – and while pretty much anybody can get in, there’s no accepted way to kick obnoxious characters out. I’ve never had that problem. If I invited someone I didn’t know well and they didn’t turn out to my liking, I’d just never invite them again. (Both of the two gamer friends I’ve picked up blindly from web forums are lovely people and I invite them all the time.)

I wrote to the Dice Tower about this and they kindly replied to my question on the show. The main reason the show hosts mentioned for organising public gaming groups is basically about evangelism: they want to get new people into the hobby. Part of their motivation seems to be that they want to increase demand for boardgames, ensuring that more and better games will be published in the future. This is unimportant to me. Even if no more boardgames came out starting tomorrow, it would take me decades to play through the thousands of good ones that have already been published.

I’m thinking that maybe those open-to-all gaming groups exist because few people are like me. Maybe there aren’t enough hosts. If there were a gregarious guy in every gamer’s area who was happy to have people over all the time, then only the problematic characters discussed on the Dice Tower would have to join open groups. Of course, to anyone with a family, the spouse has to be OK with it too. And my wife seems happy with the setup. Typically she’ll just greet everybody when they arrive and then spending the evening at the piano or computer or TV or reading while we play games peacefully for a few hours. She’s happy that I’m happy, and she greatly prefers having me around over me spending one evening every weekend away from home. Me, I really don’t enjoy late-night train rides either, so I’m glad the game comes to me instead of me going to the game.

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Then there are those stores. Before the Internet, I cared about game stores because that was the only place I could find out about games and buy them. (The Tradition store that I frequented in its Storgatan and Humlegårdsgatan locations in Stockholm during the 80s was never particularly friendly though. There was this tall blond store clerk who clearly A: was not a gamer, and B: did not particularly enjoy talking to enthusiastic kobolds.) But for 15 years I’ve learned about and bought my books, games and software over the net. I don’t like spending time in stores. To me, a high-street shop is just an unnecessary price-raising link in the logistical chain between the manufacturer and me. And brick & mortar shopping is a huge time sink compared to ordering stuff from my desk. The only time I buy games or books over the counter is in the rare case when I need a present for someone and have forgotten to order in time.

With this attitude, you’ll understand that I’m horrified by the thought of spending hours playing games in a store. But that is apparently common in the US. The smarter store owners seem to realise though that boardgamers aren’t really worth hosting, since we can play for hours without buying anything. The money is in collectible cardgames such as Magic: The Gathering, where a player’s success correlates strongly with the amount of money he spends on cards. But even when the shopkeeper does oblige – why spend your free time in a store? Or on a mall concourse, for that matter…

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So, my recipe for better boardgaming is this.

1. Learn about games and buy them on-line.
2. Keep a list of your favourite local gamers.
3. Send out text-message or e-mail invitations on, like, a Wednesday morning for people to come over on Saturday. As the replies come in, keep poking people on your list until you have the requisite number of pledges. (I usually go for three guests with my kids as extras.)
4. Keep some simple stats on what percentage of your invitations a given friend has accepted. You’ll soon see which ones are worth asking, which saves time and avoids mutual embarrassment. Bachelors/ettes are the most dependable ones.

Comments

  1. #1 Benjie
    June 7, 2011

    Those are very good points. I think there are exceptions though.
    1. In areas of minimal public transit (most of the USA), FLGS can be a good compromise for scattered people.
    2. meetup.com provides a good solution to dealing with “that guys.”
    3. The FLGS I play at is also a game designer, so we only have a pseudo-middleman. It helps that the staff make many of the games we play.

  2. #2 Martin R
    June 7, 2011

    Cool, what’s the most widely known game your store owner has designed?

  3. #3 Ted H.
    June 7, 2011

    The problem I run into, even at the stores that host gamers, is that it is still very hard to find people who play the same hard-core games I do. Squad Leader or Third Reich come to mind, but I really don’t get much chance to play many old school Avalon Hill/SPI type games anymore. I can’t really fault the stores for not encouraging this, because they don’t sell them anymore. Game Clubs would be a good outlet for this, but very few play these older games.

    I’ve made use of Play by email (PBEM) a little, but it really pales in comaparison to face to face gaming.

    I’ve been tempted to start my own gaming group of people who want to learn/play these old games (I’ve literally got hundreds of them in storage)but I don’t really know if there is any interest in it. Maybe I’m just a dinosaur.

  4. #4 Martin R
    June 7, 2011

    If you’re anywhere near a sizeable city, I guess you’re good to go. Just advertise on Boardgame Geek and invite some war gamers over. I’ve got buddies in Stockholm who play endless chit-and-hex war game campaigns.

  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    June 7, 2011

    (OT, but cool)

    “New computer dating technology changing the history of Britain”
    http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-06-dating-technology-history-britain.html

  6. #6 Benjie
    June 8, 2011

    http://www.fantasyflightgames.com
    They’re known for Arkham Horror, Descent, Cosmic Encounter, Twilight Imperium, and others. Lot of licensed stuff; they’re nice too. They have a lot of things available for loaning out while customers are in-store.

  7. #7 Martin R
    June 8, 2011

    Ah yes, I’m familiar with FFG. I own their 1st edition Cave Troll. In fact, me and the kids played it in China thanks to its eminent portability. 2nd ed is not as good in that respect. And I’ve played all the games you mention except Twilight Imperium.

  8. #8 TheBrummell
    June 8, 2011

    One reason for the greater popularity of playing games in public or semi-public areas (game stores, malls, restaurants, etc) could be a lack of suitable facilities at the homes of the players. Particularly for younger players (I’m thinking ages 20-25 or so), it’s far from universal to have a table and more than 3 or 4 chairs at home. I’d be happy to host some friends at my place for some games, but it would require a fair bit of furniture rearrangement on my part, and I’d be limited to inviting at most 4 other people over before I run out of things to sit on – and with 5 people in my place, it would be pretty crowded. One- or two-bedroom apartments and basement suites (the common living quarters of most university students and graduate students I know) generally lack a decent sized central room (living room, dining room, whatever you want to call it) suitable for having 6 people sitting around a big table.

    Also, with a public area you can have multiple games running simultaneously. When you finish a game you can play something else with a different group of people fairly quickly, so you’d get more exposure to new (to you) games and meeting new people.

  9. #9 Martin R
    June 8, 2011

    I see your point. The younger guys who play games at my place do not have enough furniture at their own cramped places. Our dining table is a huge old conference table that easily seats 8.

    I think 4 or 5 people around the gaming table is ideal though.

  10. #10 George Sauer III
    June 10, 2011

    We have a large game club that does not meet at a FLGS. We average 125 gamers attending our open to the public weekly meetings in an office park meeting room.

    Do not read below if you are easily offended as it is not intended to be an affront to you – just an observation we have had in our area.

    Not “picking” on you but IMHO we have found that individuals that want to only play at their own homes are “alpha” gamers. They will have the games picked out for the people they invite and will game only when they want and want everyone to conform to their schedule and the house rules. AND, when the “alpha” gamer does not want to game – there is no gaming. Like you said in your blog, you will tend then only to invite those that will appear more frequently at your request and bend to your will as it were. When you are gone these gamers tend to go away and have less interest in gaming with others. You come our group – CABS – you can be assured of getting people to play almost any boardgame you wish. Alpha gamers tend to shy away as they will attend – set up a game – get 4 to play and when it is done, the gamers are off to another group and games. The alpha gamer has lost their control and get frustrated as they cannot control the group – they are like all the rest. Just a boardgamer amongst boardgamers and they do not like that.

    SO the question is really are you an “ALPHA” gamer and it is the control a group bending to your will and taste of games willing to let you make the choices for them that you really enjoy – or could you attend a public place or another person house where you do not get to make the choices and are not in control and still enjoy gaming???

  11. #11 Martin R
    June 10, 2011

    Odd notion that person who invites his friends over does this to enjoy a sense of control over them.

    They will have the games picked out for the people they invite and will game only when they want and want everyone to conform to their schedule and the house rules.

    I usually let my guests choose the game, though I often have a suggestion.

    Yes, I game only when I want to. Doesn’t everybody?

    Obviously I only invite people at times that work with my schedule, but I make no attempt to control what they to at other times.

    I don’t like house rules.

    when the “alpha” gamer does not want to game – there is no gaming.

    How is that possible? How can the alpha gamer decide what other people do when he’s not around?

    When you are gone these gamers tend to go away and have less interest in gaming with others.

    On the contrary. They come to my place partly because they like to play games regardless of whether I’m around or not.

    The alpha gamer has lost their control and get frustrated as they cannot control the group – they are like all the rest. Just a boardgamer amongst boardgamers and they do not like that.

    I play games elsewhere too where I’m not a host. It’s just that I’m a bit lazy about travelling and my wife & kids like to have me around. And I send far more invitations than I get.

  12. #12 George Sauer III
    June 10, 2011

    So sounds like you are not an “ALPHA” gamer.

    > I usually let my guests choose the game, though I often have a suggestion.

    Do you have two or three laid out and they choose amongst them or can a guest bring a game that you did not know about and then everyone break it out and play that one?

    > Yes, I game only when I want to. Doesn’t everybody?

    A public venue has posted times and dates – if you want to game then you have to make the time in your schedule to fit the times at the public venue if you cannot be a host. So you begin to “want to game” when the groups are available.

    > How is that possible? How can the alpha gamer decide what other people do when he’s not around?

    They tend to bring people around them that only feel comfortable in the one group they are in. Uncomfortable in “public” settings or finding new gaming buds. Or schedule their game times the same times as public venues run their times so as to make them make choices.

    > They come to my place partly because they like to play games regardless of whether I’m around or not.

    But they cannot come to your place to game with the others when you are not around. So if they are not developing these same gaming relationships outside of the comfort of your place then they just might not be gaming until you call. Your schedule becomes their schedule.

    It’s like any other social circle. There tends to be a few the “drive” any group and when they go away the group falls apart and many leave that activity as they are not interested in becoming the “alpha” of the group. Or just do not find the right gamers to play with. Have heard it a million times – Oh I don’t game like I used too once our old group busted up – just have not found the time or had the energy to get into another group.

    Public locations and pre stated gaming times and dates avoids this and ensures that the gaming will go on even though a few key individuals no longer take part.

    Nothing wrong with either public or private gaming.

    But gaming at a public venue allows one to pick and choose the gamers they want to associate with as opposed to a vetting process of being selected to a private group and being judged as it were to be “acceptable” gamer for that group, and to be allowed to join.

    Different strokes for different folks.

    There will always be leaders and followers. We like to state that we are enabling gamers to become leaders. We have people that never come back as they rather let others decide what to play and not have to make those choices.

  13. #13 Martin R
    June 10, 2011

    I often whip out the list of every game in my house for my guests to choose from, and we also often play whatever someone brings.

    gaming at a public venue allows one to pick and choose the gamers they want to associate with as opposed to a vetting process of being selected to a private group and being judged as it were to be “acceptable” gamer for that group, and to be allowed to join

    Whoever invites a bunch of buddies to his home for gaming night gets to pick and choose the gamers they want to associate with. I don’t think it’s a huge step to invite people over. But as I wrote in my blog entry, maybe I’m an unusual person. That would explain why I can’t see the point of something that is so common among US gamers.

  14. #14 George Sauer III
    June 10, 2011

    > I don’t think it’s a huge step to invite people over.

    You are correct – but it is a HUGE step for someone on the other end coming over to a private residence and gaming with people they have no control over or might have even met.

    As it is posting on someone elses blog … ;o)

    Thanks for taking the time in responding to my posts …

    I will be gaming with 125 of my close gaming friends tomorrow at our meeting and would not miss it for the world. And for the fact that RIO GRANDE GAME COMPANY just sent the club all of its newest games for free and we will be having a great time opening and exploring all the newest games.

    Good Luck in your gaming …

  15. #15 Martin R
    June 12, 2011

    it is a HUGE step for someone on the other end coming over to a private residence and gaming with people they have no control over or might have even met.

    Still me and my gaming buddies do it pretty often. Gamers tend to be charming, friendly people in my experience. “Control” doesn’t come into it.

  16. #16 rsm
    June 20, 2011

    Several points and too much commentary.

    1. Selection bias:
    The crazies (lovable ones for sure) who do podcasts are all evangelists in one form or another. This is in exact opposition to the general Scandinavian attitude towards not speaking out in public that you described quite succinctly in your Minnesota Atheist interview. Of course you will never hear of all the private gaming groups in the US because they don’t advertize, don’t have websites and don’t have podcasts. Hence I think your question is suffering from a severe case of selection bias.

    2. What place does it occupy in your life?
    Would you only invite 4-5 good friends over for a cup of tea and a discussion when Massimo Pigliucci is visiting Stockholm, or do you host a public event? If hosting a public event for skepticism is ok, why isn’t it for gaming?
    I’m not saying that you think it’s not ok to do public events, but it’s clear that that games don’t occupy the same social space for you as does skepticism. (Note: I’m specifically using that as an example, because I can make a case for the same overlap myself, except because there are a lot of religious people or people who are generally apolitical or from a different country around I tend to be an ‘out’ gamer geek and ‘closet’ skeptic/politics nerd. The people who overlap are obviously in my private gaming group)

    3. Why large gaming groups?
    There are several reasons, and let’s skip Tom’s silly evangelism stuff, because frankly it’s too easy to see where that comes from.
    a) More people mean that you have better odds of getting to play the games you really enjoy, or finding players for trying out something new/different/strange.
    b) More people increase the odds of discovering new stuff that might be interesting. Or just discovering/getting to try games you don’t own. Not that trying new games is ‘the thing to do’, but it’s nice to not to be the only one with a game collection.
    c) Large groups offer a good social setting (see: Skeptics in the pub – bring a game next time).
    d) A larger group is less susceptible to turnover. Typically this comes out of the army and college experience where the gaming club becomes the focal point and mitigates against the constant churn of players who graduate and/or move away.
    d) Meeting in public places means you don’t have to host a bunch of gamers at the house (which frankly can be stressful – my (Japanese) wife does not having people over at all). Also space requirements, especially in heavily urbanized areas in the US, or just caused by stupid house zoning/design here in Japan, mean that often gaming space is unavailable. At most I can host 7 people at my place for gaming, which is fine, but it also leaves an exceedingly thin margin for error w.r.t. juggling gaming sessions when everyone works, is busy etc.

    On the flip side, private groups offer exactly what you spell out:
    1. More intimate/homey setting.
    2. Just friends, even if they are primarily ‘gamer’ only friends.
    3. Better control over who shows up (yay local drama in expat communities).
    4. Better atmosphere, easier to involve your kids, etc.

    I like both. I particularly like public gaming groups for the reason that I get to play games my friends might not like, and with people whom I’d be uncomfortable to invite to my home. On the other hand my private groups are probably more social and relaxed, but in the kind of community I live in my odds for getting Civilization to the table again probably rests on me raising both my daughters as gamers…

    As a response to George:
    I’m not sure that ‘alpha’ tag is exactly a reliable designation. It certainly doesn’t apply to any gamers I actually know, or have known on three continents and a number of cities, even in gaming groups focused around just a few people. The main reason it doesn’t apply to me is that I’m too desperate to play anything that I’ll take a game of Settlers just to play. On the other hand I have met people like that, just not in gaming. There are people like that everywhere, in every hobby and walk of life.

    Still me and my gaming buddies do it pretty often. Gamers tend to be charming, friendly people in my experience.

    Then you have been lucky. In my experience gamers run the gamut. From good to bad and everything in between. Which is why my favorite people to game with are my wife and the kids. I might not get Civ or Tigris and Euphrates to the table for another 10 years, but it does make for excellent family time.

  17. #17 Martin R
    June 20, 2011

    1. Excellent point, well taken.

    2. Indeed, gaming is just fun for me while skepticism has more of a policy-orientated (not to say political) edge.

    3. In a sense, I have a large gaming group. That is, I have a long and growing list of gamer friends from which to pick. Again, it helps being socially fearless.

    In my family, Juniorette is an enthusiastic gamer, Junior likes to play sometimes, and my wife likes Bohnanza. She prefers me meeting my well-behaved buddies around our table over me spending evenings away from home regularly.

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