Today’s title comes from the new Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit. When our hero Beth Harmon has completed her final victory (not a spoiler—how else could it end?), she sits down in a Moscow park with an older chess player we had seen earlier (of course, as foreshadowed) and says, “Let’s play.” Actually, she says, “Поиграем,” since she has learned Russian for this very moment (and a revealing moment on an elevator). Side note: the older man she plays in the park is almost surely the same actor who played her first teacher, Mr. Shaibel. It’s a good series, though to my taste too much about addiction. Beth is a prodigy, but this isn’t based on a true story like one of my favorite movies, Searching for Bobbie Fischer, a tale of two other prodigies, Bobbie Fischer and Joshua Waitzkin. Since apparently everything I look at must connect in some way, Josh’s teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, consulted on the Netflix series AND the original novel AND had a cameo in Episode 6.
And that’s just the title. Today’s topic is board games. Chess is considered, by some, the best board game, but since I’m easily conquered by the average 10-year-old, I’m happy to learn others. As a child, I played Scrabble and Anagrams with my grandmother. We also played Canasta, a card game invented in the 1940s. It was complicated, and I remember only that it would irritate my grandmother if I did something with a red three. Later, I played Monopoly and Clue with friends, and bridge with future former friends.
Not long ago, I heard someone say that he worked in the field of board game convention planning. It sounded intriguing, and Jeff Anderson graciously agreed to an interview, with my asides in brackets:
Tell me about your background with board games, growing up or in your own family.
When growing up, we played the typical games like Risk and Monopoly, though I didn’t so much as a teen. When I was an adult, perhaps 25-30, a coworker introduced me to Acquire [1963, mergers and acquisitions category]. It was a lot of fun, and then I tried Settlers of Catan [1995, now known simply as Catan, strategy] which is a gateway game that captured the attention of lots of Americans and, like many board games, came from Germany. It was a newfound hobby, and the tip of the iceberg. This kind of playing style was more fun for adults. Social and strategic thinking were the real goals.
How many games do you own?
My personal collection is 100-120, which is small to average for hobbyists. For a time, I was custodian and caretaker of the games library for BoardGameGeek (BGG), the company I work for. I lived near an airport, and there was an airplane hangar in my back yard that housed over 6000 games and convention equipment. The collection outgrew that hangar, and the library now occupies 14,000 square feet of warehouse storage.
What are your favorites? Why?
I like games that have a story as well as cooperative play. Currently, I’m enjoying GloomHaven, an adventuring/role playing game ranked #1 at boardgamegeek.com, our company’s website. Just One is another—a simple and fast word game.
What prepared you for your current position? Education? A mentor? Serendipity?
Mostly serendipity, and the willingness to volunteer. Normally, I’m a software developer with a BS in computer science, and with 2020, I’ve returned to that full time. But for the last 3-4 years, I’ve worked with BGG hosting conventions. At first, I volunteered with the company after being associated with it as a social site. In 2005, they decided to run a convention, and 200 people came together in downtown Dallas. In 2006, I volunteered to help set it up, and during 2007-2008, I worked my way up to helping run it for 500-600 people. In 2015, we added a second convention in the spring, plus a cruise that year. Now 4000 people attend the fall convention with 2000 in the spring, and 200 on the cruise. [A Channel 5 story and interview about the 2017 convention here.]
What is your favorite aspect of this field?
I enjoy bringing people together and making new friends. With games you are always learning a new system, so it’s a challenge each time. I like organizing events that make other people happy.
Your least favorite?
I need to negotiate contracts and wrangle exhibitors, but when information has all been already available in an email, I still get emails with questions that were already answered. [Nobody reads anymore.]
What in the history of board games interests you?
The rise of modern board games, including new books and new movies, has been exciting to see. These games are a lot more engaging than what I grew up with. Germany leads the world with new development. It’s common for adults to socialize by playing board games there, and many of the prominent board game designers who work full time are in Germany. Each year their Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) gets much attention, almost like the American Oscars. Once the game winner is announced, 400,000 copies of it will sell. It was a big deal when an American won Game of the Year [Ticket to Ride, Alan R. Moon, 2004, BGG #1 gateway game] [American Tabletop Awards began in 2019, but there are also many other award sites, including BGG’s.]
Do you usually work in an office?
Although I could do everything from home, BGG does have a building that includes an office. My wife Christine runs the store with help from some friends; she processes orders for the company as well.
How often do people confuse you with the Hasbro General Manager and Senior VP Jeffrey Anderson?
Actually, I didn’t know anything about him. I figured my name was so common that I’ve never Googled it. Hasbro [originally Hassenfeld Brothers] is the last of the mass market game producers in the world [Hungry Hippos, Candy Land, Battleship, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Monopoly, and many more]. They do not sell designer games or Euro games, which are the more modern board games.
Why do people still love board games anyway?
Now more than ever, when there are so few alternatives, board games are a great socializing tool for families. There’s been a huge boom because of the pandemic. It’s a good way to spend time together.
Why are they better than electronic games?
I wouldn’t say board games are necessarily better, though maybe they are for some. Lots of people play both. We do that in our family. I prefer them because of the interaction, being face to face with people. Using my brain is part of it, but there is a physicality to it as well, and the tactile sensations of the pieces and the movement.
What is the future of board gaming?
I expect that we will be right back into conventions next year, hopefully. Playing board games is an important element of human nature, just as play is an important element of our development
Lots of my students used to say they want to be game designers, but they mean videogames. What is the world of board game designers like?
There is some crossover with designers, and there are different challenges. Computers can do things for you, while there is a simpler rule set for boards, and typically there are fewer designers. Perhaps 20-50 people in the world can do it as a full-time living, but many others do it with another day job.
And in conclusion…
There is so much variety these days, so it’s not just Monopoly. For example, Just One is a party game that came out last year, and it is a lot of fun [Spiel des Jahres winner 2019; “ingenious in its simplicity”]. There is a gift guide on BGG’s website, sorted by categories like card games, dexterity, family, Disney, Harry Potter, and many more. There is a game for everyone, though not every game is for everyone.
Thank you, Jeff Anderson!
Side Note/Side Interview
I work for a media bias/reliability company, reading articles and listening to podcasts. Yesterday the shift facilitator, Brandon, asked if anyone had done anything interesting lately. I piped up about the Jeff Anderson interview, learned Brandon has an identity with BGG, and heard that there are lots of conventions. As a naïve newbie to this world, I assumed there was just the Dallas one. But no: there are hundreds in this country and around the world. One in Germany hosts 175,000 attendees. This site gives the 2020 list and warns that many sell out ahead of time, confirmed in the TV interview linked above.
Brandon gave a list of favorites: Ticket to Ride with various versions [a video with no narrative just visuals, plus age range and time of play] and The Pillars of the World [BGG explanation that includes various details and data; this is a literature-based game from the Ken Follett novel which has an 8 episode mini-series now streaming]. His experience with adult games began when his family started playing Balderdash [a word game that I’ve also played in which players submit real or fictional definitions for obscure words, BGG here]. He used the phrase “and then the dam broke” when he discovered the other newer games. Jeff’s was “tip of the iceberg.” (No more Monopoly!]
Knowing I like music, Brandon included this video that sings. Odd, and a bit…well, odd, though with insights. It starts with Pandemic and Codenames, not yet mentioned, and more. The channel is Actualol with Jon Purkis. A 28-minute offering lists his 15 best 2018 games. [Caveat: While I like how Purkis says “Amazon” and “whilst” like other Brits, he has some videos with humor that is a bit off-color and might offend some.]
Brandon used the phrase “with/against others.” [Some of us are more competitive, so winning can be important, maybe even the point.] While the companionship is a component, planning, thinking, strategizing, and flat-out thinking are perhaps even more compelling. Sometimes, games are virtually silent, either by design or by choice. [One doesn’t chat over chess, for example, or lots of card games. Others can be intense and addictive. I’ve been waked up with a kid saying, “Wanna play Exploding Kittens?”]
Thanks, Brandon. Who knew?
A public service: Here are some links to lists: Wirecutter in New York Times includes prices, ideas, and a smaller set of choices. Games Radar includes many more in similar categories, prices, and the pros and cons of each. New York Magazine’s list of best family games includes lots of classics with many new ones as well such as Exploding Kittens and Suspend. This British version offers a quick guide then longer explanations and different games than on the other lists.
Finally, you can explore the history of games for the past 5000 years or the scholarly study of the role of games in the ecology of family experiences, but, all things considered, neither sounds like much fun. We have more time on our hands these days, and we are inside. Board games are, apparently, a richer option than I had any idea. And presumably, fun.
Full disclosures: I cheated at Chutes and Ladders when the kids were little, bought The Ungame for a non-competitive communication (read quiet) option, have three games from the lists in my Amazon cart, and love Trivial Pursuit best when I win. Game on!