Games people play
A Meek Reporter finds herself trying to beat Pirates, Professors and Presidents at their own games
The President took a gamble and suggested I battle The Professor, The Loser and Bruce—three of the more diehard members of Boardgamers of Reno.
“You guys better let her win,” said The President before heading off to play his own game with The Pirate and Kirk. “We don’t want The Reporter to write a negative story.”
“Nobody has to let me win,” I thought. “I can hold my own in any game. I’m a Boggle savant, a gin rummy genius, a Clue conqueror, a Monopoly monopolist.”
“Well, she’ll probably score ahead of me,” The Loser said in a humiliating tone. “Everybody always scores ahead of me.”
“In these European board games, there’s more than just first place,” Bruce said. “There are these second and third places. I can’t get used to it. I think it’s an American thing, first or nothing.”
The Professor, in a past incarnation known as The Serial Killer, had played Mexica before. For Loser, Bruce and Meek Reporter, this was new territory—the intimidating and uncharted scenery of an unknown game.
The scene (a.k.a. the board) was a barren island surrounded by water, an empty landscape that would develop into a grand and ancient city in the metropolitan style of Tenochtitlán.
The game’s inspiration and tactics are based upon the real history of the Aztecs and their founding of a city on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
As the story goes, when the wandering tribe found a cactus with an eagle perched on it eating a snake, they’d discovered home sweet home.
As the Aztecs built their divined conurbation, they employed intra-island canals to separate city districts. Bridges were used to connect districts, and the canals were used for traveling extensive distances—extensive in terms of foot travel, that is.
European board games often include a history or a geography lesson, in addition to developing players’ strategizing skills. In Paris Paris, for example, players move around a board that is a real-life map of downtown Paris.
“With Paris Paris, your kids are learning something,” The President said. “In a game like Java, they’re exploring an island. Or they’re doing sort of the Harry Potter thing with a game like Atlanteon, a two-player game that is a battle in Atlantis—it opens up the imagination for kids and doesn’t dumb things down for the parents.”
David Reese, The Professor, is a BGR veteran. He’s been with the club almost since Mike Snedeker, The President, founded it two years ago. Since school started in late August, The Professor has been arriving a bit late to the board game soirees held every Tuesday night outside The Gadget Tree in the basement of the Reno Hilton. He is temporarily teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno, taking time off from whatever activities earned him the previous moniker of Serial Killer.
The President introduced me to all the potential opponents of the evening—Reese, Omar Forbes (The Loser), Bruce Chapman, Joe Kisenwether (The Analyst), Kirk Gardner and Nate Cantin (The Pirate)—and then made sure The Professor didn’t mind teaching the rules of Mexica to Bruce, The Loser and me.
“In the beginning of Boardgamers of Reno,” The President said, “it was really tough because, as the guy who was actually trying to put the club together, I was the only one who knew the games. So we’d get two games going, and I barely played because I constantly had to teach. And now, as people have learned, we’ve spread it out.”
Owing many a learned game to The President, The Professor took his turn at explaining the ins and the outs of Mexica to novices.
Reese’s quarter-inch-short hair and trim beard-and-mustache combo gave him an air of authority compared with some of the shaggier-haired players. He was a first-rate instructor. It was a million times better than reading the rulebook ourselves.
In Reese’s explanation of the rules, I was introduced to the concept of “action points,” a common way for players to make their moves. In Mexica, each player has the opportunity to use six action points, or moves, per turn; using up all six points constitutes one turn, although, if you don’t use them all, you have more points to do more building and moving and pushing and shoving on future turns.
Action points can be used to move your marker from one grid-square of the board to the next, to place a water tile—a canal—anywhere you want (on the board, that is; placing a tile in your opponent’s eye does not fall within the limits of proper game etiquette), to travel across canals and bridges, and to erect buildings in established districts. You establish a district by using your gargantuan hand to place tiny water tiles in such a way that they lock off a hunk of land from the rest of the island. A district is a small island that connects to the mainland only if somebody uses one of his or her action points to place a bridge tile.
Once a district exists, a player can use his or her action points to erect buildings in that district, expending one action point to erect a pee-wee pyramid, two to erect a medium pyramid, three for a large, and four for a four-tiered, super-sized tower. The goal is to score more points than your opponents by establishing lots of districts and by gaining control of those districts through the strategic placement of pyramids.
Up to four players can play Mexica. The game is recommended for ages 10 and older. Each player uses a different-colored mover—the mover being the piece that’s represented in Monopoly by the shoe, the iron, the racecar, the hat, the horse, etc. The colors are white, yellow, orange and brick red, very Aztec-like.
This was far more complex than any board game I’d played before. It was similar to the logic puzzles that my high-school French teacher gave me whenever I finished my in-class assignments before everybody else: “Suzy, Danny, Betty and Freddy, whose last names are Oglethorpe, Humperdink, Jingleheimer and Schmidt, ordered four different flavors of ice cream with four different delectable toppings at Dingledork’s Ice Cream Shop. Using the clues, figure out which last name belongs to whom, and who ordered which flavor with what topping.” I loved those puzzles.
I began developing my strategy before The Professor finished explaining the rules. I realized there were many approaches a person could take in order to achieve victory, and I felt like my puny brain could hardly handle even the simplest techniques. No matter, I was always good at everything. I could do this.
“Stick to yourself,” I thought. “Seclude yourself in your own little corner. Build small districts and fill them with your own buildings. Don’t attempt to thwart others, and maybe they won’t thwart you.”
More easily said than done.
“I don’t have a clue about the best strategy and tactics to employ in Mexica,” wrote Skip Maloney at the Boardgame Players Association Web site, www.boardgamers.org. “This is the reason I keep playing it, again and again and again. And why it comes highly recommended. Every time you think you’ve got it figured out, you face a new player or players, and your carefully developed theories about the best way to win get tossed like a toothpick in a tsunami.”
I had theories, but they were not carefully developed. Still, I was prepared to test them against the strategies of The Loser, The Professor-Serial Killer and Bruce. My theories, however, melted like ice cubes in a volcano.
Snedeker, The President, has neen playing board games since he was about 10 years old, and he owns a whopping 380 of them. His collection includes games from the 1950s through games that just came out last month, and he has taken every one of them out of its cellophane wrapper and played with it, sending its value to collectors down the tube. He posts his game reviews to the Web at www.funagain.com under his real name.
“Awhile back, I found myself at a point where American board games were becoming trivia driven,” he said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but they were pretty much just trivia party games or children’s games, where it was spin the spinner, move around Candyland or whatever. So, I found this gap. I was bored. … Then, I came across a small Web site that carried European board games, and I bought a couple.”
Like The Professor, The President has a much cleaner-cut look than most of the other players. His hair has grayed to a sophisticated white, although his face doesn’t look any older than early 40s. His salt-and-pepper mustache and goatee haven’t achieved the full white his head has.
The President became infatuated with European games because he enjoyed the intellectual challenge and loved that there was usually no luck involved. Rarely were there dice, and if there were, they weren’t an integral part of the game like they were in Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit. The more games he bought, the more he realized that American games just couldn’t live up to their European counterparts.
The President’s dad was a co-owner of The Gadget Tree. When his dad passed away, The President ended up taking over management and a share of the shop’s ownership.
“At that point, I knew that I could never retire selling European board games, but all of a sudden my hobby became more of an obsession,” The President said. “I wanted to let other people see these great games.”
The President was working at Harrah’s as a promotions entertainer, which he still does, when he started bullying coworkers, such as Debbie Yturbide, into playing games with him on their lunch breaks.
“I started playing almost two years ago, I think,” said Yturbide, one of the two regular females in the group. “We started at work. We played on lunch hours, and then it progressed to Michael’s house, and now it’s usually at The Gadget Tree. [At Harrah’s] Michael would beg me at lunch until we played games, but I like games anyway. I’ve always played games.”
Most members of the boardgamers’ club admit to being full-blown geeks (not nerds, though), and they’re proud of it.
“Yeah, I’m a geek,” said The Pirate. “And I’m a technophile. I think in today’s day and age, being a geek is a status symbol. The muscle jockeys are out. It’s a complete role reversal. The geeks won.”
And to indicate their geekiness, all the players admit to always having enjoyed games of some sort: computer games, online games, role-playing games, other adult board games, cards. Video games, however, have never appealed to the players, especially The President.
“One reason I’ve been a boardgamer versus playing video games is that, one, there is the interaction, and two, with board games there’s a feel to it,” The President said. “There are pieces that have texture to them, there are colors that are involved, the visual. Obviously, there’s the gray matter involved. And when I really start sweating, because everyone is kicking my butt, you can start to smell the game. There’s more to it than just the left-left-right-right-left-right [finger controls] of a video game.”
European games are easier to squeeze into a person’s daily life than American games, which can go on for hours and hours. Every European game has a foreseeable end, and rarely last more than an hour, maybe an hour and a half. This means several games can be played on any given night.
Gamers also enjoy the fact that game night is very much a social event.
“Playing video games, even if you’re playing with somebody else, is basically you staring at the screen, and I don’t know about these guys, but I spend all day on a computer designing junk, and the last thing I want to do when I come home is stare at a computer somewhere,” Bruce said.
Bruce attended his first boardgamers’ get-together last winter. The first time, he was worried he was going to find young kids playing juvenile games or teenagers playing Dungeons and Dragons. He enjoyed strategy games, especially war games in which there was plenty of killing. He was pleased when he saw that the group was full of mature professionals and even more pleased when he saw the quality of the foreign board games.
“Take the classic Risk set,” Bruce said. “The quality of that thing has been going downhill for years and years, until one of the latest editions has real flimsy, paper-cut cards and a real light board. … It lost the quality that even the earlier Parker games had.”
Anybody who plays the European board games will notice the superiority of craftsmanship, which indicates just how valued board games are in other cultures, particularly among the Germans.
Board games are hugely popular in Germany. In fact, in Germany, game creators are given credit on the front of the game boxes for having developed games. This is also true of games coming out of Italy, Holland, England, etc. In Germany, the dollar amount that people spend on games every year exceeds the amount they spend on going to the movies. There is a highly-prized German Game of the Year award, called the Spiel de Jahres, which could be compared to a Pulitzer or a National Book Award. There is also a Dutch Game of the Year award, the Spiel de Deutsch. The former is generally awarded to broad-based games with a lot of family appeal, whereas the latter is awarded to the “gamer” games, like the games of mathematician Reiner Knitzia.
“On all of these European board games,” The President said, “the first thing you’ll see, unlike an American board game, where no one knows who made Monopoly (the inventor’s name, Charles Darrow, is nowhere on the game) is the designer of the game. Michael Shot would be like a Michael Crichton novel. Wolfgang Kramer is like a Tom Clancy. Reiner Knizia is like a Stephen King.”
The President’s favorite game author is Knizia because of the complexity of the games, games like Atlanteon and Maginor. Knizia likes to frustrate the heck out of players by giving them eight or so different options every turn. The question of immediate points versus endgame points always comes into play, and having a lot of options means that, each time you play the game, it can play totally different.
The Pirate dislikes Knizia games for the same reason that The President likes them. He detests having so many options.
“I like games that don’t make you decide between eight different options at the same time,” The Pirate said. “In some of these games, you have too many options. If your memory is required, I also don’t like that because I can’t remember anything.”
One of the Pirate’s preferred games is Klaus-Jürgen Wrede’s Carcassonne, a game in which players actually build the board as they go along. He also likes fast-paced card games such as King’s Breakfast, Coloretto and Bucket King.
Mexica is the finale in a three-game trilogy created by Germans Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer and distributed by Rio Grande Games. The first game is Tikal, and the second is Java.
For our first few turns, Bruce, The Loser, The Professor and I just started placing water tiles, trying to institute our own districts. We all had our eyes on a particular section of the board, which pretty much related to where we were sitting at the table. Bruce was first, then Meek Reporter, then The Loser and finally The Professor.
I haphazardly placed water tiles in the corner that was closest to me. The Loser, who wore John Lennon glasses and a yellow-button-up shirt and had a head full of thick black dreadlocks, placed tiles in the corner nearest him. The Professor saw that it was advantageous to use the canals we were placing to section off his own district.
Bruce scored some points by establishing a district and proceeded to move his score counter around the perimeter of the board.
“It’s a courtesy to count out loud,” The Professor said with a hint of arrogance in his voice. When the former Serial Killer demanded we stick to basic rules and gamer etiquette, there was no questioning him.
“Oh, OK,” Bruce said with a Santa Claus-like chuckle. Maybe it only sounded Claus-ish because Bruce had a St. Nick look. His abundance of white and red facial hair implied a jolly persona, even though it made it hard to tell whether he was smiling.
He audibly counted out the points he had just earned.
My turn. I moved a couple spaces and placed some water tiles, preparing to form a district.
The Loser, who happens to be The President’s nephew-in-law, did the same.
So did The Professor, thus establishing a district.
Curious casino folk and some loitering teens walked past the game and hovered over our shoulders.
It was Bruce’s turn again.
“Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo,” The Loser said to the Jeopardy theme tune as Bruce pondered his move.
Bruce didn’t let the pressure get to him and continued to strategize away. Finally, he flew into action. He used three of his action points to traverse a lengthy canal and landed in a small district that had been established by The Professor. He then set up a three-tiered pyramid.
“Oh, I knew you were going to do that,” The Professor said.
“Well, you left yourself wide open for it,” Bruce said.
“Yeah, well, I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
I was glad Bruce had noticed. I didn’t want The Professor to win, if only for the fact that, in my mind, the odds were for him and against us.
My turn again. The good thing about having a real deliberator right before me was that it gave me lots of time to mull over my own moves without being totally obvious. I didn’t want it to look like I was trying. On previous moves, I had established two districts. It was now my goal to be the primary structure owner in those districts. After a couple more turns, I was attaining my objective.
At the end of round one, I was in first place. I was rocking Mexica’s world.
“She learns quick,” Bruce said as he realized I was already strategizing my way toward endgame points.
“We don’t need to let her win,” The Professor said as we headed into round two. “She might win on her own.”
“It doesn’t matter to me who wins because I’m always going to lose,” The Loser said.
“Your turn,” The Professor told him.
The Loser took about two seconds to make his move, which I would have thought was a cheeky attempt at showing Bruce that prolonged move-contemplation was unnecessary were The Loser not so friendly and humble.
The Professor quickly corrected The Loser’s move and said, “You don’t want to do that. If you do that, I’m going to go in there and set up my structures. This would be a better move.”
The Loser took his suggestion.
“Omar really wants to win this game, so I’m going to let him,” The Professor said and quickly moved his marker into a prime district, setting up a four-tiered pyramid.
Bruce started strategizing again.
The President’s group of players, playing at the table next to ours, had already finished their game. Our group was plugging along slowly. Except for The Professor, who moved quick and moved well, we were reasonably pensive; we had something to prove. With a reputation for never winning, The Loser refused to lose.
Meek Reporter—being the only woman that night and never having played European board games—felt the need to shame the veterans. And Bruce, well, he seemed as though he invested himself in every game.
“We shouldn’t have played this game,” The Professor moaned. “It’s too long. People think too much.”
Round two didn’t come as naturally to me. My strategy of leaving everybody alone and so being left alone was faltering. My lead dwindled as I lost my focus and motivation. The cookies, doughnuts and coffee that make regular appearances at game nights (pizza sometimes makes it into the mix, as well) beckoned to me.
I sang along in by head to the tune being broadcast on Reno Hilton radio.
"… We got the beat, we got the beat, we got the beat, yeah, we got the beat …”
The next thing I knew, The Loser was up, and I was down. It looked like, come endgame, my point tally was going to be pretty bleak.
“This is not a real representation of what goes on at game night,” The Loser said. “There are usually seven or eight people standing behind me laughing.”
But nobody was laughing at The Loser now.
The game played to its close, and The Professor started counting out points, aloud.
So … I didn’t lose, if you call third place not losing.
First place: The Loser. Second: The Professor and former Serial Killer. Third: Meek Reporter. Fourth: Bruce.
I decided I liked the whole placing system. Sure, I didn’t win, but I wasn’t whipped by everybody, like Bruce was. I would be going home with the satisfaction of bronze.
“How’d you do?” The President asked, looking at our reconstruction of Tenochtitlán.
“I didn’t come in last."“Well, that’s good,” he said. “I can tell you, I lose a lot. Whenever I start to win, I get worried. I tell the other players, ‘Hey, you guys are slipping,’ and they never fail to step it up a notch and start putting me to shame again.”