When most people think of games the first thing they probably think of are video games, with young kids or young adults lining up for the latest title for their Xbox or Playstation or PC. But increasingly in the Czech Republic and other parts of Europe the pastime of board gaming, yes board gaming (!), has found increased audiences. You may be wondering “What?” if you’re new to board games, but there is a world of designs and titles out there beyond old "classics" like Risk and Monopoly.
It all started back in the mid-1990s, with The Settlers of Catan, a German game which went a long way in reinvigorating the hobby. Here in the Czech Republic it’s one that’s caught on. Jakub Těšinský, one of the founders of an association known as Czech Board Games, has been involved with all aspects of the hobby – from promotion to explaining design - for the last 12 years. He explains how far the board gaming in the Czech Republic has come:
“It’s true that Settlers of Catan had a big influence in the Czech Republic: it was one of the first big modern games here, first promoted by the now-forgotten Warlord and then taken up by Albi. Even now we have an annual Czech Catan championship. That’s not unusual for a game like chess but is unusual for a more modern title. I would say the situation has changed: in the past people that only thought of chess or droughts when they thought of games. Now they know that there is much more out there, which is a big change.”
Says Jakub Těšinský, the obvious reason for a new interest in strategic board games is not only better promotion, but most importantly, the availability of better titles: games today task players with doing more than simply rolling a die, moving a pawn and counting their paper money. That’s something I confirmed on a Saturday night in Prague with Raffael and Kristýna Savron – a Czech-Italian couple here who regularly play games when they’re not pursuing Ju jitsu, fencing, and other hobbies. Here’s why:
Kristýna: “I love board games! For me it’s the best because you are with friends! Normally you play with friends and you can drink a bit of wine and have fun. For me it’s to have contact with friends.”
Raffael: “You have to plan through everything, you have to decide on a strategy, and you have to win! And you interact with your friends: it’s not like being on the PC interacting with people in other places. You interact with your friends and show emotions, sometimes screaming! It’s not like being on the PC.”
Many games now mix long-term strategic planning with tactical moves, while themes can range from the serious to the silly. You can play a band of brash adventurers fighting wimpy dragons and then squabbling over treasure, such as in Dragon’s Gold by French designer Bruno Faidutti. Or, you can run a two-hour version of the 1960 presidential campaign between Kennedy and Nixon in the acclaimed 1960:The Making of the President, designed by Jason Matthews and Christian Leonhard. Games authors are now credited on the box and some names – like Mr Faidutti’s and others – are known to game geeks everywhere, the way others recognise famous writers or filmmakers. Jakub Těšinský adds there are many games to choose from:
“I like it to compare it to books, because there is a wide range of games. You have games that serve as great entertainment, but you can also go deeper. There are also different kinds of games: party games and so on which are more social. There are genres in games, serving different kinds of needs.”
Where does that leave the Czech Republic? Mr Těšinský and other games organisers became convinced a number of years ago there was talent here that was being missed. They founded Czech Board Games with an aim of promoting new authors and new prototypes. They were indeed successful with one of their very first projects in 2006, a fairly complex game called Through the Ages. It won the International Gamers Award for General Strategy and earned a lot of respect on notable games websites such as boardgamegeek and Fortress: Ameritrash.
“Through the Ages is quite a wonderful game which I would definitely call strategic. It is quite complex, but I would say it is far better than the similar Civilisation by Sid Meier. It was distributed by Fred Distribution in the US.”
The title was designed by Vladimír (Vlaada) Chvátil, arguably the best-known Czech games designer, whose projects often draw on different areas for inspiration: from fantasy to science fiction. His games demand, by turns, clever timing and clever tactical positioning. He just got back from Essen Spiel, the massive annual games fair in Essen, Germany, visited every year by some 250,000. There, he presented Space Alert, a new title, due out in the coming weeks in both a Czech and an English edition, in which players scramble to save their spaceship from imminent destruction. On Wednesday I spoke to the designer by phone to Brno and asked how things had gone:
“We were very happy with the feedback we got. The game is pretty unusual in that players must cooperate together against the system, within a limited time frame. In cooperative games, the problem is often that one or two personalities dominate others. That’s different in Space Alert: no one person, no matter how forceful, can solve all the tasks. So players really have to depend on each other and show a lot of trust. And that’s different, and that’s something the players seem to appreciate.”
Mr Chvátil agrees that back in the Czech Republic gaming is continuing to increase in popularity, not only among hardcore players but also a much broader audience, that is, families. Not only are Czech editions of German, French, and American titles now readily available thanks to a number of local successful distributors, some cities, including Prague, also feature speciality stores. While there is no question in the future that board games will remain an undiscovered country for many, those who have broken into the hobby, like Raffael and Kristýna who we spoke with earlier, know what others missing. In short board gaming - here as abroad - has come a long way.