With the autumn approaching it will soon be time here in Prague for the annual Mind Sports Olympiad, held at the Tyrsuv Dum (Tyrs House) in Prague's Little Quarter. For anybody who likes games it's a great event, usually lasting several days, allowing visitors a chance to play all kinds of different titles belonging to the Paluba association run by dedicated and bright-minded individuals who, you guessed it, love games. Don't tell these guys games are for kids!
Not that the Czech Republic has a long games tradition. It doesn't. Not too long ago the best anyone was likely to come up with on a rainy day at the cottage was a mouldy edition of "Clovece, nezlob se" - Man, Don't Be Angry, the Czech version of the children's game Ludo, where you try and get your pawns to home base while bumping your opponents off the track! Not a scintillating experience unless you're about eight years old. On the other hand, in the early 1990s there was at least a decent parody of the game developed by comic Czech singer and songwriter Ivan Mladek. His game "Soudruhu, nezlob se" - Comrade, Don't be Angry! made far better use of the original game's simple but ruthless principles in a way that was funny and wonderfully dark.
The idea was to roll-and-move your pawn along a track, gradually collecting cash and cards that either helped or hurt your rise in the echelons of communist power. One card that I remember well read something like "Drunk in the pub, you declare Havel will one day be president. Go straight to psychiatric ward for treatment." In its way, the game perfectly captured the euphoric mood of the 90s following communism's demise. In the very last stage you traded your hard-earned Czechoslovak crowns for West German marks so you could make a final cynical dash over the border to the West. A final roll of the die determined whether you successfully made it past the machine guns, minefields, and electric fence. Like I said, the humour was black.
Since then in the Czech Republic, games have come a long way. Though designers here - with one or two exceptions - have still not made great inroads into actually inventing new titles or getting them produced -distributors at least have brought modern foreign games onto the market. Many are designs from the so-called euro school, notably neighbouring Germany, but also England, Italy, and France. Some Czechs, as a result, are now familiar with names like Borg, Knizia, Faidutti, and Friese, to name a few. Games today can still be simple or they can be remarkably sophisticated, some employing modes of planning or strategic thinking that wouldn't be out of place in the company boardroom. Except they're a lot more exciting.
The more you get involved the more you learn about various mechanics covering everything from area control to auctions to pushing-your-luck. And, it's not only the style and fluidity of play that attracts, but theme and overall packaging of course. Historical settings are particular fave, and they can be from the time of the first civilisations to Cleopatra to Medieval Europe, where it's always fun because you can always tell your opponent "I'm gonna get medieval on your..." ah well, you know.
Some people knit, some fall for video games and retreat to a dark corner and something of an anti-social shell. Others fall for mind-teasers they can never put back together again - and end up in that psychiatric ward from "Soudruhu, nezlob se". Still others fall for chains and latex outfits. Nothing wrong with that! But, if you suspect you might like games - a social activity in which you can often amiably crush your opponents in unexpected backstabbing assaults, and still share a beer at the pub afterwards, you might want to check out the Tyrs building in a few week's time.
"Game over, man, game over!" is a cry that you'll hear often, followed by the question "What are we gonna play next ?".