Board games are big business. Geek culture has gone mainstream through the painfully trite filter of The Big Bang Theory. Suppressed memories of endless, bitter games of Monopoly have been transformed into nostalgia. Last year London's first board game café, "Draughts", opened after raising over £20,000 on Kickstarter. Crowdfunding has been huge for the industry; as I write this, table top games are raking in thousands.
Evidently there's a lot of money being spent on little laser-cut plywood people and hypothetical livestock trading right now. And there are some really weird games on the market – from Antler Island, where you encourage Scottish deer to rut, to Barbarossa, which sees you guide anime Nazi schoolgirls to conquer a wizard version of Stalin. But who are the cardboard zealots buying into all this, and why?
Jonathan is a maths teacher in his forties from Hampshire. When he's not educating kids about polynomials and scalene triangles, he collects board games. A lot of board games. His collection is currently at around 1,300, with which he lines the walls of the games room in his house like a ludo version of the Library of Alexandria.
When he was a teenager, he lived near one of the first specialist games shops in the UK. "That opened my eyes to a range of games beyond Monopoly and other traditional board games," says Jonathan. (Monopoly, he tells me, is almost universally hated in the board gaming community, as it is by all rational people). "There was a period in the early 2000s when a lot of interesting games had started appearing after the success of Settlers of Catan [the first game to show people the fraught joys of bilateral trade agreements]. I had a reasonable disposable income and I was buying a huge number of games."
Even within such a vast collection, Jonathan's got favourites: "The ones I spent longest tracking down are the Twin Peaks [including donuts but no log lady] and Noggin the Nog games. My favourite is Princes Of Florence"– in which you are, as the name suggests, a Florentine Prince competing to create the most baller mansion. Jonathan explains that while this isn't his best game, it does involve juggling. This element gives it five victory points – as he himself is a juggler, magician and unicyclist.
He even owns a "six-foot giraffe unicycle". After an injury in his early twenties, he focussed on his circus skills until he was good enough to do professional magic and juggling shows at weddings. "Performing paid my way through teacher training college", he tells me, which allowed him to quit his job in finance. Now he works in a school where he runs a circus skills club that allows him to practise as well as instruct students. "I also run a weekly games club," he adds.
After 20 years of teaching, Jonathan is finally leaving this year to follow his dreams, after being offered a job to go and work at a board game company. "I'll be working as a buyer for a large distributor," he tells me. "The maths analysis appeals, and the opportunity to look at new games before they come to market is a major draw, but I am sad to be leaving teaching, as it is a real passion."
Brian, from Bolton, has also been collecting games since he was a teenager. He now has over 2,700 games in his collection, which is split between a dedicated room in his house and overspill storage in the garage. He initially estimates that, at an average of £30 a game, his collection is worth around £81,000 – though he adds that, "because of rare games, it's probably double that."
There's a broad range of "styles" of board game, from old 70s' war games with enormous rulebooks and confederate flag-swathed recreations of Gettysburg, to heavily fantastical "Ameritrash" games about galactic freight agencies and Lovecraftian demons. Brian is into German-style games or Eurogames – "I would say 95 percent of my collection are Eurogames," he says. These tend to be less about eliminating the other players, and more about building an unstoppable economic machine to destroy them with irrefutable strategy and cold logic.
The high-point of the Eurogaming calendar is the SPIEL game fair in Essen, Germany. It's attended by up to 150,000 people a year, and is where most Eurogame designers release their new games. Brian tells me, "I'd love to get to Essen, but I doubt I ever will. I've been disabled since I was 18, when I had cancer and lost my left leg – another reason why I enjoy gaming so much."
We get onto the topic video games, which Jonathan plays occasionally, but says, "sitting in a room with some people just has a better feel than talking with a headset." It's common for fans to have regular group nights to play each others' games together, and specialist stores often run after-hours events. Brian has a couple of weekly meet-ups as well as a slew of conferences he attends in the north-west of England.
"You discover the best parts of the community at conventions. You can safely leave your games near your gaming table and know they won't get touched. Everyone knows the value of the games, so trust is high." I asked Jonathan about the kind of people he has met through gaming. "In general, people who play are sociable and not affected. There's a real sense of community, and I've met some incredibly generous people. Like anywhere, there are those who are superior, opinionated and inflexible. The stereotype of the larger, sweaty gamer has a bit of truth too unfortunately."
On stereotypes, my hunt for huge collectors turns out to be a bit of a brodeo. Jonathan reckons there's a lot more women playing games now than a while ago, but concedes that "collecting is more of a male thing".
Visiting Draughts – the board game café in Haggerston, East London – most of the crowd is young couples who look to be on awkward first dates, along in with mixed gender groups in threes and fours mulling over rules and craft beer. Going on the evidence of recent game design, it does seem like the idea of women as either meek homemakers pumping out babies for victory points or bra-liberated Amazonians is disappearing, and the playing field (board?) is becoming more equal.
I was a bit worried that board game hoarders might be Gandalf-impersonating, rule-wrangling dice hermits, but having spoken to a few of them, it feels like their lives are enriched by board games rather than limited. While I'm not sure I'll ever have enough space or cash to build up a collection like Brian or Jonathan's, I can definitely see the appeal of spending an afternoon with friends exploring boxes full of strange, new worlds.
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