The future for Czech board games
Year after year in the Czech Republic more and more people have grown increasingly interested in board games gaining in popularity here. There are perhaps only a handful of specialty stores, but they are stocking more titles than ever. This year we thought we'd return to board games as a subject at Christmas since, 2006 was also a very interesting one for Czech game designers, who made something of a splash at Essen - perhaps the most famous games convention held in Germany every year. All that, in today's Panorama.
Jakub Tesinsky is a former maths professor known to his friends by the nickname of "Aragorn", and talking to him about games, he'd tell you they're not just for kids. Years ago, Jakub helped found Paluba, a non-profit organisation in Prague that promotes game playing in the Czech capital. Every year the organisation hosts a week-long Mind Olympiad at the stately Tyrsuv Dum, or Tyrs building, with an aim of promoting games for fun and intelligence, and they've done so with a fair amount of success. A growing number of schools and students are taking part. Currently Paluba owns more than 400 titles, so, even when the Olympiad isn't on, you can still head down to their address and spend an evening playing almost any game you'd like. Recently, I spoke to Jakub Tesinsky at the group's site:
"It has changed a lot. Five years ago if you'd asked most people about board games they would have said they were just something for kids, but now many more people know there are also games for adults, and it's normal like reading a book or going to the cinema."
Part of the boom in board games - here as elsewhere - has come from clever advertising and promotion, but overall it has been an impact of better design. Board games have enjoyed something of a renaissance since the mid 90s, thanks to neighbouring Germany and designs like "Settlers of Catan" which changed everything. Today, most games are more refined and probably cleverer than many titles in the past, offering more in the way of new mechanics, strategy and tactics. In terms of themes, you might vie for influence at a prince's court, search for gold in a lost valley, or micro-manage resources the same way you would in a number of real-time computer games. Jiri Skocdopole works at one of Prague's few specialty stores just a few metres off Wenceslas Square:
"It's true that some people still think that we're only a kid's store but that too is changing, it's not as much as before. People are beginning to realise that there are more games out there than just Ludo, and by now we've got many regular customers who not only shop here but give us a lot of feedback. They tell us they tried something new elsewhere, recommending that we try and get it since it could popular here. There is a lot of that."
Regarding the Czech Republic, the resurgence in game interest eventually sparked some designers and organisers - like Jakub Tesinsky we spoke with earlier - to take things a step further. Not long ago he, along with several others, founded a new association titled "Czech Board Games" aimed solely at promoting Czech prototypes as well as a number of already existing products. Jakub Tesinsky again:
"The aim of Czech Board Games is to promote Czech authors and games abroad. Basically it was set up by Czech players who already have contacts abroad and feel that we have good authors who are unable to make contact with producers and distributors in other countries."
But, even with good designs, no one could have predicted the group's rapid success. At Essen in October, the association promoted three titles: Legions, Greenland (spelt Graenaland) and a civilisation-style game known as Through the Ages. The last by no means a light game, nevertheless received the most rave reviews and soon sold out, given its limited run. The main aim in that instance was to try and attract a major publisher.
"We were very surprised by the success we had at Essen. We came as a small unknown organisation, so we did not expect much. We expected to attract some attention to our games but nothing more. But, apparently we were first or second among successful companies at this festival.
Through the Ages (designed by Vladimir Chvatil) is a big wonderful game, a civilisation game in which you have your own nation which you try to build up from the Middle Ages to the present day. You have an army of course, but you also build new technologies, and build up a culture. Of course, it's not exactly for beginners but there is a simple version which can be played by reasonably experienced players."
One man who has high praise for Through the Ages is John Bohrer, the head of Winsome Games, a US company with no small number of respected titles, including the classic Age of Steam (Martin Wallace). I was able to talk to Mr Bohrer on the phone to his office in Pennsylvania, and I asked him for his perspective regarding first-time publishers.
"Many people try it, individuals or small groups, and they usually are not successful. Because there are problems with the game: poorly themed, belligerent rules, not enough development, those are the usual major difficulties. But, Czech Board Games, they seem to have gotten everything right the first time."
RP: For an idea for people who aren't familiar with Essen: how important a fair is it and what is the atmosphere at a fair like that like?
"Essen is unique in that it is the largest gaming convention in the world with around 150,000 attendees. It is marvellous for board gamers. Every company that really wishes to be successful goes to Essen."
As for Czech Board Game's 'Ages' getting picked up, John Bohrer suggested its chances were very high:
Obviously, for now Through the Ages is not available and has never been in stores anywhere - not here in the Czech Republic, not anywhere else. But, in the future when the title gets a new publisher that will of course change. Meanwhile, other games like Greenland or earlier titles remain in stock in the Czech Republic, along with an increasing number of imported games. Arguably, following this year's success, Czech designers will potentially stand to gain and it will be interesting to see if they follow up.
If you've never played board games long-time fans like Jakub Tesinsky would tell you there's a lot you've been missing! He jokes that he has a different game for every occasion: some for friends, some for parties, some for his little sister. By comparison, seller Jiri Skocdopole told me that in the end what often mattered more for him was not so much what he and friends were playing, but simply that they met up. In his view, that is what attracts many of the store's regular customers:
"Of course not everyone will be taken in. Some people really do think games are 'only' for children. But, sometimes those people are surprised they like something after I suggest they just come and try it. As for me, I really enjoy the social aspect, the fact that people get together. That's what's most important for me. Brain-burning games, for instance, aren't my thing, I'd just lose anyway! I leave those for others!"
As for Winsome Game's John Bohrer? He summed up with words related to Through the Ages.
"There are many different themes in board games but in Through the Ages all players start out equally and it is the player who is the smartest and the most capable thinker that is able to produce the most acclaimed civilisation. So, it is a personal challenge that also allows you to interact with other intelligent people, for people to exercise their minds. And, that is really a joy:"