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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Overcast
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Playtime unplugged: Madison designers help reinvent the board game
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Credit:Carolyn Fath

Once upon a wintry eve, before the advent of Netflix, DVDs, television and radio, families would gather around a piano to sing songs, or around a board game to pass the time. This was largely a function of not having a whole lot else to do. Before electricity, even reading a book was a bit challenging after sunset, and people mostly just ate dinner and went to bed after a bit of crocheting or cribbage. Still, these group-oriented activities strengthened the bonds of family and provided a venue for positive parent-child social interactions.

Today we have the opposite problem. Kids and adults alike are overloaded with recreational options, from interactive games on smartphones to fully immersive, hyper-realistic, surround-sound battle simulations on Xbox and PlayStation. We're forever declining pinging alerts to join Candy Crush Saga, trying not to get sucked into the nonstop social media chatter on Twitter and Facebook, and wondering why we have a LinkedIn app in the first place (uninstall that stupid thing -- go do it right now).

The not-too-surprising result is blowback against electronic media and a desire to return to something like those simpler times, when games didn't need batteries or screen-in-screen video conferencing. Parents and grandparents are looking to get kids off videogames and connect face-to-face. Even young adults are tiring of a diet of social media. "After a few years people are saying, 'I want to sit and talk to someone," says Bryan Winter of I'm Board Games & Family Fun in Middleton.

The market is also seeing a world of new board games that conceive of play in a different way, incorporating holistic game strategies into experiences that feel more like real life. These games break away from the boring "I win, you lose"-oriented challenges of board gaming's past, where the wrong roll of the dice or a single bad decision means increasing marginalization of a player until the inevitable loss.

Rolling the dice

"In the United States, board games have always been seen as a children's activity, and that's easy to understand. Games like Sorry! and Monopoly are entrenched in our consciousness, and they are kids' games," says Winter.

But games are different in Europe, he notes. In Germany, playing board games as a family unit is something people do their whole lives. "It's a cultural thing," he says.

And that's partially because Euro-style games are different from typical American games. "What we call a Euro-style game is quite different from Monopoly or Clue," says Winter. "Our games tend to be rolling the dice, a race to the end, and driven by elimination mechanics."

That's almost a polar opposite to Euro-style games, which feature a reduced luck factor, creative approaches to setting and achieving goals, and many paths to victory. That means "most players are engaged to the end," says Winter. "And there's more repeat value. Think of all the games where you knew you were toast a third of the way in."

Like Monopoly, an American classic that is somewhat controversial in the world of games. "It's hard to catch up to someone with a big lead," says Madison-area game creator John Kovalic. "I think Monopoly has done more to turn people off casual gaming than any game in history, and I hate it like poison."

Likewise, Kovalic grouses, trivia games "aren't games -- they're quizzes. I'm not against trivia itself. I know lots of folks love it, but most of the trivia games on the market are just wretched things, knocked out quickly, cheaply and cynically."

When Kovalic and his friends Mark Osterhaus, Alan Waller and Cathleen Quinn-Kinney created Out of the Box Publishing in 1998, they had no idea what was ahead of them. Osterhaus had an idea for a chess variant and wanted to publish it. He knew Kovalic's work from a game called "Illuminati: New World Order" and invited him to join the company. On a research trip to the Origins Game Show convention in Columbus, Ohio, the Out of the Box team saw a game called Apples to Oranges.

It was, Kovalic remembers, "a kind of gaming none of us had ever seen before, and we couldn't stop talking about it all the way back to Madison." This game inspired them to create Apples to Apples, which sold more than four million copies even before Mattel bought it in 2007.

"Now, half of the new party games you see are some variant on Apples to Apples or another," says Kovalic. And that's how a few locals reinvented the party game. Instead of a widening conflict between winners and losers, the meat of the game is about play itself, the outcome may be in question until the very end, and the very notion of "winners" and "losers" is to some degree off the table.

Wisconsin, in fact, is strong on game invention. Gary Gygax invented Dungeons & Dragons in Lake Geneva, A.D. 1975, ushering in a new era of role-playing games (RPGs), played not so much on a board with symbolic pieces but in the greater space of the mind. The graph paper, dice and lead figurines are to be understood as crude symbols only, simple avatars of the real game, which resides inside the collective imaginations of the players.

Hidden levers

"People are realizing that the really good games are secretly educational," says Winter of I'm Board Games. "They're teaching probabilities and efficiencies, cognitive thinking, logic, cognitive reasoning."

Caro Williams, Ph.D. candidate in curriculum and instruction - mathematics education at the UW-Madison, thinks board games "provide a common goal for families. When you think about it, the main mutual goal of most families is to get the kids to school on time, get to work on time, make balanced meals -- all the daily needs," she says. "Board games provide an activity that everyone can participate in and talk about, even if the participation is based on competition."

Becky Torrisi, project manager for Learning Games Network in Madison, says that "Games provide a safe place to fail and try again. It's exciting to know that you have mastered a particular skill or level in a game. Especially if you had to try many times before experiencing success."

Videogames tend to concentrate on elements like planning, strategizing and collaboration, says Kurt Squire of the Games Learning Society and assistant professor at UW-Madison. But programmed worlds have their own limitations, he warns.

"When playing a board game, you can make up whatever rules you and the other players agree on. That is not necessarily true with videogames, which come with built-in rules -- for example, when you click this icon, X happens."

Good games, board or otherwise, have at their core a sense of discovery, of unearthing hidden machinery, of finding hidden levers of control. Keari Bell-Gawne, researcher at the Games Learning Society, thinks that "what games do particularly well is teach people how the parts relate to the whole. Instead of learning stagnant facts that mean nothing out of context, games push players to relate those facts to the larger whole in order to do well."

Kovalic feels that "the best board games aren't the most difficult, but ones that get you to think about gaming in different ways. Games like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Forbidden Island and Castle Panic are all very different than games like Clue, but most people who'll break out Clue or Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary should be able to play them."

One thing different about the new style of game: the rules. "The rules will be elegant, and very different from anything you've ever played before," says Kovalic.

The usual signifiers like pieces moving around a board in a race may not apply. "They may seem confusing to folks unfamiliar with anything but the latest godawful trivia game," Kovalic says, "but by the second or third turn, that's when the spark ignites, for most people."

Families should start with the cooperative games. Kovalic suggests Castle Panic and Forbidden Island, which have players working with rather than against each other.

Fun and games

There is something wonderful about the old way of playing games in a real, non-virtual space.

"To me, gaming is first and foremost about the social aspect: getting together with friends, spending an evening, relaxing and laughing," says Kovalic. "There's also the tactile element. Simply picking up pieces and moving them is fun, whether they're meeples in Carcassonne or an elaborately painted World War II miniatures army for Flames of War."

There are four really good games stores in the area, "which is ridiculously lucky for a town this size," Kovalic notes. He's referring to Pegasus Games on Odana Road, the Last Square (also on Odana, featuring mostly miniatures gaming, but some board games), Misty Mountain Games on Cottage Grove Road, and I'm Board.

And now some previously fringe games can be found at stores like Target and Barnes & Noble. "Though I always advocate supporting your local games stores, I think getting a few good games into the big-box stores is good for everyone," Kovalic says.

He also brings the subject back to the essential -- fun. "I try not to go into any game too intensely. I'm looking for a well-played, enjoyable game that I'd like to win, yes. But once you or your friends become overly competitive, the fun is gone."

Lucky seven
What are the best games right now?

10 Days in Europe
Gameplay: This travel-simulation game teaches players to plan an itinerary for a trip through Europe.
The goal: The first player to complete a 10-day journey wins. Each day has to connect to the next day, just like real-life travel.
Really cool thing: It's a highly enjoyable game that just incidentally teaches you geography.

Ticket to Ride
Gameplay: The players obtain and deploy matching train cards to claim railway routes.
The goal: Connecting long routes generates points, so to win you must create a vast matrix of interconnected railway elements over a large geographic area.
Really cool thing: Planning efficient train routes across North America was a peak moment for the Industrial Age, and is a pretty high-level concept for a board game.

Dungeons & Dragons Original Edition Premium Reprint
Gameplay: A "Dungeon Master" leads a team of defined characters through an adventure. The graph paper, dice and lead figurines are avatars of the real game, played in worlds residing inside the collective imaginations of the players.
The goal: Survive the adventure's perils to collect treasure and powers for your character.
Really cool thing: Dungeons & Dragons teaches everything from money management to return on investment to risk management, and it's all invisible.

Gameplay: Players earn points by building rows and columns of wooden blocks that share a common color or shape.
The goal: The big points go to those who see how to put a block where it will touch multiple pieces with matching attributes.
Really cool thing: Qwirkle, which is very abstract, teaches things like colors, pattern recognition and rapid associations.

Castle Panic
Gameplay: In this tower defense game, players defend their keep from goblins, trolls and other beasties emerging from the surrounding woods.
The goal: Players must strategize to work together — the enemy strikes from outside. But when all points are tallied up at the end, one player is anointed the "Master Slayer."
Really cool thing: Fanciful creatures aside, this is pretty much exactly what medieval military strategists did to defend their castles back in the day.

Forbidden Island
Gameplay: Another cooperative game where players must work together against an outside threat rather than compete against other players. Each participant has special abilities suited to various situations.
The goal: Players capture four treasures from the ruins of an island paradise.
Really cool thing: The gorgeous card and board art nods to early Harry Potter book jacket aesthetics and is immersive in its detail.

Gameplay: Players draw tiles with a landscape detail from southern France and then place them on the board.
The goal: It's a world-building exercise where roads must abut roads, rivers must connect, and landscape design has to make sense. Player accrue points by completing "features" of the world.
Really cool thing: Picking up the cute little "meeples," who can represent robbers on a road or knights in a city, and moving them around on the tiles is just intrinsically fun.

I'm Board
6771 University Ave., Middleton, 608-831-6631,

Misty Mountain Games
4672 Cottage Grove Rd., 608-441-0312,

Pegasus Games
6640 Odana Rd., 608-833-4263,

The Last Square
5944 Odana Rd., 608-278-4401,

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