Saturday, December 29, 2012

A dazzling world

As mentioned in the previous post, I started going to a board games meetup in Bangalore primarily to play Monopoly. I recall the first meeting I attended. I was early and I saw games on the table I'd never heard of. I recall seeing Cranium, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride, Apples to Apples and Innovation, among others.

However, since a group decided on playing Monopoly Deal (a card game version), I joined in. And after that game, played a round of Scrabble. Since there was still time, I wandered around as a spectator watching ongoing games at other tables. The one that caught my eye was Ticket To Ride (abbr. TtR)

TtR has a large board and the game mechanics of set collection followed by network building while keeping the target routes a secret was quite fascinating. By the time the game finished, it was also late into the night but I remember thinking how awesome TtR was compared to Monopoly.

At that point, I didn't know it, but TtR was my gateway game. A gateway game is one that can be used to pique a person's interest in board games (beyond the most popular ones) and demonstrates at least one interesting game mechanic.

(More on my favourite gateway games in a future post)

In the next few meetings, I played TtR, Risk, Apples to Apples, Cranium, and was hooked. There was typically enough variety available in each meeting that you could play at least 2 different games every time and still not finish all available games in 2 months.

I wanted to have more games that I could take to the meetup, so I browsed online and real world stores. I soon realized that despite the deluge of imported products, the variety of board games available in India was fairly small. The following were the most commonly available games:

  • Chess & Checkers
  • Scrabble
  • Monopoly (plus variants)
  • Scotland Yard
  • Cluedo
  • Pictionary
The only way to increase my collection was to have a game shipped to someone coming from the US to India. Between July and November, I procured many games in this manner and was fortunate enough to find people accommodating enough to carry 1-2 games each.

My current collection of games is listed here.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Opening the box

My earliest recollection of playing board games is as a child. Like most other children growing up in India, I owned and played Snakes & Ladders and Ludo. As I grew older, a cousin introduced me to chess and Scrabble. Somewhere along the way, I also got a set of "Business", a pirated version of Monopoly printed by some local game manufacturer, with Indian cities instead of Atlantic City's streets and the money being denominated in rupees and not in dollars. In my early teens I got Cluedo and Scotland Yard (during the days when I was crazy about reading mysteries, be it Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Secret Seven, or Hardy Boys, and I pestered my mom into buying me these games) but it was rare that I had enough friends who were also in a mood to play these games.

As time passed, other hobbies (notably philately) took center stage. Board games would be played occasionally, if at all. And in my late teens, all hobbies took a backseat as I, like millions of other students, focused on the engineering entrance exams. Along with my engineering studies, I dabbled in other hobbies - badminton, taekwondo and karate, public speaking, and debating - with varying degrees of commitment and consequent success. Board games continued to be in the background. In the early 2000s, I learned checkers and also came to know of Settlers of Catan through friends who were pursuing their masters degree in the US. But nobody I knew had a copy of Catan and consequently, I never had a chance to play it.

My reintroduction to board games happened in 2006. At that point, I was considering a post graduate education in business and I happened to come across a book titled "Everything I know about business I learned from Monopoly" by Alex Axelrod in the company library. Admittedly, the title was a bit of a hyperbole but it sparked my curiosity enough to borrow it. In 29 "lessons" spread over 2 parts, the author describes how the board game Monopoly is a microcosm of many important business lessons such as the role of luck, the philosophy of acquisition, managing a regular income, the role of ethics and so on and so forth. Along the way, he also provides some strategies to win the game of Monopoly. What struck me was that if played according to the rules, a 4 player game of Monopoly should not last more than 90 minutes. However, my hazy memories of playing the Monopoly knockoff, Business, was that the "game" consisted of an endless number of die rolls followed by moving your token, collecting and paying rents till someone got bored and tossed the board over or there was a heated exchange about how much money was owed and everybody decided to save their sanity by ditching the game midway.

I promptly went out and got myself a Monopoly set to test the "strategies" outlined in the book. I studied the rules and then persuaded (and yes, it did require a lot of it) some friends to play Monopoly with me. And presto! Not only did each game last significantly less than 90 minutes, I practically won every one of them. Some of my friends got curious about my consistent winning and it led to a discussion on "Strategies to win in Monopoly". After that, with everyone knowing the nuances of which properties to buy / trade and when, how to manage cash flow etc. the games were more evenly balanced. I lost more games than before since my advantage was lost but the overall quality of games improved. Looking to find the next level of advantage in winning Monopoly, I scoured the net for Monopoly strategies and got a few books: The Monopoly Companion by Phil Orbanes, How to Win at Monopoly by Armand Aronson, and Winning Monopoly by Kaz Darzinskis. (Some of these books are now out of print.)

Along with the books came an admission letter for post graduate studies in business and what followed was many months of intense learning, assignments, business school competitions, and placement preparation. Although I had my Monopoly set with me at B-school, there was little opportunity to play it till after campus placements. After I and most of my friends had secured a job, one night, I brought up the topic of playing Monopoly. As expected, there was resistance because like most folks, these guys also thought of Monopoly as an endless, and more importantly, B-O-R-I-N-G game. I cajoled them into playing saying that a game wouldn't last more than 90 minutes and that we could also put into practice some techniques learnt during our Negotiations course. The first game was tense and concluded in less than 60 minutes. That got people sitting up. We played one more game that night and I followed it up with a ten minute sermon on the strategies to win. Soon enough, there were about 6 or 8 of us hooked to regularly playing Monopoly, sometimes as many as 3 games a night. With the completion of placements, academic pressure was low and Monopoly became a good way to get together and have fun every evening. In the final term lasting 6 weeks, I estimate that I played about 100 games of Monopoly. So much so that the class yearbook listed my name as Pradyot "Monopoly" Anand. And then, we graduated and went to different parts of the country / world to pursue our respective careers.

4 years passed. I gained experience in creating excel models and powerpoint presentations. I worked many late nights and weekends in the pursuit of my career. I played the occasional game of Monopoly with some friends but I missed regular play. Knowing my interest in Monopoly, a colleague who stumbled across the Bangalore Board Games Meetup Group sent me the link. I eagerly attended my first session because I wanted to play Monopoly. I became a regular at the club attending every Tuesday evening whenever I could.

I've now attended over 25 of these board game sessions. In all these sessions, I've played Monopoly only twice because I discovered so many other beautiful games - richer, deeper, more fascinating, and better designed. And most importantly, a whole lot more fun. And I've only scratched the surface.

(More in the next post)