From History To Fantasy: Niche Board Games Find A Following - 27 East

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From History To Fantasy: Niche Board Games Find A Following

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Karl MacDonald, Dan Elitharp, and Sigmund “Siggy” Mackowka playing Gloomhaven at The Mill Roadhouse. DANA SHAW

Karl MacDonald, Dan Elitharp, and Sigmund “Siggy” Mackowka playing Gloomhaven at The Mill Roadhouse. DANA SHAW

Sam Creech, right, playing Cuba Libre with his brother, Jack Motz.

Sam Creech, right, playing Cuba Libre with his brother, Jack Motz.

Euro-games such possess distinct elements, such as indirect conflict, as well as intricate artwork and components.

Euro-games such possess distinct elements, such as indirect conflict, as well as intricate artwork and components.

Euro-games such possess distinct elements, such as indirect conflict, as well as intricate artwork and components.

Euro-games such possess distinct elements, such as indirect conflict, as well as intricate artwork and components.

author on Nov 23, 2019

Like most East End restaurant owners, Karl MacDonald is always pressed for time. He spends about 70 hours a week running the Mill Roadhouse in Westhampton Beach, which he opened four years ago.

But almost every Wednesday night for the past year, excluding the busier summer months when he logs more than 90 hours weekly, the Hampton Bays resident finds time for friends who share a hobby. As he makes sure his customers are satisfied with their dinners, and while overseeing his employees, Mr. MacDonald sneaks away to a previously empty table, usually in a quiet corner of his establishment, now occupied by several buddies.

As he finishes closing, his friends busy themselves by reviewing the scenario book for that evening’s adventure in the world of Gloomhaven, a European-inspired tactical combat board game that is similar to Dungeons & Dragons but with several significant differences, including one that is very important to Mr. MacDonald.

“I don’t have to be the dungeon master,” he said, explaining that he no longer has to plan the adventures, or play in direct opposition to his friends, with Gloomhaven. “This way, I can be an actual character and actually enjoy the game.”

Even more important to individuals like Mr. MacDonald—adults with responsibilities and limited free time, but who also enjoy a challenging tabletop game—a Gloomhaven scenario typically takes about three hours to complete.

“We set up the board, bust out the mechanics—the monsters and the scenarios—and set up our characters,” he said. “It’s faster and easier, and does not require eight hours around a tabletop. It’s nothing my wife is going to kill me over,” he added, referring to Amanda, whom he describes as a “bit of a nerd” herself.

Mr. MacDonald, 48, has played Dungeons & Dragons since he was 10 and was often called upon for his dungeon master skills because of his creativity in coming up with different adventures. But things changed for the better roughly a year ago when he and his friends grew tired of playing Risk and purchased the popular card-and-hex-tile game that earned Best Overall Game honors from boardgamegeek.com in 2017, the same year as Gloomhaven’s release.

Unlike older role-playing table games, Gloomhaven has mechanics similar to modern “Euro-games”—a broad category that covers thousands of titles, such as the widely popular Settlers of Catan that has sold in excess of 20 million copies worldwide since its 1995 release. The category typically refers to German-style board games that tend to be far more complex than traditional ones, like Monopoly and Risk, that usually rely on a lucky roll of the dice.

Euro-games also possess distinct elements, such as indirect conflict, as well as intricate artwork and components—which is why they are often referred to as “designer games”—and have clearly defined themes and objectives. European games also typically offer multiple paths to victory, and the randomness of luck is often downplayed, according to boardgamegeek.com.

They also place much of their focus on what outsiders might consider minute details, the same ones that appeal greatly to modern gamers who, oftentimes, have moved on from traditional board games, or video games, seeking new challenges that require critical thinking and strategy.

Gloomhaven, for example, boasts 95 unique playable scenarios, 17 playable classes, and more than 1,500 action cards—and is shipped in a box that tips the scales in excess of 20 pounds.

“It’s very complex, but pretty easy to get set up and going once you know what you’re doing,” said Dan Elitharp, a 26-year-old Eastport native and part of the Mill Roadhouse Gloomhaven crew.

He explained that he grew up playing board and video games, and still enjoys his Xbox, particularly first-person shooter games. Still, he was instantly hooked once he learned the rules of Gloomhaven. “We were playing Risk there for three straight years,” Mr. Elitharp said of his friends who gather weekly at the restaurant. “Gloomhaven is so much more involved … the game is constantly changing.”

Today, gamers have thousands of titles from which to choose, as well as dozens of different categories, from abstract strategy and adventure, to World War II and zombies. And new titles and challenges are being introduced every year.

Variety And Complexity

In addition to offering something for everyone—there are titles, for example, that allow gamers to focus on a single day of battle in an historic war that spanned several years—today’s board games vary greatly in complexity. There are simpler ones, designed to introduce players to a specific genre, such as the Civil War or the Vietnam War, and the intricately complex, which often come with thick and, to the novice, potentially intimidating rule books.

The good news is there are helpful online video tutorials for many of the more popular titles that are designed to get enthusiasts up and running within an hour. Still, gamers who acquire such titles need to understand what they are getting into before making a purchase, according to gamers.

Sam Creech of East Hampton is a huge fan of war games, a category that the 30-year-old describes as being “diametrically opposed” to Euro-games that tend to focus more on resource management and construction. The games enjoyed by Mr. Creech include titles like Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe, a strategic game focusing on the European Theater during World War II.

In addition to controlling their respective militaries, in this game, the players representing the three major factions—the Allied powers, the Axis powers and the Soviet Union—are tasked with making political decisions that have a direct impact on the game. Each turn represents a month of warfare, and the game runs from 1939 until 1945, following World War II’s timeline.

But, as is the case with most modern board games, players can select what part of the game they want to play. “You can just do the German invasion of France in 1940, if you just want to play that,” Mr. Creech explained. “Or the Italian campaign, if you just want to do that.”

While there is plenty of conflict, Mr. Creech said the game appeals to him because players must always remember the bigger picture, requiring that they manage their forces with the same gusto as they do their political negotiations.

Even more important to him is that Unconditional Surrender! is firmly rooted in actual history, unlike some of the more popular games. That is why he also enjoys Twilight Struggle: The Cold War, 1945-1989, a card-driven two-player strategy game that pits the United States against the Soviet Union, and turns requiring careful negotiation of some of history’s tensest confrontations.

“It’s an entry-level game, for the most part, and it’s on the fence in terms of it being a war game,” says Mr. Creech, who owns more than a dozen games. “There’s no real fighting, mostly politics and positioning. You’re telling the story of the Cold War … and your job as the player is to maximize events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, to your benefit.”

The goal is to gain influence in as many countries as possible, while simultaneously minimizing the fallout from political missteps. Mr. Creech says he is most interested in complex games that force players to assess a situation and then act accordingly, using reason and intelligence as much as might to best opponents.

One of the ongoing challenges is finding opponents who also enjoy playing such intricate games, an obstacle that Mr. Creech has had a difficult time overcoming, especially living on the East End. That is why he often plays games, such as Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, that allow him and his 19-year-old brother, Jackson, to refight epic battles from the Napoleonic era, for example.

A desire to find like-minded individuals is why Chris Palermo, a longtime gamer, founded the Long Island Boardgaming Organization in fall 2003. Today, the invitation-only group boasts nearly 30 members, mostly from western Suffolk County, who gather twice a month to play games, including a day-long affair that typically runs between 16 and 18 hours, usually inside Mr. Palermo’s Ronkonkoma home that he shares 
with his wife, Anna Maria, and son, Nicolo, 7.

Deep Gaming Roots
Mr. Palermo has been playing and collecting tabletop games for half of his life, noting that he first became interested in 1995, a year or two before European-style games began entering the American market. The 49-year-old social media/communications consultant was bitten by the gaming bug while attending AvalonCon, an annual gathering hosted by Avalon Hill in Maryland, before the company was acquired by the gaming giant Hasbro.

He recalls being most impressed with El Grande, a German-style board game in which the Spanish nobility fight for control over the nine regions of Renaissance-era Spain. The game is similar to The Settlers of Catan, another German game in which the players assume the role of settlers, and each must advance their civilizations by developing holdings, as well as by trading and acquiring resources, that expand their settlements on the fictional island of Catan.

But it was El Grande, and its requirement that players think critically, that permanently hooked the then-novice gamer. “There are just so many possibilities with games like that,” Mr. Palermo said. “With Monopoly, get Boardwalk, get Park Place, and you win the game. No one ever won Monopoly by dominating Baltic Avenue.”

He recalls stocking up on various games shortly before Hasbro took over Avalon Hill in the late 1990s, explaining that he was worried about losing access to them. “I had about 2,000 board games at that time,” says Mr. Palermo, who has added hundreds of new titles since then.

He would go on to form the Long Island Boardgaming Organization a few years later after struggling to find opponents. Today, members meet once a month for a full day of gaming at Mr. Palermo’s home, or the house of another member, as well as for a game night one Friday a month.

Mr. Palermo says there is a strict schedule that is shared ahead of time so members don’t sit around waiting for their turn. He vets all applicants, explaining that he and his fellow members are looking for like-minded individuals who share their gaming passion.

Brian Stone of Holtsville is one of those individuals. He met Mr. Palermo 15 years ago, and he promptly introduced him to the world of gaming. The 39-year-old software engineer, and former Riverhead resident, recalls not really being interested in tabletop games until being introduced to Advanced Civilization, an expansion of the game Civilization that was produced in 1991 by Avalon Hill.

He also recalls being immediately hooked. “The depth of strategy and interaction with other players, that’s what did it for me,” Mr. Stone said. “We played with seven or eight other people, and the game took eight or nine hours. I was 24 at the time … and had all the free time in the world.”

He recalls subsequently playing other Euro-games possessing similar complex rules and intricate mechanics—two qualities that he and similarly minded gamers look for when hunting for new challenges. According to Mr. Stone, club members want to continuously challenge themselves, and that is one of the reasons why their marathon game days are so well-attended.

“In my opinion, I feel like the social nature of the games has been a major drawing point,” he said. “Obviously, I think they’re fun to play. But they are very ‘heavy’ games.”

They are heavy in the sense that they require significant brainpower, meaning players must embrace the demands and challenges presented by them or risk losing interest.

Growing Interest
Back in the main dining room of the Mill Roadhouse, Mr. MacDonald and his gaming friends—a group that includes Mr. Elitharp of Eastport and Sigmund “Siggy” Mackowka of East Quogue, among others—settle down for another evening of adventure.

A restoration carpenter by day, Mr. Elitharp adjusts his mindset to that of his character, the Scoundrel, in the world of Gloomhaven. His character, whom he adopted after a brief experimentation with the less-conflict-engaged Cragheart, is described as a classic rogue who earns his money—or, more accurately, gold coins—by lurking in shadows and backstabbing opponents.

“One of the great things about games like this is that you are actively interacting with the people around you,” Mr. Elitharp said. “You are seeing someone’s face, and not just hearing them over a headset.

“We’re also playing in a bar, where you can get food and drinks … and people are always coming over and asking what you’re doing,” he continued. “People are always excited to learn more about the game.”

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