It's 5 a.m. Sunday morning, August 4th, 2002. Five of us are ensconced in a small conference room at the Hunt Valley Inn in suburban Baltimore on the final day of the 12th annual World Boardgaming Championships (WBC). We're playing a game called Eurorails - the last game we'll play during this six-day event.
There's nothing at stake here in the wee hours of the morning. Most of the official championship finals have already been played, and the remaining few will take place in about four hours. We're here because several hours earlier, two members of our quintet (friends John Cannon and Mark Oldfield from Carmichael, CA) had expressed a casual interest in learning how to play Eurorails. The three of us who knew it well (myself, Charles Davis of Montgomery, WV, and Chuck Foster of Fort Worth, TX) said, "Let's do it!"
We searched for an empty room, found one, broke out the game, and went at it. Much, much later, with no clear winner in sight and with dawn just around the corner, Oldfield and Cannon thanked us for the hands-on tutorial and went to bed. By noon they were on a plane, headed back to California.
Flash back four days: 10 a.m., Wednesday, the first full day of the event. I met Charles Davis for the first time as we settle in for a Rio Grande game called Mexica with a 14-year-old from Vienna, VA. Amanda Vessey owns the game and has "played it a few times". We're just learning. Early on, Amanda employs a subtle defensive tactic not explicitly spelled out in the rules. I watch her make this move but don't realize its impact right away. When it's my turn, I suddenly realize that I've been trapped. I look into her face and she's wearing a grin as wide as the table. Five minutes later, she does it to me again.
Same result. Same grin.
I catch on. At the first opportunity I get, I use the same defensive tactic, which to my delight she does not notice until it's her turn. The indignant look on her face when she realizes I've learned what she taught me is priceless.
"I'm beating you," she says, deadly serious. "Be nice to me."
"Be nice to you?" I ask, not quite following her logic.
"Or I'll beat you even more," she says.
This is the WBC in a nutshell. The event draws over a thousand people just like Amanda Vessey and the "Five a.m. Five" people who are pretty passionate about playing board games.
Some of these people are so pre-occupied with their games that they forget to eat. Game etiquette allows for the occasional trip to the bathroom, but it does not allow you to get up after one of your turns and say, "I'll be back after lunch."
"Many attendees don't take the time to eat regular meals," says Don Greenwood, founder and chief organizing officer of the WBC. "(They) do more gaming at WBC than they do the rest of the year, and because the events usually use continuous rounds, they just don't have time for regular meals between rounds."
Some of this has to do with scheduling and choices, but consider this: The Hunt Valley Inn has informed WBC officials that next year's gaming guests will be assessed a $30-per-day food credit per room. Apparently, while the hotel managers are quite happy to have their rooms filled with gamers, they are not happy about the lack of business in the restaurants.
"That's pretty close to the truth," says Greenwood. We always sell out the hotel, but their catering revenues were such that they were willing to lose our business unless we did something to increase (that) revenue."
Greenwood is a former Avalon Hill executive. Back in 1991, he convinced his colleagues to sponsor a game convention with less of a commercial emphasis that is, one that catered more to the players and less to the manufacturers and designers.
"That's when AVALONCON was born," he says.
AVALONCON featured only Avalon Hill game tournaments and no outside vendors, although any game was welcome in Open Gaming. When Hasbro purchased Avalon Hill in 1998, regular attendees urged Greenwood to keep "the CON" going without Avalon Hill. In response, he created the Boardgame Players Association so that the convention could carry on under another name.
"It was open to all manufacturer's products, and all companies were invited to participate as vendors or sponsors as they saw fit," Greenwood recalls. "Thus was born the World Boardgaming Championships. "
By Greenwood's estimate, paid attendance at this year's WBC was "in the 1,000 to 1,100 range," although exact numbers couldn't be determined until later. Actual attendance was much higher. "There are a number of hangers-on who don't pay to participate and are not counted; unlike other conventions, we allow anyone in to see the game vendors," he says, referring to the contingent of one-day visitors who "do their shopping, look around, press the flesh, and leave without ever contributing to the bottom line."
Tom DeMarco of Cinnaminson, NJ says the WBC is the "best boardgame convention in America." He's been a regular at the event since its inception. Perennial attendees like Tom make up the community of gamers at the WBC's core.
This year, Tom returned for his eighth year as the GM, or games master (a volunteer who oversees the competition in a given game) of Tyranno Ex, an Avalon Hill game that debuted at AVALONCON in 1992. In 1994, Tom and his daughter, Carolyn, kicked off a string of Tyranno Ex victories that lasted for five years. He won in 1994, '96, and '98. Carolyn filled in with victories in '95 and '97. A challenger named Mike Lescault broke the family streak in 1999, then Verity Hitchings of Delaware stepped in to take the laurels in 2000 and 2001.
"Verity is a college student who's played in the Tyranno Ex tournament for the past six or seven years," says Tom. "She'd made it to the finals a couple of times before, winning the 'wood' (as the winning plaques are called) the past two years."
In fact, Verity and her mother joined Tom in the finals last year, and both Verity's dad and Tom's other daughter, Wendy, have participated as well. The WBC is full of stories like this: families and friends coming together from near and far to compete.
The event abounds with returning champions. Nine different gamers vied for their third straight title this year, and two were in contention for a fourth. As luck would have it (or not, as it turned out), not one of these 11 defending champs went home with the wood in 2002.
On top of that, there were gamers like Mike Sincavage of Sterling, VA, who, though he hadn't won since 1999, returned to the tables this year in pursuit of his eighth championship victory in the game of Anzio. Mike had been the top Anzio player every year from 1992 through '99, except for a loss in 1997. Tom Oleson of Washington, the 1991 winner, finally put an end to Sincavage's winning streak in 1999.
"It was difficult in the mid-1990's to beat either Tom or myself," says Sincavage, "but thanks to the work of the GMs over the years, both the number and quality of players have improved to the point where there are now six to eight people who are capable of winning this event."
Not this year, however. Sincavage did, in fact, record his eighth victory in Anzio.
Then there's Bruce Reiff of Coilumbus, OH the only gamer to have won at least one event every year, including his 2002 victory in Avalon Hill's Auction.
And let's not forget the first gamer in WBC history to have come in first in four separate events in a single year (2001) 14-year-old Rebecca Hebner.
"I was shocked," she says of her four victories last year in the games Greed, Ivanhoe, Titan: The Arena, and Monsters Ravage America. "I hadn't thought that I'd even make it to any semifinals considering that it was my first year out of the Juniors."
Unfortunately, with what many observers called the "target on her back," Rebecca failed to bring home any wood this year. She did, however, volunteer in the Juniors room (where playrs 12 and under gather to play "lighter" versions of WBC games).
"Anyone who volunteers time in the Juniors events is a borderline saint," says Greenwood. "This is prime gaming time for most of these folks, and to give up some of that time running free day care for someone else's kids is a major sacrifice. In Rebecca's case, it runs in the family," he added. "Her aunt, Kaarin Englemann, is a major volunteer who helps out with the Junior events."
The WBC is, in fact, not just one community of gamers, but a whole world of communities, large and small. There are tighter groups that center on one particular game and larger ones that tend to develop around categories of games with similar themes. Specialists include World War II gamers, Civil War gamers, Renaissance gamers, railroad gamers, and global/galaxy conquest gamers.
In all, 136 games were featured in this year's event 127 returnees from previous conventions and nine debut games (not counting Juniors events). Among the highlights: David Metzger of Glen Allen, VA "Pulled off a Hebner," as the WBC's website put it, by being the second person ever to win four events in one year (Across Five Aprils, A House Divided, Pacific Victory, and War of 1812); Jeff Cornett of Sanford, FL won three firsts (Euphrat & Tigris, Napoleon, and Robo Rally) at the expense of an amazing total of 125 opponents; and ten-year old Alan Sudy finished third among 100 adults in the extremely popular Settlers of Catan.
"Our membership votes for each year's games with their wallets and their feet," says Greenwood. "The 'feet' aspect is determined by actual participation in the event at the preceding WBC. The 90 events that draw best each year are automatically retained the following year. The bottom ten are culled to make room for fresh blood."
The 'wallet' aspect of the selection process, he adds, stems from the fact that "every member who pays annual dues for the coming year by the end of December is allowed to vote for up to five games. The ten most popular choices in this annual membership survey are added to the lineup."
Over the five days of this year's WBC, I competed 14 times in nine different games, seven of which I had never played before. This was more gaming in five days than I'd done in the last five years. Not only did I fail to make it to the finals in any event, but I didn't win a single game of anything.
I played Mexica, Ra, Carcassonne, Tyranno Ex, Guerilla, Slapshot, Air Baron, Empire Builder (and its companion board, India Rails), and Rail Baron, the game with which I had the most experience. Nada!
Humbling, especially in the case of Rail Baron: I'd practised extensively with the electronic version of the game (see below for further information).
Despite my eventual losses, traveling to Baltimore to attend this event was like coming home to a place I'd never been. It was just like family. It was deadly serious at times, but great fun at others. Maybe next year I'll bring back some wood. I'll certainly be there to give it a shot.
Those interested in the Boardgame Players Association and the 2003 World Boardgaming Championships can log on to http://www.boardgamers.org. The site was built by Steve Okonski, a gamer himself and two-time Rail Baron champion. He also created an electronic shareware version of Rail Baron (great practice for those considering attending next year's tournament) which you can play on the Internet and at home by downloading it from http://www.insystem.com/rbp.