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One piece at a time

Murrayhill couple adds sense of history to parlor game museum
by: Jaime Valdez Kyle Engen, and his wife, Carol Mathewson, play a Chinese board game called Mah Jong, one of many board games they've collected over the years. They hope to find a public space for their International Museum of Gaming and Puzzlery.

For a happily married couple, Kyle Engen and Carol Mathewson sure do play a lot of games with each other.

And despite advice from Miss Manners or Ann Landers to the contrary, the Beaverton couple makes a point of getting their friends involved.

That's right. From standbys such as backgammon and 'Parcheesi' to the relative esoterica of 'Regatta,' 'Contigo' and 'Twixt,' Kyle and Carol not only like to play the multi-styled games they own, but make a point of learning the history and sociological context of nearly all 1,000 of them.

That's right, 1,000.

Rather than keeping the collection to themselves, however, Engen and Mathewson have decided to share their leisure-time passion with aficionados as well as curious dilettantes outside their thoughtfully cluttered Murrayhill home.

Now in its infancy, the couple would like to see their fledgling 'International Museum of Gaming and Puzzlery' expand from a lovingly curated, home-based collection to a nonprofit history and learning organization with its own space and identity.

For Engen, 47, a self-employed website designer and computer specialist whose work requests have slowed in recent years, the time had simply come to get serious about playing games.

'We've spent our whole life sharing games with friends,' he says. 'We thought we might as well make our passion our work.

'The downturn has squeezed us pretty tight. While struggling with this, we thought, 'Why not grow something?' This is our little garden, this museum.'

Mathewson, 42, met Engen a few years ago through a Craigslist personal ad. She echoes her husband's sentiments.

'It's our little labor of love,' she says, noting she draws gaming inspiration from her parents' sense of Kennedy-era suburbanite style. 'This collection is from our childhood. The '60s renaissance: James Bond, Playboy, bookshelf games. Our parents were that age group.'

Gaming the system

The couple is riding a wave of enthusiasm from their recent participation in the Penny Arcade Exposition in Seattle.

The up-and-coming museum was invited to present materials on the history of board games in the Table Top Library. The category includes card and dice games as well as those centered on a foldout board.

The experience was encouraging, to say the least.

'To have a prestigious event recognize our efforts to celebrate the history of game play was a tremendous opportunity,' Engen says.

The couple assembled several small exhibits for the exposition, including a survey of 3M-brand bookshelf games from the '60s, one of the first gaming lines marketed to adults rather than kids. For non-aficionados, that's the same 3M known for its Scotch tape and sandpaper.

Another presentation focused on 'primitive' games, including astragalus bone dice, mancala boards and Native American stick games.

Engen counters the stereotype that casinos are exploitive of Native American culture.

'Gambling games go to the heart of Native American culture,' he says. 'The modern casinos are just the latest exppression of a deep tradition.

Going with the flow

That connection - of games to cultures - is what gets Mathewson going.

While not as avid of a gamer growing up as her husband, she digs the deeper meanings that fuel games and their fluctuations in popularity.

'I played games, but not as avidly,' she says. 'I do like having the sociological and anthropological background. I like the whole academic exploration of it.'

To that end, she formulated a large educational poster, 'Structured Play,' that provides a loosely constructed flow chart of gaming's history. As an eye-grabber and conversation-generator, the display was a hit at the Seattle exposition.

'Most experts agree that modern backgammon derives from the ancient Egyptian game, Senet… and that cards came from Europe to China in the 14th century,' she observes. 'I just wanted to gather those threads into a single image and get an overview.'

Fans of popular prototype video games from the late 20th century, however, felt a bit short changed.

'Some patrons objected to our mentioning only three video games - Pong, Ms. Pac Man and Minecraft - but we didn't have room for everything,' Mathewson said.

More well-known games, Monopoly being perhaps the highest-profile example, started as products of their times, notes Engen.

'Monopoly was created by a woman in (the early 1900s) as a way to illustrate the evils of capitalism. You see how that (concept) turned out,' he says with a laugh. 'The '80s were full of Wall Street games. They were all about materialism.'

The game of love

While Mathewson says she understands those who don't like to be locked into the structure of a game at a party, she learned that joining in a creative game with fun people is worth the commitment.

'The dynamic that games bring to a social gathering is a useful construct,' she says. 'Nerdy people are often socially awkward, but when you have a good game format that homogenizes everybody, I appreciate it more for that purpose than I used to.'

Plus, games are apparently healthy for a relationship.

'I married a man with a sense of humor, who likes to have fun,' Mathewson says. 'That's probably why I didn't marry until I was 40. Too many men take things too seriously.'

For information on The International Museum of Gaming and Puzzlery, visit www.imogap.org .