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Lords of the boards have Euro tastes

New favorites make Monopoly look like mere kids' stuff
by: ANNI TRACY, David Little (left) and Sean Carrick play Infernal Contraption, a card game complete with goblins, at Southeast Portland’s Guardian Games.

Beaverton resident Jeff Eberlin started playing his first European-style board game to help relieve the stress of some turbulent life changes.

He purchased his first two Eurogames in December.

'Now I have over a hundred,' Eberlin, 35, says during a recent Sunday afternoon of Eurogame play at Guardian Games in Southeast Portland.

'They're escapist, they're fun, like a movie,' Eberlin says. 'In a way, Eurogames are better than movies, when you think about it. How many times can you see an Oscar-winning movie over and over?'

Underneath the clicks, crashes and nonstop buzz generated by Nintendo's Wii, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, quieter, more social board games are bubbling back to life.

But the kinds of board games you'll find folks gathered around in spots throughout Portland - from the Lucky Labrador Brew Pub on Thursday nights to the new Knightfall Games in Beaverton on Sunday afternoons - aren't the old-fashioned games played by our parents.

The games here have names like Settlers of Catan, Modern Art and Carcassonne. Often dubbed 'designer games' for their intricate artwork, Eurogames originated in Germany in the mid-1980s, gaining favor with families and spreading across the continent throughout the '90s.

They crossed to the U.S. around 1995 (about the same time the popularity of computer and video games here went into overdrive), with gamers setting up play at home, in gaming stores and in neighborhood watering holes.

How are they different from the board games like Sorry!, Monopoly and Life that we all grew up with?

'There's generally no player elimination, and there's more direct player interaction through auctions or trading,' explains Sam McCanna, 31, the organizer of Sunday's Eurogame day at Guardian Games.

'There's also a big emphasis on clever and balanced design, versus just trying to re-create a theme,' McCanna says.

In other words, all the pieces, cards and the board tie together with the play of the game. In contrast, Monopoly may have been created under the idea of high-powered real estate, but what on Earth do those game pieces - the flat iron or the little dog - have to do with that?

'These games are generally geared toward trade, too,' McCanna says. 'It's not the American style of competition, where the goal is try to crush someone else. There's conflict, yes, but in these games, you're trying to do the something you're doing - only better.'

'I had to see more'

McCanna, a self-described 'computer grunt,' initiated the family-oriented Sunday play group nine months ago. When it started, a handful of people would filter into the gaming center. On a recent Sunday, about 20 folks gathered to play, some bringing kids lured from the flash and crash of joystick games.

For McCanna, it was love before the first roll.

'There was just something about seeing the wooden pieces, the thick card stock and all the high-quality art,' he says. 'Seeing it all laid out - it was such a beautiful thing - and I had to see more.'

Quite a few Portlanders have fallen under the spell of Eurogames.

The area boasts four gaming groups that gather to play each month. In Southeast Portland, there are meetings at Guardian Games and the Lucky Lab (a group geared toward grown-ups). On the west side, Rainy Day Games in Aloha and Knightfall Games in Beaverton both host gamers.

Portland's Boardgames Meetup Group celebrates its second anniversary this month. Meetup organizer Justin Redd tried starting a Eurogaming group when he moved to Bend a few years back from New York City, but it didn't catch on.

He moved to Portland in summer 2006 and took over Portland's group. It since has grown from 50 members to 360.

'If you think of games as beer, then Monopoly is like Budweiser, the King of Beers, and these games are like fine imports or microbrews,' Redd says during Thursday evening play at the Lucky Lab.

Gamers get together

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Portland-founded GameStorm, one of the largest tabletop board game conventions in the Northwest.

During its three-day run last year, GameStorm 9 brought about 600 fans of Eurogames - as well as role-playing games and card games - to the Airport Sheraton Hotel in Portland. In comparison, Germany's yearly gaming convention in Essen draws about 150,000 enthusiasts.

This year, GameStorm 10 takes place in Vancouver, Wash. Events include game tables open 24 hours for play, and an appearance by Jay Tummelson, whose New Mexico-based company translates and adapts German game titles for U.S. audiences.

Eurogames are stocked at specialty stores like Rainy Day Games and Knightfall Games, which opened last July. But the games also are popping up in mainstream outlets.

At the Barnes and Noble store in the Lloyd Center mall, for instance, you'll find copies of Settlers of Catan (perhaps the best-selling Eurogame, with 11 million copes sold worldwide) sitting among Monopoly and Yahtzee on the book dealer's gaming island.

Eurogame enthusiasts connect to find places to play, to lend their thoughts on game strategy and to post reviews of new games on Web sites like www.portlandgamers.com and Boardgamegeek.com, an international site.

Board gamers tend to use the sites as a resource, and not for online play. The goal seems to be to get people out to play face-to-face; some Eurogamers see this as the vital difference between them and those who play computer or video games.

'I play video games,' McCanna says, 'and World of Warcraft' - an online game using multiple players - 'so I interact. But in the end, you're still talking to a computer,' he adds with a laugh.

'This is real contact. You can develop friends, and healthy rivalries … and that, to me, just seems a whole lot more satisfying.'


GameStorm 10

When: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, March 28-March 30

Where: Red Lion at the Quay, 100 Columbia St., Vancouver, Wash., 503-426-3786, www.gamestorm.org

Cost: $10-$25 per day