Board games are making a comeback in Norwich
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
It is a Tuesday evening at The Mash Tun pub in Norwich and around 50 people are sitting around tables, sipping beers and cokes and occasionally exchanging conversation.
Unlike many having an evening at the pub, they are not, however, offering up tipsy insights into the meaning of life or deconstructing last Saturday's match at Carrow Road.
Instead, amid the occasional lines of banter, these people in their late teens, twenties, thirties and early forties are largely focused on what is in front of them which, in each case, is some type of game.
On one table this means a board game set in India, in another case it is a card game involving highwaymen and their bounty, and in a third the attention of a dozen people is fixed on a complex game of strategy.
This is a typical weekly gathering of Norwich Board Gamers, a group that has seen attendances swell at a time that many see as a golden age for board games.
Forget Monopoly, snakes and ladders and Trivial Pursuit.
This is a brave new board game world where games like Castles of the Mad King Ludwig, Codenames and Brew Crafters hold sway. Categorised as 'Ameritrash', tending to involve a high level of luck, or 'Euro' games, which are more about complex strategy, they have created a subculture that is thriving despite the array of electronic forms of entertainment available in today's world.
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In January, just after reaching its 10th anniversary and not long after moving to its new, spacious Charing Cross home, Norwich Board Gamers attracted a record crowd of 68 to its Tuesday night gatherings.
This evening, as usual, a handful of regulars brought along shopping bags full of their favourite games and the group has split up according to who wanted to play what. No experience was necessary, as the players ran through the rules before starting, and anyone could simply turn up and join in. There was even no need to pay a fee, just a hope that players would buy a drink or two during the evening.
One of the organisers, John Rice, a 43-year-old IT consultant, describes the evenings as 'a really good social event'.
'It gets everyone out talking to each other and meeting each other. Especially nowadays where everything is online, we've got an excuse to talk to people across the table. It's a great way to meet new people,' he said.
John is one of the group's most dedicated enthusiasts: at home he has about 220 different board games, several of which he brings along each week. No wonder that people can come every week for month after month and never play the same game twice.
This evening, John is sitting around a table with four others playing Taj Mahal, described by its makers as 'a game of power and influence in India' where players try to accumulate points by building a network of palaces. It might seem like an exotic version of Monopoly, with its tiny plastic Taj Mahal-style palaces in place of small houses and hotels, and cards that feature elephants and elaborately dressed figures, but this game of 12 rounds is more involved and complex than simply moving a counter round a square board and deciding whether or not to buy property.
'There's a cult of the new, because there are so many games released in a year. But there are some things like Taj Mahal, that go on for year after year,' said John.
Today's games are, say regulars, much better than the likes of Cluedo or Totopoly, which were popular in past decades. They are better thought out and tested, and players tend not to be eliminated as the game continues, so everyone gets to enjoy a full game.
Like many of today's top Euro titles, Taj Mahal was the creation of a German designer, in this case Reiner Knizia, and the increasing profile of board games in Britain mirrors their popularity on the continent. Germany plays host to the world's largest board game convention, Gamescom, which last year attracted more than a third of a million people.
Numbers at the Tuesday evening gatherings at The Mash Tun are more modest, of course, but are also on the increase.
'We've grown a lot in the past year really. We used to only get a handful of people, about 10 people,' said Matt Bond, 38, an HR systems assistant who helped found the group in December 2005.
This evening's attendance of 46 is close to the average at the moment. The players are mostly men, but there are a few women too, and they are all equally welcome.
'It's a fairly wide range of people. It's in a pub, so you have to be 18 or thereabouts to come, and it's probably anyone up to... late fifties. There's students that come and lots in their thirties that come,' said Matt.
'There are some people who are quite competitive, but… a lot of the quicker games are very light-hearted and nobody is concerned about who wins.
'It's nice if you win, but it's not the be-all and end-all.'
For Sam Betteridge, 33, a supermarket night worker, his regular evenings with Norwich Board Gamers offers the chance to play more sophisticated games than the simple observational card games he plays with his daughters, who are aged just two and three.
'This is the one day I'm allowed out of the house, where I can get away from the kids,' he said.
After an hour, and with their pint glasses emptying, the five Taj Mahal players are still a long way away from completing their 12 rounds, but over on another table a different group is engaged in a much less involved game.
Called Dick Turpin and subtitled 'The Classic Game of Highway Robbery', it sees players try to get rich by holding up wealthy travellers or robbing their fellow highwaymen. Such games are known as 'fillers' as they take just 15 to 20 minutes to play.
While most of the games this evening are available commercially, some regulars develop their own games and bring them along to be tested out before their official launch.
Elliot Symonds, a 44-year-old business development manager, did just that with his fantasy-themed game Orctions, which he began developing three years ago before releasing the final version in June 2015. The game was nominated for an award at last year's UK Board Games Expo.
He says board games are enjoying 'a great age' with a wider range of people taking an interest.
'Some of these games are £40 or £50. It's cheaper than a night out for two and it lasts for ever,' he said.
Over on another table, a dozen people are creating quite a stir with a complex game of strategy, described by one player as 'Monopoly on steroids', that has yet to be officially released. It is one of many board games financed through a crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, which allows supporters to contribute to development costs and, in this case, print out their own copy of the game as reward. This game started up at about 10.45pm and, around half an hour later, most people have finished, tidied away their games for the evening and are about to head home.
But there is a hard core who, more than three hours from when they started, are keen to continue. They coalesce around a couple of tables, select another game and start playing again. Often there are groups at it after midnight – and tonight is set to be no exception.
Norwich Board Gamers meet at The Mash Tun every Tuesday at 7.30pm.