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Meet the Queenslanders proving board games are more than just child's play

Culture

Clever Queenslanders are helping bring an old-fashioned pastime right up to date, writes Brett Debritz

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Somewhere in North America, a family of four is playing a board game designed in Brisbane. And that game has emerged from a global culture that has produced many Queensland creators and at least one production company.

While playing on a physical board with cards and tokens might seem a little old-fashioned in the internet age, these games have an enormous fan base. And they have come a long way from the likes of Monopoly and Cluedo.

At the centre of the phenomenon is GenCon, a huge event in Indianapolis that had its beginnings in the late 1960s. It is described as “the largest and longest-running tabletop gaming convention in North America”, and it attracts about 70,000 attendees and more than 520 exhibiting companies each year.

Board games are even bigger in Europe, where the Internationale Spieltage – known simply as Spiel (the German word for “play”) or the Essen Game Fair – was attended last year by more than 200,000 people and featured about 1,000 exhibitors.

One of the Queensland board-game designers with global ambitions is Sally Browne. Among other things, she is a freelance music journalist, band biographer and writer of comics. She also wrote essays to accompany the recent High Rotation music exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane.

Meanwhile, in suburban Yeerongpilly, a company called Half-Monster Games has produced a range of games, including one called Trust Me I’m a Doctor, which involves competitors dealing with “Medieval maladies”, and Terrible Candidates, which is set in the world of presidential debates, the political press and fake news.

“They’re the kind of games you played as a kid, [but] they are more sophisticated,” Browne said of the oeuvre. “It’s a thing to do among adult friends, like something to do after a dinner party.

“There are also a few different groups in Brisbane that I was a part of [including] one called ‘Beer and Board Games on a School Night’.”

That interest led to the development of her own games, and eventually the decision to take them to America. Suddenly her hobby became serious.

“I booked a ticket to GenCom and suddenly I had a deadline and I had to put all my attention into the games, to make them grow and produce them,” she said

Browne improved her Photoshop skills and created professional cards and boards, then packed them up and took them to Indianapolis, where she made valuable industry contacts and her games received a good reception.

She also attended the Pacificcon Game Expo in Santa Clara, California, where she won an award for “best prototype”. She was supposed to follow up her success in America this year, but the pandemic put those plans on hold.

You meet so many new people and everyone’s so friendly and supportive.

Back in Brisbane, Browne – who uses the handle @SallyScribe on social media – has been featured in one of Half-Monster’s regular events showcasing table-top games.

Some of her creations, including Shakestirred and But First, Coffee, were demonstrated and played at  Ace Comics in Annerley in March this year.

She described Shakestirred as “a Shakespeare mash-up where I took bits from a lot of plays and cut them up all on separate cards. You take the cards and you rearrange Shakespeare. So, it could be Romeo falls in love with Hamlet or something like that.”

But First, Coffee is “about coffee and to-do lists. You try to complete tasks and you do that by drinking coffee – but not real coffee. It’s a mix of relatable and absurd.”

While the COVID-19 crisis has made physical game-play difficult, it hasn’t shut down the development of new games. Browne and others have moved their work online, where they are gaining more fans.

“There’s a bunch of programs, the main one being Tabletop Simulator, where you can digitise board games, upload them and have people play them digitally,” she said.

Browne used the services of Brisbane’s Cassie Simpson, who runs a business called Katzenspiel Solutions.

“She launched it during COVID and she now transfers games online for designers here and internationally,” Browne said.

“People in Ohio and Montreal are playing my games and giving me feedback. I’ve had families that I had not met all playing my games online. It’s a very wide age group.

“You meet so many new people and everyone’s so friendly and supportive. They might be testing your new game and they might make suggestions, but no-one’s mean. They’re all really nice.”

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