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Doug Adams Plays Board Games in Melbourne, Australia

This week we get the scoop on games Down Under as Doug Adams, who has played even more titles than I have, gives us the benefit of his experience, including an explanation of "billabong".

It sounds like this gamer nation is seeking an impresario of game conventions. Will no Australian stand up? Or perhaps Alan Moon will decide to hold a second Gathering of Friends in the southern hemisphere? That way, he could experience Spring twice a year. :)

June 5, 2004 Note: all links cited are repeated at the end of the interview for handy reference.

Q1.Can you share a little bit with the readers by introducing yourself, in which corner of the world you live, how you like to spend your time and also how you got started in games?
My name is Doug Adams, and I'm from Melbourne, Australia. At time of writing, I'm 38 years old. I am married to Janet, with no children.

I work with the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology, Australia, as a computer programmer mainly focusing on Information Technology communications.

Doug & Janet
Outside of gaming, my interests are playing tennis, cycling, running (when not injured!), swimming and golf. When night falls my passion for astronomy beckons, and I set up my telescope in the back yard and scan the heavens. Heading indoors I like to watch good movies, read, and cook. Being a Coeliac Disease (Sprue) "sufferer", I'm always on the lookout for interesting and tasty new stuff to cook and eat without harming myself! :)

My introduction to gaming is easy to trace. My uncle was visiting Melbourne when I was 11 years old, and he had a copy of a game called "Dungeon!". In this game you took a character down into different levels of a dungeon, entered rooms, slew monsters and grabbed loot. I loved it, and my uncle gave our family a copy of this game. By saving my pocket money up, I went and bought my very first two games - Richthofen's War and Magic Realm – quite heavy stuff for an 11 year old. I was hooked, and 27 years later I'm still buying games.

Q2. Where do you and others typically play your games? In homes? Are there public places to play? Conventions?
I typically play games these days in homes with friends. Around six years ago I joined the Billabong Boardgamers, which grew from six people to close to twenty. During that time we rented a Community Centre to meet and play at, and I believe the Billabongers do continue to meet there.

The convention scene in Australia is strong when it comes to role playing games and the Games Workshop Warhammer tournaments. However, board gaming lags behind when it comes to conventions. I can't think of any conventions in Melbourne, or indeed Australia, that just target board gaming. There are several conventions that cover the Games Workshop Warhammer scene, as well as role playing games. I actually participated in the Warhammer 40,000 tournament last year, which had around 120 participants. At one of the larger conventions in Australia, they do have the Diplomacy tournament attached to the convention, but in no way is board gaming the "flagship" of such tourneys.

I guess Australia requires some driven individual like Alan Moon or Greg Schloesser to create its own Gathering of Friends or Gulf Games type event. Alas, I don't think I'm that driven ... :)

Q3. How do people in your area acquire the games? Are there shops?
Here in Melbourne there are several specialist games shops to purchase from, which these days cover most of the purchasing requirements. For the harder-to-get titles, such as self published games or foreign language games, I usually use mail order services such as Adam Spielt in Germany, or Leisure Games in London. Both are excellent.

For the conflict simulation games, I usually either order direct from the publisher, or use Fine Games out of Portland, Oregon.

Q4. Do you have any ideas how many people in your country are playing new strategy games? Any idea what the demographics are like? Whatís the overlap with RPG, CCG, war games, computer games, video games, comic books, anime? Are there any special reasons why gaming is popular or not there?
I guess the short answer to this is no, I really don't have any idea! When new games appear on the shelves of game stores here, I tend to purchase them (although I'm trying hard to cure that habit!). When that title is then restocked at the store, the copy will tend to "hang around" for a while. This leads me to believe that not a lot of new strategy games are being played.

My gaming background is from war gaming, and from visiting the various conventions there isn't a lot (ie. virtually none) of war gaming or strategy board gaming going on there. RPG and Games Workshop tournaments rule the roost. I played in a Warhammer tournament here in Melbourne last year and I was one of the oldest playing at age 38. This is definitely a teenage/twenties scene here.

I can't comment on the overlap between genres. RPG and Games Workshop is very popular with the younger set – from all appearances the reason for this is Games Workshop do a fabulous job marketing their product. I spoke to a friend of mine who has two young boys. She told me it is a relief to drop her sons off at a GW store while she shops. The GW staff give the kids some miniatures to paint in the store, and get them hooked that way.

Q5. Are there any traditional board or card games, perhaps even non-proprietary, that have particular popularity in your country and how have they informed the gaming scene?
Hmm, you ask difficult questions! There are two games that spring to mind, one is a card game, the other is a board game. The card game is 500, which I believe was invented in the United States, but is very popular here in Australia. So popular, in fact, that you can walk into any stationary store and buy custom 63 card 500 decks that include the 11, 12, and 13 of the suit cards. It appears to be a game that everyone knows how to play, and is the game of choice when friends are away on a trip together.

The board game most associated with Australia would be Squatter, published by John Sands. It's game about sheep farming in Australia, and bears a passing similarity to Monopoly (from a distance!). You roll and move, running your pawn around the perimeter of the board, avoiding drought, improving land, and making money out of cute little plastic sheep. I suspect there is a copy of Squatter kicking around in half the houses in Australia.

These would be the two games, aside from the Scrabbles, Monopolys, Cluedos, etc. that enjoy popularity that I suspect is common only to Australia.

Q6. What games seem the most popular there? Any games which have found particular success that may surprise us living elsewhere? There is a list on BGG where it's indicated that Euphrat & Tigris is better loved in Australia than in most places, and Puerto Rico less. Does this make any sort of cosmic sense to you or is it more likely to just be a small sample set?
I do not think there are going to be any surprises coming out of Australia. The popular miniatures game would be the Games Workshop Warhammer / Warhammer 40,000 -- that is played a lot in convention/tournament format. The collectible card game genre would probably see Magic as still number one, although I must admit being out of touch with what is popular here. War gaming here sees a strong miniatures following, along with Advanced Squad Leader clubs existing in both Melbourne and Sydney.

In terms of board gaming, Settlers of Catan is still played a lot. I am constantly hearing both this game, and Carcassonne, being recommended by staff in game stores here.

I think the list you cite from Boardgamegeek is such a small sample set that it probably doesn't have too much credence. The important thing is they are all very fine games!

Q7. Can you give us some overview of home-grown game publishing? Any interesting developments to look out for?
I haven't touched too much on the home grown publishing scene. I did playtest 6 Billion several times a few years ago and watched the game progress through development to publication. This was essentially a one man production. The one game of note that I have seen published recently in Australia was Done Bone's Sunda to Sahul. I have never met Don, or corresponded with him, but I believe that game was essentially self-published. From what I see on various Internet forums, Don is quite active and it wouldn't surprise me if the next self-published game appeared from his direction (and I have absolutely no facts to back this up with!).
Q8. Quite a few games have been set in Australia. What is your impression of them? Have any of them received special attention or popularity because of it? Are there any kind of recurring motifs, even stereotypes, in these games on which you would like to comment?
I do enjoy seeing games set in, or themed around, Australia and Australian icons. I have played and enjoyed several over the years. The notable games being Australian Rails, Billabong, Wongar – all games I've greatly enjoyed and good games in each their own way. I am not aware of any special attention that one game has received, although the mass produced games such as Squatter are really Australian gaming icons and would be known by most Australians born before the age of the Sony Playstation!
Q9. Is there any mass media presence for board games there and what is the nature of that presence? Is there any mass market advertising for board games?
Sadly, no, almost certainly there is nothing in the mass media here in Australia specifically focused on board games. You may see the odd television commercial for a children's board game, however I suspect that may be a rare event in itself here. One notable and very much one-off exception was a documentary piece a UK television team did on the Mind Sports Olympiad a few years ago – the main focus of the piece was one participant in a Scrabble tournament who had to play in a bathtub. A bit sad, really, but it succeeded admirably in depicting board gamers in general as geeky oddballs. :)

In terms of print media (aside from department store catalogues and advertising material – suspect at best), you may be lucky to find a copy of the US magazine, GAMES, sitting on a store shelf. I used to purchase Sumo, Games Games Games and more recently Counter magazine to receive my "fix" of game news. The Internet, for me at least, has made the print magazines redundant. With several excellent web sites out there now dedicated to board gaming, especially with RSS support, game news is delivered to your PC screen virtually instantly.

Q10. What is the societal view of board games and their players?
In Australia if you mentioned you were a board gamer to the masses, they'd made the immediate connection to Monopoly, Scrabble and Pictionary. There would also be a prejudice towards thinking you enjoyed children's games. If you qualified it by stating you enjoy adult board games, they'd think you be playing games such as Foreplay. :) I guess what I'm trying to say is that the societal view of board games is pretty narrow – Monopoly/Cluedo/Scrabble/children's games/party games. That's what you will find dominating your non-specialist game stores, so that's the societal view.

In terms of how the players are viewed, that's an interesting question. Being very much on the "inside looking out", I'm not sure I want to go and try and find the answer! Having dabbled in pretty much all forms of gaming over the past 25 years, I think board gamers will be regarded as harmless geeky types lined up alongside computer gamers in society. Knowing lots of gamers, I know that's not the case, and certainly not with me (most of my hobbies are outdoors!).

I do think board gamers are several notches above role players – the image there is one of capes and broadswords and associated mischief. :)

Q11. Getting a bit more personal, what makes the games fun and interesting for you? What are some of your most favorites? Whatís your favorite game that few, or at least few around you, seem to like? Do you have a favorite type or type that you are best at, e.g. abstract, auction, bluff, business, tile placement, etc.?
The social interaction are what make games fun for me. To get together with friends for a few hours, chat, play board games, socialise – I love it. It may sound cheesy, but the game itself is secondary to ensuring my friends and I are having a good time. In terms of what makes games interesting to me – certainly new and different mechanics in games tend to get my attention. Having played around 1500 different games, I tend to feel a bit jaded at the new releases and that sense that I've seen this before. War gaming is also very interesting to me, purely from the history. I tend to set up a war game, push some pieces around by myself, then dive into a history book and read up on what I'm playing.

My favorite games would include Taj Mahal, Die Macher, The Lord of the Rings (Knizia), Ra, Paths of Glory, Euphrat und Tigris, Blokus, Apples to Apples, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, Roads and Boats. I'm also a huge fan of the Columbia block games - they are uniformly excellent with some outstanding individual titles there.

My favorite game that only I seem to like? Hmm... Africa and Res Publica (both by Knizia) seem to draw some nasty comments in my game group, but I think they are both rather clever games. Tycoon by Kramer is a game I alone seem to like, and I'm doggedly holding onto it in the hope I'll play it again someday. :)

The type of games I'm best at? I seem to do well at the micro-management and business related games. This is a bit strange to me as I would describe my playing style as "instinctive" - meaning I play by feel and don't try to bog a game down by over-analysing my position in a game. My favorite type of game mechanism would be auction – it levels the playing field, and forces you to interact with your opponents. I'm also partial to bluff – I love the way it was implemented in Taj Mahal.

Q12. What about your own involvement in games industry? Have you had any participation there? And is there anything Iíve left out that you would like to say?
I have playtested a few games over the past ten years (Summer Storm and 6 Billion spring to mind) and enjoyed that experience.

My wife Janet and I attended the Billabong Boardgamers, here in Melbourne for several years – during that time we outgrew our premises and had to move into a larger facility. I found myself webmaster for the Billabongers web site as well as treasurer. The Billabongers still meet up there, I believe, but sadly the web site doesn't appear to be updated too frequently these days.

During my Billabong days I began writing game reviews, which found their way onto the web site, as well as onto Frank Schulte-Kulkmann's web site. I then began writing capsule reviews of just a few sentences. With these I tried to describe the theme, mechanics, victory conditions of a game, with a final summary of whether it worked or not. When the Boardgamegeek site started up, I discovered that the "comments" section for a game on Boardgamegeek would be the perfect spot to put my capsule reviews. Hopefully, some readers would find them a nice contrast to the frequent "Rating 1 - this game sucks" or "Rating 10 - this game rocks" comments that appear there. At last count I think I had over 700 "mini-reviews" on Boardgamegeek.

I am also a voting member of the International Gamers Awards in the General Strategy Committee. At present I think I'm the only member of the committee in the Southern Hemisphere – that's a lot of pressure, but fortunately it's still only a single vote. ;-)

Q13. It sure is fun to speak, this word "Billabong". Why this name for the group and what is a Billabong anyway?
The word "billabong" is Aboriginal - "billa" means "water", while "bung" means "dead". A billabong in Australia is a section of dried up river that has become isolated and formed a still water pool.

We chose the name for our game group after Eric Solomon's 1995 game Billabong, which featured teams of kangaroos racing around a ... billabong. It seemed to roll off the tongue nicely. We were nearly called the "Green Piece Gamers", because of our founder's insistence on taking the green pieces in every game we played. I think Billabong was a better choice.:)

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us – it's been a lot of fun!
Thanks for the opportunity, Rick. I've enjoyed it.
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