Spotlight on Games > Interviews
Yehuda Berlinger plays board games in Jerusalem, Israel.

Jonathan Berlinger is a father of four and player of board games in another often-troubled corner of this world. But it's also the home of one of the world's great game successes: Rummikub. Jonathan fills us in on both and describes the local gaming scene as he sees it, including the role of belief in games playing.
June 19, 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?
Yehuda Berlinger photo
Yehuda (Jonathan) Berlinger
My name is Yehuda Berlinger (aka Jonathan Berlinger to my friends). I was born and raised in Long Island, New York as a religious Jew, and, like many other New York Jews, came to Israel after college as a form of returning to my homeland. I'm now 35 years old, the youngest of three brothers.

Still, my life has otherwise been pretty typical middle class American. I graduated Cornell with a computer degree, worked in high tech until a few months ago, with not much difficulty, lost my job due to the problems in the high tech industry, and am now looking for full time employment; which leaves me more time to play. :-)

I am married with 4 children between the ages of 11 and 15 and they run the gamut as "gamers": one kid loves all games, my wife likes a few games, one of my other kids likes only Carcassonne, one likes only simple games like Uno, and the last doesn't like any games at all.

I started playing Bridge when I was 4 years old, as both of my parents and both brothers played. I played all the standard games of the seventies: Careers, Risk, Billionaire, Stratego, etc... (I never really liked Monopoly.) Even back then we made up variations, such as playing Stratego with random positions to make it interesting.

My older brother went off to Cornell and began playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Cosmic Encounter with his friends, and we would traipse up 5 hours to play with them every few weeks, until I began designing my own dungeons and playing locally. This lasted us about ten years until we all moved to Israel, and we were all too busy to play.

As an avid Internet user since 1987, I spend most of my time on-line, so I am usually the first in our circle to find new things. I found and began playing OK Bridge online. Then later I began playing board games online at, and Bridge at Yahoo Games and

I don't remember anymore how I heard about Magic: the Gathering, (MtG) but once I got a few boxes over, we (my brother and friends) experienced a renaissance in game time, endlessly playing face-to-face and even over the phone to fill the obsession. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, since we didn't have much money, MtG was hard to come by in Israel, and expensive, so while we built up a collection, it was limited.

Eventually following online game groups I ran into praise of Settlers of Catan, and with careful research, bought a copy. My family and friends went wild over it for about a year, and then I got Cities and Knights of Catan and went wild again for another year. Since then, I have been making yearly purchases of the best games: Puerto Rico, El Grande, Princes of Florence, etc... These games aren't available locally, for the most part, and shipping is expensive, and our salaries (when we have them) are light, so we don't have much. Nevertheless, between all of the people who have come into or out of our games, we have played about 50 or so different games.

I'm also looking for work. I help run my local synagogue. I raise four children. I read. I'm working on game designs. I contribute to online game discussions and I play Ultimate Frisbee.

Q2. Where do you play your games? In homes? Are there public places to play? Conventions?
I run a gaming group called the Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club ( which meets in my home and gets 5-10 people each week. I play with my family at odd hours of night or day, and on weekends. I play with friends every week at my club, and on vacations and holidays. And I play Bridge online with my brothers occasionally at the

There are other game groups in Israel, but all devoted to one game or type of games, including:

My club is the only representative of modern euro-games in Israel, although there are others who play around the country here or there, and Settlers has begun to be imported.

The above encompasses the entire country; most of what is happening is in the Tel Aviv area. But there are local contingents for Bridge, Go, Scrabble, D&D, etc... in Jerusalem, and my club is in Jerusalem (obviously).

There are conventions for scifi, roleplaying and Diplomacy in Tel Aviv, but I haven't gotten to any of them, yet :-(

Q3. How do people in your area acquire the games? Are there shops? Also, are the instructions translated from German or from English? Is there any kind of database web site supporting translations?
There are three importers of role-playing games (RPG) and collectible card games (CCG) stuff who also bring in Warhammer and other items for obsessed teenagers. One of the local book chains used to have Magic cards and now sells Yu-gi-oh cards.

One of the importers has a storefront in Raanana (near Tel Aviv) or so I have heard. They are starting to bring in Settlers, as I mentioned, and some Lord of the Rings games. Otherwise, just CCGs, and RPGs. The audience is mostly Israeli Hebrew speaking teen guys. One of the importers does translations into Hebrew.

People who play in our group order online and have goods shipped to relatives in the US, or directly to Israel, either surface or air mail. So far, our favorites are Gamesurplus,, eBay and Amazon.

We either order in English, or download instructions in English from the Geek. My group is primarily English speaking.

There is little audience for translating most of these games of ours (TGOO) into Hebrew yet. If they ever become popular, the importer who specializes in it will work on it. Nevertheless, a few new games have made it over into the local toys stores with Hebrew boxes and rules, such as Blokus and Take 6.

Q4. Do you have any ideas how many people in your country are playing new strategy games? Any idea what the demographics are like? What's 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?
Not too many, I would guess, but then, my experience is limited. I have introduced about thirty people to gaming. I have found a few through the Geek, each of whom has a few dozen people they used to play with. Other kids find these games somehow. I would say maybe five hundred people in the entire country, but I could be off by a factor of 2 or 3 or even more.

I have an ad in the papers every week, and I would hope that people who play these games would contact me, but as I said before, I am a) not in Tel Aviv, and b) not an Israeli teenager, so I may be missing something. My game group is definitely open to all who are interested, but I advertise in English, so my exposure is limited to those who read the English papers or browse BGG (and my members are mostly between 20 and 50 of both sexes, English speakers).

The typical gamer plays CCG's or RPG's and is an Israeli teenage boy, pre army service, or during army service, which is mandatory for all Jewish natives. The Druse, Christian and Arab population probably have little exposure to these games, and certain communities would have religious objections.

There is not much in the way of war games, although some of my members play old Avalon Hill games and newer ones such as History of the World and Samurai Swords. The computer game industry is mainstream here, with many game players of Baldur's Gate, Red Alert, Sims, etc... The video game crowd is younger, like 13 - 17. I am not familiar with the comic book crowd.

There is a definite overlap between scifi, RPG, CCG and computer gaming; these are the mainstream products, with fan sites and conventions in Hebrew. Orson Scott Card came to the last fantasy convention.

Our primary problems include: Israelis tend to earn less, our population is limited, and our region is seen as unstable, so that the goods have to be imported at high prices, which means that the primary consumers are the middle class and wealthy children in the large cities of Tel Aviv and the surroundings.

Q5. What games seem the most popular there? Any games which have found particular success that may surprise us living elsewhere?
In general, I have to divide the country up into segments. This is not necessarily an accurate or fair division, but it is a convenient one based on the limits of my experience.

Segment one is the traditional sephardi population (also the Arab and Druze population), who have always lived in the Mediterranean or North African region. The traditional games of this region are Checkers and Backgammon, and they are played all day long in coffee houses and falafel stands by young, middle-aged and old men.

Segment two are the million Russians who have come in the last 20 years from the Soviet Union. Among them came many world leaders in Chess, and many of them play that all day long.

Segment three is the Haredi ("ultra-Orthodox") Jewish population, who play mostly "Jewish" adaptations of other games, such as Torah Trivia, or Mitzvah-opoly sort of things.

Segment four is young Israeli market, who, as I mentioned, plays computer games, CCG's and RPG's until they enter the army, or during the army, after which they take a year off in Thailand, and then begin to play Backgammon and go into business. I am not sure how they began to pick up CCG's and RPG's, but as I said, the Israeli population looks to America like America once looked toward France, i.e. as a cultural leader. Similarly, some young Israelis traveling abroad are beginning to bring back some of these games.

Segment five would be the typical housewife or atypical male, who may play Rummikub (an Israeli product) or some form of card game at home.

Segment six would be my segment, expatriates from the English world, whose background is similar to any American or English background, until coming to Israel, after which they continue playing the same games (Scrabble, Bridge), and listening to the same music (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Grateful Dead). Through the wonder of the Internet, and the younger population, we, like the young Israelis, are beginning to bring in the new euro-games.

Unlike the American melting pot, or even the Irish population which is basically two religions but similar cultures, the Israeli population out of their teens is still quite divided, even in their choice of games. It is good that the new generation is playing new games, such as RPG's, together, but there is still a long way to go.

The unifying factor is that most (most Jewish and many Druze and Christians) go into the army together, which causes some mingling, and also requires serious downtime, much of which is partying, music, dance, etc... but some of which is games.

Q7. Which of the new games seem the most popular there? Any games which have found particular success that may surprise us living elsewhere?
Well, I can only relate my experience and the experience of others who have been in contact with me.

Big hits: Cosmic Encounter (Mayfair or EON), Settlers of Catan, Cities and Knights of Catan, Tigris and Euphrates, Puerto Rico, Die Macher, David and Goliath.

We haven't actually finished a Die Macher game, yet. We also play, in my group, many variants that I devised (e.g. several building sets for Puerto Rico) and a railroad game based on Catan are also popular.

Mixed reactions: Seafarers of Catan, El Grande, Princes of Florence, Amun Re, Traders of Genoa, Bang!, Acquire.

Those who find El Grande dry love Princes of Florence, and vice versa.

Notable Misses: Citadels, Settlers of Catan card game, Bohnanza, Take 6 (6 Nimmt). Citadels was found unengaging; we are used to Magic and Cosmic, and Citadels is both more boring and more annoying (because of the Assassin). Bohnanza seems like a children's game. Take 6 is just unstrategic. My group doesn't like the games where luck is the primary means of determining victory, such as Risk-derived war games, but plenty of my players do enjoy them outside of my group.

Q7. Can you give us some overview of home-grown game publishing? Maybe you can expand on your earlier comments about Rummikub? Also, weren't there some developments in the 1980's? What ever happened to these companies and their games? What has happened since and what are the important developments today?
As far as I know, the only Israeli game to hit the big time was Rummikub, which won the Spiel de Jahres in 1980. The company that produces it, Kodkod, has produced derivatives of their flagship game, some other games that look somewhat interesting: DisX and Blanko, and other less interesting stuff. I believe that this is the only game company of note in Israel. There are minor companies that make toys, children's games, arts and crafts, etc., and some make translations of traditional games, such as Monopoly in Hebrew, Scrabble in Hebrew, etc... There are also the Haredi game companies, churning out religious-based games for small children.

Other than that, there may be professionals trying to make quick money by rehashing older games, and amateurs like me trying to come up with something new and good.

If I ever do come up with something solid, it remains unclear whether I would try to publish through Kodkod, or try my luck with some major international distribution in the US or Germany (although, I hear that it is very difficult to publish from outside the industry).

Q8. I have heard of a game from Israel called Gods. Any knowledge of it or its company?
Nope. I'm excited to see this. One of my friends is among the 3 people who have rated the game. In addition to Gods, I see that Hexagon Games has published something called Big Deal (2001) written up on several German sites and also Eden.

I have also found Link which looks like it was published in Israel. I also see a number of games from Oded Industries. Der Blaumilch-Kanal looks like it has one Israeli designer. Haim Shafir (sounds like an Israeli) has produced numerous Israeli versions of popular games, such as Taki. an adaptation of Uno.

Thanks for the link!

Q9. There have been some games set in your part of the world and certainly in the wider area. Have you any impressions of them and 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?
There are more games about Israel than on that list (note I think of "my area" as Israel, not really the Middle East as a whole). There have certainly been more than our share of wars in this area, both historically and recently, and many war games are based on this: Arab-Israeli Wars, IDF, Shocktroop, Battle for Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Siege of Jerusalem, etc. I have no more to say about these games than I have to say about any other war game based on historical or recent conflicts.

Other games are simple trash children's games, which are aimed at the educational market either for Christian or Jewish children. I don't find them interesting.

A few others, such as Settlers of Canaan and Ark of the Covenant are also themed in "The Holy Land" in order to sell toward certain markets. These should also be judged on their game play value. These games appeal more toward the American Christian market than they do to me, usually because the theme is tacked on as a marketing ploy.

I guess we take this all with a grain of salt. As long as the content isn't specifically anti-semitic (such as Juden-Raus), it neither attracts nor repels me, just as El Grande doesn't cause me to think about Spain one way or the other.

Games that prominently feature Nazi icons repel me to some extent; our game group wasn't interested in playing Origins of World War II due to the prominent picture of Hitler on the cover.

In any case, the real life "game" of living in Israel keeps us busy enough; we play games to escape the daily grind.

Q10. 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?
No, none and no. I don't own a TV, so I'm not entirely sure about TV ads, but I never saw any at friend's houses, I never saw any print ads (except personal ads to join Bridge or Scrabble clubs), or heard any radio ads.
Q11. What is the societal view of board games and their players?
Like most places, playing games is considered a children's activity; of course, the games currently known and sold are all rather childish.

This doesn't apply to Chess (with all the grandmasters in Israel), and games played on the street for money, such as Backgammon and Checkers, which many adults will engage in to pass the time. Also exempt are adult social games, such as Scrabble, Rummikub and Bridge.

Also, many in the high-tech industry, of which we have the second largest after Silicon Valley, might consider games interesting, at least in theory.

Q12. Getting a bit more personal, what makes the games fun and interesting for you? What are some of your most favorites?
I like many types of games, for many different reasons. I like almost any game that is not absurdly simple or frustratingly luck-based, if I can play it with a group of people.

I definitely like the most strategic, least luck games, especially if they can also manage to be different each time. (I don't like games with early elimination.) Examples include: Bridge, Go, Puerto Rico, Die Macher, my railroad game. I can't get anyone else to play Go with me, however, unless I go to the Go club, whose members won't play anything else. Games that are less "different" each time, such as Chess and Settlers of Catan, I still like, but less.

I also like certain wild games that are still fun, like Magic and Cosmic Encounter. Magic's grace is that so much of the game is outside of the actual playing time, and that each round is short. Cosmic has a balance with the weaker powers ganging up on the strongest one, and you can also win with subtlety even without your power.

Princes of Florence, El Grande and Acquire are all enjoyed but considered dry by some of our players. I think they can be spruced up with carefully created expansion sets.

Speaking of expansion sets, I created 6 expansion sets for Puerto Rico, 105 new buildings, which our group loves immensely. A few other groups around the world have begun to use them, but, unless I am out of a loop somewhere, they haven't caught on with the gaming community as a whole :-(

A big miss is the Settlers of Catan Card Game: very, very fiddly

There's no one style that I like more than others, but I never really got into war games; I might like Battle Cry, if I can get my hands on a copy.

I wish I could list many more games, but as an out of work person, I can't afford to buy that often. The JSGC is willing to accept donations, however!

Q13. I've read your comments about how the sacrifices in Amun-Re make that game unacceptable for your group. I wonder if there are other special issues of the same nature? Perhaps you could discuss further?
I told you already about Origins of World War II vis-à-vis the picture of Hitler on the cover of the box.

If you note the discussion carefully, it is only certain members of our group that expressed discomfort. We have different levels of religious observance among our members; only the religious ones had objections, and only some.

For those of us who are religious, it is certainly a more important part of our lives than games. Luckily, we observe a pretty vibrant and living religion that does not exclude us from the joys of life, such as gaming, so long as it does not cause direct conflict with our religious tenets.

I should stress that members of all races, religions and political opinions are welcome to join our group. Also, our group is almost half women, which I think may be unusual for most game groups. The women usually win, too :-)

Q14. My observation of the Essen trade show was that the attendees are also pretty much evenly split across the gender line. But tell me more about the nature of your group and the players. Do you ever have members of different faiths playing the same game? If so, has it ever been an issue?
Unfortunately, no. The closest we had was someone I invited, who said he would come if his Arab friend was also welcome, to which I replied, "Absolutely". I didn't hear further from him, anyway.

In Israel, in the public sphere, there is almost as much of a divide between religious Jew and secular Jew as there is between any two religions. In our group, we all get along fine.

Q15. What about your own involvement in games industry? Have you had any participation there? And is there anything I've left out that you would like to say? And finally, what are the words for game and board game in your language?
My involvement in the game industry has so far been limited to developing variants for games (my Puerto Rico sets, Railroads of Catan, Cosmic Encounter powers, etc...) and trying to develop original games, some of which I have posted to* groups in the past, and some of which I am still working on. Also, I post articles, and responses to the Geek, Spielfrieks and Puerto Rico groups,* and other places. I tried sending my PR buildings to Rio Grande Games and Alea, but (they said) they were busy working on San Juan. Initial versions of them (which were more unbalanced) were subsequently published in The Strategist.

I was in discussion with the three main game importers in Israel (euro, CCG and RPG games, not basic Toys-R-Us stuff) to try to arrange importing TGOO into Israel, but it didn't look like there would be enough of a market, certainly not worth my while. Maybe worth their while. I have some contact with them regarding gaming in Israel, and I am in touch with other game groups in Israel.

After 14 years of fairly successful work in the computer field, I would be delighted to switch part-way, or all the way, into the gaming world: designing, playtesting, teaching, organizing groups or tournaments, basically anything that doesn't involve graphic arts or marketing. I was under the impression that this would be difficult in Israel; I'm probably still correct. If anyone out there would like to offer me a position, or has any leads or advice, for part time or full time work in the game industry, please let me know.

I think games are an important part of life, especially good games that make you think. says it well: Time playing games is time well spent.

The most important elements of gaming are: good manners, intelligence, patience, curiosity and creativity.

Thanks for your views and comments, Jonathan!
Links Cited in this Interview:

Spotlight on Games > Interviews