Spotlight on Games > Interviews
Marco Calcaterra plays board games in Rome, Italy.
To inaugurate the series we talk to Marco Calcaterra who plays games in what was once the center of "Old Europe", the Roman empire, a legacy claimed by 21 different nations today. Marco talks about the resurgent games industry in Italy and must really love games because he even runs a games room. So if you're in the neighborhood, toss three coins in a fountain and then do as the Romans do: go play games at Marco's! April 24, 2004

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

Q1. Thanks for agreeing to do this. 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 Marco Calcaterra, I'm 27 and I live near Rome, Italy. When I was a child I used to play easy Milton Bradley-like board games. Then, at about 14, I moved on to more strategic games (Axis and Allies, Fief, AH Civilization) which, anyway, I played mostly when on vacation at my cousin's house in Palermo, Sicily (where I was born). Then, in 1994, frustrated by the lack of board game players in my town, I started playing Magic: The Gathering. The following years of my life have been ruled by consoles and computer games ... until 1999. On that year's Christmas holidays (once again in Palermo) I decided to present my cousin with one of those obscure German titles ... and, well, I ended up taking back to Rome 8 new board games. :) So that's how I got started -again- in board games.
Q2. Where do you play your games? In homes? Are there public places to play? Conventions?
I run a non-profit games room with my friend Jamil in Rome. We meet there to play every Friday night (from 9:30pm to 2:30am approximately). We have a quite large selection of German board games, but honestly not a lot of people come over to play. Our average is 6-7 players, with our maximum attendance being about 16 last year. There are several reasons behind these low numbers, but the main reason is that Rome is "too big" and so it happens that board games players living in Rome end up playing in homes over and over with the same group because our games room is too far or because they are used to playing that way and are wary of meeting new players ... Or maybe because we don't sell hamburgers ... ;-) Actually, in Rome you can play board games in a lot of pubs, but usually the games available there are party games and the like. Anyway I obviously play at my home too, although mostly 2-player games with my girlfriend. As far as conventions go, Italy is quite an active country and that's a good thing. The drawback is that the vast majority of Italian conventions are held in the northern part of the country, something that I hope will be changing in the next few years.
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?
Well, there are a handful of game shops in Rome. I could name at least 3-4 quite good shops. In some of them you can find even the latest German releases, but the prices are honestly quite high. The best solution for Italian board game addicts is to order directly from an on-line German shop. You can actually save a lot of money ordering even as few as 3 or 4 games (especially if you keep an eye out for the special offers!). This leads us to the other question regarding the availability of Italian rules translations. I can assess that for about 70% of the Italian board game players, English rules are not a problem, but I'm talking about "gamers". Casual players are indeed turned off by English (or even worse German) text when playing a board game, because they will immediately perceive the game as something complicated, even if you are playing something really, really simple. Thanks to a lot of very nice players though, a good number of translations are available in Italian too! And yes, there is a database for those: It's very likely that on BGG you can find even more Italian translations scattered around. Personally, I haven't got the time to translate a lot of stuff lately, but, for what it's worth, I just finished the San Juan - Italian Rules Translation. :)
Q4. Do you have any idea how many people in your country are playing new strategy games? Any idea what the demographics are like?
It's quite difficult to answer your question. I think that in Italy there could be about 1000 "gamers" (I mean people who own 15 or more modern board games and that play every once in a while), but I'm not sure at all about that. Males should cover 90% of that number, while the average Italian-gamer age should fall in the 28-32 range. If we consider Magic the Gathering, CCG in general and RPG, though, the number rises by a lot.
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?
When the Italians play, chances are they are playing cards: Scopa/Scopone, Briscola and Tressette being the most played ones. The trademark of these 3 games is that they're played with a traditional Italian 40-cards deck. The main feature of this "standard deck" is that almost every Italian region has its own "version" of the deck. I mean different size and different drawings, coming from local folklore, but absolutely identical from a game play standpoint. Bridge and Poker (with a lot of variants) are also played often and Chess is the most played 2-player abstract game, with Checkers quite close. Burraco is another card game that is gaining popularity. So, a lot of Italians like to play, but they mostly stick to traditional card games.
Peacebowl box cover
Peacebowl by Angelo Porazzi
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, and there its indicated that Settlers of Catan is better loved in Italy than in most places. Does this make any sort of cosmic sense to you or is it more likely to just be a small sample set?
BANG box cover
BANG! by daVinci
Honestly I don't think the number of players voting from each country on BGG is enough to make a reliable statistic of each country's taste in games. I can tell you that Italian "gamers" are not that different from foreign ones. Puerto Rico is considered the best German games of recent years here in Italy too, and Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne have gained quite a following in the non-gamer circles over the latest years, and that is a good thing. After all, though, not a lot of games get translated into Italian, and as you may guess, that would be very important to reach casual players. In the '80s though, the situation was quite different, thanks to the very active Italian publisher International Team that, anyway, produced almost exclusively war games. Anyway, when Italian people played in the '80s, they mostly played American games, like Axis and Allies and AH's Civilization, and I have to say that German games are a quite recent discovery for the casual Italian player. Among the latest Italian releases BANG! is obviously in first place as far as popularity is concerned, but a lot of other Italian games are getting quite popular in conventions and the like (Peacebowl, Crazy Rally, Fantasy Pub, Viva il Re!/King Me!, etc...). On a side note, Magic: the Gathering had an enormous success here in Italy in 1994-1995, to the extent of almost destroying the RPG and the board game markets. Then, with time, everything went back to normal, although I'm pretty sure the Italian CCG market is still much bigger than the RPG plus board game ones combined.
Q7. I know that in the 1980's the Italian company International Team was very big because some of their four-language games reached us even here in California. Can you talk a bit about what that company tried to do and why it ended as well as what homegrown companies have been doing since then?
Well, I'm not an IT expert, but I know that Marco Donadoni himself (one of IT's prominent designers) defined IT as "a bustling workshop that never feared to face the market". They believed in board games/war games as a media to convey emotions and/or to simulate history. I still remember when, as a child, at my uncle's, I discovered pictures of a lot of board games in the French magazine Jeux et Strategie. I didn't know French at the time, nor do I now, but I was simply mesmerized by International Team's covers. I think IT just dissolved when people stopped playing war games and/or started playing them on computers, although some IT board games were actually quite good, and are very fun to play even now (especially Medici.) daVinci is about to publish a new Marco Donadoni game called Tuchulcha, but the publisher says it will be a pretty straightforward abstract game, so no 2-page long damage tables to check for the grognards out there, I'm sorry. :)

Speaking of Italian homegrown companies I have to say that every company chose a different approach to market and, most important of all, a different target. It would be almost impossible for me to cover them all here. At the moment, though, a lot of "recently-founded" companies are producing card games. The worldwide success of BANG! just showed that people are more likely to buy a 10 Euro game than a 25 Euro one, and thus companies are modifying their strategies accordingly, but there are some exceptions, like Guido Aprea's Mamoonia, a very BIG (and expensive...;) ) hex-based Talisman-like game.
Tuchulcha box cover
Tuchulcha by daVinci

Q8. Quite a few games have been set in your country. 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?
Well, historically, Italy was the cradle of European culture for a long time, so it's no wonder that a lot of Ancient and especially Renaissance games are set here. I don't think any of them received special attention in Italy because of that. Talking about stereotypes, if I had to describe Italians judging from their appearances in board games I'll depict them like a Mafioso gangster dressed up as some random Renaissance merchant in a soccer field in Venice eating pizza... But it's normal that game designers have to emphasize some single, very obvious, part of our culture in order to create a solid and reasonable theme. Here and there, though, you can find some obvious... let's call them "cultural mistakes" :) e.g. In Mamma Mia!, ananas (pineapple) is one of the ingredients. Actually ananas are never used on Italian pizzas; on the contrary, we would never think to do something like that. We use "mozzarella" and not just ordinary cheese... but I digress. Let me say that you have to come to Italy in order to taste pizza as it was meant to be. :)
Q9. I have actually been, and am now, lactose-intolerant, so never again. ;) But let's move on. Is there any mass media presence for games there and what is the nature of that presence? What is the societal view of board games and their players?
In Italy board games are basically ignored by the media, unless there's some kind of very important national fair going. In Italy games conventions are often paired with comics conventions, so when the mass media report on the comic convention they sometimes say "... and there was even a section for board games, like Master Mind and Monopoly!". A lot of Italian journalists wouldn't even be able to tell the difference between board games and role-playing games, but luckily there are some exceptions. At least we have a weekly radio program based on games, but I regularly forget to hear it.

The societal view among non-gamers is that board games = party games OR Monopoly OR Risk!. Period. Among young people (e.g. 18-35) a "serious" board gamer in that "age-range" is often perceived as someone who is not cool, not funny, and, in a word, old.

Q10. Is there any mass market advertising for board games? Tell us more about who conducts this weekly radio program and what is its format and content?
I never saw any TV-ad about "gamer" board games. TV board game ads only cover licensed child games and, obviously collectible card games (especially those aimed at a younger audience like Yu-gi-oh.) "Giocando" is the name of the radio program presented by Beatrice Parisi and Anna Cinque and it features anything about games in general (so definitely NOT only board games, which cover probably a 30% of the program). A consequence of this is that you won't hear any in-depth about Durch die Wüste on it (^_^), but the Italian board games world needs all the help it can get and "Giocando" is definitely a big help for games in Italy.
Q11. Getting a bit more personal, what makes the games fun and interesting for you? What are some of your most favorites? What's 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.?
My favourite games are Go, Durch die Wüste/Through the Desert, Taj Mahal, Euphrat und Tigris, Ra, but I could go on forever. Just to show that my second name is not Reiner, I'll add that Lord of The Rings and Formula Motor Racing are among the very few games I disliked in my life :). Oh and add Land Unter to my favourites: that game is great! By the way, I play just about everything and I don't mind luck in games, but if a game is full of luck, then I want it to be quite short (e.g. Can't Stop.)

There is not a single mechanism that makes the game work for me, but I generally like games with short rules. I thought I disliked diplomacy as a game mechanism, but my first play of A Game of Thrones proved me wrong, as I liked it a lot (and it is a long game with quite a bit of rules.... oh well). Probably what I like more is just a change of pace every now and then: I like trick-taking games, I like tile placement, I like bluff, auctions and business, and as I love Go (and DDW) I can't say I have something against abstract games... (That leads to me buying a lot of games... Sometimes I wish I were a "monothematic" kind of gamer...)

On a side note, I don't like games that try their best to be funny and/or add sexual references just to conceal the lack of any real strategy in the actual game, but that doesn't mean I can't have fun with some party games. Anyway, my gaming group (and my girlfriend as well) usually like games with a strong theme so DDW and E&T end up not being played very often. Luckily, if I want a fix, I can always play Go or DDW online, so I don't complain. :)

Q12. 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?
As far as board game productions go, I haven't been involved in anything as of yet. Considering that I already worked on several video games as freelance translator, though, that may happen for board games soon, too.;)

Anyway, game is "Gioco" in Italian, while board game is "Gioco da Tavolo". Thanks for this interview, it was very fun, and a big Hi! to all the readers worldwide.

It's been fascinating – thanks for your time, Marco!

Links Cited in this Interview:

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