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Ivan Hanley played board games in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

On the western edge of Europe, Ivan Hanley really shows us how board games can bring people together. By virtue of the game group he leads, people meet and have a good time over a game when they might never even be in the same room otherwise. A wonderful example for all the world. April 30, 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?
Ivan Hanley head shot
My name is Ivan Hanley, I'm from Northern Ireland and I've been a gamer all my life (which isn't that long since I'm only thirty). I'm an Information Technology (Computing, really) teacher by profession and in my free time I enjoy playing the guitar and writing fiction. My writing focuses mainly upon dark fantasy and pulp fiction whereas my own reading preferences are for fantasy novels and factual accounts from soldiers in conflict.

I've never really been a television person, but am heavily into hi-fi so I spend a lot of time listening to music. Some people classify my CD collection as wide ranging others describe it as a mad, uncoordinated collection of weirdness. I prefer the latter description because it's closer to the truth. :) If I were to watch a film it would probably be about war because the effect of conflict on the human spirit interests me greatly. My only outdoor hobby involves flying radio control aeroplanes and helicopters and it's nice to get into the countryside and forget about real life for an hour or two.

My love of gaming came with my first Snakes and Ladders set and continued through various phases of board-, role- and wargaming in my teens before returning to board gaming again in my mid-twenties. This return was mainly driven by my loss of interest in other forms of gaming and a need to remove myself from the computer chair after spending every day working around them.

While browsing the newsgroup looking to enhance my Monopoly collection I stumbled upon a discussion about a German game called El Grande. Intrigued I followed the thread for a few days by which time I had learnt about Vino and Mississippi Queen. I immediately ordered them from a shop in England and tried them out on my friends. From that point I was hooked and my collection has steadily grown to its current size of approximately 300 games – I have to continually sell off items to free up space for new arrivals since I've no more room to expand!

Q2. Where do you play your games? In homes? Are there public places to play? Conventions?
I play in a public venue twice a month as part of Board Gamers Anonymous where possible, but the club are having venue problems so we've been meeting at the houses of some members recently. It's becoming a problem to find public places to play games here in Northern Ireland especially on a Saturday. I've played games regularly in a LAN gaming centre, an ice rink entrance way, a ten-pin bowling alley, a games shop, a video rental library and a shopping mall. As we get settled in a venue it seems to shut down leading some to speculate that playing host to BGA is a dangerous thing to do :).

I also meet weekly in a friends home where three of us play Formula De. We are currently in our second season and try to organise the races to closely mirror the real Formula 1 season.

There is one gaming convention in Belfast each year called Q-Con. It is organised by members of a local university roleplaying group and has mainly focused on role-playing games and war games in the past. Last year I organised for Board Gamers Anonymous to provide free-play gaming and we are to return this year as an official part of the convention orgainising a Bluff tournament and providing bookable gaming slots with the aim of promoting our hobby.

Q3. For decades now, your part of the world has tragically been a center of conflict between Catholics and Protestants, although it seems things have been getting betters in recent years. Does your BGA group have members from both churches?
It was always my intention to develop a club that crossed the religious boundaries or, more exactly, that made no distinction, welcoming gamers of all backgrounds and outlooks. Even small things like the club name had to be carefully chosen to stay away from anything that might be construed as political. Therefore we decided on the Board Gamers Anonymous title. The issues regarding an open and friendly cross-community club meant that the venue had to be neutral and this made it more difficult to find somewhere suitable. There are community rooms in Northern Ireland, but many are in areas specific to either the Protestant or Catholic community. Regardless of the problems and difficulties mentioned, I am committed to providing a place where members from both communities can socialise and have fun together.

Q4. So Board Gamers Anonymous means that no one knows anyone else's affiliation?
Sort of – it's more than no one cares, but it also means that we are board game addicts and these two things merge nicely together. I know that people think the two communities never mixed here, but even during The Troubles they did. Certainly the peace process has broken down a few barriers (both physically and metaphorically), but subjects such as one's religion are still taboo and you certainly wouldn't ask someone what faith they follow in general conversation. I'm sure this sounds weird, but that's the way things work here.

Getting back to the choice of name - I really think it's important to get the club name right because people are traditionally touchy about names and can find hiden meanings in many ordinary terms. As I've said, anything relating to Ireland/Northern Ireland/Ulster was felt to be just too 'political' and choosing Board Gamers Anonymous that provides some insight into the purpose for the club was a bonus. Looking back, I don't think we could have chosen a better name.

Q5. 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 is one local shop and most club members support it with purchases. For large games orders it makes a lot of sense to buy direct from Germany. We make such purchases exclusively from Adam Spielt. We also order from a number of UK online retailers.

With regard to translations, we all use Board Game Geek to get our English rules for German editions and of course the Rio Grande etc. games come with English rules in the box so that's not a problem. :)

Q6. 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?
There's really only a few dedicated board game fans who meet as Board Gamers Anonymous. There is another local club dedicated to Settlers of Catan and they host the Northern Ireland Qualifiers each year. Mainly though it's role-playing game players, war gam players and Magic: the Gathering players who play board games as an aside to their main interest. I'm not sure why gaming is not popular here, but I suppose board games are viewed as childish by most people. I do think that exposure to German gaming is increasing as more people try them out and I hope they will become more and more popular in the future. I'm doing my bit to make sure people get the opportunity to give them a go. :)

Q7. What games seem the most popular there? Any games which have found particular success that may surprise us living elsewhere?
Settlers of Catan is by far the most played German game in Northern Ireland. The is a club dedicated to it which also runs the yearly regional qualifiers for the world championships.

Board Gamers Anonymous' current most popular games include Bluff, Mü, Santiago, San Juan, The Bucket Game and Puerto Rico. We have such a choice of titles (I'd guess roughly 1000 games in members' collections) that we tend to play most games infrequently, but the above selection seem to appear regularly at our table so take from that what you will :).

Regarding games we like that would surprise you, I suppose we're very enamoured with Urland and it tends to be requested quite a bit. Practically everyone loves it whereas the opinions I've read from others suggest mixed reactions within most groups. We have also recently tried Spy and were plesantly surprised. It's been getting pretty negative reviews, but after playing it I added it to my collection. Finally we all enjoy Attila immensely and its a game that deserves more play.

Q8. Is anyone designing or publishing games there? Can you give us some overview of home-grown game publishing?
Yes, people are designing, but it's not a huge scene as far as I know – we are so small a place and yet I am continually surprised when I uncover game players and designers operating on our doorstep that have never heard of us and vice versa.

For instance one local games designer was at the last Essen demoing his new abstract game called Hextremity. The first I heard of this was when he sent me an email two weeks before the show asking if we'd like a demo copy! For details on the game see Incidentally I played and enjoyed the game although abstracts are not really my thing. I think you can download a Flash version from his website if you want to have a go.

May I say that the timing of this question is excellent because I can now (sort of exclusively) reveal that Board Gamers Anonymous have a budding 'Reiner Knizia' within our club. Peter Millen recently brought a prototype German-style game for testing. I asked Peter what the motivation was for designing a family game about hill-walking (a hobby of his) and he explained that there was a serious and unexplained lack of good games about Ireland. At BGA we are pretty confident this will buck the trend because it's a good game already and has potential to be even better since Peter is still modifying and testing it.

Q9. What is your impression of the games that have been set in your country? 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?
This is an interesting list as I've never laid eyes on or heard of most of these games.

Dail Eireann (pronounced doil air-an) is one of the few meaty games published about Ireland that does not have an entry on BGG or on your list – see Sumo (I'm not counting the Age of Steam map or other such expansions dealing with the country)

The game is supposed to be pretty sought after here since it deals with the Irish electoral system. I came across a recent discussion with the author somewhere where he was thinking about offering game kits to interested parties, but again the location of this eludes me.

I've heard rumours of two other games about Ireland, but only in passing so I can't comment further on what they might have been about. Most of the games on the BGG list are lighter fare and deal with the pretty stereotypical image of leprechauns (which is fine, but wouldn't win me over because I associate them with childhood and thus with children's games). I have heard of the High Kings of Tara, and earlier in the year BGA was invited to a convention to give it a go, but unfortunately none of the members could make it due to work/life commitments. It's abstract and again not really up my street, but I would have checked it out for the local interest factor.

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, not outside the mainstream established games like Monopoly or Risk. Even for those established brands they are only advertised on TV and radio around the Christmas period. This is because, with a few exceptions like Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit, board games are viewed as children's games and really only bought and played by adults at Christmas (probably after a few sherries).

This lack of understanding of the hobby means that I regularly encounter some very negative reactions when I mention it. For example, last week I was having a conversation with someone I'd just met and at one point I mentioned I'd be getting up early the following morning (Saturday). "Have you got to work?" she asked. I explained that I'd be going to a board gaming session and from her reaction you'd have thought I'd sprouted an extra head – and so ended our conversation :).

Ultimately I think it would be very difficult to pursuade people here that board games have value for adults and I doubt that any mass media campaign would change that unless it was conducted over a very long time. Most board gamers in our group have come through different forms of gaming and actively searched out new sources for their gaming fix. Here this is the only real way people find out about our games (and through our demoes and fliers at Board Gamers Anonymous of course).

Q11. What is the societal view of board games and their players?
I think I've covered society's view of board games, but I'll talk a little more on society's view of the players.

I remember when I used to role-play that it had a particular image problem. People had an idea of what a 'role-player' was like and even though such stereotypes were often wrong, they were difficult to shake off. I find that people's views on board gamers are often similarly stereotypical. Words like weirdo, geek and nerd are used frequently and I often encounter the misconception that we are socially inept. I've had people say things like, "you're awfully outgoing for one of those gamer types" or, "you're not what I expected," complete with puzzled expression. I actually don't mind and find such reactions quite funny. I suppose I like surprising people.

Q12. Getting a bit more personal, what makes the games fun and interesting for you? What are some of your most favorites?
I have to admit that the social side of gaming plays a fairly large part in my enjoyment of these games. I like the table talk and the group think. I also enjoy the length of the games because I can play, lose and move on to something else fairly quickly. I dislike elimination games intensely and feel that they suck the fun out of any playing experience. I like to play games, not sit and watch others play so I don't like Shark for example even though it is otherwise a great game.

Games keep my interest when they have multiple victory paths and conditions. This is why Puerto Rico stands out as a favourite and likewise Princes of the Renaissance. I really like Torres as well. There is something great about the way it looks and I suppose I like nice bits in my games too. However, with Torres, I enjoy the spatial aspects of it and while I don't enjoy pure abstract games I appreciate it and games like Through the Desert partly because they have a theme.

With a theme I can let my imagination work on it and this really makes a big difference to how I react to any given title. I suppose this is pretty weird but I'm a weird kind of guy :).

Q13. What's your favorite game that few, or at least few around you, seem to like?
At the moment my favourite game that few people I know like is Maya. Granted it's not the most original nor is it particularly consistent – rather it feels like two separate games pasted together – but the subtleties of card and resource management really appeal.

Q14. Do you have a favorite type or type that you are best at, e.g. abstract, auction, bluff, business, tile placement, etc.?
My favourite type of game has to be auction games. I love Pizarro & Co. and Modern Art which are the purist's auction titles, but anything with an element of bidding, like Industria or Princes of Florence, will always be high on my top 10 list.

Q15. What about your own involvement in games industry? Have you had any participation there?
Other than reviewing a demo game or two through BGA, and writing an occasional article for Counter magazine, I am not involved in the games industry in any way. I'm uncertain if I'd ever become involved, given the opportunity, because when I last mixed my hobby with work (going into the I.T. industry) it lost its fun and excitement. Familarity breeds contempt so it is said and in my experience this mostly rings true. I love the freshness and variety of the games we play, but if I was involved with them every day I think they'd soon lose some of their sparkle. So you can have it from me on good authority that I won't be opening up a games shop or starting up a board game publishing business, but I have nothing, but respect for those people who do.

Thanks for speaking with us, Ivan!

Links Cited in this Interview:

Update January 2, 2011:
We learned recently the shocking news that Ivan is no longer with us. He had apparently been ill with flu and developed a blood clot in his lung which led to a pulmonary embolism. He died suddenly at the age of 36.

Ivan's interview has been one of the most popular here and his efforts with BGA one of the noblest I've ever encountered. It's not only sad, but unfortunate for the world that we have lost him so soon.

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