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Gláucio Santos dos Reis Plays Board Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When it comes to board games, we usually don't think of South America. Just what is going on down there anyway? This week, Gláucio Santos dos Reis, who has his own games web site and compiled interesting lists of games published in Brazil, is kind enough to fill us in.
June 11, 2004
Note: all links cited are repeated at the end of the interview for handy reference.
Q1. Can you introduce yourself, the corner of the world in which you live, how you like to spend your time and also how you got started in games?
head shot
Gláucio Santos
dos Reis

I was born and live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I have always had a large range of interests, but a special liking for science-fiction and fantasy, and I usually write and draw in these genres. Currently, a huge part of my free time is dedicated to board games – not only playing them, but also reading about them and even designing one.

Curiously, as a child, I've never been a big fan of board games in general, although I had a few and have enjoyed playing Chess for many years. The problem with modern games was that they had themes which were totally unattractive to me – not surprisingly, the only one I remember to have owned is Star Wars: Escape from Death Star. There was a time when video games (and, later on, computer games) came to fill that void. Only some 18 months ago I stumbled upon "German games" and was immediately hooked. It all started when I decided to create a set of rules to turn a dexterity game into a true board game, because my nephew was not good at shooting those small cannon balls at the opponent's plastic pirates and soon lost interest in the game. I added a checkered towel as a board, some rubber sea monsters, rules for movement and combat, a fantasy theme, and he loved it. That experience was enough to wake the gamer in me. I searched the Web for information on traditional games and found more than I was looking for. At first, I was uncertain that my enthusiasm would last. Thus, I started with Brazilian, used and home-made games, before deciding to spend a lot of money in importing them – which I eventually did.

Q2. Where do you play your games? In homes? Are there public places to play? Conventions?
I don't know of any public places to play board games here in Rio, although I was told about a bar or night club in another state, which has a number of games for customers to play. Even so, their games are basically those published by Brazilian companies, and that means mostly traditional, party and children games, plus some old so-called modern classics. The personal computer gamer is well served by local area network (LAN) houses and Internet cafes, but there is nothing similar for board games.

home-made Catan
home-made Settlers of Catan by Brazilian Mario Lucio Zico
We do have a sort of game event, although I wouldn't call it a convention, and it is totally organized by gamers. The name cleverly parodies another famous event which has nothing to do with games, and translates as "Party of the Board Pawn". It is mainly focused on German-style games, but it happens in São Paulo, on a semi-regular basis. People pay a small fee and everyone is encouraged to take their games, so that other people can enjoy them. Last year, there was an edition in Rio, in a fast-food place. It was very nice and my only complaint was that time was too short: only 15 hours, from 2 p.m. to 5 a.m. (I stayed from start to end, of course.) There are plans for a second Rio edition this year. Also, I have seen that other gamers are starting to organize smaller, informal gatherings.

So, I usually play games at home, and I have played at one or another friend's place on occasion. I'm trying to bring them here to play once a week, but there are still times when nobody may come. I have had success in converting a few old friends into gamers, but they are not always available, either. Fortunately, I usually can play one or two games with my brother and his wife on Sundays, and even my mom likes to play some not too complex games.

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?
Game stores are extremely rare and there are the usual toy stores. But the main problem is the kind of games that Brazilian manufacturers release. Things have been better in the 80s, when a company named Grow used to publish some games from Ravensburger, but today they focus on party games and their usual best-sellers. I believe there are currently in print only two games from Germany, and they are not exactly strategy games. I don't think they care to translate the rules from German. Indeed, I was told by a translator of Don Pepe that the Mexican edition was the source. The other game from Germany is Villa Paletti, which has just been released by Grow, but I know nothing about its translation.

Thus, for the really good euro-games, we still have to import them from on-line stores. I suppose most gamers go well with English rules. Otherwise, they will ask someone to teach them how to play. There is a web site, Tabuleiro Virtual, maintained by a couple of gamers who have just moved back from Germany, and they are translating some games rules, but they started just the other day and don't have much material yet. I think it is early to know how well it will develop, but I hope it grows. Another site of interest is maintained by a trio of game designers at Ludomania.

Only a few weeks ago, a famous RPG distributor started to sell a few board games, but they are all imported from their branches in Portugal and Spain, which keeps prices high, and it seems there are some translation problems. They have Lord of the Rings, Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan and are announcing for soon The Hobbit and Warcraft. I have heard they plan to actually publish Brazilian editions in the future, which would be really good news.

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? the overlap with RPG, CCG, war games, computer games, video games, comic books, anime?
home-made Catan
home-made Settlers of Catan by Brazilian Mario Lucio Zico
I could only speculate about the number of people playing those games, but a good starting point might be the Yahoo group BoardGamers-BR which gathers board game players from all over Brazil and has 239 members at the time I write. Not every gamer is in the group, of course, and there are people there who play other types of board games, but the main focus is on designer games. Many members are from São Paulo, if not only for sheer population number, possibly for the event I mentioned, where 121 people took part in the latest edition, or 139 if you count organizers and guests (official numbers), and always growing. I believe Rio de Janeiro comes second in number of gamers, but I know there are groups in several other states, well spread across the country.

About popularity, it really depends on the kind of game. Computer games and video games have always been very popular, while RPGs declined after a late boom in the early 90s but still have their niche. The only CCG I know to have been relatively successful is Magic, but I've seen a few others. War games are not usually published in Brazil (unless you count Risk and the like), but I see they have their fans, although I hadn't even met any until a short time ago.

Board games in general are seen by the average citizen as children's stuff, except for traditional games like Chess. It's common to see elderly people playing Checkers at public plazas, at least in Rio – there certainly are some regional differences, as I saw that Dominoes is rather popular among young people in a northeastern state. However, family gaming is not a popular hobby. Parents and their children usually stop playing games when the latter grow up. It's just a cultural thing, reinforced by game and toy companies which prefer not to take any risks and keep focusing on party games and old sure sellers, such as Monopoly, Clue and Stratego.

In short, the real problem with the new strategy games is that most people don't even know they exist! If some company decides to publish them and have a proper marketing campaign, I'm sure they will succeed. Board games may appeal to a much broader audience than RPGs, for example, and these are still around.

Indeed, I have noticed that some gamers have played RPG in the past and a few still play. Others play or have played war games. I believe many may play computer games. Admitting that designer games are still pretty much "geek stuff" in my country, you may expect some gamers to like anime and comic books, as well. But one must keep in mind that the board game fans are probably much less numerous than most of the other groups.

There is some overlapping of those groups, for certain, but I can talk of myself better. I've never played RPGs because I could never gather a group and I'm not much interested anymore; I have enjoyed the individual gamebooks from Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf series, though. I might play a light war game if theme and components are attractive, but can't imagine myself playing an hex-and-counter game based on some real war. I played video games as a teenager, but was most fond of adventure games on my computer, both for the stories and puzzle solving. An interesting fact (to me, at least) is that, in recent years, I became a big fan of Heroes of Might and Magic turn-based strategy game series, and even wrote a campaign, called A Trilogy of Shadows, but only after I moved on to board games I read an article on how it played like a board game – somehow I already liked them but hadn't find out about them yet! I also read comic books, but don't buy them regularly. I enjoy animated movies in general, being one of the biggest fans of the annual Anima Mundi Festival, where I watched my all-time favorite anime, Vampire Hunter D - Bloodlust.

Q5. Is there any particular reason for the rarity of war games?
Probably the same reason for the rarity of designer games: lack of interest by game companies. There was a time when they did release some games that were all about war or struggle for power, such as Diplomacy, Supremacy, Cartago, Campaign and The Game of Nations, but today there is only Risk, in various editions.

Just to compare, see what happened to RPGs: for over a decade (maybe two) after the release of Dungeons & Dragons in the U.S., very few Brazilians had ever heard about them, and those who enjoyed them had to deal with imported editions and the language barrier. One day, someone decided to publish D&D, backed by a solid marketing campaign, and other systems followed. I remember I could even read a full page report about gamebooks on the front page of the cultural supplement of a most famous newspaper. It was an instant success. Eventually, press support faded away, players grew up and gamebooks disappeared, but RPGs still have their place in the market.

I don't really believe the same boom could occur to war games, but that may be because they had never had any appeal to me. I think they have even a more restrict market than RPGs, but that is not the case with euro-games. Although these are not for everyone, either, they obviously have a larger appeal, even for their variety of mechanics and themes alone. People who play them will not grow up and give up on them, because they are adults already (most of us are in the 25-40 year old range). And adults usually have steady habits and more money to spend on their hobbies. Thus, it is a case of sheer blindness from the part of game publishers, who claim there is no market for this kind of game. But I digress...

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?
I believe Checkers comes first in popularity, as nearly everyone knows how to play it. Also, I know that some games played with a standard deck of cards are pretty popular among some people, but I don't know the English names. Buraco is probably the most popular, but there are also Canastra, Escopa, Copas Fora (Hearts, I think) and Pif-Paf. I even learned a few card games in my childhood, but no longer remember the rules of any. Chess was more popular when we had a world champion, and I even played it at school, but I suppose it will never die. Chess sets, Checkers and Dominoes are easy to find at every toy store and on other places, in largely varying material quality and prices. Ludo (Pachisi) is also very easily found, except that I haven't seen any good quality set around, as it is the kind of game that parents play with small children. Backgammon is less popular than the others, but still not hard to find, although I know only one guy who plays it. Finally, if you want to include paper-and-pencil games in this list, you would have to start with Battleship, which even has a number of commercial versions, and Tic-Tac-Toe.

I don't think any of those games had a special influence on the gaming scene. It's very common that people who play Chess play nothing else, and people who prefer cards just stay with them.

Q6. Which of the designer games seem the most popular there? Any games which have found particular success that may surprise us living elsewhere?
Puerto Rico is easily number one, perhaps followed by El Grande, but it seems Age of Mythology is the new hit. Citadels has also been played a lot. Carcassonne has its fans. But all of them have been imported by gamers and are unknown to the general public. In the broad market, besides the games I mentioned under other questions, New York Chase (replacing Scotland Yard) and 221B Baker Street have a steady presence, which may or may not be a surprise.
Q7. We touched on it before, but can you give us some overview of home-grown game publishing? Are there any important developments worth watching?
Children and party games, added to the old classics and the few traditional games I have mentioned, take up almost the entire market. Most actual Brazilian games are for children, but there is a company, Toyster, which has a game line for adults, under their Game Office brand. However, they usually fail completely in the area of development. With very rare exceptions, they offer shallow games that are nearly a total luck-fest, with little appeal for adult players. They seem to believe that it is enough to overestimate the minimum age required to play and/or have a "serious" and "adult" theme (that is, boring), such as business, court trials and gambling. The only time they released a foreign game, they chose Don Pepe, a chaotic and just average family game with some serious faults. In their defense, I can only say that some of their games have good quality components and artwork, but others are horrible and you can't tell before you open the box.

We don't have full-time professional board game designers, because the payment per game is low and not many new games are published every year. I feel they select the designers from among their personal friends, their relatives or people who are already in the industry, without much concern for the quality of the designs. And those designers are probably totally unaware of what happens in the gaming scene around the world (an exception is André Zatz, one of the designers behind Ludomania, a very accessible person who actually enjoys euro-games). If you approach Toyster or Grow with a new game prototype, they will possibly accept to evaluate it, but it's hard for a beginner to get into the business. It's more common that they hire someone to do precisely what they want. There is no encouragement for new game designers.

Important developments worth watching? None I can see.

Q8. There have been several games set in South America. 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? What about Dos Rios which seems to be set on the Amazon.
None of those games, however, is set specifically in Brazil. It's important to notice that Brazil is the only country in Latin America whose language is Portuguese, not Spanish. Although we try to keep good relations with our neighbors, they have a common cultural heritage that we do not share with them. Besides, none of the great ancient civilizations of America, such as Incas, Aztecs and Mayas, which make the theme for some games, had their roots here. Thus, I wouldn't say those games have received any special attention – I haven't even seen most of them, actually. I wouldn't be able to comment on motifs and stereotypes, either. I can't give you an impression of the games based on their geographic setting, but I can say I greatly enjoyed Cartagena and Tikal the only time I played them, just yesterday.

Actually, I don't know much about Dos Rios and it didn't even occur to me that the two rivers might be related to the Amazon. Besides, the name of the game is in Spanish, so I would assume its scenario is located in the part of the Amazon which is not in Brazil.

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
The major companies may occasionally advertise a new children's game, just like they do with other toys, but nothing besides that. They usually rely on the fame of some games that are in the market for decades. For other games, they just expect customers to see them at toy stores. Indeed, that is a big problem with Toyster/Game Office, as their games are usually original releases. And now I can see the same happening to Devir and their imported games. They seem not to understand that if they don't advertise, very few people will know what kind of games they are selling and how they differ from games we usually find in Brazil. They don't even describe them properly on their own web site! We gamers probably do a better job.
Q12. What is the societal view of board games and their players?
Quite simply, apart from traditional games, board games are seen as children's stuff. Most people are not even aware of the existence of the new strategy games and their players. If they knew about us, they would probably think we are all geeks or nerds. That assumption wouldn't be too far from the truth, I suppose, as common people are unlikely to discover those games by themselves. However, as we keep introducing our non-geek friends to the hobby, that may gradually change.
Q13. Getting a bit more personal, what makes the games fun and interesting for you? What are some of your most favorites? What? 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.?
That's a tough one. I enjoy a lot of different mechanics, thus it would be easier to say what I do not like. First, I can tolerate it, but I don't like bidding. I'm not a big fan of negotiation, either, but enjoyed my only game of Bohnanza. I tend to prefer more strategic or tactical games, but I may also enjoy a game with heavy random elements, if I can see from start that it's not to be taken too seriously, like The Valley of the Mammoths. I don't like it so much, however, if it is regarded as a "serious" game and has a lot of chaos caused by other players actions interfering with yours, as in El Grande. I can't say I have a favorite type of mechanism, for what I really like is the variety.

In disagreement with most heavy gamers I know, I value theme and components highly, art included. Playing games is a wide experience to me, not limited to pure mechanics. If a game has a fantasy or science-fiction theme, that certainly adds to my enjoyment. I can even play abstract games, but I really hate games themed on business, economy, stock market and such - and I simply can't understand how anyone can have fun with that. One of the two things I don't like in German games is the lack of imagination regarding themes: most of the time, they just pick a geographic location and/or a historical period, and that's all. A little more science-fiction games would definitely be welcome. The other thing is... wood. Again unlike other gamers, I do prefer plastic miniatures to wooden figures. There are games where wood is fine, but in others it's awful. That factor alone made me not to buy Warcraft, even though I was a big fan of the first two PC games in the series. I can still buy it some day, but I'd surely have it done already, if only it had miniatures instead of those dull abstract wooden pieces. Trias is another great example: wooden cubes representing dinosaurs?!! How could anyone even think of that? It was so bad that they replaced them with pieces from Urland in the new edition, but that's not much better. It's all a matter of atmosphere. Finally, excellent or bad artwork may also affect my decision on buying a game or not.

My favorite game in my collection is probably Domaine, although some people dislike the direct confrontation aspect and it's annoying when they whine about it. But the most played game at home is Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, just because my mom really loves it and my non-gamer friends always request it - even considering that I win more frequently than not. I have played Tigris & Euphrates just once, but it's on order and I can see it becoming a favorite soon. Nautilus and Age of Mythology are the games I certainly would like to play more but don't get often to the table because of their complexity and/or relatively long playing time.

Q14. Can you elaborate more on the wood vs. plastic issue? When do you find wood more appropriate and when is plastic required? Is it tied into the topic at all, e.g. science fiction games are better with plastic?
The issue is not about the material per se, but what can be done with it. I will always prefer detailed miniatures which look like the real thing instead of a rough silhouette which looks very abstract. I see that many players like the texture and feel of wood, but I cannot understand that people value that tactile aspect over the beauty and added realism of miniatures.

Wood may be the best choice, though, where generic pawns or figures are required. See Carcassonne, for example. You have a fixed number of men who can be knights, monks, robbers or farmers, depending on where you place them. Thus you need a piece that can be used to represent any of them. Totally abstract games are fine with wood, too. Other than those, I can't think of any case where wooden figures are better than miniatures. In most cases, wood is acceptable, but plastic miniatures would be much better.

And, yes, theme definitely has an influence in this issue. As I said, it has a lot to do with atmosphere. Dinosaurs, for example, are fascinating for many people. But what's the point of making a game about them if they are just wooden cubes? I can imagine some player saying, "oh!, let's pretend that yellow cubes are stegosaurus, green cubes are diplodocus...", and so on. Not very exciting, is it? Likewise, when I see a game about warring elves, orcs, un-dead, dragons and other fantasy creatures, I surely expect to be moving miniatures which look like the beings they represent. If miniatures are too expensive, I'd be fine with cardboard stand-ups with good artwork, but I can't appreciate wooden figures which, in the best case, vaguely resemble whatever they are supposed to be. Just imagine what Age of Mythology would be with wooden figures. You would teach to new players: "...and this sort of snake is a medusa. Yes, the thing which looks like a big bat is a phoenix, the small bat is a wadjet. The thing with horns - wait, I think it's a bull head - is a minotaur. The big guy is a cyclops... No, the green one, the blue big guy is a troll. Now to all these human units..."

But miniatures are not only useful in fantasy games and such. They always reduce the abstract feel of a game and reinforce the theme, whichever it is. Nautilus has cute little researchers and submarines. When I look at the board in the mid-game, I can easily see researchers working in the expanding underwater city and launching subs to explore the depths. I wonder how it would be easier to see archeologists exploring the ruins in Tikal, if they just were miniatures. Compare El Grande and Domaine. They are both quite abstract and have similar themes, but the latter has more atmosphere, with its beautiful castles and "real" knights instead of the former's plain cubes.

I believe the clear preference of many players for wood is related to a false concept of elegance associated with traditional board games. It may also have something to do with other people's view of gamers and modern board games. A game with plastic miniatures may look too much like a toy, while wooden pieces make a game look more sober and adult. Then, unless you are totally comfortable with your inner child, you will probably dislike plastic miniatures. Of course, this is a generalization and certainly does not apply to everyone who prefer wood. And I'm no psychologist, either.

The funny thing is that even German game companies understand that plastic miniatures are preferable. The choice for wood is purely economic. While plastic is cheaper than wood, the initial production cost of miniatures is much higher than that of cutting wood. So, miniatures only pay off in the long run, with many copies sold, but designer games usually have relatively small editions. And that was the explanation that Fantasy Flight gave me about their option for wood in Warcraft. I just think they were extremely conservative, as they had a license of such a successful series of computer games in their hands. Even with the higher costs, sometimes companies take the risk, because they also understand that miniatures are more appealing and can even boost the sales of a game. It's not by chance that a new edition of Settlers of Catan with plastic miniatures has been released - that was a sure seller that would sell even more with them, the publisher certainly thought.

Q15. What is the gender situation of the players there? Do only men play the games or do some women also play?
In my experience, I have seen that most women are gamer's wives and girlfriends, who usually prefer lighter games with not very complex rules, but there are a few true female gamers, as well. I roughly estimate the total to be 10 to 15 per cent, maybe a little more or a little less.
Q16. What about your own involvement in games industry? Have you had any participation there? You have a web site – take this as a free opportunity to advertise it and its goals. And finally, what are the words for game and board game in Brazilian Portuguese?
I'm not involved in the industry, but I'm finishing a game prototype and "fine-tuning" the rules, so that I can present it to some publisher. I have a web site which I use mainly to make some of my artistic and literary works available to a wider audience, but it also has a section dedicated to board games. It's called G.S. Reis' Multiverse. Just for completeness, another site that I didn't mention but may be worth visiting (for Portuguese speakers) is Tabuleiro Brasil. For those interested in traditional games, I strongly recommend Jogos Antigos.

The words for game and board game in Portuguese are "jogo" and "jogo de tabuleiro", respectively.

Thanks for your time and energy, Gláucio, best wishes for much success in your endeavors, and happy gaming!
It was a pleasure, Rick. I'm glad to share my view and some information about games in my country. Thank you and best wishes, too!


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