I have been a wargamer for over 30 years now, and in that time I have seen the Golden Age of Wargaming, the demise of much beloved companies (SPI, Battleline, GDW, Avalon Hill etc.), and the prophesied demise of board gaming as we know it. As a member of the hobby, how can one, lone gamer influence this downward trend? The doom-sayers saw that computer war games were going to replace our faithful cardboard and paper companions. The hobby was not attracting new gamers, so how can this trend be reversed?
Well here we are, continuing to play wargames of the cardboard and paper variety. The hobby seems as vibrant as I can remember, and the "big" companies (GMT, MMP, Avalanche, Clash of Arms etc.) seem to be offering interesting designs that might attract new gamers. The number of really strong DTP companies (Firefight, Khyber Pass, Schutz Games etc) fills the esoteric void left by the larger companies, and they too might attract new players to the hobby. Is this enough? Well, here is how I have tried to help.
As a high school Humanities (integrated Social Studies and English) and history teacher, I am in a unique position to bring new gamers into the fold. How? Not necessarily by what I teach (though that is a bonus), but by starting a games club! That is correct, start an extra-curricular club. On the one hand, it provides a much needed activity for students at lunch or after school - I run mine at lunch. On the other, it gives me a chance to play games with people who may one day want to play more historically accurate board games (more about this later).
Our school population is approximately 1600 grade 8 to 12 students in a middle class community. Our lunch "hour" is only about 45 minutes, so getting games that are playable in a short period of time, or the space to store longer play games, become two very important organizational considerations. Assuming you will be using your own classroom, the next steps will help get the club off to a great start.
First, you need to get the support of the administration. Usually they will be happy to support (both morally and financially) any endeavor which occupies students during the lunch hour. Second, you need to have a few games on hand to "get things started". Initially, I brought games from my own collection, then augmented those with other games purchased using school funds. After solidifying your initial club game collection, begin to advertise to the school body. This can be done through the school intercom notices, student newsletters, school website, posters, and of course, word of mouth.
The third factor to consider is the type of games to be included in the club's collection. Now, I'm partial to hardcore military simulation games. Unfortunately, very few students want to get into those types of games. So, we compromise and bring in games that will appeal to the widest possible student audience. The first games from my collection included: Risk, Axis and Allies, Stratego, Battleship, Shogun (Samurai Swords), Quebec 1759, War of 1812, and Rommel in the Desert. With student government funds, these initial offerings were supplemented with other games like: Carcassone, Settlers of Catan, Civilisation, Age of Mythology, Risk 2210, Lord of the Rings Risk, Star Wars Risk, Monopoly, Clue, Guess Who, Candyland - just to name a few.
Finally, you have to consider how you will store games that take more than one lunch period to play to completion. I had a cupboard in my room with four pull out drawers. I could place one complete game on each drawer. After a while, we had to carefully stack more than one game in a drawer because so many games were being played. If you have a dynamic industrial education department in your school, perhaps the student government would supply sufficient funds to have a games cabinet built. It would be a good project for the Industrial Ed. Students and it certainly helps out the games club. Ideally the cabinet should be designed to allow game boards to be stored with all the cards, pieces, dice etc. necessary for play. You'll be ready for action once you have this all set-up.
Generally, I keep the club open to any and all students of the school. All grades and both genders are welcome. It has been my experience that the vast majority (98%) of the gamers in our school are male. We do have some girls who show up on a regular basis, which is great! There are also a number of teachers who periodically attend - especially if we have a game of Diplomacy going!! (Recently, three teachers and three students had a game of Diplomacy - the teacher's - very experienced Diplomacy players - got their clocks cleaned by the students! Wait until next year!!)
Games that are visually pleasing (such as anything by Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight, Eagle Games, and Milton Bradley) certainly attract students into the room. Some days there are so many people they have to play their games on the floor! (We average between 25 to 35 students each lunch hour we run the club - Tuesdays and Fridays at lunch.) People (both students and staff) drift into the room and have a quick look before moving on. Some come back, others get a look at a game and end up buying either for themselves, or in the case of some of the adults who come in, their children.
At the beginning of each school year, I approach the student government for funds to purchase new games. I usually request between $300.00 to $400.00 for the year. Not surprisingly, this money does not go far, given the price of games these days. But it is enough to add a few titles to the collection. We also get games by donation, so now we have just about every type of Risk ever published (except Godstorm Risk). Currently, there are 65 games in our collection. Popular games this year included: Blockus, Hey, That's My Fish, World of Warcraft, Settlers, Command and Colors: Ancients, Axis & Allies Miniatures, and Memoir '44. A host of other games were also played, not to mention chess, checkers, and great games like Apples to Apples. Next year we will be adding to the collection. Sometimes with modules for pre-existing games, and sometimes new game hot off the press. I might even buy a copy or two of games that I have had published (For Bloody Honor by Firefight Games and Prairie Aflame by Khyber Pass Games), to try and entice students into the more historical realm of gaming.
All in all, the club has been a rousing success at my school. The admin are happy because it gives a large number of students something to do at lunch. The students are happy because they get to play games with their friends and school. I'm happy because I get to play games, and some of those gamers have grown up to become wargamers. And that's what it's all about, isn't it! If you are a teacher, try it at your school. You'll be amazed at the results. If you're not a teacher, perhaps check in with your local Boys & Girls club to see whether there might be an opportunity there to begin a club to attract new gamers.
The endeavor has been worthwhile and a lot of fun. Maybe we can have another Golden Age of Gaming with all the new blood entering the hobby. I for one hope so.