The boardgames community is full of people who are passionate about their hobby, but there are some people who we here at Games vs Play are just in awe of. In People Profile #9 we caught up with Melissa Rogerson, co-chair of Boardgames Australia, PhD candidate, and quite possibly the single most knowledgeable person about boardgames that we’ve had the pleasure of meeting so far.
Games vs Play: So I’m here with Melissa Rogerson, co-chair of Boardgames Australia and PhD candidate in the user experience of boardgames. Thanks for coming along Melissa, it’s really nice to see you again.
Melissa Rogerson: Thank you for having me.
GvP: I know that boardgames have been a big part of your life. How did you get into boardgames?
MR: The first boardgame that I actively remember playing would be Santa’s Workshop [both laugh]. We’re talking about 1974. We’d travelled overseas, and the people who rented our house left some boardgames behind, and Santa’s Workshop was one of them. My brother and I used to just play it all the time. In hindsight, I think it was a variant of Candy Land, which was never a very big game in Australia. As far as my brother and I were concerned the victory condition was getting the card with Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer on it. I would’ve been about four back then. I remember my grandmother, who died when I was seven, playing a lot of Solitaire and Patience. My dad was a champion Bridge player, and so he was very keen that we learn to play cards. He taught us to play a game called Oh Hell. In its most Euro-form it’s known as Wizard. My mother always used to get stressed and say, “Oh, don’t call it Oh Hell, call it Oh Bother.” [both laugh]. When I was about eight my parents opened what was going to be a bookshop, but it quickly became a book and game shop.
GvP: Oh, where was that?
MR: It was in East Kew, it was called Decision Games. We had a boy who lived locally – when I say a “boy” I think he was at uni – and he came in and said, “You should sell this great new game called Dungeons & Dragons.” So mum and dad started stocking Dungeons & Dragons. I remember they had games like Empire of the Petal Throne and Bunnies & Burrows. We used to run Dungeons & Dragons during the school holidays – we’d always have a Dungeons & Dragons game going on out the back of the shop. I played my first game of Diplomacy when I was about ten, and the boy from up the road said – he was playing England, I was France – he said, “Normally, if England moved into the English Channel that would be a declaration of war, but we’re ganging up on Germany. So if you let me into the English Channel we’ll do that.” And I went, “Yep, fine,” and he obliterated me on turn 2. It took a while before I played Diplomacy again. [both laugh]
GvP: Those wounds cut deep, don’t they!
MR: Yes! I played a lot of roleplaying games as well. I went to the first Arcanacon in 1983, which is where I met Fraser, who’s now my husband. Our older daughter was born in 1998, and we were certainly playing Settlers of Catan by then. I think it was not long after that that we really started to move from mainly being roleplayers who played boardgames, to mainly playing boardgames.
GvP: Why was that, do you think?
MR: Partly it was time. Being in a roleplaying campaign is a big time commitment, and when you’ve got a child that’s harder, whereas a boardgame has a limited playing time. And of course that was also the time when German games started to come to Australia. It was about 2003 that I played a game of Carcassonne, and I went, “Right, that’s a fantastic game! I want to get that!” My brother was working at Mind Games at the time, and we went in and bought it. We were seeing a movie that night, and Fraser hadn’t played the game. So I said, “You’ve got to read the rules, this is a fantastic game.” I opened it up and he sort of grabbed the rulebook, and I was like “What am I going to do now?” But there was a catalogue in there, too. Rio Grande used to put catalogues of games in their boxes – they still do – and I remember looking through it and thinking, “Oh my god, I want to play every single game in this catalogue.” I think that has really characterized our involvement in the hobby, because it’s not like being a chess champion, where you go really deep and only play that one game, or you know, like my experience as a competitive bridge player (I played on the Victorian Youth Bridge Team in 1996). To be good at bridge you need to be working all the time on that one game. Whereas, to enjoy German games – or Eurogames as we’re calling them now – and other modern boardgames, there’s this huge variety. There’s always something different to explore, which is one of the things that really attracts me to it.
GvP: What do you think, then, about the Australian game scene? How does it compare now to other parts of the world?
MR: One of the things that I hear people talk about is that women are under-represented in games groups in some parts of the world. I think one of the things that the people who have driven the scene in Melbourne have done very well is to position social gaming as a social experience. As a result I’ve heard visitors comment on how many women they see at gaming events and in groups. When I’m at PAX, for instance, which is one of the few really big events that I typically attend, there are lots of men and lots of women, and it feels quite even. But look, I personally haven’t experienced any problems with my gender, so that’s not something I feel particularly an authority on, or able to speak for what other people might’ve experienced. But even from those very early days at Arcanacon where there were only 5-10% women, I was a shy thirteen year old but I was comfortable enough to keep going to these events.
GvP: Now, you’re also doing your PhD on boardgames. Could you tell us a bit about that?
MR: In my professional life I had been working in user experience and information design, particularly understanding the user experience and the user journey through a website. What my PhD does is bring those two areas [of games and user experience] together. I’m in the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne, and I’m actually part of the Microsoft Research Centre for Social NUI, which stands for “Natural User Interface”. We have a research interest in gesture and gaze and speech as ways that people use to interact with a system. In that sense, a game itself is a system. Now, I’m trying to understand the player experience of boardgames. One of my research questions is, “Why do people play boardgames?” I did a series of quite in-depth interviews, and what I found was that there are four four things that come up consistently. The sociality is one that we know about. Boardgamers talk about that face to face contact, sitting around a table with other people. Intellectual challenge is another thing, that concept of problem solving, of thinking something through, of optimizing – that’s really important to a lot of people. I think one person might’ve mentioned winning, but generally winning isn’t that important. It’s the Reiner quote, you know, how you look playing the game that’s important [both laugh]. It’s the striving to win that’s important. Those two things were discussed in considerable detail by Stewart Woods in his PhD and in his book, Eurogames.
GvP: Which is a great book, I may add.
MR: Yeah, it’s fantastic. Stew is a bit of a trailblazer. The third thing that comes up quite consistently is variety. It’s why we have so much trouble when we’re asked, “What’s your favourite game?” Variety is enormously important. The fourth thing that people talk about is having things to touch. They’ll talk about the beauty of the game, and how important it is to actually have that tangible material thing. They talk about hanging games on wall as artwork. The other thing that they talk about which speaks to that materiality and really rings a bell for me is games a souvenir of a moment. We have a game that we use as a visitors’ book. Whenever we get visitors from overseas, we get them to sign the inside of the box of this particular game. So, what I’m doing at the moment is actually observing people playing games. I get groups of 4-6 people to come in to the lab for the evening. I supply some snacks and a selection of games. We’ve got video cameras set up around the room, and I record the session to get an understanding of what’s going on while people are playing a game. I’m particularly interested in what I would call the expert players, in the way they interact with other players and the game components.
GvP: What are you finding?
MR: One of the really interesting things is that a paper that was written about team management-type video games – you know, where you’re the soccer team manager – actually has enormous relevance to how people play boardgames. There are different levels of interactions. This is by a guy at Swinburne University called Steve Conway, and Steve calls them the social, the operator and the character levels. The social level is where I say, “Oh, Martin, do you want another drink?” or “Can you pass me the lollies?” The operator level is, “Can you move my piece four more spaces?” or “What can I do with this card?” And then the character is level is when you speak as if you were the game piece. But the other thing that’s going on is that at the social level there’s an interesting split between conversation that is purely social, and conversation about games. For instance one of my kids calls Machi Koro, “Dominion crossed with Settlers.” This is one of those references where you’re referring to other games both to build your social capital as a gamer, but also to speak the same language and set the scene for other people. I find that quite interesting.
GvP: You’ve also been on the radio a bit lately. What do you think it is about games that people are intereted in?
MR: It comes in cycles. I’d often get calls to do radio on Christmas Day or Boxing Day when people are thinking “Now what do we do with the kids for the next couple of months?” About 12 months ago [i.e. late 2015] I did an interview with Sonia Feldhof of ABC Adelaide. Coming out of that they asked if I’d be interested in doing some talkback about games. We did four sessions two weeks apart, looking mainly at traditional games and particularly the rules that people get wrong. I started with Cluedo, which is my favourite of the traditional boardgames. The second session was on UNO, which was really popular, and we had lots and lots of talkback callers and texts coming out of that. I did Western Australia drive radio one night, and I also did Perth breakfast radio where we got Warren Adams from Western Australian Boardgames to come in to the studio as well.
GvP: You’re also co-chair for Boardgames Australia. Could you maybe talk a bit about what you do there?
MR: Not enough! [laughs] So, Boardgames Australia is a not-for-profit group that we set up to promote boardgames as a hobby and as a family activity [that’s their logo on the right]. When we look at something like the Spiel des Jahres in Germany, it’s really come out of the history of positive promotion of boardgaming to families. And it’s really built this amazing industry. You know, Germany is the golden child, the place we all look to for boardgames. We wanted to see if we could build something like that here. We’ve got three different arms of what we do. The first one is probably the one people know the most about, and that is our Boardgames Awards. We have three prizes: Best Children’s Game, Best Australian Game, and Best International Game. What I think it is fair to say we have seen in the nearly ten years since we had the first round of awards, is this real improvement in the quality of the games coming out of Australia. I think that is something we can really celebrate. The second thing that we do is support game designers. Richard Vickery, the co-chair, has done some great work around his Protospiel events in Sydney. The third arm of Boardgames Australia has been around the use of games in education, encouraging schools to think about using games and running game events.
GvP: Sounds like you’re busy! You mentioned before that you started out in roleplaying games. I was going to ask you something else – how do you feel about video games?
MR: Love ‘em. I don’t play them much, I’m a bit of klutz! [laughs] A friend must’ve had one of the early Nintendos, because I remember playing Frogger on Nintendo. I’m playing Pokemon Go with kids at the moment, and both Fraser and I played a lot of Civilisation. I prefer building games, I suppose, as opposed to point and shoot type of games, which probably relates to that Eurogame style of building things. I love being able to play some games on my phone or my iPad. Ascension is one game that I don’t think I’d play all the expansions on a table, but playing it on my iPad is magnificent. I actually had someone tell me about their child travelling overseas and using games as a sign of life. Say you’ve got an older teenager who’s travelling overseas, they’re not going to be emailing you every day. They’re probably not even going to be updating Facebook or Snapchat. But they might take their turn in Ascension, or in Words with Friends. Chances are that if someone’s murdered them and stolen their phone, they’re not going to be logging into their games centre to keep their games going. So, chances are your kid’s ok if they’re still taking their turns. I think that’s a lovely way to think about it!
GvP: I don’t think I know many other people who know so much about games. Have you been tempted to make one yourself?
MR: Yeah, look, I made a couple, but they’re not very good! I made one – and give me credit if anyone designs a game based on this – but my younger daughter loved this series of books by a women called Daisy Meadows. They’re about fairies. They come out in series of seven books, and the first one was about rainbow fairies. There’s two little girls at the beach, and they have to rescue the seven rainbow fairies. So there’s Ruby the Red Fairy, Saffron the Yellow Fairy, etc. Anybody who’s got daughters will probably know all of these books by heart. I think we stopped buying them at 200 or something.
GvP: Oh my goodness.
MR: Yeah. So, for my younger daughter’s sixth birthday I made her a little game about going and rescuing the rainbow fairies. You had to move around the board and rescue the fairies, I don’t remember. It was a crap game, it was completely solvable, but she thought it was just wonderful. And then after that I made a sort of kids’ version of Agricola about doing chores on a farm and then going out, and you know, milking the cows, turning the milk into butter. I guess in the same way that Le Havre: The Inland Port meshes up with Le Havre. My younger daughter thought it was just the most magnificent thing ever, she used to take it to conventions and teach it to adults. But that’s really as far as I’ve got. For many years I’ve joked about making a game called Elefanten Rodeo, which actually is “Elephant Rodeo” but has to be in German because it sounds better. We got as far as prototyping this game where you’re flicking cowboy-shaped figures onto elephants. What I find when I try to design games is that they’re generally completely solvable. I’ll design a system that works, rather than a system that has a fun chance element to it.
GvP: Interesting dilemmas. Alright, my final question is one we alluded to before –
MR: What’s my favourite game? [laughs]
MR: Oh, man.
GvP: What are your favourite games, perhaps?
MR: So … oh man. I think Oh Hell has got to be up there as a favourite. Oh Hell is a game you can play anywhere and with anyone. But you know, it really is about whom I’m playing with. Our younger daughter loves Ticket to Ride and she loves Codenames. So if I play a game with her, I’m going to love Ticket to Ride and Codenames too, because I get to play with her. I love Rhino Hero, I think Rhino Hero is a magnificent game. In the same ilk I love Hula Hippos, and I have a copy of Trötofant, which pisses off all of my friends if I play it at a convention because it’s the game where you’re elephants and you’re picking things up with a party whistle that unrolls, and that’s your elephant trumpet. Puerto Rico. I mean, Puerto Rico is absolutely a foundational game for me. I just think it’s magnificent. When we go to the beach we always take Puerto Rico. Agricola, I love Agricola. I’m thinking of my bookshelves now … there’s a wonderful kids’ game called Water Lily, which is essentially an abstract game but it’s just fantastic. Make ‘n’ Break is one of the few games that I’ve rated a 10, because I think Make ‘n’ Break is the epitome of what a dexterity game should be. The other game that I rated a 10 would be Princes of Florence, which I think is close to the perfect game. It’s got that limited duration, it’s got that tension, so that by the third or fourth round you’re going, “Well, this is everything that I need to do between now and the end of the game. If I can!” That’s a long list, I’m sorry!
GvP: No, no, that’s awesome. Actually I just thought of one more question to ask you. How many games are there in your library?
MR: Over a thousand. I think it’s about 1200 including expansions. We haven’t really kept our list up to date. We need to get rid of some, because we’ve literally run out of space. But for me, 1100-1200 is going to be the sweet spot where we’ll probably keep our library. And there are plenty of games in there, like Royal Palace, that we will always own but not necessarily play. Fraser talks about our boardgames as an investment in our retirement. When we retire we will always have something to do that won’t require anything other than a table and light.
Games vs Play would like to acknowledge Boardgames Australia as the owner of mages appearing in this post.
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