Anecdotes from a Gaming Life
Geoffrey Engelstein
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At age 41 I'm starting to feel like an old geezer around here. I'm tired of reading "I remember when grandpa first brought home The Settlers of Catan".

So I've mined some stories of my life playing games to create my first GeekList. Pull up a chair and I'll bend your ear a bit...
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1. Board Game: PanzerBlitz [Average Rating:6.51 Overall Rank:2069]
Geoffrey Engelstein
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The first exposure I had to games beyond those in Toys 'R Us was in sleep-away camp in 1974, when I was 10 years old. I had a reputation as 'the smart kid' – which I guess was better than 'the kid who can't hit or catch or throw' which was closer to the truth – and an older kid from another bunk came up to me one day and handed me a copy of Panzerblitz, saying “If you're so smart, read the rules to this game. I'll be back in a few days and we can play”.

Well, I read through the rules and they made absolutely no sense to me. I had no idea what a 'halftrack' was or any of the other military jargon and could not make heads or tails of anything. We played a few days later and I got absolutely slaughtered. The other kid picked up his game, said “Well, I guess you're not so smart after all” and walked out. Wonder why he was having problems finding opponents!

I always remembered the incident but forgot the name of the game... It wasn't until years later that I realized what it was.
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2. Board Game: Richthofen's War [Average Rating:5.98 Overall Rank:4896]
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In sixth grade somehow I got my hands on an Avalon Hill catalog and was instantly intrigued. I became fixated on getting Richtofen's War, as I was going through a flying ace period. After much begging and cajoling I finally managed to talk my parents into buying it for me.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Once I found out that games like that existed, Risk would never do. My friends and I got into lots of different games, from D&D to Diplomacy. Speaking of which...
 
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3. Board Game: Diplomacy [Average Rating:7.05 Overall Rank:520]
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In 8th grade we had a 'club' period in the middle of the day where the teachers offered various activities. One of the clubs was 'Card and Board Games' which typically was chess and hearts. I spoke with the teacher running it and asked her if we could join and play a board game called 'Diplomacy'. She had never heard of it, but agreed.

My friends and I all joined and showed up for the first club meeting and it was very, very quiet. Everyone else was absorbed in thought and concentrating. The teacher was a grandmotherly type, and had conceived of the club for bridge players.

We were not quiet.

Well, we started off quiet, but once the stabs started chaos erupted. We all had a great time but were politely asked to take something else next marking period.

Which worked out OK because I think our grades were all slipping due to the furious negotiating in the hallway and note-passing during class.
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4. Board Game: Junta [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:995]
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In 1978 (or maybe it was '79) my friends and I found out about a game convention being held in Chester, PA called Origins. It was supposed to be 'the place' to go for wargames, and we all begged our parents to let us go. We were 15 years old.

Amazingly, they agreed. And not only agreed, but agreed to let us take the train from northern New Jersey by ourselves to Chester, walk from the train station to the dorms (it was held on a college campus that year) and fend for ourselves.

It was a truly amazing experience. The dealer room and auction halls alone were overwhelming.

I have some vivid memories of Origins that year:

- In the dealer room talking to a guy who had self-published a small game called 'Junta'. It sounded cool and I decided to buy it (the 'white box' version), and it was an instant hit with our group. And of course it's still popular 25 years later.

- Saw a seller on the street selling some SPI titles and managed to pick up War In The Pacific for $20

- Stayed up all night playing Colonial Diplomacy in the hallway of the dorm

- Tried to figure out how to get all my new purchases home on the train!

The whole experience of being around 'gamers' for 24 hours for several days, as well as just being away from home at that age in a college environment really locked me in to a lifetime of gaming.

And Junta-mania lasts through to today. A good friend of mine from college still hosts his annual Ferdinand Marcos Annual Junta Game each February out in LA. I believe this will be the fifteenth year.
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5. Board Game: Melee [Average Rating:7.26 Overall Rank:2417] [Average Rating:7.26 Unranked]
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In High School I got played a wide variety of games, from role playing (mainly D&D and Traveller) to games like Star Fleet Battles (the original ziplock edition), Metagaming microgames, Nuclear War, and more than I can recall. We used to play a lot of Melee / Wizard during lunch.

I was fortunate enough that even though I lived in New Jersey we were right on the train line, and it was just a train and PATH ride to 33rd and 6th, only a block away from the Compleat Strategist in New York City.

I was even more fortunate that my parents let me go into NYC with my friends, and we always hit the Strategist along with whatever else we were doing (going to see a show, or just hanging out in Times Square). Given my limited budget I tended to gravitate towards the smaller games, which is why I like Metagames so much. But I also got the occasional biggie like Squad Leader and Russian Campaign.

When NYC wasn't an option I used to try to convince my mother to take me to the Compleat Strategist store in Montclair, NJ, which was only twenty minutes away from home. It's not there anymore but it was great to have it so close to home.
 
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6. Board Game: Go [Average Rating:7.65 Overall Rank:128]
Geoffrey Engelstein
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I was also on the chess team in High School, but not as good as my friends. So to compensate I decided to learn first Shogi, and then Go. At least I could beat them at those games!

I absolutely fell in love with Go, although I don't have the attention span to become as good as I would like to. I did join the AGA and play in tournaments for a while, but it was hard to find opponents (this was pre-internet, of course).

This is out of order chronologically, but about five years ago I had a business trip to Japan, and I told my agent in advance that while I was there I wanted to buy a good Go set. I was figuring we would go to a department store or specialty store, but he did some research and found a gentleman that was still handcrafting Go sets in his apartment workshop.

After our meetings one day we went over there and it was truly amazing – like walking into the past. The 'master' had to be around 70 years old, and he demonstrated how he made the lines on the board by using a curved piece of metal like a sword. He dipped it in ink and gently rocked it across the board to make the lines. The white stones were made by hand-punching circles out of shells, and polishing each one.

He claimed that he was one of the few people that were making sets by hand, and if so it is a shame as it was an amazing thing to see.

I purchased a beautiful 10” Kaya board with legs, with slate and shell stones. It has a place of honor in my living room.
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7. Board Game: Railway Rivals [Average Rating:6.75 Overall Rank:3330]
Geoffrey Engelstein
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I went to college at MIT, and for a gamer I was like a kid in a candy store. I joined the MIT Strategic Gaming Society (SGS) and we had a fantastic collection of games that members could play. I ended up being president for my junior and senior years.

We met every Saturday for most of the day, and I got to play some great games and meet some great people. Many of the people who attended weren't students at MIT, but just lived in the Boston area.

Bernie was one such member. He was an older guy, and had been around forever, and was partial to railroad games, especially Railway Rivals, for which he had a ton of custom maps. He also was a real shark at Acquire, and you could rope him into a game of Titan as well.

Bernie also seems to be at the center of the gaming universe for some reason... When I was playing in the Die Macher tourney at the WBC a few years back I started talking about the time I spent playing in the SGS at MIT and mentioned Bernie, and it turned out he was married to his daughter! Stranger still, last year I played a game with the Hangman Games crew, including the designer of Sumo Arena, and had the same conversation – and he claimed to have dated Bernie's daughter [UPDATE: I had the wrong guy -- sorry. But someone I spoke to at the con was dating Bernie's daughter]! Not sure if it was the same daughter, but if so I guess she has a thing for gamers...
 
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8. Board Game: Victory in the Pacific [Average Rating:7.18 Overall Rank:1277] [Average Rating:7.18 Unranked]
Geoffrey Engelstein
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Another admirable person I had the pleasure to play with at MITSGS was Alan Applebaum, who also lived in the area. I am a 'grazer' – I like to play lots of different games a few times. Alan, on the other hand, showed me the pleasures of getting deeply into the nuances of just a few games. He is a master at Victory in the Pacific, 1830, Third Reich, and other games, all of which he has played probably hundreds of times, and has an analytical approach before, during, and after games that I can only hope to match. He was also a class guy and was always a gentleman during the many times he was beating me over the head.
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9. Board Game: Escape from Colditz [Average Rating:6.66 Overall Rank:1449]
Geoffrey Engelstein
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One of the fringe benefits about being the president of MITSGS is that I got control of the checkbook – which meant that I got to pay many trips to one of the best game stores in the world – The Games People Play in Harvard Square, which was in walking distance. They were in a smaller space than they are now, but it was packed to the rafters with interesting games. Carol, the owner, is a legend in the game world, as well as being one of the nicest people I've met. GPP was one of the first stores to import European games, and, although it was after my tenure in Cambridge, was one of the first to have the Settlers of Catan in this country. Back in the 80's she was importing games from England like Escape from Colditz and Spanish Main (with the funky sailing chart).

Over the years I've bought lots of Euros from Carol, including one of my first and favorites, High Society.

Whenever I'm in Boston I make a point to visit the Games People Play for both the games and the people.
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10. Board Game: War of the Ring [Average Rating:6.60 Overall Rank:2427]
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By the time I left college I had amassed a collection of a hundred or so games. I decided that rather than try to get everything back home (which was proving to be difficult) I would just take the games that I really played, and donate the rest to MITSGS.

And so began one of the things I now regret the most. I took ten or twenty games with me, and left such classics as War in the Pacific, War of the Rings, my white-box Junta game (I had gotten the West End version) and many more that I now wish I had back.

But they were all games that the club did not have, and so I hope that others have enjoyed them over the years.
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11. Board Game: Kremlin [Average Rating:6.98 Overall Rank:884]
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A few years after I graduated I went to Origins in Baltimore with some friends and one of them picked up Kremlin, which was new at that time.

We were at a restaurant in the inner harbor area and were having a discussion about how uncool we were sitting there with a bunch of games. And then a totally hot girl walks up to him, who has just taken Kremlin out of the shrink wrap, and says “Wow, that Kremlin game looks interesting – I love Russian history!”

And then he goes off and talks to her about it.

He didn't get too much further, but after that we all rushed off and bought our own copies of Kremlin, and it was forever known as 'The Babe Magnet'.
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12. Board Game: World in Flames [Average Rating:7.51 Overall Rank:975] [Average Rating:7.51 Unranked]
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If you weren't around at the time it is hard to understand the impact that World In Flames and Empires In Arms had on the hardcore strategic wargame crowd. For too long we had been forced to play 4th Edition Third Reich, which was great in it's day but had a lot of issues. When World In Flames came out it had such an incredible number of innovative, original ideas, like the naval system, the impulse system, the US entry system, and more, that it just blew 3R out of the water. I really think it was comparable to the impact that Settlers had on the American game scene. They showed how different and interactive games could be.

It came out right at the tail end of my tenure at MIT, and we got in a game or two, but once I returned home I started placing ads and managed to get a really good monster game group together. We played at least four complete games each of World In Flames and Empires In Arms, and it was a terrific period in my life, lasting 3-4 years.

It ended once I got married. I'm sure I won't have the opportunity to play games like that again, but I'm happy I had the experience.
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13. Board Game: Advanced Squad Leader [Average Rating:7.96 Overall Rank:214] [Average Rating:7.96 Unranked]
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When the monster games ended I got into a monster of a different type – ASL. I always shied away from ASL, but had played a few games and enjoyed it, and figured that it would be a good way to continue wargaming while not having to commit endless gobs of time. A scenario could be finished in a reasonable amount of time.

All this worked out great, until the lure of the monster hit again when Red Barricades came out. The games of Red Barricades that I played with my old buddy Brian Sielski were some of the most intense I ever had the fortune to play. I have never had so much fun getting my butt kicked in a game. The scope of that game is one of a kind.
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14. Board Game: The Republic of Rome [Average Rating:7.55 Overall Rank:355]
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In addition to FTF ASL, there was also a thriving community on the old Genie BBS service. PBEM was a real novel concept back then and we just adapted the conventions of play-by-mail to the new medium. Die rolls were all on the honor system, and I never heard anyone complain. In fact, people tended to become embarrassed when the dice went too much their way.

I had the opportunity to play against such notables as Russ Gifford and Curt Schilling, but the highlight was when a got to participate in an experiment run by Don Greenwood – the first PBEM Series Replay for the General. The game lasted a few months and the write-up was spread over two issues (27-4 and 2705). I was a little perturbed that I came across as a conniving weasel, but hey, I won in the end, so I guess it was worth it.

Over ten years later I was playing in an Age of Napoleon tournament when one of the players, after hearing my name, turns to me and says “Did you play in the PBEM game of Republic of Rome?” Turns out that it was Jim Vroom, who also played in that game. How he remembered my name I will never know, but he was nice enough to send me copies of the articles, which I had lost.
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15. Board Game: High Society [Average Rating:6.87 Overall Rank:728]
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Eventual Eurogames hit my life. Fortunately we were friends with another couple that fell in love with the games as much as we did. We played lots of games each weekend, including Medici, Modern Art, Settlers, High Society, and more. We even attended a few Origins together in Baltimore.

The bible at that time was Ken Tidwell's Game Cabinet. That steered us into El Grande, Schoko & Co, and other classics.

The Internet was a key catalyst for the explosion of Eurogaming in this country. It allowed a disparate, scattered bunch of enthusiasts to become a cohesive buying force that allowed companies like Rio Grande and Boulder Games to arise, let us find out what games were available in Europe, and made it easy to get translations.

So now a dangerous combination arose in my life: Disposable income, a game obsession, and people to play them with. Which is why we now have over 1000 games in our collection...
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16. Board Game: Can't Stop [Average Rating:6.85 Overall Rank:642]
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Sid Sackson is perhaps the premier American game designer. After he died (perhaps even before he died, but that is another story) his family auctioned off his collection of over 18,000 games. I didn't realize that Sackson lived in New Jersey, but since he did the auction was held less than an hour from my house, and I was privileged to be able to attend both, first in November 2002 and May 2003.

When I got to the auction house that November I was amazed. I have never seen that many games in one place at one time – and it was only half the collection! The place that was holding the auction usually handled antiques, and it was obvious that they had no idea about what was valuable and what wasn't. They had pulled out what they considered to be the 'collectible' games onto a separate table to sell individually – but it was mainly games based on TV shows and movies (Hey! It's the Welcome Back Kotter game! Someone will pay top dollar for that!). Meanwhile they were selling War In The Pacific, War In Europe, Wact Am Rhein and more in a single lot.

Welcome Back Kotter sold for $1.50. The SPI pack went for well over $500.

Lots of luminaries were there, like Steve Jackson and Erik Arneson.

Most of the games were contained in hundreds of numbered cardboard boxes scattered around the room, on top of and under tables, each with around ten games, totally unrelated. Each box was to be auctioned off as a lot. I unfortunately got there just an hour before the auction, and didn't have much time to go through and evaluate each box, but I did the best I could. There was no catalog for the boxes of games.

It was like a treasure hunt. There was one box that was behind two other boxes under a table. I pulled it out and, after pulling a few games out, spied a copy of Cosmic Encounter at the very bottom – the original Eon version. I unloaded the whole box to get to it, and opened up to check out the contents. Not only was it mint, but there was a letter on top, opened, but still in the envelope. Here's a paraphrase of what it said:

“Dear Mr. Sackson: We are huge fans of your games. We have just published our first game and wanted you to have one of the first copies made. We would appreciate any comments you have.”

And it was signed by the designers & owners of Eon.

What a find! I immediately put it back together, put it back at the bottom of the box, under the table, behind a few other boxes, and noted the box number.

Unfortunately someone else had opened it as well, and the box ended up going for something in the $300 range...

Much to everyone's dismay, about a half an hour into the auction the auctioneers realized there was no way they were going to get through everything at the rate they were going. So they started auctioning off five cartons at a time – which really through everyone into a tizzy since most, like me, had just recorded what boxes they were interested in and what they had. All of a sudden there were a ton of other games in the lot but you had no way of evaluating the true value.

As you can imagine, a crowd of gamers will not be happy with a change in the rules!

But we muddled through, although I didn't get much at the first auction, as the prices were mostly out of my league. By the second auction, though, many fewer people attended, and the prices were much more reasonable. My family bought so many games (mainly due to extras in the box lot that we really didn't want) that we had a hard time getting them all into the van!

But the one I really wanted – an official Sid Sackson-owned copy of Can't Stop eluded me. Fortunately Erik Arneson had bought a lot of several, and graciously sold us one of his copies.

I did get some good games, including Ave Caeser, Big Boss, McMulti, and more. In retrospect I wish I had bought more, but with the way the box lots were perhaps I ended up with enough crap games as it was. In fact, if anyone wants an official Sackson-owned game (with the official Sid Sackson stamp on the inside) let me know and we'll try to work something out.
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17. Board Game: Catan [Average Rating:7.21 Overall Rank:292] [Average Rating:7.21 Unranked]
Geoffrey Engelstein
United States
Bridgewater
New Jersey
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Pit Crew avaialble now! The Expanse coming in October!
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Now I have two kids, ages 11 and 9, and we're one big, happy game playing family. My kids have been raised on games and it's amazing what they are capable of. My son played ASL at age 7 and my daughter played Puerto Rico at 6 (and rather well).

One final story – We went to the WBC a few years back and my kids entered the Junior tournaments. The last junior tourney of the convention was Settlers of Catan, and about forty kids entered. Both of my kids made it to the final board, and my daughter won with ten points, and my son finished in second place with nine after his pleas with the others not to trade with her fell on deaf ears.

It was a long ride home.

So the torch has been passed. Maybe in a few years I'll be able to get back to those monster games after all...
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