Wednesday, October 04, 2006
The Finnish Connection
Things have been slow around the Weisbeck house, game-wise anyway, so no flashes of writing inspiration have struck. Luckily for you, I’ve found a stand-in so you don’t have to go away hungry for something game-related to read today. Mikko Karvonen, who is known by the username Gargoyle on the Geek, is from Turku, Finland and is my GeekBuddy because we share a love for games that let you make creative moves like El Grande, Stephenson’s Rocket and Blue Moon City. I was interested to hear about the gaming community in other parts of the world and Mikko kindly agreed to tell us about Finland and hopefully will return whenever the muse strikes again.
A while ago Mary asked me if I’d be interested in becoming a regular visiting blogger in Gone Gaming. The invitation was a huge surprise, to say the least, and a great honour, and I’m lousy enough at saying ’no’ even in far less flattering circumstances, so how could I have refused?
So, for now, you’ll be stuck with me every few weeks or so.
As can be expected on Gone Gaming, I’ll be writing about my personal thoughts, views and rants about the world of boardgames. But I’ll also try to offer a view to a bit different culture of playing than most of the other writers here by exploring the various aspects of boardgaming here in Finland.
Yes, Finland. The country of 5 million people, sometimes known as the land of sauna, sisu and Sibelius, midnight sun, polar bears and huge tracts of snow. Okay, I lied about the polar bears, but we do have all the other stuff. And we also have an emerging boardgaming culture finding its place alongside all the other geekish stuff. So this time I thought I’d offer you an overview on what the boardgaming scene currently looks like around here.
If there is one thing to know about Finnish people it’s that we love our organised societies. If three or more Finns find out that they share a common interest or ideology, they are likely to set up a society for it. We also love to arrange world championships in all sorts of things like cellphone throwing, wife carrying and swamp football (that’s soccer for you guys on the other side of the pond). But I digress.
So… given that we are Finns, we naturally have Finnish Boardgaming Society (http://www.lautapeliseura.fi/). It was founded couple years ago to actively promote boardgaming and offer the players chances to meet new people and try out new games. So far, the active members have done a great job with the society. It has several local branches that organise weekly gaming evenings open for anyone interested, a nice library of games, good contacts to Finnish game publishers and importers and an active forum of it’s own. The Society also runs a few conventions every year, including at least one that is getting so popular that they are careful not to advertise it to make sure that the crowd does not get too big.
In addition to Finnish Boardgaming Society, there are also lots of local clubs and societies. Many of them have originally been RPG-societies, that have, often after Settlers of Catan, started to branch out in boardgames. This is also true with Tyrmä (that’s Dungeon or Prison in English), the roleplaying and boardgaming society of the Turku University, in which I have been active myself for several years. We have about 40 members, a library of some 70-80 games, a day of gaming once in a fortnight with both RPGs and boardgames and a devoted boardgaming evening once a month.
Of other local societies the most notable one is Otaniemen RoolipeliClubi, or ORC, who game twice a week. Their most important claim for fame however is starting the gaming convention Ropecon back in the 1994. It has a long time ago become a completely separate entity with an independent society (here we go with societies again!) running it, but kicking off the show that has grown up to be the biggest Scandinavian and one of the biggest European gaming conventions around is not a mean task. Especially since Ropecon has been declared ”One of the best gaming conventions ever” by many Guests of Honour, including mister Bruno Faidutti (http://www.faidutti.com/index.php?Module=divers&id=440), who I think you might have heard of.
Originally Ropecon included RPGs, CCGs and miniatures, but as the years have passed, it has welcomed all sorts of geeks, including renaissance faire -folk and anime-lovers. So the boardgames have found their place there as well. For several years they were sort of an extra amusement with few tables reserved for gaming, but after Finnish Boardgaming Society was founded, they got quickly involved and got the boardgaming a completely separate room. This year it was already very popular: you’d have to utilise some non-euclidian talents to find a space to play during the peak hours. This was partly due to the large selection of loanable games and volunteers constantly available to explain the rules of the games you were unfamiliar with. This year was also the first time one of the Guests of Honour in Ropecon (there are usually three every year) was related to boardgaming as Bruno Faidutti agreed to honour us with his presence. All of this speaks volumes about the updraft the boardgaming is having in Finland.
Of course, the rising popularity is also helped by the strong support of the local game companies. There are few companies publishing boardgames in Finnish and two of them are focusing on German-style offerings. The most prominent one is Lautapelit.fi, which is also the only Finnish store devoted to selling boardgames (and CCGs, but we’ll cut them some slack, right?). They are doing a great job supporting the hobby by a good website, nice enough selection of games and friendly and knowledgeable customer service.
During the last two or three years Lautapelit.fi and other companies have started to translate and publish German-style games in Finnish. The selection has been very good: the list of already published and upcoming games include Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Samurai, Tempus, Nacht der Magier, Mykerinos, Bohnanza, Himalaya, Puerto Rico, Doom, Einfach Genial and Hey, That’s My Fish! I’m not sure how well each of the games have been received, but at least the usual suspects, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride (Menolippu in finnish), have seemed to find their audience. Especially Carcassonne keeps popping up in random conversations about boardgames with non-gamers. So far the most sold game every Christmas season seems to be Winnie the Pooh -themed edition of Kimble, which is the Finnish version of Trouble, but maybe that’ll change at some point. Probably not, though.
Of other companies, also Fantasiapelit deserves a mention. They’ve been THE Finnish supplier of all things geeky for over 20 years now and have always had a good selection (actually in many cases the best I’ve seen in any country in Europe!) of RPGs, CCGs, miniatures, comics, fantasy and scifi books, stuffed toys... you name it. They have also always devoted a part of their inventory to boardgames. At first, it was mostly wargames and random Avalon Hill and SJG-stuff, but when the German-styled games started to trickle out, they were quick to catch on. Nowadays their main store has an impressive shelf full of boardgames very close to the entrance, so it’s clearly an important part of their business as well. With six other stores in smaller cities and a webstore, they are certainly making their part in getting the boardgames in the hands of anyone interested.
Together these two stores take pretty good care of the needs of the local gamers. Their selection differs somewhat, so checking both stores – and the couple decent online stores we have – allows us to get our hands on practically all common and many of the bit more uncommon games. In my personal collection, the only games I’ve had to go to other countries for are Waldschattenspiel, Edel, Stein & Reich, some Heroscape expansions, Pizza Box Football, Battleground: Fantasy Warfare and, perhaps most surprisingly, Diamant. For smaller publishers’ games we usually have to shop either in English or German online stores, but I guess that’s often the situation in other countries too.
However, despite the rather good selection locally, many of the most active boardgame enthusiastics tend to buy most of their games from German online stores, for one big reason: prices. The taxation in Finland is very high, so everything costs here a bit more than it does elsewhere. When you combine that to the usual lower prices of online stores compared to the traditional ones, the difference can get pretty big. While I personally buy all the games I can from the local shops, I can understand why many others choose otherwise. Still, it always feels a bit stupid to read about Americans complaining about high prices, when many things can cost 1,5-2 times as much around here!
For non-gamers the available selection of games changes a lot depending on the season. Before christmas a vast range of products can be found in all big department stores. They include all the usual stuff like Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly and various children’s games and party games, but thanks to the new wave of translated German games, some new recruits were seen on the shelves last year. Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Around the World in 80 Days, Ticket to Ride, Alhambra, Niagara and Karibia were all prominently displayed and locating Doom, Metro, Blokus Duo and Einfach Genial was also possible without too much trouble. On the other hand, during non-holiday season, only Carcassonne seems to have secured it’s place in the inventory of most department stores.
So, all in all, boardgaming as a hobby has a pretty strong foothold in Finland. There is also a lot of potential for its growth as many features in Finnish culture, like long, dark winter nights and our love for our summer cottages, offer a lot of opportunities for boardgames to root in. But there is also a long way to go, which was painfully proven in the recent Game of the Year -selection by our national toy association when many great and potentially non-gamer-compatible games were trumped by a game that is basicly a glorified Tic-Tac-Toe (http://www.nelostuote.fi/suomi/fp.php?id=suomi/2006/pentago).