The World Boardgame Championships - 2020
They're not happening this year, and it sucks. They were scheduled to run this week. Technically, they would have begun a few days ago on July 25, and run for nine days through August 2. They are unequivocally the best nine days in tabletop gaming.
I never planned to have a review go up this week because, well, I was going to be at The World Boardgame Championships (WBC). I've gone every year since 2012. But it's not happening this year thanks to, well, you know why. It's left me feeling empty and unsatisfied. I decided I'd use this space to work through those feelings.
So what is WBC? Essentially, it's a small-to-medium-sized board game convention that primarily caters to the mid-atlantic and mid-west regions of the United States. Attendance generally hovers between 1500 and 2500 registrants. It's no PAX Unplugged, or Gen Con, or Origins, or Essen Spiel, or SHUX. But the truth is, WBC has more in common with MagicFest (the periodic tournaments/conventions that Channel Fireball Games hosts in partnership with Wizards of the Coast for Magic: The Gathering) than those other cons.
Like MagicFest, WBC's focus is on competitive gameplay. There are all kinds of other things going, of course. Both events have vendors, seminars, panels, and space for people to play games for fun. But the main focus is on tournaments. MagicFests usually have one main event, and scores of side events. But MagicFest only has one game. Yes, there are dozens of ways to play Magic, but it's ultimately still the same game. WBC hosts tournaments for over 140 unique games.
One of the appeals of WBC is that while the level of competition is high, the stakes are actually quite low. Winning a tournament at WBC earns you a plaque. That's it. Occasionally a tournament will give out extra prizes, or a publisher will sponsor an event with a small additional award. For example, winning the tournament for a game published by GMT will net you a small gift certificate to their store. It's a nice gift, but it doesn't compare to the thousands of dollars people win at MagicFests.
So if the stakes are low, what's the point of competing? Frankly, it's because WBC is usually the only convention that hosts true competitions for many of these games! Of those 140 games, many are old, out of print, or just so niche that it can be truly difficult to find opponents in daily life. For many attendees, WBC is an opportunity to play their favorite games against new people WITHOUT NEEDING TO TEACH THEM TO PLAY.
The nature of the board game industry is that there are hundreds or thousands of new games released every year. It is so rare that I get to sit down for a game with a group of friends where all of us know how to play. Usually for that to happen, it needs to be a very simple or common game. But even then, there's often one or two players who haven't learned it yet. At WBC, 95% of the tournaments expect that all players will at least be familiar with the rules before they enter the event. And many of the competitors will be extremely knowledgeable about the game. The result is that for many games, WBC is the only opportunity to sit face-to-face with someone who is just as good or better than you at your favorite games. Winning is nice, but beating a skilled and experienced opponent is even better!
Another interesting aspect of WBC is that it was actually born from the ashes of another convention: AvalonCon. AvalonCon was also focused on game tournaments, but it was sponsored by the Avalon Hill game company. Avalon Hill was most well-known for publishing war games. And all the tournaments at AvalonCon were Avalon Hill games, so naturally there was a heavy focus on war games with a heavy sub-theme on sports simulations. When Avalon Hill shuttered, the convention staff decided to create an independent convention with a similar structure. To this day, roughly half the games competed at WBC are war games. That's remarkable, considering that war games have sharply declined in popularity with the rise of Euro-style strategy games and "Ameritrash" thematic games.
Obviously, this raises the question: who decides which games are available? The answer is technically the attendees do. After each convention, the convention director tallies up the attendance data from every tournament. The 100 most popular events (based on player-hours . . . it's a moderately complex formula) join the "Century" for the next year's convention. As long as a volunteer steps forward to GM the event, it is guaranteed to appear that year.
There is also a voting process to select new games to appear on a "trial" basis. See, WBC is unusual as a convention because you don't purchase a ticket to attend. Instead, you pay a membership fee to join or renew your annual membership to the Board Game Players Association, which grants access to WBC. If you just want to stop in for a day or two to play in a couple games, they sell short-term day passes. But the majority of attendees purchase a full sustaining membership to have unlimited access for the full nine days.
Anyway, each year members of the BPA can nominate new games for the upcoming WBC. Once all the nominations are in, the entire membership gets to vote for a maximum of ten games each that they want to appear at the next WBC. The top 25 games become the Trial games, assuming a GM steps forward to run each game. Finally, games can also be sponsored trials. Generally some publishers will sponsor a relatively new release to get people interested in the game and ideally drive sales. If the game catches on, it can become a Century event, which may inspire more people to pick up the game to learn for the future.
That's WBC in a nutshell. For me, it's a great way for me to exercise my competitive nature. I like to win, but I'm also very aware of how repeatedly losing can discourage players from wanting to play again. At WBC I can completely forget about that. My opponent(s) and I are playing to win, period. But I can also have fun because I don't have to worry about teaching too. I can just enjoy the moment and really analyze the situation. And it's not that I dislike teaching new games. I actually enjoy it a lot, and I think I'm quite good at it now thanks to all the practice I've gotten. Heck, I demo several games at WBC these days because the GMs think I do such a great job of teaching those games!
So that's what's missing this year. Nine days of constant immersion in all things board games. Whether I'm teaching a new game, competing in a tournament, hanging out in the open gaming room, or working at the auction, there is absolutely no escape from the world of gaming. It is incredibly mentally taxing (I've learned that I have to take some time to exercise daily or I burn out fast) but also strangely relaxing.
Because I'm curious, let's look at some data. I'm going to list every game I played at WBC last year (both in tournaments and for fun). I'll also list how many times I played the game at WBC, and how many times I played in 2019 overall:
There's two big takeaways from this data set: I play a lot of games at WBC, and the games I play there tend to be games I don't play anywhere else. Obviously, there are exceptions. Ra: The Dice Game, Sagrada, Innovation, and Race for the Galaxy stand out. But for the most part, WBC is where I get to play the enormous, complex, 3-5 hour behemoths that I love.
I've accepted that WBC won't be happening this year. I'm fortunate to have friends who are willing to play heavy board games online during this pandemic. Tzolk'in, Teotihuacan, Terra Mystica, and Russian Railroads have made multiple appearances so far, which is pretty remarkable. And my friends from WBC are looking into ways to play some of my other beloved games too. But the reality is that board games are at their best as a tactile experience. Here's hoping next year more than makes up for it!