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Let the Games Begin

The Baltimore Sun

They gathered at Potomac Community Center for game night as they do every Wednesday; never mind that it was the day after Christmas. Initially, they considered playing board and card games unfamiliar to most of the public but popular among the gaming faithful: Qwirkle, Anno 1503 and Loot. But ultimately, the evening would begin with a traditional favorite.

"I want to say it's been a long time since I played Uno, but actually I played about a month ago," said Wei-Hwa Huang, 32, a software engineer at California-based Google who was visiting his hometown of North Potomac for the holidays.

He shuffled the Uno cards with the precision of an Atlantic City casino dealer, then tossed them like flying discs to the three other players.

As the game commenced, competitive juices bubbled, with each player trying to outwit the other before Doug Hoylman of Chevy Chase deposited his last card and ended the game by shouting, "Uno!"

The thrill of victory is regularly experienced among gamers throughout the state - in private homes, at recreation centers, coffeehouses and sandwich shops. Game night, a once widely popular pastime, is still relished by a smaller network of enthusiasts of all ages and backgrounds, even as television, the Internet and computerized game systems offer a plethora of alternatives.

The Potomac Community Center gamers are part of the Games Club of Maryland, a growing, 421-member group with 25 locations throughout the state.

Some of its participants are celebrities in the gaming world. Huang is a four-time World Puzzle Championship winner, while Hoylman is a six-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion.

Many players grew up on traditional games such as Scrabble, Clue and Monopoly. But most of the games they now play are scarcely known to those outside of gaming circles, with names that are as intriguing as the games themselves: Chateau Roquefort, Agricola, Guillotine, Tichu and Power Grid.

Every club offers at least one night of gaming each week, at such venues as Illusions Games & Comics in Salisbury, Bay Ridge Christian Church in Annapolis and the Reisterstown home of GCOM's founder and president, Keith Levy.

Want to join the club? It's easy; chances are there's a GCOM branch near you. And if you prefer traditional games, the groups offer tips on hosting your own game night.

Maryland's gaming community is close-knit and detail-oriented, and members are as devoted to their pastime as many television viewers are to American Idol. The groups consist mainly of those who never lost their enthusiasm for board and card games as others flocked to Nintendos. Many are baby boomers who played games as children and have now made them part of their own family traditions.

Others are youngsters and college students whose passion for playing was instilled by their parents. The groups meet religiously, with as few as four players and as many as couple dozen.

"When I was living in [North Potomac], the only way you could play these games was to come to these little groups like this," said Huang, "and you got introduced to some game and you'd say, 'Oh, this is kind of neat.' "

The groups play board games, card games, tabletop games, even role-playing games. Their Web site - gamesclubofmd.org - offers a calendar of events for those interested in attending. Some hosts don't mind if you come unannounced, though all encourage calling in advance.

"It's a great social tool, family tool; it has interaction and learning," Levy said of group game playing. "It has so many positive things, and family values is one of them. So are strategy, analysis, thinking skills and sportsmanship."

GCOM members offer several rules of play for those looking to take part in a group or starting a game night of their own. At the top of most everyone's list: Don't take the games too seriously.

"A lot of people have this old-school notion that games have to be competitive, that it's all about trying to win," said Satish Pillalamarri of Greenbelt. He and roommate Dominic Crapuchettes invented the award-winning Wits & Wagers, which they billed as the only trivia game you can win without knowing trivia.

"We're trying to take a new approach; the main thing is how are you going to have fun and spend quality time with people who are important to you," Pillalamarri said. He and Crapuchettes go to at least one game night each week. On some Thursdays, they attend a game at another game designer's home.

Crapuchettes was inspired to create Wits & Wagers in part, he said, because "Trivial Pursuit made me feel dumb." Wits & Wagers allows you to bet on other players' answers to trivia questions. With each question, you wager on the answer that you believe is closest to the correct answer. The game was rated the 2007 party game of the year by Games Magazine.

Levy, whose home game nights average 13 participants, said it's important to play games that are easy to grasp and are enjoyed by all age groups. Some examples: the railway-themed game Ticket to Ride, the word-association game Apples to Apples and Wits & Wagers.

Susan Magsamen of Cockeysville, who is not part of the Games Club of Maryland, says those who want to start a family game night must be mindful of other family members' schedules but also adamant about making game night a part of the family routine.

"One of the best things I do is make it mandatory in our family," said Magsamen, founder of FamilyStories, a multimedia resource for families that includes game-oriented learning tools.

"We started doing family nights consciously 10 years ago when I saw some of the disconnects from my kids in terms of rules like who goes first and breakdowns about cheating," said Magsamen. "I realized that games were a great metaphor for life."

She grew up playing card games and checkers, and now plays them and others with her four children, ages 15 to 25.

"Cards games are really big for us," she said, "as well as Boggle and Scrabble. And sometimes, my son and I play chess when I'm making dinner."

Game nights take place about twice a month in her home. The sessions are short enough to prevent anyone from opting out for another activity, like surfing the Internet.

"You have to set an expectation and hold it through the kicking and screaming and complaining that [family members] don't have enough time to [play]," she said, "because once they get together, there's something very dynamic about families that interact with each other."

Still, she added, family game night can't have too much structure. And she said that those who enter into the games always expecting a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting will be disappointed.

Set limits and rules, she said, but allow for the varying personalities in your family, as you would for other get-togethers.

"We all think that our kids are going to be play the way we envision," she said, "and the reality is life doesn't happen that way. When you put your expectations on top of this, you limit everybody; you don't get to see who they are in a real playful way."

It's that family interaction, she said, that makes game nights still popular at a time when millions of people play games online without person-to-person contact.

"There was a study out last year that revealed that people feel more lonely than in the past, even with more computer interaction," said Magsamen. "I think [people] perceive that type of interaction as a loss. [Game night] is connecting to other people in a real way that is so fundamental and so satisfying."


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