Friday, 7 December 2012

12: Boardgames: war cabinets and meeting in Switzerlands

Germans take their board games incredibly seriously, like war cabinets or science conventions. Do not think board games are meant for fun. While entertainment is accepted as a valid reason behind such formal assemblies, the real objective is to observe due procedure with over scrupulous vigilance.

You’ll need a basic list of core defences to survive such a logicfest; a pad of paper, a pen, a dictionary, a funny hat (Germans love funny hats) and at least 12 beers.

If you do receive an invitation for a board game session, you’ll probably be notified at least a couple of weeks in advance with a casual, “Hey, do you like to play games, no?” 

Naturally wanting to integrate and take advantage of an opportunity to go native, you’ll reply yes. This is your first mistake.

Germans unsurprisingly love strategy games. Deep rooted in every Saxon, Swabian, Bavarian, Pomeranian or East Frissian is a belief that if the world were run according to their refined reason and designation, nothing would be left to the sloppish hand of spontaneity. Strategy games offer Germans the opportunity to demonstrate this fetish for advanced calculations and test their skills against co-strategists. So far, so good. Everyone enjoys a game of Risk.

But you probably won’t be playing Risk. “The rules are far too simple, too easy, no strategy.” More likely you’ll be playing such neurologically demanding global conquest variations as El Grande or Diplomacy. If you don’t have a Masters Degree in Political Philosophy, you’re destined to struggle. However if you’ve never heard of either of these games, fear not; you’ll be given a 90 minute introduction to the rules either way. No stones will be left unturned.

Let us suppose you fall trap to a game of Diplomacy. The object of the game is to conquer Europe with one of seven empires; Austria-Hungary, Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia, Turkey or Great Britain. You will have armies and navies to co-ordinate. You will sign treaties with neighbours, battle with enemies and support or betray allies. Everything must be written down in a sort of code, similar to that used in airline tickets, which you will present at the end of each round for inspection to the Spielleiter, the game’s secretary general. Any mistakes and you will be publicly castigated, penalised and worse, forced to return for rehabilitation in the future. 

Do not try and shorten the rules explanation. By Round 1 you’ll be expected to know your armies from your flotillas, your attacks from your supports, your Tunis from Thüringen and be able to differentiate between spring and autumn moves. You should have developed a naval, air and land strategy and be able, if need to be, to compare your own egregious whippersnapping policy with Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege.

The Spielleiter, the game leader, is the ombudsman or a regulator. He ensures everybody remains focused and will demand 100 percent commitment at all times. He is probably an accountant, a meat inspector or a council worker (no offence to any of those fine trades - it's simply a statistic, 75 per cent of which are made up). The Spielleiter will issue such rallying calls as “Guyz, come on! Concentrate now.” In order to sustain the level of pressure required for full mental engagement, he will make constant references to the time, reminding all present that “we must finish by work tomorrow, come on!” He will mediate should any rule conflicts arise and will cut short any non-board-game-related stories, conversations or anecdotes. Beware of Spielleiter’s catchphrase -  “So yeah, guys, the game?” - followed by an angry headmaster’s evil eye.

Once the game is underway, ensure you don’t let on that you have not understood the rules. The only solution would be another 90-minute explanation from Spielleiter. Germans do not learn by doing: “It is simply too uncertain a method.” It is the job of the Spielleiter to explain the rules and chances are, he loves it. Nothing will please him more than having to explain again. He will justify the delay to other players with “We must let the other people know how to move.” Remember: you are the other people. 

By Round three or four of Diplomacy you’ll be called upon to leave the room and enter a private cubicle where you will be able to negotiate alliances (that you may later break) with neighbouring forces: this room is like crash-landing in neutral Switzerland or Denmark for a secret dance with your enemy. Act imperial in these negotiations; quote previous historical alliances to reinforce your trustworthiness. Play your partner-empire’s national anthem on your iphone. Be prepared for these negotiations to take hours, possibly days. 

 More than a boardgame.
Do not think you can just lose and leave a board game early. You may be taken into custody or detained under house arrest for the remainder of the game. Same goes for cancelling at short notice.

Should you get stuck or undone at any point, make reference to your funny hat, pointing out how funny it is. Let slapstick back you up here. If all else fails, feign a medical condition, leave and lay low for a few weeks after.

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