For the nearly two years that I have lived in Kazakhstan, there haven’t been many opportunities to play games that have just fallen into my lap. No matter where you live in the world, “playing games” is still considered to be a fairly niche hobby for adults, but that is especially the case here. Despite living in place that could reasonably be called a “gaming desert,” (although “gaming steppe” might be a better term, looking at the local geography), I have still been able to create opportunities. The truth is that it simply takes a little bit of work and an openness about a desire to play.
When my wife and I first arrived, and we were getting to know our coworkers, I gradually noticed that there were a few people here and there that seemed like they might be easily convinced to try out some games they had never heard of. Little clues were everywhere: I went to a couple of low-stakes poker nights where people talked about some other card games they had played. Another evening we visited a couple that had a small stack of party games in the vein of Apples to Apples that they were excited to break out with a bigger group. One guy even had a copy of Diplomacy hidden in the bottom cabinet of a bookshelf… and although I am not a huge fan of that particular game, the fact that he had played it before implied that he could surely endure something that wasn’t nearly as long or complicated.
These kinds of situations are what I see as openings. If you don’t act quickly, they disappear, and even if you do, they may not turn into an actual opportunity. Poker is almost a hobby unto itself, and I would hazard to say that most people who play Poker don’t play much of anything else. Despite making some suggestions for other kinds of Poker (i.e. something that didn’t have “Texas Hold-Em” in the title), or trying to suggest games that hold a bit more interest for me, nothing really came of it. The party-game couple was a bit more receptive – we rounded up some people and played some games of Apples to Apples (and a few other things), and kind of got our foot in the door with some of the attendees. The trick with big-group games, of course, is that a big group can be hard to herd into playing a game… the other night, we were with some people who were very excited to play Taboo, and we actually got the game all the way unboxed and set up, but almost no one wanted to stop their conversations and gather around a little buzzer. That party ended with no game played.
The key to turning those openings into a real chance to play a game is being open about what you want to do. The Poker bros didn’t want to play anything else, but eventually word got around through them that I did. I’m not a huge fan of party games, but when people see me having fun and I suggest a different kind of game later, they listen. When I saw the copy of Diplomacy, and put that together with the stuff I knew about the owner (big fan of history, politics, especially when it has something to do with Soviet Russia), I took the chance to mention that I had a game he might really like: Twilight Struggle. Turns out, he was more excited about it than I expected. Those situations are obviously specific to my experience, but I have had countless others, and they all work the same way. If someone expresses an interest in some sort of game, I do, too, and it creates opportunity after opportunity. If a person asks me what I do for fun, I mention my collection of games and the podcast I run, and if they genuinely seem interested, I ask if they might be interested in trying something. If someone mentions that their daughters played Dutch Blitz with some friends on vacation, but they can’t find a copy anywhere, I tell them about the game stores I visit and help out. Another opportunity!
I don’t just have to wait for other people to express an interest, though. We have friends here, we’ve gotten to know some of the people really well, and they have likewise gotten to know us. They know we enjoy playing games and they’ve seen our game shelves. So if we invite someone over to our place for dinner, or are invited to theirs to make Christmas decorations, we ask if anyone would be interested in a game, too. Small gatherings like this work best; as I mentioned above, it can be incredibly difficult to rope a bunch of people in a large party together to sit down, shut up, and roll dice. So we tend to do it in small groups, four to six people, and eventually, no matter how long we shoot the breeze or dab leftover sauce of our plates with rolls, someone says “So, about that game?” And we are off to the races! I can’t tell you how many times we’ve tossed a light board or card game into an evening of chatting and snacking, and despite the worries that I sometimes have, it’s very rarely gone poorly.
I haven’t limited myself to small get-togethers, though. This month, we are hosting a big time Game Night at a community center, and although I don’t have any idea how many people are going to end up coming, I suspect that it will be moderately popular. This kind of thing takes more effort, but can end up even more rewarding. Of course, we had to get out fliers and information so that people know what’s happening, we had to prepare the location and make sure that the games won’t be too heavy on rules or too light on play, and we had commit to the possibility that we won’t be playing as much as we will be explaining… but when the evening is over, there will be more people than ever that know about these games, associate us and their other friends with the fun of playing the games, and even more doors will be open for game playing in the future. We’re planning a mix of super-light filler (No Thanks!, Get Bit!, and Love Letter) with some slightly more complex gateway games (7 Wonders, CV, and Ticket to Ride).
Frankly, we should have done something like this earlier, but it can be hard to get the motivation to start. There’s fear of failure, fear of rejection, and fear of disorganization that get in the way, but the excitement that comes from it working is so much greater. I’m excited about doing this kind of thing wherever we end up living in the future, possibly scheduling it with “International TableTop Day.” If you have ever wanted to find gamers or get more games played in your life, there is no better way than putting together an event yourself.
Another thing I’ve done to create gaming opportunities is travel, which I suppose is less about “creating” a chance to play, and more about taking advantage of chances to play that exist elsewhere. Last year, my wife and I traveled to Essen, Germany to attend the Internationale Spieltage event, an unbelievably huge four-day board game festival. I played more games in those four days than I did in the year preceding them, and got to see a lot of really cool stuff in the Messe Essen convention center. If you do not live in a place where there are a lot of other gamers, I cannot recommend highly enough going to something like this… even if the event in Essen is one of the biggest in the world, there is probably something nearby where you live that won’t break the bank and will give you some great fun. We’ve been to several gaming gatherings all over the world, and some of our favorites were right where we lived, with no travel or lodging costs, just the small cover fee to get in and play games for three straight days.
Outside of conventions, there are other gaming opportunities that traveling provides. For us, we happen to have an ever expanding scatter plot of friends living all over the world. Some I know from college or grad school, others I met in Japan or one of the handful of other places I’ve called home. Without exception, they are always excited to see us when we visit, and we feel the same way when people have come to stay with us. We visited a friend this year over a long holiday, and part of our plans included a Tex-Mex dinner and Game Night; we made burritos (glorious, succulent burritos) and afterward, cleared the table and got through several games of Dixit and The Resistance. There were some other things we had planned, but those were so popular with the nine or so people there that we didn’t get to anything else. That’s alright, though! How can I complain about getting to play some great games with a friendly group of people? Similar things happened when we visited friends in Indiana earlier this year. We got to play Hanabi and Space Cadets Dice Duel with one group, and Rampage and Funf Gurken with another. The moral here is this: Make every opportunity you can – you are very rarely annoying anyone by asking if anyone is up for a game, despite your concerns to the contrary, and it’s far more likely that the people you ask will have a lot of fun whatever you end up doing.
In the final part of this series, I’m going to write about the most common of my gaming experiences in living abroad: two-player board, video, and role-playing games. Even if you don’t have a significant other, though, two-player games are generally the easiest to get running – they just require you and one other willing participant! I also want to close on a short discussion of where we will be living next, and what our plans are once we are no longer “gaming in Kazakhstan.”
Written by Chris Rogers