We like to think of the board game hobby as being extremely inclusive, and for the most part I believe that that’s true. However, it’s not that way by accident. As a community I think gamers work hard to be as welcoming as possible and even though that’s the prevailing attitude, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t incidents of exclusion, persecution, or straight up bullying that occur. Living in the bubble of Toronto, we’re quite spoiled. There are tons of outlets for gaming. Board game cafes and stores hold open gaming nights or host events on a regular basis. I forget sometimes (as a white male) that there is still a real need in creating safe and comfortable spaces for all people to game. BoardAgain Games is a group of four friends who hold regular game nights at their venue in Roncesvalles as well as events around the city.
Michelle Isocianu and Matt Pfaff make up one half of the BoardAgain team. We sat down to chat about the goal of their events and their general philosophy in gaming. Pfaff’s love of games goes back to classic 80s titles like Siege, Hero Quest and Fireball Island played with friends. He grew up on a steady diet of those immersive, thematic games before discovering the new wave of European titles in the 90s and early 2000s. Isocianu had games imprinted on her DNA from an early age, playing a lot with her brothers. She experienced a game drought of several years before a visit to Snakes & Lattes rekindled her love of gaming. Within a few months she was hosting board game nights for friends at her place, but it wasn’t long before the word spread and their little gatherings began to outgrow the apartment.
“We thought to ourselves, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a space where people could come and play games,’ said Isocianu.
The seed was planted and their first event followed soon after. It was held in a local pizzeria, billed as a board game day open to the public. The restaurant agreed to let them use the space for the day and right off the bat they were surprised by the amount of people who came out and the gaming experience they came looking for.
“We thought it was going to be like Snakes and Lattes and we would run out of tables, but we quickly learned when the first group arrived that people were looking to game in a way we hadn’t anticipated,” said Pfaff. “They said ‘We’re here to learn board games. Who are we playing with?’”
People were coming out, not just to sit with their friends and play games they already knew. They were actually interesting in the hobby itself and hoping to expand their knowledge as well as meet new people.
“We suddenly realized, this wasn’t a model we even considered,” said Pfaff, who sees the resurgence of games as having a lot to do tactile, face-to-face joys they provide. “The best thing about board games is that you open this box and you take out these pieces and you say ‘go’ and in 15 minutes you might be calling someone an asshole, but it’s totally fine. That’s how you break down barriers and create relationships, because for a brief moment, we’re not taking things so seriously.”
It wasn’t long before the BoardAgain crew began to seek a more permanent home. They spent a few months in a location on Queen West before settling in to their current space at the Women on Board community space in Roncesvalles. Once a home base was established, BoardAgain Games was able to start holding a variety of different events, including nights specifically designed to reach people looking for safe spaces to socialize. As observers of a bunch of different aspects of nerd culture, the team at BoardAgain saw how ingrained sexism and prejudice could be a barrier for new people entering the hobby. Enthusiasts of any type of geeky pastime have likely been ostracized from the ‘norm’ at some point, but the troubling thing was that they were seeing persecution and isolation amongst nerds themselves.
“It’s really sad that in this culture of outcasts, there is segregation among the different groups,” observed Pfaff. Right away the team began looking for ways to change the default demographics of gaming.
“It was important to us to be able to draw more women into the hobby,” said Isocianu. They were finding that a large portion of their attendees were men, and when they did bring their wives, partners, or female friends the events were still largely driven by the games men wanted to play.
“We realized that maybe we needed to make a statement to draw more people. We worried that most women who were gamers wouldn’t necessarily see these events as being a safe space. They heard a lot of stories of women not feeling like they were in an environment that supported their desire to play. There were stories of aggressiveness, or dismissiveness, or just generally taking over of their turns.”
Feeling unsafe or excluded at gaming events can occur in many different ways. Isocianu has experienced that form of subtle discrimination herself and the group decided that to encourage a welcoming gaming experience they would hold specific nights for women and trans attendees.
“It took a long time for people to actually know what we were doing, but once they did it was an amazing response.” Aside from some simple advertising the popularity of the nights grew through word of mouth.
“What was extra nice is that people would come to the Women and Trans only nights and meet us, see it was a safe space, and then start coming to other events as well.”
They also run a Queer night and partner up with Toronto Gaymers for offsite events. They run a comedy night (the wonderfully named Board Games and BrouHaHas), and speed dating nights all based around the idea of coming together over a little light, analog competition.
One of the projects they’re really excited about is teaching Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition to people completely new to role playing and helping them start off their first campaigns. They get a wide mix of people to the D&D events and they encourage players to explore the limitless possibilities that imagination based gaming can offer. Pfaff is currently involved in a campaign with a group of guys and every one of them is playing a female character.
Because of their core philosophy, BoardAgain has to be selective in the games they choose to feature in their library. Isocianu and Pfaff acknowledge that the industry is moving in the right direction, but the use of imagery that is not always super PC is still pretty prevalent. The role of games has always been a tough one to pin down. Whether they should be an honest arbiter of history and a teaching tool, or whether they should be used simply as an escape from the challenges of every day life. The answer of course, lies somewhere in between. An issue like the depiction of slavery can be approached many different ways, such as the historically accurate, Freedom: The Underground Railroad or famously glossed over like with Puerto Rico‘s ‘colonists.’ At the end of the day you have to consider the context and intent. With BoardAgain’s diverse clientele, they carefully consider any possible triggers a game might have before adding it to their library.
Isocianu, Pfaff and the rest of their team have been successful in Toronto, in no small part because the city is primed for the gaming hobby. They credit Snakes & Lattes Board Game Cafe as being one of the driving forces behind making board games cool. Other factors they noted are our cold winters and a young, multicultural population. But at the end of the day the biggest factor might just be timing. The world is craving outlets for social interaction that digital can’t provide. I’m really happy to see dedicated people working hard to ensure that at a time when the hobby is blowing up, it is inclusive and inviting to all people. To me, the hope that everyone feels a part of this resurgence is extremely important. I always want to be able to be proud to say I’m a board gamer.
If you want to learn more about BoardAgain or attend one of their upcoming events, visit their website for more information.