Almost every house­hold has access to a vir­tu­al­ly infi­nite num­ber of games. PC, con­sole or mobile – no mat­ter the plat­form: it has nev­er been eas­i­er to find enter­tain­ment. Nev­er­the­less, “play­ing with­out a screen”, com­plete­ly with­out the help of dig­i­tal aug­men­ta­tions, has its own charm which has its place even in the dig­i­tal age. 

The Wür­felpech e.V. in Halle is a gath­er­ing place for fans of ana­logue games and offers them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to immerse into their hob­by. I am with four of the club’s mem­bers, Tere­sa, Joshua, Mar­vin and Michael, talk­ing about their expe­ri­ences at the gam­ing table. Behind them flaunts a book­shelf bulging­ly filled with rule and source books. In the room next door minia­tures for the next Warham­mer tour­na­ment are metic­u­lous­ly painted. 

Boardgames, Roleplay and Tabletop 

Those only think­ing about Uno, Monop­oly and Ludo in the con­text of ana­logue games have a lot to catch up on. The gam­ing scene is as diverse as its fans and new games are join­ing the mar­ket con­stant­ly – devel­oped by pop­u­lar pub­lish­ers as well as crowd­fund­ed indie companies. 

Teresa Fritsch and Marvin Gröning in front of the clubhouse's board games collection.
Tere­sa Fritsch and Mar­vin Grön­ing in front of the clubhouse’s board games col­lec­tion — Pic­ture by Ste­fan Kranz

Boardgames may be the most acces­si­ble vari­ety to play ana­logue. You buy a box includ­ing all nec­es­sary parts, read the rules that leave lit­tle room for inter­pre­ta­tion and fol­low the more or less strict path until you reach the deter­mined end. Var­ied mechan­ics and beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions offer a com­par­a­tive­ly easy gam­ing expe­ri­ence. How­ev­er, the acces­si­bil­i­ty of boardgames in terms of their clear rules and goals restricts their flex­i­bil­i­ty considerably. 

A role­play­ing game on the oth­er hand is designed for per­son­al char­ac­ter devel­op­ment as Tere­sa, self-pro­claimed “Moth­er of the ‘Wür­felpech e.V.’” and role­play­ing enthu­si­ast for years, says. Role­play­ing games come with a set of rules too, of course. How­ev­er, those gen­er­al­ly only spec­i­fy how the suc­cess or fail­ure of an action is deter­mined and not which actions can be per­formed in the first place. Even with this free­dom there is often room for interpretation. 

In a role­play­ing game you are either a play­er or the dun­geon mas­ter. As a play­er you cre­ate your per­son­al char­ac­ter with char­ac­ter­is­tics and abil­i­ties, give them depth by con­struct­ing their back­ground sto­ry and per­son­al­i­ty. As your char­ac­ter you expe­ri­ence the sto­ries the game leads you into. The dun­geon master’s respon­si­bil­i­ty is to guide through the sto­ry, describe the set­ting and imper­son­ate all side char­ac­ters. Role­play­ing there­fore requires the will to impro­vise, empathize with your char­ac­ter and, par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant, lis­ten to your fel­low play­ers. Most role­play­ing games also offer the pos­si­bil­i­ty to cre­ate your own adven­tures. As the play­ers do not know the sto­ry before­hand, they rarely choose the intend­ed path – in that case the dun­geon mas­ter must cope with that and con­tin­ue in this new direc­tion. What can be over­whelm­ing at first often reveals unex­pect­ed talents. 

Table­top games zoom out of the role­play. You are rather a “com­man­der, build­ing your army and lead­ing it into bat­tle”, as described by Mar­vin Grön­ing, found­ing mem­ber of the Wür­felpech e.V. and table­top enthu­si­ast. While role­play­ing games are usu­al­ly played coop­er­a­tive­ly against the dun­geon mas­ter or the sto­ry itself, table­top games are com­pet­i­tive. You either win or you lose. How­ev­er, the game is more than the bat­tle itself, build­ing your army is its own process. Every minia­ture is put togeth­er from tor­so, arms, legs and head and paint­ed to one’s own taste. Even though this presents a finan­cial and tem­po­ral bar­ri­er, it could sat­is­fy one’s cre­ativ­i­ty and collector’s pas­sion. “My focus is a pret­ty col­lec­tion of minia­tures rather than win­ning, but of course this is a nice feel­ing of suc­cess as well”, says the club mem­ber Michael Teuchler. 

Table­top games focus on strat­e­gy: The com­po­si­tion of your troops, their posi­tion­ing on the game table, tak­ing the envi­ron­ment into account… and more­over you must con­sid­er what your oppo­nent does with all their options as well. But even with the best strat­e­gy and army, luck with the dice may just not be with you. In the end, the dice decide whether the sword hits, the hero faints or the nego­ti­a­tion could push the merchant’s prices. They make the game a bit more unpre­dictable and a cer­tain amount of luck necessary. 

Where the Fun Ends 

Espe­cial­ly in the table­top and role­play sec­tion the stereo­type of the social­ly awk­ward “typ­i­cal nerd” still per­sists. When they start­ed out, pen & paper games, espe­cial­ly in the con­ser­v­a­tive USA, were often asso­ci­at­ed with satanism and thus ban­ished to small par­ties, meet­ing secret­ly in the basement. 

Even though the Wür­felpech e.V. claims to be “unpo­lit­i­cal and colour­ful”, and every­one is wel­comed equal­ly, the cur­rent mem­bers are pre­dom­i­nant­ly male. Accord­ing to club mem­ber Mar­vin Grön­ing this is the com­mon scene through­out the entire com­mu­ni­ty, be it oth­er asso­ci­a­tions or pri­vate groups. 

The minia­tures build­ing your army are almost exclu­sive­ly male. Women can only be found rarely, in cer­tain fac­tions or as over­sex­u­al­ized demons. That appeals main­ly to men; after all, you want to be able to iden­ti­fy with your troops, which cre­ates a cycle: Prod­ucts ori­ent­ed toward men lead to a male dom­i­nat­ed com­mu­ni­ty, which moti­vates pub­lish­ers to release prod­ucts for this tar­get group. 

Nev­er­the­less, there is some progress in the scene. Pop cul­ture has pulled the hob­by out of the stereo­typ­i­cal nerd cor­ner and into the main­stream. The high­ly suc­cess­ful Net­flix series Stranger Things for exam­ple begins with the pro­tag­o­nists play­ing the role­play­ing game Dun­geons and Drag­ons. Social net­works and the inter­net in gen­er­al offer a plat­form that could open the sworn in coven of play­ers and give new­com­ers an easy entry point. Those not will­ing to play right away them­selves may only watch a livestream of oth­er play­ers first. The chan­nel “Crit­i­cal Role”, where a group of voice actors livestreams their Dun­geons & Drag­ons ses­sions, was the most suc­cess­ful chan­nel on the plat­form Twitch in 2021. 

Like that, the demo­graph­ics in the pen and paper com­mu­ni­ty are slow­ly becom­ing more het­ero­ge­neous, which fits the impres­sions of the Wür­felpech e.V. – espe­cial­ly in the role­play­ing area the share of women has improved. Even­tu­al­ly, this devel­op­ment reach­es the pub­lish­ers who diver­si­fied their port­fo­lio in the recent past. Card games as Mag­ic: The Gath­er­ing rework their pre­vi­ous­ly unre­al­is­ti­cal­ly over­sex­u­al­ized illus­tra­tions. That may not please every vet­er­an play­er, but this “we have always done it this way” men­tal­i­ty is kept by a dying minority. 

Cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences split the com­mu­ni­ty addi­tion­al­ly. The Ger­man table­top scene is quite strate­gic and com­pet­i­tive, accord­ing to Mar­vin Grön­ing and Joshua Scherf from the Wür­felpech e.V.. The frus­tra­tion after a defeat is much high­er com­pared to a British par­ty for exam­ple. The term “Ger­man Games” refers to planned out and com­plex games for a rea­son. Con­trast­ing are the so called “Beer and Pret­zels Games”, char­ac­terised by an easy entry and a lot of ran­dom­ness; the lev­el of focus nec­es­sary may not be too high, so you can have a beer and some snacks, besides a nice chat. 

Between the game and reality 
Miniatures for the Warhammer game are shown.
Minia­tures for the Warham­mer game — Pic­ture by Ste­fan Kranz

The fun play­ing gets eas­i­ly lost if the play­ers for­get where the game ends. That does not only apply to sore losers who want to blame their dice’s bad result on their oppo­nent, but also to those who take the games’ set­ting too serious. 

In games set in real-world-sce­nar­ios like World War II the lines are com­par­a­tive­ly clear. Many rule sys­tems do not encour­age play­ing the bad guys your­self. That role is most­ly reserved for the antag­o­nists which are sup­posed to be defeat­ed in the adven­ture. Fan­ta­sy or sci-fi set­tings are hard­er to assess. To what extent do they ref­er­ence the real world’s events? Is the fas­cist space-emper­or a Nazi or just a gener­ic antag­o­nist and the game com­plete­ly dis­con­nect­ed from real­i­ty? In The dark Eye, the most suc­cess­ful Ger­man role­play­ing game, elves are a key part of the world. In the rule­book they are gen­er­al­ly depict­ed as sim­ple mind­ed. What sounds like a fan­ta­sy spin on racism is explained with the dif­fer­ences in human and elven cul­ture being so huge, most con­ver­sa­tions aim at com­plete­ly cross pur­pos­es, thus from a human per­spec­tive they appear une­d­u­cat­ed. How this dis­crep­an­cy is played out depends on the player. 

Nev­er­the­less, judg­ing a play­er for the frac­tion or char­ac­ter of their choice would be wrong. “In the end it’s just a game. We play war, but we don’t have to behave like we’re actu­al­ly doing it”, Mar­vin Grön­ing sum­ma­rizes. He says only those tak­ing every­thing too seri­ous­ly ruin the expe­ri­ence for them­selves and the oth­er players. 

Bottom line 

Play­ing away from any screen is incred­i­bly mul­ti­fac­eted. Some games have always been com­mon­place at the fam­i­ly table, oth­ers have long been rel­e­gat­ed to a fringe group phe­nom­e­non. As sad as that is, it is all the nicer to see the stigma­ti­za­tion fall apart. This is help­ing the game get a larg­er audi­ence and the play­ers’ com­mu­ni­ty become more diverse, which in turn affects the rep­re­sen­ta­tion by the publishers. 

Pen & paper games are often an impor­tant part of their fol­low­ers’ leisure time and a won­der­ful way to express them­selves; no mat­ter if they are the dun­geon mas­ter cre­at­ing new worlds and sto­ries, a play­er engag­ing in their cre­at­ed char­ac­ter or some­one sub­merg­ing them­selves into role­play giv­ing life to the game. 

All doors are open to those inter­est­ed and asso­ci­a­tions like the Wür­felpech e.V. wel­come every new­com­er with open arms. Even if it may take some effort in the begin­ning to get involved in the expe­ri­ence and there are cer­tain­ly many peo­ple for whom it is not the right thing in the end, there is hard­ly any­thing to lose if you dare to roll the dice yourself. 

Trans­la­tion: Ste­fan Kranz

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