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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