Rules of the Game
I once asked my husband, in jest, if we were allies. “I like to think of us as rivals,” he parried back. At times our relationship does take on the dynamic of an ongoing feud, for we spend much of our spare time together duking it out over games of gin rummy, casino, Boggle, backgammon and Scrabble. Yet with the exception of periodic rounds of Celebrity with friends or a hot-and-heavy flirtation with the German-style train baron board game Ticket to Ride, our activities have stayed in the realm of tried and true parlor games.
I set out to expand my competitive horizons with an exploration of San Francisco’s gaming culture. In the process, I took my turn as a successful agricultural exporter, an intrepid detective and a cowardly jouster. I bring you a true account of my adventures with the hope that those made of sturdy stuff will take them as a starting point to fill their lives with fun and games galore. This city, I’ve learned, is nothing but a giant playground.
I started my search by ducking into Gamescape, a general game store in the Lower Haight. The shelves are packed with every sort of game imaginable, from classic board games to tricky puzzles to role-playing games, and there are plenty of open displays to futz with. In the back of the store, there’s a messy scrum of long tables and chairs where dedicated gamers gather most nights of the week to play complicated role-playing games like Warhammer and Magic: The Gathering.
“It’s kind of like Cheers,” said employee Skylar Woodies, 23, who hangs out here even when his ten-hour workdays are over. Warhammer, Skylar tells me, incorporates modeling into the game, takes up to three hours to play, and comes out with new materials every month. Some customers become so focused on historical accuracy that the store stocks independently published historical non-fiction.
Jumping into a game of Warhammer as a newcomer seemed a bit out of my wheelhouse, but I did try my hand at a few fiendishly difficult block puzzles.
Next, I decided to check out a different gaming community: SF Games, a group of game enthusiasts that meets on Friday nights at a local coffee house in the Mission. I showed up a few minutes shy of 7 pm, when the activities officially start.
SF Games draws something of an older crowd than Gamescape; the players I met ranged in age from 20s to 50s, and many work in IT. This group is really into German-style board games, strategic games that are characterized by their straightforward objectives and low reliance on chance, though they aren’t above a game of Taboo or Spades. Some of the regulars even design games in their spare time. I soon found myself observing a five-person game of Puerto Rico, a complicated game set on the island during colonial times.
The goal of Puerto Rico is to fill your land with colonists, plant cash crops like sugar and tobacco, build factories to process them in, and export like mad. It’s basically your standard rape and pillage scenario. I watched for about an hour, asking annoying questions of the player sitting next to me; then I jumped at the chance to join a new round of Puerto Rico starting up a few tables away. For nearly three hours I tended my indigo, harvested my coffee and unloaded them for the highest possible return. Then we counted our points.
Reader, I won… by one doubloon! I narrowly defeated Tony Sladek, a regular who brought the game. He seemed a little stunned. “I didn’t see you as one of my biggest threats,” he said. Tony rapidly recovered and soon pulled me into a six-person game of spades. When I left, he warmly told me to come back again soon.
But who needs community when there’s a mind warp just waiting to bend you to its ways? My next stop was the Jejune Institute, rumored to be some sort of interactive scavenger hunt with intuition-enhancing powers. A visit to the website made me fear I might be walking into a cult, but I showed up at the Institute’s Financial District office nonetheless.
The receptionist directed me to a room with framed New Age art on the walls and crystals on the shelves, where I sat down to watch a video of a man speaking to me from behind a desk in that very room. He started spinning an elaborate history of a global organization that has worked since the 1960s to improve human consciousness, running down an ever-more improbable list of inventions and innovations.
I found myself laughing out loud at his ludicrous assertions and over-the-top innuendos, like when he stared into the camera and said knowingly, “Yes, you have been selected…you know what I mean.” He gave me three minutes to fill out a survey from the drawer next to my seat, and sat there nodding and smiling at me as the clock counted down. Then he told me not to read the rest of the form I was holding in my hand. I left the office and promptly disobeyed his instructions.
It turns out the Jejune Institute is a multimedia, alternate reality game that spins you through the neighborhoods of San Francisco unraveling a complex web of (fictional) shadowy organizations and characters. For the next two hours I followed a path of clues through Chinatown and the Financial District, finding tiny details in the urban landscape that became revelations in a larger mystery. My reward at the end of the day was nothing but another clue, and when I got home I used it to uncover a huge network of websites and characters that are part of this immersive game. Later, I got a text message with another clue on how to proceed, and the next day I was on the trail again.
At many points during my adventures, gamers advised me that theirs was a rather nerdy pursuit, so I decided to exercise my inner nerd by plunging into the world of Middle Ages role-playing. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) was founded 40 years ago by a group of historical enthusiasts who wanted a chance to dress in period attire and practice medieval skills like sword fighting, archery and needlework. (One of the founders was The Mists of Avalon author Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose feminist take on King Arthur thrilled me to my toes in the eighth grade.) The San Francisco group meets on Sundays at Golden Gate Park for archery, rapier and heavy fighter practice, and I tagged along to try my hand at these refined arts.
I started on the archery field, under the guiding eyes of Lune and Dianora (SCA members take on names from the period). I hit the target a respectable number of times (thanks, Camp Kippewa), though I broke a good third of my arrows. Heavy fighting was another matter. Rodrigo and Aine helped me suit up in heavy armor that included metal chest, knee, elbow and shoulder pieces and actual chainmail. I was all right with the body armor, but once I put the helmet on, I started to have trouble walking straight. Rodrigo told me I had on 60 pounds of equipment, a good half of it on my head. I suppressed a budding claustrophobic anxiety attack from inside the helmet’s barred visor and walked onto the battlefield.
That’s when things got worse. My opponents were extremely easy on me, but just holding my rattan sword and shield in the air had me exhausted within a few minutes. And every time my shield slipped, I made myself vulnerable to conks on the head. This isn’t fencing, where you win a fight through well-timed thrusts and jabs; the goal here is more to smash your opponent with all of your strength. I couldn’t have fought for more than ten minutes total, but the next day my arms and shoulders were sore and I had a bruise on my leg where a hit had gotten around my armor.
That said, the SCA couldn’t be a friendlier crowd, and as I beat a hasty retreat from the battlefield they were eager to remind me that they have plenty of more low-impact activities, like crafts. There are regular regional tournaments and events, and sometimes even simulated battles. As I took off my armor, I noticed passing drivers peering at the oddly dressed crew, but I didn’t care. I might not have been the fiercest fighter, but I had come back from the field of battle in one piece.
Photo by Daniel Bazor. Dragon photo by wili_hybrid