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Before computer games came along--heck, before the personal computer was even a glimmer in anybody's eye--people played board games. Chess and backgammon go way, way back, of course, but as a survivor of the Baby Boom era I can remember the heyday of Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley games such as Monopoly, Clue, and Candyland (not to mention the Selchow & Righter classic, Scrabble).
Many of these games have made the transition to the PC. But honestly, how much fun is it to play Scrabble against a computer? I'm convinced this is why massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMRPGs, to the cognoscenti) have become so popular: There's no substitute for human interaction.
In Germany, where board games have remained far more entrenched in popular culture, a group of enthusiasts has taken a different tack. Instead of abandoning the games they love in order to play online, the enthusiasts have brought their games online with them--with astonishingly painstaking craftsmanship. What's more, they've made these online editions available for free to all comers at their Web site, Brettspielwelt, which means "board game world" in German.
"But I don't speak German," you're thinking. "How could I get around the site and communicate with others?" Well, I don't speak German either--or at least not much. My husband is a German-French national, but we communicate in English (his is excellent), and I've long since forgotten the basic German I learned in a year or so of classes at the Goethe Institute in San Francisco several years back.
But Brettspielwelt is reasonably English-friendly. On the home page, you can click on a tiny Union Jack icon to get an English version of the key information; there's even a nice Quick Start guide written by a native English speaker--one Jeffrey M. Bakalchuck, who appears to be working on a translation of a very comprehensive tutorial. (It is a bit disappointing, however, that clicking on the Basics button brings you to an "Under Construction" page.)
Anyway, the Quick Start guide is definitely the way to get up and running fast--although fast is a relative term here. If you access the Java-based site through your browser only, be prepared for frequent waits as applets are downloaded and installed. The alternative, which I highly recommend, is simply to download the free Java desktop client, which speeds things up considerably.
A Virtual Trip to Germany
If I've been nattering on at length about the availability of help in English, it's because at first you'll need it. Brettspielwelt is lovely to behold, but it can be intimidating to navigate, especially for newcomers. Not everything is easily done via the point-and-click graphical interface that Windows users are accustomed to: The Quick Start guide mentions a number of useful text commands, such as ones to locate and chat with players in other rooms.
Still, just figuring out how to find a game and sit at a table is challenging. Among other things, the creators of Brettspielwelt have built rooms and cities for the players to roam in between playing games, and while this attention to environmental detail is laudable, it can be confusing, too.
Also while there's plenty of English-language guidance available, the chatter of the players (at peak evening hours in Europe, as many as 1300 in 400 to 500 virtual rooms) is more often than not in German. Tobias Lang, one of the site's four principal creators, says that of the 70,000-plus registrants, no more than 10 percent are from the U.S.
So what makes Brettspielwelt worth the not-insignificant effort required to use it? The games, of course. You can find live interactive games all over the Web; but the board games here are head and shoulders above any others I've seen.
Check out Settlers of Catan, a game that enjoyed some success in North America after becoming a smash hit in Germany. Or Carcassonne (and several spin-offs), a deceptively simple yet enjoyable game in which you place tiles to create a medieval landscape. Traditional board gamers will want to inspect Brettspielwelt's versions of backgammon and go; fans of complicated trading games won't want to miss Puerto Rico; and I'm partial to Lost Cities, a fast-moving card game. I counted 57 titles in the Alles (all games) game chest during a recent visit.
Wondering how Brettspielwelt can offer virtual board games for free that cost money in their cardboard-and-plastic, shrink-wrap incarnations? Lang says the game publishers view Brettspielwelt's virtual versions as valuable promotion, and I have heard on the Brettspielwelt grapevine that publishers actually pay to have some of their games in the lineup.
I have to confess, I am more often a Brettspielwelt widow than a player. My husband (the German-French guy) turned me on to the site, and it has become the primary means for him to indulge his lifelong passion for board games. But I can understand why he's so addicted. In an age where it's often difficult to get four to six like-minded gamers together at a real table, the virtual tables on Brettspielwelt are a welcome haven.
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