Game maker makes right move with convention

August 07, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

Paul Barker is a turncoat.

The 37-year-old geography teacher from England is in Maryland on his vacation commanding the American forces in the Revolutionary War against the British. Mr. Barker, a thin chap with a trim mustache, relished his traitorous role during a match yesterday in the "AvalonCon World Boardgaming Championships" at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn.

The championships, which started Wednesday and end today, are a promotion for the Avalon Hill Game Co. of Baltimore, maker of strategic board games. About 2,000 hard-core players from around the world hunched over boards indoors yesterday on what was perhaps the nicest day this summer to be outdoors.

Mr. Barker and his wife, who spent the day sunning and shopping, planned their two-week vacation around the event. Mr. Barker spent the day in a ballroom playing "We The People," a game that simulates the Revolutionary War which, by the way, the British lost again -- this time on the board.

"To the British, it's not a very important war," says Mr. Barker, who prefers to talk about great wars won. "There were other more important bits of empire to fight for."

Fights for empires of all kinds filled every meeting room at the Hunt Valley Inn. Players crowded around tables in the lobbies and hallways, as well.

"We take over the entire hotel," says Jack Dott, the 36-year-old president of the Avalon Hill Game Co. "Here's a whole world you'd never know exists unless you actually see it."

Such conventions are common, but little known outside the circle of fanatics, who are typically men in their 20s and 30s, well-educated, historically literate and hooked on board games. This is the fourth annual convention sponsored by Avalon Hill.

"You get to be a historical Monday-morning quarterback," Mr. Dott says. "If you'd been Napoleon at Waterloo, could you have done better?"

Mr. Dott says 55 percent of his company's more than 200 games are based on military themes such as D-Day, Gettysburg and even piracy. The rest involve a wide variety of themes such as dinosaurs, baseball and Shakespeare.

Prices for board games range from $5 to $85. The top-priced game is "The Longest Day," which "traces the Normandy campaign inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot. The box weighs about 15 pounds," Mr. Dott says.

The most complicated game is "Advanced Squad Leader," which comes with 200 pages of rules. Most other games are far simpler, however. Some are designed for families. The company also makes computer games.

"The great thing about a board game is the social aspect," Mr. Dott says. "You can certainly say this: It beats TV."

The "AvalonCon" competition in Hunt Valley involves 80 of the company's games. People pay $30 each to enter and play one another until that game's "world champion" emerges. The winner receives an Avalon Hill gift certificate, a plaque and their picture in the company's magazine, General.

Mr. Dott says 44-year-old William E. Barr, who owns a flag store in Baltimore, is a typical board-game player. Mr. Barr was taking a break from a game called "Empire in Arms."

"This is absolutely essential to my well-being and sanity," he says of playing board games. "I get rid of my tension this way. Some people ride horses, knit or show dogs. This is for me."

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