From the Director’s Chair — What’s In A Name?
Jan. 15, 2008

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By Don Greenwood, WBC Convention Director

Ever since we started the WBC, we’ve drawn fire from some quarters about the validity of our name: World Boardgaming Championships. Since this issue continues to flare up from time to time even among our most ardent members, I thought it time to throw in my two cents. Our membership weighs in on a variety of topics every year on our discussion board with varying degrees of civility, and I generally do my level best to refrain from comment.

The latest brush fire to break out there was a discussion on the validity of our name. People, by their very nature, are prone to disagreement and gamers are certainly not immune. The history of mankind is a never ending series of wars, conflict and lesser disagreements of how we all see things differently and want our own way. Whether we’re talking politics, ice cream flavors or road rage, everyone has an opinion and a tendency to value the other guy’s point of view less charitably than perhaps we should. The internet age has not changed that and if anything has added new fuel to the fire with the advent of "flame wars" to the human lexicon.

This fact of life is regrettably on display all too often in our window to the world on Consimworld which often resembles more of a debating society than (for gamers at least and with apologies to Disney) the happiest place on earth. Although it is tempting to lay the blame for this at the feet of a few vocal members who just love to argue in the age of the internet soapbox, I believe we generate so much heat because our members feel empowered to speak their mind since they buy into the notion that they really do own a piece of WBC.

It is their convention not just because it happens to be in their region, or caters to their interests, but because as members they own a piece of it. They elect a Board that makes the policies. If enough of them don’t like the job I’m doing, they can fire me and get somebody to run the thing that knows what they’re doing. If only enough of them can agree on that course of action. That sense of empowerment does not naturally flow to the customers of convention X owned by a faceless corporation or an all powerful owner where one just takes what is offered without question. Under those circumstances it is understandable that our folder is often mistaken for a war zone by the outside world. Actually, as hobby groups go, ours is rather tame, but even so…it still makes me cringe.

Your Board of Directors is a microcosm of the membership at large. Those nine gamers are rarely of the same mind on just about any subject you care to name. It should come as no surprise then that the membership at large has even more unresolved concerns than the ones we nine endlessly debate behind closed doors so as not to offend the prying eyes of a curious world. Some of those issues can be pretty esoteric and chalked up to the musings of a distinct minority. Others defy resolution because they generate just as much heat on either side of the aisle. Damned if you do—damned if you don’t. Appeasing X by offending Y does not generally equal an improvement. Change under such conditions is usually slow in coming and handicapped by the half measures of compromise because it generally causes more problems than it solves. That’s when it dawns on you that you’re probably doing it right just the way it is.

All of which is an introduction to the latest debate topic to grace our folder, which is the validity or lack thereof of our name: World Boardgaming Championships. It’s not that this particular topic is anything new. It is a criticism that has been around as long as we have. Is it valid? Yes and no…depending on your point of view.

But the philosophy behind it is something that is perhaps long overdue for some sort of explanation to counterbalance all the potshots that have been taken at i it over the years. In doing so, perhaps we’ll make clearer the reasoning behind other related issues that continue to vex various people from time to time. For if there is one undisputed truth about WBC, it is that everybody would change something about it if they could…but others would then change it back.

To preface this discussion, I’ll quote two of our outspoken members on the topic—Jeff Cornett and Eric Freeman. Jeff sparked the latest debate by pushing for the publication of a BPA mission statement in his quest to see our winners more widely recognized as world champions. For this, he was taken to task by several members with opposing viewpoints. My response is not directed at either Jeff or Eric—both of whom have valid points…but at the subject in general. A small part of their exchange follows:

"Regardless, we truly have the best organized tournament game convention in the world. To say the WBC is not the world boardgame championships is disrepectful to not only our tournament winners but also to our leadership."

Jeff, in general I often agree with you, and on your first point here I definitely do (and I think everyone reading this would also).  It is the best organized tournament boardgame convention in the world.  However, IMO it is a far leap from that to claiming that the tourneys there somehow crown a "world champion."  Hell, in most cases the winner isn’t even the best player to show up to Lancaster. Because of conflicts and whatnot often many of the best players present at Lancaster don’t even participate in a particular tournament of the game. To truly identify the "best player" even among those that show up would require more time than any of us truly really wants to commit, as you’d need multiple game plays to iron out the statistical variation of results.

Winning a tournament at the WBC requires skill for sure, but it also takes a lot of good luck.  It is an accomplishment in and of itself.  Whether one calls it a "world championship" or not does not make the accomplishment any better or worse.  It isn’t "disrespectful" of the winners if they aren’t called "world champions".

"To those who think the WBC does not deserve the title of World Boardgames Championship, perhaps you should nominate for our consideration another convention that is more deserving of this title."

I find this statement to be a bit disingenuous.  Sure, there is no other convention more deserving of the title, but it implies that SOME convention deserves the title.  That I just don’t agree with.

I think it is great that we aspire to reach that goal, but in a practial manner of speaking, I just don’t think it is possible.  I mean, seriously, how many of us would go if the con were held in Australia or Japan? In this day and age, I think a true "world championship" can only be held in an online competition on Vassel, SBW, BSW, XBox 360, Cyberboard, wargameroom, or the like. That way anyone in the world can play with a relatively small barrier of entry. The final of a just-completed Amun Re five-player tournament on Spiel by Web had strong players from Australia, UK, Brazil, East Coast US, and West Coast US.  It wasn’t claiming to crown a "world champion", but if the quality of the competition and the finalists was the determining factor for such a title, it surely had more claim to it than the WBC tournament. Any tournament that is location-centric will just never be able to obtain as strong a field, because the cost of entry is too high and the potential "reward" just does not justify the cost.

Back to my soapbox.

I’ve gone on record as agreeing with Eric that his above points are undeniable. Anyone wishing to throw stones at a WBC "world champion" can certainly score points with such an attack. My point is why would anyone care to do so other than for the mean-spirited joy of raining on someone else’s parade? This reminds me of the all too frequently volunteered refrain of those intimidated by competition that they play for "fun". Good for them, but forgive me if I do not subscribe to the
theory that competitive play and fun are mutually exclusive. I resent the inference that those who find the "fun" level amps up another level when competing are somehow inferior to those who don’t. To be sure, I’ve had "fun" playing games in Open Gaming situations, but nothing on the order of magnitude I’ve experienced when playing in an organized competition.

I don’t mock others for refraining from competition, so why must they go out of their way to decry those who enjoy it? I grant you that any game worth its salt should be fun to play regardless of the circumstances. But those who feel the need to defend their own timidity by downgrading the achievements of others are just looking to throw stones. Speaking for myself, I’ve had far more uncomfortable encounters in Open Gaming situations than I’ve had in tournaments where a certain sense of decorum is expected from the participants.

Last time I looked, BPA has never put down any other champion bestowed by any other organization, or household for that matter. If convention X or publisher Y proclaims someone else a world champion, you will not get any argument from us. WBC champs are recognized by BPA as OUR champions. These are the folks that cared enough to come to the appointed time and place to compete and won their way to our title. We’ll proudly proclaim them as such. Whether that carries any weight with Joe Bystander is a matter of personal choice just as the winner of baseball’s World Series must deal with the doubts of those Japanese and Latin American baseball fans who wonder why their teams were excluded from the process.

There I go…being presumptuous…comparing BPA to Major League Baseball is certainly a stretch. Or is it? It’s all a question of relative credibility. We’re certainly light years behind Major League Baseball in resources, history, media coverage and anything else that matters…but in the field of boardgaming what better standard is there?

WBC came about because nature abhors a vacuum. There was no dearth of gaming conventions in the US. Far from it. But there was a total lack of conferences that gave competitive gaming its due. Tournaments were relegated to secondary status (or worse) with corresponding dwindling fields and stature. Gaming conventions became less and less attractive to those with a competitive itch to scratch. WBC was born to provide an alternative to that status quo. For those who liked to compete, WBC was the only place that did it as a priority and not as a sideline. That, in itself, is reason enough to earn the title World Boardgaming Championships in my opinion.

At this point, we should look back at how we came by that name. Unlike another prominent gaming convention, this one can’t blame me for its name. When WBC was born, the name was collectively chosen by those initial charter members—many of whose names still grace our patrons page. Presumptuous? Perhaps … blame our members…they chose the name…but who had a better right to it? Can you really blame them for wanting to build something that fell to them virtually by default?

If it existed elsewhere, they wouldn’t have aspired to it—and in those days internet technology hadn’t yet evolved widespread computer aided gaming. Although to be fair, on-line gaming and "live" play till you drop convention gaming are two very different animals. Just because you excel at one, doesn’t mean you’d be much good at the other. And while the geographic diversity of internet gaming is undeniable, I’ve seen WBC finals which come close to matching the diversity of that Amun
Re example cited above. It is certainly part of WBC’s appeal that one can experience a wide variety of playing styles by testing one’s mettle against those from other gaming groups.

Every convention is regional despite its reach. You will find a disproportionate percentage of attendees are drawn from local environs for simple matters of convenience, time and expense. But a conference that regularly draws a third of its participants from great distances can certainly lay claim to greater credibility in being national or international in scope. While WBC does not pretend to draw as many international travelers as an Essen—the world’s largest game fair— it certainly draws its fair share. Our 2007 laurelists alone hailed from 41 states and provinces of the United States and Canada and 10 nations.

Certainly other conventions are bigger and draw from a wider region, but none of them feature competitive gaming as their raison d’etre or focus strictly on boardgames. And with good reason … competition requires standardization, organization and acceptance of uniform practices to establish credibility…and boardgames are the very antithesis of that. Their rich and highly varied subject matter, systems, and complexity levels defy categorization. Their following is so fractured by individual preferences that relatively few games develop a significant following even in a niche hobby like boardgames.

Game tournaments that rise to the level of "championship" class for the public at large fall into one of two categories. Most common are games which are so generic (poker, bridge, chess) that they have mass appeal. Rules are standardized, not open to interpretation, and qualified officials can be easily found. Whole organizations exist to service one game with regional tournaments qualifying champions for higher level play. Their counterparts are the faddish commercial successes whose publishers yield so much economic clout that they can afford to sponsor big cash prize tournaments for the publicity windfall it will generate (Monopoly, Magic, Pokemon) and hire officials to administer them. In the boardgame business, this is the equivalent of hitting the lottery and happens just about as often.

For fans of the less successful niche games which encompasses nearly everything in the Adventure Gaming and Euro realm, this degree of organized competition simply does not exist and most likely never will outside the realm of internet play. Heck, many, if not most, of the events played at WBC are for games which are no longer even published. The selection of games offered at WBC is eclectic at best and certainly open to errors of omission when contemplating what games are most deserving of inclusion. And while I cannot guarantee our champions are the best players in the world, I feel relatively safe in saying that for a few of the older titles, our champions are certainly among the best players in the world of those games if for no other reason than they enjoy the advantage of annual tests against other players with well-honed skills.

For many other events, it is true that the level of play is often less than stellar—especially in the preliminary rounds. Like everything else, competition at WBC is a compromise between the ideal and the practical. Most tournaments serve as a form of scheduled Open Gaming for many attendees—offering a chance to play a wide variety of games and opponents at a set time. Whether an event offers a veteran player a chance to knock off the rust of a game long forgotten or allows players a first chance to play a new game, some tournament participants are there for one round only, win or lose. Such encounters may be enjoyable learning experiences, but are rarely the stuff of legend. The further one advances in a tournament, the stiffer the competition and the greater the sense of achievement. Truth be told, few events at WBC are structured to be true tests of skill which crown the best player. Time simply does not allow for the pure swiss formats required to minimize the luck of the draw. Instead, most events are structured to efficiently crown a fairly selected champion as quickly as possible and speed the players off to enjoy other pursuits.

As for complaints about conflicting schedules, as hard as I try, I just can’t muster much sympathy. I’m sure Wilt Chamberlain would have been a helluva tight end too. Life is full of tough choices. Make one.

So where does WBC get off daring to proclaim itself the World Boardgaming Championships? Sorry, I couldn’t fit "The Better Than Average Boardgaming Championships" on a plaque. At the risk of offending those who take being politically correct more seriously, I think the name quite appropriate. To me, it gets the message across quickly that this is a convention where competitive gaming is given first priority with no apologies. The brand says to me—and I hope to others—that if you attend you will be rewarded with the greatest likelihood that the event of interest to you will draw a reasonable field of like-minded players sharing your interest in that game who come prepared to play it to the best of their ability. If one investigates further they’ll discover why.

  • We don’t offer an unlimited number of events. We turn events away because we want to focus on a number that we can properly support and which will offer the greatest likelihood of drawing a reasonable field. And while there are undoubtedly those who would be quite content playing in eight-player tournaments, if we ran unlimited events, yours would probably no longer be drawing those same eight players. So we cull our events every year and allow our membership to vote on next year’s attractions. We’d rather you not attend, then come and be disappointed by a listed event which failed to provide you with a satisfying experience. While there are exceptions, for the most part our tournaments are the most highly attended of their kind in the world.
  • In a niche hobby with a diverse following that defies categorization and relies on volunteers, we attempt to bring some small measure of standardization and quality to the tournament gaming experience. As standards go, ours are pretty minimal, but we labor mightily to see that they are uniformly applied. Our attendees can be confident that their events have been explained in advance on our website, that a uniform system of behavior is expected of and by our GMs and that all promised prizes will be forthcoming. Afterwards, the achievements of the winners will be made known for posterity as we record their feats.

Frankly, when it comes to whether WBC is appropriately named or not, I’m far more concerned about whether it comes off as being too serious than I am about it being too presumptuous. The grandiose title is more apt to reinforce the newcomer’s common mistaken stereotype that this is all about super serious types out for blood. In truth, whatever their reasons for attending initially, most who make the return pilgrimage every year do so out of a desire to renew old friendships over the nostalgic background of a favorite game. Playing for "wood" and bragging rights is about as serious as we get. While other "championship events" inevitably use prize money as the draw, WBC disdains all cash prizes. Even our metagaming champ, Caesar—symbolic of our Gamer of the Year—wins nothing but respect and another plaque while the "money" prizes are reserved for our Sportsmanship and Best GM winners.

So, sorry, this probably won’t pass for a Mission Statement, but it will have to do. WBC is many things to many people, and I can’t speak for all of them. But in my humble opinion, we certainly have nothing to apologize for when it comes to the validity of our name.

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