EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 16, 2013

Playing games — unplugged

College touts board competition vs. online games

Mike LaBella

---- — HAVERHILL — In board games such as Defenders of the Realm, players must cooperate with each other to battle creatures and save the kingdom.

In games like Cash ‘n Guns, players bicker over how to split the loot taken in a heist. Then there are games like Bohnanza, where players trade beans in hopes of growing a good crop they can sell for the most money.

For one professor and a group of students at Northern Essex Community College, it doesn’t matter if they’re collaborating to win the game, fighting each other or negotiating for position. The most important thing is to play games face to face instead of online.

“Board games offer mental stimulation and are played in a healthy, competitive environment of social interaction,” said Mike Cross, a chemistry professor at NECC who helped found the college’s Bacon Board Gamers, a club that meets the first and third Friday of the month on the college’s Haverhill campus.

Formed two years ago by Cross and two of his students at the time, the club has since grown to about 25 members, including students, alumni and members of the public who drop to play their favorite board games or learn new ones.

Yesterday, the club held its first all-day board game tournament, an event that was open to the public. The tournament began at noon with about 10 people playing the game Anomia, which they said helps improve vocabulary and develops quick thinking. Anomia is simple to learn, but the difficulty of winning quickly becomes apparent. A player must react almost instantaneously by giving an example of the person, place, or thing on their card, such as the flavor of a doughnut or the name of a fashion designer, before an opposing player can do the same for yours.

Russell Larocque, 21, of Plaistow, a friend of Bacon Board Gamers president David Bowie of Plaistow, was eliminated in an early round of Anomia.

“I’ve even brought my friends here,” Bowie said. “It’s cheaper than going out and the club usually provides snacks.

“I used to be an online gamer, ‘Halo’ mostly, but now I rarely play it,” Bowie said. “This club offers a much better social experience. It’s kind of a retro way of doing things, which is why I’ve stayed in it so long.’’

Larocque was also eliminated in an early round of Anomia.

Anyone can join the club. It doesn’t cost a thing to play, and for $2 you can borrow one of the dozens of games the college has, including games that cost more than $50, such as Defenders of the Realm. They’ve printed up business cards, and T-shirts with the club’s logo have been ordered.

Cross jokes when he says he uses games in his classroom to help keep students awake, but is serious about their value in trying to demonstrate concepts such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

“It has to do with electrons in the atom, where you know an electron’s position but you don’t know it’s speed, and vice versa,” he said. “It’s an abstract principle they can visualize using a game.”

In this case, his favorite way of demonstrating the concept is through a children’s game called Loopin’ Louie, where Louie is in an airplane and each player controls a lever, which they use to bash the plane away from chicken tokens balancing on their barn roof.

“Louie is the electron and you hit him to change his speed,” Cross said.

Loopin’ Louie, a game of timing, was the second game played in the tournament.

“I lost in the first round,” said NECC student Jillian Spofford, 25, of Haverhill. “I guess I need more practice.”

Spofford said it was her first time playing board games with the club. She liked the experience, but wondered why most of the players were males.

“We need to bring in more girls,” she said with a smile.

Portsmouth resident Matthew Cerc, 35, heard about the Bacon Board Gamers more than a year ago and decided to join. He said the ride is worth it.

“It’s a nice evening of entertainment,” Cerc said. “I enjoy board games and probably would not be playing if it wasn’t for this club.”

Brady Tatro, 21, of Haverhill joined the club last year when he was a student at NECC.

“I come when I can,” said Tatro, a student at Salem State. “I’m a big fan of Defenders of the Realm.”

The tournament continued into the evening with Zombie Dice, Cash ‘n Guns, Bohnanza, Spot It! and PitchCar Mini before concluding with Werewolf.

“This was our first tournament and we hope to do this again,” Cross said.