Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

Big Game and where to find it

One of my new favourite Wikipedia pages is List of world championships in mind sports, which lives up to its name. At one point I had a long-term slow-burning plan to start a low-volume blog which detailed the existence of the various mind sports world championships that existed, updating each of perhaps forty or fifty once every year, or two years, or less frequent, as appropriate. This hasn't happened, and the Wikipedia page now gives me a good excuse not to be the one to make it happen.

One thing I haven't yet found online is a survey of festivals at which many different mind sports are played. There used to be a brilliant site with the counterpart for physical sports, but it has closed and Wikipedia's list of multi-sport events is nearly as good.

The International Mind Sports Association (IMSA) attempts to be a co-ordinating board for mind sports' governing bodies, and held an event they called the World Mind Sports Games in 2008. There are suggestions that a second one might happen in August 2012, with at least one source suggesting it might happen in the UK.

(Edit: I have taken so long to write this that the World Bridge Federation now quote the IMSA as announcing - though doing so on their web page would be too easy, obviously - that the venue will be either Cardiff, Wales or Strasbourg, France. Decision to follow around, er, the Thursday before last.)

Whether it does or not, the IMSA supported the World Mind Games, which took place in December 2011, organised and funded by SportAccord, formerly known as GAISF, a co-ordinating board for all sports' governing bodies, whether mental or physical. Similarly, I'm not sure whether there will be another World Mind Games, but SportAccord are co-ordinating at least three or four different sectoral multi-sports festivals (combat sports, mind sports, beach sports and artistic sports) so clearly have the ability and funding to do so.

As a digression, I note that the IMSA only currently has four mind sports' governing bodies involved, with a fifth as an observer. There are several well-developed mind sports with governing bodies which are not yet represented. For instance, WESPA, the World English-language Scrabble Players' Association, looks pretty well-developed and manufacturer-neutral to me. Also, their web site tells you about a guy who scored 850 in a competitive game two five weeks ago - against an opponent who was seriously trying to win, and has the talent to have finished 17th in the 2009 World Championship, so no high-score patsy. The play-through is pretty crazy. (Other mind sports still are well-developed even without a governing body, or anything in excess of a tournament organiser.)

If there's a connection between the four bodies represented in the IMSA then it's that they're all SportAccord members in their own right. In turn, this requires 40+ national member federations from three continents, jumping through documentation hoops and reputedly a fair expense. I'm not sure if SportAccord membership actually is an IMSA membership requirement - and, if it is, why it should be one.

The Mind Sports Olympiad is keeping things going and will have a UK event for the sixteenth consecutive year in August 2012. Credit to them for having produced a reliable schedule as far ahead as November; after years and years of not knowing whether the MSO would happen until weeks or very small numbers of months before the event, this is the sort of notice the world had hoped for all along. Additionally, this year's prices are identifiably better than the ones almost a decade ago. I have so much history with the MSO that I'm far from objective about the event and its web site, but there can be nothing but applause for the schedule and the prices.

It's relevant that the Mind Sports Olympiad started out with the eventual aspiration of featuring the world championship in every mind sport - or, at least, a top-level competition in every mind sport. Compare with the way that the de facto single top competition in some physical sports is at the Olympics, whereas the Olympics is on parallel with the world championships at some others, and less significant still at others. It's not too far-fetched to ascribe similar targets to the World Mind Games and the World Mind Sports Games.

However, the biggest mind sports are so well-developed that the top competitors don't come cheaply; I note that the Chess World Cups are considered missable by many of the top players, and they distribute about one and a half million US dollars in prize money. While chess doesn't require a Wimbledon budget, I suspect even a three million US dollar prize fund (say, a million US for first place, top 100 all receive five figures US) might not be quite enough to attract all the top names to a completely open competition.

International Go tournaments have winners' prizes in low six figures US - so, while cheaper than chess, not much so. Shogi (Japanese chess) is a little richer than go, Xiangqi (Chinese chess) is at least half (and probably all of) an order of magnitude less rich, Scrabble is at the low end of that range, draughts formats are lower still. Poker and backgammon have large prizes but these are habitually self-funded from entry fees so any sort of sponsorship would represent an overlay. I'm not sure about the economics of Bridge; contests seem to have huge entry fees and no prizes, which needs further investigation.

Returning to the primarily domestic Mind Sports Olympiad, I also note that their new chief organizer is promoting Diving Chess, a variant of his own device. Contestants must repeatedly submerge themselves, and remain submerged, while they consider their move, and surface only to make the move on the floating chess board (and, incidentally, draw breath). I can't help feeling the concept is effectively "chess boxing for those who don't want to get hit", but that's OK. Chess boxing may originally have been a joke but there are evidently some competitors who are really pretty strong at the two. It will be interesting to see whether the competitive apneists are attracted to this in the way that the boxers are evidently attracted to chess boxing.

(Very weakly tangentially related to this, severalbees wrote a really, really, really good survey of fictional games the other day. Diving chess has the "Sports From The Future" nature and thankfully doesn't have the crucial twist that practically defines the "It's Chess, But…" nature!)

The Central European Mind Sports Olympiad has been running in Prague every year since 2001 and there are regards in which it more exactly meets the Mind Sports Olympiad's original goals than the London event does. The 2011 events in English language do indicate some degree of migration towards modern thematic games, which is in keeping with the Olympiad tradition. Likewise, MSO Cambridge started at about the same time; while it probably peaked in the early-middle zeroes first decade of the 21st century, there is enough continued support to keep it going, and all credit to the Cantabrigians who keep it on the road.

Another take on the whole principle is the Boardgame (sic) Players Association's World Boardgaming Championships in Pennsylvania in August. The event has history back to 1991 with origins in one particular company's tournaments, and the event's players chose to give it an overblown name rather than there being someone with excessive self-importance making a ridiculous nomenclature land grab. It's certainly true that the very considerable majority of the tournaments represent the height in their particular game, but there are significant exceptions. The convention has built up its own considerable heritage and mythology through the years, though some of its practices are rather arbitrary, arguably inaccessible. Additionally, while I'm glad language is a living, breathing entity with little objectively right or wrong, call me stuck in a previous century, but I consider boardgame to be up there with gameshow as hideously ugly single-word constructions go. Two words, please, people.

There definitely is a continuum of these multi-event festivals. At one end, they take the form of pure collections of raw competitions. At the other end, they are games fairs that might happen to feature a few competitions. There is no right or wrong; different approaches will suit different people to greater or lesser extents.

The whole inspiration for this article, which I only discovered recently, was the annual Games Festival of Halkidiki, Greece with the ambitious URL of http://www.gamesfestival.com/ and I'm uncertain quite where on the spectrum it lands. The highlight of the 2012 edition is the World Amateur Chess Championship, a tournament whose modern (i.e. non-1920s) incarnation can be chased back to the 1998-9 edition of Hastings. However, the web site concentrates on this to the exclusion of anything else.

It's difficult to find what else is featured at the festival; there is an extent to which the different mind sports seem to do their things independently, even to the point of advertising. This does not seem terribly true to the concept of an integrated festival covering many different mind sports, but it's probably the pragmatic thing to do. What I consider to be an unintended and unfortunate conclusion in practice derived from the years of the Mind Sports Olympiad is that the vast majority of paying customers prefer to concentrate on only a very small number of mind sports and there are relatively few with a liberal approach to competing in many different competitions.

This rather backs up the Greek Games Festival's apparent reluctance to cater for those with interests across the board. It's just disappointing that it's so difficult to find out what else is on offer. In truth, the Greek Backgammon Federation has as much news as I've seen anywhere: "During the Games Festival bigger event, which will last one week, there will be parallel tournaments in chess, bridge, poker, scrabble and biriba", the last of which is a national card game that seems to be the local member of the Canasta family. Hurrah for local flavour.

Marginally the oldest of all of these events, I think, is the Cannes International Games Festival, this year's (er, the week before last's… whoops) event being the 27th edition. Tournaments in chess, draughts, Scrabble, Bridge and other card games during the week, then Friday to Sunday is taken up with an open exhibition of people exhibiting their games and/or running tournaments. There's probably as much non-games activity as you would find at a media con of reasonable size, too. I'm not sure that the festival plays all that particularly closely with the rest of the gaming hobby, and there's no clear reason why; might the Francophony be putting people off?

The clear thing to compare the Cannes Festival to would be the famous Essen festival of legend, which may well be more famous among the board gaming fraternity because so many German manufacturers release their new games there. I suppose there's a large element to which attending these essentially municipal festivals is a DIY affair, though Essen attendance has been so mainstream to at least some parts of the British games hobby for, what, about twenty years now that BoardGameGeek has quite a well-developed FAQ document about attendance. I'm not sure why there isn't, or couldn't be, a counterpart document for the Cannes festival. Some year, some year, perhaps.

An obvious follow-up question is why there couldn't be a counterpart event in the UK. As good a starting-point as any is the extent to which Cannes and Essen get support form the local government or not. The closest, privately-organised, equivalent over here is the UK Games Expo, which has managed six annual iterations so far. At first I thought "Lovely idea, but it'll never last"; fingers crossed that I restricted myself to thinking it, otherwise I will have words (probably in this here blog) somewhere along the line that I will happily eat.

It's nearly a couple of orders of magnitude smaller, which might not necessarily be a bad thing for those who don't like crowds, and there is an entrance fee - but a reasonably modest one as cons go. This covers entrance to the trade halls and the demo games; taking part in RPG sessions or game tournaments costs a little more, but the prices are again quite reasonable. The subject matter covers all the usual suspects (miniatures, trading card games, board games, RPGs, computer games) and some years have found people willing to run something live-action, to a greater or lesser extent.

It's based in Birmingham in the West Midlands. The first seven editions have taken place at the Clarendon Suites venue, with off-site accommodation in hotels just up the road; from 2013 onwards, the event will move to the NEC Metropole, out of town but a short skip from Birmingham International railway station and the airport. Thumbs up for being able to stay on-site, and I suspect this will facilitate closer to 24-hour gaming for those who want it, but I can't imagine it's going to be cheap. Nevertheless, if the event is to grow further, perhaps the move to the Metropole is what it needs in the fullness of time.

Fingers crossed for bigger and better things all around the world!

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