Are You Board Yet?
*Speaker: David Wong (D), Stuart Baines (S), Aaron Minehan (A), Sam Milham (M)
*Location: National Library of Australia
D: Hi everyone, I’m David Wong, Chief Information Officer at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. From wherever you are welcome to this online only event being recorded at the National Library.
Through the internet we can connect with people and places across the country however it’s important that we take a moment to connect with people and places in which we find ourselves. I acknowledge and celebrate the traditional owners of the land on which the Library sits, the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to elders past and present. I thank them for caring for this land on which we at the Library are privileged to work.
In this special online only event National Library staff members and board game enthusiasts, Stuart Baines and Aaron Minehan, are joined in conversation by illustrator and game designer, Samuel Milham. Many people don’t realise the Library has its own extraordinary collection of board games. More than just an entertaining pastime they are a fascinating historical perspective of events in society. I loved playing chess when I was younger, especially with my dad, my neighbours and my friends and when I think back I’m not sure if I was just really good or if my dad let me win. Having said that with my kids I just bought them Mouse Trap last week and it’s a fantastic game and I sometimes prefer them playing that than playing on the iPad.
So whether you're a Scrabble master, a Monopoly tycoon or the one to beat in Ticket To Ride we hope you enjoy this journey into the National Library of Australia’s board game collection and Australia’s current board game landscape. I hope that it inspires you to delve deeper into the Library’s collection or to play a board game with family and friends.
S: Welcome to the National Library of Australia on the shores of Lake Burley-Griffin in Canberra. We are here for an event today, Are You Board Yet? About board games.
Before we start I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of which we are filming the event on today and the land where you might be watching this, the local indigenous peoples there and the traditional owners and if you haven’t already, do some research and find out who those owners are.
Today we are joined by Sam Milham from Melbourne via Zoom and Aaron who I have next to me here. Aaron and I both work here at the National Library. We are not librarians although our cardigans should give us away as working in the Library. We are not librarians, we work in the public engagement section and we both have an interest in board games. What you may not know is that the National Library has a board games collection so today we want to explore a little bit about that and about the board games industry in general.
The first thing I will clarify though is today we won’t just be talking about strictly board games before someone writes in the comments that a game of cards is not a board game, we’re really referring to table top games in general so role-playing card games, board games, you name it, we’ve got it in our collection so we’re going to cover off a little bit of all of that stuff.
At the moment we find ourself in a time of pandemic with COVID around the world, a lot of people are locked indoors or certainly spending more time in doors than they normally would have so board games are becoming possibly more popular and certainly statistics would tell us that that is true. Like most of you I played board games when I was a child, I have fond memories of playing Canasta with my cousins and my Nanna, moving on to things like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, not my favourite games and I still remember tearing the Trivial Pursuit board in half with my sister at one side of the board and I on the other. We all played childhood games, we all have those kind of memories. What are your first memories, Aaron, of childhood games?
A: I would think much the same as you, Stu, cards, playing cards with my Nan and then yes, the inevitable family squabbles over Monopoly. Another game I remember very fondly is a game of Frankenstein where you have to collect bolts as you moved around the board and then whoever got to the end square first got to put the bolt in a little mechanism and it woke Frankenstein up. That was pretty cool, one that stands out for me.
S: Like Mouse Trap, I always love seeing that trap come down at the end, very cool. But games have evolved, games are different now and we have a lot more variety to choose from and certainly different types coming from different genres and covering all sorts of interests and lots of recent converts to board games. We’ve got a few statistics here to give you an idea of just how big the board gaming industry is. So market research in the US has estimated the global market value of board games to be around $7.2b in 2017. Now all of this study was done before COVID and they expected that to be $12b by 2023 so you can imagine now with the boom in board game sales and more people getting into board games that’s going to far exceed the $12b that they estimated.
In the UK retail figures for April of this year, 2020, showed a 240% increase in the sale of board games and puzzles during the first week of the lockdown period. It gives you some idea of just how many people are looking for different ways to entertain themselves and possibly for the first time since they were children, getting into board games again and discovering the breadth of board games that are out there and available.
There are lots of developers, it’s not just the big companies, lots of indie developers as well, Aaron, and I know you’ve got some of those games made by indie developers yourself.
A: I do, from big companies as well as independent publishers and the kind of indie developers in my collection. I would say within perhaps the last 10 or 15 years there's been a bit of resurgence with board gaming, table top gaming, card games. I remember back when I was growing up playing board games was a bit of a niche thing, wasn’t the cool thing to do but now it’s really taken off and especially with things like the internet Kickstarter, all of those kind of crowdfunding avenues. The board game market I think has really taken off and those figures that you quoted before would very much tend to –
S: Support that.
A: Support that, yes.
S: So probably what a question that many people out in our audience are asking, and certainly it’s a question I asked when I first found out, why does the Library collect board games?
A: I think it’s the first question that everyone asks when you say “oh the Library has board games”. Here at the National Library it’s our mission, it’s our reason for existing to collect published material created by Australians, created in Australia, created about Australia and it’s our job to collect and preserve that for current generations and future generations. The things we collect are things that can give us a snapshot of Australian life at any given point and it gives us an indication of what we’re reading, what we’re seeing in the news, even what we’re eating. We have a large collection of restaurant menus which was news to me when I started here but it’s something quite cool so why not the games we’re playing as part of a snapshot of our culture?
S: So, Aaron, I imagine it’s not someone’s job here at the Library to rock down to the local shops to buy these games so how do they come into the collection?
A: If that was a job I would be the first one to put my hand up for that, I think you’d be in strong contention for that as well. But thanks to the Copyright Act of 1968 and various state acts we have something called Legal Deposit. Through Legal Deposit we get most of the things that come into the National Library’s collection so Legal Deposit basically says that anything that is published here in Australia, a book, magazine, things like sheet music, one copy of that thing should be deposited here at the National Library. So this allows us to keep it, collect it and preserve it for future generations but Legal Deposit lets us collect things as they’re created so we’re not having to retroactively go back and try and fill gaps in our collection, we get it as it’s happening.
When it comes to board games it’s a little bit different because not everyone publishes a board game like a big games studio, some people self-publish, some people don’t even publish but as I said why not collect games as part of a snapshot into our culture? So sometimes we get games into our collection through word of mouth. We have staff who are very interested in board games and they go to things like Pax, KanCon, other game conventions and through their networks and these kind of conventions they might get wind of a particularly interesting game, one that for some reason has some relevance to the National Library or our collections. Those staff members from various collection areas may approach the game developer and just say look, we’re interested in collecting your game because we think it deserves a place here and there are negotiations that are entered into. Sometimes the game creators will approach the Library cold, basically and say look, I’ve got this game, it’s published in Australia, I’m Australian, the theme is Australia, I’d really like you to consider taking it into your collections.
So, we have some games here, some examples of games that were deposited by their creator, so the creator came to us. So, in front of us here we have a game called 1066: The Year of Three Battles. So, this is a maps-based game and it’s basically re-enacting the battles in England in 1066, Hastings, things like that. It’s interesting because the maps themselves for the game was actually created using the National Library’s collection of topographic surveys of the United Kingdom which is pretty interesting, I think.
S: So, Aaron, when I first came to the Library in one of our education online resources in The Digital Classroom, and if you're a teacher you should check this out, we actually have some references to a very early board game from Australia that explored the goldfields and it’s definitely an educational game but what other kinds of games do we have in our collection?
A: So, there’s definitely a big collection of the board games that are around educational type of games. We have a lot of maps-based board games. The board game collection is actually part of the National Library’s map collection and most of the games that we have as I said are games about Australia, games published by Australians, even well known international games but with a kind of Australian twist. So the Goldfields game that you mentioned that is on The Digital Classroom, it’s fairly old. I’m not quite sure of the exact date but it’s late 1800s, something to that effect. We have another game here, in front of me here, it’s called The Mailman Game. It’s educational in a way that it’s a bit of a geography lesson so players start up here in Melbourne, Melbourne Post Office and it’s a bit of a snakes and ladders situation, you roll a dice, you move forward. You can come across bushrangers who set you back a few places, there’s a flooded river at Ballarat, there’s lots of things happening. For schoolkids who have maybe never been outside of Melbourne or outside of their town this would be something of a geography lesson.
So, we have things like the classic strategy games, Axis & Allies, we have a couple here behind us. They were not explicitly Australian or created by Australians. They do feature Australia and of course the second world war was a big part of our history so it’s definitely something that has been deemed significant enough to come into our collection. We have Monopoly, the Australian Here and Now edition but we also have the Sydney edition as well, of course the classic Monopoly game that sparked so many arguments as children.
One of my favourite games in the collection here, it’s a game called AuZtralia so that’s AuZtralia but with a Z instead of an S. It’s a new game, it was published in 2018 and it’s set in an alternate reality 1930s. The northern hemisphere is – something’s happened, the land is poisoned, can’t grow food and in this particular alternate reality Australia is safe and it’s the last hope for humanity. So players, they have to grow enough food to support mankind basically but unbeknownst to players there are aliens that lurk beneath the ground and they awaken halfway through the game. It’s quite visually stunning as well as being very interesting.
S: I feel like I need to add that to my collection.
A: I think I might be going out and buying it straight after this.
S: It’s interesting that you talk about geography lessons because I know that for me Axis and Allies was a gateway drug for me into other more complex board games away from your Monopolies etc and certainly I learnt a lot about geography through those games and the relationship in the second world war and I ended up working in military museums for 11 years of my life so it’s interesting how board games can actually impact you.
S: So, I know in our collection we’ve got some quirky and different games, small ones, big ones. In fact, we’ve got the biggest one in the world here next to me, but can you give us a little bit of an insight into some of those games?
A: Yeah so, I mean anyone who’s into board games know that they come in all different shapes and sizes and there’s board games on any theme. So, a few of the – I call them the est games, biggest, smallest, weirdest, those kinds of things so the biggest game we have in our collection in terms of physical size is this one that’s sitting in front of you, Stu, it’s called The World in Flames. Sitting on top of the box right now is actually the Guinness World Record certificate indicating that it has taken the place for the world’s largest game so that’s in terms of as I said size. The board is something like 2m -
S: Yeah, it says here 23,279.3cm2, that’s a big board.
A: It is a very, very big board. I think the count is 4,900 pieces and counters within the game and there are also several expansion packs that go with this game to make it even bigger because why not?
S: Yeah, exactly.
A: So that’s the biggest game. The oldest game we have in our collection is a maps-based game, it’s from the 1750s which is really bizarre to think board games in the 1750s and I'm sorry to any French speakers out there, I am going to butcher the name, but it’s called the Mappe-Monde. Ou carte générale de toutte la terre which basically means Map of The World or a general map of the entire world and it’s a geography lesson in a game. Players move their counters around the circular track, each square correlates to a city or a country or an ocean somewhere in the world and as players move through the board they learn little titbits about the people, the weather, even what that country is renowned for producing as well. So again, another geography lesson in a game, it’s pretty cool.
S: What’s the weirdest game in the collection for you? Your opinion.
A: What’s the weirdest game in our collection? That’s a pretty loaded question but for me some of the weirder, more slightly unusual games that we have in our collection is the Rex Hunt Fishing Adventure game. It was produced in about 1992 so for those of us who remember the Rex Hunt Fishing Adventures TV show, it is based directly off that. It’s a map of Australia, you move around Australia learning facts about fish.
S: Sounds riveting.
A: Because why not?
S: Apparently you have to kiss that one before you put it back on the shelf.
A: I haven’t tested that out but please be my guest. The other game we have, we have it here on the table, it’s called the Les Evans’ Wine Option Game.
S: Sounds more my speed.
A: Very much so. Basically, it’s a party type of game so one person acts as the sommelier, they choose a selection of wines, it’s decanted out into nonlabelled jars or glasses and the game actually includes blindfolds. So, the people who are playing are blindfolded and they have to try the wine and they have to try and identify what wine it is, what the vintage is, where it comes from. So, for those who are into wine it’s definitely your game.
S: Now I’m really into that already just based possibly on the wine alone but can we play it?
A: No. Even though we have a fantastic collection of board games here, you can come to the Library, you can call them up, you can look at them, but you cannot play the games here at the National Library. So, for me I’m very conflicted because I love nothing more than opening a brand-new board game and seeing all the pieces still in their cardboard unpunched, unfolded but at the same time I love just getting them out and diving into a game. So unfortunately no, you cannot play any of the games in our collection.
S: That is a shame, it is a shame. You won’t find any unpunched games in my house ‘cause that’s the first thing I do even if I haven’t played them. So, we’re going to move on now to talk to Sam Milham so bit of an introduction on Sam. Sam is publishing card games with a focus on fun, whacky themes through online crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. Combining his skillset of graphic design, marketing and illustrating he has turned his side project of creating games late at night into a fulltime career and he’s now helping other Aussie designers get their games made with his small start-up, greatgames.com.au. Welcome, Sam, thank you for joining us and thank you for patiently listening to us talk about our collection.
M: It’s been great.
S: So, a couple of questions for you, Sam, how would you describe what it is that you do?
M: Well basically the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, is a way for Aussies and anyone around the world, really, to come up with an idea, work on something and then bring it out into the world for people to pledge and back, support. Then basically the idea then gets made so it’s almost like a short campaign, like a 30-day campaign. So, you design your game, you get everything ready to go and it just enables people to publish games, especially board games and know your production run so your numbers based on how many people would like to purchase that game. Once it reaches its funding goal then you send it out to all your backers and people get to play it.
A: It’s a great system and I think as we touched on in the beginning it just opens up the possibilities for so many people to not only explore their talent and what they’re interested in but share that with other likeminded people.
S: So, Sam, how did you get started in board games? So, both playing board games like what’s your earliest game memory and how did you get started in the actual design process of board games?
M: Yeah, probably the earliest memory would be playing Rummy King with my grandparents so growing up we always used to go around to their place and they’d always have the real old-fashioned board games and some of the classics and stuff and like you guys said as well, Monopoly, we played a lot of just the traditional ones. Yeah, Rummy King was great. I normally hate numbers, maths and everything ‘cause I’m an arty type but Rummy King for some reason was just so much fun, adding up all the numbers and having all the runs and yeah so a lot of that. We come from a small coastal town originally so there wasn’t chance to go out and buy board games so my parents, whenever we went out of town we’d love to stock up on heaps of board games and then bring them back to the town. Yeah so that was always something to look forward to growing up and yeah family board game nights, really.
A: So, Sam, when you’re coming up with an idea for a game what comes first for you? Is it the artwork? Is it the concept or is it the audience? How does that process actually happen?
M: It’s a little bit different with each campaign so I think to date I think I’ve done about five or six campaigns so far. Each one’s been a little bit different. For some of them like the earlier ones that have started off very simply, just with coming up with a theme idea. So, I wanted to do a funny, just a very simple kids’ memory game like a matching card game but I didn’t want it to be boring and just be about matching animals or something, so I just came up with the idea of matching magical monsters with the magical monster poop. Then I tried to think what could these people be doing? I thought oh they could be plumbers or something like a magical world and then I came up with the idea of fairy god plumber which was you are this fairy plumber in Fairyland and you had try and match all the monsters to help their plumbing needs. Yeah so, each campaign’s different. It usually does start with a theme and then I try and build the game around that. So, most of my games are fairly simple, easy to learn and they’re fast and fun with a family group in mind. But each one's different.
A: That’s great. I actually have a copy of Fairy God Plumber on the way, I'm actually really looking forward to it for some bizarre reason. So that’s your design process, what you’re thinking about when you’re coming up with these games. Do you find being involved in the Australian boardgame landscape, do you find that Australians gravitate to a particular type of game? Do Australian gamers have a type, a preference of games or it’s just a bit of everything?
M: Yeah, it seems the games that go well with the Australian market is games with humour. I think most Aussies have a great sense of humour, so they gravitate towards something they can play as a group or a lot of party games are popular at the moment. But then there’s also the really hard-core audience that really love the big thematic game that takes hours to set up and hours to play. So, it’s almost like what you were saying, a niche group inside of that general board game market that love those really complex games. But I think also if we’re talking like the mainstream games that are out there, your Targets and the big stores and things like that, a lot of them are very traditional still so it’s like people overseas, there’s a lot of different board games and in Australia the mainstream market hasn’t quite caught up just yet with overseas. But it’s slowly starting to, we’re starting to see some interesting games pop up on shelves which is great. But yes, a lot of traditional games and a lot of people will just say Monopoly or Yahtzee, things like that but hopefully a lot more games continue to keep popping up on shelves.
S: So how hard is it for you – I mean I have a slight crowdfunding game addiction and there’s lots of player forms, Kickstarter, Indiego, Patreon and GoFundMe, there's a whole bunch of them but how hard do you find it, particularly in our market, to get your game from a Kickstarter game to a retail game? Is that something that’s easy to do?
M: Yes, it is. Because everything’s so digital now – probably one of the main issues when I first started was the shipping costs because a lot of your customers were coming from overseas as well. Firstly, you had to get all the copies to Australia and then you had to get all the copies to all different countries all over the world as well as Australia so it’s almost like it’s double handling. So that was the main issue with probably why it is a bit hard to get started with making board games in Australia self-publishing but as you grow and start getting more projects done and more people, more customers, more backers you can then outsource to a distribution fulfilment centre who handle all the shipping for you. They do cost a little bit extra but with volume it is a lot more easy than just keep making games.
Originally, I was just sending them all out with Aus Post so that was quite difficult but the more you learn about it you are constantly learning with how to find ways around some of the difficult steps to publishing.
A: How would you describe the game design landscape in Australia today? So, I asked you about what Australian consumers are after, but my question is more how do Australian game studios and Australian game designers, how are they faring in the wider international market competing with the big names of the big game studios? How do you think Australia is faring?
M: I think on a small level they’re doing great. There’s a lot of really good ideas coming out and there’s a lot of smaller publishing studios popping up all across Australia now. I think probably some of the bigger name games that are getting made, it’s still through the traditional publishing houses like there’s University Games. They’re an overseas company but they have offices in Australia so bigger name publishing houses like that, a lot of Australian designers are still going through that method, not going the self-publishing route so they do have a large distribution network where people, you can submit your game idea, come up with a good game idea and they'll handle everything. But they will only give you a certain per cent of your sales so there are a lot of smaller publishing industries popping up in Australia now though so that’s great to see.
A: It is great to see and it’s good to think that it will continue to grow in Australia, they get a bigger share of that market.
S: Now Sam, your background is as a graphic artist before you made board games, is that right?
M: Yes, so originally started as an illustrator and then I moved into graphic design and then that just naturally led to the whole digital world of marketing and digital design. So, all those skills came together with my love of games and board games and I just started doing it as a hobby. It is actually hard for people who don’t have all of those particular skills to then have to hire people to do the art and then have to do the design and then you have to come up with the game idea. So, it helps having those skills to just do it all yourself so that’s helped a lot with now moving into the fulltime -
S: I certainly know that – and Aaron and I have had this discussion many times in the office – about how important it is for some people that their first impression of the game, the artwork or the box or the components is really important to whether they go on to purchase. I know for me I came to know your game through Lost in Valhalla which I have also ordered and is on the way but that was because of the art, the art just appealed to me, it was fun, I could relate to it. The child in me related to it but also the game play and the idea of the game was really fun as an adult. Do you think that’s a more common way for people these days to get into games?
M: Through the artwork? Yeah, definitely, yeah, for sure. It’s almost like back in the ‘80s and ‘90s where people were buying comic books based on the art or the artist. I think it’s almost the same now these days with board games and card games. People might love a particular art style and their collection will show that but yeah, I think it certainly helps people get into the game which is the art but then also they still need to be fun to play. So yeah, it is a bit of both, but the art definitely helps.
A: Sam, do you have any tips or any advice for any aspiring illustrators, artists, game designers, anyone with an interest in board games, if they want to try and get into the game-designing industry, do you have any tips for those people?
M: Yeah, definitely join some Facebook groups. I think there’s one called Tabletop Game Designers Australia, that’s probably the biggest, people can share their ideas and people comment and support each other. A lot of really smart people there as well that help you out with mechanics and ideas. It’s another great way to team up with people to help complement your skills so if you are an artist you could maybe meet someone there that’s a great designer or someone who can help offset your skills. Yeah so, I would probably say yeah, definitely join some Facebook groups and try and find some people to help with skills that you might not have.
A: So, get into and build a bit of a network and then branch out from there.
M: Definitely, yeah.
A: Some really great advice for anyone who’s ever dreamed of designing a game or anything like that. So, I guess our last question for you, Sam, is you’re in Melbourne, you’re in lockdown, do you have a go-to game at the moment and you can say one of your own, that’s fine but do you have a go-to game at the moment that you’re playing?
M: Yes. Yeah, we have a couple. One that we’re trying to get through is called Tapestry and that is one of the giant – takes 12 days to set up the game and then by the time you finished setting it up you’ve finished, you're okay, it’s time to go to bed. We’re trying to get through that one which is a bit more complex but fun and then some of the more simple easy ones, we have just a bunch of funny games like Unicorns, just the simple card games. Magic Maze is another one so just a whole mix, really.
A: Stu, what about you? What’s your go-to game or games?
S: At the moment Dreary Hamlet which is a Canberra-based game, came out a few years ago. It was a family favourite except I kept winning so now no-one wants to play it. Kill The Unicorns is up there as well so things that we can get out quickly and play. What about you?
A: I think my go-to game is probably Tokaido, I think it’s a great, easy game to play with a lot of people, the artwork is absolutely stunning. That and probably maybe The Settlers of Catan, go really old school and play some The Settlers of Catan is my go-to.
S: Well that’s the whole box and dice, thank you everybody for joining us and check out the National Library’s board game collection and all the rest of our collection online.
Did you know the National Library has board games?
Join our very own board game enthusiasts Stuart Baines and Aaron Minehan as they take a look at some of the unique board games hiding away on the shelves at the National Library. Not only do we have hundreds of board games dating as far back as the 1700s, the National Library is also home to the world's LARGEST board game, "World in Flames". We have the Guinness Book of World Records certificate to prove it!
Australian Design Group, issuing body, designer, and Harry Rowland, 2019, World in flames: global conflict: 1939-1945, nla.cat-vn8145778
Stuart and Aaron chat to illustrator and game designer Sam Milham about the board game landscape in Australia and the role of games generally, especially given our lockdown circumstances in 2020.
Whether you’re a Scrabble master, Monopoly tycoon or you’re the one to beat at Ticket to Ride, there’s a board game for everyone.
While we can't loan out the board games in our collection, you can take a look at a selection here.
About Sam Milham
Sam Milham is an Australian Illustrator based in Melbourne who works in the creative industry, producing and publishing card games and books, as well as working with brands and companies such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
Sam published his first book through online crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, followed by his first card game in 2018. Focussing on fun, wacky themes and characters, such as "Larry the Unicorn", "Barry Bullfrog" and "Myrtle the Mermaid", Sam's distinctive games have been providing children and families with a whole lot of entertainment.
Having worked in the toy and licensing industry as a graphic designer and digital marketer, Sam turned his side project of creating games late at night into a full time career - and is now helping other Australian designers get their games made with his small startup company Great Games.
Image at top: National Game Co., designer, issuing body, 1910, The National bicycle game, for 2, 3, or 4 players [detail], nla.cat-vn7420143