Thousands expected in Wellington for board game convention

WellyCon is expecting to see plenty of board gamers swarm the capital.
WellyCon is expecting to see plenty of board gamers swarm the capital. Photo credit: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

If your experience of board games is limited to traumatic childhood Monopoly sessions, WellyCon is unlikely to be your cup of tea.

But for the 1400 gamers expected at New Zealand's biggest board game convention this weekend, it's a chance to show off their finest strategic thinking and world-building skills.

"Modern board games are intellectual and stimulate the creative part of your brain," WellyCon co-founder Ceedee Doyle says.

"They're not rough and violent like sports can be. It's not surprising that they have taken off again."

Doyle, an IT consultant by day, is one of a small team organising the two-day board game extravaganza.

WellyCon has grown from humble beginnings 16 years ago (a few tables reserved inside a war games session) to being the first event to grace Wellington’s flash new convention centre, Tākina. By Tuesday this week, 1000 tickets had been sold, with Doyle anticipating another 400 bought by the weekend.

That level of exponential growth and excitement might surprise those who struggle to keep up with Snakes and Ladders, but Doyle says games have been part of the human experience for thousands and thousands of years.

"The oldest game in the world, Ur, dates to before the pyramids. There's something about human nature, we like to have a past time."

Doyle says people used to use games for improving their strategic thinking or developing practical skills – and the same motivations still exist.

"We've gone through the industrial era when you were part of a machine and we've come out of that into modern thinking work, where it's all about the brain and what you as a unique person can bring."

While traditional board games are largely luck-based, modern board games require a greater level of brain power, Doyle says.

Board games' obsession can bite deeply.
Board games' obsession can bite deeply. Photo credit: Mirelle Raad - Unsplash

“With modern board games, there are often many ways to win. In Monopoly, the way to win is to crush everyone else.

"In modern board games, it's much more about how you think and how you use your resources in the best way. You might win by gathering lots of resources, or by diplomacy, or by building a fantastic city. You've got to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing."

Board games played at WellyCon vary in length and difficulty. An average game lasts from 60-90 minutes, while a long game will soak up two hours or more. Doyle says the longest game she knows of, Twilight Imperium, lasts an epic 12 hours.

"It has a small, but very dedicated following," she says. "It's a range of people, not just all the geeks, and they love it."

These games also vary in cost; while a simple card game might cost $10, a super-deluxe board game might cost several hundred dollars. Doyle says the average game costs $80-100.

Participants are welcome to bring their own games to WellyCon, but there are plenty available to play – Doyle "borrows a whole lot" from a board game rental business in Wellington's Island Bay.

Doyle played traditional board games as a child with her younger brother, but the habit dropped away as she went through high school and university.

"In my teens I was a heavy-ish computer gamer, but I discovered reasonably quickly that if I started on something like that, I wouldn't stop. I decided computer games were not a good use of my time."

It wasn't until she was in her 30s that a couple of chance encounters with modern board games piqued her interest.

"Someone bought Settlers of Catan around to my house and we played it, I thought it was fantastic," she says.

"The next thing, I was on holiday in the UK and queuing to get into Wimbledon. Someone in front of me was playing Carcassonne, which is a tile-laying game. I was watching them play, thinking 'this is brilliant!'"

She says board games are a more social experience than computer gaming – you're in person, interacting in real time – but many other players enjoy both.

"That said, during the pandemic, when no one could get together, the first thing we did was find an online platform we could play together on."

Doyle says the WellyCon community is welcoming and indifferent to age or experience. Some players are still at primary school, others are Gold Card holders.

"There is of course your classic geek or nerd, who is very much treats it like a study session, they're all about making sure they know everything.

"We used to have a session specifically for kids, but a couple of years ago we decided that we didn't need that any more. When kids come and they're taking part in a game, everyone treats them the same as everyone else. They're just as clever."

With more than 270 board games in her personal collection, all neatly catalogued in a spreadsheet, Doyle has a couple of long-term favourites "that I'll play anytime".

The first of them is Galaxy Trucker, a two-phase game that requires players to successfully construct a spaceship, then survive a journey in it through space.

"I love the puzzle-y nature of the first half, then proving you've done a good job in the second half."

While Galaxy Trucker was an instant hit, it took her a while to get the hang of her second all-time favourite, Castles of Burgundy.

"When I first played it, I thought it was pretty average. But my regular group that I play games with on a Friday play it all the time, so now I love it. I like the challenge of trying to beat people who are good at it."

Her current game of choice, Ark Nova, requires players to build a zoo.

"There's a lot going on in it, you have to play it a couple of times to get the interactions of the different mechanics. At the end of the game, you can tell the story of your zoo. It's quite neat."

The beautiful thing about modern board gaming is its diversity, Doyle says.

"There are games that are purely about the mechanics, about how the cogs in the machine work and how you have to make them as efficient as possible. Others have a full-on story, where the way you win points is by having other people like your story. Some people love a theme, others aren't into that at all. There is something for everyone."