We may be living in a digital age, yet – paradoxically – it’s also an age of nostalgia. We stare at our phones, tablets, and monitors, but crave something more authentic than remote access. Geek culture is trending, and niche activities that used to thrive discreetly now flaunt their geekiness and retro appeal. A good example of this phenomenon here in Malta is tabletop gaming, especially board games that feature role playing or warring armies.
How does a role-playing game work? To begin with, the game-master constructs a skeletal plot based on rules set out within the instructional material of whichever game is selected – Dungeons & Dragons, say, or Vampire: The Masquerade. Each player then inhabits a character, and they all flesh out the plot by reacting to the events the game-master sets in motion. The dice determine the extent – if any – to which the players’ gambits succeed, and ultimately how the story evolves.
Back in the late 1970s and continuing into the ’80s, there was a hullabaloo here in Malta over role-playing games, with groups of practitioners misunderstood as cults! Picture the setting: Young people sitting around a table, hunched over a board, and consulting dice to determine whether they have successfully summoned demons or stabbed vampires with a stake. Uninformed observes saw this as a serious quest to dabble in the occult!
All it is, however, is a storytelling mechanism. Taking part in a pen-and-paper role-playing game is actually an imaginative venture and a vicarious experience, as well as a way of socializing and even bonding.
Closely connected to role-playing is war-gaming, a hobby that perhaps appeals more to collectors and those with a flair for painting and sculpting. Players raise armies, one fighter at a time, and craft scenarios for pitched battles. An interesting juxtaposition is created here; even as they enjoy each other’s company, players war against each other’s armies.
The scenarios might be grounded in real history, as with Napoleonic Wars, occur in an alternate history, which is the case with the medieval fantasy Age of Sigmar, or take place in the future, like Warhammer 40K. Players will sometimes paint or even sculpt game pieces, thereby both customizing them and endowing them with distinct outer characteristics. Some games even award bonus points for such efforts. As for decisions the players make, they are based on precise rules. And the games’ duration? They can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on the system used.
Main street via the underground
One fascinating aspect of the taboo that dogged tabletop gaming (whether of the role-playing or warring armies variety) in Malta is that many enthusiasts responded by taking the phenomenon underground. Literally. To steer clear of prying eyes, small groups of friends would meet in basements or garages – and get their game on.
In the ’90s, with paranoia on the wane, these groups became less circumspect and started teaming up. After all, the more people one can play with (or against), the wider the variety of games that can be played. Soon enough, avid gamers cooperated to set up a non-profit organization, run by players for players. W.A.R.S. (Wargaming and Roleplaying Society) is headquartered in Floriana. Its advocacy and publicity efforts on behalf of tabletop gaming have caused a surge in participation, and given rise to similar organizations, such as Warmonger Games and Malta Geek Paradise.
The game on your table
As Ludo and Monopoly become a distant memory, board games are growing more imaginative, complex, and popular. In many cases, they actually serve as a form of initiation into other tabletop games. Nowadays, board gaming events in Malta are regularly organized not just by W.A.R.S., but by scores of established and ad-hoc groups. And while those board games that have made a splash across the globe (Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, for example) are naturally a hit here as well, Maltese startups have designed some of their own, including the well-regarded Posthuman.
One thing is for sure. The local tabletop gaming community is one of the most welcoming and inclusive hobby circles in the country. Those involved want nothing more than to play a good game – with people in the flesh, not a digital monitor – and to mentally transport themselves to a shared imaginative dimension. You could do a lot worse with your free time!
Interested in finding out more about the culture of tabletop gaming in Malta?