THE LORD OF THE BOARD. BaltiCon and the story of board game culture in Riga.

From 24-25 November the second BaltiCon is taking place in Riga - the biggest board game convention in the Baltic States. Yet it took a 15+ year-long journey to make it happen at last, and the story of their organizers, the first and the biggest publisher in the Baltic called "Brain Games", is very much analogical to almost every early adapting tabletop hobbyist in the country.
CAPITAL R gives you a short timespan of Latvia's board gaming evolution in a nutshell that is directly tied to the creation of the "Brain Games" brand.


CATAN, THE REVELATOR
No doubt, board games in Latvia have for a looong time been limited to Snakes and Ladders, Draughts, and Ludo (gosh, we even have a legendary Latvian 60's pop song to the latter!). Many remember the previously named being the only representation of a common tabletop game for years, of course, being concurred by chess, Loto (the Soviet version of the dreadful Bingo), Backgammon, and a variety of classic 52-card-deckers (e.g. Bridge or Zole - a Latvian version of the French Piquet). Only at the advent of early 1990's Monopole entered the market as, probably, the first modern tabletop activity with Poker and Black Jack following.

But all of this is balderdash, when describing the Latvian board game culture after The Settlers of Catan entered the market at the beginning of our millennium. Gosh, today this Euro (trade'n'build) game seems utterly basic, still for many in Latvia Catan, although played less and less these days, became the most important breakthrough game of all, and only a handful of people would refuse to put it on the table time in time. Catan soon took Latvian youth and families by force, and many of us remember where and with whom they played their first unforgettable round; it was finally something Latvians were striving for - at last nothing abstract, something very thematic and almost no luck involved. Simultaneously for many then came UNO, Rummy tiles, Saboteurs and Carccassone, for more thematic game lovers it was BANG!, but Alias turned out to be the first gateway ice-breaker for parties.

Catan and its necessary atributes.

One to blame for such explosion is Egils Grasmanis, the Chairman of the Board of "Brain Games" publisher. With his friends he might have been one of the early adapters of Catan nationally when playing it for the very first time in 2003. For those, including Egils, who were doomed to spent their time playing luck-based dry children's games, Catan was like the biggest revelation. So, in 2004 Egils with his friends Reinis Rubenis and Pāvils Jurjāns founded an enterprise “Prāta Spēles” or “Brain Games”. Pāvels had an idea to translate Catan in Latvian, so guys got the license to publish the Latvian version of Catan, and the journey begun. Publishing games also came along organizing tournaments and developing first sprouts of gaming culture (since there really was none in modern sense).

EXIT TROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
In 2007 Egils and his partners realized - it is important to be closer to users (it was still hard to communicate with customers via third-parties and get feedback on how good or bad the product is). So they opened their first shop “Ludo” in Riga. It didn't take people by force first mainly because many in the country did not play modern board games yet, and, if they did, it was hard to believe there could be a store finally open and not again selling toys for toddlers and chess boards only.

Brain Games shop in Riga.

Yet, some years passed, and the company got its temporary location on Barona street 55. To be honest, comparing it to other regular small-to-medium size game stores in Europe, this might be one of the top appealing destinations to foreign gamers of all levels of dedication for various reasons. One of the main one - comparing to many game stores in German, Russian and Spanish speaking countries, we are not that keen on translating everything we chew, only a selection of some products. Similarly to only subtitling movies in cinemas, we keep most of games in English untouched. This makes the shop a perfect gold mine for some very good limited edition treasure. Another reason is a vast eclecticism. There isn't a taste the "Brain Games" shop can't satisfy today. For starters you can browse the offer at the their WEB STORE.
 


ILLUSTRATE MY GAME
In the year 2010/11 “Brain Games” had reached the level of experience to publish their own first game. It’s important to remember that, if you want to design your own mechanisms, you need to play other a lot in advance. For “Brain Games” it took more than 8 years to go through average and recycled ideas to accept a first real offer. In result, 2011 was the year for an ice hockey themed game “Pirmais Piecinieks” (Top Line). It wasn’t success simply because the interesting mechanism didn’t fit the main audience – Riga Dinamo ice hockey team fans.

Nonetheless, in 2012 the gate was open – the first four brand new games were released to customers. Among them – Om Nom Nom as the very first commission work by a Latvian artist Reinis Pētersons, who soon became almost like an in-house illustrator for all the next following “Brain Games” successes. Consequently, the world now recognizes the publisher and also Latvian board game illustration particularly through his distinctive visual work on 13 products (among them one coming out next year).

Reinis Pētersons - Cirks. Commission work for Survival Kit art forum 2018.

"In the beginnings there were a few other tries from various friend illustrators, but you could immediately see Reinis Pētersons' being a head taller than others," recalls Egils.
“Reinis had it all - a healthy interest in board game playing in general, he comprehended the theme and concept of games much faster, and of course, the fact that Reinis was working effectively and stunningly, all together was a perfect combination for us to find the next visual trademark of “Brain Games”, says Egils.
When contemplating on illustration as an independent discipline in Latvia, Reinis himself refers to an another parallel history. He notes that comics and graphic novels became popular similarly to board games in Latvia. Some fifteen years ago a comic here would be either for newspapers or children only. In the last 10 years though, thanks to selfless enthusiasts, the culture of illustration has experienced a superb renaissance in both the technique and perception of society thus - leading to much better drawn board games.

After 2012 many products were distributed to Czechia and Poland – both countries of deep gaming traditions, and since then “Brain Games” have been publlishing or re-publishing 3 – 5 products per year and exporting around the world. Some only see the daylight once, some have become cult figures. Since 2016 one of the biggest success stories internationally has been the “Ice Cool” franchise (created entirely by the company’s employees). This might also put Reinis on the global map and, hopefully, in a visible future hew ill be as credited and in demand as Mihajlo Dimitrievski.

BALTICON
From Egils’ opinion, one thing that was and still is missing in the Baltics, is a game award. If there ever was at least a few more neutral reviewers or gaming portal to attribute publishers, designers, illustrators etc., the gaming culture would flourish to again another level. There would be a larger motivator to create even better products as well for smaller publishers to try out their luck.

At least, since last year, the first large-scale event in gaming industry, a convention, has been developed finally. BaltiCon Riga took its initial launch in 2017 and resulted into a two day gaming fair for publishers, designers, illustrators, purchasers, and other professionals and enthusiasts to get together and exchange their knowledge. As well the very first world championship in another famous block-buster “Saboteur” took place there, by the way. This year in BaltiCon there will be the “Ice Cool” world championship organized with finalists from 13 countries!

OFFER AND DEMAND
For now "Brain Games" are known internationally with publishing qualitative light up to medium-light weight (2/5 difficulty) fillers and family games, thus it represents still a precautious way of how Latvians choose their next purchase. Yet the generations change, and the ones tired of Catan 15+ years ago might have their kids already, and most likely those kids will grow up more exacting and hungry, and perfectly exploring games like Scythe by the age of 10. For now - Latvians are only slowly getting into 3+/5 weight relationship. Slooowly.

Meanwhile, to introduce you more with a few just recently published works from "Brain Games", we picked 3 somewhat different, yet similarly light and entertaining items from their assortment and played test versions at the "Brain Games" store. Important to mention - all illustrations, of course, are done by the magnificent Reinis Pētersons, and all games are introduced by the most self-excited board gamer we know - Krišjānis Zviedrāns!

ICECOOL
It seems only logical to begin our journey with the break-through flag-ship that brought the Latvian company their world fame. It is a dexterity and area movement game ICECOOL published in 2016 and now launched into the first "Brain Games" grand-franchise ever. The ICECOOL family also includes a brand new, already well received second chapter of the game (it's really suggested to play them as one, big super-game) and a brand new product called Pyramid of Pengqueen. ICECOOL is generally a very much likable game with a slight "take that" element - it can be good fun, but also rouse some evil! If the first chapter (awarded multiple times as the best children's game) might seem too short in replayability, then the combination of both chapter will do the magic!

ORC-LYMPICS
This is a very light bidding, card drafting and hand management game about various peculiar tribes and races competing against each other for various disciplines. People who love fantasy games, will like this theme, although the artwork is much different from the aesthetics one get in regular MMORPG's. Although Orc-lympics cools down fast, it can easily be used as a goof alternative to warm-up games before going into your never-ending travels in Legends of Andor.

PIKOKO
The greatest surprise to CAPITAL R was this family game, and you can easily explain the experience with meeting a Latvian - low expectations, high performance (most of time). Although being a very light trick taking activity (such type of games in Latvia are by all means the most popular), Pikoko was fun, fast, easy, risky and beautifully illustrated enough to be a filler for the toughest group of gamers as well as a perfect source of tough quarrel between kids (and it will be impossible to avoid them). Already received its first UK Games Expo Award for Best Card Game 2018, Pikoko is also the CAPITAL R's editor's choice among the three in this article.

MORE INFO
When: The international board game convention BaltiCon takes place from 24 - 25 November.
Where: National Library of Latvia
How: You can reach the Library by all types of transportation or by simply going across the Akmens bridge from Old Town. It takes a blind man not to notice the Library building already from afar.
How much: 2 day festival pass to all areas costs only 10 Eur. A bargain.
Read: Find more info on the BaltiCon's website. It is still possible to apply for a volunteer vacancy there.
What else: You can also try another work by "Brain Games" - another fast paced, easy and common filler "Game of Trains". You can also find "Brain Games" at their second store in Riga Plaza shopping centre.
NB: The max hand luggage weight when flying is only 8 kg :)

This post was born in collaboration with Brain Games Publishing.

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