You can play board games here in Bogotá all year round – they’re not just for Christmas – as Oli Pritchard finds out when he joins Juegos de Mesa one rainy Saturday.
Gathering around the table to play board games after eating your weight in carbs and meat is one of the great joys of Christmas (and also reasons for hospital admissions). Sadly, many families seem to gravitate towards the old classics – Monopoly, Ludo (Parqués in Colombia), Cluedo, Risk! and Scrabble. While these games have their appeal, part of the reason they lead to a lot of arguments, is that they’re actually not very well-designed. Monopoly is explicitly designed to favour sheer luck over trading smartly, Risk! leads to an inevitable procession to victory and Ludo is of little interest to those with a mental age of more than ten.
I have a great interest in playing board games, but the cost and difficulty of bringing them to Bogotá has always put me off. However, our intrepid editor shares this passion and has ferreted out a contact for me. She’s handed me the details for a games group, Juegos de Mesa, that meets regularly near my house! So, with no further ado, I find myself strolling into the sharp Bogotá wet season air to an unassuming bar in the up-and-coming Palermo district.
Avuncular host Juan Carlos Goyes welcomes us and takes a little time between games to chat over a beer. He’s an engagingly honest man, with a refreshing tendency to admit when he doesn’t understand a question – more due to my Spanish than his comprehension – and a habit of nodding enthusiastically in agreement. He explains, that there are “more than 600 members of the group, but in reality 20 to 40 per meeting, more or less. Ten of us are the core of the group”.
At the heart of the evening, and key, one suspects, to the success of the night is the way in which Juan Carlos and the rest of the group deal with newcomers. “Yes, we are always looking for new people,” he says passionately, “we are trying to expand the idea of playing games, when we started, almost no-one was playing [these types of games]. Some of our members have left the country and gone abroad where they have found other groups to be a bit cold”.
He recommends that newcomers simply arrive. “Juegos de Mesa is open and free, so anyone can come. You can find us on Facebook, and that’s a good idea so someone can welcome you. Age doesn’t matter either. We have young people here too.”
The group rotates around a few venues, including Karen’s Pizza near the 93. The affable host tells me that Saturday’s the best night to come, as it’s the biggest.
Juan Carlos has a vast range of games in his house, literally hundreds, although he thinks that “the most popular are the family ones, that you can play in one hour, more or less, and explain in ten minutes. We always have Dixit and Codenames, too.”
He’s quick to dismiss some well known games, commenting: “Risk!, no, because it lasts three or four hours and takes up too much space and time. Also, we have similar games which have superior rules. These guys (he indicates a group nearby) are playing a related game, Blood Rage, but it’s much better, much quicker and with a lot more strategy and depth.”
“Sometimes it’s difficult to convince people to play different games”, admits Juan Carlos, “but we have a lot of people that, after a quick explanation of some of the stranger games, came back many times to play them or to try others.”
His personal favourite, he tells me, is “Dungeon Twister, which is a game in French. It’s like chess in a dungeon and very complex.” Most of their games come from the States “as it’s close and easy to have people bring over copies. But there are some European games too, especially this Czech company that makes Codenames, among others”
Some of the better known alternative games are popular too. “We have some people who like Puerto Rico a lot, and there are people playing Carcassonne downstairs.” I confess to never having played Carcassonne, and he instantly offers to introduce me to the group. He’s that kind of guy. I’m concerned it looks difficult to learn, but he’s quick to assure me it’s not. “Definitely not. You can play in an hour, it’s not complicated.”
He tells me that there is always a mix because different people bring different games. “I always bring a box” he says with an airy wave towards a box overflowing with various games, “and others do the same. You can bring what you want, of course.”
“I always have some games on hand which are easy to explain, like Codenames, because there are always some people who have just arrived or who are new.” It’s a co-operative group, so all the games are owned by different people rather than the group itself. “For example,” Juan Carlos says, “there are about 40 people, which means twenty games. Of course, some of them play up to around seven people, so there’s plenty of variety”.
“Since 2015 we’ve had a Juegos de Mesa group on Facebook to decide which games to bring, which to play. I also put up a list of what should be there so people have an idea of what to expect. Everything’s organised before.” There are few problems, he claims, “because if you don’t want to play Carcassonne, for example, you can play this game or that game instead.”
Taking this advice, we indeed sit down around a table with fellow novices to play Codenames. The initial explanation sounds complex, but nevertheless, Juan Carlos’s explanation seems to make sense, neither boring nor patronising, and away we go. My fears are unfounded as the game develops and becomes simple enough – although the devil is in the detail. It’s a primarily word-based game, but a limited grasp of Spanish is no obstacle.
In fact, limited Spanish shouldn’t put you off going along. There seem to be English rulebooks and cheat sheets for almost everything. Plus many of the European games are explicitly designed to use as little language as possible in order to sell products across a linguistically divided continent.
Whether you are a gamesmaster or a boarding newbie, I’d highly recommend getting in contact with Juegos de Mesa. It is well worth spending a night this December around the table playing games with friends – although this time without the arguments!
For more information go to the group’s page on Facebook.