Not Such a Smallworld After All

Tabletop Writers Diversity Initiative, Challenge 1 “The Game(s) That Brought You Into the Hobby”
Whitney Logan

My name is Whitney Logan and I own and operate a board game cafe in Lynchburg, Virginia. Despite board games now being the center of my professional and personal life, I wasn’t truly introduced to the hobby until six years ago. I am asked the same question all of the time—how did you get into games? When giving a quick answer, I always credit Smallworld as the game that introduced me to the modern world of board games. But when given the chance to wax eloquent for a writing challenge… well I certainly won’t turn that down.

Growing up, my family played a decent amount of games. We had tons of kids games, and all of the classics—Monopoly, Battleship, Scrabble, Clue, Aggravation, etc. We had a pretty glass chess set and an antique Backgammon board. We had dozens of word party games and an old trivial pursuit game with questions so obscure that only my dad knew any of the answers. We played a lot of card games—Rummy, Hearts, Kemps, Spoons… but mostly importantly, Euchre. As proud Ohioans, my older brother and I were inducted into the tradition of Euchre as soon as we were old enough to understand it, to provide a second team to play with my parents. (For those uninitiated, Euchre is a trick-taking game similar to Bridge or Spades but played with partners, and is on par with cornhole and casserole as compulsory at social gatherings in the Midwest.)   

Every Christmas break, we had a tradition of picking out a new board game for the family to buy and play. I was the “gamer” of the family, and I always wanted to choose the strategy games, but everyone else wanted party games. I do distinctly remember convincing my family to try Munchkin one time, but they found it confusing enough that I was banned from picking games after that. I have many fond memories of starting a game of Monopoly at the start of Christmas break or beach vacations and playing a little every night for multiple days in a row until the game ended in tears of frustration or tears of boredom. Often both. They are cherished memories nevertheless.

I also designed games as a kid. One time in particular, I remember having a stroke of genius and cutting out and gluing paper onto the round tokens of the Pokemon Master Trainer board game to make custom tokens for my game. I don’t remember what my game was even about, but I do remember how angry my brother was when he went to play the Pokemon game months later, only to find it was no longer playable. And thus my aspirations to design games was born… 

Sometime around high school, I picked up Risk and Catan, as all self-respecting nerds do eventually, and of course, as a freshman in college I was introduced to Cards against Humanity and Magic the Gathering. But finally, in my junior year of college, the real foray into games begins. I had transferred to a new college and very quickly connected with a few other students from the Honors program. We loved books and nerdy discussions and video games. We became a tight knit group and spent every waking moment together, but as much as we loved trying new restaurants and reading separately but together in the same room, we were always looking for things to do, and our town didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a lot of entertainment options. 

One day, Kenny picked up a new board game. Smallworld. We were hooked. The thrill of a conquest game but in less than an hour? Randomized factions to provide endless replayability? I might be exaggerating the memory at this point, but I swear all we did for three weeks straight was play Smallworld every day after classes. Then he picked up Coup, which we adored and took to the Honors office lounge, where we hung out and played between classes. Then Kelly brought some game her family owned that was only in Italian and we had to memorize the card meanings to play. That game was Bang. It’s funny to me, as popular and accessible as that game is to me now, that my first memory of it was some obscure foreign game with all the cards dumped into a giant plastic baggie and stuffed on our dorm shelf. How perceptions change!

All of a sudden, it was as if the floodgates opened and we realized there was a whole world of new games that we had yet to explore. One game after another, we started to collect. Love Letter. The Game of Thrones board game. Sushi Go. Eclipse. We each bought maybe one a month but between the eight of us, the collection grew rapidly. Our free time became consumed with new games, visiting game stores, and even entering the world of roleplaying games. 

After a year, we brought a new friend into the fold, and he brought with him his collection of Dominion, a worthy welcome gift. We all loved board games but his obsession rivaled my own, and between birthday presents, Christmas presents, and arguably irresponsible financial decisions, the two of us owned the lion’s share of the collection. We decided it was only logical that we get married, for the sake of uniting the collection. (One of my fondest board game memories is us finding a “buy two get one free” sale at a local game store. I bought Village, he bought Battlestar Galactica, and Shadows over Camelot was the first game we co-owned. We wagered then and there that if we ever broke up, the dumpee would keep Shadows over Camelot as a consolation prize. That game now sits happily on the shelf at the board game cafe we opened together two years later.) 

So when people ask which game got me into the hobby, I answer Smallworld, but for me it wasn’t one particular game, it was a moment in time. For a group of fantasy-obsessed young adults, those golden two years were the closest we would ever get to stumbling into our own personal Narnia and experience the joy of exploring it together. The simple pleasure of ripping off shrink wrap and punching out tokens; of reading the rules and learning games together; of picking out a new game without any knowledge of the industry or regard for boardgamegeek rankings—I love my job now, but there was a bliss in that ignorance. It was all so exciting and new. My journey into the world of modern board games is inseparable from my journey into adulthood and I feel so blessed that I had such wonderful friends to share that journey with. Capturing that magic for others is what motivated us to start the cafe; we wanted to create a public space to emulate the gift that we had found in private. All I can hope is that one day, someone is writing about their introduction to board games and it begins, “Once upon a time, at a board game cafe in Lynchburg, Virginia…”

Mikah and Kelly after a long day of board games