No chutes, no ladder, no victory on 'Game On: The World Boardgaming Championships'

Grant Pearsall
Staff Writer

Board games are a pastime of a bygone era that our modern entertainment makes quaint by comparison. Smartphone sessions of “Words With Friends” require little active commitment, just a glance down and a few swipes of the finger. Yet something has been lost in the digital translation– the camaraderie of gathering a group of friends to enjoy their company and the spirit of competition. In the documentary feature “Game On: The World Boardgaming Championships” directors Alex Dunbar and Andy Wolf take a quick look at this culture of board gaming fanatics dedicated to playing for both fun and fame.

Dunbar and Wolf’s film is set primarily in Lancaster county, Penn., at the Lancaster Host, a hotel/convention center which serves as the yearly venue for over 1,500 patrons of the World Boardgaming Championships. Here they follow Joseph Belyeu, a homeschooled Alabaman teen and Josh Githens a former board gaming champion hailing from South Carolina. Belyeu is a mild-mannered and gawky figure that seems irritated to his core with innocence. His is a compelling story as he rises through the ranks of “Aces of Aces,” an activity that stretches the definition of a ‘board game’ to the limits.

“We’re all a bunch of geeks playing games and we’re good,” says Belyeu, beaming from his experiences during his first year at the tournament.

Meanwhile Githens, a handsome but unassuming young man becomes embattled as the returning champ of “Circus Maximus,” a massive scale board game where players ‘race’ chariots, attempting to destroy one-another while relying on a measure of ad-hoc teamwork for survival. Githens feels frustrated as his previous wins have put him in the crosshairs of other players who seek to knock him out of the running early as a kind of championship vendetta. His story is most compelling– his frustration is palpable as he struggles to maintain composure at the game table, pacing the halls of neatly organized card tables with purple cushioned chairs.

(Photo courtesy of kickstarter.com)
(Photo courtesy of kickstarter.com)

Later in the film John Gitzen joins the narrative, a native of New York and a bit of an upstart to the competitive board game scene. Gitzen’s role is meant to serve a bit of an audience entree into the world of board gaming, though his story often seems lost in the mix, especially after a medical condition removes him from play.

Spearheaded by Dunbar, “Game On” was incepted as a Kickstarter project that received funding in August of 2014. The film is undeniably the effort of a small team working with a limited budget. Set next to modern, bigger budget documentaries, Dunbar and Wolf’s work is rougher by comparison. Talking heads and interview subjects are often introduced without repeated name cards to help keep track of who is who, and some subjects feature none at all. Additionally very little explanation is provided for the often complicated board games the subjects are playing, like “Wooden Ships & Iron Men” which are nearly unknown outside of the competitive game playing scene. Plot threads seem to emerge and then vanish with little import, like a late night session of “One Night Ultimate Werewolf,” a live-action party game that appears without context.

What is most disappointing is that the audience is not privy to any other aspects of the subject’s lives outside of the board gaming context, likely a constraint of both budget and time. Luckily the dvd contains a commentary track featuring Dunbar and Wolf who offer extremely candid (and humorous) perspectives on all the shortcomings of their film. For aspiring filmmakers the commentary track is a must-watch.

“Game On: The World Boardgaming Championships” succeeds insofar as to reveal a sub-culture and event that few outside the know will have ever heard of. While certainly not a comprehensive look at the subject, it serves as a suitable entree into the world of competitive board gaming. Certainly it will pique the interest of anyone who has fond memories of nights spent hovering over a “Risk” board, poised to ruin friendships and familial bonds as a matter of tradition.

Go ahead, pick up your smartphone hit up the internet, and check out how much a copy of “Settlers of Catan” will set you back. Your “Words With Friends” game can wait.

Grade: B-

Note: “Game On: The World Boardgaming Championships” is currently unavailable for purchase. According to Dunbar himself “We hope to have DVDs available later this spring – watch the Wind Up Films facebook page for updates.”