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Originally published Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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It's raining, it's boring — what to do? Let the games begin

A co-owner of Blue Highways Games shop in Seattle talks about the unplugged world of board games, just in time for soggy weather to chase us all indoors.

Special to The Seattle Times

Getting in the game

Where

Like many game shops, Blue Highway Games (2203 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle) offers weekly free events:

Every Friday, from 7-11 p.m., is College Night. Anyone is welcome to play, but college students get a discount on any purchase. Every Saturday, 7-11 p.m., is Board-Game Night. Try the hottest new games from Europe or anything in the shop's library. Staff is available to help teach games.

For a $3 fee, play with the Pokémon League Saturdays from 10 a.m.-noon. Bring your own deck of cards and play for prizes. Preregistration suggested. Other events include tournaments, game-designer visits and after-school kids clubs. Activities vary from month to month; check the shop's Web site for details.

More information: 206-282-0540 or www.bluehighwaygames.com.

More shops

This is not meant to be the last word on all game venues, but here are some additional popular game outlets in the Puget Sound area. Visit their Web sites or call for details on special events, game nights and other activities:

Gary's Games and Hobbies. 8539 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle. 206-789-8891 or www.garysgamesandhobbies.com.

Uncle's Games has three locations in the Puget Sound area: Crossroads Bellevue mall, 15600 N.E. Eighth St., Bellevue (425-746-1539); Redmond Town Center, 16507 N.E. 74th St., Redmond (425-497-9180); and Southcenter mall, Tukwila (206-242-4465). See www.unclesgames.com.

Berserk Games, 7217 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle. 206-523-9605 or www.berserkgames.com.

Gamma Ray Games, 411 E. Pine St., Seattle. 206-838-9445 or www.gammaraygamestore.com.

Coming event

Seattle-area game players will convene at Emerald City Gamefest Nov. 14 at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 6211 N.E. 182nd St., Kenmore. It will feature a variety of role-playing, board, card and miniatures games. Hours: 9:15 a.m.-6 p.m. Free admission. See www.emeraldcitygamefest.org (which also includes a list of gaming links for the Puget Sound area).

More on the subject

For game-playing information for the aficionado or wannabe, see www.boardgamegeek.com.

Into trivia? There's an active culture of trivia players at local pubs. Find locations and more at: www.quiznight.net.

And for Scrabble fans, the Seattle Scrabble Club meets Tuesdays at 6 p.m. (sharp), welcoming all levels. Free for the first visit, then $5, at the University Friends Meeting House social hall, 4001 Ninth Ave. N.E., Seattle. 206-285-7188 or www.seattlescrabble.org.

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As a schoolboy, Scott Cooper would sit with his buddies at recess, back to the wall, arranging marbles in patterns meant to entice passers-by. Like a carnival hawker, he'd invite kids to knock his marbles out of bounds. If they missed, he took their marble. If they didn't miss, they got his. "At an early age, I learned how to do cost-benefit analyses," Cooper says.

Years later, while working at Microsoft creating video games, he was introduced to the unique challenges of European board games and the experience was transformative. After leaving that job, he and former co-worker Brian Bennink fell upon the idea of opening a store that entices people with the charms of European gaming. Sort of like the schoolyard, only everyone wins.

Their shop, Blue Highway Games, opened in 2007 on top of Queen Anne Hill. That's where I talked to Cooper — in "the library," a nook at the back of the store that's stocked with hundreds of games, available for free playing.

It's a cozy place to spend an afternoon, as I noted several groups were doing — a dad with his kids; and at another table, two teenage girls, deeply absorbed in a card game.

Q: Why were you and Brian so enamored of European games?

A: They're very high quality and involve a lot of strategy. Often, there are no dice. American games tend to be about rolling dice, going around a board, and when it's not your turn, there's not much to do. Or they're social games. There's nothing wrong with that, but I think that European games, especially those from Germany, are more fun and more challenging. For all ages.

Q: Can you give me examples?

A: For small kids, Zeus on the Loose is a card game that works with numbers. Duck Duck Bruce works with probability and logic. Monza is for 5-year-olds but is fun for adults, too. It's a racing game with good quality pieces, small wood cars not plastic. Chicken Cha Cha, again wood pieces, is a memory game where you try to collect all the tail feathers of the other players. Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders do teach taking turns but after the 10th time, it's pretty hard on adults.

Q: Speaking of grown-ups, what do you recommend for them?

A: Almost all ages can play FITS, which is like Tetris but on a board. You slide these five-sided pieces down and fit them into a space. The most popular game we have is The Settlers of Catan. Players build a village on an island but you don't use money. You have to trade to gather the resources you need: wood, brick, sheep and wheat. There's a great tension in this game between cooperation and competition. Everyone's engaged even if it's not your turn. Monopoly is a great game but your activity is limited when it's not your turn.

Q: Unless someone lands on your Park Place property that has three hotels on it.

A: True, but Catan is so brilliant. It's always in our top 10 for sales every month and has won the gold standard in awards, the German Game of the Year, or Spiel des Jahres. Catan can be very challenging but it's not hard to learn. I could teach you the basics in 15 minutes.

Q: Who plays games? I tend to think of fantasy-type gamers.

A: There's a stereotype that gamers are all Goth Dungeons and Dragons types but it's not true. We see kids from middle school, families, lots of college-age people. It's interesting but we don't see that many high-schoolers. I think they're so into video games they don't have time for much else, except for chess, which is popular with that age. They come back when they're a little older.

Q: Are video games the bane of your existence?

A: Not at all, because we're not in competition. They're very different fields. I'm not anti-video. My wife and I have two boys and they love videos. I used to be plugged in when I was creating video games, so I know video has its place, but we want to promote this alternative. We want to recruit people back to the boards, and I do think they're making a comeback. I have a theory that these games are a shared experience and offer a social connection that people are hungry for. No way to prove it but I suspect that we're all so dependent on electronics, we're zoned out.

Q: Everyone alone, head down, texting, tweeting, blogging, surfing.

A: That's why it's fun to see our Pokémon leagues at the store on Saturday mornings: 50 kids totally absorbed in a game with other kids. Or on Saturday nights, we're open late so folks wander in and we teach them how to play a game that catches their fancy. Some come in and say they aren't game players but we talk about their interests, the ages involved, and usually can find something they really enjoy.

Q: Do you push the educational angle?

A: Indirectly. We work with PTAs to host math nights or game nights at schools. These are open-house events and we bring 20 to 30 games that appeal to different age groups. We can focus specifically on math or also include reading and geography. Kids think they're just playing games and having fun, but really they're working on math skills.

Q: Are these games expensive?

A: Not really. Board games run between $30 and $50; $10 and $20 for cards. But when you consider how often you'll play the game and how much fun you'll have, it's not much — the cost of one video game, a few movies.

Q: It's a great way to make a living, isn't it? Playing games.

A: Our main goal is to be part of the community, to provide a place where people can gather and have fun together.

Connie McDougall, a Seattle-based freelance writer, is a regular contributor to NWWeekend.

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