Sleet is falling outside the Ramada Plaza near Mitchell International Airport. Inside the hotel, a few dozen people huddle around conference room tables. Some race to escape the crumbling ruins of Atlantis, while others skirmish for territory against rival squads of deadly battle sheep. Whether they triumph or collapse in defeat, another challenge will follow for as many as 24 hours across two days. These trailblazing players are testing games made mostly by local designers, from both professionals and amateurs such as Espen Klausen, a clinical psychologist from Fond du Lac who brought several unpublished creations to “Protospiel.” “With any game,” he says, “what really matters is the reactions of the people around the table and the shared experience.”
The event, part of a national movement that originated in Ann Arbor, Mich., will reprise in September and should help stimulate the hobby scene in an area that was once a major center for game design and publishing. The founders of Lake Geneva’s TSR, Inc. pioneered the tabletop role-playing genre in the 1970s with Dungeons & Dragons, and Milwaukee hosted the titanic gaming convention Gen Con until it moved to Indianapolis in 2003. Its departure weakened the city’s reputation as a gaming hub, as did TSR’s decline in the 1990s.
People like Gordon Lugauer, owner of the local Board Game Barrister stores, have endeavored to keep gaming alive in Milwaukee. They run tournaments delving into both the obscure and the familiar, such as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering. “If these events aren’t making a significant and positive impact to the gaming community,” Lugauer says, “I’m not doing my job.”
Klausen’s game Pharaoh’s Builders, which he hopes to see published, underwent heavy scrutiny on that dim but exciting March day at the Ramada. As he received precious feedback from playtesters, representatives from a few gaming companies met with local designers and took notes. “It’s all about social networks,” says James Mathe, owner of the area’s Game Universe stores and the Minion Games imprint. “Especially among gamers.”