Kevin Spak and Sam Liberty are obsessed with fun. Fun is what keeps them up at night and what gets them out of bed in the morning. They think about fun the way a chef thinks about flavor, the way a symphony conductor thinks about sound. For the past nine years, starting when they were in college, Spak and Liberty have been trying to understand how fun works — to discover new forms of it, to figure out ways to conjure it and trap it in a box.
Spak and Liberty are board game designers. Together, they’ve dreamed up more than 50 games, filling countless notebooks with plans and sketches, and producing scores of paper prototypes that they’ve play-tested with friends and fellow gamers. Later this year, a local company called Cambridge Games Factory will publish Spak and Liberty’s debut: a lighthearted but structurally innovative board game called Cosmic Pizza.
The kind of games that Spak and Liberty design have little in common with classic titles like Monopoly and Risk, and even less with Candy Land and Mouse Trap. Instead, they take their cues from a much more recent, and less familiar tradition — one that has developed among American board game designers only over the last 15 years, after being imported from Germany. These “German-style” games — also known as Euro-games and designer games — are about more than rolling a die and moving from space to space: They require players to make tough choices and develop strategies within an intricately plotted fictional universe. Cosmic Pizza, for instance, rewards spatial reasoning more than luck, as players craft complex routes to deliver pies through outer space, zooming from planet to planet, collecting tips, and avoiding asteroids.
Spak and Liberty, who live in Cambridge and Salem, respectively, are part of a growing movement of gaming enthusiasts who have dedicated themselves to reinventing a decidedly old-fashioned form of entertainment. Pushing through a door first opened by the German strategy game Settlers of Catan in 1995, they have staked their creative lives on the idea that, at a time when advanced technology is seen as the primary driver of innovation in America, and video games are a multibillion dollar industry, there are still new ideas to be had about how a simple board game can work.
Playing a finely tuned, conceptually imaginative board game is a mind-expanding experience that has the potential to make players feel emotions, respond to pressures, and think thoughts they never get to in real life.
“It’s a really amazing time right now for board games,” said Eric Zimmerman, a professor at New York University, and the coauthor of the book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.” “There’s really kind of a renaissance going on.”
A lively subculture of game geeks has sprouted up around that renaissance. There are board game podcasts, board game message boards, and even an annual conference held in Germany that draws crowds of more than 150,000 gamers. In cities all over America, including Boston, there are “prototype circles” where board game designers play each other’s games and critique them. Earlier this winter, Boston filmmaker Lorien Green premiered her documentary about board gaming culture, “Going Cardboard.