DULUTH - They just wanted to win one game, but two Duluthians got more than they bargained for.
Early August. Indianapolis. Gen Con, the longest-running gaming convention in North America.
Keith Miller and Craig Olsen took first place competing in popular board game Axis & Allies.
"Usually, newbies come in and get beaten," Olsen said.
These guys weren't new to the game, though. They've been playing for decades, but they were new to competing. They came ready.
Their Duluth gaming group honed in on the complicated game of strategy. It's World War II, and the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) are at their strongest. Intervening are the Allies (Great Britain, France, Soviet Union, United States, China). You choose your side and fight the war, building an economy and military power to conquer more territory.
The game suits two to five players; there are 410 plastic miniature tanks, infantry soldiers and airplanes. The outcomes are endless.
"It gives you that opportunity to pretend to be Churchill or Roosevelt," said Romesh Lakhan, who has has been playing with Miller and Olsen for about a year.
"It's a stepping-stone game," Olsen said. "You play Risk, then you play Axis & Allies."
Added Lakhan: "It's a gateway drug."
It's also a time commitment. There are different versions of Axis & Allies, some leading to as long as nine-hour games. Their gaming group plays the standard 1942 version, the quickest at about five hours, Olsen said.
That's because like Monopoly, the only way to win is by the others losing, Miller said.
The friends meet as often as they can, and each has his own playing style. Lakhan and Miller are very meticulous. Olsen thinks outside the box, and Kevin Nelson's a gambler.
"I try to make calculated gambles," Nelson said. "For the most part, they've worked out pretty well to throw a monkey wrench into the game. It gets everybody thinking."
Miller has a library of Axis & Allies notes. Some of the team's strategy names: Operation Iron Rose, Tokyo Rose, Shooting Gallery. To prep for Gen Con, they asked friends to play and poke holes in their strategies. They shelved other hobbies. After they found out that an Axis & Allies champion lived nearby, they scraped together money for lodging and invited him to Duluth last fall.
"It challenges the mind. It also challenges your resolve when the dice go bad," said Carl Vander Galien with a laugh. He got Axis & Allies as a gift 30 years ago. He's loved it since, and he said he's always happy to help someone out. One caveat: "I don't teach them all the tricks."
But Vander Galien did teach the Duluth group three key things about the rules (including how to use an aircraft carrier creatively). He taught them to speed up their play and to know victory conditions.
"He knew the rules better than we did. We thought we knew the game," Lakhan said. The Duluthians say their time with Vander Galien helped them get first place.
At Gen Con, Vander Galien caught part of the Duluth team's winning game. "I looked at the map while they invaded London. ... It was pretty impressive," he said.
It's typically a tedious, meticulous game, Olsen said, but he and Miller strategized for a quicker kill. "Go in, have a great strategy with laser focus and knock them out," he said.
"When we needed to get lucky, we got lucky," added Miller.
Back in Duluth, the guys circled around their homemade board in Lakhan's dining room. They typically play there or at the Kirby Student Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Their board looks nice, glossy and professional, and it's large - more than twice the size of the standard. "We're getting older," Lakhan said with a smile.
It cost only about $60 to make, said Miller, who also crafted boxes to hold each country's game pieces. He also made new currency, swapping out the paper IPCs (Industrial Production Certificates) for poker chips with laser-printed stickers.
"There are people who will buy a $300 bowling ball or a $300 softball bat, so we spend a little money on our games," Olsen said.
But you can have a game without fancy pieces, Lakhan added.
"We take it seriously, but we have fun," Nelson said. "We're playing a game, but we talk about things that are going on in our lives, a little friendly banter."
Nelson drives up to play from the Twin Cities, and he recently brought along his teenage children.
Adam Nelson, 13, was playing along last week. Father and son have played at home, but: "I think Adam likes to play with all the guys," Nelson said.
He and Lakhan were unable to compete at Gen Con this year. Both were tuned in, though, sneaking occasional peeks at their phones during family events. Then, a single text came from Olsen: "We won. Boom."
"It was my daughter's graduation party, so it was one of those things, go to Gen Con with the guys, be there for my daughter on her big day. As a parent, it's a no-brainer, you go with your kids," Lakhan said. "My family, they knew. ... They were cheering along as well, even if they didn't understand what the game was. They knew that was important to me."
Planning around schedules can be a challenge. "It takes time, you have kids and family," Olsen said. But when it does work out, the connection is worth it.
It's a social network and a community that's larger than the Northland. Miller used to run a gaming store in Duluth, and he said that the late-'90s saw a large resurgence of board games such as Settlers of Catan, 7 Wonders, Ticket to Ride. When he travels for work to Chicago or Detroit, he said he'll go to gaming meetups. And some members of the group are in other local circles, which works out when teams need a substitute.
For now, the Duluth team is taking a break from Axis & Allies. They might pick up other hobbies, and maybe a new game.
Since Miller and Olsen won, they'll forever be invited to compete in Gen Con's masters series.
But now that they've checked this box, they want to move on to other challenges, Lakhan said.
Added Miller: "You never know. There are other games at Gen Con to conquer."