Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Games people play

Some Winnipeggers enjoy this pastime in a really big way

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Today is International Table Top Day -- a 24-hour period that encourages people around the world to "Come together, put down our worries and play more games."

Last year, 3,127 events were held in 64 countries. Gamers aged seven to 70 hooked up at libraries, bars and, in the case of scientists in Antarctica, research stations to play everything from TriBond to checkers to Dungeons & Dragons. (There are at least five locales in Winnipeg hosting Table Top Day 2014 events; for a complete list of times and places, go to

"What a weird coincidence that we're doing a fundraiser on International Table Top Day," says Sean Strachan, who, until a scribe filled him in on the news, didn't know there was such a "holiday."

Strachan is the co-founder of Big Games -- an enterprise that lives up to its name and then some. For the last three years, Strachan and his associates have been building jumbo-size knock-offs of classic games; among them, a board patterned after Scrabble that covers 64 square feet and a Crokinole table that arrives in eight, pie-shaped wedges and, when bolted together, has a circumference measuring 7.7 metres.

Attendees can play those games and more at this evening's "Big Games Fun-draiser," which is being held on the 3rd floor at 72 Princess Ave. In addition to the games themselves, entertainment will be provided by DJ Voth and folk-roots band the Sturgeons. Tickets are $15 at the door. Proceeds will go towards the creation of more games plus the cost of transporting them to schools around the city and festivals throughout the province.




Strachan, 30, grew up in North Kildonan. Every summer, his family would go camping at Big Whiteshell Lake -- an excursion that involved swimming, fishing and, come sunset, games played around the campfire.

"We'd bring all the usual ones with us -- Trivial Pursuit, Risk, Monopoly... it was always tons of fun and one of the things I looked forward to most about the lake," Strachan says.

Strachan was working at a home electronics store in 2010 when he began daydreaming about another favourite from his childhood, Jenga. (In case you've never played it, Jenga is a game of skill that requires participants to build a tower out of individual, wooden blocks. As the game progresses, the structure becomes less and less sturdy, until it eventually collapses.)

Strachan wondered if anybody had ever built a giant Jenga. Then he asked himself, "How cool would that be to play?"

Strachan shared his idea with his buddy, Jody Hopper. Hopper fell in love with the concept. He told Strachan it would be a perfect fit for the Winnipeg Folk Festival's Campground Art & Animation program -- an initiative that encourages people to come up with diversions to help make the festival's campground area an entertaining and vibrant experience.

Strachan was already a Folk Fest regular, so he figured if he and Hopper could create something that would get them onto the grounds for free, more power to them.

One glitch: when the proposal deadline for the 2011 festival rolled around, Strachan and Hopper were running late on their project, which they dubbed Big Block.

"We told the selection committee it was still evolving but they wanted to see something tangible. So we didn't get in," Strachan says.

But instead of parking their table saw and belt sander and moving on with their lives, the pair said, "Screw it, let's keep building."

That summer, Strachan and Hopper showed up at the 2011 Folk Festival with their tent, their sleeping bags and 54 wooden blocks that, when stacked bottom to top, stood as tall as an NBA guard.

"We started playing (Big Block) at our campsite the first night and it really attracted a crowd," Strachan says. "By Friday there were about 80 people watching; the area was surrounded by tiki torches and this awesome drummer would beat on his drum every time somebody touched a block. At one point a girl stopped and said to the crowd, 'This is the most stressful game of my life.' "

Thanks to hard work and positive word of mouth, Strachan and Hopper attended the following year's festival as official Campground Art & Animation participants. In addition to Big Block, they also brought along ginormous versions of Battleship, dominoes and backgammon. This July will mark Big Games' third certified appearance at Birds Hill Provincial Park.

"Sean's creations are very popular with campers in the festival campground and in the family area as well," says Paul Laporte, protection and wellness co-ordinator of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. "There always seem to be people playing or waiting to play."

You can include Laporte among Big Games' willing participants. Last year he challenged his three-year-old to a game of giant-Connect Four. No word on who came out on top but both of them got "a big kick" out of it, Laporte says.

In the beginning, Strachan and Hopper built their games in a workshop in the latter's basement.

When they ran out of room there, they took over Strachan's parents' garage. Nowadays, they rent space in the bowels of a century-old warehouse-turned-artspace in the Exchange District. That's where they store their entire arsenal and also, where they toil away on new projects.

"People ask us all the time what's next and we never really know until we start building," says Strachan, who, thanks to Big Games, found his true calling: he's now a cabinet maker in "real life."

"I've always enjoyed KerPlunk so that's one possibility. But what I'd really like to do is design a Monopoly board on the streets of Winnipeg, using actual intersections and everything. It'd be tough to do but I was thinking maybe this September during Manyfest, when the city closes down Broadway for a few days. I think it would be great publicity for the city."

In the meantime, you can watch for Big Games at this year's Icelandic Festival in Gimli and at the Harvest Moon Festival in Clearwater. For information about tonight's social and to find out how to rent Big Games for your business or get-together, go to




At long last, a bar where the theme is BYOB. That is, bring your own board game.

Stephen Hua was in Toronto last year when he visited a club named SPiN -- a 12,000-square-foot space featuring a lounge, two bars and 12 regulation-size ping-pong tables. Hua, an entrepreneur who has owned and operated various businesses around Winnipeg including deer + almond and Opera Ultralounge, immediately began thinking about establishing a place patterned after SPiN in his hometown.

Last month, Hua opened the doors to his latest venture -- Rec Room Sports and Entertainment Lounge, at 1875 Pembina Hwy. The name on the door says it all: step inside and you'll spot man-cave-style games of all sizes and descriptions, including bubble hockey, foosball and, as promised, ping-pong.

"I literally built the kind of place I grew up in," says Hua, noting future plans include an indoor basketball net and, come summer, a 100-seat patio that will feature a giant chess board and volleyball pit.

Here's the kicker: from Sunday to Wednesday, Rec Room customers are encouraged to show up with their own board games.

"Most places would think it was crazy to have people sitting around playing checkers all night but here, we're going to encourage it," Hua says. (For those who arrive empty-handed, there is a library of games behind the bar, including Life and -- good luck playing this after a drink or two -- Operation.)

One thing Hua won't do, mind you, is serve as a referee.

"I'm definitely not going to mediate any Scrabble disputes," he says with a laugh. "Maybe we'll keep a dictionary in the back just in case, but no -- I'll be steering well clear of those arguments."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 D11

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