Gaming with Refugees – Interview with Jeffrey Allers

Jeffrey D. Allers, is the designer of board games such as Citrus, Heartland, Order of the Gilded Compass, and Piece O’ Cake, but he is also doing some work with board games in other ways.

You currently live in Germany but you were born in the US as was your wife. Give us a little history about yourself? 

I studied Architecture and Journalism at the university, and had a strong desire to work in Europe as my uncle had done. I was fascinated by the Berlin, its turbulent history, and its architectural prospects. And, after growing up in a small town in Iowa, I was ready to live in a multicultural city, as well as use it as a base to explore other regions and cultures. Two weeks after graduation, I moved into a youth hostel in Berlin and went door-to-door with my portfolio, looking for a job by day, and exploring the city with the other backpackers by night.

I found a job, made friends, and adapted to life in the city, never feeling homesick. I was looking for a deeper meaning to my life, however, and a friend invited me to a wonderful, multi-generational German church where I eventually came to faith and also became a youth leader in my free time. A pastor took me with him to a youth project in another part of the city, and there was an opportunity to join it full-time.  I first spend a few years studying at seminary and working as an architect in Columbia, South Carolina, where I met my future wife, just before she left for Berlin herself.  I caught up with her over a year later, and we were married in 2000. Since then, we have worked with 3 different church projects together with German pastors in different parts of the city.

What is your history with gaming and game design? 

When I moved to Berlin in 1994, I completely missed the gaming scene, which is funny to think about now, as that was the year that Catan was released. I recall noticing how many games the average department store had on its shelves, but I assumed they were complex and long, and that I would have trouble finding people to play them with.

Shortly after I married in 2000, my wife and I were invited to have dinner with German friends, and they suggested a game of Carcassonne afterwards. After that, my eyes were opened to a different kind of game, one that was different than anything I had ever seen.  It had decisions and strategy, but also short, elegant rules and a manageable playing time. I was hooked.

My wife and I found a local game store with bi weekly game nights, and began attending, and we started to buy games and play them with our friends in our home. I later found another gaming group that happened to include several published game designers, and after playing their prototypes, I began working on my own designs. When I finally had the courage to bring my prototypes to them to play-test, they were very encouraging, and soon after presenting some of them to publishers, I had my first contract. Since then, friend and often co-designer Bernd Eisenstein and I founded our own open group of game designers that has met at the Spielwiese board game cafe ever since it opened 10 years ago. Every Monday night, an international group of game designers—published and unpublished—meet there to test prototypes and have a great time together.

Can you tell us a little about the refugee situation in Germany? 

You can imagine that it’s very complex. There are many problems, of course. Providing housing was the first real hurdle, and many schools gave up their gymnasiums in order to convert them to emergency housing. Now they have moved on to temporary “container” homes in camps built all around the city. Those who have been granted asylum are slowly finding apartments.  But some are now receiving denials, and they are very depressed. One camp director recently told us that many of these young men have turned to drugs, as they feel they have no hope. Organized crime has been recruiting from them as well, offering jobs that pay good money as well as a sense of belonging.

Crime is starting to rise among refugees, although it is still lower than what people might think. In fact, crimes against refugees is still far worse.  That figure “dropped” this year to 93 instances in the first quarter—about 1 per day! A German right wing extremist was just caught plotting a terrorist attack, and is suspected of doing so under a fake identity as a refugee, in order to turn public opinion against them even more.

All of the refugees I have met have been friendly towards me, and most are still very grateful. They want what everyone wants: a home with a bed and a kitchen, a job, and a future for their children. They have been very patient, but everyone has limits.

Thankfully, there are many volunteer groups near every refugee home and camp.  Each one has at least 20-30 people who come to monthly planning meetings and meet regularly with refugees to help them with learning the language and culture, show hospitality to them, and give them opportunities to show hospitality in return (hosting for people and cooking for them is a large part of their cultures!).

You’ve been able to use your hobby as a ministry, and serve a need within that community. Tell us a little about what you have been doing with refugees and what kind of impact it has had. 

I asked several camp directors what their needs were, and many said that the mothers and children were taken care of well by other volunteers, but the young men needed more attention. So I brought board games with me as a way of connecting with them. I found that many of them played Chess, and when I brought Chess sets with me, I was welcomed immediately into their living quarters. The children watched us play, and when we were finished, they wanted me to teach them.  I think there are over a half dozen children ages 8-16 that can now play pretty good Chess.  One of them is able to beat me quite often, and he was excited to tell me that he played with the German students at his school every recess.  He was even chosen by his class to represent them in the Chess portion of their school sports day. I was excited that a game that built bridges between me and the children was also something that could build bridges between them and their German classmates.

I have also taught other games to them, although they are often more comfortable playing what they know.  After all, they are overwhelmed with newness in every other aspect of their lives! But I have also learned some of their games, including a Syrian card game called Trex, and a form of Checkers they call Dama. I feel that integration is a two-way street, and I want to learn from their culture and give the the respect of listening to their stories.

What kinds of games are typically played? Have you learned any that you haven’t previously known? Why are these particular games used more often? 

I have tried to use games that are easy to teach.  It’s not just because of the German language barrier—they also just are not familiar with the German gaming culture, and they have not developed a vocabulary for that.  Every game is either like Chess, or it is viewed as a children’s game—not unlike some areas of North America that have not been exposed to modern strategic board games. I have probably used Hey, That’s My Fish the most, but also Tsuro, La Boca, Absacker, Crokinole, and Mmmm!.

Spending so much time with people you can really learn a lot. We’ve asked what impact your ministry has had on the community, but what impact have the people and the community had on you? What have you learned? 

As I said, I’ve learned their stories, what their lives were like before the war, how the war destroyed their homes and families, and how they could not bring themselves to fight for any of the warring parties. It’s a complex situation, far from black-and-white, and there are no easy solutions. We are often presented a much simpler version of events in the West. I have learned some things about the Middle Eastern mindset, but also the universal truths about people the world over.

Do you have any particular stories that you would care to share that really touched you? 

One particular family we have been close to for a year and a half came here from Syria with their 10-month daughter. We celebrated her first birthday and helped them move twice.  Thankfully, they never needed to stay in a school gym or other emergency shelter, but the small rooms they stayed in were still challenging, especially with their child. But their daughter has always been the most friendly, joyful child I think I have ever known. She is extremely extroverted and charms anyone she meets. The father’s mother and brothers all came to Germany as well, but his father stayed behind with his teenage sister, who was too sick to travel.  Because of the difficulty in getting medicine, she died last November, 3 days before the couple had their second child, a boy. It was very bittersweet to go to a 3-hour long Syrian Orthodox funeral service for his sister, and then afterwards, visit his wife and new son in the hospital. After that, we worked with them to get his father to Germany, and just a few weeks ago, they were finally reunited here.

You recently had some awful news about a family that you had gotten to know. Are you able to tell us a bit about that?

Many of  the refugees we have been working with for more than a year have now been processed and are receiving their approvals or denials for asylum. One family I am particularly close to, Kurds from northern Iraq, have been denied German visas.  There is a lawyer appointed to them to appeal the decision, but it is doubtful that will happen. Seeing three of their sons every week has been a highlight of my year, and they are doing so well integrating into the German culture and studying in their schools. It will be difficult for me to go back to that camp if they are no longer there.

How can we support what you are doing?

We appreciate your prayers and encouragement. It is difficult to know what one can do from a distance.  We were actually very happy that the German government opened the doors for the refugees to come here. Until then, we also wondered what we could do to help those people who were in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Our churches are urban, neighborhood churches and we try to be involved in our immediate neighborhoods, so when refugees moved into our neighborhood, it was very natural for us to be involved in helping them, just as we try to do with others in our area. It also helped us get to know other neighborhood volunteers we had not yet met. And it opened my eyes to other needs in our area that I had previously missed.

Sometimes, it is easier—or more exciting—to see the needs in other places.  It is, of course, a great thing to support the work in other countries, but I also encourage everyone to investigate the needs of their neighbors, which we often tend to overlook. And, of course, find out if there are any refugees or immigrants in your area who you can reach out to. Sharing your home, your food and your lives is the best way to share the love of Christ. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. We pray that God continues to use you in the lives of the people fleeing to Germany, and that some great things happen because of it

Pictured below: Jeffrey with an Syrian friend playing Chess, one of the Kurdish boys Jeff taught Chess to, the camp Jeff visit every week, with the community room set up for the game cafe.

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