The Ultimate Game Boy

With 3,993 tabletop games in Tony Elam's collection, one would hate to think that two years ago Horizon Games purposely set up shop down the street from Elam's house just to exploit its most loyal customer. But there's no doubt that the merchants recognize Elam's contribution to the franchise's long-term health: The store has chosen Elam as Fan Guest of Honor for its Consortium Science Fiction & Gaming Convention, during which the company will ceremonially present him with his 4,000th game. That is, if Elam can restrict himself to purchasing only six more diversionary items between now and June 9. (This reporter has reason to believe Elam may already be using creative accounting techniques to artificially suppress his numbers.)

"I buy maybe 100 games a year," Elam says, barely completing the thought before his son Andy challenges the statistic. "Maybe 150," Elam admits, immediately revising the number to 200, possibly 250. "People think I must buy every game, but that's really, really not the case."

For Elam, people's pastimes are serious business. "Games are snapshots in time of social values," he says. One example is the changing role of virtue, a characteristic that was always rewarded in the earliest games. "[Then], if you look at the industrial work ethics that occurred in America Š between the 1860s and 1930s, virtue was still important, but virtue was a means to success. So if you were virtuous and worked hard, you obtained success." In contrast, victory today is often obtained through back-stabbing politics, bartering and chicanery. "If you look at the games now, virtue has no role."

In Europe, where board games are much more popular, the pieces tend to be crafted from wood or metal. German rules are simpler, without sacrificing sophistication, and Italian games show great artistry. Most American gaming companies -- Milton Bradley, Avalon Hill, Parker Brothers -- are owned by Hasbro, and often have cheap cardboard spinners and long, complicated rule books. These are the tidbits you quickly pick up on a tour of Elam's house.

In his guest-room-turned-warehouse, Elam shows off his finds. In the Elvis game, the object is to collect gold records by moving a hound dog, a blue suede shoe or a pink Cadillac piece around a guitar-shaped board. Autoscooter Bumper-Cars is the rarest, one of perhaps 25 existing in the United States. An original Parker Brothers Monopoly is one of the oldest. The oddest is Serial Killer, in which players attempt to murder as many people as possible and then get caught in a state without the death penalty.

"My wife is very understanding," Elam says, motioning to the full shelves in the dining room. Surprisingly, Cherie, his wife of 27 years, has absolutely no interest in his hobby. However, Elam's sons, Andy and Austin, often take advantage of the collection.

What Elam looks for in a good game has changed over time. When he was younger, Elam was more competitive and would strive to win tournaments. Then came his complicated phase, when he played convoluted strategy games that lasted days. "I don't even consider games like that now." Despite his position as executive director of the Computer and Information Technology Institute, Elam is not particularly fond of computer games. "I look for games that are fun to play, that aren't pure strategy. Now I like some of that luck. I think that just adds a few twists."

But when it comes right down to it, his chief concern is that he and his friends have a good time. "That's the fun of the games, I think, the social interactionŠ. There's something about seeing a person's expression when you're able to surprise them."

And at his house, Elam has almost 4,000 different ways to entertain -- at last count.

Consortium begins at 3 p.m. on Friday, June 9, with gaming 24 hours a day through Sunday, June 11. Panels are held during the day. $30; $15 for children six to 12. $20 Saturday only. Radisson Hotel, 9100 Gulf Freeway. For more information, call (281)286-9282 or visit www.horizon

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Dylan Otto Krider