Board (not bored) Games–”You mean people still play those things?”

by Bret

Yes.

dice_on_a_roll

And they’re more popular than ever.

That’s right, we’re talking about BOARD games here. Leave your fancy shmansy HD screens, hi-res graphics cards, anonymous teenage angst and ego, arbitrary ratings systems and all other techmology behind. Here we are into cardboard pieces of varying size and thickness, wooden bits, plastic baggies, plastic miniatures and these weird little objects called meeples.

I want to introduce all of you to a hobby and a community that goes far beyond Monopoly, Risk, Scene It, Rook, or Phase 10.

Yes, video games and the gaming industry is at an all time high, even out grossing  Hollywood every year now. With the economy the way it is, things are looking even sweeter for an industry that allows you hours and hours of entertainment for the same price as 2 hours of entertainment for a family of 4 or 5. However, the boardgaming industry is also way up for the same reasons, In fact sales are up 24% and much of that is for even better reasons than video games. There’s more variety in themes, mechanics, publishers and titles than ever before, thanks largely in part to the great intarwebs.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love video games! My younger brother worked in the industry and I’ve wiled away countless hours just on the Civilization series alone and am part of the first generation to grow up with video games in the home reaching all the way back to the Atari 2600. However, my childhood was like most in terms of board games too, if not slightly more so. I’d seen my share of Monopoly, the Game of Life, Othello, Checkers, Rook, Skip-Bo, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, etc., even a few esoteric ones like “Hotels,” and I thought for the longest time that Risk was the epitome of strategy. It wasn’t until about two years ago that an old friend introduced me to a bunch of games I’d never heard of and a store that sold them.

Why board games?

Obviously this could have a variety of answers depending much on who you’re talking to, but here are some basic reasons in no particular order.

1) The greatest appeal for me is the opportunity to sit down with friends and enjoy each other’s company in an engaging, interactive way. In fact, I have often made new friends in this manner with perfect strangers whom I simply share the common interest of board games with. Also, these people are there, in the same room at the same table with me. Not some anonymous, nameless avatar on the other side of cyberspace.

2) Gaming is fun! I am continually fascinated by the way a game is played. It never ceases to amaze me how these great game authors can come up with ideas that mix a curious theme with mechanics and rules that lead to so much provocative thought, decision making and player interaction (or sometimes, a lack thereof). It fascinates and intrigues me to no end.

3) Replay-ability. There are few (if any) games that will play the same every time. Some of this is because of the nature of board gaming being that you’re playing against other players instead of an AI. However, most good games have mechanics built into them that increase this virtue even more. Even without them, how many exact same games of chess, or poker have you ever played?

4) Price. Your typical board game will run you around $30-45 retail. Larger games are closer to $60 and smaller games (including card games) usually run around $15-20. Obviously this is expensive compared to the mass market titles you’re all familiar with that you find in Wal-Mart or Target, but the quality is exponential in comparison. Plus, when compared to your average video games and/or a movie out with the family, it’s a bargain. After you purchase it, you still have it and it never goes obsolete. Speaking of bargains, they’re often easy to find. Most online retailers sell at 30% off and free shipping comes at certain price breaks. There are also lots to be found on eBay and other auctions as well as your occasional gem found at the thrift store. Compared to most hobbies, gaming is cheap; especially when you consider how many people get the benefits of it. Just think, the more you play a game, the cheaper each play gets!

5) Sharing: Think of it this way. Would you rather have your spouse, parent,  or child out with their friends at the bar or the movies or wherever, or have them home pushing cardboard and plastic around with their buddies? Also, I have yet to meet the geek who isn’t tickled pink to have their spouse, parents, or children (or anyone else they can lure) join them. It is definitely a social hobby.

6) Games are pretty! I love to look at the artwork of the board and the different bits and game pieces, especially ones made of quality.

7) Competition. Everyone likes to win and it is always sweet when you do. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that a game is not very good if you only have fun if you win. (either that or I am a very poor sport, which I sometimes am>:) The fun really comes in the playing, the actual competing and not the end result.

8 ) After their initial manufacture and shipping cost, most board games exude zero emissions!

9) The Board Gamer Community. This is really only for the true board game geeks out there but those who are in the hobby are for the most part mature, 20s to 60s year old family men (and to a lesser extent, women) who have professional jobs and normal lives. Conversation among them is incredibly polite, tactful, intelligent, provocative, kind and often generous. This amazes me considering how easy and how widespread it is for internet anonymity to rear its ugly head in almost every other online community. It’s very international too.

Categories and Mechanics

As with most systems of classification, overlap, subgenres and interpretation come into play extensively. I’m borrowing/quoting heavily from Boardgamegeek.com, the definitive site for all things board games of which I will speak more of later.

General Categories: Often broken down into two very broad categories which are full of exceptions: “Eurogames” and “Ameritrash” with “Wargames” being its own animal.

Eurogames: Most of these games are, in fact, made in Europe with Essen , Germany being the epicenter. Settlers of Catan is perhaps, the most widely recognized around (though it has some very un-euro characteristics) and a good gateway to other eurogames. Typical of Eurogames are: no dice (meaning very little, if any random elements), a lack of player elimination, elegant/guilded artwork, wooden bits (particularly lifeless cubes), a scoring track, economic themes and little direct player confrontation.

Ameritrash: (I love that nameJ) Made in America games that have typical elements of: molded plastic playing pieces, dice (from 4 to 100 sided), explosions and bright colors in their artwork, player elimination, direct player confrontation and themes generally similar to American action/adventure films.

Wargames: Games specifically meant to simulate battle. Many are patterned to feel/fit actual historical battles, some built just to fit a certain time period and others are entirely fictional.

There are 44 listed mechanics and 78 listed categories on Boardgamegeek.com. Keep in mind many games fall under multiple categories and mechanics. Many prefer games that fit into certain categories or that have certain mechanics. Others (like myself) like games in almost every mechanic and category. Let me illustrate with a few examples:

Monopoly: The original board game that essentially gave birth to the industry is in the economic and negotiation categories with the Auction/Bidding, Roll and Move, Set Collection and Trading mechanics. This means the game “simulates development and management of a system of production, distribution, trade, and/or consumption of goods.” You do this by auctioning (something most people nix in their house rules) property, rolling (random number generated, usually by dice, like in this case) and moving your playing piece around the board to action/item generating locations according to the roll. Also you collect sets (usually sets of numbers, icons, or colors) of items in order to perform certain actions and can trade certain items in the game.

Apples to Apples: Classified as a party game, humor, word and card game with hand management and simultaneous action selection mechanics. The categories are pretty self explanatory (party game means it’s made for larger numbers of players or for teams). Hand management means just that. “Cards that reward players for playing the cards in certain sequences or groups. The optimal sequence/grouping may vary, depending on board position, cards held and cards played by opponents. Managing your hand means gaining the most value out of available cards under given circumstances. Cards often have multiple uses in the game, further obfuscating an “optimal” sequence.” Simultaneous action selection games are games where the players do some things simultaneously.

Stratego: A classic wargame in the bluffing and Napoleonic (at least the original) categories using the secret unit deployment and rock-paper-scissors mechanics. Deception is required to secretly arrange and move your units in a manner that will defeat your opponent by capturing their HQ (flag) before they capture yours. Combat is decided using rock-paper-scissors, meaning unit A always defeats units B which always defeats unit C which always defeats unit A (with any number of units in the game).

Theme

Themes in board games are as wide as the imagination. Often how well a theme is integrated determines how good the game is. Sometimes it is detrimental and other times it is easy to see a theme was barely pasted in the very end of the game’s development. In certain cases, the theme sounds horribly boring and yet the game is terribly fascinating and very exciting to play. I’ve enjoyed playing great games dealing with things as lame as farming, the electric grid and cargo shipping to really cool ideas like zombies, space aliens, historical battles and castle building.

Personally, it is a rare game that I will play that doesn’t have an intriguing theme attached to it. However, there are of course, exceptions.

Recommendations

It is very difficult to make broad based recommendations as it’s like trying to recommend a movie to people who don’t watch a lot of movies. As the new resident Board Game Reviewer here on Kulturblog, I will attempt to provide a game review and rating every week as far across the gaming spectrum as I can, most likely starting with a good introductory game to each of the more popular gaming categories.

Places to look on the Internets

Like I said, if anyone has further/specific questions about recommendations or whatever, feel free to ask. I love to spread the gospel of board gaming!>8)

The best places to shop would be Thoughthammer, Amazon, eBay, Tanga (which has cheap deals that come and go, so you have to watch the site fairly regularly) and the marketplace on Boardgamegeek. Better yet, try to find your closest brick and mortar store and support your local gaming community. They are very kind and helpful (and can personalize recommendations much better than I) and it’s the best place to find gaming activities and friendly people to game with. Most have an open gaming night at least once a week in store, too.

I cannot say enough good things about Boardgamegeek.com. Its database is incredibly large and in-depth on every game you could possibly find. Pictures, reviews, downloadable content, information for expansions, similar recommendations, session reports, ratings, stats and much much more are all member generated and available there free of charge. Membership is forever free too. (Though it’s one of the few sites I’ve donated to) An account there allows you to inventory your games, number of plays and your ratings. It also allows you to converse with other geeks, asking them questions, giving your own recommendations, and just interacting with some fantastic people about whatever you wish (game related or otherwise)

In Conclusion, I hope to have opened some eyes to a wonderful hobby. There are very few left in the world, it seems, that can truly provide something for anybody, especially one that provides for personal interaction and conversation, the use of so many thinking skills, doesn’t cost too much, and doesn’t harm the environment>:) Long live board games! May they last long after the Apocalypse! :p

(Bret is the newest addition to Kulterblog specializing as the Board Game Guru. He is a single, male schoolteacher and a true geek, spending all his free time either becoming geekier or attempting to spread his geeky ways. Feel free to bother Bret with any further gaming inquiries as well as other geekdom areas as he plans to nerd it up wherever he can. He welcomes the attention like a dog doing tricks.)

40 thoughts on “Board (not bored) Games–”You mean people still play those things?”

  1. LOVE this and will keep an eye out for it. we are a board-gaming family, perhaps courtesy of our lack of television? we have far too many board and card games, but love spending time playin them with the kids or getting in a quick game after they’re in bed.

  2. We love board games, as well, and often get together with friends to play. A few favorites are Ticket to Ride, Settlers, Acquire, Railroad Tycoon, Rail Baron, Killer Bunnies (technically not a board game, but loads of fun). I’m looking forward to your recommendations.

  3. I should add: great post and welcome to Kulturblog! I’m interested in learning more. I know next to nothing about board games (as my lame comment above was meant to communicate).

  4. I love Scrabble. My wife hates it. Which means we’ve not played it in quite some time.

    I actually really like dominos too.

  5. We LOVE board games. Sequence is a favorite, as is Liar’s Dice. We’re not settlers fans, but we do love Carcassone(I’m too lazy to look up if that’s the correct spelling!), which is similar.

    We also play scrabble and gin on a regular basis…

  6. Great post and welcome!

    Something tells me I’m not quite on Bret’s level, but I have a little bit of a board game geek in me.

    My freshman year in college I spent many Friday nights rewriting World War II history by playing AXIS & ALLIES.

    And growing up I was obsessed with some very odd games designed by Steve Jackson. One was called SNITS’ REVENGE. The premise was about little creatures invading a big fat elephant-like alien and kicking the crap out of its internal organs. There was a similar game with great artwork that was even better. I think it was called ATTACK OF THE LITTLE GREEN MEANIES, or something, loved it.

  7. any of you married “axis & allies” guys: you might have luck getting your wife to play if you get the d-day version. as a board-gamer, and even one who ADORES “risk,” i abhor all things “a&a.” but the d-day version is pretty fun. it’s shorter, you don’t have to worry about finances, and it’s specific enough that non-history buffs can “get” it. i totally recommend it.

    i love the game recommendations. christmas is coming and that’s our favorite gift for people!

  8. Axis & Allies and Invasion USA were great fun. The only problem is that it takes longer to set up the board than to actually play the game.

    I like the gameplay in Settlers fine, but I don’t like the object of the game (point system). I don’t like how often it’s a surprise when someone wins the game.

    My family’s fave is Balderdash Beyond. It’s lame if you have a group of people take it too seriously, but it can be hilarious fun with the right group.

  9. Every once in a while a new board game or card game will sweep my family by storm. A few years ago it was the Farming Game, which was fun until you realize that the way to win is to max out on debt and get lucky with the harvests. Once you’ve figured out the one strategy that’s the best, it kind of becomes just another game of chance. Ultimately, I think what I want in a board game is one where the player with the best strategy wins most of the time, but not all of the time.

    Bret, one thing I’m kind of curious about regarding the gaming community is whether there is clear differentiation in skill among the people you play with. Are there players that you know before the game starts have an advantage? And if so, is the advantage due to having played a certain game or type of game a lot and having figured out the best strategy, or is it that some people are just smarter, or at least more adept at board game strategy, than others? Are there people who play a lot and still kind of suck? Are you one of them?

    I know in my family there is one brother-in-law who wins way more than his fair share of the time. I think in his case it’s because he has a sharper-than-average mind and can figure out the best strategy before the rest of us.

  10. Thank you all for the kind comments and warm welcome!

    a Random John, you are definitely an Ameritrash-er!

    Brian G, I haven’t heard of those. I’ll have to look them up:)

    Tom, most games I’ve played are like you described, in a way. Depending on the random elements in the game or the decisions made by other players or both, the person who’s played it the most has a greater advantage of winning the majority of the time. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they use one “best” strategy. Most good games require different strategies for different situations again depending on what comes up and what decisions people make.

    As for people who are good at gaming versus those who are not. In my experience, yes there are some who don’t win much and others who win often but the great majority of gamers are somewhere in the middle. I don’t think you have to have a particularly sharp mind (though of course it helps). Rather, the more you play the more you know games and how to play them better.

  11. We’ve never been a gaming family, for one simple reason: My husband is a horrible loser, and an even worse winner. He just has learned not to play at all.

    The only game we’ll play is Hoopla. There’s no winner—everyone plays together against the clock. Even so, my husband refused to play until just this week, when it was more important to placate a very upset son than it was to not join in.

    I’ve wanted to start a Scrabble/board game night with some women from church but I’m no good at getting that kind of thing going and have nowhere to host it.

  12. My boys just got back from GENCON (gamer conference) and now we have so many new games. Some are very interesting and fun, others are very challenging. I’m not a board gamer but we are having lots of family time. They even let me win sometimes. Thier world is a far cry from mine with Monopoly, Candyland and Life. I wonder if these kids can even play checkers. :]

  13. Great column Bret! I look forward to reading more. And I hope we can enjoy many more fun games together in the future.

  14. another axis & allies fan here. whenever we’re with my family over the holidays all of the brothers and brothers-in-law stay up to the wee hours playing. i also love me some trivial pursuit or other trivia games.

  15. I’ve played board games with Bret and everything he said is true.

    Bret, give us your best two games in each catagory. I know that’s hard but it will help get some people started.

    I like Tikal and Puerto Rico and the last one we played a bunch…what was the name of that?

  16. Susan,

    Two suggestions. You may look into cooperative games (where everyone is on a team playing against the game) to play with your husband.

    For game nights, they can be a bit daunting at first. What you might look into is find what kinds of groups are in your area, especially open gaming nights at a friendly local game store where anyone can and are welcomed to join in. Get a friend or two to join you at one or two of these and go from there to maybe (eventually) branching out into your own thing.

    Mex,

    Oh how I wish I could go to GENCON!! Good to hear you get in on some gaming. They probably could play checkers but if they DO all depends on if they like abstracts:)

    Chris, Thanks! We gotta get those wargames a goin’! Also, I blame you (along with my roommate) for my new thrifting habits!

    Dad, it’s called Stone Age

  17. Rock on! Our family has recently rediscovered board games and have been having a wonderful time with them. We play them sometimes for some “couple time” after the kids are sleeping (it’s too easy for DH and I to settle into a routine of watching TV in different rooms and this has helped reverse the trend), and any time we get together with friends for a dinner party or at family vacations (both sadly not very often). Our favorites are:

    2-player: CARCASSONNE (can be more players) simple, fun

    2 couples serious game: PRIMORDIAL SOUP (marketed in Europe as USURPPE) I usually like simple games and thought this would be way too complicated for my taste, but it’s pretty addictive. All players must be fully engaged–not one to play with distractions.

    Smallish party game: Apples to Apples was fun at first but for us it quickly got old. Now we’re all about WITS AND WAGERS.

    Large group party game: TIME’S UP can be hard to find but is just fantastic, awesome, &etc. Couldn’t get enough at our family gatherings last Christmas vacation.

  18. TICKET TO RIDE should get an honorable mention in there. We have PUERTO RICO but the rules are frustratingly confusing to me, YMMV.

    Booby Prize goes to “ROBO RALLY” a game that’s so bad it’s almost good. Nobody could figure out what was going on, so despite best laid plans (and it does require an insane amount of planning–it is supposed to be like simulating programming a computer, the robot) it ends up being a total crap shoot.

  19. arJ, 5:

    You’ve hit on my issue with Settlers: you should be able to attack the person who is about to win.

    Try Cities & Knights of Catan.

    Bret: great post!

  20. Great stuff! As an avid board game player I am thrilled to see them talked about!! You’ve done a great job Bret!

    Cheers,

    Giles.

  21. Great write-up Bret!! I foresee you bringing lots of happy times and new-found joys to many of your readers!!

    I’m looking forward to reading your reviews.

    Thanks!

    Mrs. Mystery Bob

  22. How funny. We just now finished a family game of Mouse Trap that I bought at a garage sale this morning for $1. My girls actually did very well, unlike when we all try to play Parcheesi. Now the two of them are playing again.

    The last several times a bunch of cousins have gathered at my grandfather’s house, some of us (ranging from 10-30 years old) have played Monopoly. The rules slowly deteriorate, and the laughter usually increases with the anarchy. The last time was truly epic, ending when my brother finally just turned over the board.

    I was raised on Uno, and my wife’s family really enjoys games in that same vein, like Phase 10, Five Crowns, and other games by the same maker. Good stuff. We also enjoy word games like Huggermugger.

    Once at another family gathering we played a game where you had to match up books with their first sentence. It was a riot, but I don’t remember the name of the game.

    Welcome, Bret!

  23. Yeah, great post. We like Pandemic, Settlers, Ticket to Ride, Puerto Rico, and a few others. We aren’t early adopters, and we don’t hang out at mall game stores. We’ve just been lucky over the past ten years or so to have friends invite us over to play their awesome new games. We buy the games we really like–and then inflict them on the rest of our friends and family. I think my wife even bought a case of Ticket to Ride a few years back so she could hand them out to people at Christmas.

  24. Also: after many years of fierce contention (usually on holidays too), my brothers and I have called a moratorium on playing Risk and Monopoly. Somehow when you are taking either my troops or my benjamins, it seems personal.

  25. To me the fun when I was young was playing Risk or Monopoly way into the wee hours of the morning with friends. It was less about the game and more about the good times.

  26. You are a better person than me, Clark!

    For me:
    Risk = violent world domination.
    Monopoly = grinding faces of the poor.

  27. We got Ticket to Ride a couple of Christmases ago and I don’t think have cracked the shrink wrap. This thread is inspiring me to give it a try.

  28. Hello.Enchanted – Can’t shrink Disney movie –
    I have decrypted Enchanted-a Disney movie-successfully but when I go to Shrink it, it gets to 40% then the entire program shuts off with no warning or explanation. Is there a work around to this?

  29. Madaphefe,

    Thank you for bringing this concern to our attention. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the only practical solution is to accept Amy Adams in all her larger-than-life glory.

    Regretfully yours,

    BTD Greg,
    Contributing Editor
    Kulturblog.com

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