As promised and/or threatened, depending on your perspective, I hereby present the first in my rambling series of thoughts about board gaming.
So, board games are a peculiar pastime or, to put it another way, a peculiar industry because there are essentially two different activities that go by the name “board games” and have virtually nothing to do with each other apart from the basic principle that they, at some point, involve cardboard and people.
If you said “board games” to someone you met in the street, once they got over the initial surprise of being approached by a total stranger with a complete non sequitur, they’d probably assume you were talking about Monopoly, Cluedo (Clue, for American readers) or, in extreme cases, Snakes and Ladders. These games have several elements in common: they are all simple, well known, available in virtually in any toyshop, and utterly terrible. They’re the sort of thing you play with your family at Xmas, not because anybody particularly wants to, but because nobody particularly wants to do anything else. If you were able to persuade this member of the general public to keep talking, they might express surprise that you considered playing board games to be the sort of thing you could be actively interested in doing.
If, on the other hand, you said “board games” to a certain sort of nerd, you’d get a very different reaction. They’d tell you about Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne or Arkham Horror or Mystery of the Abbey or Ticket to Ride. They might start using such oblique and impenetrable terminology as “worker placement”, “deck-building”, “hidden role” and “legacy elements.” If you were unable to persuade this particular nerd to stop talking, they might convince you that board gaming as a hobby is only accessible to people who are willing to take it far, far too seriously.
This would be a shame because the thing about people who take things far, far too seriously it that the stuff they take far, far too seriously tends to end up being of very high quality. To put it another way, the reason Monopoly is kind of dull and frustrating to play is because nobody cares enough about it to make it not dull and frustrating. Or, indeed, to read the rules half the time (play with auctions guys. For realsies). Once a large group of people with significant disposable income decide they’re going to spend the majority of their weekends doing something, that something gets pretty damn refined pretty damn fast. And, crucially, it’s got board games to a point where people who don’t take them seriously enough to, say, write long series of blog posts can still enjoy the benefits of the last few decades of progress in the medium.
To put it yet another way, comedians take comedy very, very seriously. But you don’t have to be the sort of fan who listens to interviews and podcasts, and attends work-in-progress gigs, just to enjoy something funny. And, in the same way, you don’t have to commit to learning a tonne of jargon or spending a tonne of money to have a good time playing Forbidden Desert or Zombicide.
And, although I do admit that there is part of me that’s very into the learn-all-the-jargon, analyse-all-the-things approach to, well, everything I do, what I primarily like about board games is how well they work as a social activity for quite a broad range of people. It’s something you can do with your partner(s), or your mates, or your parents, or your mates’ parents, or your mates’ kids, or your own kids, or—if you are so inclined—with complete strangers with whom you meet up solely for the purpose of playing board games.
It’s one of the few things you can do with a group of people that isn’t either completely unstructured, like hanging out in a pub, or completely antisocial, like going to the cinema. It gives you the same bank of common experience that you get from having a shared hobby but at a fraction of the normal time investment, as well as being a lot more accessible than, say, football or knitting, or anything that you need to actually be good at. It gives you anecdotes and memories in the same way that any other group activity gives you anecdotes and memories, but is far more suited to people like me who are no longer particularly interested in getting hammered in nightclubs or youth-hostelling across Europe. It might sound a bit anticlimactic or even like that scene in Red Dwarf where Rimmer forces a description of his Risk campaign on Lister but to me there’s as much value in “Do you remember that time Colin got his cards upside down and spent the whole game in the wrong part of the space ship” as “Do you remember that time we got bladdered in Portugal and threw up on the beach.”
I’m going to go into more detail about specific board games in later posts but, for now, I thought I’d end with a few quick recommendations for things you could pick up and play tomorrow if you were so inclined.
- As a replacement for Monopoly at family gatherings, seriously look at Forbidden Desert. My next post will go into this game in more detail but, basically, it’s simple, fun and has a nice balance between skill and randomness. Also you get to build a steampunk airship.
- For a super quick game to take to parties if you go to those sorts of parties, try Love Letters. It’s a surprisingly deep memory/strategy/bluffing game in which you play courtiers trying to get a love letter to the princess. Also it is teeny-tiny and comes in a little velvet bag.
- If have time on your hands, a committed group of friends and you’re in any way interested in playing a group of adventurers who go into dungeons and kill monsters for loot, then Descent: Journeys in the Dark (second edition) is, in my never terribly humble opinion, probably the best thing on the market right now, assuming you don’t want to actually play D&D.
- And, finally, if you find the idea of game where have to feed bamboo to a panda totally adorable, then Takenoko will let you do just that. Also, apparently, the expansion has baby pandas but I don’t have it, so I can’t comment on their relative adorableness.