Most people, when they think of boardgames, will summon to mind a couple of fairly lame games: Monopoly, Risk, Sorry, Life. A lot of these people think that they don’t really like boardgames. This is not surprising if your primary experience of playing is that you’re that person who gets eliminated in the first fifteen minutes and then has to find something else to do while your friends fight endless dice-wars in Asia. Or if you’ve had the unpleasant experience of repeatedly having to shell out all of your money to the smug and crowing owner of Boardwalk and Park Place (who of course refuses to graciously accept your resignation and insists on slowly grinding you down over the course of weary, inevitable hours of unnecessary play.)
If that’s your experience of tabletop games, I totally understand that you don’t play them. But you’re missing out. Boardgames are not only a really great way to spend a rainy afternoon, they’re also a minor artistic medium in their own right. The boardgames that you played as a kid are to modern boardgames as PacMan is to World of Warcraft. Today, games often incorporate elements of storytelling and strategy with novel forms of player interaction, interesting aesthetics, and beautiful components. They also have the advantage of bringing people together, encouraging friendship and face-time in place of the isolation or anonymous interaction of video games.
This is a list of a few of my favourites, in no particular order.
1. Agricola. For a long time, this was the #1 game on boardgamegeek.com and deservedly so. In the game, you’re a smallholder trying to build a beautiful and productive farm in a vaguely 17th-19th century European village. It is a competitive game, but it’s designed so that you can play to win or you can play to beat your own personal best – it’s equally fun either way, and it doesn’t ruin the game if different players are playing with different goals. The components are beautiful. There’s no early elimination. The game comes with multiple levels of complexity built in, so you can choose whether you want a simple family game or a more complicated playing experience. As a random bonus it is pro-life and pro-distributism in subtle, non-preachy ways. It’s just fantastic. The only potential drawback is that if you’ve never played any Eurogames before it might take you a while to master the rules.
2. Mice and Mystics. I just picked this one up last week, and my children adore it. You’re a group of adventurers in a fantasy/fairy-tale setting who have been turned into mice. The aesthetic is very Redwall, and there’s a strong story-telling component to the game. Attractive components, beautiful artwork. It’s also a cooperative game – now I know some of you probably played those horrible co-operative games that used to appear in school classrooms where the game was boring, there was no conflict and it was impossible to lose? Yeah, modern co-operative games aren’t like that. In this one you have to fight cockroaches, rat warriors, evil centipedes and a sorceress. The conflict is built into the game mechanics so that nobody is playing the bad guys. The rules are simple enough that an intelligent group of 10 year olds could play without an adult, and because it’s cooperative it’s really easy to include younger kids (the box says 7+ but my six year old loves it.) I wouldn’t recommend this for an adult group, but if you’re an adult playing with kids it’s a lot of fun.
3. Settlers of Catan. I wanted to include one popular, well-known game and I’ve never actually played Ticket to Ride (I know, I know…) Settlers is pretty quick to play and it has the advantage of being fun for people who are not nerds. There’s no early elimination, and the rules are simple and easy to learn. It is competitive, but doesn’t tend to produce murderous feelings towards one’s opponents. It works okay for mixed groups of adults and children. My only complaint is that you can often tell pretty early who has a chance of winning. This means that losing players will realize they don’t have a chance, get frustrated, and in many cases spend the rest of the game trying to spite whomever they blame for their defeat. Another advantage: playing Settlers of Cataan is a great introduction to the Eurogame genre, and once you’ve mastered this one you’ll be ready for Agricola and Traders of Genoa.
4. Traders of Genoa. This is a hardcore Eurogame. Probably not great for beginners, but it’s so good. Basically you’re a trader. In Genoa. You have to fill orders for various goods like silk, spice, and salt, and you’re in direct competition with other traders – i.e. the other players. The competitive mechanics are very sophisticated, there are multiple possible strategies, and the play is very intricate: a lot of player interaction, negotiation, and manipulation. The components are attractive, and handling all of the little wooden pieces is a genuine tactile pleasure. Other similar games include Princes of Florence, San Juan, and Puerto Rico – all of which are really good, but geared to slightly different aesthetics and playing styles (PofF involves more strategy and planning ahead, less negotiation, for example.) These games only take about an hour or two to play, there’s no early elimination, and they’re great for groups of adults and older children. I love all of them, but since they’re so similar I didn’t want to write them up separately.
5. Sentinels of the Multiverse. Technically, this is a card game not a tabletop game, but I wanted to include it because it’s really different from the rest of the stuff on this list. You’re a group of superheroes trying to defeat supervillains. Straightforward concept. Easy to play, good for both adults and kids (the kids do have to be proficient readers), and the average game takes less than an hour. It’s also fairly versatile in terms of difficulty: some villains are easier than others, some heroes are more difficult to use effectively. It’s a cooperative game, so it’s good for family and can be safely played with over-competitive types. Even if a player is eliminated, they still have powers that they can use from the grave so they can contribute to the team and feel that they were part of the win. Also, this game is just fun. My only criticism is that once you’ve defeated each villain a couple of times, you want new baddies – and the expansions can get expensive.
6. Small World. This is a world conquest game, like Risk, but unlike Risk there’s no early elimination. The competition remains tight throughout the game, and it has a limited run time (it’s how many points you score over a specific number of turns, rather than a fight-it-out-to-the-bitter-end game.) Basically, you play a succession of fantasy empires squabbling over a small number of territories. The design is ingenious. The problem of a player doing badly in the first few turns, and therefore despairing for the rest of the game, is eliminated by the introduction of a mechanic where you can put your empire into decline and start a new one at any time. (Timing this properly is actually crucial to winning.) Points are scored openly, but then kept secret so you quickly lose track of whether you’re ahead or behind in the race and you can focus on trying to have fun and play your best. The aesthetic is kind of cartoon-fantasy, helping to contribute to the sense that you’re playing a light, fun game. There are different maps depending on the number of players, so this game is actually optimized for however many people you have – it even works well as a 2 player. It’s good for both kids and adults, though if you have too many children with wiggly-bottom syndrome it can be a bit of headache to get through a full game.
I could probably add at least a dozen other entries with ease. Don’t be put off by the prices: say that you buy a four player game, and you only get 20 hours of play from it. That’s still 80 person-hours of fun for 50$ to $100, which is way more efficient than most leisure pursuits. And if you find a game that you love, it will get a lot more play than that.
Also, a lot of cities have boardgame clubs where you can go and try out different games, and meet people at the same time. (Bonus for the socially incompetent: playing a board game is really low-impact socialization with a lot of built-in structure.) If you already know that you love a game, then you can buy it with confidence, knowing that you’re going to get your money’s worth.
Photo Credit: Pixabay