As pleased as I am to see board gaming emerging from basements and grottos to become a more visible and enticing hobby, I think some people still see it as something of an enigma. The average person probably still thinks of Monopoly or Risk when ‘board games’ are mentioned. Thankfully, modern games provide a lot more than dice rolls to keep their action going and players coming back to the table. Let me tell you about a few of those methods.
‘Euros’ are board games that hail from Europe, or that are inspired by the same. They lean heavily away from random chance as a game mechanic, focused more on player choice and limited resources. Gathering those resources often takes the form of worker placement, as in games such as Caylus, Notre Dame, and to a lesser extent Lords of Waterdeep. With a mere handful of representatives on the board, players must claim what resources they can to achieve their goals before the game ends. That’s another feature of euros – many of them have limited turns, adding pressure to the puzzle presented by the board. And with other players competing to complete their puzzle more completely than yours… well, you get the idea.
Made popular by Dominion and a key feature in games like Eminent Domain, Ascension, Arctic Scavengers and High Command, deck building games present a tableau of choices to their players, letting the participants craft their experience to their liking. The goals for the game may be the same, but they can be achieved through different means. Rather than resources being directly limited by a static board, a stack of cards can get depleted if it proves to be popular. Like worker placement, deck building games do not entertain the possibility of random chance ruining the experience, but rather use it (in the form of players shuffling decks) to spice up the game and keep players coming back for more.
Perhaps one of my favorite mechanics of modern board gaming, the type of game that features what I call ‘procedural boards’ places a randomized set of tiles in front of the players and has them assemble the board on which the action unfolds before them at the time of play. This can be a central board, as in Twilight Imperium, Archipelago, Escape! The Curse of the Temple, Mage Knight or Quantum, or it can be in front of the individual player, as in Galaxy Trucker or Suburbia. Not only does this provide the charm of being different every time, it can also allow for other game mechanics to be layered on top with little difficulty. Archipelago, for example, uses worker placement as well as a procedural board, and Mage Knight has elements of deck building.
What other aspects of modern board gaming do you enjoy?
Space at your common table, be it in your dining room, den, or boudoir, is precious. It needs to be used wisely when it comes to entertaining. You need room for everyone to sit and be comfortable. Room for refreshments is always welcome. Games that occupy the table should make good use of whatever remaining real estate their is, holding the attention of your guests and keeping them involved and interacting. This is one of many reasons why Monopoly sucks – most of its board is full of negative space.
It also never changes. Board games that I’m finding myself thoroughly enjoying have gameplay that varies from session to session. When a galaxy in Twilight Imperium is created by the players around the table, it is going to be completely different from any scenario setup or previous galaxy, adding another element to the strange brew that makes it fun to devote eight hours to a single game. Quantum is similar in that the ‘board’ is mutable and can be altered or changed drastically to change up the experience. Games like Mage Knight, Archipelago, and Escape: The Curse of the Temple take it one step further by making their boards what would be called ‘procedurally generated’: the board is revealed and assembled as you play, guaranteeing a fresh experience every time.
Other games like to decentralize the action. Galaxy Trucker may have a central board to track everyone’s position in the convoy, but all of the real action happens on the players’ individual boards, as meteors and laser blasts render your cobbled-together space truck back into the shoddy spare parts you used to build it in the first place. Suburbia gives each player their own space to build their SimCity-esque metropolis, with its bank and goals in a central location. Seasons may have a calendar in the center of the table and a single, shared scoreboard, but players will be interacting with their own decks, tokens, dice, and boards to manage the careers of their chosen adorable aspiring forest-wizards.
While board games continue to provide new and interesting ways to make the most of your table’s real estate, card games remain some of the most economical entertainment to grace that same area. While deck-builders like Dominion and Eminent Domain centralize the pool of cards players have to choose from in constructing their decks, Boss Monster takes the route of games above that sees players focused on individual areas just as much as the center of the table. Chez Geek and Munchkin encourage players to keep track of both their own area and those of other players as competition for victory becomes more and more rapid and cut-throat. Finally, hidden role games like Bang!, One-Night Ultimate Werewolf, The Resistance: Avalon, and Coup bring the eyes of the players up from the table and into those of the other players, the game play arguably more about bluffing, gambits, and deductive reasoning than any information provided at the center of the table.
Just to reiterate a point made earlier in this post, Monopoly sucks. Its gameplay never changes and its board consumes too much real estate on the table. Many games make better use of the space, even with similarly sized central boards; Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, SmallWorld, Lords of Waterdeep, and Battlestar Galactica are all examples of recent games that require a good chunk of your table’s space but make the most of it by varying gameplay elements, getting players involved and interacting, offering challenges or emergent narrative, and so on. It’s these things that make the game I’ve mentioned well worth the space on your table (and your shelves), and will more than likely bring people back for more, time and again.
This is the season for Top 5 or Top 10 lists. Games or films or books or toys – people like to rank what was best for the year, and find out how those ranking stack up against others.
You may have noticed that I’m not really doing that. It’s hard to pick just one thing from among the various pools of entertainment into which I dip, but things I’m still thinking about, and enjoying thinking about, in this late part of the year are definitely worth discussing, if not mentioning. So, without further ado, here are the best entertainment experiences I had in 2013.
I want to mention Hearthstone at least in passing. Blizzard’s computerized CCG is an absolute blast and challenge to play, with a surprising amount of depth and bursting with variety. The monetization system makes a great deal of sense, and it’s one I don’t mind at all. However, as much as I enjoy playing it, it wasn’t the best game I’ve played that came out in 2013. That honor goes to Bioshock Infinite.
While the combat isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, which can be a major blow to a first-person shooter, the story and its presentation are what keep this game in my mind long months after its release. The fact that the story is less about gritty, hard-boiled everyman Booker DeWitt and more about Elizabeth and her plight is, to me, a sign that storytelling in games is moving in the right direction. The ‘Burial At Sea’ DLC reinforced this, and with the news that we will, in fact, play as Elizabeth soon, I’m quite curious to see how 2014 treats the franchise.
2013 was the year I got back into board gaming in a big way. I started building my own collection, I had design ideas and gave feedback to others, and I continue to espouse that there’s more to board games than staid, stale standbys like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. I’ve played a lot of games with hidden roles (Avalon, Coup, Battlestar Galactica) and several cooperative games (Pandemic, Elder Sign, Escape: The Curse of the Temple), but one game that’s stood out in my mind since I started this endeavour is Christophe Boelinger’s Archipelago.
The best way I can describe Archipelago is “Settlers of Catan meets Twilight Imperium where everyone sort of works together but not really”. I love its expanding scope and constant need for players to cooperate to keep ahead of a loss, but also allows subtle plays through worker placement mechanics and hidden objectives. Its gameplay is much deeper and less random than Settlers, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to play as Twilight Imperium. As much as I adore a deep and rich space opera universe in which I can take an active role and vie with other players for dominance through diplomacy, trade, and treachery as well as straight-up space combat, I also like to play a game that takes less than an entire day. Archipelago hits all of the right notes in just about perfect harmony, and on top of not being able to recommend it highly enough, it’s the best board game I’ve played in 2013.
Best Book – The Fault In Our Stars
Okay, this is where I cheat again. The Fault In Our Stars was published in 2012. And while I’ve read quite a few excellent books – and one particularly shitty one – the one that had the most profound effect on me was John Green’s New York Times bestseller. In world where a lot of people tend to look towards young adult works with skepticism or even open content, here’s an example of dramatic, involving, romantic young adult fiction done absolutely right.
Green paces his story just right, fleshes out realistic and endearing characters, and invokes our sympathy and support without pandering, writing down to his audience, or relying on cheap tricks or narrative slight of hand. It’s a fantastic read and extremely well-written. I feel like I’m going to be repeating my review of the book a great deal, so here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to buy the book on Amazon.
Best Film – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Apparently, 2013 was saving the best for last. None of the films I’ve seen this year were truly awful (again, I avoided certain ones deliberately), there were only a couple of disappointments, a few surprises, but for the most part, I’d say the movies of the year were “good, but not fantastic.” I like that I’m seeing more character-focused storytelling, more investment in world-building, and comic relief that doesn’t feel too forced. However, the experience in cinemas that excited me the most, involved me the most, and blew me away the most was definitely The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
There’s so much I like about this film. Thorin as a noble, dignified dwarf reminds me of why I like them so much in Middle-Earth, in Dragon Age, and even in World of Warcraft. Bilbo Baggins is shown truly coming into his own and still employing his brain and wits as much as his sword. Gandalf and Radagast working together always makes me smile. The world feels expanded and deepend with stops like Beorn’s house and Laketown. And Smaug. Smaug. I really don’t have to say anything else, do I? It’s my movie of the year and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.
There you have it! 2013, all wrapped up. I’m interested to see what the year ahead brings, in many ways. I hope you all have had a safe, warm, and rewarding holiday, and are ready to ring in the new year. I know I am.
I’m finding more and more that the games that I truly enjoy playing with other people aren’t necessarily straight-up competitions. Oh, I still enjoy a good game of Magic, don’t get me wrong. And Blizzard’s collectible game Hearthstone scratches that particular itch while having a purchase system that makes you want to buy packs to both explore and collect, not just to “buy power” as you can in other free-to-play games. But with JayCon approaching, I figured I’d gather up the games I plan on taking which might get played, and I noticed that all of them have at least some level of cooperation.
Both Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Elder Sign are fully cooperative, with players rolling dice together to overcome the obstacles presented by the game. Elder Sign is perhaps best described (if somewhat derogatorily) as “Arkham-themed Yahtzee”. Players are investigators in an old museum whose exhibits are making it easier for some sort of horrific elder god to awaken. The investigators must gather the mystical signs and defeat monsters to prevent the end of the world. There is a ticking clock, and investigators have limited amounts of stamina and sanity. Escape, on the other hand, is a game played in real time. Instead of taking it in turns to explore the temple, battle its curses, and unearth its treasures while looking for the exit, players move and act as fast as they can roll their dice. The game comes with a soundtrack, which both provides atmosphere and audio cues as to when players must race for the safe room before losing one of their dice permanently. It’s a great, intense little burst of fun and adventure that only takes ten minutes to play, and it’s even fun to take on solo.
I’m sure some people are tired of me going on about The Resistance: Avalon and Battlestar Galactica, cooperative games with hidden threats. Player cooperation is not so much encouraged as demanded, and the fact that one or more players are intentionally deceiving the others adds an entirely new wrinkle to the gameplay. It’s entirely possible that two completely different levels of cooperation are going on simultaneously, all without direct communication, and that makes for a great time with friends who you may end up resenting because they were so good at fooling you. But perhaps the game I’m most eager to play (or play more of, I tried it out Tuesday night) is Archipelago.
I don’t have enough experience with the game to write up a full review, but the game is fantastic. It takes a series of various game mechanics – player bidding, worker placement, card drafting, and so on – and chains them together into a rotating arrangement of ever-evolving depth and complexity. From a relatively simple starting point, just a couple of turns in, the game explodes with choices and challenges. Each turn sees a problem on the islands that must be overcome through a combined effort of everyone involved… but not everyone has to participate. In addition to all of its other systems, Archipelago gives each player a personal, private objective. This could be as simple as having the most money or building the most churches, but it could also be supporting the natives in a war for independence. The fact that the players do not know what each other’s objectives are, and can interpret the actions of an obstinate player in multiple ways, lends even more depth and nuance to a game that is already keeping several plates spinning at once. I’m very curious to see how the game players with more than two players, especially if one is aggressive and ambitious, or if one is manipulative and keen to whatever fears may be sweeping the islands at any given moment.
Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to this weekend. Be it rolling dice, dealing cards, or buying local beef to export pineapples to Europe, it’s going to be a great time at the tables.
For those of you who don’t know, Shut Up & Sit Down is an excellent show about board games. Most of them are reviews, but there are a few Let’s Plays and specials sprinkled in. Paul and Quinns are great hosts, breaking down game mechanics and thematic elements in concise and entertaining matters, and games feel truly reviewed, not just discussed. They are also, however, horrible bastards. There are a few games out there I simply have to acquire in the future, and I blame them entirely for making me aware of said games.
I unfortunately have not played NetRunner in some time. As it is a two-player game, it can be difficult in my situation to nail down a convenient time for myself and another person inclined towards asymmetrical living card game play with a dystopian cyberpunk theme to throw down. However, it still very much appeals to me, and more expansions have been added since I last played. I want to experiment with these new cards and find both the most fun and subversive Runner deck and the most obstinate and dastardly Corporate deck I can build. I like deckbuilding, I like Blade Runner and Snow Crash and Deus Ex, so NetRunner remains a winner.
One of SU&SD’s most recent reviews was Tales of Arabian Knights. I’m a great fan of storytelling, especially in a collaborative setting, and Tales seems particularly inclined towards creating new tales with fun and interesting twists. The fact that the game is pure cooperation like Arkham Horror but with more chances for your friends to be directly involved in your actions is also an idea I like. I like games where players are encouraged to work together, even if there can only be one ultimate winner. It seems to me that, in Tales, everybody wins if the stories told make everybody laugh or keep everybody interested.
So that’s a co-op game. But what is this “semi co-op” distinction I’ve heard? Archipelago is such a game, according to the boys, and it centers around representing colonialism in a very thematic way without referencing direct historical events. The game begins with exploration on the open sea, and players travel to new undiscovered islands to expand their holdings. The land must be exploited to get ahead, and while there is no true extermination to make Archipelago a true 4X game on a board, it feels so close to the likes of Civilization and Master of Orion that I’ve nearly bought it a couple times already. You and the other players do need to prevent disaster and uprisings to keep the game going, but in the end, only one of you will acquire enough victory points to be the winner.
Terra Mystica has no co-operative elements whatsoever, but the elements it does have really appeal to me. In the review, it’s clear that progression is a balancing act, weighing the potential to win points over the speed of future expansions. In Terra Mystica, your fantasy race must transform the very land itself in order to expand its holdings, sort of like if the races of SmallWorld took up agriculture (…and sorcery and elemental worship and aggressive territorial expansion through real estate). I can see chess-like move-countermove action happening in this game, as well as unexpected twists like casting the right spell at the right time or the sudden rise of a cult. It’s one of those games where it seems no two games would be alike, and that is right up my alley.
Last but certainly not least is just about any game designed by Vlaada Chvátil. I’ve played Galaxy Trucker once, and I’d love to do it again, this time focusing more on my opponents’ misfortune than my own. It’s that kind of game; there’s just as much fun in a little schadenfreude as there is in building spaceships. Mage Knight has strong appeal due to its theme of powerful wizards striding across the world doing battle to win glory and power, and as intimidating as the rules might be, wrapping my mind around them seems like a worthy challenge. Then there’s Space Alert. I’ve heard it is an intense, challenging and ultimately hilarious game, much like Artemis for computers or Spaceteam for mobile devices. We shall have to see!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I like board games. I like them a lot. I want to play more of them, and in fact, I’ve been contemplating some ideas of my own that may or may not get developed in the near future. My challenge is finding people to play with. I appreciate a solitaire experience as much as the next gamer, but sometimes, you want to share the game with at least one other person, and let strategy, interaction, laughter and the occasional verbal deluge of caustic profanity fill your evening.