Tag: tabletop (page 1 of 12)

From The Vault: Tabletop as Brain Food

I’m working on some board game write-ups and reviews, and it’s worth remembering why board games are an awesome way to spend our time.


SmallWorld with the 'rents

I’ve put myself on a path to improve my physical well-being. Being more mindful of what and how much I eat, walking with the intent to start running, looking into a local gym, and so on. Mostly, I fear the atrophy that comes with a sedentary day job and an equally low-impact life at home, and if I’m honest, I’m unhappy with the amount of flab I currently have on my frame. However, making such a change is relatively easy. The body can adapt to adjustments in schedule and activity rather well, all things being equal, and it’s really a matter of establishing and sticking to habits than anything else.

But what about the brain? The most vital of organs also needs maintenance and attention as we age. It’s important to keep the mind engaged and not just feed it something distracting or shallow all of the time. I mean, I won’t begrudge people who really enjoy “Dancing With The Stars” or “Two And A Half Men”, some people do need to unwind with that kind of fare. I’m simply not one of them. As much as I like the occasional campy pleasure like Flash Gordon, more often than not I look to have my brain fed, to keep it trained, to present it with challenges it must overcome.

That, in part, is why I enjoy tabletop games so much.

It took me a while in my youth to really grasp how important it was to me to keep playing them. For a time, I simply enjoyed spending time with my dad, even if I would sometimes let myself get bored between moves rather than studying his strategy and planning my response. Nowadays I can’t imagine sitting entirely idle during an opponent’s turn, though I do occasionally get distracted. Not only is it necessary to pay attention in order to look for victory, it’s an exercise in putting yourself in another’s position, or imagining the other as a complex being instead of just someone to beat. That, to me, is just as important as winning.

I am quite fortunate to be in a place where I can spend time around other gamers who are engaging in this way almost constantly. My co-workers play and even design games on a daily basis. A fantastic store is within easy driving distance to present all sorts of challenges. My father lives a bit further up the road. When I get home, I have the option to play something like Civilization V, Magic: the Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, or Blood Bowl with other human beings. And on rare occasions, a game of Chez Geek or Dungeon Roll might break out.

To me, the important factor in this is that other people are involved. No programmed response or solitaire experience really throws a wrench into your thought processes like another live human being. It makes the problem solving more complex, and thus more rewarding, even when you lose. On top of that, being in a situation with another person as your opponent builds character and social skills. Trite as it may sound, we learn more from losing than from winning, both about how we play and how we act. It’s one thing to gnash your teeth and swear at something like Super Meat Boy or Hotline Miami; doing so at a stranger or even a friend is quite another issue. Fun as it can be amongst people who know you to engage in name-calling for the sake of in-game banter, when it comes to playing with strangers or in a competition it’s important to know your limits and when and how to gracefully bow out of things, or the optimal way to accept and celebrate victory in front of those who’ve lost. You can only get that through this sort of play, and you learn it as your brain is trained.

Boring as it may seem to some outside observers, when I’m engaged in a game like this, I assure you, I’m never really bored.

My Board Gaming Future

Courtesy Theology of Games
Courtesy Theology of Games

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 Chv├ítil. 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.

At least, that’s what I want.

Re-Post: Tabletop as Brain Food

SmallWorld with the 'rents

Last night I was getting my foot looked at. I wanted to talk about tabletop games informing good thought patterns but ran out of time. So while I work on that, here’s my last really in-depth post on tabletop games as a means of comparison or something.

Also I’m actually running (or was before my injury) and lifting so you can kind of ignore the first paragraph.


I’ve put myself on a path to improve my physical well-being. Being more mindful of what and how much I eat, walking with the intent to start running, looking into a local gym, and so on. Mostly, I fear the atrophy that comes with a sedentary day job and an equally low-impact life at home, and if I’m honest, I’m unhappy with the amount of flab I currently have on my frame. However, making such a change is relatively easy. The body can adapt to adjustments in schedule and activity rather well, all things being equal, and it’s really a matter of establishing and sticking to habits than anything else.

But what about the brain? The most vital of organs also needs maintenance and attention as we age. It’s important to keep the mind engaged and not just feed it something distracting or shallow all of the time. I mean, I won’t begrudge people who really enjoy “Dancing With The Stars” or “Two And A Half Men”, some people do need to unwind with that kind of fare. I’m simply not one of them. As much as I like the occasional campy pleasure like Flash Gordon, more often than not I look to have my brain fed, to keep it trained, to present it with challenges it must overcome.

That, in part, is why I enjoy tabletop games so much.

It took me a while in my youth to really grasp how important it was to me to keep playing them. For a time, I simply enjoyed spending time with my dad, even if I would sometimes let myself get bored between moves rather than studying his strategy and planning my response. Nowadays I can’t imagine sitting entirely idle during an opponent’s turn, though I do occasionally get distracted. Not only is it necessary to pay attention in order to look for victory, it’s an exercise in putting yourself in another’s position, or imagining the other as a complex being instead of just someone to beat. That, to me, is just as important as winning.

I am quite fortunate to be in a place where I can spend time around other gamers who are engaging in this way almost constantly. My co-workers play and even design games on a daily basis. A fantastic store is within easy driving distance to present all sorts of challenges. My father lives a bit further up the road. When I get home, I have the option to play something like Civilization V, Magic: the Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, or Blood Bowl with other human beings. And on rare occasions, a game of Chez Geek or Cards Against Humanity might break out.

To me, the important factor in this is that other people are involved. No programmed response or solitaire experience really throws a wrench into your thought processes like another live human being. It makes the problem solving more complex, and thus more rewarding, even when you lose. On top of that, being in a situation with another person as your opponent builds character and social skills. Trite as it may sound, we learn more from losing than from winning, both about how we play and how we act. It’s one thing to gnash your teeth and swear at something like Super Meat Boy or Hotline Miami; doing so at a stranger or even a friend is quite another issue. Fun as it can be amongst people who know you to engage in name-calling for the sake of in-game banter, when it comes to playing with strangers or in a competition it’s important to know your limits and when and how to gracefully bow out of things, or the optimal way to accept and celebrate victory in front of those who’ve lost. You can only get that through this sort of play, and you learn it as your brain is trained.

Boring as it may seem to some outside observers, when I’m engaged in a game like this, I assure you, I’m never really bored.

Tabletop as Brain Food

SmallWorld with the 'rents

I’ve put myself on a path to improve my physical well-being. Being more mindful of what and how much I eat, walking with the intent to start running, looking into a local gym, and so on. Mostly, I fear the atrophy that comes with a sedentary day job and an equally low-impact life at home, and if I’m honest, I’m unhappy with the amount of flab I currently have on my frame. However, making such a change is relatively easy. The body can adapt to adjustments in schedule and activity rather well, all things being equal, and it’s really a matter of establishing and sticking to habits than anything else.

But what about the brain? The most vital of organs also needs maintenance and attention as we age. It’s important to keep the mind engaged and not just feed it something distracting or shallow all of the time. I mean, I won’t begrudge people who really enjoy “Dancing With The Stars” or “Two And A Half Men”, some people do need to unwind with that kind of fare. I’m simply not one of them. As much as I like the occasional campy pleasure like Flash Gordon, more often than not I look to have my brain fed, to keep it trained, to present it with challenges it must overcome.

That, in part, is why I enjoy tabletop games so much.

It took me a while in my youth to really grasp how important it was to me to keep playing them. For a time, I simply enjoyed spending time with my dad, even if I would sometimes let myself get bored between moves rather than studying his strategy and planning my response. Nowadays I can’t imagine sitting entirely idle during an opponent’s turn, though I do occasionally get distracted. Not only is it necessary to pay attention in order to look for victory, it’s an exercise in putting yourself in another’s position, or imagining the other as a complex being instead of just someone to beat. That, to me, is just as important as winning.

I am quite fortunate to be in a place where I can spend time around other gamers who are engaging in this way almost constantly. My co-workers play and even design games on a daily basis. A fantastic store is within easy driving distance to present all sorts of challenges. My father lives a bit further up the road. When I get home, I have the option to play something like Civilization V, Magic: the Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, or Blood Bowl with other human beings. And on rare occasions, a game of Chez Geek or Cards Against Humanity might break out.

To me, the important factor in this is that other people are involved. No programmed response or solitaire experience really throws a wrench into your thought processes like another live human being. It makes the problem solving more complex, and thus more rewarding, even when you lose. On top of that, being in a situation with another person as your opponent builds character and social skills. Trite as it may sound, we learn more from losing than from winning, both about how we play and how we act. It’s one thing to gnash your teeth and swear at something like Super Meat Boy or Hotline Miami; doing so at a stranger or even a friend is quite another issue. Fun as it can be amongst people who know you to engage in name-calling for the sake of in-game banter, when it comes to playing with strangers or in a competition it’s important to know your limits and when and how to gracefully bow out of things, or the optimal way to accept and celebrate victory in front of those who’ve lost. You can only get that through this sort of play, and you learn it as your brain is trained.

Boring as it may seem to some outside observers, when I’m engaged in a game like this, I assure you, I’m never really bored.

Board or Bored?

SmallWorld with the 'rents

“I don’t play board games,” my lovely wife says. “They’re boring.”

In the case of ‘older’ board games, the ones I and most kids grew up with, like Monopoly or Risk or Chutes’n’Ladders, I’d be inclined to agree. Chutes’n’Ladders is an extremely randomized game. Risk involves a great deal of downtime between turns, provided you’re not in an opponent’s direct path, and turns get progressively longer as the players with board advantage begin to dominate the others. Monopoly has both of these problems and the added issue of money being involved (even if it is fake money).

However, if you’ve been following me for a while, and especially remember posts like this where I discuss games that aren’t played with a joystick or gamepad, you’re probably aware that board games outside the old and tired Parker Brothers standards exist. There are a few in particular that I’ve played which, in my opinion, really break away from the idea that board games are boring.

SmallWorld springs immediately to mind. The game is one of territory control, with fantasy races endowed with special powers vying for position. There is very little die rolling, unlike Risk – players rely on numerical superiority and careful planning before their turns. Said turns are rather short, leading to little downtime, and even when it isn’t your turn, it behooves you to watch the board, as positions can change very quickly based on who chooses which race/power combination. And don’t worry about one position on the map being better than another. There’s no ‘Australia’ portion that, when taken, guarantees victory. No matter how attached you might get to your Dragon Master Giants, sooner or later you’re going to run out of troops, and must go into Decline to choose a new race. This keeps the game vital for all of its turns and never lets things settle into a ‘status quo’ situation.

If you want a less direct means of competing with your friends, a ‘worker placement’ game might be more your speed, a great introductory example of which is Lords of Waterdeep. Set in one of the largest cities in the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of Forgotten Realms, the game casts its players as one of the eponymous Lords, who compete with one another for control of the city through agents and adventurers. Agents move through the city, gathering resources for their Lords, engaging the services of builders, and inviting adventurers to their Lord’s tavern. From the tavern, adventurers are sent on quests, which garner more riches and renown for the Lord who sent them. With Intrigue actions, mandatory quests that can be played on other players, and the ways in which play order can change, this is another game where ‘status quo’ is not something that really exists. The pace of play is even faster than in SmallWorld, with each player taking one action in turn as they try to gather enough resources to score the most points. Between these aspects, the replayability inherent in the structure of quests and buildings, and the fantastic aesthetic and pieces, this is a game I feel I need to play more often. The only conflict between players exists in the Intrigue cards, and this can be modified for a group’s liking if they’d rather not stab each other incessantly in the back, which in my experience is the only thing that can make Lords of Waterdeep not fun. Most of the Lords, after all, are humans or demihumans; none of them are trolls.

But let’s say you don’t want to compete at all. You’d much rather work together with others towards a common goal; for example, saving the world from some global threat. Don’t fret, Pandemic has you covered. I could also mention Arkham Asylum, and while that game is a ton of fun to play in a large group, it does take some time to play through and there can be some stretches of downtime involved for individual players. Pandemic, on the other hand, has the advantages of easy setup, fast pace, and encouraged cooperation. The players are members of an elite team of specialists working together to contain several epidemics of disease around the globe, trying to keep them from combining into a global pandemic. Each turn, players move around the world, treating disease and gathering data for cures. However, at the end of a player’s turn, more cases of disease crop up, and if a city hits critical mass, there’s an outbreak. The world can only take so many outbreaks and epidemics before the entire population begins coughing, puking, dropping over, and bleeding out. It’s a tense game that sucks you in. There are many ways to lose in Pandemic, and as much as it sucks to not prevail in a game, it’s still fun to play even when it feels like the game is out to get you (which, by the way, it is.)

Those are three board games that, off the top of my head, absolutely destroy the notion that board games are the same old tired distraction trotted out at family gatherings to keep conversations from getting stale. I could go on to talk about some favorite card games – Chez Geek, Cards Against Humanity, Fluxx – or dice games – Elder Sign, Zombie Dice – but for now, I will leave you in the capable hands of Wil Wheaton. Watch him and his friends play SmallWorld here or Pandemic here. I’m still waiting on a Lords of Waterdeep episode…

And of the games mentioned, my wife has played… none of them. Yet. This makes me sad.

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