I grew up playing games with my family, but I never enjoyed board games. I was three when my grandmother got me the Super Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. The following Christmas morning I woke up to find my dad opened one of my Christmas gifts and already reached the second world of Donkey Kong Country. He quickly reset the game, plugged in another controller, and began to play the two player mode with me. When I asked him how he was so good already, he told me, “Santa taught me how to play.” In my wisdom as a four year old, I not only believed him, but was excited that the cookies I wanted to eat, but was told were just for Santa were gone.
My two brothers and I are all three and a half years apart. When they began to get older, the Super Nintendo’s two controller ports just weren’t enough for us to all play together. It began with my dad forfeiting his place. Then when all three siblings were of age, came the awful stage of the loser giving up their spot. As the eldest and naturally most dexterous, I rarely lost to them and could always play, instigating arguments between my two younger brothers which one of them got to play next.
Then came the miracle of the Nintendo 64, allowing all three of us to play together. Mario Party, Mario Kart 64, Diddy Kong Racing, and Super Smash Bros. were the great equalizers in our house. But it also meant that in order to play classics like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, I would have to be home without my younger brothers; an exceedingly rare occurrence. As a result of having three young and aggressive boys in the house who would argue over everything, we started to put away the video games and start playing board games together instead.
It was awful. Monopoly, Trouble, and Sorry are classics that most families are familiar with. Introducing more competition into preexisting sibling rivalries never ended well. That degree of forced competition just ruined the experience for us and for fifteen years, I hated the idea of board games.
Now, I’m living in Brooklyn, NY and can’t get enough. Why the change? Maybe I’ve just been introduced to the right games with the right people, maybe it’s the growing popularity of board games, or maybe I’ve just stopped whining about losing every time I play Monopoly (probably not). Regardless, my opinions on the matter have changed dramatically.
I’ve mentioned Gloomhaven before when Isaac Childres first announced the upcoming video game and our recent review of it, but it bears repeating. Way Too Many Game’s newest writer, Jordan Best, invited me over one rainy Saturday to play his newest obsession, Gloomhaven, and is ultimately responsible for my interest in board games. One afternoon playing that beast of a board game completely changed my outlook and I’ve since been getting my hands on every set of dice I can.
For starters, I find board games to be far more social than their digital counterparts. While online multiplayer games like Call of Duty and Halo can bring people together, there’s a human disconnect when we’re separated by a screen. Even when we play a local co-op game with a friend, the focus is still on a screen and away from the person next to you.
Board games are by their very nature more social than anything we can do around a screen. It’s difficult for us as social creatures to sit around a table of people and not engage with them. Even angsty teenagers have to make an effort not to talk to people at a dinner table. Whether it’s a cooperative or competitive game, it’s in our very nature to interact with the people around us and board game designers know this and use it to their utmost advantage.
There are multiple genres that are built around players’ social interaction such as hidden movement, deduction, and asymmetrical cooperative games. In each of the above, players will constantly have to coordinate with one another in order to win. Take Spirit Island for example. Each player controls a spirit of nature that presides over an island being invaded by settlers. The playable spirits are so vastly different that players will find themselves entirely dependent on one another to push the invaders back from the island.
Even the easiest to manage spirits rely on each other. Shadows Flicker Like Flame and Vital Strength of the Earth is a solid pair that I enjoy using. Shadows will deal light damage at low cost and help progress toward easier win conditions, but he doesn’t do very well in terms of defense. Opposite Shadows, Vital Strength is agonizingly slow but has tremendous defense. Combining their strengths is the key to victory and the only way to do that is for players to cooperate and develop a plan together. Acting as a lone wolf is a guaranteed way to lose.
In Dead of Winter,players work together to survive a harsh winter while they are pursued by zombies. Survivors work together to search nearby areas, battle zombies, and gather resources to survive the storm. But each player has a secret objective and a betrayer may be trying to undermine everyone else. Players will work together in an attempt to deduce who the betrayer is an exile them before it’s too late for everyone.
But the game itself doesn’t have to be cooperative in order to have a great social experience. Not all that long ago my roommates and I had two simultaneous games of Catan going with enough people so that we still had to form teams and it was the most fun we’ve had in ages. Even in our Brooklyn apartment we managed to fit twelve people around two tables to play Catan at a volume our neighbors are most certainly plotting revenge for.
Relaxing Personal Time
Recognizing that I’m a chronic extrovert, it’s worth highlighting how many games out there are designed for one player or include rules for solo variants. There’s a lot of stigma around playing board games alone, but it’s misguided.
I can’t tell you how many weekend mornings I’ve woken up, made myself eggs and coffee, and sat down to Gloomhaven or 7th Continent on my own. Even though Gloomhaven is a dungeon crawler intended for a recurring group, playing alone converts the RPG-like experience into a complex puzzle. Controlling the required two characters means that a solo player is more informed of player/party actions and can make more calculated decisions.
7th Continent sends players and their explorers back to the mysterious land where they were cursed. After choosing what curse (story) they plan to break off their explorer, players drop their character in the middle of a mysterious continent to explore and uncover clues in order to free themselves. To survive on this ever expanding map, explorers need careful resources management, a little bit of skill, and a whole lot of luck. It’s a quiet game that any one player can sit and peacefully uncover the curses’ mysteries, when the continent doesn’t have other plans for you.
I perceive solo board games in the same way I look at Sudoku or crossword puzzles. It’s something that I can do on my own as a relaxing mental exercise over coffee or after a long day at work. In the rare occasions that I don’t care to socialize, solo gaming has become a favorite down-time activity.
Ownership and House Rules
As digital marketplaces rise, consumer’s sense of ownership declines. Music collections give way to subscriptions services that only grant access to a changing library. Video services change contracts with distributors and fan favorites disappear. Likewise, updates and patches can remove or nerf our favorite parts of a game.
With board games, the game is yours to do with as you please. Assuming you take care of your games, they’ll last a lot longer than a video game. There’s no need to worry about hardware becoming obsolete. There aren’t any servers to shut off after developers stop supporting their games. No fear of losing your internet connection to a heated online match. There’s just the game.
Better yet, if you don’t like the way a game is played, you can change it. It’s no secret that there’s a huge modding community among gamers. Titles like Skyrim, Fallout, and The Witcher are known for having large modding communities, but it requires a great deal of preexisting programming knowledge in order to begin. Board games don’t require the same level of skill to customize.
Some game designers will include tools to create custom game scenarios or custom classes. Issac Childres even released files for additional player decks for Gloomhaven. And if they don’t, it’s easier to experiment with a pen and paper to start making any modifications player might want desire. It is possible that player modifications can throw off the balance of the game so it does take some trial and error, but it’s a process that can be mastered with practice.
Another great way to customize your copy of any game is to paint the figures. Most games containing miniatures ship with gray unpainted figures that can be primed and painted however your heart desires. For most out-of-the-box games it has little impact, but painting characters for expanded or larger games like Warhammer 40k can bring a whole new life and look to the table.
Either way, your games belong to you and you can do with them as you please.
With all the money that exists within the video game industry, games are designed for mass marketing appeal in order to ensure sales. But the larger community of game designers thrive on creating something new, and with less money tied up with gigantic publishers, they have the freedom to do so. As a result, the variety of board games that exists on the market is astounding.
For starters and what people might be most familiar with are deck builders. Games like Magic: The Gathering, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and Dominion, as well as their digital counterparts like Hearthstone and Gwent: The Witcher Card Game. While each of these games have a fairly short play time, the deck building genre requires that players prepare a deck of cards before playing. In many cases prebuilt decks are available for players who want to dive right in. But over time, familiarity will reveal weaknesses in the preconstructed deck and players will be able to purchase new sets of cards, shuffle in anything they’d like, and experiment with new possibilities. Deck building is massively popular but certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone, myself included.
But there are also social deduction games like Secret Hitler and One Night Ultimate Werewolf similar to playing Mafia as a kid where players try to identify who is offing other players. There are also Euro style games like Viticulture and Terra Mystica which are light on detailed character minis and components but focus on gameplay itself, often themed around economics or history. Then there’s hand management, dice rolling, worker placement, war gaming, tile placement, etc. The point is that with so many different genres of board games on the market, there’s truly something out there for everyone. Move passed your Monopoly flashbacks, find a friend with a small collection of games and start trying some out!
I understand that board games don’t stand out to everyone the way they do for me and that’s perfectly okay. But it might be time to give it another go. Tabletop games are on the rise and there’s a whole new world of games out there to be enjoyed. As resistant as I was at first, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the human element and if you do too, come join me for my weekly beer garden and board game nights in Brooklyn. First round is on me.