people & cardboard

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.



26 Responses to people & cardboard

  1. Mel says:

    I love you. That is all.

    No, seriously, I can’t wait for the next posts and the games you recommend. Sounds amazing.

  2. Kris says:

    I am the reigning lady of Catan around here. Honestly. I have a coffee mug that says so.

    Fantastic post. I’m looking forward to more!

    • Thank you very much 🙂 I’m actually hopeless at Catan – I always get myself blocked into corners. Starfarers is my favourite but that might just be because you get a spaceship to shake 😉

  3. Pam/Peejakers says:

    *laughs at Red Dwarf scene* I used to play the *other* kind of board games with family & as you say, not all that interesting. The games you suggest here & the ones you’ve mentioned previously on Twitter or elsewhere always sound so charming, I love hearing about them 🙂

    But honestly I’m so non-social, I doubt there’d be any opportunity to play these things, especially as it doesn’t seem like something hubs would be into. Are there ever online or just computer versions of board-games? Err, where you can play in a kind of solitaire way, that is, or against a computer? I wouldn’t want to play actual people I don’t know! Heh, I know, hopeless!

    Also, sometimes games sound cool, but I can’t tell if I’d really like playing, in actual practice. I get very daunted by games with lots of rules or stuff to read up front. I can’t seem to absorb & retain the info, it’s like reading really dry stuff from a textbook. Plus I’m typically awful with things where you actually need any kind of strategy or skill 😛 Sigh. I think I want games to be too easy, but also interesting, probably mutually exclusive 😛

    But it’s pretty weird, when I read or watch a mystery, my mind is always working overtime to solve it, so a few years ago (okay, many, many years ago actually) I bought this Sherlock Holmes board game, 221 Bakerstreet. But I could never play the thing. Well, for one thing, family members I was trying to get to play with me didn’t seem hugely interested & I didn’t do a very effective job of selling them on it as I was so ambivalent myself. But you had to read a rulebook, read this card with a short but fairly detailed description of the case on it, then read clues & remember them after. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound so bad when I describe it, but it felt kind of like . . . this is an exaggeration, but like wanting to read Lord of the Rings, but having to memorize all the world-building stuff before you could even get started. So, I despaired & gave up on it. Might t have been fun to play if I’d been playing with someone else who was familiar & could have jumped in & just figured it out as I went along & asked questions.

    Anyway, I don’t know, I think I might just be unsuited to playing the kinds of games that are interesting. But I still look forward to hearing you talk about them 🙂

    • Noriko says:

      I also have a low threshold for reading and memorizing rules up front, and I would recommend Dixit, because it’s about guessing how someone is likely to interpret something. Basically there are dream-like image cards dealt to everyone, the player on deck picks a word, phrase, or tells a story about their selected card that they keep hidden for the moment, other players pick a card from their own hand that might fit the given word, etc., all the selected cards are then revealed, and players try to pick the origin card among all the plausible candidates. Points are awarded in a variable fashion depending on whether everyone guesses wrong or right or shades in between. I don’t normally comment, but this is the one game in which I consistently thrash my very small pool of competitors, so I love it and think you might enjoy it, too.

      • I really enjoy Dixit too – it’s kind of low stakes in that it makes winning and losing equally entertaining, and for me it straddles this nice space of being somewhat imaginative but not too creatively demanding. I’ve tried to player looser, story-demanding games (like Once Upon A Time) and everyone just gets paralysed.

        Have you looked at Mysterium, by any chance? To me, it’s like Dixit but with a stronger thematic component.

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Thanks 🙂 I have actually played an online version of Dixit a couple of times, though it was a couple of years ago. I did enjoy it very much. I’ve never played it in person, but I agree it probably would be a lot of fun with a small group 🙂

    • For what it’s worth, I’ve heard quite negative things about 221B Baker Street – but I’ve never played it. There is a Sherlock Holmes game called Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which I think Tweeted about once, which is actually really good. It’s almost more of a choose-your-own-adventure story than a board game but it’s about literally solving a case rather than collecting enough “you have solved the case tokens” until the game says you win. I might write my next post on it 🙂

      As it happens, you can get online versions of a lot of boardgames, but I’m not sure you can play versus AI, and honestly if you could I’m not entirely sure how much fun it would be because a lot of board games are designed around table talk. I mean, if you’re going to play a computer game, it’s probably better to play a computer game that’s designed just for you to be playing it, than a video game port of game designed to be played in person with people. Having said that, H has been really into the PC port of Warhammer Quest so I guess mileage varies 🙂

      I think the other thing I’d say is that if reading rulebooks up front isn’t your thing then you’d probably have to find more experienced people to play with and, obviously if playing with strangers also isn’t your thing, that might be an intractable problem 🙂 Although I have noticed recently that the industry itself seems to have realised that reading rulebooks is potentially a serious barrier to enter and a lot of newer games have come with online tutorials. And this is incredibly nerdy but sometimes when we get a new game we watch videos of other people playing on Youtube. But actually it’s quite a good way to learn and it means you don’t have bring your friends to your house to watch you read a rulebook at them.

      As regards your suitability or otherwise to play this kind of game, I think hobbies in general one can be too quick to jump one way or the other. That is, either to say definitively “oh no, you have to be a very particular sort of person to like this sort of thing” or else to get overcome with enthusiasm and keep bombarding people with recommendations long after it’s become apparent that they haven’t actually liked any of them.

      Noriko recommends Dixit below and I’d agree that it’s a very easy game to get into, but unfortunately not designed for 2 players.

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Oh yes, you’ve tweeted about Consulting Detective a couple of times I think 😉 It sounded super charming, but yeah, please do talk about it in one of your posts, I’d be interested in hearing more about how it actually works.

        You know, I did actually think that watching people play a game on Youtube would be a good way to learn. I actually tried finding a video of people playing 221B Baker Street, but all I found was video’s of people who apparently had a used version of the game they wanted to sell & they described the rules, but didn’t actually demonstrate playing. But I’m guessing that’s because it’s such an old game.

  4. srand says:

    My partner does board game night once a week with those of his friends that aren’t quite willing to join the weekly table-top RPG session. They recently picked up Love Letters; he told me afterwards that he (as a veteran gamer) found it surprisingly good, but that he especially liked it because it worked so well with the two newbie romantic partners they had there that night.

    • We board game much more erratically because most our uni friends have scattered annoyingly to have grown up lives and shit but we do manage to people together every month or so. I’m really pleased with Love Letters for exactly those reasons: it’s surprisingly deep and engaging for something fairly straightforward, and it makes a really accessible game for people who get (understandably) nervous when you pull down Twilight Imperium 🙂 I also like it because it could have any theme at all, really, given the mechanics and they went for courtly intrigue rather, y’know, something more conventionally macho.

  5. Kelly says:

    Absolutely on the play with a broad range of people. I grew up playing board games–it was something ‘my generation’ did, but also we traveled a lot when I was a kid, so board games were the ultimate ice breaker when we were meeting yet another set of neighbours. When I finally set up my own house (early twenties) I used to really enjoy inviting over friends from different groups and putting them around a game table. It was sort of a social experiment–to see how they’d get along (muahahah) but also meant to be fun. A way to mesh the different groups of people I hung out with.

    My friends and I still have game nights. Our yearly vacation to the shore (with another family or by ourselves) always includes a poker tournament. My husband will not let me quit playing Ascension until he catches up to my wins (which will be never).

    What I LOVE about board games:
    1) The challenge, first of all. I’m a gamer. I love all games. I love thinking and playing at the same time.
    2) The social aspect. I’ve played a lot of MMOs and co-op stuff online, and it’s been fun. Running Molten Core with 40 people yelling over each other on Team Speak is FUN. But it’s not quite the same as sitting around a table with folks for some paper and pencil D&D or a game of Iron Dragon (or anything, really) where half of the time is spent socialising and the other half is spent playing. It’s leisurely and food is involved and it’s a great way to spend a day.

    • I very much agree that the social aspect is a big part of what I like about gaming. My partner probably leans slightly more towards tabletop RPGs and I lean slightly more towards board games, to be honest, with enjoy both. I think what I like about board games is that someone else has done all the hard work for you so it’s easier for everyone to engage on the same level and with the same sort of level of input – without someone actually have to make up all the stuff and do all the work.

  6. Kaetrin says:

    Since Father’s Day last year, we’ve been having a(n almost) weekly game of Talisman on Sunday afternoons. Hubs is painting all the miniatures (because he’s very into all that sort of thing) and both hubs and son play Talisman online. I’m not a big computer gamer (in fact, I’m not a computer gamer at all unless you count Words With Friends and I don’t think you would) but I do like board games because of the social aspect.

    We are all too nice to each other and rarely do awful things which would be designed to kill off a character (which reminds me, we really need to invite my brother around for a game…) but we have fun every week.

    We have a number of the expansions now. After playing all of them at once the first time, we realised that was a BIG MISTAKE and now we play one at a time because otherwise it was just too damn hard.

    Hubs says Descent is similar to Talisman except it’s set in space?

    • I’m not a computer game snob – I don’t look down on casual games, I promise. Words With Friends is a game – on a computer, it counts 🙂

      I haven’t played Talisman since they re-released it – I can remember H dragging it out (the original) one Xmas and we all fell into a Monopoly space with it because it went on forever and it was frustratingly random. I do recall hearing or reading somewhere they’d streamlined it? But I guess, for me, the issue with games that have a “do horrible things component” built in is that very often the doing horrible things is what makes the game actually end in a reasonable fashion. Like not wanting to bankrupt Little Timmy is part of what leads to Monopoly being 85 hours long. Though I definitely agree with you that expansions can really unbalance games if not used carefully. I used to be a rabid expansion buyer and now not so much 🙂

      Descent: Journeys in the Dark is definitely not in space. It’s a fantasy world, and you delve into dungeons to kill monsters and steal loot. It’s semi-competitive in that one of you players the Overlord who controls the dungeon and the rest of you play adventurers. it’s super lavish.

      • Kaetrin says:

        We can usually finish a game in 2-3 hours (most often 2). Some of the expansions have really random endings, such as you get to the Crown of Command and roll a die – if it’s a 1 you are killed, if it’s a 2-3 the other players win the game and if it’s a 4-6 you win (or something like that). We don’t like that because it’s just too random. After all that effort grinding (that’s a technical term I learned from my boys) to find the result turns completely on one die roll is just too frustrating.

        I did win a game once because I was the only player left, but we much prefer the ones where someone has to actually win. The alternate ending we played last Sunday was one where the first person to reach the CofC with 13 or more fate tokens won the game and there’s another with quest rewards instead. (I didn’t win; I was too busy being turned into a toad. Again. *sigh*).

        We have modified some of the rules for us so that the game is playable – in the Harbinger expansion, things are supposed to happen the first time an Event card is drawn from the adventure deck. One came up on the first round the first time we played it and I think we all went through 4 characters before the omens came out and nobody won! So we have changed it to 30 minutes of free play to let each character build some strength and craft before the Harbinger can come out and it makes it much better.

        (I really feel like I have earned my geek card here.) 😀

  7. Shaheen says:

    I spent Christmas with my mother in Hartlepool,* and visited a cafe that immediately made me think of you. It’s called Tea @ Hart (iirc), and has an immense array of board and card games on shelves, tables, floors, everywhere! They host board game sessions and such. [Unfortunately, we sat there with no service for an hour and walked out in a huff, so I can’t precisely recommend them.]

    I once tried to get out of a long and boring game of monopoly by declaring that I had married one of the other players, and endowed him with all my worldly goods… He still lost. The only board game I’ve played other than monopoly and pachisi (which I do actually enjoy) is Munchkin, which involves a lot of reading the card descriptions, and even more giggling.

    *Incidentally, as far as I can tell Hartlepool was practically the only portion in the North of England that didn’t flood this year.

    • We have a board game cafe reasonable close by but, err, I’ve only been once. I thinkH goes fairly regularly and has, thankfully, always been served 😉

      I’ve thankfully blocked out all my worst memories of terrible Monopoly games – I just have a festering sense of abstract resent and boredom 🙂

      I’ve also had some enjoyable games of Munchkin. I’d say that’s one of those games where the theme outweighs the gameplay, because a large part of the pleasure is giggling over the cards and the in-jokes, whereas the mechanics are often a bit tedious. Basically: the second person always wins, since you throw all your shit at the first person to stop them, and then the next person walks away with it 🙂

      • Shaheen says:

        Huh. I never noticed that about Munchkin …. Either I don’t play it often enough to have noticed the pattern (true), or my brother and I are so focused on explaining the rules (and fudging them) to his mother, that the order of the win pattern becomes largely irrelevant (also true).

        To be honest, I quite enjoy the first half of monopoly, where you are trying to establish your empire. As soon as you have enough wherewithal to put down a hotel I get totally bored. Acquisition yes, maintenance and total monopoly no. I am not sure what this says about me as a capitalist. I have been told that monopoly was originally created as a game showing the evils of voracious capitalism. No idea if its true.

        Civilization strikes me as a kind of computerized board game, which I thoroughly enjoy, whereas Risk, which it loosely (very loosely) resembles, I hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. Talk about booooooooring (except for the struggle over who gets to own Kamchatka, which may be a peculiarity of my family).

  8. Ellie says:

    I had almost given up on trying board games (Forbidden Desert was top of my list to try) but this post makes me reconsider, once again.

  9. Lotta says:

    We’ve amassed a collection of board games of the monopoly/cluedo kind to play with the kids when they were smaller, but we don’t seem to get the time to sit down and play often enough, and I would like to move on to more interesting games, so I’m looking forward to reading your posts. (To my embarrassment, I actually enjoy beating my 11-year-old at Cluedo, shame on me. She’s working on getting better and beating me, so I only sometimes feel bad about it.)

    • Ellie says:

      You got Cluedo (mini version in Bulgarian) as a gift and tried with my 3yo daughter but it was crazy, she doesn’t actually let anyone play, even if we bend to rules to make it easier for her 🙂 I’m keeping the game until she is a bit older and will try it again.

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