No, I’m not talking about Monopoly.
The board games I’m talking about are a whole new breed of modern board game. They are varied in theme and in playstyle, but one thing is certain: they are quickly gaining popularity, and not just with the video game and RPG crowd, but with the mainstream. Let’s take a quick look at what the modern “hobbyist” board game looks like and why you should be interested.
The Modern Board Game
Many board gamers agree that the rise of the new, “hobbyist” board game into the public eye came with the release of The Settlers of Catan in 1995. Let me be clear–Settlers of Catan is definitely not the first modern board game, nor is it necessarily the best. But, while many excellent board games obviously existed before this point (many of these have been reprinted, and rightfully so) and even though many games that are considered as part of the hobbyist tradition were already released, Settlers represented the rise of the hobbyist board game into the mainstream. After the release of Settlers of Catan, the industry began to expand more rapidly than before and the prospective pool of board gamers became steadily larger.
Settlers of Catan, for its part, was a brilliant design. It was accessible, while remaining deep enough to replay. Instead of the old “roll to move” mechanic that had dominated North American mainstream board game design for so long (think Monopoly), the dice rolling simply dictated which resources would be collected that turn. There was a probability element that was offset by the fact that there was an established trading mechanic in the game that encouraged players to interact with each other every turn. The game was also easily expandable, leading to numerous expansion sets offering new options for the seasoned veterans. Sales of the Catan series are now approaching 25 million copies worldwide.
In my opinion, though, the success of Settlers of Catan (and subsequently board games in general) spoke more to the general interest in a face-to-face, social games–a medium which, in North America, had been mostly sidelined to hobbyists until the mid 1990s. Getting together with your friends and playing a game was a great way to socialize since player interaction was, for the new generation of board games, a necessary and intentional part of the game’s design . Eventually as interest in board games expanded, the selection of types of games, themes, and overall game production quality increased as well.
Enough on where board games have been, though–let’s take a look at where they are, and why you should be interested.
What kinds of games?
Board games have come a long way, especially since 1995. There are now numerous “genres” of board game that are more or less loose classifications. There are games that walk the line between multiple genres, or that borrow from other categories.
Given the now-vast multitudes of board games, you’ll definitely be able to find something that will appeal to you! Let’s take a look at the overarching genres that now exist within modern board games.
“Euro”-style games / German-style board games:
Like Settlers of Catan, these normally feature resource collection, simple or moderately-complex rules, and semi-abstract components. They range from the simple, like Settlers, to the complex, “heavier” games like Brass. Player interaction is normally present, but is often limited. A theme (like industrialization, in Brass’s case) is present, but not the main focus. Very rarely is direct player interaction one of the main game mechanics: instead, often other players’ choices limit yours. Random chance is normally minimal to moderate or has some kind of control or safeguard built in for the player.
Thematic / “Ameritrash”-style games:
This style of game normally takes a theme and builds a game around it which represents the theme as entertainingly as possible. This is often contrasted to the Euro game, whose core mechanics could often be represented by any number of themes. There are often rules specifically tailored to the theme of the game. Player interaction is usually very important and often direct, with players making direct attacks against or negotiating/co-operating with other players. These games are also the most likely to be cooperative games as the indirect conflict in Euro games makes them normally unsuited for that type of game. On the other hand, many themes deal with cooperation and survival, making the Thematic game the more popular cooperative choice. Components are normally high-quality and representative of the theme, so miniatures are fairly common for this kind of game.
These games are designed to be simple enough to be picked up and played by people new to board games, but entertaining and social enough to be interesting to veterans. Player interaction is normally a major part, if not the main focus of the game. Instead of emphasizing planning or strategy, party games tend to emphasize creativity and psychology. Some party games have no scoring mechanism whatsoever and are played purely for the enjoyment of the experience.
Strategy / Wargames:
Strategy games are games that rely solely on the autonomous actions of their participants, and chance is minimal or non-existant (think Chess). Wargames are strategy games that normally focus on a recreation of a military operation. In most cases the operation is a real historical event, but it can also be fictional (Battles of Westeros, for example, is set in Westeros, from A Game of Thrones). The moniker “wargame” is a controversial one, and its usage is highly disputed among enthusiasts. Many wargames tend towards the more complex side of the scale, and as such some simpler wargames, especially those with a fictional theme, are often excluded by some gamers as being worthy of the title. The systems used to govern unit control in wargames are many, ranging from operational control to a card-driven system.
Competitive or Cooperative?
Though some types of game are very commonly competitive, there are many games that are co-operative. In these games, the players play against the game itself. Sometimes, the players draw cards that detail how the opposition acts, or use certain logic described in the manual to control the opposition.
Many cooperative games are difficult, in order to ensure replayability. Still, cooperative games are a really great way to get into the hobby. Playing against the game itself can make newer players feel more at ease. And, if you don’t like competitive games, there are plenty of cooperative games out there to keep you occupied!
The Social Angle
Well, the first and most obvious thing about board games is that you’re face-to-face with the people you’re playing with. It’s a great way to get together with some friends and be social while doing something fun.
Most games will, in some way or another, force you to interact with the other players as well. So, besides the friendly banter and bits of conversation, you also have to normally engage with other players on a game level, as well.
The inherently-social aspect of board games is also something that lends itself to their accessibility. They are games you can play with many different facets of your social life: friends, family or significant other. Family especially seems to enjoy them, as it is often a welcome alternative to less social forms of media in a group situation.
A Big Puzzle
If you love problem-solving, you’ll love board games. They may have different mechanics and themes, but every board game has an objective, and figuring out the best way to accomplish it is, for most people, a lot of fun.
Many games (or opposing players!) will also throw wrenches into your plans, but that’s okay–adaptation is also a lot of fun.
A Game of Themes
Finally, board games allow you to enjoy a theme with which you can engage. Not only that, but many franchises are having board games made by some of the best board game designers in the business.
For example, board games for Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Star Wars and the entire Warhammer IP are currently in the hands of Fantasy Flight Games. Known for their quality components and enjoyable thematic adaptations, Fantasy Flight continues to give fans what they want along with a level of quality that you normally wouldn’t associate with a board game representing a major IP. This isn’t your Dad’s Star Wars Monopoly.
Hopefully you have a group of friends who would be happy to try out some board games with you. If not, I encourage you to head on over to the forums at BoardGameGeek and see if there are any groups nearby. You’ll be surprised at how common these kinds of groups are! Even my own humble city of Kitchener in Ontario, Canada boasts multiple, large board gaming groups.
Hopefully this has encouraged you to give board games a shot! In the future, I’ll be doing reviews of board games to give you some ideas on what to play. For the moment, any of the examples I have listed above would be good starting points, or you check out BoardGameGeek to see what might appeal to you.