Opinion Piece

Drop The Controller, Pick Up Some Dice And Start Getting Into Board Games

 

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Board games are in so many ways the spiritual precursors to videogames, the not-so-distant ancestor of our digital hobby. What is a videogame at its core; a set of interwoven mechanics that dictate the player can and cannot do, hopefully resulting in a positive, fun experience. Of course the formula has evolved over the years to include powerful stories and wonderful visuals to provide incredible adventures and spine-tingling brilliance, but at their core they remain a set of mechanics that we interact with. Board games are also a set of interwoven mechanics that aim to provide the player with a good time, they just lack the clearly presented cutscenes and audio used to craft entire digital worlds, relying instead on the player’s imagination and attempting to create gameplay mechanics that thematically make sense. Board games are to video games what books are to movies. You just have to use a little more imagination.

As somebody who plays a hell of a lot of video games, then, it just makes sense to me to play board games, too. A lot of people proclaim to hate board games because of their earlier experiences with them, which often include the classics like Monopoly, Scrabble, Frustration, RISK and the like, all of which I’ve personally got pretty fond memories of, having come from a family that were not adverse to chilling out with a board game. I spent a lot of happy hours playing Monopoly, or Chinese Checkers with my sister, although bickering usually insued because me and my sister get competitive. And she cheats.  For other folk, though, their memories are more ones of boredom and tedium, family arguments a strong desire to be doing just about anything else. They assume that there isn’t much else to board games past rolling some dice and only winning because the hand of fate allowed it. They don’t know there’s a whole world of games out there that go well beyond the simplicity and luck-based play of something like Snakes and Ladders, games that boast storylines and cool themes and interesting mechanics. When these come together right board games can spark surprisingly strong emotions in players. These types of games are leagues away from Monopoly, often pushing luck to the side in order to keep player’s feeling like they have more influence over winning and losing, although pure chance will always have a place in order to keep things feeling more dynamic and interesting, much like videogames.

Pandemic is a great example of how a board game can evoke emotion using clever design. It’s a co-operative game that has you and a couple of chums attempting to stop the spread of several deadly infections across the world, achieving victory by researching a cure for each one before the entire of humanity gets obliterated in horrible ways. It’s not an easy task, though, as even on its lowest difficulty Pandemic feels like it’s out to kick your ass and make you vomit blood, which encourages a powerful sense of camaraderie within the team. Every decision counts, and a wrong one can suddenly leave the world a desolate ruin. Clever mechanics keep the tension high as the viral strains are always spreading, and outbreaks can result in horrible chain reactions. There’s just one way to win the game, but three to lose; suffer eight outbreaks and you’ve lost; if any one disease becomes too rampant on the board you lose, and if you run out of player cards you lose. The game is a ticking time-bomb. I can’t tell you how many times Pandemic has had me and my friends sweating, debating the merits of one move over the other and trying to plan some sort of long-term strategy while we stand on the precipice of destruction. Luck is included in the form of two decks of cards, but also restrained so that smart play almost always wins over simple dumb luck. Best of all even losing is great fun. You can read my review for a better idea of why I love it, but suffice to say Pandemic has had me sweating, laughing, swearing, manic, relieved and fatigued.

Board games are in the middle of a powerful resurgence, as shown by cafes dedicated to them are popping up all over the place, providing hide-ways where you can stop by for a cake, coffee and game with strangers or friends. Even pubs are getting in on it, welcoming people ambling in with a box in one arm. Speaking of pubs, though, I heartily recommend taking Cards Against Humanity down to your local and persuading some people to play. It’s the most offensive, hilarious card game known to mankind, and can be learned in about five seconds. Amidst the seemingly never-ending accusations that people are spending far too much time staring at their screen gamers are putting down their controllers and picking up decks of cards and dice, and it’s absolutely amazing. It’s fantastic to see my beloved hobby managing to make its way back into the mainstream, bringing people together in a way that even the best online multiplayer video game can’t really do, and with age has come deeper mechanics, clever designs and strong themes. There’s a wealth of board games that span the range from hugely complex and time-consuming to light and fun. Whether you want to spend an entire evening deep in thought or just want to pass some time laughing, there’s a game out there that’s perfect for it.

That’ includes plenty of ways for potential board game players to be introduced into the fine art of dice, cards, boards and destroyed friendships. To begin with I always recommend checking out the awesome Tabletop series on Youtube hosted by none other than geek legend Wil Wheaton, where Wheaton and guests tackle a variety of games. What’s great about the series is not only does it cover a wide variety of games and showcase how they work in a fun way that manages to make even complex rules seem straightforward, but they can be enjoyed by people who don’t even like board games, simply because the banter is frequently hilarious. Wheaton is truly a great ambassador for board gaming as no episode of Tabletop is anything less than fun.

When it comes to the actual physical board games there’s a wealth of great titles for beginners out there. While I’m personally not a fan of it because I find it to be a rather dry and dull experience, the exact opposite of what you want for a newcomer to experience, many people would recommend Settlers of Catan as the perfect stepping stone, a game about constructing small colonies and managing resources. I’d probably more recommend something like Ticket to Ride, a relaxing game about  building railway lines between destinations to score points. It has a simple set of rules that anyone can grasp in mere minutes and a chilled pace that’s perfect for a quiet evening.  There’s also Munckin, which while technically not a board game since it only features cards and dice unless you grab the deluxe edition is still easy to love and very fun, the idea being that you play a character kicking down doors, killing monsters and grabbing the loot. Comedy is the name of the game with a variety of daft monsters and weapons, like the Hammer of Kneecapping. The ability to help friends or stab them in the back and even make strike deals for aid makes this a great game when you’ve got some beer on the go and a good group of close friends. Pandemic, as talked about above, is also a great game. Slightly more complex than Catan, Munchkin and Ticket to Ride it’s still relatively easy to learn and very thrilling. King of Tokyo also deserves a shout-out, the idea being that you take on the role of a monster attempting to battle other monsters to become….uh, well, the King of Tokyo. Again, a very simple ruleset and fairly short playtime make this a great introductory game that works best with a group of folk. There are loads more, too, and no end of Top Ten lists that suggest perfect titles for beginners to pick up.

The trickiest part is usually persuading other people to play with you. Despite the resurgence most people are fairly unwilling to sit down and give board games a real shot, citing a dislike of all the usual classics and failing to realise that there’s just so much more to them these days. A promise of some food and drink usually helps, perhaps bolstered by a well-loved film to round off the evening. Of course if you can’t gather some people together who are at least willing to try a game or two then that can leave you stumped; there’s some truly great games that can be played solo, like the Firefly board game that I enjoyed so much or even something like Elder Sign or Legendary, but let’s face it board games are a social thing and having a group that will play a variety of games is what it’s about. So the other option is to head into the magical rainbow of knowledge and terror (or Google, as some know it) and look up local board game groups that meet up to have fun. Approaching such groups can feel odd, but just remember they’re there for the same reason you are.

The other thing I see happening a lot is that people get scared off easily, usually because their board game loving pal suddenly brings out something like the Game of Thrones official game, which initially seems like a good idea since so many people love the show and books, but quickly becomes a nightmare because once it has been set up it looks like a freaking war-table used to command armies and conquer entire worlds. I still remember a friend of my walking in while I was grabbing some pictures of the Firefly board game for review, his look of utter confusion speaking volumes and probably scarring him for life. With its multiple decks of cards, tokens and other bits and bobs Firefly can look daunting when it is set up, especially since it takes up the entirety of a standard table kitchen table. Just like how you should start easy when first venturing into the dark realms of horror movies, board games should be eased into lest you end up putting yourself or a friend off for life.

Still the realm of licensed games can be a good place to venture to in order to attack either yourself or friends to the idea of board games, since picking up a product based on a film, show or videogame you love immediately makes you invested in at least giving it a proper shot. Much like video games, though, licensed products can be rather hit and miss. One worthy recommendation would be the official Battlestar Galactica board game which isn’t too complicated and can be played by up to seven people. The hook is that it’s a co-operative board game where everybody must work together, except for one person who takes on the role of a Cylon attempt to cause mayhem for everybody else without getting discovered. It’s brilliant because it asks you to trust the other players at the table, while keeping a wary eye on them. The paranoia it induces is truly brilliant. The Game of Thrones board game is good, but the length of time a single play through takes and the fact that it’s quite complex don’t make it noob friendly.  From the video game world the official Gears of War board game is supposed to be quite good, as is the XCOM one and the official BioShock Infinite game, but I’ve played none of these and can’t comment. Maybe I’ll see if I can grab one of each to review at some point. Also worth looking at is the Discworld board game (check out my review of that) which has a pretty easily understood set of rules, fun mechanics and an ace theme.

There’s one huge weakness; board games can be damn expensive. It’s not unusual to visit a shop and see at least a few games with a £60 or higher price-tag attached to them, while a good majority run in the £30-40 range, hardly chump change. However, while the prices do often feel a little excessive for the quality of the components, board games tend to offer a lot of replay value. Provided you sit down with a group of friends and play a £40 game a couple of times a year for a few hours at a time then you’ll have gotten the same amount of raw playtime out of it as you would have had with most video games. Find a game you really like and play it once or a month or even once a week, and the price-tag won’t seem so bad.

There are, of course, plenty of things board games can’t do that video games can; they can’t tug at the heartstrings in quite the same way, or deliver you into the pilot’s seat of a giant mech or tell a story like the Witcher 3 can. They can’t show you beautifully crafted worlds, only give you glimpses of one through artwork. They can’t deliver the same level of immersion, only provide a semblance of it.. Furthermore video games can, like board games, get some friends together in the living room via split-screen for some social phone. But grabbing a box, lifting off the lid and pulling out a myriad of finely made dice, cards and playing pieces before setting it all up, grabbing a few beers and settling down with a couple of friends for the evening holds delights that video games can’t match, delights that can’t really be put into words. With the resurgence and wealth of wonderfully designed, diverse board games now available there’s really no better time to put down the controller and grab some dice, even if it’s just once. Who knows, you might just find a new love.

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