Board Games for adults. What a concept!
The Board Gamer
Beyond Monopoly and Clue.
It was described as "Board Game Hell." A business associate of my family was staying with us in Palm Springs, CA for what should have been a fun weekend. Except the fates did not comply, and even though we were in a desert, the heavens opened up and released a deluge not seen since Noah built his ark. Stuck at home, we spent the entire weekend playing board games. Monopoly, Clue, Parcheesi. There may have even been some Hungry Hippos. At the end of the weekend, our business associate could only describe the weekend in Dante-esque terms.
I am convinced, however, that the problem wasn't that we played board games. Rather, it was the type of board games we played.
When most people, at least in the United States, think of board games their minds go back to the lazy days of summer, with their siblings and a Monopoly board between them, each competing for the right to build a hotel on Boardwalk and Park Place. Many people never get beyond the notion that board games are a child's toy, something to play as a child before graduating to video games or even games like Magic: the Gathering. In the geek pantheon, board games rank somewhat near the bottom. They lack the immediacy of video games. They lack the history of comics. And they lack the visceral thrill of using a Holy Avenger +5 Longsword to defeat the terrible archliche in Dungeons and Dragons.
But this is not the case around the world. In Europe, particularly in Germany, board games have thrived, with individual creators making names for themselves with detailed, highly strategic, games for adults. Known as "Eurogames," they tend to be of the "easy to learn, difficult to master" type. Rules are often simple, but allow for a wide variety of play styles, with a wide variety of roads to victory. They rely less on randomness, such as rolls of the dice, and rely much more on planning and flexibility. Strategy usually trumps luck. Players do not get eliminated, as they often do in American games. The goal is not to eliminate your competitors, but rather to simply play the better game. While, a player may target another with defensive maneuvers, out and out conflict between different players tends to be rare, and very often to be counter-productive. Even scoring is usually either hidden, or not counted at all, until the very end of the game. These games are as much, if not more, social activities as competitive ones.
One key difference is that in America, the theme often defines the game, whereas in Eurogames, the theme merely complements the mechanics. However, in Eurogames theme and setting is something seen as completely separate from the game play. The result of this is that there is a huge variety of types of games and game themes. There are games based on recognizable genres such as war, or on kingdom building. These games can take place in any era or part of the world, from the European Middle Ages, to the American Civil War, to Caribbean islands, to the ancient world. There are also games based on political intrigue, where the object is to become the ruler of a particular land. And if those don't interest you, there are others based on discovering lost civilizations, racing horses, building transcontinental railroads, working with fellow players to cure a deadly plague, and even a game with the object of collecting the heads of nobles during the French Revolution. There are also many games adapted from well-known properties. For example, there is a board game version of the famous computer game Civilization and several games based on Lord of the Rings, both the movies and books. Basically, whatever the player's interest or preferred play style, there is a Eurogame somewhere that would perfectly suit him or her.
One area where Eurogames far outstrip American games is in card games. Whereas in America most recognizable card games, such as Rummy, utilize a standard deck of cards (there are exceptions of course), Euro card games are just as numerous and diverse as board games. Games with special game card decks are just as enjoyable and as in depth as their board game counterparts, with none of the collecting or deck building that can cost hundreds of dollars.
One aspect of Eurogames which deserves some mention is the game developer as auteur. Individual developers can be very well-known, and some reach a level where every release with their name on it is as eagerly awaited as a new book by a best-selling author. Developers such as Renier Knizia, who has a Ph.D in mathematics and with over 200 games to his credit, can attract a large number of followers and even special tournaments dedicated to them at gaming conventions. And like the writers of books, game developers often become known for particular ideas. For example, Britain-born Alan Moon often uses a railroad theme and often utilizes a mechanic where the player has a choice of several actions to take.
Future editions of this column will try and introduce you to the right games, so "Board Game Hell" is not something you will ever have to suffer.
SOME GAME EXAMPLES
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many of these games will be featured in future columns, where they will get the treatment and reviews they deserve. But all of these are deserving of a look if you are searching for something a little different from another round of Monopoly.
Ticket To Ride – A game where the object is to see who can build the longest and most comprehensive railroad system. There are two versions of this game, including one covering the U.S. and Canada, and a European map using European city spellings (e.g. Wien for Vienna or Moskva for Moscow). The two are largely similar, though the European version has some rule differences.
Dominion – Players compete with each other to expand their kingdoms into unsettled areas. This is a highly detailed and highly customizable card game.
Guillotine – A card game with a rather macabre sense of humor. Each player plays the role of a headsman during the Terror of the French Revolution, competing to see who can cut off the most prestigious heads, from King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the lowly royal Piss Boy.
Carcassone – One of the most famous Eurogames, wherein players try to build up settlements in the medieval French countryside by laying tiles. This game has numerous expansion sets
Pandemic – A plague is ravaging the world, and players must team up to find a cure and stop it from claiming everyone in its path.
Lost Cities – There are actually two different versions of this game; a card game for two players only and a board game for up to five players. The object is the same for both. Players compete as archaeologists to discover ancient civilizations, collect lost artifacts, and of course make sure the investment of time and resources pans out.
Race For The Galaxy – Players compete to see who can build the most advanced interplanetary civilization
Tribune: Primus Inter Pares – Players take the roles of the heads of roman families, each seeking to expand their influence among the various factions of Rome and become Tribune and the first among equals.
Shadow of the Emperor – Similar to the above game, players seek to win the support of the seven electors who determine the next Holy Roman Emperor by building cities, recruiting armies, and even engaging in political marriages in the Middle Ages.
Twilight Struggle – A two-player war game that spans the cold war, from the end of World War II up to 1989 and follows the intrigue and small-scale conflicts between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R that raged across the globe.
Last Night On Earth – A game where players try to survive the zombie apocalypse, or alternatively play as zombies and try to snuff out humanity once and for all.
This is merely an introduction to the world of adult board games. In coming columns, many of these games listed above will get more in depth treatments and reviews. Meanwhile, put the Clue board back in the closet and go play something fun!
Written or Contributed by: Gregory Huber