Saturday 29 April 2017

A Beginner's Guide to Board Games (from a Beginner)

Ah, the humble board game. For decades – centuries if you count games like chess – the board game did sterling work in bringing families together and providing entertainment and mental stimulation (before shattering them apart with arguments over how to spell words in Scrabble or Auntie Joan’s Dick Move in Monopoly which is still controversial ten years later). In the latter part of the 20th Century there was a drop-off in the popularity of board games, largely attributed to the rise of video games and television, but in the last few years board games have returned with a vengeance.

You'll never need to play this rubbish again,

There are several reasons board games have returned to popularity, some obvious, some less so. The number one influence, of course, is the Internet. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have allowed board games to be created, funded and sold in a manner and scale that was impossible under the old publisher model. The Internet has also allowed board game fans to find other players and set up gaming groups, as well as spreading the word about good games. YouTube videos and review sites like the excellent Shut Up and Sit Down and podcasts like The Game Pit have allowed players to see games in action before stumping up money for them. Message boards and websites also provide rules clarifications, cheat sheets, player aids and things to make the task of playing games much easier and reduce arguments. In rarer cases there are also digital, directly-translated versions of board games where players can hone their skills on the screen before deploying them against other players. Most notably, Pandemic, Blood Bowl and Space Hulk all have digital versions where you can directly translate the rules from screen to board and back again.

A slightly less obvious reason is the rapid and remarkable decline in same-room multiplayer video gaming. Back in the 1990s groups of friends could gather at houses to play Street Fighter II tournaments or Mario Kart championships. Split-screen gaming was a huge thing and, with no set-up time or time spent puzzling over rule books, a tempting alternative to board gaming. However, the last decade has seen a marked decline in same-room video gaming. Technical limitations meant that modern consoles struggle to depict two graphical displays of what is going on at an acceptable level of graphical detail, making it preferable for people to play their games from their own homes over the Internet. Although that’s still fun, it loses the social aspect and enjoyment gained from being in the same room as your friends.

The main reason for why board gaming is back, though, is also the most obvious one: there’s a lot of really good board games around, engaging in a variety of themes and ideas, ranging from very easy and quick-to-play and accessible titles for all ages to hardcore action games using lots of miniatures and complex rules taking entire days to play. Here’s a few games from the so-called “golden age” which might tickle your fancy.

For Beginners

Ticket to Ride
The ultimate introductory game for the new age of board games, Ticket to Ride is pretty straightforward: each player is a railroad magnate building new lines across the United States. The longer the lines, the greater the reward but also the risk one of your competitors might beat you to the pinch at the last minute. You score points for longer lines, but also achieving the secret objectives on your mission cards: the right combination of the right lines and cards can see someone storm from behind to win the game at the last hurdle, making sure everyone is involved right up to the last minute. A very simple game which gains complexity and replayability from the interaction of its different features and the mindsets of the players.

Ticket to Ride is available in numerous different editions, such as ones featuring a map of Europe or Britain, and others which add complexity by allowing you to set up shipping routes as well.

Cosmic Encounter
An old-skool game (originally released in the 1970s), Cosmic Encounter has the players portraying different alien races. Using a combination of diplomacy, bluffing and military might, players have to establish colonies on each other’s planets. Where the game becomes unpredictable is that you have no way of knowing what special powers the other players might have, or what cards (granting bonuses to attack, defence and diplomacy) they may be hoarding. Cosmic Encounter is extremely simple and fast to play, but with a huge amount of variety thrown up by the different alien races and cards.

Four viruses are threatening civilisation, so the Centre for Disease Control has to mobilise its best people to cure them and mop up the after-effects. Pandemic is a co-operative game where the players have to work together against the odds, and the odds can be quite gruelling. It’s not uncommon for players to have a few good rounds and think the situation is under control, and five minutes later be sobbing as most of Europe is engulfed in an explosive chain reaction of outbreaks.

Like Cosmic Encounter, the game’s base mechanics are very simple but the replayability comes from the interaction of the different characters (always pick the characters randomly, as otherwise the game can become quite easy as players work out optimal character combinations and just stick with those) and the ability cards they pick up. Pandemic has two expansions that add a lot of variety to the game, as well as its semi-sequel, Pandemic: Legacy, which is an altogether more advanced game (I’d recommend not even thinking of tackling that until you’ve mastered the original at its hardest difficulty level, with the expansions).

Flash Point
Flash Point is another cooperative game. The players portray firefighters who are trying to rescue people from a burning building. It’s important to get people out, but it’s also necessary to keep putting the fires out. Ignore a growing fire for too long and it may explode, causing a chain reaction that demolishes the building around you. But ignore the trapped people for too long and they may burn or choke to death. Expansions add more complexity (like multi-floor buildings), but this is a reasonably simple game which is much more addictive than it first looks. Watch out for players who insist on rescuing trapped animals at the expense of their owners!

Settlers of Catan
Some people hold this game – originally released in 1995 – as the forefather of the modern board game explosion. This is debatable but it’s certainly one of the most popular board games of all time. The players are colonists on an island and have to engage in diplomacy and resource-gathering to win an economic war of attrition with the other players. It’s peaceful but competitive, with excellent potential for humour revolving around how much wood each player has at any given moment.

King of Tokyo
A lot of players of King of Tokyo are disappointed when they discover the game isn’t about smashing up Tokyo like a board game version of Rampage. Instead, it’s about the monsters getting into fights with one another over who gets to smash up Tokyo next. An elegantly simply dice mechanic and premise belies the addictive replayability that comes from the different powers each creature has and the cards you can draw with extra abilities. An expanded sequel, King of New York, is also available.

For Intermediate Players

Axis and Allies
Another old-skool game (originally released in 1981), Axis and Allies has very simple rules. However, the ways those rules interact with one another and the diverse battle maps can give rise to extremely complex situations. The introductory game could even be said to be a better fit for the introductory section above, but the expansions raise the complexity of the game considerably.

The best achievement of Axis and Allies, though, is how elegantly it replicates the set-up and outcome of World War II, with the Axis players starting with enormous armies but poor resources and immediately forced to expand or lose, with the Allies’ long-term victory assured if they can weather the storm. However, the fun really kicks in when players overturn the results of history and start going off the wall (the German annexation of Brazil can be an unexpectedly effective move, for example). There are more diverse and arguably interesting World War II games, like Memoir 44, and certainly lots of far more complex and hardcore wargames, but Axis and Allies remains compelling for its grand vision of the whole war, particularly with its later variant rules focusing on individual theatres.

Blood Bowl
A spin-off of the Warhammer fantasy game, Blood Bowl is nothing less than American football but with orcs, elves and dwarves (among others) making up the teams. The result is a surprisingly rich and engrossing game of blocks, passes, counter-strikes and breaks which at times becomes as tense and engaging as an actual good sports game. The fact it’s all extremely funny, with Games Workshop’s traditionally beautiful miniatures, helps a lot.

The video game Blood Bowl II replicates the rules of the board game exactly, and may be worth a look for those wanting to practice their ball control without any friends around.

Star Wars: Rebellion
At first glance Rebellion looks like a wargame in space, except the Empire has Death Stars, Super Star Destroyers, normal Star Destroyers, AT-ATs and ludicrous numbers of TIE Fighters, whilst the Rebel player has a few X-wings and snowspeeders. But the cleverness of the design kicks in when you send your Rebel agents to sabotage Imperial production lines, halt fleets in their tracks by raising insurgences across the galaxy and generally win support for the Alliance. The Empire wins if it can find the Rebel hidden base, but this is much harder than it first appears.

The result is a wonderfully asymmetrical game of warfare, espionage and politics, all drenched in authentic Star Wars flavouring. The game’s key weakness is that it is strictly a two-player affair only.

A Game of Thrones: The Boardgame
Originally released in 2003 and based wholly on the books, A Game of Thrones replicates the mixture of warfare, skulduggery, treachery and diplomacy from the novels as five factions (six in the expansion) fight for control of the Iron Throne. Games can be tense as players make alliances with other players, offering military support in return for a mutual victory, but then the threat of a betrayal arises. The game can induce paranoia between friends, but the result is one of the tensest games in existence, a fine modern replacement for the likes of Diplomacy.

Arkham Horror
Some will argue this should be in the Advanced category, but I contend that Arkham Horror is actually a reasonably straightforward game that has been bloated to the point of near-lunacy by a galaxy of (mostly unnecessary) cards, optional rules and expansions. A kitchen table has not yet been built that can comfortably contain a full game of Arkham with all the expansions laid out.

Strip that away and you instead have a cooperative game where a team of investigators has to stop one of the Elder Gods from arriving on Earth through a magical portal in the town of Arkham. The setting’s theme is not entirely respected – this is more Die Hard With a Verichteraraberbuch than evoking Lovecraft’s atmosphere of Earth-shattering horror, with you more likely to punch a Shoggoth in the face than wet yourself to death – but with the right players in the right mood, the game can be a huge amount of fun, helped by the batty (and cheerfully unbalanced) characters you can play.

A more recent version of the game, Eldritch Horror, expands the threat to a global level whilst dialling back some of the unnecessary bloat of the prior game.

Forbidden Stars
A Warhammer 40,000 space strategy game, Forbidden Stars is no longer being made but there are a few copies still out in the wild, so grab one if you can. This is, similarly to Star Wars: Rebellion (with which it shares a few mechanical similarities), a strategy game with different races fighting to win. Unlike Rebellion, Forbidden Stars is suitable for 4 players and is less asymmetrical, with the races having approximately comparable abilities and skills. What makes the game more interesting are the hidden objectives which you have to race to achieve, sometimes requiring you to have to cross half the galaxy through hostile territory with opposing players unsure of what you are doing. Warp storms which close down routes across the board also add to tactical complexity.

But if you want to smash your friend’s Ork battle fleet and land your Space Marine legions (backed up by Titans) on his largest colony world for the hell of it, you certainly can do that as well. Forbidden Stars is also a fine, somewhat lighter alternative to Twilight Imperium for those who don’t have entire weekends they can sink into playing one game.

For Advanced Players

Twilight Imperium
The grand-daddy of big strategy games, Twilight Imperium comes in an insanely-sized box, takes a while to set up and sucks entire days away as players struggle to take control of a star cluster and fend off several other players. The board game equivalent of video games like Master of Orion and Stellaris, Twilight Imperium isn’t mechanically the most complex game around, but it is one of the longest (even a brief game can take 4-5 hours, and long ones can consume entire weekends). The time-destroying nature of Twilight Imperium and its massive size can be overwhelming and off-putting, but a single game of Twilight Imperium can also generate stories and anecdotes your players will be talking about for years. Rewarding, but not for the timid.

Space Hulk
A spin-off from the Warhammer 40,000 science fantasy universe, Space Hulk is the original game of tense, nerve-shredding horror. One player has to direct their squad of Terminator Space Marines through the creaking, claustrophobic halls of a derelict spacecraft, the other has to assault them with a seemingly never-ending flood of ravenous alien horrors. The game can be brutal and often unfair, but replays soon reveal clever strategies and tactics to win (although, of all the games listed here, this is the one that is most reliant on the luck of the dice roll).

The reason I put this in the Advanced section isn’t because it is mechanically complex - it’s actually pretty straightforward – but because it can be gruelling and unfair to the point of playing it can make you wonder if you are a masochist. This is certainly not a game for children or those with short tempers. But beating the game and achieving a tricky mission objective against the odds is an unbeatable high.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Descent is a dungeon-exploring game which, if you play it as a one-off adventure, is reasonably straightforward. The game’s complexity and addictive nature comes from its campaign mode, which unfolds over multiple games with your heroes and the bad guy, the Overseer, becoming more powerful and better-equipped between adventures. The beautiful miniatures and seemingly endless array of tokens are decidedly moreish and the expandability of the game is second to none. Many modern board games revel in the tactile, physical experience of having lots of tokens, models and things to play with and move around the board, but none have nailed that aspect quite as well as Descent.

Descent’s key weakness is that it attempts to replicate the appeal of roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons in a boardgame setting, but arguably does not do so as elegantly as the much older Hero Quest or Warhammer Quest, and it does raise the question of why you simply don’t play D&D instead. Then you see the latest miniature your Overseer has bought and painted for the game for the next dungeon, which you need to beat to complete the campaign, and you realise why.

The games I’ve mentioned here only scratch the surface of what’s out there. There are also games like Quadropolis and Suburbia which can scratch that desire to build your own city, or Lords of Waterdeep which allows you to manage a fantasy metropolis. There are very quick-and-simple games like Love Letter and Cthulu Dice or more sprawling epics like Silver Tower. And there’s also zombie games, like Zombiecide and Last Night on Earth. In fact, there’s lots of zombie games, it’s a thing at the moment. If you’re not willing to splash out on a big board game (and to be fair they can be expensive, although rarely much more so than a video game), there’s usually lots of gaming groups around where you can drop by and see games in action and see what takes your fancy. It’s an interesting time for the field and surprisingly engrossing once you get involved with it.

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LeftHanded Matt said...

Thanks for this! I've recently begun to explore what the world of boardgames can offer, having been put off as a kid by boring sessions of Monopoly and similar. I admit I am still partial to Scrabble, though.

While they don't use boards as such, I've used Codenames and Once Upon A Time as introductory games. More of a creative, party-game slant to them rather than strategy.

Wastrel said...

My problem is twofold - getting together enough people to play who are willing to commit, and then the extreme cost. The cost may not seem that great, but when there are so many games to choose from, and you don't know which you'll like, and which your friends will like... well, you can't buy a large number because they cost too much, but at the same time you're reluctant to shell out the money to buy one boardgame you may end up half-playing once and then never touch again...

(Depends on the game, of course. Some are cheap enough).

There's something to be said, I think, for simpler and quicker old-fashioned games like Parcheesi - the game's not that amazing, but it's enough to spur entertaining behaviour from friends. Whereas sometimes the thinkier games have people either getting bored or else getting too involved in working out their strategy and forgetting to have a fun time. Obviously you can't really justify summoning a bunch of friends round for just a game of Parcheesi, but it can be a fun diversion for a bunch of housemates when there's nothing on TV...

Anyway, the important bit: you don't mention Agricola. Have you played Agricola? Everyone should play Agricola, it's fantastic. I know it doesn't sound like fun - a farming simulator where there's no direct tactical competition per se between players. You all just try to build up your own farms, and the only competitive element is in timing your acquisition of resources. But it actually works really, really well, a good balance between getting strategy right and responding to opportunities, and between competing with each other and with the game itself. Inevitably it ends in a panic as you always need just a few more turns than you're allowed (although it can go on for a few hours, it has a limited number of turns, so it can't take forever), which means you always think you could do better next time... anyway, play Agricola, everybody!
[disclaimer: I am not actually being paid by The Agricola Corporation, honestly!]

The Writer said...

Some further recommendations to supplement this excellent list:

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Play through a horror movie. Every game is different, since the house is built using tiles. The first half of the game is exploring the house and gathering tokens and information. Then the haunt begins (and there are dozens upon dozens of haunts to ensure a new game every time), and one group member ends up working against the rest of the players in one of the many classic and original horror setups.

Forbidden Island: Players work as a team on an island made up of tiles and search for hidden relics. But resource management, strategy, and teamwork is key, as the island is not-so-slowly sinking into the sea, and there's always a decent chance the game itself will win.

Dead of Winter: Survive the coldest part of a zombie apocalypse. Go exploring, save up supplies, and battle zombie hordes as each player attempts to achieve his/her own secret goal.

Adam Whitehead said...

I think cost is indeed a barrier, but several of the games mentioned, like Pandemic, King of Tokyo/New York and Ticket to Ride, are significantly cheaper than a video game (they're both under £30 and drop to around £20 in sales). The best approach is to find a local board game club (Facebook can be good for this, or just googling) and rocking along to see what people are playing. A lot of stores also have a playing area as well. These allow you to see and play games before stumping out cash.

I have a lot of quite hardcore geek friends, so I know something that is more expensive like Rebellion or Forbidden Stars will get played (not every week, but probably 4-5 times a year, at least). That's enough to justify the steeper outlay.

Something like Descent is completely insane though. I know some people who have sunk several hundred pounds into the game, its expansion, the second edition and its expansions and quite a few optional figures and extra monsters to add to the thing. And of course there are the people who've been buying Warhammer figures for 20+ years and have easily sunk a couple of grand into it. But that's comparable to what people spend on video game consoles and titles, box sets, cable TV etc over a long period of time.

A few modern games also allow you to play solo (which sounds odd, but then most people play video games solo). Pandemic's ticking clock mechanic means you actually just play it by yourself.

LeftHanded Matt said...

A slightly odd but useful way to check out boardgames you might like is with Tabletop Simulator on the PC.

Wastrel said...

Yeah, but I don't go around buying >£20 computer games either! I'm not made out of money...
[I don't play many computer games, but when I do it's because I've bought something cheaply on GOG or somewhere. There are, of course, all sorts of hobbies you can bankrupt yourself pursuing...]

[[yeah yeah, I know, I'm a cheapskate.]]

[more seriously, though: I think that because computer games have such established genres, you've got a better chance of feeling confident you know what you're getting and whether you'll like it or not.]

Jack said...

Being a game player, I just love this stuff. I was looking for the trending Board games and I got your article. Can’t wait to add a few more of your recommendations this Christmas!

Ian said...

Love ticket to ride, although europe format is better. Azul, Reef are brilliant.

Jenga Giant said...

Thank you for the recommendations. The one that caught my eye the most is the Space Hulk one, but if it's like the rest of the games in the franchise. do you have to paint them too?