“I don’t play board games,” my lovely wife says. “They’re boring.”
In the case of ‘older’ board games, the ones I and most kids grew up with, like Monopoly or Risk or Chutes’n’Ladders, I’d be inclined to agree. Chutes’n’Ladders is an extremely randomized game. Risk involves a great deal of downtime between turns, provided you’re not in an opponent’s direct path, and turns get progressively longer as the players with board advantage begin to dominate the others. Monopoly has both of these problems and the added issue of money being involved (even if it is fake money).
However, if you’ve been following me for a while, and especially remember posts like this where I discuss games that aren’t played with a joystick or gamepad, you’re probably aware that board games outside the old and tired Parker Brothers standards exist. There are a few in particular that I’ve played which, in my opinion, really break away from the idea that board games are boring.
SmallWorld springs immediately to mind. The game is one of territory control, with fantasy races endowed with special powers vying for position. There is very little die rolling, unlike Risk – players rely on numerical superiority and careful planning before their turns. Said turns are rather short, leading to little downtime, and even when it isn’t your turn, it behooves you to watch the board, as positions can change very quickly based on who chooses which race/power combination. And don’t worry about one position on the map being better than another. There’s no ‘Australia’ portion that, when taken, guarantees victory. No matter how attached you might get to your Dragon Master Giants, sooner or later you’re going to run out of troops, and must go into Decline to choose a new race. This keeps the game vital for all of its turns and never lets things settle into a ‘status quo’ situation.
If you want a less direct means of competing with your friends, a ‘worker placement’ game might be more your speed, a great introductory example of which is Lords of Waterdeep. Set in one of the largest cities in the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of Forgotten Realms, the game casts its players as one of the eponymous Lords, who compete with one another for control of the city through agents and adventurers. Agents move through the city, gathering resources for their Lords, engaging the services of builders, and inviting adventurers to their Lord’s tavern. From the tavern, adventurers are sent on quests, which garner more riches and renown for the Lord who sent them. With Intrigue actions, mandatory quests that can be played on other players, and the ways in which play order can change, this is another game where ‘status quo’ is not something that really exists. The pace of play is even faster than in SmallWorld, with each player taking one action in turn as they try to gather enough resources to score the most points. Between these aspects, the replayability inherent in the structure of quests and buildings, and the fantastic aesthetic and pieces, this is a game I feel I need to play more often. The only conflict between players exists in the Intrigue cards, and this can be modified for a group’s liking if they’d rather not stab each other incessantly in the back, which in my experience is the only thing that can make Lords of Waterdeep not fun. Most of the Lords, after all, are humans or demihumans; none of them are trolls.
But let’s say you don’t want to compete at all. You’d much rather work together with others towards a common goal; for example, saving the world from some global threat. Don’t fret, Pandemic has you covered. I could also mention Arkham Asylum, and while that game is a ton of fun to play in a large group, it does take some time to play through and there can be some stretches of downtime involved for individual players. Pandemic, on the other hand, has the advantages of easy setup, fast pace, and encouraged cooperation. The players are members of an elite team of specialists working together to contain several epidemics of disease around the globe, trying to keep them from combining into a global pandemic. Each turn, players move around the world, treating disease and gathering data for cures. However, at the end of a player’s turn, more cases of disease crop up, and if a city hits critical mass, there’s an outbreak. The world can only take so many outbreaks and epidemics before the entire population begins coughing, puking, dropping over, and bleeding out. It’s a tense game that sucks you in. There are many ways to lose in Pandemic, and as much as it sucks to not prevail in a game, it’s still fun to play even when it feels like the game is out to get you (which, by the way, it is.)
Those are three board games that, off the top of my head, absolutely destroy the notion that board games are the same old tired distraction trotted out at family gatherings to keep conversations from getting stale. I could go on to talk about some favorite card games – Chez Geek, Cards Against Humanity, Fluxx – or dice games – Elder Sign, Zombie Dice – but for now, I will leave you in the capable hands of Wil Wheaton. Watch him and his friends play SmallWorld here or Pandemic here. I’m still waiting on a Lords of Waterdeep episode…
And of the games mentioned, my wife has played… none of them. Yet. This makes me sad.