Monday, April 25, 2011

Board Gaming for Adults - Beyond Monopoly and Risk

For seven years of the near-decade that I managed a hobby shop and acted as the primary games buyer (more on that here if you missed it) a few friends and I would use the shop's back room to play board games. At least, that's how it started. By the end, weekly we had between five and eighteen adults turning up to play, and sometimes we'd start Thursday at 8PM and not break until Friday at dawn. I'm not talking about Risk, (which I despise) or Monopoly, (which I can take or leave) or really any of the Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley fare. There's a whole other category of board game, with greater depth and complexity than the pasteboard mass-market games found in the children's toy aisle. I've personally amassed a collection of several hundred of these.

The attitude that board games are for children is one, as far as I can tell that is more common in the US and Canada, whereas in Europe (particularly in Germany) the board game as an activity for adults is not a “fringe” notion. Even here in the US, the hobbyist market for board games beyond “playing with the kids on a rainy day” has been growing steadily in the last decade. There is a distinct difference in the style, design and presentation of games that are primarily marketed to the adult who is a board game enthusiast.

What most Americans picture when you say "Board Games".

In terms of mass market games, there are several types that are extremely common, and understanding what they are and how they work helps to understand how the hobbyist's gaming differs. There are traditional abstract strategy games which have pieces such as pawns, tokens or chits. All of the most ancient games fall into this category, including Senet (the most ancient game from pre-dynastic Egypt, with sets dating as far back as 3500 BC) and Backgammon (3000 BC). This category also includes games of “perfect information” such as Go, Chess and Checkers, where there is no random element whatsoever, the strategy developing from forcing an opponent to react to your moves.

A modern recreation of Senet, the earliest known board game.

Most other mass-market board games are successors to the older abstract strategy games, and either move pieces along a predetermined path of spaces on a board (the "race" game), a contest to answer questions or figure out a puzzle (the “party” game) or resolution of an armed conflict (the “war” game.) “Race” games usually focus on the “roll and move” mechanic to have players compete to be the first to either collect certain tokens (in-game money being the most common) or get their pieces to a certain spot on the board. Monopoly, Pachisi, and even Candy Land fit this category. “Party” games, also called parlour games, typically involve individuals or teams trying to guess or deduce hidden information. Charades, Trivial Pursuit, Cranium and Taboo all fit this category. “War” games have pieces representing soldiers or units of armed forces, and are typically won by capturing territory or destroying opponent pieces. Risk, Battleship and Axis and Allies are popular examples, though the difference between a mass-market war game and one designed for hobbyists is sometimes just a matter of complexity.

Hate, hate, HATE this game. Yes, there may be a chance that when attacking with overwhelming force that a lone defender can take no losses and kill an attacker. That chance should not be 1 in 6.

While there are many more types and styles of board game that are marketed toward children and young adults, hobby games tend to differ mechanically and in presentation in specific ways. The most popular game in this style is Settlers of Catan, a game I've called the “gateway drug” of board gaming, and many of the design choices that make hobby games different are present. The distinctive elements in the rules and structure of these games has separated hobbyist gaming further, by splintering off another style of game into its own category. The War game, with popular titles including Europa, Advanced Squad Leader, Diplomacy and a host of other titles from the now-defunct Avalon Hill focus on and detail military actions in a way designed to represent a simulation. They are more detailed and complex than their equivalents on toy store shelves, and repesent a hobby all their own, which crosses over into miniatures wargaming (a topic so large, it could fill several blogs – and it has.)

The Limited Anniversary 3-D Collector's "Treasure Chest" Edition of Settlers of Catan.  $469 USD retail... and yes, I have one.

The specific design elements that are common to the rest of the genre that includes the Catan series of games and its expansions is as follows:
  • The games tend to be non-violent. Games in this style often abstract any sort of fighting, if it is present at all. Building, trading and otherwise growing something a player controls is the focus, rather than trying to eliminate something controlled by an opponent.

  • Resource management is one of the keys to victory. Whether it is in-game currency, actions or “action points” per turn or numbers of pawns, tokens or cards, most of these games reward effective and efficient use of available resources to increase score, claim dominance on a board, or otherwise collect whatever is required to win.

  • The impact of random chance is minimized in determining who wins. Many of these games feature dice, cards or other random tokens, but few use the “roll and move” mechanic that is common in “race” games. Though few are games of perfect information, where there are no random elements and every action an opponent may take is publicly known, a player can usually increase their chance of victory through capitalizing on good fortune, making timing and planning at least as important as a fortunate draw of a card or roll of dice.

  • Players frequently simultaneously cooperate and compete. This concept, minus the “compete” is a subgenre I've written about before, but any trading game features this idea. Railroad gaming often forces players to use each other's lines to travel or ship goods, and games where players must collaborate, even briefly, to earn victory points are common. They key to managing these sorts of cooperative efforts in these games is usually helping someone, but not as much as they help you.

Some of my favorite titles in this style of board game (some of which will likely merit a writeup all their own) are Twilight Imperium, Junta, Bohnanza,Ticket to Ride, Puerto Rico, Domaine, Merchants of Amsterdam and Ingenious. More than a few in my collection were also designed by the same man, Dr. Reiner Knizia, a mathematics professor who I've been lucky enough to meet several times. There is an exception to virtually every broad generalization I've made so far in this article, and I'm sure a few elements I've overlooked. Any other board gamers out there? What did I overlook or gloss over in the text? Let me know.
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A Beer for the Shower said...

The missus and I love to play Last Night on Earth, the zombie board game. It's very complex and a lot of fun. One player chooses zombies, the other humans. Each has particular sets of rules on how they move, attack, etc, and they can gain abilities to overtake the others. And it's not just kill the other team--there are missions you can choose, like fill a truck with gas and escape (the humans win) or find out which one of the npcs is the dark lord and kill him (if not, zombies win). Great game.

A Beer for the Shower said...

Bryan may play Last Night on Earth, but I'm an Aggravation guy at heart. And yup, I'm here in Chicago too. On the western fringe of Wicker Park. Cheers!


Jay said...

those are a lot of board games!

The Awesome Alien said...

i never really got into boardgames of that sort i was more of a chess and nintendo kid

Kelly said...

I've always enjoyed the games where you had to think, like Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble or Boggle- or opinion or judgement type games, like Scruples and games like Scruples. Almost any type of word game. I really enjoyed this post because it was so thorough and you brought out some important points about some of those mindless games... which to me include any of those 'racing' type games you mentioned here. I have heard of Senet before but the history you gave on it was cool and elaborate. I'll have to check out Settlers of Catan. Sounds interesting and it sounds like you have to do some thinking, too, which always makes any game worth playing to me.

Justin said...

LOVE those games dude! You have me trying to get my friends togeher to play a game of Risk right now, lol. I know it's not exactly what you meant, but his is what's happening, lol.

The Angry Lurker said...

Chess and Shogun were my favourites, don't get to board game as much with the figure painting but one of the Rejects has bought A Bridge too Far boardgame and we may give it ago, excellent post that had me reminising again.

Erika said...

CANDY LAND!! Oh, I love that game! lol

I got addicted to Game of Life last year. I played it over and over again with different people and never won a single game. I think it's funny that not only do I suck at life, but I suck at the game as well. Then again, life is a game.

Mike Litoris said...


Admin said...

I love board games also, there is something much better about them in my opinion. Loved your post.

And by the way:

Search for Battle of Aljubarrota and see it yourself how a small army defeated an enourmous one.

Patti D. said...

I love board games too, but I loved Risk!!

PekkaK said...

Risk is the bomb... but my personal favorite is Arkham Horror, this game is super-complex and you need a BIG table to play it. Just google it and look how much it takes room with all expansions...

Biff Tanner said...

Wow Catan looks fun

Unknown said...

This brought back memories...weekend-long RISK games with the guys...those were the days. Much less time now. Still looking for games I can play in one night w/the family. Spontuneous is pretty good-it's a board game that lets you sing. I can find out what music the kids are into and infect them with hits from the 90's...

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