The other day, I wrote:
Weirdly, a lot of gamers don’t ever play board games or even consider them. I’m guessing that’s because most people’s board game knowledge is limited to Monopoly and Scrabble, and most people associate card games with Magic the Gathering & expensive booster decks. Most people don’t actually know that most competitive card games aren’t actually like that.
Before I go any further, I am going to refer to board or card games as board games just so that I don t have to write board and/or card games in every sentence. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the shorthand as well.
Board games have a lot of advantages over video games in a lot of key places. They’re great for local & social play, they can usually have their base rules outlined easily (try asking somebody who’s never played Street Fighter to perform a Shinku Hadoken), and they can be played while other things are happening.
First, you usually don’t need a huge amount of physical dexterity or expertise to play board games, which is wonderful for people who aren’t skilled gamers, or for those who just aren’t good at pulling off Shun Goku Satsus on command, which can be frustrating when they try to play a fighting game. Or those unable to pull off a BXR in a Halo 2 game, or any other sort of gaming button gesture. Or hell, watch somebody used to the forgiving inputs of Street Fighter 4 try and much more precise movements required by a hardcore game like Blazblue - I’ve seen people relearn basic quarter circle movements, and it’s very frustrating for them!
Board games retain all the strategy components of video games, they just don’t require you to also be skilled at handling a controller and remembering complicated button inputs as well. It sucks when I’m playing Blazblue, and I try to connect with a combo and I set it up properly, but I fail to perform all the required inputs fast enough. Yes, that’s a part of fighting games and I do enjoy actually mastering those combos, but it can be very frustrating if you don’t really care to learn the game. The real battle, at least in my opinion, is the mindgame - trying to figure out what your opponent will do, then countering it, avoiding it, blocking it, whatever. This ranges from blocking in a fighting game to holding the Green Shell behind you in Mario Kart to deflect a red shell, or maybe delaying building a Settler in exchange for another Spearman in Civilization. Will he pass, or shoot? This is my favourite element of competitive games, and it’s preserved completely in board games, or maybe even made better since I don’t need to also worry about being able to input a button combination fast enough. And you can eat while playing without hampering your ability to win. This alone is pretty key.
Another great aspect is that board games don’t run at a set pace, so there is no timer stating that a game will end in 99 seconds (or more likely minutes). It’s much more relaxing for many people, who can take a quick time out during someone else’s turn to grab some food or answer a phone call. Even for faster paced games, it’s not the end of the world to miss a turn and take it later, or ask someone else playing to take your turn for you. Lots of board games do advocate a timer to keep the game moving, and that can be great if somebody is stalling, or for more competitive play, of course. But unless you’re at a judged tournament, you aren’t held to this.
The turn structure is also really, really useful for learning the game. Rather than a video game where you must learn on the fly while playing, in these games you can watch other players turns before taking your own, making the learning process much smoother and more enjoyable. Players can explain what they’re doing, and after everyone else goes, you should be able to at least make a basic move or two with relative ease.
Also, these board games make a great complement to some other social activity, since they don’t require a TV and are not terribly distracting. Going to watch a James Bond movie that a few people have already seen? Break out Carcassonne while you watch to keep them entertained. Or if you arrive at a gaming party where everyone there is embroiled in a long Halo CTF game, or lord forbid, a League of Legends 5v5? Break out Flash Duel or another shorter game to pass the time. Or have a board game night, where everybody plays the one they want; no fighting for the TV!
In fact, since they don’t require a TV or any sort of electricity, you can play wherever there’s light: you can play if the power has gone out (candles for the win), you can bring them with you, you can play them outside! I’m telling you, while Monopoly is a classic cottage board game, I brought Carcassonne to my friend’s cottage last summer and it was a hit. Of course, you’ll still want a flat surface like a table for games like Carcassonne, but other games take up very little space.
So whether it’s board game night at Jad’s house, or whether I’m just bringing Dominion with me to a party that will also feature Dance Central and a BBQ, they’re easy to incorporate into many social events.
There’s also a wide variety of board games, equally as wide as you might find for video games. Competitive one on one games, party games for large groups, games like Carcassonne or Settlers of Catan that scale to larger sizes. Games about economies, games about the Soviet revolution, about growing crops, about fighting, and games about heroes fighting demons. Competitive games, cooperative games. The variety is astounding - it’s not all Monopoly, Scrabble, or nearly-impossible trivia.
The last thing I want to mention is that board games are just as fun, if not more fun, than video games. I know, that sounds like heresy, but hear me out. A lot of them involve similar ideas to what you’ve already learned (maximizing resources, diplomacy and trading, map control, duelling strategy, building an economy, building a character, etc), they just don’t need a controller. It’s easy to associate them with simplistic games and to ignore the depth of strategy involved, but that’d be a false association and a poor judgment. I’m not saying everyone needs to love them, but if you call yourself a gamer, I feel that you should at least try a few of them out and see if you can expand your horizons. Now, don’t worry I won’t leave you out in the cold! I’ve compiled a short list of three great board games that each are easy to learn, but they’re also very fun in both casual and more competitive environments. All three of these games share a prized spot on my shelf, and I think Lvl of Detail readers will enjoy them as well. So, on with the list!
Carcassonne is, for me, the board game that really taught me that these games are more than just Monopoly. It’s also one of the most popular board games out there. My first experience with it was the demo on Xbox Live, from which I promptly transitioned into the full game. Shortly after that my girlfriend purchased me the Carcassonne Big Box, which not only includes Carcassonne, but a bevy of expansion sets. For iOS gamers, I also highly recommend the Carcassonne app; it’s gorgeous, runs beautifully, features fantastic asynchronous multiplayer with push notifications, it’s universal, and it is well worth the $10 for some Carcassonne on the go.
Carcassonne is much easier to understand than it is to pronounce for non-French speakers. A big pile of tiles is shuffled, and players take turns drawing and placing tiles to create the lands of Carcassonne. Each tile has various elements like farms, cities, roads, and monasteries, and each player has a number of followers (Meeples) he can use to control pieces of the game board. When you place a tile, you can place a single Meeple; if you forgo placing it then, you can never again place a Meeple on that tile. Tiles must be placed next to other tiles, and the borders must be logical; look at the image above, how roads flow from tile to tile, nothing gets cut off. Other than that, the world of Carcassonne will typically be built in a different fashion each time, depending on how the 2-5 players want to make it. The above photo shows one huge city, but it’s also common for many small cities to be created, or a few medium cities, or a bunch of unfinished cities. Carcassonne is very fun to play, but it can get very, very cutthroat. Again, let s look at that city; it has two Red Meeples, and three Yellow Meeples, meaning that Yellow owns the city. When the city is completed, Yellow will earn 102 points (a massive boon). If Red was able to sneak another Meeple in or cut out one of the Yellow Meeples, they would share the points. Thus, Carcassonne between experienced players becomes a terrifying game of both creation, theft, and destruction. While you cannot directly place tiles in an illegal fashion, you can place tiles awkwardly, so there is no way to finish a city, rendering all the work made on it nearly useless. You can be a total jerk and make it nearly impossible for your opponents to finish any cities, and when they do, you can “help them” and share in the points. But for less cutthroat players, Carcassonne is also a total blast where each player just does his or her best to make points, without being super aggressive.
But these are advanced Carcassonne tricks. The basic rules can be explained in minutes, and several people can sit around this tile board having a great time. Carcassonne scales really, really well with your skill level. And all of this is very social. You might not want to hamper Red in the hopes that Red might hamper you, and if Blue is doing really well, maybe you and Red will band together to make his life hell until one of you pulls ahead.
In short, it’s an absolute blast to play. Incredibly easy to learn, and it works great for both group play and individual, one on one matches. And if you like Carcassonne, there’s a wealth of expansions available, allowing you to keep the game fresh. And ironically enough, both the aforementioned Xbox Arcade and iOS ports are excellent ways to play, should you not want to sink $50+ into a board game you might not like. Try the demo on Xbox Live first, as a good way to dip your feet in.
Dominion looks like a collectible card game (CCG), but it’s anything but. It s actually a really clever idea that combines the best aspects of a CCG without the collectible aspect. The Dominion box ships with some core cards (like the pictured treasure cards) as well as about twenty-five or so different card types, with about 12 copies of each type (i.e. 12 Thief cards, 12 Militia cards, etc). Each game of Dominion includes the core cards, and players pick ten card types that will also be used in that game. Each player begins with an identical deck of just ten cards, and from there can buy whichever ones they want out of the chosen ten card types. So I might buy a Militia on my first turn, and my friend might buy a Thief, and another player might buy more money for future turns (on the other hand, they may want to buy a defensive card, seeing as how the first two players are buying Militia and Thief!).
Thus, you build your deck live, as part of the game, while still trying to earn points. This is super addictive, because each game you play gives you good ideas for what to try next time. You might want to see how certain cards synergize, or experiment with unusual cards nobody likes, etc. It’s great when the strategy for your deck “pulls together” and you make a huge run of points … until your opponent steals all your money!
Building your deck for that game is a lot like building a character or an economy (in an RPG or strategy game, respectively). You want to build up and maximize your economy, which lets you buy points, but having those points clutters up your deck, requiring you to buy more cards or else all you’ll draw are your point cards, which are useless until the game is scored at the end. Furthermore, you don’t actually want a huge deck, because the more cards you have, the less your deck is reshuffled, so if you have piles and piles of Copper, it might be a while until you see the one or two Gold cards in your deck. But again, I’m getting into more advanced Dominion strategy.
Just like Carcassonne, Dominion also has a few expansions available for when you inevitably fall in love. Sirlin’s Puzzle Strike also uses the same basic mechanic of having a certain number of chip types in any given game, so learning Dominion will set you up great for Puzzle Strike, or vice versa. Both are equally addictive, so definitely try one; I suggest Dominion because it’s more likely to be available for purchase near you, and if I’ve talked about Sirlin’s games enough already, I think.
OK, I lied, I haven’t talked about them enough yet. Yes, I finally got around to playing some Yomi, and I loved what I played. I won’t describe it like I did the other games in this list (already did), but it really did feel like a fighting game. One character, Max Gergis, has a special ability where if one of his signature attacks is blocked, he can immediately follow-up with a throw. So I baited my poor girlfriend (sorry!) into a trap where I had a large, scary hand full of powerful combos. She tried blocking my combo, which would normally stop it, and I transitioned into a mean throw chain. Her character, on the other hand, could injure herself to bring back powerful attack cards from her discard pile, but she takes damage to do so, so she hit me with a series of just enormous powerful attacks. Despite these differences in our characters, Yomi was really easy to learn, at least the basics.
But beyond the basics, Yomi is designed in such a way that each of the ten characters characters feels unique, even though they all have decks of the same size and general layout (identical to a poker deck; numbered cards, aces, kings, etc). Valerie can combo so easily she can combo by accident, while most of Rook’s moves can’t combo at all. And don’t get me started on Argagarg, the shaman whose curse deals 2 damage per turn; my buddy outguessed me so often that he wore down my hugely tougher Rook in a tight game. Of course, he was in a huge amount of danger, especially near the end as I almost had a single huge attack capable of nearly killing him.
If I had to recommend a single game designed explicitly to make video gamers feel at home, it’d be Yomi, especially if you play fighting games. The base mechanics are simple, but the gameplay is incredibly deep and more importantly, a huge amount of fun to play!
Board & card games are fantastic, and they offer a great alternative from video games in a lot of ways. If you’re any bit like me about two years ago, I implore you to go out and buy one, or try the Xbox Live demo of Carcassonne, or finally take up that seemingly crazy offer to have a board game night that doesn’t include Risk. Trust me, it’s one of the best decisions you can make.