I want to take a break from my usual fair to talk about one of my main hobbies: board games. I’m not just talking Monopoly and Articulate (though both are great games), I’m talking about games across a multitude of genres, with innovative mechanics, varying levels of strategy and, often, beautiful artwork and compelling back-stories.
The thing is, I’m not the only person to fall in love with board games in the last few years. While they have remained steadily popular in parts of mainland Europe, especially Germany (where many of the most popular games, like Catan, have been designed), the rise of board games has been noticeable enough in recent years across the UK and US to merit the attention of publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman.
According to the British paper, estimates place the rise of tabletop gaming sales at between 20% and 35% between 2015 and ’16 alone, while the US publication leads with a headline declaring that board games are now a ‘billion dollar industry.’ In this article, I’ll look at what personally attracted (and continues to attract) me to board games, some thoughts on why they have become popular more generally, and finish with an introduction to a few of my favourites that could be good starting points if you want to take a plunge into this hobby yourself.
Strategy and stories
As far as I can tell, my love of board games stems from two core passions: a love of things that make me think and a love of compelling, imaginative stories. These passions drive many of the things I do in my spare time and they both find outlets in board games.
Nearly every tabletop game has some element of strategy (except Snakes and Ladders). Some are pure strategy and no luck, like chess, while most have some mixture of luck (a die roll, random card draw, random board setup etc.) and strategy. In most cases, the depth of strategy can be approximated based on the number of decisions the game requires you to make as you play and the impact that those decisions tend to have on the outcome of the game.
Monopoly is perhaps the archetypal board game and it combines strategy and luck very well. How far you move round the board is determined randomly by dice, and a few other card and board elements add randomness, such as going to jail or taking a card from the two face down decks. However, there is also strategy in deciding which properties to buy, how to negotiate for trades and deals and when to start developing your properties.
For me, I like to play games where, for the vast majority of the time, you can feel like you earned a win or there are improvements that you could make if you lost. I love thinking analytically and mentally forecasting what will happen if I do x vs y. I also love the mind games you can play with an opponent as you try to guess what they’ll be doing and work out how to combat their own strategy, whilst being aware that they’re actively combating yours. Ultimately, I just find it very fun to be able to put my mind to something that has satisfying rewards, but no real world consequences for losing (apart from the mockery of my ever-gracious wife).
If you read this blog regularly or you know me in real life, you know that I love reading sci-fi and fantasy. I love exploring new worlds in my head and engaging with something outside of this reality. Many of the best board games let you do that as well. While the stories are often more limited in scope, the added level of participation can make the experience even more immersive.
One of my favourite examples of this is the deck-building game Ascension. Ascension is a game where players start with identical decks of basic cards, which they build up with better cards from a shared centre row to do increasingly powerful things. Essentially, you buy heroes and ‘constructs’ for your decks and you defeat monsters that appear randomly.
As you read more into a game like Ascension, paying attention to the names of the cards and the ‘flavour text,’ or reading some of the info on their website, you’ll see that the heroes, constructs and monsters are all taken from a fantasy world made just for the game. Four factions have risen up to protect the realm of Vigil from the encroaching forces of chaos, lead by ferocious false gods and corrupted former heroes. With every new expansion to the game the story expands as well, with Ascension X: War of Shadows, the tenth version of the game, taking place in a world far in the future from the events of the first Ascension: Chronicleof the Godslayer. I find this kind of thing incredibly compelling, and while I don’t need a good story to enjoy a game (e.g. Monopoly), it definitely improves the experience for me.
Now you know something of what draws me to games, what gives them such a wide appeal?
Social engagement and slowing down
While both the factors that draw me in will undoubtedly draw others in as well, I think there are some more universal factors. The Guardian article linked to above touches on this in more detail than I will here, but two factors I think give the games the appeal they have are that they’re engaging, social activities and that they force us to take a step out of a fast-paced world and focus on a single thing for an hour or four.
Last Friday (at the time of writing on a Sunday morning), I went with 10 work colleagues to a local board game cafe after work. Of that group, maybe four or five of us were enthusiastic board gamers anyway – or at least people with a desire to be – while everyone else came along to try something a bit different. The evening went down a treat, with multiple different games being played, and one of my colleagues commented at the end that it was really fun to be able to do something social that’s different to the normal scene of pubs and bars.
I think board gaming in larger groups, or even just in pairs, offers a form of social interaction that we just don’t get from pretty much anything else. You’re sitting round a table, focusing on the same thing (not a screen) and, as you get into a board game, you’re trying to imagine what others are thinking, read body language and just generally paying more attention to people than in nearly every other social situation.
Because games give groups a focal point and a central activity, they’re also a great thing to do with a group of people that you don’t necessarily know super well. I haven’t done a great deal with that group of colleagues outside of work, but by sitting down and playing games you’re immediately doing something that’s a lot of fun, that’s interactive and that, importantly, creates shared memories which I believe are incredibly important for growing friendships in any scenario.
Slowing down for an evening
Now I love digital media as much as anyone I work in a digital industry and I know how good it can be – but you can have too much of a good thing. How many times have you been out in groups and people are still on their phones a lot of the time, engaging with anyone other than the people they’re with? How many times have you done that? I know I’ve done it before!
Because they’re such a strong focal point and they require so much attention, board games give us an opportunity to digitally disengage for an evening. They allow us to think in a very different way to how we think when scrolling through Facebook or when we’re reading an incendiary article about how crap some other people are. They help us relax, have fun and they have very satisfying outcomes for the amount of effort that we put in.
Various media articles note the surge of millennials turning to board games and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. We need a break, but we still like to do things that are fun and rewarding. Board games tick those boxes easily.
Get stuck in
Have I sold you on board games yet? I hope so. I think they’re great. But what’s the best way to start playing?
Board game cafes/bars
These beauties are popping up in cities and towns across the country. The chances are good that you’ll have something along these lines near you. Board game cafes normally work on the basis that you pay for a certain number of hours and this gives you access to an immense library of games. Many of them also have experts on hands to make recommendations or to teach you something new.
These places are fantastic for playing games that you can’t afford to buy, trying new things and introducing people to board gaming who haven’t really done much outside of Monopoly and Cluedo. I’ve been to my local cafe with work, good uni friends and guys on the Discipleship Year I did with church and it’s been immensely fun every time. Get down to your local cafe and start playing!
Great games for groups
Okay, so you’re convinced enough to spend a little bit of money and get a group together to play. I’m going to recommend a few of my favourites, along with links to Amazon so that you can find them easily, the number of players they realistically work for and a price guideline.
Catan (3-4 players; £40) – this is the game I always teach people who haven’t played board games much before. The aim of the game is to settle on an island and build a more impressive civilisations than the other players. It’s easy to learn, hard to master and every game is different.
7 Wonders (3-7 players; £35) – suitable for larger groups, 7 Wonders involves choosing buildings from hands of cards that get passed round the table to build up your city (the site of one of the ancient 7 wonders of the world). You can build up military strength to bully your neighbours, trade for resources, build great monuments and, importantly build your wonder.
Smallworld (3-6 players; £35) – I describe this game as like the classic war game Risk on steroids. As the hand guiding one of a number of cartoonish fantasy races, you compete for land in a country that’s too small to fit everyone on. A fun game with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, Smallworld nevertheless offers intriguing strategy and endless replayability.
Great games for two players
It can be hard to get a group of 4+ together to play larger games, but most of us either live with someone or have friends who can come round for 2-player, head to head board games. Thankfully, there are lots of games designed for two players – even a few that have taken larger classics and adapted them for a fantastic head to head experience.
Star Realms (2-4 players; £15) – Star Realms was one of the first games I bought as I got into gaming more, and it remains a favourite. It’s a sci-fi themed deck-building game that’s very easy to learn. I’ve taught it to various friends who have all gone and bought it themselves and taught it to more people, and I’ve even taught it to my dad, who doesn’t normally enjoy this sort of thing but thought it was an absolute blast. Note: I linked to the second major version of the game, Colony Wars, because the first is relatively expensive now (£25). Colony Wars plays exactly the same as the original a standalone game, it just has different cards.
Rivals for Catan (2 players; £30) – Rivals for Catan takes the 4 player game and adds a different, card-based format to make it a compelling head to head competition. With players now able to add buildings and people to their towns and cities, they battle it out on several fronts to be the best and gain a crucial advantage over their opponent.
7 Wonders: Duel (2 players; £22) – This two player version of the game plays very similarly to the standard game, but players now control more wonders and compete more directly for buildings and resources. A unique card-drafting system adds a chess-like element of forward-thinking as you seek to make a city that’s more powerful, more scholarly or just simply more impressive than your opponent’s.