Just curious, but have you noticed that we’re waist-deep in a veritable golden age of board gaming?
It’s okay if you haven’t. Board games won’t get offended. They know they’re not the flashiest medium around. They know they’re not going to blow up the blog world like the episode of Girls where Lena Dunham does some kind of thing that a bunch of people hate but a bunch of other people think is really brave. When you’ve got Mad Men on TV and Arrested Development coming back on Netflix, it’s not realistic to expect the Tumblr set to drum up too much excitement for the likes of Monopoly.
Except fuck that, it’s not okay, and Monopoly blows one hundred jiggly dicks, simultaneously, all mushed together and shoveled into its slobbery, unhinged maw. Board gaming (technically tabletop gaming, to include card games) is innovating at a startling pace to the point where it’s become one of the most exhilarating and rewarding media to follow, and you’re dumb if you aren’t.
Unfortunately, board gaming is uniquely hampered by its terrible public image. After decades of the medium’s worst efforts making up its popular face, most people aren’t even aware that anything lies beneath the surface, let alone anything worth the effort of looking for. That is to say that unless you too are basking in the glow of this golden age, you’ve likely never played a well-designed board game. You like to play Sorry? I’m sorry you’re such a horrible person. You like Pop-O-Matic Trouble? The only trouble you’re in is how I want to pop-o-matic my gat in your face. You like Risk? You risk losing my respect. You like Mouse Trap? Well, obviously, because that machine is the tits. The old-timey diver is a true bro. But for real, most popular games either rely so strongly on dice that the player’s decisions are secondary (even tertiary) in importance to what number the dice come up with, or have so little strategy required that they essentially play themselves. (For Monopoly: roll, buy property if possible, pay rent if required. Try to trade for a monopoly. Repeat.) Mercifully, it’s not like this anymore.
We’re in a time where a company named “Fantasy Flight,” a company that makes brain-achingly fiddly board games with magazine-length rulebooks, 4-hour playtimes, and price tags exceeding most video games, is deservedly one of the industry’s major powers instead of immediately going out of business. We’re in a time where we’ve seen two entirely new genres of card game be invented, copied, expanded upon, and made a part of gaming canon. I’m now a person who watches 40-minute how-to-play videos of board games I have no intention of purchasing, and for whom the prospect of reading a 35-page rulebook sounds like a Friday evening well spent.
ISN’T THAT EXCITING
Normally I’d be the first to say that video games are the medium least locked into a formula of what they are and can do (I’ve written a few pieces to this effect), but I have been proven wrong. Board gaming can explore, and increasingly is exploring, radical and unfamiliar mechanics that kick butt and rule. Try to find a recently released, not-for-children game that involves rolling a die to see how many squares to move. You can’t. (NOTE: I have done very little research on this point and am likely wrong. But they’re still probably pretty rare.)
The board-gaming renaissance is on proud display on the venerable BoardGameGeek.com. Of the site’s 100 top rated games, only 15 were released before 2000, and of those, only seven were released before 1990. (Although, to be fair, one of those seven was released in 2200 B.C.) It’s easy to attribute this to the cult of the new, where the shiniest recent releases see inflated ratings since consumers haven’t had enough time with them to discover their flaws. But considering the notoriously populist list of the top 100 rated films on IMDb only includes 22 movies released after 2000, the “golden age” hypothesis starts to take hold. Sure, this argument is based on flimsy, opinion-based evidence, but fuck you, just believe me anyway, I’m doing you a favor. The sooner you accept that now is the time to get on the board game bandwagon, the sooner you’ll be having a grand ol’ time manipulating pieces of cardboard and plastic!
For example: ever played a deck-building game? Anyone somewhat familiar with the niche will now be scoffing and declaring how they’re so over deckbuilders, but to the uninitiated it’s a strange concept. Each player begins a deck-building game with an identical starting deck of a few (10-15, usually) cards, most of which will generally represent money. By discarding the “money” cards in one’s hand, a player can “purchase” other, more powerful cards that they can add to their deck to be randomly drawn later on. The purchased cards can then be used to give extra money, extra card draws or some other, more complex effect. Everyone has their own deckbuilder these days—Marvel and DC, Resident Evil, Star Trek, Penny Arcade, World of Warcraft—and the mechanics are becoming second nature to most board game geeks. Here’s the part that blows my goddamn mind: deck-building games literally did not exist five years ago. In 2008 an unpublished designer put out his first game, Dominion, and it with it came an entire subgenre that blew up the gaming world and changed how a tabletop game can be played.
When was the last time this shit happened in another medium? Arguably this happens in music—one could certainly say dubstep was an original creation that unexpectedly broke onto the scene, but as far as I can tell it’s just electronica made more annoying, and it certainly wasn’t born of a single creator. And I haven’t even gotten to living card games, an original invention by Fantasy Flight Games that combines the gameplay and deck composition of collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering with the not-having-to-go-buy-a-jillion-booster-packs-in-the-hopes-that-you’ll-get-like-three-usable-cards of Having A Worthwhile Life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe you do know some board game folks, and maybe you’ve even settled a Catan or two in your day. Settlers of Catan is a fun game, to be sure, but its heavily luck-based design makes strategy less central than it could be. As an alternative, may I recommend the fantastic Puerto Rico or Power Grid, which will have you planning multiple moves in advance, grasping victory from atop the crushed dreams of your opponents? Or the drenched-in-theme, 4-hour behemoths of Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness, which will consume entire evenings and leave your group exhausted, bursting with bitter, searing hate at the Cylons/Baratheons/Ancient Gods, and yet totally satisfied? I don’t know why I’m asking if I may suggest these things—of course I may, for I just have—but regardless, I beseech you to heed my suggestions.
This is going to be the end of the post, so I shall now synthesize its usefulness into a cogent take-away because I am good writer: Games are like, my thing, and have been for a while. I love the interactivity, the narrative you create with your own decisions and choices, even (especially) if it’s not the one the game’s creator intended. A good game makes you feel comfortable in its weird world, able to do your own shit and forge your own way with the ruleset as a guide. I had long thought this was something video games alone were capable of. But when I’m in hour two of Battlestar Galactica and I’m positive that Kevin’s a Cylon—I can see past his veneer of helpfulness and brotherhood, oh yes, I see what he really is—and in my desperate bid to convince my fellow humans that it’s Kevin, yes, Kevin we must oppose, for it is he who wishes us dead, I can see them turn against me, growing wary that I accuse too strongly in an attempt to direct suspicion away from myself, (rightly, of course, for it is I who am Cylon), I’m having an experience I’ve yet to see any medium match. The tactile sensation of the board, the cards, the pieces, the social interaction with people you care about—that’s the kind of shit I like. And hopefully, if you give it a try, it’s something you’ll enjoy as well.
But for real. This hobby needs more attractive folk/regular bathers. I try to play it off like there’s no stigma but LORRRDD some of these people–