Board games are getting cool now. For some of us, this is a time of hope. Classic party games (i.e., Catchphrase, Apples to Apples) were getting stale, but board games provide entertainment in the form of intellectual challenges and hilarious storylines. Nerd culture becomes (slightly) less stigmatized.
But for others, the rising stardom of board games is cause for some concern. Some of us grew up on a steady diet of competitive athletics and have never learned the niceties of balancing the competition of a game with peaceful social interaction. And some of us hate rules. Some of us don’t lose very well.
Because I am a rule-hating competitive jerk who had a horrible experience with Settlers of Catan, I’ve been avoiding board games for most of my adult life. Then I started dating a board game aficionado and learned that not all board games are created equal.
First issue: rule complexity. Games with a different rule on every card of a 500-million card deck are a nightmare for people like me. It goes like this:
Me: I’ll play this one!
Smart friend #1: You can only play that card when there are 27 cards left in the villain’s deck, actually.
Smart friend #2: Or when x-4 players (where x is the number of times each player has played 3 cards at once while drinking a caffeinated beverage) have at least two equipment cards in play.
Smart friend #1: Yes, but then you have to sacrifice the equipment cards, so with four of them out right now that would cripple us.
Me: . . . I see. So, I shouldn’t play that? Or I should?
Smart friend #2: You can’t, no. But you could play a one-shot card!
Me: Uh . . .
Smart friend #1: It says ‘one-shot’ on the top.
Me: Oh. Got it. You know, I’m really good at euchre. Anyone up for . . .?
Euchre has very little variation. Sentinels of the Multiverse on the other hand (on which the above conversation is based) has somewhere between 14 million to 230 million different game scenarios. That’s cool. Really. But those 230 different scenarios have a price-tag of roughly the same amount of rules. For some people, (like English majors who write blogs for fun) it’s too steep a price.
The second issue: games vary widely in content, style, and length. You may have tuned into the post calvin’s previous post, Definitive Board Game Primer, which heavily favors competitive Eurogames at the expense of cooperative Ameritrash games.
Most board games can be mapped on the axes of two separate spectrums: competitive/cooperative and Eurogame/Ameritrash. Learn yourself.
Competitive vs. Cooperative
In competitive games you compete against your friends. In cooperative games you compete with your friends against some villain or situation the game offers. (This is the saving grace of competitive jerks like me: it’s socially acceptable to trash talk a board game villain!)
Eurogames vs. Ameritrash
Think Benjamin Disraeli vs. Teddy Roosevelt as the Euro/Ameritrash dichotomy. Where Brits are stereotypically branded as subtle and cerebral, Americans are brash, loud, and chaotic. In Eurogames like Settlers of Catan, players’ successful long-term strategies politely choke their opponents to death until one person is more successful than the others.
Ameritrash (the derogative is thanks to Eurogame snobbery) by contrast is a
Heavy, in-your-face, slug-it-out conflict. None of this “I own a bean field and you own a bean field and we both try to outgrow each other.” In Ameritrash you own a bean field and I invade it with ground troops, tanks and aircraft. [Source]
Everyone has their own preferences. For my part, I prefer cooperative games with minimal rules that emphasize the importance of flexible strategies due to chaotic elements. If that sounds like your cup of tea, consider:
A Brief Smattering Games of Which You May or May Not Have Heard
Epic Defenders: You are heroes in a kingdom being overrun by evil forces. You must fight a variety of enemies—a hydra, a dragon, harpies, and trolls—to keep your kingdom safe.
Game time: 30 min.
Rule complexity: 3/10
Pandemic: You and your teammates are working to contain and eradicate four different viruses that have broken out over the globe. An expansion offers the option of one of you playing the bioterrorist masterminding the pandemic.
Game time: 45 min.
Rule complexity: 6/10
Betrayal at House on the Hill: You and your friends are exploring an old house when suddenly a “haunt” occurs! In one haunt, the house becomes alive and attacks you. In another, invisible ninjas jump out of the walls and try to kill you. 50 haunts are included in the base game.
Game time: 60 min.
Rule complexity: 4/10
Letters from Whitechapel: Set in London 1880s, Jack the Ripper (player 1) plans to murder five people in four nights, escaping to his safe-house each night. The police (all the other players) must track his movements and arrest him.
Game time: 2 hours
Rule complexity: 5/10
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).