(Written by Abi)
I’ve asked myself this question over and over. Fumbled with board games whose names I’ve forgotten. Found myself on specialist websites ogling their wares. I’ve consulted experts, witch doctors, and cornered close friends for a session of intimate over-sharing in an effort to discover the answer. Yet it still seems to elude me.
Well, it did – I think. I had a bit of an epiphany, if you can call a self-indulgent rant such a thing. This moment happened to me when fellow ‘bot Chris and I were leaving the UK Games Expo in Birmingham. We were laden down with games and expansion packs, trekking through the heat towards the car, which unbeknownst to either of us would soon belch horrifyingly hot air at us as we attempted to enter it. We were still reeling from the Expo, high on stacks of cards and dizzy from too many multi-coloured dice, our minds ruffled with a thousand new rules applied to a hundred new worlds. The sweet nectar of new board games was simply dripping from our skin. And suddenly I knew.
Suddenly, I just knew what board games, upon being offered to me, I would tell to fuck off. Such moments of clarity, of epiphany, rarely occur and thus Chris spent the entirety of our arduous journey back to the car having his ear bent about which types of board games made me want to rend the flesh from my own face and which made me do one of my many little happy dances.
“So, what did you realise?!”, I hear you impatiently yell at the screen. My realisation comes down to this simple idea:
Board games are social.
I shit you not – that is what sent me into a tizzy. There’s more than that though - I’m not here to tell you what you already know. In fact, if you’re expecting deep insights and exciting board gaming revelations then you may as well pack up and go now. This is subjective. As long as you can keep that in mind we’ll get along, and hopefully if you didn’t know what it was about board games that turned you on before, maybe you will after this.
What I love about playing games with friends is the tension, the swearing, the laughter, the joy and the hatred that comes with every game. But it most certainly depends on which game. I love Epic Spell Battles, and Zombies (with any number of expansions); I adore Flux (the Monty Python version), and Quarriors. All these games get me metaphorically wet because they require people, interaction, and a sense of humour. These games ask you to be ready to have fun or to stress over who is going to kill you and how horrible it will be - and that’s what makes them great. It’s all about cause and effect because the people playing matter to you and to the game – and you’re all linked and invested in this mix of cards, dice, and rules as well. This, for me, is what board games are about. It sounds simple but many games miss this and replace it with repetition and gameplay that doesn’t know when to stop – that’s why Monopoly and Risk, for example, can fuck right off.
What? You think I can’t deal with strategy? Try ‘Summoner Wars’, it’s like monster chess with a side of deck building thrown in. On that note, give ‘On the Ruins of Chaos’ a whirl – it’s got a similar feel to ‘Summoner Wars’ with a bigger world and more complexities. It can even be played as co-op with two-against-two, battling for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Despite my relative newness to the world of co-op games (and aided by my intense love for Forbidden Island), I can say that I truly enjoy them.
Not only are these games more often strategic, they require a lot of teamwork which means I get to talk and generally be a bit bossy if the occasion arises. I find all these games worth playing because they have the ability to challenge, yet still manage to keep me engaged and actually giving a crap about whether I win or not.
And I suppose now is the time to address the type of gaming that leaves me feeling not so good - I shall do this by recounting an event that had happened during the Expo…
It was later, after the initial feeling of being overwhelmed had quieted and we had meandered from room to room for long enough. We gathered ourselves over coffee and planned our attacks. We made it to the first three stalls, got in and out. It was going well.
Chris had wanted to play Thunderstone, and had mentioned to the fine fellows of Shut Up and Sit Down his interest in it, but alas, a demo was already in progress (and had been for a damned long time too, if memory serves) when we reached Alderac’s stand. Chris shortly became embroiled with a game involving Ninjas (as is his wont) and so I was at a lose end. I watched and dutifully recorded for the blog, meaning that at the fateful moment I was the one forced to demo ‘Thunderstone’.
“Forced” is a strong word, but what else could it have been when I, the only female within a 10 –foot radius, was challenged by the Demo-Master? I stepped forth, but we needed another challenger – I looked to Chris - He was gone. And this, dear friends, is how I found myself mixed up in a dungeon battle with an eight-year-old in a Deer-Stalker and a bright orange T-Shirt. He was a regular according to the Demo-Master; a seasoned warrior who had survived many journeys into the dark depths. I felt relieved to know my first steps into this world were with such knowledgeable patrons of the game and so I proceeded to play a deck-building game with two people who probably wished I were someone else but were too polite to make me leave. What a mistake, if only they knew what I would come to say of their beloved Thunderstone.
Well it was boring, if you must know. The only interaction there truly seemed to be was my companions informing me as to what my next move should be. Deck building came across as insular, repetitive, and - in the case of Thunderstone - longwinded. This is the kind of game that makes me long for the silence and tension of an exam hall because the game felt like it had no end other than “get all the cards”, which I do believe is how you win – by battling through the dungeon, using your kills to buy better cards. The main reason I hated this game is because it is the antithesis to all of the things I like about board games – there was no laughter; no tension; no joy in the win; no pain in the loss. If I had to recommend Thunderstone or any other game that is primarily about deck building to a certain type of person, I would suggest it to those with difficulty socialising because the design of the game would allow you to never speak a word to any other players.
(An aside: Here’s another thing I dislike about gaming – measuring (I mean the games that literally require a measuring tape, not the inventive ways of keeping score). I find the landscapes created fascinating and the time put into modelling and painting armies and weaponry startling, but once a game starts cold, hard logic is the only thing present, other than a few dice rolls here and there . I get that they’re mostly about strategy, but when grown men argue over where their opponent measures from and disputes a player’s position in centimetres, I find myself very put off. I’d play if it was a bit more like, well, playing I guess – like kids do - not to imply I’m childish or anything…)
And perhaps that point sums up a chunk of gaming I don’t like – games that live and die on complexity of rules. Describe a game as being a “gamers game” (as SU&SD called Mage Knight) and I will find your copy and try and burn it. I don’t want to play something because it’s hard: if that’s all a game is aiming for then oddly, I think I’d just call it lazy.
I think I’ve worn myself out a bit now. Maybe I’ve inspired you to consider your board gaming style or maybe I’ve just made you a bit scared of me - I’m happy with either. Suffice to say, that if you come round to my house with a new and exciting board game to play, make sure you’ve checked the above parameters before you make me move my Bonsai tree off the kitchen table.