Sunday, 20 July 2014

Board Gaming - What's it all about?

I’m a board gamer, and I wanted to write this article to explain a bit about what board gaming is all about, because most people I talk to don’t get it. “Oh so you play board games?” they ask, like that is just a little bit odd for an adult, “Do you mean like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit?”. They invariably choose those two games, because they are usually the only ones that come to mind, dredging up happy (or not so happy) memories of interminable family games of Monopoly as a child. Board gamers then have a real problem explaining that while yes, those are board games, they are nothing like what they play. But I’m going to have a go at explaining here.

The thing to get across first is that Monopoly is actually a really, really bad board game. I’ll venture that if you’ve got happy memories of playing Monopoly as a child (and yes, I do too), it is as much the sitting round having fun with family and friends that you really enjoyed, not the actual gameplay. You’ve probably put on your rose tinted spectacles and airbrushed out the bad stuff. The problems with a game like Monopoly is that it is almost all luck, there’s precious little strategic decisions to make. Most of the time, you just roll the dice, move round the board and leave things up to fate. Once you’ve bought your properties and put some houses on, you’re really just going through the motions for the rest of the game, there are no real decisions to make. It could on for many hours, you never really know, and the chances are for much of that time at least one person will have been eliminated and will either have gone home, or be sulking in the corner. I mean, how bad is that when you wanted to enjoy a family gaming night together?

Monopoly was created in the 1930s, and in its core gameplay has barely changed since then, but board gaming as a whole has moved on massively, and refined what makes a good game, particularly in the last 20 or so years. Modern board games, while varying enormously, tend to have a lot more skill, strategic thinking and real decisions to make throughout the game. You usually have a fairly good idea of how long a game will take, and no players will get eliminated (and in many of the best games there are good ‘catch-up mechanisms’ so even if you do badly early on, you’ll have opportunities to pull it back and win the game in the end). The fundamental joy of board gaming remains the same – having fun sitting around a table with family and friends – but now that experience can actually be fun and interesting rather than frustrating (and is unlikely to start family feuds).
Many games don't even have a board.

The other common mistake people make when someone tells them about board gaming is to think it’s all about war and fighting, possibly with dwarves, goblins and numerous other monsters. I’m not sure where they are getting this idea from (possibly Risk, another childhood classic, or seeing people playing with fantasy style painted Warhammer figures), but again they couldn’t be more wrong. It is no exaggeration to say that board games can be about absolutely anything. Board gaming can let you experience so many different settings and activities. Ever fancy being a pirate or a Caribbean merchant trader in the sixteenth century? There are plenty of games to satisfy that desire. Want to explore space? No problem. Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of a rich uncle leaving you a fortune with the express instructions to enjoy spending his money? There’s a game for that too. Or how about being one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and doing heroic deeds? What about being a cowboy, becoming a billionaire business mogul or treasure hunting in Ancient Egypt? All of these are experiences and hundreds more you can have by playing board games.
A couple of other misconceptions to clear up. Firstly, there doesn’t need to be an actually board. No, seriously. Board gaming is something of an umbrella term, and encompasses card games, dice games and some other games that don’t involve a board. Also, don’t think games have to be long or complicated, many games are very simple and only take a few minutes to play.

Finally, I wanted to dispel the notion that board gaming is somehow nerdy, geeky or childish? I mean, why should it be? Millions of people spend many hours a week playing alone on their X-Box, or sit glued to their computer screens all evening playing World of Warcraft. Frankly that’s far more nerdy than playing board games, and it’s quite anti-social too. Board gaming, by definition is much more of a sociable activity, involving as it does sitting around a table with people chatting and enjoying playing a game together. It’s said that games like Farmville Candy Crush are social games, but the real social gaming surely has to be board gaming.

This is the first of several board gaming articles I'm hoping to put up. Next time, I'll introduce a few great introductory board games to get started with.