Get On Board: An Intro To Board Games, Pt 1

Much of the populace may still associate board games with interminable winter evenings with the family, held captive over a game of Scrabble or Monopoly, but board games have steadily been climbing the same mountain of social acceptability that videogames have not only already scaled, but planted their flag on the summit and installed their own funicular railway. With their childhood baggage of bland mass market games, it’s easy to dismiss board games as having been superseded by videogames, their kinetic overachieving cousin, but things have changed, and modern board games have started making a mark. Every year at the at the board game fair ‘Spiel’ in Essen, Germany, 150,000 attendees are exposed to 800 or so new games, and all over the country weekly board game meet ups or large scale conventions (like the rapidly expanding UK Games Expo in Birmingham) are fuelling a tremendous renaissance in ‘hobby’ board games.


Indicative of this is that many videogaming sites (such as Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Kotaku) have begun running regular board game reviews alongside their normal fare, and Ready Up is no exception. With our ‘Board? Game!’ blog we’ll continue to introduce you to the most interesting nuggets out there, old and new, with a special emphasis on games that cross over into the videogame realm, whether it be Lords of Waterdeep, set in the Forgotten Realms world of Baldur’s Gate, or straight up ports of videogame licences, such as Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia or Rampage. I’m here to fill you in on the background of the medium, introduce some of the more obscure terminology and let you know why you should be interested.

Board games are the new videogames
If board games are becoming more of an interesting proposition for gaming websites, one of the key figures in this transition has to be Quintin Smith (Quinns), who migrated away from videogame journalism to launch the now immensely popular Shut Up & Sit Down, a kind of Red Letter Media of board gaming, characterised by personality-infused quirky reviews and video pieces. Quinns has a theory regarding why we videogamers should be interested in board games (perhaps one day they may even get to shed the space between the words as videogames have). He talks about board games representing “lossless game design“, suggesting that technology counts as a huge barrier to digital game design, but given the lower costs and smaller production teams, a board game designer is more able to bring to fruition pure game design ideas with less compromise.

“The accessibility isn’t the point. The point is that this is lossless game design. There is no shark pit. When you buy a board game, what you take home and play is the original concept precisely as it was in the designer’s head. That’s the mecca for video games. For board games, it’s the norm.”

Quinns and Paul of Shut Up & Sit Down, who are renowned for their insightful reviews and high jinx
Quinns and Paul of Shut Up & Sit Down, who are renowned for their insightful reviews and high jinx

Whilst this might be overstating the point, and underplaying the role of publishers and the influence of market forces, it’s certainly true that a board game designer can easily prototype a game with a few scraps of paper a pencil and a pair of scissors. Given the decreased involvement of external forces, the opportunity for experimentation here is similar to that of the burgeoning indie scene in the videogame world. That’s not to say that the board game industry is without its big studios – Hasbro still shifts more vacuous party games, film tie-ins and clones of monopoly than have a right to exist – but in general the industry is less risk averse, with a steady supply of cheap, good quality components from China (for instance from the specialist printers Panda Game Manufacturing)  and platforms such as Kickstarter providing a financially safe route to market.

Social, physical and mental: whichever way you look at it, board games offer something distinct from videogames and, far from disappearing, they are going through something of a renaissance.

As a videogamer, the primary reason for my interest in board games is the opportunity for true local multiplayer, which has been thin on the ground since the ubiquity of online gaming. Remember the days of the N64 where you’d pile in on your friend’s couch and could gloat properly as you finished them off with a slap in Goldeneye? Well, that’s board gaming. While the internet has created new opportunities to play board games online (for instance using the modular open source Vassal or Octgn, or one of the many online gaming portals such as Board Game Arena, or just a webcam and Skype for that matter), the fun of board gaming still primarily comes from sitting around a table with a group of friends and a few beers, and given that local board gaming clubs and conventions around the country are booming, many people seem to agree. Britain has also recently been introduced to the phenomenon of the board game cafe, with Thirsty Meeples already open in Oxford and Draughts opening soon in London.

Aside from their more sociable nature, board games are also desirable objects. The last decade has seen an explosion in production quality of games and many sport beautiful artwork and detailed, sculpted pieces. This feeds into the simple, tactile joy of playing a board game, whether it be rolling a dice, fanning a hand of cards or handling finely made wooden components. Many board games also demand a level of mental investment, allowing you to use your brain to devise and execute strategies, reacting to real opponents, which can be incredibly fulfilling. Social, physical and mental: whichever way you look at it, board games offer something distinct from videogames and, far from disappearing, they are going through something of a renaissance.

The Internet
Although board games have existed in some form or another for thousands of years, in the last few decades they have seen a dramatic amount of change, roughly the same time period in which videogames were born and developed. In that span both mediums have broken away from the idea that games are just for kids or a niche geeky pastime.  Some of this may be sibling rivalry; the old medium getting a creative kick up the backside to compete with its new electronic counterpart. But I think the chief influence is the birth of the internet.

The whimsical Board Game Geek logo
The whimsical Board Game Geek logo

Given that most board gamers are geeks by nature, they were quick to take to this new technology. Of course, gamers had been meeting up in person at conventions for ages already, but now thousands of voices could forge a strong public movement online, creating a critical consensus that would help steer the medium. The board game community coalesced into the staggering behemoth that is Board Game Geek, a compendium of every game ever released, festooned with user generated content and forums and now used by the industry to communicate directly with the players for marketing and assistance (imagine if IMDB and Facebook had a baby and it grew up to become obsessed with board games). The biggest pity is that the site’s design can seem quite daunting to initiates with its reams of unmediated information, almost as though the internet in 1990 had travelled to the future and vomited on your screen.

Building out from this resource, board gamers, long ostracised from mainstream media (not unlike videogamers), utilised the internet to create review websites and podcasts, the biggest being the Dicetower network. Here you will find many excellent shows including Geoff Engelstein’s Ludology and The Secret Cabal, as well as the Dice Tower itself, hosted by board gaming luminary and network founder Tom Vasel, whose importance to the hobby’s growing exposure cannot be underestimated. Last year the hobby gained its first celebrity spokesman in the form of Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher of Star Trek: The Next Generation), whose show Tabletop on Youtube’s Geek and Sundry network has attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers who tune in to watch him and his celebrity friends – such as Sam Witwer (Crashdown from Battlestar Galactica), fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss and Rich Sommer of Mad Men – playing games and trash talking (here’s them playing the Dragon Age RPG). Tabletop has provided gaming with bit of pizzazz and sex appeal, whereas the Dice Tower can seem a little safe and family friendly, and has had a direct influence on the exposure of the medium, even resulting in American chain store Target stocking a range of games endorsed by the show.

Meanwhil Wil Wheaton's Table Top brings glamour and high production values to the world of board gaming
Meanwhil Wil Wheaton’s Table Top brings glamour and high production values to the world of board gaming

Kickstarter has also had a huge, disruptive influence on the industry in the last few years, arguably even more so than on the videogames industry, although the amounts are often smaller and therefore less newsworthy (although miniature games projects like the controversial Kingdom Death: Monster are regularly topping a million). Whilst many individuals and smaller companies have managed to break into the industry with well supported and well received Kickstarter projects (such as the excellent Alien Frontiers, board gaming’s FTL, which uses dice rolls in an innovative way to allow you to trigger different actions), even larger companies such as Germany’s Queen Games are getting in on the action, bringing completed games to the community in order to raise the money to cover manufacturing and distribution costs (unlike videogames this is where the largest costs reside). In this sense, Kickstarter now doubles as a pre-order system to mitigate publishers’ financial risks while rewarding the financiers’ loyalty with exclusive perks and a sense of satisfaction for helping to bring a product they believe in to market.

The Dark Ages
Things weren’t always so rosy. Before the early nineties, when the internet exploded into homes with services like AOL, the majority of games followed a similar format. Most involved a roll and move mechanic with a strong emphasis on luck (for a humorous illustration of this tune into the brilliant Flip the Table podcast and listen to three grown men torture themselves by playing games like Power Rangers and Hannah Montana’s Mall Madness – all for the sake of entertainment) with the biggest innovation being the creation of VHS board games such as Atmosfear, although this merely replaced the dice telling you what to do with a badly made up c-list actor telling you what to do. If you wanted to make tactical decisions, you had to enter the walled garden of war gaming, dominated by Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader, which existed at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum.

Despite the fact that modern, strategic board games arguably wouldn’t have existed without the dedicated and passionate war gaming crowd, to this day war games struggle to shed the inaccessible reputation they gained in the past. Or perhaps they don’t care, preferring to cater to their niche audience of hardcore players who wouldn’t balk at paying £80 for a military simulation that appeared to be printed at the local newsagents. However even the walls of the war gaming bastion have been breached by successful cross-overs such as 1812: The Invasion of Canada or A Few Acres of Snow, merging the mechanics of the war game with modern, accessible design sensibilities.

The Cover of 1812: The Invasion of Canada
The Cover of 1812: The Invasion of Canada

In 1812 five players take on the roles of the dubious alliances of the British regulars, Canadian Militia and Native Americans on one side and the American regulars and American militia on the other. Each unit has certain strengths and special abilities, and armies on the board will often be a mixture of allied units. The beautiful thing is that despite being a cooperative game, so long as a player has one of his soldiers in an army, he can move that army as though it were his own despite the protesting cries of his less gung-ho team mates. This leads to some hilarious consequences as a single Native American unit leads the larger part of Britain’s finest deep into enemy territory. Meanwhile a Few Acres of Snow, by veteran British design Martin Wallace, simulates the war between Britain and France for the control of North America using a clever card drafting, deck building mechanic to emphasis the stretched supply lines and bureaucracy of nations fighting a distant war. You may really need that artillery you just bought, but you’ll have to wait for it to be shipped across the Atlantic before you can actually use it, making the game a challenge of forward planning.

Gamers games back in the day were a test of endurance and patience on the scale of Dark Souls.

Although the majority of the 20th century had been a dry period for board games there are, of course, some absolute classics that should be acknowledged. First up there is Diplomacy, originally self published in the late fifties, but made famous by Avalon Hill, an old school games company specialising in war games that you will hear many gamers over the age of forty discussing in hushed tones of respectful admiration. In Diplomacy, players control European powers fighting over the continent but, rather than using dice, attacks are purely deterministic – an army with a strength of three will always defeat an army with a strength of two. The big twist is that all players submit their unit orders in secret after a window of negotiation with their rivals, either in person with bribes of alcohol or by email if playing online (or by post), and then the orders are resolved simultaneously, revealing all too late who has kept their word (little wonder the game earned the handle “breaking up friendships since 1959”).

Alpha geek Tom Vasel delivers a review to camera in front of his wall of games
Alpha geek Tom Vasel delivers a review to camera in front of his wall of games

Another game that utilised deterministic conflict resolution was Advanced Civilization, also published by Avalon Hill and said to be the inspiration for Sid Meier’s influential PC series Civilization, which has recently gone full circle and been adapted back into a board game by America’s biggest publisher Fantasy Flight (in many ways the EA of board games). In the older version of the game, expanding your civilisation on an absolutely colossal board is interspersed with timed trading rounds, in which players exchange resources required to upgrade technologies as well as sneakily passing along catastrophes like barbarian hordes or horrific floods.

Of course you can’t speak about pre-90s board games without mentioning Sid Saxon, seen by many as the great grandfather of the medium, responsible for many of the fundamental concepts of modern board game design. His games include Acquire, an abstracted take on merging corporations and dealing stocks and shares that makes Monopoly seem like a simulation of a lemonade stand;  Can’t Stop, a light push-your-luck dice rolling game in which you race other players up various tracks, attempting to go as high as you can before you go bust and reset your position; Sleuth, a clever deduction game that almost certainly inspired this year’s breakout hit Hanabi; The Boss, a stripped-down, tense negotiation game. Even this short list reveals the diversity of styles his games covered and his thoughts on game design were furthermore summed up in his book A Gamut of Games.

Although these classics all avoided the problem of luck, which is such a factor in Risk for example, and added the essential dimension of strategic decision making to the play experience (sometimes so great it would make your eyes bleed), they suffered from their own problems: chiefly over length and player elimination. Last year at a convention I attempted to play Advanced Civilisation but our group was forced to abandon the game 7 hours in (and still only 2 thirds through). Gamers games back in the day were a test of endurance and patience on the scale of Dark Souls.

In the next part of this article I will talk about how German board game design started a revolution, explore the notions of the Eurogame, the Ameritrash game and their hybridisation, and explore the developing two-way relationship the medium has with videogame design.


One response to “Get On Board: An Intro To Board Games, Pt 1”

  1. Peter Chinkin avatar

    Great article, can’t wait for part 2…

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