Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Boardgame Geeks

There are many overlapping flavors of gamer these days. You've got the Magic: the Gathering/CCG crowd, MMO-ers (hehe...mowers), Xbox Live achievers, classic arcade gamers, Guitar Hero legends, crosswords and Scrabble fanatics (both those links go to great documentaries), and so forth. And when I say boardgame geeks, you may indeed think of games like Scrabble, Monopoly and LIFE. Unless you ARE this kind of boardgame geek, in which case you think Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico or Power Grid.

This boardgame sub-culture is pretty far-removed from the games you see lining the shelves of Target and Wal-mart for the most part. No, the ones that give you geek status are what Boardgame News.com refers to as designer games, "games more targeted towards families and adults than children." We're not talking stuff as hard-core as Risk, though, necessarily. My husband discovered one of these playgroups in our area, playfully calling themselves the "6AM Gamers" (an accurate moniker), and became an instant fan of the hobby. I admittedly don't have the level of dedication to it that he does, but I have enjoyed a lot of really cool boardgames since then. We've also met some really nice people through this group, including our friends Eric and Linda, who run Boardgame News. Eric is a master at explaining boardgame rules. I wish I had that kind of brain capacity even just trying to remember things at the grocery store! It's a real asset, because designer boardgames tend to have more complicated rules than the mainstream fare.

Another great resource for this stuff is boardgamegeek.com, where the community reviews, rates, and trades in this upper echelon of boardgames. If you're not sure where to begin, they have a list of greatest boardgame hits. Here are a few of my favorites, though there are a great many more I've enjoyed playing.

Liar's Dice
This game's about bluffing your friends, and really should be called Bluffer's Dice, because sometimes the best way to bluff is to tell the truth. Everyone's got a bunch of dice they roll and conceal under a cup, and you take turns making calculatedly wild claims about how many of a certain dice roll are "out there" including yours. Each turn the player must declare an increasingly high number of dice ("I say there are 6 fives!" Oh yeah? I say there are 8 fives!"), until you think it's just not possible, and you call it. Everyone reveals, and if you were right, the person who made the last claim loses some of their dice (and thus, loses some of their predicting power as to what could be rolled the next round). It's a fun quick game with easy mechanics. It's also a very social game that seems to make you goofy, or at least it had the guys doing imitations of JP from Grandma's Boy at every challenge, and I'm convinced it would have been funny... even without the alcohol.

"The bean game!" This is a card game about collecting sets of a beans and "planting" them in your bean fields. As is the case with Settlers of Catan, there's a competitive trading component to win/lose friends and influence people. The art on the cards is also very cute. It's a bit harder to get the hang of than a game like Catan or Liar's Dice, but not much. And the game includes coffee beans. I mean, come on, you've gotta love that.

San Juan
This card game is sort of the light version of Puerto Rico. The goal is to build different buildings and goods-producing factories for points. The hardest concept to get used to here is that the cards serve as both the buildings and the currency to build them (i.e., discard 3 cards to "build" the 4th one you're holding). This game's fun because you can just sort of do your own thing, you're competing against other players, but not as directly as you are with some games. There's also a downloadable PC version of San Juan you can try out.

Munchkin is a fun and goofy card game with Dungeons and Dragons-style character elements of armor, equipment, and leveling up. The game has very few rules, and it's more about competitive and cooperative interactions, and humor. Take the fact that by default you start as a "level 1 human with no class." The content is all parody, and you might find yourself wearing a chicken on your head and wielding a swiss army polearm against an itsy bitsy spider. There are several versions of the game with popular themes including Cthulhu, outer space, super heroes, and ninjas that can be mixed and matched if you want to (I probably wouldn't). So far, my experiences with the base game + all its expansions have been the best, but I haven't tried the Cthulhu version yet.

Arkham Horror
At first I didn't really like this game, because the mechanics take some getting used to. It's a cooperative game set in the Lovecraft universe, and it's all about sealing gateways to dimensions of unspeakable horror. It works a little like a choose your own adventure, where small environmental descriptions set the stage for random monster encounters as you move around the board. I've grown to like it now, and we'll be playing it during Halloween festivities this year for sure. Maybe we'll do a whole Lovecraft theme with Munchkin Cthulhu and Arkham Horror...and calmari...and a good Lovecraft movie...if there were such a thing.

This one's a card game of tricks and card combinations played in teams of two (6 people total works well). The object is for you and your partner to discard your hands before other teams do so, and you don't get to know exactly what's in your team-mate's hand. You can take a gamble after looking at most of your initial cards and declare "tichu" or "grand tichu" for massive bonus points if you're the first to get rid of your whole hand...but it's a gamble, because if you aren't, then you LOSE that many points. It's a bit tricky to explain, but much easier in practice.

Ticket to Ride
This is definitely one of my very favorites! It's very competitive, both directly and indirectly, but it's also quite intuitive and fun. The object of the game is to connect your own secret intra-city routes without being blocked out by other players (either intentionally, if they figure out what you're doing, or unintentionally through construction of their own routes). It's got a sort of Candy Land aspect to it as well, as you try to collect cards of the right color to finish off legs of your routes. The Ticket to Ride: Europe edition has some game dynamics not included in the United States version that makes it quite interesting, once you're comfortable with the basic Ticket to Ride. Everyone we've played this with seems to like it, even my mother and father in-law.

Lost Cities
This is the only 2-player-only game of the ones I've mentioned here, and my husband and I often play this one solo after the kids are off to bed. Now, he might tell you different, but I'm the total Lost Cities champion around here. It's another card game with numbered cards. You go on "expeditions" by committing to collect and lay down as many cards of a chosen color as you can (you choose colors based on the cards in your hand, and perhaps the colors your opponent has chosen). You can only lay down cards in numerical order, and your total collection in any one color has to be 20 points or more, or else you start losing points.

A couple generally popular boardgames I'm not crazy about are Mystery of the Abbey and Shadows over Camelot. Mystery of the Abbey should be right up my alley, it's like Clue on crack. But for some reason, I can't understand the logic (you check off what you think people have as far as tall monks/skinny monks/hooded monks, etc., but THEN people pass cards to other people, and how the HECK do you keep track THEN??), and so I'm just not good at it. Shadows over Camelot is a cooperative style game that is just too damned unforgiving, it's difficult to the point of frustration, especially if you use the optional game mechanic of having one of the players secretly plotting against you as the "traitor." I want to love both of those, I really do, and maybe I'll get there eventually on Abbey. Shadows, though, my friend Mindy and I now riot every time the guys even suggest bringing that one out. Oh CRIPES, now that I brought it up, my husband's over here geeking out about the upcoming Shadows Over Camelot: Merlin's Company. No, honey...NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The realms of boardgame and video game often do blend together on the edges (like a fine grilled cheese sandwich). As a child, I did have the Donkey Kong boardgame, and while it's low-rated on gameplay, I sure wish I still had it given my obsession with The King of Kong. From the modern gaming scene, there's a World of Warcraft boardgame that's a LOT of fun. It's basically the boardgame equivalent of choosing a class, leveling up your character (gaining new skills and items as you do so) and ultimately facing an instance-style boss battle, even with the potential for some PvP thrown in along the way. There are boardgame versions of Starcraft, Railroad Tycoon, and Age of Empires, too, though I haven't played any of those.

Microsoft also seems to be acknowledging this niche - you can (and should) play Settlers of Catan on Xbox Live. Catan is known as a "gateway game," just a taste of some simple mechanics and easy-to-learn rules that draw you into the world of designer boardgames (of which Germany is a primary producer, by the way). If you like it, try San Juan next, or maybe Ticket to Ride (which is also now available on Xbox Live). Then gradually make your way to Puerto Rico and Goa, and before you know it, you may have shelves full of precious old boxes, and proudly consider yourself a boardgame geek too.

Our favorite online retailer for these games is Thought Hammer. The prices are GREAT, and the service is too. We've used them a lot. If you wanted to get into this genre of boardgames, your first order of gateway games might include Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Blokus (it has cool tetris-shaped pieces), San Juan, and Lost Cities... and maybe Coloretto.

PS - I WANT THIS! It plays 99 NES games!

If that's not possible, though, I'll settle for a pair of these:

PPS - If you haven't heard, the buzz this week is that Rock Band 2 will automatically import all your downloads from Rock Band 1. Way to go, guys, that's great news! And...spoiler alert! There are rumors flying about 60 songs leaked from the Rock Band 2 set. If true, that represents about 75% of the game's content. I'm not reading the full list, but there it is if you want to.


Kanadani said...

I totally recommend Munchkin...in any form. I believe Pseudo's got the Cthulu set...we should check it out sometime!

H. said...

yes, we really should! And thanks for bringing it out in the first place, I wouldn't have known about it if not for you!