It isn’t too surprising to discover that the video game industry is catching up to the film industry. After all, video games are starting to look just like movies, and they even are starring big-name actors to voice the characters and work with motion-capture technology so that their facial expressions and body language appear in the games. What is surprising, is that many people still choose dice and cards over joysticks and remotes. Not only are tabletop games more popular than ever, but because of public acceptance and cultural exchanges, tabletop games are better and more accessible than ever as well.
During my first year in college, I spent more time playing the board game Settlers of Catan than I did reading over my lecture notes or playing the newest video games. In fact, the nearest study room was almost always filled with people playing cards, rolling dice, or negotiating trade deals, with no real money on the table at all… except for the rare poker night. Board games aren’t just for families or little kids anymore, they’ve branched out into the mainstream and attract people of all ages and interests.
Settlers of Catan, often called a “gateway game” because of its low difficulty but high enjoyability, is a must-play for any fan of classic board game Monopoly or civilization-themed video games. Every flaw of Monopoly has been addressed in this addition to the trading and buying genre. If it’s not your turn, you still need to pay attention to the dice rolls of other players, which often result in all players receiving cards. If one player is dominating the board, there’s still time to catch-up using strategy, diplomacy, or even luck. Nobody is defeated before the game ends, which is common in European-style games, or “Eurogames,” and since the board is made up of randomized tiles, no two games are alike. And finally, Catan sessions last for about an hour, instead of the night-long sessions that some Monopoly games can provide.
“Tabletop games?” “Eurogames?” Since when did Parcheesi get so complicated? For those of you put-off by all the jargon with these newer games, let me ask you, have you ever heard of En Passant? What about Prophylaxis? Both of those terms (and much more) come from the most famous board game of all–chess. “Tabletop” just refers to any game played on a table, from the simpler card and dice games to the more complex war and tile games. And “Eurogame” is the counterpart to American-style games, which are often called, and I’m not lying, “Ameritrash” because of a reliance on theme and luck. “Ameritrash” is a problematic name for several reasons. “Trash” seems overly negative, given that these games are often well received worldwide. The other half of the name is also ridiculous since these games are not always produced in America! The name has almost become a dig at Eurogamers and their supposed sense of superiority about spartan themes and games of pure skill with no chance. The notion that “games are supposed to be hard, not fun!” is almost universally said in jest, and this allows for a public appreciation of both genres.
An aspect that is usually lacking or not very developed in Eurogames is a theme. The first thing we see when we look at a board game is its theme. This is the story that the art is telling us. Candyland tells a story of kids traveling through a fantastical land where everything and everybody are either made of candy, or obsessed with it. The gameplay is simply matching colors on cards, and without its theme, Candyland would simply be flashcards. While a good theme can help a game sell, it cannot fix broken or simple gameplay. Therefore, read some reviews on Amazon.com or Boardgamegeek.com before buying the newest board game featuring famous characters, it might just be a bad car with a good paint job. And on the opposite side, don’t immediately dismiss abstract games, that is, games with no theme, such as Backgammon.
In an age where video games are becoming as cinematic as films and as literary as novels, it’s refreshing that we are also experiencing a renaissance in board games, an experience that connects us face-to-face with friends old and new.