Perhaps you’ve just finished Freshers’ week and your body is very very angry with you. Maybe you’ve attended your first couple of lectures at unreasonable hours, and are already beginning to question whether such drudgery is worth a 2:1 in anthropology. Or possibly a summer fueled by only the demon drink had left you broken and defeated.
If any of these things are true then perhaps the future holds fewer long nights soaked in booze and perhaps a walk on the quieter side of relaxation and socializing. Where to look then? The answer I wish to recommend to you all is board games.
Yes I know. I can hear, even as I type, the anguished cries as half forgotten memories, of Christmases ruined by tortuous seven hour games of Monopoly, rapidly begin to surface.
But Cluedo, Risk, and Monopoly are to board games what Mills and Boon is to literature; they hold the key components of being a board game; dice, paper money, cardboard etcetera but compared to the greats they are mere shadows.
The wealth of variety that can be found in the board game world today is truly breathtaking. From simple but elegant games such as Love Letter, to more complex strategic affairs like Twilight Struggle, there is a game to suit all tastes.
Perhaps the best illustration of how far boardgames can rise above the dreary repetition of the Hasbro “classics” is the French game Dixit. The game of Dixit is played almost entirely with a large deck of oversized cards. On each of these cards is a print of a unique painting or drawing, always striking, often creepy. Every player has a hand of these cards and on your turn you become the Storyteller. It is the Storyteller’s job to pick on of the cards from their hand and give a clue as to what is on the card. This clue can be anything: a single word, a long speech, a song, a dance, a quote. Anything. The other players then pick a card from their hands that they think might also fit in with the Storyteller’s clue. All the selected cards are shuffled, then revealed, then the other players must attempt to work out which of the cards in front of them belonged to the Storyteller. Points are then awarded for correct guesses, but if everyone gets it right, or everyone gets it wrong, then the storyteller is punished for their obviousness/obscurity and gets no points. The trick, therefore, is to be somewhere between the clear and the muddy and this leads to wonderfully creative interpretations of various cards.
Dixit is a game that does what the computerized age of entertainment has failed to do, it makes us talk to each other in a way that isn’t just screaming homophobic insults into a headset
This game is played out basically in the deranged heads of the players with the paintings serving as little portals for your craziness to leak out into the world to be appreciated by your friends.
But perhaps this abstract stuff isn’t for you, maybe you prefer rules and strategy. Fear not, you too are provided for.
What’s your thing? Do you like sci-fi? How about the excellent Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game, which better than any video game I have ever played replicates the exciting thrill of the original trilogies’ galactic dog fights. You take control of either the Empire of the Rebel Alliance and build a small fleet using all the most iconic ships from the series. From the obvious X-Wing’s and Tie Fighters to the more obscure Moldy Crow and Tie-Bombers there is a world of possibilities here. You can even have the Millennium Falcon if you want it.
Perhaps you’re a history buff? Then it’s hard to beat the aforementioned Twilight Struggle, a spectacular simulation of the tension and brinksmanship that characterized the Cold War era. One player takes control of the U.S.A the other the Soviets and you must spread your influence and ideology as far across the globe as you can. Or what about Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery where you become the head of a noble Roman household and must bribe, sleep and murder your way to the top. This game features negotiation, auctioning and deal making in a way that Monopoly can only dream of.
Maybe you’re not competitive at all and the idea of such meanness makes you deeply upset. Fear not! There is a whole world of cooperative board games where you and your fellow player’s play against the board games “A.I” to use digital parlance.
My personal favorite is Pandemic. You may recognize the name as being identical to the perennially popular online flash game. In the table top version, however, you and your buddies work to cure disease not spread it. Using various different roles and special abilities you must find a cure for four deadly infections ravaging the world before the human race is wiped out.
Or how about Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, where you and your friends form a merry band much like the Fellowship and set out on quests throughout middle earth. Then there is the wonderfully barmy Space Alert, which looks to the future and guesses it’s probably going to be a bit shit. Here you and your friends must guide your Sitting Duck class vessel through a series of horrible space threats and win just by surviving. What makes this game so brilliant is that it has no turn structure, it’s played in real time and comes with a CD to represent the ship’s computer warning you of incoming danger.
The point I’m making is that there is a whole world out there that tragically few people have ever engaged with, scared as they are by how truly awful some of the board games of our youth were.
Board games are a wonderful way to relax and spend some time with friends. Too often we spend our time behind screens, several layers removed from any kind of human interaction. We work on screens, we play on screens, we increasingly socialize on screens. Board gaming lets us enjoy something resolutely analogue in a digital age, something that makes us sit down together at a table and just talk to one another. It’s fun, it’s friendly and I promise you, whoever you are, there is a game out there that you will just love.
If you’re interested in learning more about the wonderful world of board games there are a host of ways in which you can do this. Board Game Geek is a website which is essentially the wikipedia of games. Any game you care to think of, you’ll find it there. Glasgow writer and comedian Robert Florence writes a regular column called The Midnight Table, formally Cardboard Children, over at Rock Paper Shotgun. For more regular updates consider checking out Shut Up & Sit Down featuring video reviews and podcasts or for recommendations and game overviews you could check out my own little site, gamesapelife.com.