Game on: The best of the boards

January 08, 2015

What can I say; I’m a bit of nerd when it comes to board games.

Whether it’s the excitement of watching my hotel empire grow in Monopoly or the rush that comes when my armies finally break through Kamchatka in Risk, I find that board games provide some great, memorable moments despite their inherent silliness. The author Bernard Suits defined play as the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” and I agree with him. There is no reason why a group of people should be trying to figure out if Colonel Mustard or Professor Plum committed the murder by asking each other when the answer is in the envelope but we still do. I think the answer lies in the inherent social aspect of board games.

Board games force you and your fellow players into a shared set of constraints in an attempt to achieve the same goal. It creates a communal experience that produces shared memories and allows you to see aspects of your friends that may only come out under the “unnecessary obstacles” you have all “voluntarily attempted.” While I claim to be no expert, I have noticed that really great board games can draw out these shared experiences in several key ways. Below I highlight three games that I feel exemplify some key aspects of good game design.

First, a great game allows each player to approach winning in his or her own unique way.

Smash Up by Alderac Games
Want to fight as pirates and aliens? How about as wizards and robots? Smash Up allows you to do just that. The game is defined as a “shufflebuilding” board game where each player chooses two factions, shuffles together their respective decks, and then competes against the other players to win bases. Bases are won by sending more minions to a base than an opponent before the base reaches its threshold of minions. Every base scored gives you points and the first to reach 15 wins the game. This seems straightforward enough until opponents start vaporizing, moving, resurrecting, and bouncing minions all over the board. Each of the eight game factions is unique and full of flavor and Alderac continues to release expansions, making sure that no two games play out the same. Each of the cards is illustrated with detailed, vibrant art that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The game designers have allowed each faction to feel unique in play without any one feeling too overpowered. Smash Up struggles slightly when playing in groups larger than six as there is so much to keep track of and little provided to help keep track of it all. Despite this, the game is fun and engaging and definite must play for those looking for “total awesomeness.”

The author Bernard Suits defined play as the “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” and I agree with him.

Second, really great games strike the balance between strategy and randomness.

Pandemic by Z-Games
Pandemic was one of the first cooperative board games and remains the standard to this day. Instead of competing with each other, players are working together to try and beat the game itself. Four deadly diseases have broken out across the world and it is a race against time to find the cures and stem the spread of the diseases. Each player is given a role at random that has certain unique strengths and abilities that must be used wisely. The roles range from a scientist who can cure diseases more quickly to a quarantine specialist who can keep diseases from spreading. A shuffled deck of cards, which must be drawn from each turn, dictates the disease’s spread. Let a disease grow too rampantly and it will expand exponentially, eventually becoming too large to stop. At the same time, players must race around the globe researching cures. The balance of these different goals necessitates careful planning and strategy if the players are to succeed.

Walking the line between strategy and randomness is one of the great balancing acts of any board game. No randomness means the game runs the risk of getting stale and in competitive formats usually means that experienced players will never want to play with the inexperienced. On the other hand, having no strategy means the game will not be engaging, making the players quickly lose interest. Pandemic does an excellent job of making players balance competing goals by giving them a wealth of various decisions to make and actions to perform during a turn. The game’s unpredictability keeps it fresh and new every time you play it. While somewhat intimidating to learn, as there are quite a few things to keep track of, the game provides plenty of help and is fairly simple to play once you are familiar with it.

Third, great games force you to compromise with others.

Munchkin by Steve Jackson Games
Munchkin is the self-proclaimed result of old Dungeons and Dragons players who loved the memories of adventuring with friends but hated the amount of boring stats and endless hours it would eat up. The premise of the game can be seen as a much-abbreviated, tongue- in-cheek version of the classic D&D roleplaying games. You and your fellow players are adventurers who are on a classic dungeon crawl trying to get your character from level 1 to level 10. Each turn you break down a door and behind it waits a monster that requires slaying, such as Stoned Golem or the Wight Brothers. You defeat them if your level exceeds that of the monster and as a reward you get a specified number of treasure cards and move up a level. The interesting part comes when the monster is at a much higher level than you. You’ll need to ask your fellow players to help, bartering a portion of your promised treasure in exchange for their help. Not only that, but players can also influence combat of other players, perhaps slipping in a “potion of idiotic bravery” to reduce the monster’s level. Or they can just as easily use it reduce your level in order to make that “large angry chicken” not so easy to face as you initially thought.

Munchkin forces a lot of compromise amongst its players, and you will want to make sure that you make deals that are mutually beneficial while making sure you come out ahead. Forcing these kinds of compromises allows other players to participate throughout the game, not just during their turn. It also acts as a natural leveler, as a player in the clear lead will be less likely to be helped and a player far behind is more likely to catch up. I would recommend springing a bit more for the deluxe version of the game, as the included board and tokens allow players to clearly see who is winning and what is going on. Fantasy not your forte? There are a ton of versions of the games released including the sci-fi based Star Munchkin, Superhero Munchkin, Zombie Munchkin, Kung Fu Munchkin and many more. Not only that, but the versions are largely compatible with each other as long as you can overlook the wacky mix of themes.