– By Mark MacDonald –
Stephen Tassie laminates pieces of a newly purchased board game inside Snakes & Lattes, a board game café that has expanded three times and opened a second location to handle demand. As curator for the company, which employs close to a hundred people and includes a massive retail operation, Stephen is quick to point out that, although there has certainly been an upsurge in popularity over the past two decades, board games have been a part of our history for thousands of years. Indeed, the game backgammon dates back thousands of years to the early Persian empire. Even older, the mysterious game of Ur is found on ancient Egyptian artifacts, though no one is certain how it is played.
As to the recent trend, Tassie points to both industry-related causes and sociological ones: “The internet has helped the industry promote new products with designs that are better and have more to offer than games like Monopoly or Clue. An increase in North America’s exposure to European games like Settlers of Catan has created the opportunity for people to see what is out there. New products are appealing to the non-gamer as well, with games that are low on rules and high on social interaction.”
It is this social interaction, and the desire for it, that helps contribute to the new board-game renaissance, says Tassie; “We’re tired of looking at screens. In our professional life as well as our personal life, we are consistently interacting with electronic screens. Board games offer face-to-face human interaction, and I think that’s something people are looking for.”
The statistics agree. Settlers of Catan, for instance, has now sold over 22 million copies in over two-dozen languages. Cards Against Humanity is estimated to have earned at least $12 million since its release in 2011. With board game purchases estimated to have risen between 25 and 40% annually for the past four years, companies are releasing new titles at an unseen pace, providing an abundant variety to choose from. But each person has his or her own taste in games, something that often reflects their personality, explains Tassie.
“You can tell a lot about someone from his or her choice in board game. It is not unreasonable to make assumptions; someone who choses to play a complicated game with lots of rules is likely highly intelligent. Likewise, someone who chooses a co-operative game like Dead of Winter or Pandemic is probably less competitive than someone who chooses Risk, or Settlers of Catan, where there is only one winner. People who gravitate to an older, more familiar game are typically more cautious people compared to those who opt to learn a new one.”
Whatever personality type you are, and whether you crave a complex, competitive strategy game or a simplistic co-operative or social interaction game, there are plenty of options to keep you entertained. Here are some of the top games to come out in recent times:
- Cards Against Humanity
“The Howard Stern of board games” according to Tassie, Cards Against Humanity’s success is undeniable. Released in 2011 and financed through a Kickstarter campaign, the game’s simplicity and vulgarity are not doubt major contributors to its popularity.
Players are given cards with which to fill in the blank in a sentence. For example, gamers would all hear a sentence like “The new Broadway hit, _____ the musical.” Players would select one of their cards with a (usually crude) word on it, and place it face down in a pile near the “dealer.” The dealer then reads the sentence again, this time with each of the words filling in the blank, and then votes on the “best” one. The person who played the card chosen by the dealer earns a point. A game made for drinking and laughter, Cards Against Humanity is low on the rules and difficulty, and incredibly inappropriate for children.
- Settlers of Catan
The board game renaissance would arguably not have happened were it not for Settlers of Catan, the light strategy game developed by Klaus Teuber and played on campuses across the world. Released in 1995, the game took a couple of decades to grow in popularity, but is now one of the most renowned and beloved board games of all time. The base game is suitable for three to four players with expansions allowing for additional players and variations to the gameplay itself. Settlers of Catan takes roughly 90 minutes to play, with players racing to earn 10 victory points by building houses, roads, cities and “development cards” with resources they acquire in a roulette-style rolling mechanism or by trading with other players. The combination of luck, strategy and trade make every minute of the game engaging, even when it is not your turn. Whether you are collecting resources from a dice-roll, negotiating a trade or strategizing your next purchase, the game keeps you occupied and entertained. Settlers of Catan is in a league of its own, a truly excellent game.
Pandemic is a wildly popular co-operative game for two to four players who, as a team of medics, try to stop an outbreak of four diseases from spreading across the world. Each player has his or her own special abilities to help the team in a strategic way. The game usually takes around 45-60 minutes to complete, and is reasonably easy to learn, though certainly more complicated than games like Sorry or Cards Against Humanity. The co-operative aspect of this game lends itself well to people who are less competitive and prefer to have more than one winner.
A co-operative game similar to Pandemic, X-Com combines the gameplay on the board with an accompanying phone app offered for free. Two to four players must work together to stop an alien invasion, and a game usually takes around one to two hours to complete. The co-operative nature of this game, as well as the interactive phone app, make this title one to try if you are comfortable with a fair degree of complexity.
- Dead of Winter
A co-operative game set in a zombie apocalypse, Dead of Winter is like an interactive story, filled with characters and events that shape the experience. Mixed in with the idea that everyone is working together to protect a colony from zombies is the fact that one or more players may, in fact, be secret conspirators. Not every game will include a hidden enemy among the players, but the possibility of this creates a fun dynamic and increases the possible variations when the game is replayed. Players control characters ranging from professors to firemen to a golden retriever and often must select between choices read from cards. There are a fair number of rules and the game is reasonably complicated, but its popularity is justified. Very fun to play.
- All Kinds of Risk
From Walking Dead and Game of Thrones to a version that takes 15 individual games to finish, there are a number of variations of the classic strategy game Risk, the game sometimes known to end friendships.
Risk: Game of Thrones adds a new spin to the basic Risk concept: secret objective cards are given to players, who complete them to earn points (10 points = victory). Instead of simply amassing a huge army and conquering the entire board, the game is more dynamic, with each move made for a different purpose. Players control one of the “houses” of Westeros or Essos, and “character cards” such as Jon Snow or Jamie Lannister add to the complexity and richness of the game. Two to seven players can play on either one or two maps joined together, and the game’s light strategy and exciting dice rolls make it an immensely fun experience, especially for fans of the books or show.
Risk: Legacy takes the basic Risk game and adds everything from mutants to biohazards and even a nuclear bomb. Fifteen individual games are played to produce a winner and, needless to say, a full game of 15 cannot be played in a single day. Players are forced to create names for themselves and the cities they earn through the course of gameplay and stickers are placed on territories on the board, remaining there permanently. In addition to other wild changes that occur as you move from game to game (which I will not spoil) Risk: Legacy has no end of tricks up its sleeve. If you like Risk you will absolutely love this version, but be warned, it’s not for the cowardly.
- Ticket to Ride
Days of Wonder’s award-winning Ticket to Ride is a game for two to five players that is suitable for children and adults alike. The game is easy to learn and usually takes about 30-60 minutes to complete. Players compete to form trains from one city to another, scoring points for connections based on their length and whether or not they have a specific route objective. A fair amount of strategy is involved in your choice of either drawing more cards, claiming a route or collecting an additional Destination Ticket, as well as your choice of train placement. With its accessibility and incorporation of light strategy it’s no wonder Ticket to Ride has quickly become such a popular game.
Picture scrabble without the board and you’ve got Bananagrams. Players must use all their tiles and create a cohesive crossword of their own before anyone else is able to. If unable to create a word, players can reach into the bag to grab another one (at which point everyone must take one). They can also ditch a tile they hate and grab new ones by incurring a slight penalty (more letters). Simple, and easily understood by those who have played Scrabble, Bananagrams is a solid game, especially for children, and it comes in a cute banana-shaped bag.
Whatever your taste, there is a board game out there you are certain to enjoy, and friends and family will enjoy playing it with you. New designs are emerging all the time, as are establishments in which to play them. Don’t be surprised about this; board games have been around for thousands of years, even if we forgot how to play them.
-Mark MacDonald works at Snakes & Lattes, a board game café in Toronto.