You Should Play Board Games, And Here's Why

(Note: this is an edited and expanded repost from the old pre-Polygon.com forums over on The Verge, but I think many of our new members since the site launch could benefit from this post)

I love video games. I want to make that clear. But recently, after introducing some of my friends to board games and finding some friendly board game groups, I've noticed that I'm spending way more of my time playing board games than playing video games. I enjoy them so much, I made this short documentary about why some of the people at one of my meetups love playing board games.

Your Turn: A Documentary About Playing Board Games from Clayton Ashley on Vimeo.

There are a lot of reasons I love these 'german style' board games. Some of it is directly inspired by the incredible writing on board games over at Shut Up and Sit Down, so I'd highly recommend checking that website out if any of this makes you curious. But here are the reasons I think video game players in particular should play board games.

1. Creativity in board games is less constrained.

Ever had an awesome idea for a video game? Then you're exactly where every great video game developer started. But through the process of coding that idea, running it through possibly hundreds of other employees, and eliminating whatever parts of the idea can't be made profitable, you're inevitably left with something that isn't the idea you started with. Now, that's not always a bad thing. A bunch of great minds can add to a great idea and make it even better. But it's not the idea you started with.

But getting back to your awesome idea. Unless you know how to code, there are some huge hurdles you'll have to overcome to take your fantastical idea and make it into a video game. You'll have to explain to an artist what the characters look like in your head, how the player's avatar moves, how the story progresses, and perhaps most importantly, how the game mechanics will work. But board games are different. If you have a great idea for a board game, you can have a working prototype using a few pieces of paper, a couple coins, and some dice ready in just few hours. You'll probably need to play test it and tweak it, but it will be extremely close to your original idea, made real. Now just the same, this isn't always a good thing; there are plenty of awful board games that manage to get into stores. But you can be guaranteed that their original concept wasn't focus tested into oblivion or the game mechanics misconstrued by one of the programmers. As Quinns of Shut Up And Sit Down said, board games are "a human being’s shrinkwrapped idea".

And this type of prototyping with board games is a healthy activity for video game developers, with games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Divinity: Dragon Commander and Call of Duty using board games a launching off point for the mechanics of their video game (or direct inspiration).

2. Board games are doing things video games are not.

The Resistance has taken over just about every board game meetup I've been to, and with good reason. The rules are simple, it can be played with up to 10 people, and it's relatively quick. But whats really cool about the game, is what its about: talking. You couldn't play the resistance against a computer or even someone sitting behind one with a web cam and microphone. You have to play the game sitting across from everyone else, because the way you win is to be the best at talking to other people. The ingenious game mechanics create one of the most intense gaming experiences you'll ever play. And right now, video games aren't doing anything quite like it (though I'll admit, the thrill is similar to playing Spy Party).

There are board games with auction mechanics that poke and prod peopleto answer how much you really want something (why more video games don't try to use this inherently balanced style of play is somewhat baffling). Bartering and bidding are common human interactions that have rarely, if ever been effectively used in video games but they are a common, constantly iterated feature of board games. There are 'hidden movement' games, where you track down a player whose movements on the board are kept secret from all the other players, leaving behind only clues to there wearabouts. There are games where you build rickety spaceships in a limited amount of time and games based on guessing your friends imagination. Only in the past few years have video games really embraced cooperative gameplay, but board games have been innovating the 'players vs the board' format for decades, with games that cast you and your friends as everything from firefighters trying to save every last person (and pet) in a burning building, to epic heroes embarking on an expansive, multi-afternoon quest. If there's one stereotype about board games that I'd like to shatter, it's that they are staid, unchanging relics of the past. They are in almost every way the opposite and frankly more willing to take risks than video games.

3. Board games are more social

This is both the best and worst thing about board games: they are inherently a social, interactive experience. Even a mediocre game is fun if played with a group of friends. As video games have moved online, multiplayer gaming has brought us closer together and farther apart at the same time. And I'd argue that many games played on the same couch are still poor facilitators of social interaction, with everyone staring at the screen, sometimes too distracted by the game to interact at all. Board games on the other hand, don't just facilitate social interaction, they enhance it. They create situations where you are encouraged to bluff, misdirect, intimidate, and even out right lie. You get to take on roles way outside your day to day life. Achievements, trophies were created so friends could show each other the awesome things they've done in a game. But whats even better is having a story to share about the incredible play you made, the come from behind win, or your whole tables epic defeat at the hands of a coopoerative board games' vilain.

But this reliance on other people creates a problem which I believe is the single biggest reason more people don't play board games, and that's that they have no one to play them with. Board games are still unfortunately looked at as too nerdy to be widely accepted (though board games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride are starting to break into the mainstream). I can only offer up my own experience the most diverse group of people I hang out with are at my board game meetup.

If you are unable to recruit your friends into a game, I'd suggest looking for a local meetup group. I've found more groups than I have time to go to in New York city, and quickly found a great group I look forward to playing with every week. Most big cities should have at least a few board game stores that are bound to host game nights, which also give you the opportunity to try out some of the more expensive games before purchasing them.

4. Mechanics designed to match the theme

This is something I've noticed in the time since I first wrote this post. Board games can be extremely effective at using game mechanics to recreate the themes that dress the board game. For example, each round of Sparta: A Game of Blood and Treachery is like an episode of the show, with treachery and deceit in the first round seemingly designed to build up grudges (or alliances), an even nastier round of bidding that can drain a players bank, and a climatic gladiatorial finale, complete with gambling and a thumbs up/thumbs down to decide if the loser's gladiator lives (unless of course he was decapitated (and yes, you can wager on whether you think someone will be decapitated)). Nostra City creates the tense sorta cooperatively but really hyper competitive feel of a mafia, complete with the potential for someone to become a good-for-nothing-backstabbing-FBI-snitch. A mafia video games can certainly create rich environments and compelling characters, but they can't make you feel like mafioso debating on whether to give the members of your gang whats owed to them or risk giving them a powerful vendetta. Every Battlestar Galactica game leaves the human side feeling hopeless and incapable of trusting each other since anyone of them could be a Cylon (even themselves, later in the game). Board games won't ever tell you a story, but they are thrillingly effective at letting you craft your own.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

I've played a lot of boardgames since I wrote this post and thought I share a couple of my favorites:

Noir - A deceptively simple game that rewards deductive thinking and the ability to bluff.

Libertalia - A game all about bluffing your opponents, but you know all the cards everyone else has because you have the same hand of cards (though this will slowly change as the game progresses). It's relatively quick and easy to pick up, and the mechanics

Cosmic Encounter - No game of Cosmic Encounter will ever be quite the same. That's because the relatively simple rules (which encourage dynamic interactions, fleeting alliances, game defining grudges, and desperate negotiations with every player, every turn) are literally broken in slightly different ways by the powers of the 50 different alien character cards in the game. For example, one, called the Loser, wins when he or she would otherwise lose. Another wins when he would otherwise lose a negotiation. Just try to figure out what happens when you play those two against each other.

Cyclades - The perfect marriage of strategic euro-game economics and bombastic Ameri-trash battles. You bid for the favor of Greek gods, who grant you powers during your turn. Because you are limited to the actions of the god who's favor you won, almost every invasion or attempt to win the game has to be played out over a series of turns, giving opponents ample time to size up your strategy and attempt to counter, either by force or by outbidding you on the god you needed. I've also never seen a game with more epic come-from-behind wins.

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