Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bored No Longer

A friend of mine was recently making fun of me because he had recently met me and another friend at a coffee shop near my house to play games and I happened to have brought a small selection of my collection from which to choose.  He was telling the people around us how obsessed he thought I had become with boardgames.  I definitely have a strong tendency to dive into the deep end of any pursuit, and I won't say games are different, but I will say that I think my collection of games is born of genuine enthusiasm for the new games that are out there.  And I'd like to tell you a bit about why and maybe convince you to take a look yourself.

I come from a generation that experienced a number of major transitions, but few of them are as dramatic as the move from analog to digital forms of entertainment.  When I was quite young, we gathered around board games like Monopoly and Sorry. A lucky few experienced some of the more involved games that were available like Risk.  But in my pre-teen years, most of us dumped the old cardboard and grabbed game controllers. Now it's been close to 30 years of digital gaming for most.  We've all but lost the ability to sit around a table with others and produce the kind of camaraderie and face-to-face smack talk required for a great game of Monopoly. It seems that some of us noticed and we decided to step back to the table on occasion. Although one could argue about the chicken and the egg in this circumstance, it is still apparent that part of the move back to board games is because we are experiencing a renaissance of fantastic new board games that draw us back. 

Get a bunch of board game geeks together and you can have an entertaining time watching them argue about what started the modern revolution in board games, but there is one game that is always part of the discussion. In 1995, Die Siedler von Catan was released in Germany.  A few years later, the game was released in the United States as Settlers of Catan.  In the years following "Settlers," more and more games out of Europe and Germany in particular were brought stateside. Many of these games included rules that keep all players in the game until the end, keep score in such a way that the winner of the game is not apparent until the end, and which eschew most types of direct aggression or competition during the game.  These are now commonly referred to as 'Euro' games. As the groundswell of new games grew, more types of games became a part of the trend and even non-Euro games became more popular and the rate at which all types of board and card games increased exponentially. There aren't a lot of great ways to describe all of these games in one category, but you will hear the collective set of games referred to as 'tabletop games,' a term which encompasses new and classic games, card games and roll playing games alike.

Since many people have the same memories of boardgames I do, there are a lot of people who shy away from the idea of sitting around a table to play because they remember getting destroyed by older siblings and neighbors and really not having all that much fun.  Sure, it was still a great way to pass the time, but there were plenty of times where I'd run away if you asked me to play yet another game of Sorry or Othello.  Not to mention a whole period of gimmicky games that never did work all that well anyway (Mousetrap anyone?). For that crowd of people like me, modern tabletop gamers all seem to have a set of games that they use to introduce the reticent ones to how much fun and how rich the new games are.  These are often called 'gateway games.'  A gateway game needs to be easy to teach, easy to play, and rewarding and rich enough to highlight the distinction of the new games to a jaded player of mid to late 20th century American games. Ticket to Ride tends to be one of my favorites for introducing young and old players to tabletop games of the 21st century. It is an easy way to get someone excited about games and willing to come to the table without exposing them to the nerd-phobia inducing presence of fantasy and science fiction themes.  However uninterested someone might seem at first, I think that they'll be excited by the end of their first game of Ticket to Ride.

Now let's step back to my story a bit. Last year some time, I was thinking about the problem that my wife and I are stuck at home most nights after the kids go to bed and we do what most people do, hunker down in front of the TV or read, mostly ignoring each other. I was trying to think of a way to be more interactive and have fun, but without needing to be a party planner or a camp counselor inventing new things to do every night. I read some blog posts and explored some of the top-ten lists for things like this and wasn't all that satisfied.  I did run across board games on those lists every once in a while and then I'd think "Wow, that's the way to an exciting marriage, Monopoly for two at home" and I'd dismiss the suggestion.  That is, until one particular blog listed some of the games that the author and his wife played.  I was shocked that I didn't recognize any of the games at all!  With a little investigation, I discovered that some of the games he mentioned were extremely popular.  True, many of them kind of ran within the geek circles, but some had busted out and had become pretty popular with some mainstream crowds.  I investigated and talked to some people that had some of the games and started running across a few guys whose wives actually enjoyed these games.  Further investigation narrowed down the list of possibilities because many games require 3 or more players and wouldn't help me with my dilemma at home if we needed to go out to get a third player.  Once I had a decent list of two player games, I put them on my Christmas list, in the hopes that I'd be able to convince my wife that they weren't just for geeks.  And that's how Ticket to Ride made it's way to my house. For the same Christmas, my brother-in-law asked for a copy of Dominion, which I had heard a bit about from my investigations.  A few weeks later, I got a report back that his wife liked it! With a seal of approval from her sister, I was all set to get my wife to the table for that game too.

Both of those games met with relative success at my house.  My birthday is just a few weeks after Christmas, and I still had that list of games I had investigated.  Add to that the fact that I had discovered that Wil Wheaton was making high quality videos with famous special guests where they all played through one of the new modern games (a series on YouTube called TableTop) and my discovery of the preeminent social site for board games (BoardGameGeek) and I was hooked.  I also found a group at my workplace that would discuss games freely and then we setup up regular game nights where I could preview games I had never tried and have experts teach me how to play them.

Now six months or so later, I have a pretty good collection of games, although it remains rather small in comparison to a lot of the board game fans that I play with. I am running several different casual gaming groups on occasion. My wife and I do play games on some of the nights we are trapped at home, and even occasionally take games with us when we go on dates.  She's not inclined to obsession like myself, so she approaches it much more coolly, but can still enjoy some of them with me. I often entertain her with my amazement at the value that I get out of these games. It's true though, even though many of the games are $35-50 each, it does amaze me that I can get 2 to 6 people to come to a table, have fun together for 2 or 3 hours and it only costs $50!  Even if you didn't ever play that game again, that would be fantastic value.  If six people all went to a 2 hour movie together, it would cost more than that and we wouldn't talk or get to know each other any better than we had before.

You too might find that if you get a chance to play a few gateway games with a friend who knows how to play them, you'll want to pick up a copy and take them home to play with your loved ones.  If you get your friends and family around a table and you see how much more rewarding it can be to create a story together, talk as the game progresses, and learn more about them by observing their play, you might just want to do that more than you want to go sit in a dark theater or turn on the television on a weeknight.  You might even find yourself doing it regularly. And maybe picking up another game.  Or two. Watch out though, if you've got the same tendencies that I have, you might find yourself being made fun of for your new obsession like I was!  Don't worry though.  Just get them to the table too and they'll understand.

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