This past weekend I engaged in an orgy of board gaming with friends and colleagues normally spread to the four corners of the earth. I walked into this engagement a virtual board game virgin and walked out a man. What I was surprised to discover was that I’d been a board gamer all along. I just didn’t know it until now.
Let me break it down nice and easy for you. I now theorize that if you have ever played and enjoyed Civilization, X-com, Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars or pretty much any turn-based game, then you are almost certainly a board gamer as well, whether you know it or not. The only issue remaining is finding the right game and the right group.
I didn’t understand until only recently how cleanly defined and well built is the bridge between these two seemingly disparate worlds of nerdom. Board gaming had always seemed to me an arcane and unapproachable obsession that demanded deep levels of abstraction and the ownership of many colored and oddly shaped dice. I figured that complex rules would be a crippling barrier to entry, and that new players would almost universally be at a disadvantage.
I suppose this might be true if you come into the board gaming with no background in understanding the interplay between luck of the draw, adaptable tactics and competitive grit. These are, however, qualities demonstrated by almost every meaningful strategy game on the market, digital or otherwise. It does an odd kind of disservice to board game designers to assume that they have no idea how to create something that is if not exactly approachable at least understandable within a few turns.
I was fortunate enough to spend part of my weekend playing these games with some of the people actually responsible for the very products we played, and what became very clear within a short time is how much thought goes into balanced, fair and approachable play. At least, in the good games.
The real issue, as I see it, is usually one of commitment and coordination. It’s easy enough to invest 10 hours into a game of Civilization IV because I can do so entirely on my own time. It’s far more difficult to drop six hours on History of the World or Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, if only because those hours most often have to be contiguous and synced up with a half dozen others. Rewarding though these highly complex and extended expeditions might be, without a reliable group of regulars, it’s difficult to imagine pulling those kinds of games out more than once a year or so.
However, it’s important to note that even as a neophyte to chits and cards of table top gaming, I wasn’t actually overwhelmed once these games were under way. And, truth be told, when I look back over my personal year in gaming come December, four hours of questioning the loyalties of friends who may or may not be dirty Cylon toasters will stand out as an unexpected highlights. Even as I realize it will be months upon months before I have the opportunity to play again, I feel the tickle of addiction and desire aching in the deep places of my head.
Fortunately I also found games like Dominion, Cash & Guns, and Diamant which not only provided a rapid-fire alternative, but went very well in many cases with a casual atmosphere. If you’re like I was only a few weeks ago, then those game names mean nothing to you, and you will simply have to take it on faith that a game like Cash & Guns is not only built for fun but is significantly improved in proportion to volume of liquor.
I think overall that is my big takeaway from an expeditionary foray into board gaming, that it is not exclusively the realm of serious people expending endless hours in debate over arcane rules. It is surprisingly social – why that should be surprising to me is itself a mystery. It can be intensely competitive at one moment and then co-operative in odd and unexpected ways the next. It is flexible in a way that video games can not be.
Personally, I now consider myself a convert. In the next few days I plan to pick up my own copy of Dominion – a good blend of easily approachable rules, quick play sessions and strategic play – to begin my own slow conversion process. I’ll have it in reserve for those moments in a directionless gathering, and I’ll spring it in an entirely fake off-handed sort of way as kitsch. And, I will begin to form the foundation of my own board gaming group.
After all, at this point I’ve long since learned that the best way to get into a good group of any kind is to build it yourself.
Sean Sands is the co-founder of gamerswithjobs.com, father of two, husband of one and apparently the latest proselytizer for the Cult of the Dice.