Friday, January 11, 2013

What board games aren't (and what they are)

To most people outside the hobby, Monopoly, Snakes & Ladders, Ludo, Trivial Pursuit, Cluedo are synonymous with board games. However, most board game enthusiasts rarely play these games.

The problem with many best-selling board games, which are also the most popularly known, are:

1. The target market is children. Nothing wrong with that per se, but given that store shelves are stacked with kiddie game titles, it is little wonder that most adults consider board gaming a child's hobby.

2. The game mechanics are simplistic and / or purely luck driven. There isn't any meaningful decision to be made each turn. Each game turn seems very much like the previous one and many games are just meaningless marathons of die rolling.

3. Long play times. A good game needs to be of the appropriate length for the kind of mechanics, complexity, and theme it presents. Those with inordinately lengthy end games (Monopoly, I'm looking at you), in which everyone keeps playing long after the winner has, for all practical purposes, been determined, are tedious.

4. Limited strategy. In and of itself, a game light on strategy isn't necessarily a bad thing. Games are meant to be fun and playing only brain burner games isn't everyone's idea of fun. But when a limited strategy game is coupled with boring mechanics and long play times, it is enough to put most people off playing board games forever.

5. Player elimination is generally no fun. In some games (Monopoly stands out again as an example), a player can be eliminated early in the game and has nothing to do while the rest of the group continues playing.

6. The visual appeal and aesthetics of many best selling games are just plain appalling. Contrast that with the visual appeal of modern board games such as or Forbidden Island and Cleopatra & The Society of Architects...

Forbidden Island - Capturing treasures before the island sinks!

The four treasures - Statue of the wind, Earth stone, Crystal of Fire, Ocean's chalice

The palace courtyard in the foreground; the base of the box doubles up as Cleopatra's palace with a rooftop garden!

Aerial view of the game

Cleopatra's throne and the Mosaics of the Gods garden

I think it is important to emphasize that simply having one of the above mentioned attributes doesn't necessarily make a bad game. Plenty of good board games can accommodate children. Some have luck involved. Some excellent board games have normal playing times (excluding rules explanation and setup) of 2 hours or more. It is the presence of most or all of the above attributes in a single game that makes the game a boring one.

More importantly, board games is a hobby that is not heavy on your wallet. A good board game is high on replayability. Some are playable multiple times even in the same session. For example, Forbidden Island which retails for less than $18 (at the time of this writing) can easily be played at least 20 times. It plays 3-4 players, so that works out to less than 25c (that's less than INR 15) per person per game, with each game lasting about 30 minutes.

But most importantly, every good board game is three things: Fun. Social. Offline.

PS: All the photos were taken by me using my mobile phone camera. My photography skills are fairly limited, but I hope the photos demonstrate that board games can be visually stunning.