Welcome to the Golden Age of Board Games

Around three years ago, I wrote one of my most read answers on Quora to the question, “What are some of the best strategy games out there?” A few weeks later, Helena Zhang, a friend of mine from Caltech and fellow officer in our MIT grad dorm, invited me to join a board game group she had started with some labmates. Our group came to be known as “Fun and Games” and started spreading through our social circles, and in particular to the Singaporean community at MIT.

That fall, a new Singaporean grad student started coming to our group regularly. I had met her previously through the Graduate Christian Fellowship and we played on the same team together (playing 7 Wonders) her first visit to our group. Little did I know at the time, those would be the first couple steps on a journey that would lead to us getting married last June, with the Fun and Games group helping to make most of our awesome board game-themed centerpieces:

Our Jenga-themed Centerpiece, designed by Sebastian Palacios.

Our Jenga-themed Centerpiece, designed by Sebastian Palacios.

Throughout the years, our little board game group has continued to meet, about weekly. We’ve played a lot of different games, and learned a lot about them, getting a front-row seat to an explosion of great new board games coming out every year.

Every once in a while, a journalist writes about how board games are experiencing a modern renaissance. Back in November 2014, The Guardian released a collection of insightful articles under the title “Board games are back“. But I don’t think that’s entirely right. If you look at the numbers, the world has actually never seen a time of such widespread interest in board gaming. A Wikipedia contributor put together this graph of the number of board games published by year (red are expansions):

Board Games Released by Year

By Piotrus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46972981

There was no classical era of board gaming that we are now involved in reviving. I think many people recall playing old board games like Monopoly with their childhood, and overestimate how popular board games were in the past. (Just because people played Monopoly as kids doesn’t mean they enjoyed it.) We really are seeing something new.

What has fueled this dramatic rise? Like many of those in the board game community, I believe that higher quality and variety of board games has led to increased and broader interest, which has in turn quantitatively grown the market for new and better games, leading to a positive feedback loop with benefits all around. I’d like to describe a few aspects of how I’ve seen that in my own experience.

The Best of Both Worlds

In one of those Guardian articles, game designer Scott Nicholson argues that historically, American games tended to involve direct conflict between players (think Risk), while European games featured indirect/economic competition for resources (think Catan). The big increase in quality, Nicholson argues, has been games taking advantage of the best aspects of both American and European games.

This strikes me as very true. The strengths of American games have tended to be their themes; games like Axis and Allies took forever, but at least you were recreating World War Two! Growing up, it always seemed like an epic thing to… learn the rules to for an hour before I had to go home. 😛 Meanwhile, the strengths of European games have tended to be their gameplay mechanics, while their themes have been weak, interchangeable, or basically nonexistent.

Some of my least favorite games fall squarely on either side of this spectrum. Showing my Americanness, I used to be a big fan of Risk, with its epic theme of world conquest. It’s still okay on the computer, but in real life board game gatherings, it has several major design flaws. What is someone supposed to do after they’re eliminated? Why do you have to roll so many dice?

On the flip side, one overly Euro game my family completely stopped playing is Princes of Florence. The game, which was highly rated on the Euro-heavy message board BoardGameGeek for quite a while, ostensibly is about attracting different professions to your court. It ended for us with turns that lasted forever as we each tried to individually optimize. Like many Euro games, the theme was also rather noticeably weak: Why does a Goldsmith want Freedom of Opinion, or an Organ Maker like having a Forest around? Why are these buildings so oddly shaped? (If you haven’t played the game, don’t worry; you’re not really missing out.)

By contrast, a classic example of a game that draws from both traditions is Ticket to Ride. Released in 2004, Ticket to Ride combines the American-style theme of laying railroads down on a real-world map (the original map has cities in the US and Canada, but plenty of expansions feature other continents and countries) with the European-style theme of competition for scarce resources (the routes, and sometimes certain-colored of train cards). Ticket to Ride has been enormously successful, selling over three million copies in its first decade, along with expansions (new maps, routes and rules), and for a while held the title in my family of “the only game everyone likes playing.” Unlike Risk, everyone plays through to the end and can at least try to complete all of their routes before the end. Unlike Princes of Florence, the strategies actually make intuitive thematic sense (“I’m aiming for northern routes”).

Ticket to Ride US/Canada Map

The map for Ticket to Ride. When building a route, you can think, “I’ve been there!”

Another good example of this phenomenon is Pandemic. A cooperative game, where everyone either wins or loses together, Pandemic combines interesting team decision-making with a theme of preventing outbreaks of, and ultimately curing, four major diseases across the globe.

In fact, Nicholson’s observation is true in more ways than one. Another classic division has been between social “party” games (think Apples to Apples) and strategy games (like chess). But in the last decade or so, many new games have filled the gap between the two, mixing robust social interaction with strategic gameplay.

An example of a game in this hybrid camp is Codenames, a 2015 board game which was the #1 selling game on Amazon that year and won the 2016 Spiel des Jahres, the “Oscars of board games.” In Codenames, cluegivers give one-word clues to the rest of their team in order to semantically connect multiple words in a grid, but avoid incorrect connections. The game combines the social deduction of interpreting clues correctly with the strategic difficulty of designing and appropriately interpreting good clues.

Codenames

A game of Codenames in progress. We prefer to play with an online interface Helena coded up; e-mail me if you want to try it out.

Taking Old Games and Making them Better

Like many of you, I used to play mafia growing up, with cousins or whenever we were in a group. A game about rooting out the evildoers, mafia is in many ways the prototypical social deduction game. It was remarkably widespread; I remember epic mafia games at the Math Olympiad Program, where I got to see some of the smartest minds trying to fake each other out, while my dorm in college had a reputation of playing lots of mafia (that unfortunately seemed to fizzle out around the time I got there).

And yet, mafia is actually a really poorly-designed game. Most of the time, there is basically no information given from which to deduce anything, reducing the reasoning behind accusations to, “I heard them moving in the night.” And it has an even worse elimination problem than Risk — people can die before they even get to do anything!

I only realize this now because there are so many new and better games of this form. The Resistance was the first we came across, offering more meat to the decision-making with public votes, successes and failures on missions, while solving the problem of elimination. But the one that really stuck was One Night Werewolf, an incredibly clever twist. By reducing the game to one night and one day, but allowing players’ roles to be swapped, the game becomes much quicker and more interesting. We’ve bought all of the expansions as they’ve come out on Kickstarter and for a while, One Night Werewolf was a permanent fixture in our gatherings, capping off the night.

Everyone has a role in front of them, but that role might have been switched during the night! You have to decide who to believe to determine what your identity is, as well as who the werewolves are!

Everyone has a role in front of them, but that role might have been switched during the night! You have to decide who to believe to determine what your identity is, as well as who the werewolves are!

Mafia isn’t the only classic game getting makeovers for the better. Monopoly Deal!, which came out in 2008, is a much better version of Monopoly — it only lasts 15 minutes, probably has about the same chance to skill ratio, and features the classic properties that we all know. Even relatively new games are getting upgraded: I haven’t played it yet, but a couple board game reviewers say that Bang! the Dice Game, which came out in 2013, completely replaces the now-seemingly-ancient 2002 game Bang! that I first remember playing in high school.

Monopoly Deal does away with the game board and roll-and-move mechanic, but keeps the core components of property ownership and charging others rent.

Monopoly Deal does away with the game board and roll-and-move mechanic, but keeps the core components of property ownership and charging others rent.

With this philosophy in mind, I aimed to reinvent the classic game of poker by using a deck from another game, Red Seven. My big complaint with poker is that most of the time, your hand sucks; it’s just one pair or a high card. So in the new Red Seven Poker game I invented, there’s a lot more variety, and some mind-bending symmetry to puzzle over. Try it with your friends some time, and let me know what you think!

Hands in Red Seven Poker

My own invention aside, this is actually one way I can tell that games are getting better. It’s not just that we crave variety; I’ve never seen anyone get bored with Monopoly Deal! and want to just play Monopoly instead. No, as our board game community has been experimenting around the styles of classic games, we’ve kept improving them.

A Game for Every Situation

One of the benefits of the growing variety of games is that there is now a game that can fit pretty much any context. For instance, at one point in our group, most games we had maxed out at 4 or 5 people, but if we had 6 or 7, we didn’t want to split up. When we thought it too early for One Night Werewolf, our game of choice for a long time was 7 Wonders. One of the games I wrote about in the Quora post, 7 Wonders, handles the difficulty of scaling up big games in two ways: parallelizing decision-making with a draft mechanism and simplifying it by making your only significant interactions occur with your two immediate neighbors. These days, with groups of that size, we often bring out the similar but simpler game Sushi Go Party.

As another example, when Grace and I get together with another couple at our apartment, after catching up over dinner, we’ve lately turned to pulling out Lanterns: The Harvest Festival more often than not. Lanterns is a 30-minute, easy-to-learn Euro-style game with pretty colors and some light competition, and it has a nice expansion if we want to play again. Despite being a Euro game, we haven’t found it as fun to play with friends who frequently play board games, as it’s all too tempting to try to analyze every possible move you could make.

Playing Lanterns with Dax and Gladia, two Singaporean friends, in our apartment. The board and cards are very colorful!

I’ve started to develop a bit of a taste for which friends of mine will enjoy which games, like a board game sommelier of sorts. For Christmas 2016, I gave each of my family members a different game, only one of which I’d played before, watching many videos from The Dice Tower, a board game enthusiast club with way too much time on their hands. If you’re curious, the games I got them were Hanamikoji, Parade, Patchwork, Diamonds, and Concordia’s Salsa expansion — and they all were even more fun than I expected!

Since we’ve gotten married, Grace and I have struggled to find good 2-player games to play. The zero-sum nature makes competitive games difficult, and our high standards for each other make cooperative games even more ripe for conflict. The three games that have stuck have been Dominion (played online), the cooperative game Hanabi, and the competitive game Hanamikoji, which just came out this year.

A completed game of Hanamikoji. Grace wins again!

A completed game of Hanamikoji on our kitchen table. Grace wins again!

As that Guardian article I cited earlier describes, the Internet, and in particular, websites like Board Game Geek and The Dice Tower, have contributed greatly to the spread of board games, by giving everyone a chance to see games online before buying them. Kickstarter has given games like One Night Werewolf both the funds and audience to grow from an idea to reality, and online stores like Amazon and CoolStuffInc have made it easy to find and order even the more obscure games.

In addition to bridging boundaries, other games have stretched the category of board games in interesting ways. For instance, Escape! The Curse of the Temple is a real-time cooperative game that involves rolling dice quickly to… escape from a cursed temple. I saw that game take off with a group of friends from college who weren’t previously really into board games. Hanabi involves everyone holding a hand of cards… but facing away from themselves, forcing you to think through what everyone else knows. One Night Werewolf and other games are starting to use phone apps to make the gameplay smoother, and more games I haven’t played are moving into that hybrid space. Pandemic Legacy allows players to be surprised as new secrets of the game are revealed over the course of several playthroughs. Mafia de Cuba introduces physical deception as players decide whether to betray the mob boss by taking diamonds from a literal box. Mysterium is a cooperative clue-giving game, but the clues must be portrayed using a deck of surrealist pictures. And the list goes on.

Which of these best represents... poison?

Some of the surrealist dream cards from Mysterium. Which of these best represents… a frying pan?

As board games continue to diversify, even if you haven’t really thought of yourself as a board game player, there is likely some game you’d enjoy. Try out any of the ones I’ve mentioned in this post! Or if you want a more personalized recommendation, I’d be happy to offer one.

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6 responses to “Welcome to the Golden Age of Board Games

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