Board games

In the last few years, I have gotten into board games of the type called eurogames, or German-style board games. They are different than the traditional board game fare that I drew up with (Monopoly, Clue, Stratego, Risk, chess) or later party games (Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scattergories, etc) in that they are more abstract and complicated, and less luck-driven. The genre seems about ten years old, so I am a little late to be getting into it, but better late than never.

The first ones that I was exposed to was Carcassonne and its many variants, which is now mainstream enough to be played on iPhones, and Ticket to Ride, which also has a iPhone/iPad presence (and is mainstream enough that they now sell it at Target). Carcassonne has no board – you build the board as you go, strategically constructing a French countryside from blindly chosen tiles and carefully placed citizens to score points. Ticket to Ride has a board, but it takes a different shape as the game progresses – players vie to place trains on point-scoring routes between cities. Both games are pretty easy to pick up and moderately difficult to master.

Intrigued, I looked for more, and then I ran into a problem, because there are more levels of complexity beyond those two and their ilk. The next game I acquired was Power Grid, after playing it with a local gaming group. It’s more or less a game about careful purchasing. It involves buying power plants at auction, buying fuel for those plants, buying connection rights to cities on a board, and then firing up those plants to make money, which is then rolled into more investment while the other players do the same things. It has some of the cutthroat feel of Monopoly, but there are no dice, the game is very balanced so players who are behind can possibly catch up, and everyone gets to the end of the game. It is more difficult to learn, though, and not as casual as the first group – not everyone is enthralled with power plant auctions as I am.

A somewhat faster economic game, but no easier, is Puerto Rico. Players act as competing colonial governors,, scoring points by either shipping goods to the Old World or building up the island’s infrastructure, both routes funded by various cash crops like tobacco or sugar. The flow of play is very different from other games I’ve encountered. Players take turns choosing what role they will perform – for example, recruiting colonists as the Mayor, shipping goods as the Captain, starting plantations as the Settler, etc – which the other players are then forced to also do, with the one who picked getting a small bonus.

And then there are the deck-building games. Dominion, which I picked up a few months ago, consists entirely of specialized cards with no board. Players buy new cards by drawing a hand randomly from a starting deck, in order to eventually build a huge deck to draw from that has more victory-scoring cards in it than other players. There is a great variety of specialized cards – some allow for buying more cards, others drawing more cards, yet others stymieing the efforts of other players to buy cards, or just reducing their score.

My current interest is Race for the Galaxy, another boardless card game that has some elements of the later games I’ve noted here – in particular, the role-switching of Puerto Rico, and the deck-building of Dominion. The main difference is that while in Puerto Rico, players alternate between choosing roles, in Race, players each choose a role simultaneously. Likewise, while in Dominion your deck itself is the measure of your success, in Race you have to play your cards to activate their abilities. This combo makes for a exciting and tense game. Race is, however, by far the hardest eurogame to learn that I’ve acquired. The game plays quick, and the cards are beautifully designed and packed with information, but keeping track of the relationships between cards is daunting. I started out playing it online, but it didn’t click until I bought the physical  game and really got the feel for how the role-switching and card-trading worked.

I am fascinated not just by the play itself, but by the way these games are designed around certain aspects of human psychology. None of the games I’ve listed here, for example, eliminates players before the entire game is over, making them kind of advanced party games (where the point is to entertain everybody). Every one of them measures success numerically in some highly visual manner, making them particularly competitive. All of them allow for some degree of  ‘coming from behind’, so that competition lasts the entire game. Multiple strategies are needed to be consistently successful, so they don’t get boring quickly and each game is different. The games have a mechanism for stopping themselves rather than lasting indefinitely. The physical parts of the game are highly dynamic – lots of little pieces and cards to manipulate, and lots of visual candy. The structure is never as simple as ‘roll and move’ or even ‘play a card’ – players are asked to make complex decisions from a variety of options, often with the best move not obvious, and they are consistently asked to do different things than what they just did.

In short, they are, well, interesting. I wish many of them had been around when I was eight.

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