Board games are big business now! I've been screaming this for so long that my lungs resemble two teabags flapping in a breeze. Excitingly, this means every week I get a tweet, email or text from someone who's started their board game collection.
I'm hoping that includes you, my favourite reader (I have other readers but you're the most beautiful, just fyi). But whether you've already bought enough board games to begin pointlessly re-arranging them, or your finger's hovering portentously over the Checkout button of your very first purchase, I want to share something.
When video gamers start buying board games, it's always the same. A big license with lots of plastic. I'm talking about the lacquered playing pieces of the Game of Thrones board game, maybe the interstellar douchebaggery of Battlestar Galactica, or possibly tactical misery simulator Chaos in the Old World, which offers the (potentially) breathtaking set-up of letting all of its players be the four Chaos gods of the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Failing that, it'll be something with sodding zombies.
It's as if our adult purchasing power was following some decades-late spasm of childhood. Intrinsically, there's nothing wrong with this. But picture me, the board game sage, whispering darkly from beneath my angular cardboard cloak: "No good will come of this."
The above are all great games, and they play an important role. If you're new to the hobby, if you lift a shrink-wrapped board game to your ear you'll hear your parents discussing what they did wrong. I know this. You need something really tempting for that purchase, and so you buy a license you love with glossy components.
These games are what the board game community calls "Ameritrash."
These games, by the way, are what the board game community calls "Ameritrash." But don't worry about that! It's a term of endearment. Nothing wrong with this at all.
It's simply that Ameritrash also focuses on an immediacy of entertainment, from unboxing the thing, to screwing over your friends, to rolling chunky handfuls of dice.
But where does it lead you?
Nine months from now, you wake up on the floor of your living room. You have a breathtaking hangover from the bottle of Jack you had to drink to make Tannhauser exciting. The stereo is playing the Star Wars soundtrack, even though your friends–-who are still here-–moved on to playing Star Trek: Fleet Captains hours ago.
You look over at them, and see your friend pushing around a perfect scale model of a Nebula Class science vessel, just like you guys did last week and the week before. With every round the novelty wears off a little more. You see your friends now, moving their fleets like dissatisfied toddlers pushing their food around. They've seen all the cards. They know all the exploits. One of them is crying. You try and stand up. You think you have a token up your bum.
"There has to be more to board gaming than this," you say aloud, Doritos and poignancy on your breath.
So you pick up a stool and chase your friends out with it. You go onto Board Game Geek or the Internet's greatest board game review site™ and look at what the other recommended games are. Not Ameritrash, but the other kind. The ones without cards with pictures of shotguns on them. The Eurogames.
So it is that your education begins. A week later, your copy of The Castles of Burgundy arrives, an acclaimed German-style game. 2-4 players racing to develop estates in high medieval France.
It has a lot of hexes. It looks like a cross between a math textbook and motel room art. You hold it in your hands, uncertain whether to immediately insert it into the bin. But you don't. You invite your friends over, and... it's exhausting.
This makes no sense. You've flown spaceships and commanded armies. Why are little sheep tiles bringing you out in a cold sweat? Look at you all now—heads down, threading together fragile economies, loosing unthinkable trade combos, narrowly avoiding mistakes that would halt your progress like a bicycle going into a concrete wall. Being tested—really tested—for the first time in your gory board game careers.
Eurogame designers are free to make nothing more, or less, than a great game, a rich game, that'll get better every time you play it.
And you'll see the truth. Eurogames aren't boring, despite their themes ("developing a postal service," "trading with 15th century Latin America," "who can farm the best beans"). They're simply free. Free from the need to immediately appeal, to lurch out from the shelves like Nyquil hallucinations, and to keep everybody entertained in an unstable tornado of cards and dice. Eurogame designers are free to make nothing more, or less, than a great game, a rich game, that'll get better every time you play it.
For all of Ameritrash's bravado, here are the games that'll f**k you if you don't pay attention, and the games where the smartest player is free to wield their grasp of the game like a knife.
The very next week you pick up El Grande, an intimidatingly blunt game of area control that makes dropping wooden cubes onto a board feel like stags cracking their antlers against one another. El Grande was a classic when it came out in 1994, and you'll thrill at the fact that it's still a classic because board games age so well.
Maybe down the line you'll branch out again, going yet heavier. You'll pick up A Few Acres of Snow, a beautiful entry-level wargame, and find out just how intensely personal the hobby can be. Or maybe you'll go lighter than ever, getting into party games—The Resistance: Avalon filling your living room with syrupy mistrust, Jungle Speed letting you forget the overblown rules explanations, for once, and just laugh together.
Finally, you'll be enjoying everything the hobby has to offer, and you will be at peace. Because a board gamer cannot survive on theme alone.
You'll still remember your Ameritrash days fondly. Maybe one day you'll be vacuuming behind the sofa and you'll find a loose portal token from Arkham Horror. You'll thumb it in your hand, like a totem from Inception, and you'll smile.
Then you'll remember the exact evening you must have lost it. Five hours at the table, battling the unthinkable horrors with your friends, before the wrong card from the Mythos deck ended the game at the wrong time, just as you were getting into it.
And aloud, head of the vaccuum still in hand, you'll speak the same words you did all those months ago: "That was bullshit."
Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by the smell of the glue they use. He is not proud of this. You'll find his analog ramblings at Shut Up & Sit Down, his board game site, and @quinns108 on Twitter.
Right. For my first ever board game column for Kotaku, the editor-in-chief here suggested I cover the top games coming in 2013.
This created an anime-sized bead of sweat on my forehead. More »