One piece of trivia orbits modern board gaming like a dark, sexy star. Someone who doesn't really play them will always have heard from their friend, who heard it from another friend, that games like Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica are mean. They ruin friendships.
It's true that in recent years, board games have been discovering the joy of traitors and treachery. As anyone who's played a particularly tense round of poker will know, there's a strange, emotional core to table games. When you're next to somebody and sharing this experience, you really do connect with them. As I wrote for Kotaku a couple of months back, board games are emotional power adaptors.
But Game of Thrones? Battlestar Galactica? These are games where the backstabbing and twists of the knife are expected. If you really want to test your friendships, these are the games you should be playing.
Werewolf is similar to Mafia or The Resistance, if you've played either of those. A room full of players (and candles, and spooky music if you're doing it right) take on the role of villagers, trying to find and lynch the werewolf players in their midst.
Every night all the villagers “go to sleep” by closing their eyes. The werewolves “awake” and silently decide which villager to murder. A moderator declares theatrically who's been found dead, you all decide who to lynch again, and play continues until all the werewolves are dead or there are as many werewolves as villagers. This is a game where simply announcing you trust someone can be the missing piece of the puzzle for other players.
Werewolf couldn't be simpler, but there's nothing better for bringing out the worst in people. The entire game is just scum rising to the top of a simmering pot of tension. One hapless player will always be eaten by the wolf players before the first turn of the game. In the day, players will form terrifying pitchfork mobs powered by the noisiest player's half-formed logic. If you're playing with the Hunter, their shotgun will let them take a player of their choice down with them. The secret Lovers will be trying to keep their partner alive, no matter what team they're on. There are dozens of these modules to keep the game fresh, and best of all, when anyone dies, which side they're on isn't revealed until the game's over.
But Werewolf isn't just a game that gives that friend of yours who bears grudges a lot of reasons to be upset. It's a game where that player will have to sit in impotent silence after being unfairly lynched, until the entire game is finished.
But it gets worse, because in the next game, that friend's anger becomes a tool for the werewolves to use. When the person he's angry at shows up dead, said grudge-bearing player is going to be the target for an unfair lynching again.Oh, dear.
Ah, Twilight Imperium. The all-you-can-eat-buffet of strategic board gaming. Here's a game where just 20 minutes might see the orbital bombardment of the human home world, a meeting of the galactic council, new trade routes being formed, a hostage exchange, someone's flagship being destroyed in an illegal minefield and someone developing the tech required to build huge, plastic War Suns.
What makes Twilight Imperium an exciting game, as opposed to just an exciting board game, is that every one of these events will impact everyone's social standing with one another. Because everybody's physically so close to one another and ships are so precious, there's an awful lot of talking in TI before anyone does anything. Everything from alliances, to non-aggression treaties, to trade embargoes are decided without the need for rules, but at the clink of a beer.
There's a problem, though. Everybody gets an alien race to play at the start of Twilight Imperium. Perhaps you'll be the grand, pompous Winnu, or maybe the Sardakk N'orr, a species of horrifying, murderous beetles.
This brings us to a problem. Some players are going to play Twilight Imperium like the po-faced strategy game it is. But the game's just so colourful and tells such a bold, bright story that players are often drawn towards “acting their race.”
Guess what happens when you sit a very serious strategy gamer between someone pretending to be a computer virus, and another pretending to be a beetle. You'll be able to see the steam coming out of their ears by the second or third council.
Space Alert is one of the best games I've ever played. In a mission spanning 10 real-life minutes, you and a team of three or four friends have to keep your spaceship safe against threats ranging from hostile fighter craft, to a space octopus, to asteroids, to a nuclear device in your engine room. Or possibly all of these at once.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Space Alert is the most stressful board game in my collection. Imagine trying to calculate the optimal moment to fire the starboard laser at an incoming planetoid. Now, imagine all of your friends shouting at one another (and you) while you do it. Now, imagine that if you fail, everybody dies. Now, imagine you've noticed that there's no energy in the port-side reactor, and you'll need somebody to get down there are siphon energy into it immediately. Now stop imagining because this is REALLY HAPPENING and you have TWENTY SECONDS, GO, GO, GO
Losing a game of Space Alert after trying your hardest can be pretty crushing (perhaps literally figuratively, should you encounter a black hole). Losing five games in a row is even worse. But losing ship after ship because that one friend of yours isn't paying attention, and laughs contentedly every time something goes wrong? You'll start wanting to drag him into a real-life airlock.
Z-Man Games' Merchants & Marauders is THE pirate board game. Some people will tell you that that's Libertalia, but those people will be boring and smell of beef. Merchants & Marauders offers piracy that feels all the more illicit because players don't have to do it. You can trade goods, hunt rumours, take on missions, collect bounties on pirates or even other players. It's the table game of Sid Meier's Pirates!, except with the most aggressive local multiplayer you've ever seen.
Here's the thing about Merchants & Marauders. If two players are brave or dumb enough to fight, the winning player will receive:
- Everything in the loser's cargo hold
- Their ship
- Their crew
- All the money onboard
Sounds pretty humiliating, right? But we're not finished! They also get...
- Any rumours the loser was holding
- Their hand of special, one-shot action cards
- In a very real sense, their dignity
It's the ludic equivalent of having your legs waxed. Losing all this can set you back by hours, to say nothing of watching your friend idly throwing your cargo overboard because he can't carry it all.
In the right conditions, this can be kind of character-building. Losing everything and starting from nothing again with a smile on your face? That demands spirit.
But I would never, ever play Merchants & Marauders with sore winners. To lose everything to a friend who's going to make fun of you? For hours? You're looking at the start of a suitably thematic drunken brawl.
The Game of Thrones board game gets all the hype. All the talk of how its players will be performing traitorous plays that make the Red Wedding look like a Super Sweet 16.
But if you really want to put you and your friends to the test, you go to Amazon and you buy a copy of Diplomacy. Originally released in 1954, this is the original game for treacherous motherf*****s.
Each turn of Diplomacy is made up of three phases. First, everybody leaves the table to engage in private discussions with the rest of the European powers. Second, everybody writes the moves for all of their pieces. Third, everything moves at once, with very nuanced rules for “supporting” that make alliances crucial. Fourth, you do it again, having seen that bastard Russia friend was playing you the whole time, and he and Turkey are going to be carving you up like a battery hen for the next two hours.
In other words, it's Game of Thrones, but players have to look one another in the eye for 15 minutes before dicking each other over. A game so cold that it turns players abandoning the game into a feature, with their country falling into “civil disorder.”
Oh god. Am I making this sound fun? I'm trying not to. I'm serious.
Buy Diplomacy at your own risk. I will absolutely not be held accountable.
Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by their scent. He is not proud of this. He's part of a team working to make a home for play in Shut Up & Sit Down, and @quinns108 on Twitter.