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A very curious thing happened to me about four months ago: I found out about a new subculture. Or more precisely, a subculture that was new to me. I always knew intellectually that there were all kinds of enthusiasms in the world that I didn't know about—some that I wouldn't care for if I knew of them, but others probably worthy of a claim on my time. In this particular case, I had come across a few clues here and there, but I had no first-hand experience. Especially with the type of fascinating board games that I was immediately hooked on after one encounter.

I was probably susceptible to a board game obsession—I could never get enough of board games when I was a kid, especially when I couldn't convince my brothers to play against me. And even though I've spent a lot of time playing computer and video games, that's tapered off to the point where I see maybe two or three new titles a year that I want to install on my computer. I've also discovered that there are a ton of innovative board games coming out every year. Who knew?

Another nifty aspect of the experience: as I'll talk about in a minute, finding out about a new subculture in the internet age is like drinking from the firehose. I went from ignorance to oversaturated awareness in nothing flat. If you can find out about anything online, you can also find out way too much.

All this happened due to some friends who introduced me to a game called Ticket to Ride (thanks Martha and Chris!). And like a virus, I've been spreading the word further.


What Am I Talking About?

As I mentioned, new board games are being designed and produced every year. But you wouldn't know it from walking the aisles of your neighborhood department store or Toys "R" Us. If you look around in a mainstream store, all you'll generally find is the Family Guy edition of Monopoly or some crappy movie tie-in product that's not much of a real game at all. Or the Simpsons edition of Monopoly. Or one of umpteen other remakes or cheaply produced updates.

The place to look for something better is a movement called German games or Eurogames, since that's where the action is. The Wikipedia entry hits a few of the right notes. The games can be very basically defined as the ones that aren't being sold in department stores.

A few other key points:

  • As little luck as possible

  • No runaway leader—winning is always possible

  • Related: no one gets knocked out early

  • Some depth of strategy, but a complete round can be played in about an hour

  • Most games happen to be produced in Europe, often Germany

These are the ideals, since very few games manage to achieve all these traits. As might be obvious on casual perusal of this list, the antithesis to a German game is Risk! Risk has a pure reliance on dice, and players get knocked out early and often have nothing interesting to do long before getting eliminated. And Risk can go on for hours—Eurogames can be long too, but the range of variation is generally 90 minutes and under.

The title that most people seem to recognize is Settlers of Catan. It has some of the ideal characteristics of a Eurogame, but not all. There are dice involved, which is always controversial to purists. Also, if you don't pick your settlements well at the beginning, you are screwed. But Settlers of Catan was only created in 1995, and in the wake of Catan—perhaps the birth (or rebirth) of the field—the games have only been getting more and more polished.


Where to Start

I originally got hooked on board games by Ticket to Ride: Europe. The Ticket to Ride series is easy to describe: connect cities on a map with trains. You start out with a series of tickets—connections that you need to make—and a limited number of trains to fill the routes. You don't know what cities the other players are trying to connect, so you might get blocked. The original game uses a North American map of the railroad boom era, while the follow-up uses Europe of the same time period. Both are highly recommended. The latest version is Ticket to Ride: Marklin, but Marklin is not a game for beginners due to some complicated new rules. Train games are a distinct genre of board games, and all of them are quite good (I would also recommend TransAmerica, which takes about 30 minutes per round compared to a full hour for Ticket to Ride). Ticket to Ride is the biggest seller of the bunch.

Strategy games are not the only thing on offer from Eurogames. There is a strong strain of abstracts, i.e. games like go or chess. Blokus is a title that seems to have broken into mainstream success. You start with a grid of squares and a finite supply of Tetris-like shapes. You have to use up your pieces, with one rule: you can only touch the corner of one of your own pieces. You're also trying to block your opponents. Like many such games, Blokus is quite a workout for the brain.

There are party games here too. While Cranium and its ilk can be interesting (and form the only rejoinder to my earlier harsh words about department store games), I would recommend Apples to Apples. This is another title that might be familiar.

As a fourth game for a starter kit, I would highly recommend a light two-player game called Lost Cities. It's a bit math-heavy in the scoring, but otherwise it's very addictive.


For the Science Fiction and Fantasy Fan

Some board games struggle with the idea of theme. If the underlying game system can be ported from one theme to another easily, maybe it was just a backbone of meaningless numbers anyway. Or so the argument goes. For example, the WWII game Memoir '44 became the fantasy epic Battlelore with the simple expediency of some new units swapped in.

From what I've seen, the majority of board games, besides the abstract or party games, are representations in one way or another of a historical era. Ticket to Ride is an instantly recognizable version of the railroad boom. Carcassonne, another popular title, builds up a medieval town one tile at a time, while Puerto Rico, the most highly rated game among the hardcore board-gamers, is a vaguely realistic look at the slavery/plantation era. A game like Reef Encounter, a clear simulation of a coral reef, is the exception—most games are either quite abstract or are based on an aspect of history.

Science fiction games are a bit thin on the ground. I haven't played the one or two examples, since they are generally overpriced big-box items. And they last hours and hours. For example, Twilight Imperium is about the clash of galactic civilizations. Maybe computer games do a better job with this kind of material?

Fantasy is a much stronger thread in board games. Lord of the Rings is a popular franchise here, just like in other media. There is a cooperative version that's pretty neat, simply entitled The Lord of the Rings, while War of the Ring is a huge game with tons of nifty miniatures to reenact battles with.

In a weird twist, some popular videogames, like Doom, have gotten board game adaptations. I've avoided the World of Warcraft board game, simply because the very idea makes my head feel like it would explode. To go from massively multiplayer online role playing to a board game just seems wrong.


Macho/Nerdy

Most Eurogames have a game designer listed on the box. And with a few exceptions, the designers are all men. All of the games I've already mentioned were designed by men, and all of the best-known designers are men. Reiner Knizia is one of the most prolific designers in the field—I've mentioned his games Lost Cities and Lord of the Rings—but he is joined by Alan Moon (Ticket to Ride), Klaus Teuber (Settlers of Catan), Andreas Seyfarth (Puerto Rico), and on and on.

This is another thing that threatens the non-exploded state of my head. I was pretty happy to start reading science fiction and fantasy in an era when equality was, if not entirely there, far enough down that road that I could find plenty of sympatico material. It's a very bizarre feeling to be getting into a field where equality is a giant step back.

Sure, there's a hardcore section of the field where the game titles are mainly appealing to men. But the majority of the games are clearly everyone-friendly, family-friendly, whatever other terms you'd like to use.

When I mentioned Lost Cities earlier, I was thinking about its apparently famous appeal to the girlfriends of the hardcore game nerds. See this user review of the game for a blunt statement of the attitudes that give me the willies in a situation like this. In a subculture filled with inequality, this kind of verbiage may be inevitable, but that doesn't mean everyone has to go along with it.


Learning About a New Subculture in the Internet Age

It's strange now that I think about it, but most of my major interests are ones I picked up a long time ago. Reading science fiction and fantasy was something that started in grade school. I started playing a lot of computer games just a few years before the internet took off. So in both of those cases, my typical ways of interacting with the subculture have been enhanced by the varieties of information available online, but I certainly wasn't starting from scratch.

An example of a subculture that I discovered more recently but that I find frightening or overwhelming is manga/anime. There's clearly a lot of interesting material there, but I always end up just skimming a few items from the top. It's too much to take in; it's too much to commit to without adjusting my other interests.

But with board games, it seemed like a manageable item. Four months ago, I had heard of Settlers of Catan but that was about it, and I certainly didn't know about all this other stuff.

It's been a very interesting process for me, needless to say. For two reasons: one, the obvious fact that there are subcultures out there, unknown to me, had never sunk in before with such visceral impact. Two, that the internet works. Spam sucks, privacy issues suck, etc. But if you want to find information about a new hobby and the people to share it with, then the system will come through for you. In such high volume that it's overwhelming, but it still works.

Some sites to check for your dose of information overload:

Board Game Geek—this is pretty much the monster in the field.

Board Game News—lots of updates

Gone Gaming—a group blog


The Sheer Physicality of It Astounds Me

Entertainment is all going digital, right? Not so fast. Sure, there are online versions of most of these board games, but the driving force is a physical box that you have to physically bring to your house. Then you have to move physical objects around on a piece of cardboard that takes up most of your table.

After I spent so many years wanting everything in digital format, it feels weird, even heretical, to go back to this.


Where to Buy

Board games often have specialty stores, or combine with other hobbies. I'm lucky to have two brick-and-mortar stores within a few blocks of my place. One is mainly a chess store, with the back half designated for board games, and the other is mainly a collectibles store, with the front third set aside for board games.

If you're not lucky enough to have an actual store nearby, most of the board game stores online are pretty amazing. Here in Canada, the selection is good: German Games and FunGamesCafe are really solid. Board Game Geek has an extensive list of online and local Canadian stores. For the US, Funagain is a major player, but I've only heard about it because people complain about their exclusives (Funagain tries to gain exclusive rights to reprint certain games in English).

I don't know as much about stores in other countries. I've read about the hassles involved in buying from a store out of your country, so it pays to look around. This list of "FLGS of the World" is handy—that stands for "friendly local game store" in case you were wondering. Do some googling and you should be able to find an online store for your country as well.




James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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