A festive ‘thanks’ – and some board game resolutions

This time last year I thanked y’all for visiting and made some New Year’s Resolutions based around board gaming. Of course you remember. Anyway, it seems only right to look back at how well/badly I did and to set some new ones. I’ve been writing here for just over eight years now, with average views still rising well above 30,000 per annum. Not too shabby for an old guy rambling on about board games. So thank you once again for sticking around. Or, indeed, turning up.

2019 board game resolutions

  1. My number one 2019 priority was to keep my collection at 150 games. Success! At last count it was 156, with a few on the ‘for sale’ list. It still feels like a good number: loads of choice, with all bases covered – but a good reason to seriously consider each new game, in terms of its worthiness to stay on the shelves. 
  2. Next was clearing my review pile by March. This was tough, as while reviewing time was fine playing time was the hard bit! But I got there and by March the nine-game pile was gone. And I did learn: this year I made less promises, and picked up lighter, shorter games I know I can get played by all my groups.
  3. Sticking with successes, my pledge to give Sarah every second game choice pretty much stayed intact. Well, until Essen! Since then it has been about reviews – but I intend to return to this policy as soon as the pile is manageable. It also shows, with many of her favourites in my most-played games of the year list.
  4. Clearing the ‘unplayed’ list met with mixed success. There were 10 games on it, four of which didn’t make it to the table – Brass, Mombasa, Twilight Struggle and Uruk. I actually made this harder for myself by setting an extra challenge of playing all my games in 2019. That was fun, but really hindered this.
  5. Finally, I didn’t pitch a new design at Essen. While I do see this as a failure, there were unforeseen circumstances – namely the opportunity to do some paid game development work, and being asked to work on several expansion projects. And this list did encourage me to get my design mojo back. I’ve been working on-and-off on a new game design project since, so watch this space…

2020 board game resolutions

  1. As it worked so well, while being tough, I’m going for it again: keeping my games limit at 150. I’ll also be clearing the review pile and giving Sarah loads of picks – but they felt organic, so I don’t feel the need to make them ‘resolutions’ again. 
  2. I tried to play all of my 150 games in 2019. It was going well, but like a fool I forgot Essen in October would put a stop to the year for old games. There are 30 left on the list (including the ones over from 2019’s ‘resolution 4’ above) – so I aim to play all of those at least ones during 2020. Otherwise, why own them?
  3. The resolution to pitch a game at Essen 2019 did help me get on with things (as did fellow designer Federico – thank you sir!) – so that’s coming back for 2020. The dev and expansion work is continuing apace, but it shouldn’t stop me aiming to get a new design I’m proud of from my notebooks to the shops. 
  4. I went to HandyCon for the first time this year, which reminded me how much I enjoy trying new gaming experiences. So in 2020 I’m going to try to get to two ‘new to me’ conventions. I’ve got a few ideas, so let’s see how they pan out.
  5. I’m kind of rubbish at social media – but I’m comfortable with that. However, there are loads of great bloggers out there I’d like to collaborate on some posts with. So, I’m going to set myself the challenge of getting four collaborative blog posts done during 2020. So if you’re reading this, gaming blogger, you know where I is…

Friday feelings: My fandom is normal. Yours is weird…

I find it fascinating people can justify certain behaviours in themselves, but can’t understand incredibly similar behaviours in others – even judging them on those actions, despite them being fractions away from their own. 

I hate January in the UK as much as the next person, so one thing I do to get through it is book up as many exciting things as possible for the next few months: I get the festive period out of the way, then start planning the first half of the year like a man possessed. It’s great to have things to look forward to, and when better to do that than in the most miserable, long and cold month of the year? 

Looking at my calendar now, the next six months are a joy to behold: 4 gaming weekends away across the UK, 8 gigs in 6 different towns/cities, plus a trip to Sweden. As much as I love my home and where I live, I love getting away just as much – and if I can tie in music and gaming with that, then more’s the better.

I accept some people will think this is nuts: not everyone has my desire to up-sticks every other weekend to nomad my way around the country and stay in shitty hotels so I can watch my favourite bands, or play games with friends and strangers alike. If you don’t get it, that’s fine. But some people really, really should.

In darkest December I found myself in a Midlands pub on one of the most miserable days of the year, waiting to head to a gig. We ended up sharing some tables with a bunch of Bournemouth football fans. They’d got up stupidly early that morning, put their Christmas jumpers on, and piled up the motorway to watch their team get well beaten 2-0 in freezing sideways drizzle. 

They were an affable, drunken bunch showing an admirable support for their team. I like football, and I get it: I’ve never been one to travel to games, but I understand the mentality – it’s the same I have for music and gaming. At least I thought it was.

I hadn’t gotten up early, or travelled half as far. The band I wanted to see hadn’t played my home town the week before, or in fact in years. The band I was going to see were playing indoors. In the dry. And they were going to perform: barring a surprise of biblical proportions, I was going to witness the result I’d set out that lunchtime hoping for. But it was me trying to explain to them why doing it wasn’t weird. 

They were nice. They didn’t have to let us butt in on their table and when they left an hour or so later, off into the night to get a curry, we said farewell on happy terms. But as they wandered drunkenly away I was thinking, nice chaps – good luck next week. While they were clearly thinking ‘weirdos’. Funny old world.

PS: Hopefully see some of you in Ely, Basildon, Harrogate, Bedford, Cambridge, London, Bristol, Eastbourne, Manchester, Hitchin and Goteborg soon…

The silver Settlers of Catan: Board and card games for non-gamer over-50s

Statler and waldorfWhile building relationships with some over 50s websites for my proper job, two things struck me: first, I’m much closer to being an ‘over 50’ myself than I used to be and second, games are a perfect fit for this demographic. So why are modern games not a bigger pull for them?

I think it’s simply a problem of perception. For those of us who were kids in the sixties and seventies playing board games is often associated with Dungeons & Dragons or long drawn out war games. While these games are still common the board game hobby is much closer to those older games we loved as kids (Cluedo, Monopoly etc) – the games are just better.

As for the older generation, many still enjoy classic games such as bridge, rummy, chess, Scrabble and backgammon, with games a favourite pastime in most retirement homes and clubs – and let’s not forget the phenomenon that is bingo. But while these games are great, there are so many more out there. Here’s my short guide on how to start to freshen up your game collection.

Leave the monotony of Monopoly behind

uncle moneybagsHigh street board games tend to be either children’s titles or the likes of Risk and Monopoly.

Despite a revolution in the quality of board and card games dating back to the 90s, these old 60s relics continue to fill the shelves of WHSmiths and Debenhams due to a monopoly on space by traditional manufacturers Hasbro and Mattel. But:

  • They’re too long: While most people enjoy a good game, an hour is fun and many can happily play for two – but beyond that it can get a bit much, especially when…
  • They’re unforgiving: They rely on player elimination, which can lead to bad feelings and some players being out of contention way before the end of the game.

But luckily there are thousands (literally) of fantastic board and card games out there, some selling in their millions around the world – and they’re all now easily available from online stores such as Amazon, and increasingly some high street stores (such as Waterstones). Here are my top picks to get you started.

1) Diamonds

Classic card games such as Whist and Bridge have ensured the trick-taking genre will always be a staple diet for traditional game players – but especially with Bridge, it can be seen as having a high barrier to entry. Diamonds, from designer Mike Fitzgerald, is a great example of distilling the best parts of trick taking and sending them off in a slightly different direction, adding some neat twists while keeping it simple.

Other clever modern takes on simple card game ideas include For Sale (auctions), Parade (hand management) and Tichu (ladder climbing) – all of which can be bought for around £10 and have very small rules overheads. But that’s not to say there isn’t deep game play and emergent strategy for those who play the games often (although For Sale is a much lighter game).

2) Ticket to Ride

ticket_to_ride_boxRummy (and its many variations) has always been a popular card game, but several modern games have taken its set collection ideas to the next level.

The most popular example is Ticket to Ride, a board game in which players collect coloured cards in sets to complete train routes on a board (click the link for a review). If you’re looking for a simpler set collection game, Coloretto is a fine example.

Ticket to Ride is what many call a ‘gateway game’: a great introduction into modern hobby games as it has simple concepts anyone familiar with traditional games will easily grasp. Other popular examples include Settlers of Catan (trading and route building) and Carcassonne (tile laying and area control). Each has sold millions of copies to the family market worldwide.

3) Ingenious

Abstract games such as drafts, backgammon and chess have long been gaming staples, but there are many more great games on the market today. One of the best is Ingenious; a game in which you draw domino-style coloured tiles from a bag and lay them on a board to score points. The scoring system is indeed ingenious and it’s a game that’s easy to teach but tough to master – and plays two to four players.

Other great examples include Hive (a chess-like tile game with no board, so great for travelling or small tables), Patchwork (a two-player tile placement game with a quilting theme) and Tsuro (a short, oriental themed route building game).

4) Forbidden Island

forbidden islandA popular style of game that may be unfamiliar to traditional gamers is the co-op, or co-operative game. In these the players are working together to ‘beat’ the game, so everyone wins (or loses!) as a team.

In Forbidden Island, players move their pawns around an island (constructed in a grid) trying to collect artifacts – but all the while the island is sinking (putting pressure on the players to complete goals in time).

A more complex version of the game (Pandemic) has proved hugely popular, and the genre now has hundreds of games. A great but very different example is Hanabi – a simple cad game in which each player can see all player cards except for their own (imagine playing scrabble with your letters facing the other way!), and have to rely on clues from their friends to work out what they have – and then play them in the right order.

5) Wits and Wagers

Party games such as charades and Triv still prove popular, but have also been vastly improved upon over the years. Trivia game Wits and Wagers adds a betting element to the game, so it isn’t just the know-alls that can win – it’s more about guessing which of the answers people give is the correct one.

A game that offers another interesting change of pace is Dixit. The game comes with a beautiful set of oversized cards with a different abstract drawings on each. One player will say a word or phrase inspired by a card then place that card face down on the table. Each other player also puts in a card inspired by the word or phrase, they’re shuffled, then everyone tries to guess which card the clue-giver played. They only score points if a few people get it right, so you can’t e too abstract with your clues.

Cheap, varied, simple and fun – and great for the brain

As I get older myself, I see the board gaming hobby as a huge blessing. Not only is it sociable – you can play at home, in the pub, on the train, anywhere – but it also keeps the brain active. There are games for all abilities, plus games that last anywhere from five minutes to five hours and that are for solo play (card game Onirim, for example, knocks patience into a cocked hat!) to social games that can take 30 or more players.

If anything the biggest barriers to entry are ignorance (despite growing popularity, many of these games still don’t get much shelf space on the high street) and the seemingly bewildering array of choice if you do start to enter the rabbit hole. But if you do take the plunge, and have some specific questions, please don’t hesitate to ask (or check out my beginner’s guides linked at the top of this page).

2014 in review: infographic-stat-tastic!

“The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog” (their words not mine). I’m not sure they’ll be overly interesting to anyone but me, but here they are anyway just in case.

In short, visits were up almost 400%. This was mainly due to one very popular post (on game design tips) and the fact I posted twice as much content, managing an average of more than one post per week.

A few of my 2012 posts were still on the ‘most popular’ list, so I should see about continuing to update  the popular older content – especially my board gaming podcasts list. And I really need to finish that beginners’ guide…

But the real reason the numbers have gone up is, of course, because you fine people have read it – and for that I am eternally grateful. It makes it all worthwhile and I hope you’ve found it useful/entertaining/occasionally coherent. Happy New Year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 22,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 8 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Confusing Hierarchy of the Board Game Community – a reply

This is in response to this fantastic article:


I’ve been a journalist for 20 years.

It’s been a privilege to be paid to write for a living, despite not being paid to write about what I love. So I’ve written for free about music, travel and games when I get home at night, because I’m not competitive; I’m not going to fight the ‘careers’ for jobs I don’t quite care enough to fight for. I work to live, not live to work.

But despite that, I’m a reviewer – which means I’m an attention seeker because I want to be heard. I have an opinion, I think it’s worth something, so I put it out there with passion. Every reviewer wants to be heard – so every reviewer is an attention seeker. And that’s fine, it’s accepted, it’s the way of journalism. You have something to say.

I’ve been a game designer for a year or so.

It’s hard. You put your mind and soul into themes, mechanisms, ideas – and they die on their arse. But you stick with them, you nurture them, you iterate them to within an inch of their lives – and if you’re lucky, one of them becomes a game.

Then you show it to publishers and just maybe, one of them bites. And a year later suddenly you’re a game designer. You’re at Essen, walking past the AEG booth, watching people buy/demo/reject/slag off/fall in love with your game. You get invited to present your game on BGG TV and you thank all the gods in all the heavens that you have a publisher meeting for a new game so you don’t have to go and be on the tele because you’re a writer, and a game designer, but you’re not someone who wants to be on TV.

I’m not a pop star. I’m not a movie star.

You might be thinking, “no shit Sherlock”. But think about it – that’s what you’re really comparing here. You’re looking at main stream media and comparing it to board games. It doesn’t work like that.

Actors and musicians do things one way. They love to be on screen. They have EGO to burn. But what about authors? How many of them would you put up for people to recognise? Or screenwriters? The people who are, essentially, behind the scenes doing creative work that is never meant to be recognised in the same way?

PR = expense

Designers are poor publicists because that’s not why they do it. And it’s the same with most publishers. Stephen Buonocore is a rare exception, while some of the French designers are getting more media friendly. But do you think it’s an accident Stefan Feld and Mac Gerdts don’t have their own daily podcasts? No. They’re designers and their reputations will stand or fall on their creations. They’re doing the bit they want to do.

And PR is an expense. You need to put yourself out there. Tom Vasel makes a living from The Dice Tower – but do you think he’d entertain the idea of paying someone to appear on one of his cash cows? Of course not. Why should he? He’s an ego on legs, it’s about him and why shouldn’t it be? He has created a world in his image without any help from the industry beyond a few free games so good luck to him (and I genuinely mean that).

Your game is crap

Which moves us on nicely to dissenting opinions. I’d argue Tom Vasel has become that one guy that can do this for a living because he calls it likes he sees it – and there’s no better thing for a journalist to do. You simply need to be consistent and (mostly) right.

Any journalist, in any industry, who kowtows to the man instantly loses respect. All companies make mistakes and they know when they’ve screwed up; slate those mistakes and a good company will give you a pass. Because they know when they do good, you’ll give them the praise they deserve – and that’s golden from a respected reviewer readers/viewers know doesn’t pull any punches.

I wrote a while back here about video reviewers not being more ruthless; about them not putting the boot in but only reviewing things they like. And predictably they all pointed me to hard to find links to pages/blog posts they’d apologetically written about the games they don’t like – as if anyone finding them to read one review would ever find that page to find out what they really think as a philosophy. Guys, really – you should be linking to those pages on every video you publish as a disclaimer.

Trolls are pathetic – simply ignore them or you’re in the wrong business

Speaking of negativity, the first thing you need to adopt as any kind of artist or journalist is a thick skin. Ignore rude comments: or either reply politely then walk away (which will enrage them hehe), or let people fighting your cause handle the battles you can’t be arsed with (if you made a cohesive point, someone in internetland who has more time than you is likely to back you up).

Opinion is free and if you put anything anywhere someone will disagree with you. If you can’t be bothered to argue (and you can’t) just walk away – it’s not rocket science. I want to reply to every shit 5/10 review Empire Engine gets but do I? No. It would serve no purpose.

And finally, pay to play – really?

Your average journalist does their job because they’re opinionated; give them something to review and they’ll be honest. The ones that aren’t are totally transparent and anyone with an ounce of sense will spot their bullshit a mile away and vote with their feet sooner rather than later.

There will always be someone on the take from publishers; often because they’re sadly small time and can’t quite believe they’re getting something for nothing. But the simple fact is that this is the case in every single industry on the planet; you can’t expect board gaming to be any different.