No, of course they’re not. But thanks to Apple and Nintendo they’re no longer social interaction’s red-headed stepchild either. In fact, I’d argue that it’s now conceivable that board and card games could in fact become cool, if not likely. Whether I’d even want them to be is another question entirely, but I’ll take heightened social acceptance for now.
So, Apple and Nintendo you say? Yes, the very same. I would argue that they started the degeekification process with the iPhone and the Wii and now very little is safe from the process. I think LARPers, MMOers and role players in general are kind of safe (if not totally), but board gamers are in serious danger of being outed as ‘normal’.
While I’m not overly keen on the Apple ethos, the associated fanbois, or many of its products (I own an iPod Touch, that’s it), I have a deep admiration for the way it has taken style – in both design and attempted functionality – and created some quite beautiful products. Better still, most of them have transcended those technologies from geekdom to social acceptance; in particular gaming, thanks to daftness such as Angry Birds. Everybody’s doing it. It’s just a shame many don’t really work very well, but hey ho; the coolness factor gets people past that.
At the other end of the scale was Nintendo. While still being most famous for Mario, and not cool at all, with the Wii console it introduced a level of interaction that broke through a barrier technology had been bouncing off for years: the couch. But getting people off their arses and bouncing round the room, the likes of exercise, music and interactivity were taken up those all important notches to where the whole family understood and accepted the concept.
So, with computer gaming degeekified everywhere from the front room to the bus to school to cool kids club (if you don’t know, you weren’t in it, so ner), where does that leave other forms of gaming? As I alluded to earlier, role-playing doesn’t really count here – there’s something about pretending to be someone else (whether you dress up or not) and killing goblins that I don’t think Apple has really tackled head-on yet (although looking at some of the massive nerds that work there, I wouldn’t put it past them).
Board and card games are another thing entirely and very closely connected to computer games in many ways. In fact, before technology was ungeeked – even made cool in many cases – it was easy to argue board games were less geeky than computer games. We’ve all grown up with them and most of us have enjoyed them at least to some extent: from Triv to Monopoly to poker, they’re a part of life that ‘normal’ folks enjoy from the cradle to the grave (even if only at Christmas!).
I see the biggest barrier to enjoying more board and card games as ignorance – and the fault for this lies mainly with high street retailers. For many, their knowledge of card and board games ends at the likes of chess (nerdy), Risk (nerdy), snakes and ladders (crap) etc. And until you enter a shop specialising in these games, why would you think any different? WH Smith, Toys R Us, Debenhams and the rest stock ‘safe’ and ultimately awful ranges of board games that fear to step outside two boundaries: traditional family (read ‘Hasbro’) and children’s.
There’s a website called Board Game Geek (I’m not entering the boring debate on the merits, or lack thereof, of the name…) that is a remarkable resource for card and board games. It lists pretty much every game ever made (I would think) and while there are things on their including unpublished prototypes and expansions, it lists more than 50,000 titles. Yup, 50,000 – and they’re not all Monopoly variants either. Many of these are amazingly good fun, across all age categories and tastes, but suffer from under-exposure to the public and a bit of an identity issue. But, hopefully, this is starting to change.
It has been refreshing to see a few steps in the right direction this Christmas. Cheapo UK chain The Works stocked a strong range of quality board game titles over Christmas, thanks to one of its buyers (Laura Lemmon) taking the time to become an active part of the Board Game Geek website’s community. I hope she got a tasty promotion, as it looked as if the games shifted well across most of its stores.
I also saw classic game Carcassonne at Waterstones and the really good new Discworld game, Ankh-Morpork (from Martin Wallace, one of the world’s most respected game designers), was the one glimmer of light at WH Smith and other rubbish retailers (who clearly only got it on the Pratchett name).
It’s also interesting to note that in Germany, this ‘geekiness’ barrier has never really existed for board and card game play. The best example is the annual Essen International Spiel Games Fair, where 44,000 square meters of conference halls are visited by 150,000 people over a weekend in October – many of them regular families, rather than it just being enthusiasts. I can really see this slowly moving that way in the UK over time, although a good annual games fair in London is needed (the Birmingham UK Games Expo deserves a mention here – I plan to go for the first time this year).
So, why board games?
Which all begs the question, what are you missing? Put simply, an awful lot of fun. While the likes of Risk and Monopoly hold some charm for some people, they are deeply flawed and boring for some. A big factor is that games can play very long and exclude quite a few players from winning from very early in the game: many games I’ll be talking about play in an hour or less and keep you guessing about the winner right to the end, even though they play in a very similar way (boards, counters, cards, dice etc).
As for theme, there’s everything from civilisations and history to sport and wine to pirates and sci-fi – there really is something for everyone. And its not as if kids games, quiz games and party games are forgotten either. There are loads more of those too, adding extra layers of fun than the likes of ludo or Triv or Operation; or if you like those, they simply add more variety. Games can last 15 minutes or 15 hours – it really is up to you.
Most of us aren’t as well off as we used to be, meaning reasons for cheap nights in are a welcome break from expensive nights out. But what do you do if you stay in with friends? Putting on a DVD is antisocial, but music is great if only marginally distracting.
Conversation is of course key, but without anything else to distract from can seem forced or become awkward, even leaving some out completely. What can really help is a focus and a board game works perfectly in this situation. Of course you need to choose the right one for the group or occasion, but with 50,000 to choose from that’s not an issue.
I first started getting back into board games in a big way about five years ago, but have only started spreading the love a little more actively since 2009. After introducing Zoe to the hobby, which thankfully she has keenly embraced (if not in an obsessive way as I have), I started playing with a couple of friends who I knew were gamers. Then I added another couple of old gamers to the list, which was pretty much half of our regular social group.
The rest started to show interest and now another six people have had a go – all with positive results. In fact, of these people (and it’s not all lads either) all but the most recently converted now own a few new games themselves.
Sessions range from a few of us meeting up for a boozy mid-week session, couples nights in, Sunday afternoon sessions or full on weekend drinkathons. The most we’ve had playing is eight (with two games running at a time), but that is sure to rise – we’re going to need a bigger table…
In my next board game blog I’ll talk about some of what are referred to as ‘gateway games’; those games considered perfect for re-introducing people to the pastime that I’ve used myself and seen great results from. If you can’t wait until then (unlikely I know), I would suggest taking a look at titles such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Thebes, all of which I’ll cover next time.