11 November 2011

What's the deal with boardgames?

In my follow up thoughts about miniature wargaming, here's a little something about the peculiar subject - "boardgames". When I grew up, the term "boardgame" was associated with stuff like Monopoly, Risk and either competitive games with Quiz questions or simple games aimed towards a younger audience like the game "Diamant" in Sweden which was a diamond chase in some jungle.

Even after I started with miniature wargames boardgaming was still thought of as something silly, and I would never have thought I would get overly excited about something like a boardgame ever.

Boardgames are great fun though, but the bar is set much higher. So are the expectations when you buy one. In many ways boardgames are superior to miniature wargames. The best thing with a boardgame is that you play it straight out of the box, everything you need is there, you don't have to spend 50 hours before you get a taste of the game. You don't have to worry about storage space, chipped miniatures, having a large game table, terrain and whatever.

However I would say that miniature wargaming is like a TV show while boardgames are like a movie. In that sense that a miniature wargame has the potential of being infinite with collecting, painting, variation in games, opponents and terrain.  Like a TV show the game may start out great and start sucking after a few year of gaming when you get tired of it.

A boardgame however is an instant hit or miss, either it is great right out of the box or you have been completely screwed over. It also needs to be instantly good to make you want to play it again soon just like a movie has to be good to make you want to see it again more than once. Because a boardgame is not like a botched miniature wargame, you can't easily fix a completely broken game or use the contents with another game the way you can tweak a ruleset or just swap rulebook while keep using the same models in a wargame.

This makes buying a new boardgame an adventure with high risk or reward. You can't simply go for something that looks cool, or dismiss something that looks like garbage because they can easily turn out to be the opposite once you start playing.

I wrote last week that I thought miniature wargaming was about telling a story through your games. Boardgames are a lot like that as well, though you are pretty much retelling the same story over and over with little variation. Thus the story has to be pretty damn interesting to make it appealing in the long run. This is probably why I also like "themed" games like Arkham Horror more than games that rely on mechanics like Settlers of Catan or Dominion. Those games that are about game mechanics just remind me of those "simple old games" that were around when I was a kid - while the themed stuff feels more "mature" in some way.

Themed boardgames are also a hit or miss, sometimes a game pretends to be about something and it turns out it is a shallow experience with only the look of the theme promised while the game itself could be anything. One such game that comes to mind is Conquest of the Empire. A game where players take control over a Roman faction during a civil war with the winner becoming the new Caesar. The game looks like a Roman era game, models are  Roman units, cards and game board are printed with Roman symbols and pictures - but the game plays like a half assed version of Risk.

Themed games that work however are a fantastic experience that keep you engaged and excited . For instance Arkham Horror really feels like the Lovecraft game it is pushed as. The actual game mechanics can seem mundane, as you just move about and encounter bad stuff happening to you. But those encounters, and the level of detail in the game that ties in a lot of the Lovecraftian madness is true to its source material.

Likewise, when playing the Battlestar Galactica boardgame, the game mechanics can easily be described as ”stuff happens and you make bids to pass or fail a situation”. However the game has been written in a way so that it conveys the paranoid feeling of uncertainty as to who is a Cylon infiltrator, whom can you trust, are the Admiral or President player in fact leading you towards your doom and will accusations thrown at another player save your Cylon ass from being revealed for one more turn?

A third highly successful themed example would be Merchants & Marauders, again the game mechanics are simple, you go from port to port and trade stuff – and sometimes you perform a pirate raid. But the details and atmosphere in the game makes it feel like a lot more than that. It feels like a great pirate simulator, allows you to keep allegiance to one nation while plundering others, avoiding storms through the skill of your captain and take into account ship upgrades and many other factors to make the game come alive.

I think boardgames have a harder time maintaining the level of involvement and excitement from their players. There is so much that can be go wrong, from player turns taking too long, to making the game too simple, feel like a chore or just lackluster. Thus I rate a successful boardgame higher than a successful miniature wargame.

But again, just as with miniature wargaming, outsiders (your family and non gamer friends) have no idea what awesomeness hides in those boxes they see in your room. My dad still thinks every boardgame follows the formula of throwing a D6 dice and move that many steps on a board and the first one to reach the goal wins. Kind of reminds me of a Smurf game that I had when I was 8-9 years old. But I also think that it is less of a “nerd stigma” to have a boardgame collection than having miniatures on display. As miniatures still pull those “oh nice toys” reflexes from strangers while a boardgame somehow is regarded as a more sophisticated product.

The biggest tradeoff with boardgames, but also one of its strengths, is the requirement of gathering a bunch of people together.  This can sometimes be hard, a lot harder than booking a game session with your miniature wargaming buddy. But if you manage to pull 3-4 friends together chances are that you will have a blast, boardgames tend to be a lot more social events than miniature wargames. You not only play a game, but you hang out with your buddies and catch up.

I was introduced to boardgames through a friend just a couple of years ago, and was pleasantly surprised to discover another “realm” of gaming. So if you haven’t tried any boardgames yet, give boardgaming a try, you might like it.


  1. Great post, very interesting! I love board games, but have a problem getting a like-minded opponent, the missus can only take so much...:)
    I've been looking at the new Gears of War board game, which looks great and has solo play too...

  2. Thanks for your point-of-view cogitations on the ins-and-outs of a board game. I found the article interesting.

  3. @ Monty, yeah the GoW game has Solo play, it is a rare thing and even more rare if it works well. From what I've read it does.

    @Jay, tanks :-)

  4. Board games are great, it is just a problem to get like minded players in. My wife loved Talisman, but I can't coax her into investing in the new one. She says the old one was fine. I tried to explain the game would be different with tons of new stuff in the newer editions.

    I have been trying to get people to playt he Arkham board games in my area, I wanted to try them and one guy a a LGS was looking for players. Still no reply to rally together to play.

    The GOW does look interesting and never knew it had a one player option. I could only imagine my wife looking at me.

  5. Great post! Compared to what I grew up with, the modern boardgame is now pretty unrecognisable.

    Anyone remember Crossbows & Catapults?

  6. Great post mate - I completely agree. I think the evolution in board game components over the last decade has really helped too.

    Gaming for me is all about immersion and themed gamed do this. Its has to be the right theme though - I love "Cave Troll" but hate "Power Grid Manager".

  7. An interesting post. I lack the people with interest to play these sort of board games which is why I don't have them.

    If there where more Soloplay type games i'd perhaps be more inclined to get them, But again the price of some of the board games for me is off putting even when reading reviews

    Its one of those things as to whether i personally would like them and the price to me is a risk if i don't like said game.

  8. I'd have to say board games and tabletop games are very different creatures. Eg. chess and WH 40,000 are both war simulations, but one is much, much more metaphorical than the other (even though both are "gamey")

    I've enjoyed a variety of board games, but I think the "crossover" variety (eg. Zombies!!!, which I like) have to be careful not to compromise gameplay by not abstracting their theme enough.

  9. Yeah the average price of a decent boardgame these days is just insanse. Especially those Fantasy Flight Games.


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