Why Video Gamers Should Try Board Games
Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Can’t say the same for their analog equivalent. After growing out of the likes of Monopoly and Risk, I wrote off tabletop gaming for a long time as a pastime for children and those nerdier than I. Only relatively recently have I seen the err in my ways, thanks to fantastic tabletop games like Dominion and Ticket to Ride.
If you’re like the old me, I don’t blame you for being reluctant, dismissive or even oblivious to the modern board gaming scene. However, you’re missing out on a reemerging form of entertainment that isn’t much of a stretch from the video games you already play.
Board games don’t suck anymore
When I left board gaming behind as a kid, I did so because I grew out of ‘kiddie’ games where players rolled dice to move pawns a certain number of spaces. Most of those mass-market games like Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders or Candyland still suck, but many others have pushed the medium to new heights.
Catan (formerly known as Settlers of Catan) is often credited as being the catalyst for the modern era of board gaming. This game about colonizing an island introduced a number of innovative gameplay mechanics while garnering mainstream success. Since its release, the game has sold over 20 million copies with no signs of slowing down.
While I have a copy of this on my shelf, I have yet to play this seminal classic. However, I have played many games that have followed in its wake that push the boundaries of what board games can be. Pandemic is an exciting cooperative game where players attempt to contain and cure four deadly diseases that are ravaging the Earth. Formula D is a racing game that manages to capture the thrill of Formula 1 style action. One more worth mentioning here is Dead of Winter, which magically translates the drama and intrigue of The Walking Dead into a board game.
There are many board games deserving of a nod, as the overall quality of the medium outside of the mainstream stuff has skyrocketed. This is a trend that should continue along the right path, as the scene grows in popularity and as game designers continue to outdo the works that came before.
The physical nature of board games adds a different type of fun
One of the fundamental differences between video games and board games is that your physical interactions are not translated to the digital space by a controller of some sort. Instead, you get your hands on all of a game’s bits, including its board, dice, cards or whatever other components are part of the package.
One of the tapletop gaming’s shining examples of component quality is the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures game. Each ship is expertly crafted and painted to look identical to their movie counterparts. These are so good that they would make for excellent display pieces outside of the game. It’s great to pilot an X-Wing in Star Wars: Battlefront, but there’s also a joy that comes with holding and playing with these physical ships that is unique to the tabletop gaming experience.
It’s not just the ships themselves that create the fun. Through the clever use of a secret movement dials and movement rulers, players fly these ships through space in ways that make perfect sense. For example, smaller ships can quickly and nimbly zip around the table, while larger and slower ships may move more methodically, but make up for that weakness with more firing range.
You don’t need lifelike recreations of physical objects for the physicality of a game to shine. There’s a strong sense of satisfaction that comes with throwing down a huge combination of cards in Dominion that’ll net you a ton of money and additional actions. I love rolling the chunky King of Tokyo dice in hopes of getting the exact combination of symbols I’m looking for. Even a game like Hanabi, where the game boils down to cards with colours and numbers, the act of pulling one card from the hand you can’t see feels like cutting the wire on a bomb every time. I love my video game controllers, but there’s something to be said for having your hands on the things you’re playing with.
Board games are a fantastic social pastime
Unlike video games, which rely little on local multiplayer nowadays, the vast majority of board games still require two or more human beings to interact with each other in the same room. Maybe I’ve taken it for granted in the past, but I really value being able to share a gaming experience with others in the same space. It’s a great way to entertain and interact with people over something everyone can enjoy, especially when a game brings something out of people that wouldn’t happen in any other situation.
Adding to the appeal is the fact that board games have the potential to reach a much broader audience. My mom will never pick up a controller, but she’ll gladly play Ticket to Ride with us. Many board games are specifically designed to appeal to a wider crowd, making it a friendlier medium for players of all ages to enjoy together.
Even if my mom and my little cousins all wanted to play video games with me, there’s still a huge skill gap that they would have to contend with. I find that unless you’re playing with people who are already familiar with that video game, the likelihood of them standing a chance against an experienced player is slim. With board games, many have been designed in a way where the barriers to entry can be notably lower. Yes, skill very much matters, but it’s oftentimes easy for a newcomer to pick up a game quickly and hold their own without taking away the thrill from more experienced players. Because of all of this, playing board games has become a go-to activity for our friends and family.
Creators generally have more wiggle room to experiment with gameplay mechanics or themes
As the cost of game development has risen dramatically over the years, publishers have become far less willing to take on creative risks. This is why we see the likes of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed get churned out every year, as proven commodities are trotted out repeatedly to maximize their investment.
Board games at this point in their existence, aren’t as creatively hamstrung by the realities of business. Yes, there are ways in which board games pander to their audiences in order to make money, but the output shows more freedom in terms of gameplay and theme. In a market where games in big boxes tend to sell best, AEG took a chance on Love Letter, a micro game with only 16 cards about sending love notes to a princess. That theme and its gameplay might have caused publishers to be concerned with its sales potential, but it became a massive hit and opened the door for an entire sub-genre of micro games.
My favourite example of board games pushing creative boundaries is Freedom: The Underground Railroad. Set in the 1800s, players work together as abolitionists freeing slaves from plantations while doing their part to end slavery as a whole. Maybe a small-scale indie studio would take a chance on this concept, but Freedom is a full-blown and fully-realized production that strikes a phenomenal balance between entertainment and education.
While I think that board games lean too heavily on certain mechanical or thematic crutches, the scene as a whole feels more open in nature. It’s awesome that a game like Freedom can not only exist, but thrive. Just by scanning the shelves of a board game retailer, it’s clear to see that many different types of ideas can come to life here.
When most people think of board games, they think of titles that begin and end with one play. This holds true for most board games. However, for those looking for something more substantial, there are a number of different ways of getting your fix. The classic example is Dungeons & Dragons, where players partake in a lengthy campaign that will extend over the course of many sessions. For me, the closest parallel I have to that is Star Wars: Imperial Assault. Over the course of 10-or-so missions, you and your enemies will evolve in strength just like characters in a video game RPG would. Also, with the way the campaign is structured, different playthroughs will take you to different missions depending on each outcome. If you truly want to experience everything, you’ll have a blast playing through its campaign many times over.
Magic: The Gathering also engenders a deep commitment in other ways. As a competitive collectible card game, its insanely popular, as players spend a lot of time battling with others and a lot of money on additional cards to complete their decks. I don’t play Magic, but I do play Dice Masters. At its core, it’s a great one-on-one strategy game involving a ton of sweet custom dice. If you want to expand it with more characters, there’s no shortage of additional cards and dice that can be purchased through booster packs or different starter sets. You can even play games like this at local or international if you really wanted to test your mettle.
You’re already predisposed to like them
At their core, video games and board games are both games. Both are designed as a form of organized play. Analyzing more closely, there are even some board games and card games that share the same or very similar mechanics. If you already like to play games, then making the switch from a controller to physical board game components is easy and probably a refreshing change of pace. By starting off with the right games, you’ll probably ask yourself why you didn’t try this sooner.