Refining My Board Gaming Palette
When I first discovered the joys of board gaming, I felt like a kid entering a candy store for the first time. With so many games and no real concept of taste, I sampled many different flavours of board games. Some were fantastic, opening my eyes to a whole subsection of games that I enjoy today. Others were not so delicious, leaving me to shy away from titles of a similar nature. Through it all, my taste in gaming has been refined to a point where I have a good sense of who I am as a board gamer and what I like.
The Sweet Taste of Decision-Making
Growing up, my understanding of board game design didn’t go much farther than roll-and-move, as seen in games like Snakes & Ladders. Games like this quickly wore out their welcome, as they were entirely luck-based. When I played Dominion for the first time, it featured an element of strategic and tactical thinking that stimulated my brain in ways that were really enjoyable.
At its core, the game puts a series of choices in front of you. You can only make one choice at a time, though there are many different choices you could make now with their own host of pros and cons. What decision do you make in order to move forward? Having to go through the process of weighing out your options and making a choice based on what you think is best at that exact moment is what makes board games so compelling for me. Sometimes my decisions pay off and sometimes they don’t, but the process of thinking about my options, making choice and then watching how they play out is what makes board games exciting to me.
As such, my taste in games leans heavily towards those where decision-making is key. Even games as simple as Love Letter, where the options boil down to playing one of two cards in your hand, I want to make decisions and know that they impacted the outcome. As long as the choices that need to be made on any given turn are compelling without being clear-cut, the likelihood of me enjoying a game goes up considerably.
The Role (Roll?) of Luck
My primary reason for leaving board games behind as a kid partially stemmed from my exposure to luck-based games. From Snakes & Ladders to Monopoly, most games boiled down to rolling a dice and moving a piece around a board, which gets old fast.
Through my discovery of modern board games, I’ve learned that dice and the concept of luck can be used for so much more. In Dead of Winter, dice values are used to determine what type of actions are available to your group of characters, such as whether certain characters can kill zombies or search locations for items. In Stone Age, dice are rolled to determine how successful your people were in harvesting different types of resources, such as wood and gold. The Iello hit King of Tokyo has you rolling dice Yahtzee style in order to achieve a number of different actions, such as attacking, healing, or powering up through the acquisition of energy cubes. Even in Formula D, a roll-and-move game at its core, the concepts of luck are expertly interwoven into a tabletop experience that actually feels like car racing.
Dice and other forms of luck aren’t inherently bad. It’s just a matter of how they’re implemented. If it makes thematic or mechanical sense, like gear shifting or slowing down for corners in a car race, then I’m all for it. Also, any means of mitigating the randomness of dice rolls also helps, such as the ability to overshoot certain corners at the cost of damage points. When implemented correctly, I’ll gladly enjoy a game that features dice and luck.
To Theme or Not to Theme
Theme and gameplay kind of exist on opposite ends of a sliding scale. On one hand, there’s something as thematically rich like Dungeons and Dragons, where players are deeply invested in being part of a great story, yet the actual game mostly boils down to to rolling a die. On the other is something completely devoid of theme like No Thanks, where players take part in a reverse auction in an attempt to have the lowest score at the end.
The right balance between theme and gameplay is going to be different for each game. That said, when it comes to games I like to play, I generally slant more towards game mechanics than theme. Titles like Splendor may feature a tacked-on theme that has nothing to do with what you actually do in the game, but I love that game in spite of that because the act of collecting gems is so fun. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to truly dabble in a role-playing adventure. I think it’s because I really like to explore the possibilities within a defined set of rules rather than telling or participating in a story.
All that said, games that land somewhere in the middle work exceedingly well for me. Some of my favourites that hit that middle ground really well include Dead of Winter, Pandemic, Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Star Wars: Imperial Assault. When these games are clicking, I get really immersed in these worlds in a way that makes me feel like I’m there.
How About Some Hardcore?
Just like someone can build their overall skill in video games, the same can happen with board games. Once you play a few, you build a knowledge base to draw upon for future games. No longer are you learning new titles from scratch, but drawing on your past experiences with similar games as a starting point. Not too long ago, our group played Star Wars: Imperial Assault for the first time, which would have been unfathomable just a few years ago. Today, thanks to all of the games we’ve played leading up to that point, grasping its rule set wasn’t so bad, as we’ve encountered many aspects of its gameplay in other titles.
As it stands, my floor in terms of complexity and commitment is Love Letter. For a game with only 16 cards, it still packs enough strategic and tactical bite to be interesting in short bursts. On the other end of that spectrum is Game of Thrones and the previously mentioned Imperial Assault. One is a dense strategy game with a lot of moving parts and a play time north of three hours. The other is a tactical combat game featuring dozens of miniature figures, hundreds of tokens and a campaign book with 30 missions. At this point, I struggle to grasp with their complexity and commitment levels, but maybe someday they won’t seem so daunting.
If I were to use a game as my basis for a sweet spot, Ticket to Ride would be it. Taking under an hour to play, it has a perfect balance of strategic depth, game length, replayability and overall enjoyment. Other games in and around that range include Pandemic, Lords of Vegas and Dominion. Can definitely play games outside of that sweet spot, but I’m likely to have the best results with games in this zone.
Another Trip to Medieval Times?
One unique quirk I have discovered about board games is that they lean heavily towards themes set in medieval times or some point long ago within the annals of history. By virtue of its ubiquity, I happen to have and enjoy a number of games with those backdrops. That said, it really is a turn-off for me in most cases. There are a lot of games that I’ve heard wonderful things about that I probably will never play because the historical or medieval fantasy themes are so off-putting to me. I’m much more of a sci-fi, video game and superhero fan when it comes to board game themes. I’m also a sucker for anything set themed around our current world, as I think there are a lot of things in today’s society that would work really well within the context of a board game while being immediately more relateable. Having a theme I find attractive goes a long way, but it won’t help me overcome a bad or weak game. If the underlying mechanics of a game suck, no amount of pandering will win me over.
Over these last few years, my taste in board games has evolved and been refined quite a bit. This process will continue for as long as I keep playing. How have your tastes in board games changed over time?