Part 1 - A Primer
Humanity thrives when doing 2 things – having fun, and relaxing. Or at least that’s when we here at GHG feel best. And what other pastime activity marries those 2 concepts into a great concept that’s fit for all ages, creeds, and upbringings? Gaming, of course!
In all its shapes, forms, and sizes, gaming has been a part of human culture for a reaaaally long time. Just a short while ago (in evolutionary terms), a 7500 year old toy chariot-thingy was unearthed in Turkey, so you could surmise that some of our oldest ancestors did, indeed, game in the technical sense of the word. Alright, that may be pushing it a tad, but you get the point.
Games are fun, and good for you, and they’ve been around forever. That said, let’s take a look at a small part of what gaming has to offer in this day and age, clay tractors aside.
A Warm Welcome To Boardgames!
If you’re already somewhat accustomed to the hobby at hand, you may already be aware of everything or most of what we’re going to be talking about here, as this article is aimed at beginners, that’s to say a short primer intent on helping people choose their very first (or first few) boardgame(s).
That said, our choices for some of those boardgames are, shall we say… A little off the tried-and-true path you’ll find in most “best of beginner games” articles out there, so you may still want to give them a glance, just in case.
We’ll start out by underlining that the hobby has flourished in recent years, because while many of us may be acquainted to things like Go, Chess, Activity, or Monopoly, things have progressed into a multi-million-dollar industry that comes out with hundreds of new and exciting games on a yearly basis, branching out into adjacent genres like role-playing and wargames (but those 2 are part of a different series of articles…).
The two main categories into which boardgames fall are Euro and Ameritrash.
Right off the bat, you’d be safe in assuming that the first are more popular on the Old Continent, while the latter find their audience in the American boardgame haven. But that’s only a part of the whole picture as there’s plenty of geographical crossover in that regard.
Euro games tend to deal with more pragmatic issues, some that you may be faced with in real life: balancing budgets, managing resources, committing work forces to various duties or “simply” trying to save the world from deadly diseases. These are sometimes more abstract, non-confrontational, and tend to focus on the mechanisms and game engines therein (like tile-laying or civ-building) rather than pull the players into the experience via highly thematic elements. This isn’t to say they don’t have a theme, but it mostly slides into second place behind the “cube-pushing” itself.
Speaking of cubes, steeped in the genre are also something called meeples (term derived from “my people”, and you can thank Allison Hansel for that), i.e. small, usually (or originally) wooden, human-shaped pieces that the players use mostly as “workers”, but that can also double as resources, dice or several other game-related items and mechanisms.
While engaging in their own way, they may be seen as catering to a more math or accounting-oriented crowd, but that’s not to say you need a Ph.D. in economy to figure out how Power Grid works… It does help, though.
On the other hand, Ameri (or Ameritrash as they’re lovingly called) tend to push the envelope further into make-believe land, and deal with things like sci-fi, fantasy, or pulp settings, many of them having a confrontational, quest/adventure, or even war-like element to them, and tend to have the licenses of many an important IP out there today like Lord of the Rings, Warhammer, Star Wars, the Cthulhu Mythos and so on.
Lush, opulent works of art, usually replete with plastic miniatures and dice/card play, these are the flashiest actors of boardgaming, but they’re not all about the looks as all those components serve not only to enforce the theme further, but also to clearly differentiate between armies, concepts, and give an even bigger boost to the tactile feel of the experience.
These try to weave a story for the player to enter and play through, influencing the course of history or fiction as we know it. Bear in mind, though, that these tend to be genuinely heavy games (both senses of the word), and may take up to several hours of play time and several acres of table space to set out when dealing with the high complexity tier.
While there will always be some overlap, with both heavily themed Eurogames and Ameritrash that pass themselves off as a Euro experience or borrow Euro concepts (here’s lookin’ at you, Scythe!), there are always going to be broad strokes that are applicable to the aforementioned categories, and that’s what I’ll try to go into in the main part of this article.
Now that the generalisations are out of the way, let’s dig into a few stalwart beginner examples of both genres, shall we?
These are arguably my favorite games because I’m a storyteller and a fan of having a variety of screwy options whenever trying to best my opponent within a game. Make of that what you will, but these games are damn fun. The following will try to cover 3 major subgenres of Ameritrash games, i.e. war, bluffing, and card games.
War’s never a good thing, and it’s definitely not encouraged, but paying respect to previous conflicts in any way possible is always seen as a worthwhile endeavor. And this is what Days of Wonder and Richard Borg have managed to capture with their Memoir ’44 series.
Initially launched as a single-box 60th celebration of the Normandy landings, Memoir 44 dealt away with all the horrific aspects of war and focused solely on the combat maneuvers and choices that commanding officers might have performed or been faced with during great battles of WWII, like Pegasus Bridge or Kursk.
It has since grown into a sprawling experience, numbering dozens of expansions and modules that cover every single theater in WWII to a tee, with more content coming out still, more than 12 years after the game’s initial release – so that can assure you of its quality and replayability.
Dealing with moving units around on a variable hex-based board, and combining card hand management with rolling dice to hit, the base game for this system is the perfect place to start if you’re looking for a crisp, quick (~45 minutes) skirmish on a strategic level (i.e. you’re commanding battalions, not single soldiers and vehicles).
It is by far the most readily-available as well as rabbit-hole-like light wargame endeavour I’ve had the pleasure of getting into, and even more than 6 years after first being gifted the base game I still take pleasure in playing one of the myriad scenarios or adding another special weapon into the mix. There are also variants for point-building your forces online, but those are more advanced concepts and we won’t get into them here.
Gameplay-wise, there’s a lot of planning ahead, conning your opponent, feigning a strike on one flank and switching your strategies around to break through the opposite side of the map, terrain bonuses, special rules for all the different armies, scenarios, and a myriad of weapons, unit types, and vehicles that ruled the land back in the day. Proper battlefield crunching in this one.
But don’t let that deter you from trying out the experience, it’s only daunting if you go all in from the get-go, and the base game is as easy to pick up by young children as it is by their parents. And I should know, this is one of the first games I ever taught my father!
Scooching over to the bluffing side of things, we’re taking a page out of legend, Robin Hood to be precise. Stepping backwards into may-or-may-not-have-been historic fact, we come across Sheriff of Nottingham, a game which pits more or less honest merchants against the evil tax monkey who’s this game’s namesake.
Every turn, players try to ship in goods pertaining to several categories with the end-goal of amassing the most out of the (or some of the) categories available. A different player takes on the role of Sheriff each turn and decides whether or not the others are trying to lie about the contents of their merchant bags (not kidding, the game comes with baggies), trying to smuggle contraband through, or are actually being truthful.
Which, face it, if they all are, there’s something wrong with them…
This game takes elements from ye olde card game called Bullshit (of “How to lose a guy in 10 days” fame) and weaves a nice theme around it, dialing the tension up to 11 and adding the caveat that whenever the Sheriff catches someone lying (by opening their bag), they will tax the poor sod who had the audacity to try to con the very Arm of the Law.
Conversely, if the Sheriff bothers an honest merchant who was telling the truth, the merchant is entitled to compensation.
After all, there’s no need not to be civil about this whole who’s-screwing-who deal.
Getting a big boost from the recent resurgence of the Star Wars franchise, Fantasy Flight Games have come out with their first foray into Collectible Games, opting for a different take on a mechanism first established by Quarriors and then carried on by Dice Masters: dice-dependent card play.
What this means is that we’re given a wonderful mess of a game where highly recognisable Star Wars characters on the villain and hero side go head-to-head to determine who the better team is.
Employing anything from lightsabers, blasters, shield generators, TIE Fighters, droids, speeders, and any manner of other SW-related items and paraphernalia (as well as a metric ton of Force powers, naturally), SWD pits heroes against villains (with neutral characters to follow shortly, to the joy of all involved…) and has players pilot their specific decks to victory using cunning, subterfuge, and a copious amount of luck of the die (that can be mitigated by subsequent card play).
The dice themselves are rolled to offer players a choice of actions that they can perform depending on what sides they have showing. Be it distribute shields among their characters, use special abilities, or deal outright ranged or melee damage, it’s a rather unique blend of mechanisms offering up a highly enjoyable game that I’ve seen 8-year-olds get the hang of pretty quick.
It just so happens that the game collects characters from the entirety of the Canon timeline, so battles like Qui-Gon and Kanan vs. Kylo and Vader in his Anakin days are entirely possible. You can team up Padme and Jyn for a chance to win by milling your opponent’s deck (i.e. emptying it of cards) or go with the single-character powerhouse that is Emperor Palpatine and hurt your opponent even when you’re not dealing damage… With 3 card sets already out and another just waiting to bust out of the gates come January, this one pledges to cover more content than even those of us who are more well-versed in the franchise ever dreamed about.
The Force is strong with this one.
Coming up on the second big swathe of the boardgaming genre, we’re met with thinky, long-term-planning environments that really get the wheels in your head turning in order to find the best way to optimise your point-grabbing. Here are 3 subgenres that I feel could easily cover most of what Eurogames are all about, namely worker placement, economic simulators, and cooperative games.
Already a stalwart member of the boardgaming industry in only their fifth year in the business, Stonemaier Games have to have had their start somewhere. And what a start it was!
A wine-making-themed debut Kickstarter project (in a niche that’s rather devoid of entries overall) coupled with arguably the best Customer Service on the face of the planet, gaming or otherwise, sent Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone into Kickstarter stardom and they haven’t stopped since.
Taking the players back to rural Italy, Viticulture gives everyone the opportunity to run a vineyard with all it entails: deciding when to wake up, managing your workers, planting, harvesting, crushing, depositing, aging, and eventually filling wine orders and getting recognition for being a dependable vendor.
Couple this with the fact that you can use various special cards (people that happen to work at or pass by the vineyard) that allow you to cheat your way past certain actions and rules, or use particular actions to a much better result, and you’ve got a very complex yet simple to understand mechanism that will have you so involved you’ll end up naming your wines in no time.
At least we did.
Followed by its expansion, Tuscany, which saw another Kickstarter campaign that offered up a nifty box for storage, and added many more concepts like a light Legacy aspect (i.e. constantly-evolving game modules in an almost campaign-like manner), workers with different powers, the arboriculture and buildings modules, and a series of other concepts we still haven’t played all of, and also the Essential Edition (which boxes a few of the standout items in Tuscany with the main game), Viticulture has since expanded into a go-to for both Eurogame beginners as well as more experienced players thanks to its versatility, replayability and charm.
And the fact that Jamey and Alan do video toasts for backers on their campaigns may have to do something with that too… *hiccup*
An outright standard of Euro experiences, Ticket to Ride has, to date, chugged along to over 2 millions of copies sold worldwide (as of 2013) in a variety of skins. Starting with the original that depicted the United States, on to Europe afterwards, and anywhere from India to the Nordic Countries, and everything in between, people have been linking cities with little plastic train carriages for over 13 years now, and the hype train keeps rolling.
What it boils down to is rather simple: players start the game with a few train tickets with various point values that depict 2 cities, countries, or a combination of the two, and must construct a railroad to fulfill the tickets, i.e. link the cities or countries on each ticket.
You also earn points by laying the rails themselves down, and may draw more tickets during later stages of the playthrough, but failure to complete will cause you to lose rather than gain the points, and you have a limited number of train carriages to spread across the map, so there’s a certain risk/reward coupled with resource management that pervades the experience.
Add to that the fact that the main actions that may be performed during a turn are either drawing train cards or laying down a railway and that certain cities may only be linked by one rail, possibly preventing all but 1 player to fulfill a ticket or forcing the others to reassess and go the long way around, and you’ve got a rather involved, fairly conflictual Euro Game where you have to balance set-up with execution and pay attention to what all the others are doing in order to preempt negative outcomes.
Generally, people go for TTR US or Europe for the gateway into the hobby, but we feel like Marklin can add a bit more to the experience with not a lot of complexity on top. What this entails are passenger cards and extra points for moving the passengers across cities and along your railways, adding another layer of timing on top of proceedings.
Another added benefit here is that this game’s cards features real-world train and locomotive models based on German miniature trains company Märklin’s renditions of them, and while the artwork has never been a strong suit or indeed a focal point with TTR, this one has a certain visual identity to it.
What else is there to say other than “All Aboard!”?
One of the slightly more complex members of this list, Bruges will nonetheless feature here since it marries so many cool concepts that you find in different eurogames but seldom in one place. We played this one when we were still pretty fresh in the hobby and we found nothing too complex or overly uncomfortable about learning it back then.
Bruges is about building up your own little corner of town and becoming a revered member of society in the meantime. The theme has, as many Eurogames out there already, certain aspects that just don’t click with the mechanisms, but you can pretty much find a reasoning behind most aspects of it.
The mechanisms revolve around drafting cards which represent personalities and citizens around Bruges, and using said cards for a variety of actions: you can build houses in which you will host said citizens, expand your worker pool, gain money, or benefit from a citizen’s unique action to name a few.
These actions are the meat of the game as every card is unique in both the citizen’s title as well as the action they can perform (or end-of-game scoring effect, as the case may be), so you’re effectively trying to build an action-generating mechanism that will allow you to “cheat” your way through doing much more than the 4-action-per-turn limit that the game has as a standard.
Things are shuffled around by the rolling of dice at the beginning of each turn, a fact that may have positive or negative consequences for the game, as proceedings in building up a town seldom go by without the odd fire, rat infestation, or flood, do they?
There is very little interaction between players, but you can directly influence others via the aforementioned citizen actions and cause them a moderate amount of harm which may amount to fairly grievous damage if performed at the right time. Just make sure the players know this from the get-go, otherwise you may be in for some pretty pouty faces when someone loses their entire worker pool that numbered in the double digits.
So all you’ve got left is to run around the streets of Bruges and ask the random lords and ladies you come across if they want to lodge in your brand new apartment for the night or lend a hand in your canal-building… Makes sense, right?
The Grain of Salt and the Grain of Feedback
Well-liked and highly sought-after as these games are, you may end up learning a different way in your hobby, be it right now at its inception, or later. Don’t let the fact that some of these may not be to your liking turn you away from the hobby as a whole, they’re just alternatives to the Catans, Cluedos, and Carcassonnes we’ve always seen listed as “go-to” or “gateway” games, and we’re just using them to underline how expansive and diverse this all can be.
You can use the games as a stepping stone into a larger world or just the article itself as that and go on to find bigger and better things to suit you and your group, we’re just happy if this convinces you to jump headlong into the boardgaming world.
Do make sure you let us know if this helped you along in any way. We’ve always been chuffed to offer advice face to face, it would only encourage us to create more content like this if we saw that it had a real impact!