My hobbies include outdoor adventure, photography, and geocaching. They also include board games. In high school, I played a lot of games with my friends (we even played Axis & Allies during AP History class). It continued in college. And I started back up in graduate school after discovering both a game club in town and (finally) other students and postdocs who also play games.
Growing up, we had the usual games in the house: Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, Risk, Sorry, etc. Chances are you had these games too. They’re the classics. They’ve been around forever. Our parents grew up with these games, and in the case of Monopoly, our grandparents did too.
The problem with these games: They’re terrible. Most of these games rely too heavily on luck. The win condition is total victory, which means that players get eliminated and have to become spectators. The games go on for hours, sometimes days. And those that stray from these characteristics often relied on the player’s knowledge base (think Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Boggle, etc.). And for most of us, those were the only games available when games were found at toy stores and book stores.
But worry not. If you are averse to board games today because of your traumatic memories with Monopoly, there is hope for you. There has been a board game renaissance happening since the turn of the millennium with games that fix the problems of the old classics. Games that have definite end conditions, that keep all players engaged until the end, that reduce some of direct player interaction, and that rely more on strategy than luck. Some of these “new generation” games are quickly becoming classics and can even be found in big box stores such as Target.
Today, there are thousands of games on the market of varying quality and play mechanics. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. But if you’re still stuck on Monopoly for your family game nights, here’s a short list of some alternative games to try.
1. Settlers of Catan. This game is becoming the “new Monopoly” in some ways. It’s probably the most popular of the modern games, and it’s been out the longest, having first been released in 1995. It’s also fallen out of favor of the hardcore gamers like Monopoly has. Our game group hasn’t played in years. But it’s still a fun game, and infinitely better than the old offerings by Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. At its heart, Catan is a game of resource collection, trading, building, and expansion. While you are competing with your opponents, you’re not directly attacking or defending from attack. Instead, you might want to build in that optimal location before someone else does, or cut off their expansion opportunities while vying for the longest road.
2. Carcassonne. This might be my one of favorite games ever. While not as old as Settlers of Catan, it’s been out for a while and has made a name for itself. Unlike most board games, there’s no board. Instead, you make the board by laying tiles down one at a time as you build and capture roads and cities and farmland for points. That may sound benign, but there’s a dubious dark side to the game that includes blocking opponents from finishing structures or even stealing them for yourself through sneaky means of connection. It’s so simple, yet so much fun. There are plenty of expansions to spice up the base game as well.
3. Ticket to Ride. Might also become the new Monopoly. There’s strategy, competition, and deliberate plays to stop your opponents from building rail lines as everyone tries to fulfill city connections on their tickets. We’ve begun playing Ticket to Ride again at game club after a long haitus.
4. Pandemic. This is probably the epitome of cooperative games. For those unfamiliar with the concept, all players are working together against the game. There are several great cooperative games out there, but Pandemic does it really well and is a good introduction to the genera. Your goal – wipe out four diseases before they spread and take over the world.
5. Smallworld. Risk might have been the original board game for nerds. The war theme coupled with dice rolls to resolve battles made it kind of a very lite version of some of the table-top collectable war games. It’s an area control game. But it still relies heavily on luck. Smalworld does not. There’s no dice rolling. You just invade territories with more troops than your opponent. Of course, the similarities end there. You choose a race and a power. Both the race and power come with special abilities, and these combinations are then used to your advantage for offense or defense. When you’ve spread your race too thin, put it in decline and choose a new one. There’s enough going on in the base game to make it interesting. But several expansions add new races and powers to add to your collection. Even though there’s the fantasy theme, this game should be fun for the whole family.
Collectible games (Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer, etc.) are fun too, but I do get the sense that they skew in favor of those who can afford to buy their way to an advantageous deck or army. What makes board games great is that the whole game is contained in one box, and nobody really starts with an advantage. With these modern games, your game play really depends a lot on strategic skill rather than luck or knowledge/experience. The games are also more balanced – if you get ahead early on, that’s not a guarantee that you’ll end with a victory.
The list above is by no means complete. These are some essential starter games to get away from the old classics. I’ve played a lot of games, thanks to my other gaming friends and the Palouse Board Gamers, a local gaming club here in Moscow. Game clubs are a great way to experience new games without the need to buy your own copy first. And even local game shops often have demo copies available for play. So get out and explore the world of board games, because there is more to gaming than Monopoly.
Some other games I like (in no particular order):
- Photosynthesis – new game, just came out last year. One of the best abstract strategy games ever, and it’s hidden under an ecological theme.
- Hive – a great 2-player abstract strategy game that I think is better than Chess. Not that Chess is a bad game.
- 7 Wonders – The game that introduced me to card drafting (or as we call it, hate drafting)
- Evolution (Climate) – Partly because I’m an evolutionary biologist, but the game plays well. Gotta have the Climate expansion. The original game is less fun on its own.
- Sushi Go Party – Also a card drafting game, not really a party game. But works well with non-gamers or lite gamers.
- Concordia – Might be my #2 favorite game at the moment. I wish it weren’t so expensive.
- Manhattan Project – the game that introduced me to the worker placement mechanic.
- Viticulture – a better worker placement game centered around the theme of making wine.
- Codenames – A wonderful party game that can scale to any group size.
- Splendor – A simple, but enjoyable set collection game.
- Azul – A puzzle game to make patterns out of colored tiles.