I have a friend whose eyes will instantly glaze over if any explanation of the rules of a board game takes longer than a single minute.
She will also groan dramatically and immediately reach for another frozen margarita if there is even the hint of someone saying, “And then you also have to remember that you can only use the Super Meeple to block off your opponent’s Battlestation if they’ve sung Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl in original Elvish while trying to overthrow the Spanish government.”
Which, actually, is fair enough. Because, honestly, that is how the rules of modern board games sound a lot of the time.
One evening though, something magical happened. I managed to keep her attention long enough to get through the rules of a wonderful French game called Dixit. It involves a deck of unique, enchantingly illustrated cards, which are used as cues into the inner worlds of your fellow players. As she actually got into the gameplay (lo and behold!), she loved it enough to want to play it again immediately, then borrow my copy of the game for months, before eventually I had to force her to buy her own at knifepoint.
Board games seem to be Marmite-ish in their ability to generate eye rolls or fanaticism in equal parts. And perhaps part of this is that we’re still either suffering from the hangover created by the terrible board games of our collective past, or the Stockholm Syndrome that convinced us that Monopoly (literally an impossible-to-finish “game” built around the callous exploitation of the wealth gap) was actually good. In contrast, the relatively new Tokaido involves players taking a scenic trip from Edo to Kyoto and seeing who can have the most pleasing experiences along the journey.
We’ve come a long way.
When I was a kid, board games — such as they existed — seemed as eternal as Carte Blanche. Trivial Pursuit, Chess, Backgammon, Monopoly, Scrabble, Pictionary and Risk had always just… existed. And you certainly didn’t just invent new ones. Which was why seeing my first board game that wasn’t Boggle was a profoundly affecting experience. It was a two-player chess-ish Lord of the Rings-based game and it was glorious — partly just because it was new. And the idea that someone had just come up with this from their minds was amazing to me. I honestly thought there were laws against that sort of thing.
The truth is that new board games, as much as they’ve massively grown in popularity over the past decade, have also increased in their ability to divide. As the inventiveness and complexity have exploded, so too have the derision and the scepticism. There are too many rules, it’s too complicated, it’s too inscrutable (“Why should I care if the Mechazoid wants to crush Manhattan?” I dunno, Janice, just go with it). But then also you see out the corner of your eye on Instagram that your nice accountant friends posted “Had an amazing time playing Catan” and you’re like, “Who are you, Grant?” But it’s because we’re creating games that are finding ingenious new ways to invite us to have fun again. A way to dismiss the passage of time and banish the anxieties of the news and Twitter feeds and Instagram and press conferences.
Most new games are craftily tactile experiences: there are pieces and figurines and cards that are gloriously satisfying to touch and handle. The colours and configurations are wonderful to arrange and set out, and the very best games have a dynamic that creates the space for conversations and interaction “off the board”. Just enough looseness at the edges of the gameplay for conversations to continuously swirl and eddy around the fringes of Tshepiso’s concerted effort to get the emperor’s panda to eat a specific combination of coloured bamboo. Just the right required balance of concentration and disregard. For some time now, we’ve been in a golden age of rediscovering the joy of looking across a table at the anguish or triumph in the eyes of our friends and family as we move colourful plastic rabbits, or mechs, or mutants, around clever and inventive playing surfaces. And in terms of the unprecedented way in which the world is changing around us, that kind of simple joy could be seen as somewhat of a silver lining to being holed up in quarantine and self-isolation with loved ones and family.
I have not seen my board games group in weeks now. Sure, we still WhatsApp each other. Reach out to find how we’re all doing, tell each other to “stay safe” and that we’ll “see each other on the other side”. But I miss them.
Here's a guide to some of the best board games:
The OG of the “modern” board-games landscape, and an eternal crowd-pleaser. A ridiculously simple mechanic somehow manages to produce original and unique gameplay every single time. Also listening to your friends and family ask, “Has anyone got wood?” will never, ever get old.
2. KING OF TOKYO
A brilliant monster game, with just enough strategy and luck to make the outcome uncertain every time. Games are quick and sharp.
3. GAME OF THRONES: THE BOARD GAME
An absolute brute of a game. Fiendishly brilliant at capturing the paranoia, strategy, uncertainty, and strategic violence of the source material. Set aside a whole day for this one. Also, a cooling-off period in which to mend your broken relationships.
An evergreen game. Furious fun, simple to explain, and doesn’t need much more than a flat surface to play. An inexpensive favourite.
Conduct a seance. Find the murderer. It’s gothic Cluedo with a deep vein of intrigue and atmosphere. Also, someone has to literally pretend to be a ghost, which is inevitably brilliant.
A delightfully simple and elegant strategy game that involves building medieval cities to exploit for your own gain.
One of the most wildly original and dazzling games of the past decade. It’s visual and perplexing and a guaranteed antidote to any claim of “I don’t like board games”.
A gentle and engaging game where you build gardens and try to stop a panda from eating your bamboo. Sounds crazy. But somehow isn’t.
9. SMASH UP
A fast, multiplayer fantasy card game where twists and turns happen with equal squeals of anguish and delight. Strategic, inventive, and clever.
A straightforward two-player game with the calming rhythms of dominoes or mahjong.
It’s as if chess and draughts had a precocious teenager who wrote beguiling haikus and yearned for a simpler time. It’s strategic, thoughtful, and unerringly sexy in its simplicity.
Band together to fight global destruction at the hands of a rapidly spreading disease. I mean, what more could you ask of a game right now?
• From the April issue of Wanted 2020.