The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Monday, November 10, 2003

Michele Catalano (of A Small Victory fame) has had to shut down comments on her posts because the various participants were a nasty and insulting lot. When she closes down comments for this post, it will be for a different reason: Because she is inundated with geeks proffering advice on board games.

I quote Michele:

I got bored of playing Monopoly with my son. I need some variety in my life and his idea of variety was alternating between Monopoly, Star Wars Monopoly, Yankee Monopoly and NHL Monopoly.

So we went through our other board games. Operation: missing pieces. Scrabble: too boring for DJ. Outburst: played all the cards already. Same with Scattegories and Pictionary.

Rather than take a trip to Toys 'R' Us for a new board game - where I would be distracted by all the action figures and DJ would be distracted by all the video games and we would come home at least $100 poorer and still without a new board game - we decided to go to the next best place: my mother's attic.


And then I hit the jackpot of bad memories. My parents' cocktail parties/board game extravaganzas came flooding out of that place where you stick memories that make you embarassed to have been alive in the early late 60's and early 70's.

They were always playing Probe. The women with their bouffant hairdos, the men with ridiculous sideburns, the peanuts and drinks like White Russians and Brandy Alexanders and the kitchen filled with smoke. And how they would laugh and laugh at things I wasn't supposed to know about, like the sexual connotations about the word probe . How amusing it is when you have a friend sleep over and your parents are having one of their board game soirees and there's fondue and bottles of rum on the table and suddenly your mother shouts "Her word is fucking!"


I was holding in my hands a dusty, dingy, but otherwise near mint condition 1964 original version of Probe. Of course I took it home. ...

When I an adolescent and first started to play games, in the late 70's, there were three kinds of board games.

First, there were a lot of random silly games. A perfect example is Life. Life is played by spinning a wheel and moving your little plastic car the indicated number of spaces. You then do whatever the space tells you. You have a very limited number of strategic choices; as I best remember my last game, in about 1978, it behooves you to go to college and to purchase whatever insurance is offered to you.

There were a whole bunch of games like Life. As you can tell, I didn't like Life. Nor was I enthralled with Parcheesi, or Sorry.

The second type of game was just one game: Monopoly. Monopoly acts like it's a trivial little roll-and-do-it board game, but it's cheating. Monopoly takes much longer than the simple board games I listed, and winning demands intelligent play, not merely lucky die rolls. Monopoly was created during the Depression, by an unemployed man named Charles Darrow. As far as I can tell, every other board game of the period was a triviality such as CandyAss, I mean CandyLand. Darrow's creation was an anachronism, like da Vinci's sketches of helicopters.

Risk is another game which is somewhat complex and skill-based. But Risk strikes me as a game which could be so much more. The strategic options are limited to taking an easy-to-acquire continent, like Australia. Also the constantly increasing value of card trade-ins makes the game inflationary and dilutes the input of sound play.

The third kind of game was the hard-core strategic simulation. This genre saw the light of day in 1958, with the publication of Tactics II (about which I know nothing; I believe it was a combat simulation involving individual units and tanks). The first such game that I played was called D-Day. My dad had an old set, probably from the original printing in the 60's. The board was a big hex map of France. The Germans, colored pink, set up their defense. Then the Allies, colored blue, invaded. Each turn represented one week. Combat mechanics were rather strange; if you moved adjacent to a unit you had to attack it! The pieces were marked with military symbols (an X for infantry, a TV oval for armor) and the effect on my 11-year-old mind was both intimidating and dazzling.

When I was in sixth grade and living in Denver, the great Steve Jackson was making his mark on the game scene at a company called MetaGaming. MetaGaming sold little "MicroGames" which consisted of small dozen-page rulebooks, a sheet of counters, and a paper map. The whole package took up as much space as a folded road map. The games sold for $2.95, and I saved up my newspaper route money for them. Some of the games, like Black Hole and Invasion of the Air-Eaters, were real duds. But the futuristic combat of Ogre and GEV was well done. There was a fighting game (Melee) and spellcasting game (Wizard) which were made into a role-playing game called The Fantasy Trip. (Many Melee/Wizard elements were incorporated into Steve Jackson's current GURPS system.)

While these games were cheap and relatively simple, they were still strategy games with odds, dice rolls, and paper bookkeeping.

I followed up my experience with D-Day when I got Third Reich in 1979. Third Reich is a full strategic simulation of World War II in Europe. This was a game that was impressive, but rather frustrating and exhausting to play.

I don't remember any good games coming out when I was in high school. As I entered college, Milton Bradley released Axis and Allies. This was a very simplified World War II game, but it did have an economic aspect (you had an income derived from your total territory, which paid for your forces) and cool little plastic soldiers.

When I got out of college I was finally exposed to other board games. At first I played complex Avalon Hill games. For awhile my favorite thing to do on a rainy weekend day was to play Civilization. This was a great game, but it was long. If you cracked the whip and hustled the players along, you might finish a game in eight hours. This was the problem with many of the classic board games, including also Diplomacy and Illuminati: They were long games.

In 1996, a friend turned me onto a game called Settlers of Cataan. He had the original German version, yclept Die Siedler. This is a game set on an island with big hexes producing sheep, wheat, bricks, wood, and stone. Each hex has a number on it, and every turn two dice are rolled; the hexes with matching numbers produce their commodity for the players who have settlements on them. The object of the game is to use the raw materials to build roads, new settlements on those roads, and bonus cards. You trade your commodities with the other players. This was a new kind of game: It had fun mechanics, took some brainpower to play, and could be finished in an hour or two.

After the success of Settlers, many new games hit the market. Many of these games, like Settlers were originally German; the Germans seem to have a real gift for devising clever but simple games.

When Sherry and I moved into our current house, we bought a lot of furniture. One of the pieces we bought was a six-foot tall cabinet with three drawers on the bottom and some shelves that are accessed by two glass doors. Some silly people might use this item for displaying china. I use it for my games. Here is an impromptu review of some of the games in my game cabinet (and a few others that my friends own and I play frequently):

Settlers of Cataan I have already described. There are many sequels to this game; most I have not warmed to but Seafarers (which adds ships that can link to isolated islands) is reasonable. Settlers plays with 3 or 4 (and there is an expansion for 5 or 6). The two-player version of Settlers is quite good; so is the two-player Starfarers (a high-tech sequel to Settlers).

Acquire is an Avalon Hill classic from the 70's that was recently republished. The board is a grid of 12x10 squares, and every turn you play a chit onto that grid. Two or more adjacent squares represent a hotel chain. When a chain is created, stock is issued, and on every turn you may buy stock in whatever chains have formed. If you play a square that joins two chains, you have merged them. The majority and secondary shareholders in the smaller chain are paid off, and that chain may be recreated later. This is a fun game for 3, 4, or 5.

Ra is an interesting Egyptology game that consists of auctions. Each player tries to collect sets of monuments, rivers, pharaohs, and gods. You have three or four money tiles that have a value between 1 and 15. Each time some goods are auctioned off, the winning money tile is placed there -- and the money from the previous auction is taken by the winning player, to be used in the next round. Ra is short (45 minutes) and can be played by 3, 4, or 5.

The Bean Game, also known as Bohnanza, is the best card game ever created. The deck consists of types of beans, each marked with an even number which is the count of those beans in the deck. For instance there are eight red beans, and twenty blue beans. You have a hand full of beans. Unlike any other card game you have ever played, you may not rearrange your hand. Each turn you plant the beans that are at the front of your hand, trade other beans in your hand, and draw more beans into the back of your hand. You have only two bean fields and each field must contain beans of the same type. Because the beans increase in value as you collect more, you will be frantically trying to arrange your hand so that you can continue to grow your fields. Great fun for 4 to 7 players.

Puerto Rico is a longer and tougher game. I have won, but never feel like I am sure what the right strategy is. You build up your plantation by acquiring crop fields, workers, and special buildings. This is a game with lots of interesting options: You can try to specialize in high-value goods, or you can deliver lots of cheap goods. Puerto Rico can be played by 3, 4, or 5 players.

Carcassonne is a fun game where the board is different every time you play. Each turn you draw a tile, which contains a road, city, and/or farmland. You may place this tile anywhere on the board, as long as its edges match those of the tiles it is placed next to. You place your markers on cities, roads, and farms, and collect points when a feature is completed. This is quick fun for 3 or 4 players. I've taught my seven-year-old nephew to play. He's pretty good!

For you Lord of the Rings fans, there is an excellent board game based on the movie. LOTR is fun because it is cooperative: All the players help each other out in their quest to destroy the ring. The game consists of several scenarios (four in the basic game, six with an expansion). In each scenario, the players must use cards to move a token along three main tracks. This must be done before the main events marker is moved too far -- the events towards the end of this event track are really nasty. LOTR is fun because you constantly feel that you are on the brink of disaster. LOTR plays well with 2 to 4 players.



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