What's going on with board games these days?
Hey, remember Monopoly? You'll be pleased to learn we've come a long way from there. You may be surprised to learn that the board games being played today come mainly from Germany. We're not sure why – maybe it's bad German TV – but their wide range of board games have twice as many fans than we do in our much more populous United States.
What makes the games different? Remember the three S's: Short, Simple, Smart.
Forget about those games that take the whole evening and only end because someone throws in the towel. The new games last about forty-five minutes. Someone wins and then you can play it or another game and maybe someone else can win too. There's more fun for everyone and none of that being knocked out and waiting around bored while others finish. Everyone stays in the game with a chance to win right up until the end.Simple:
That forty-five minutes also includes the explanation of the rules. Unlike the innumerable rules found in war games, in the new games everything is easily understood with but a few elegant concepts. Understanding the rules is no longer the challenge: picking the best strategy to win is.Smart:
The physical presentation is truly superb. The artwork, often depicting historical cultures, is done with a high degree of quality and care. The components are of the highest quality as well. Tiles and boxes are large and feature a sturdiness that's made to last. Wooden components, often custom made, are preferred over generic plastic pieces. It's as if the publishers actually care about the products they're making rather than just sticking something out there to catch the Christmas crowd. But the games are smart in the other way too. While not party or word games – although some use those features too – they manage to challenge the problem-solving abilities of two to five players without ever being boring or making them wait. The games include small portions of luck so they never devolve into long analytical sessions in the way that, say, Chess does. They also eschew the combat and elimination that can make games so unpleasant for many of us. At the same time they aren't passive experiences like The Game of Life or Candy Land with players simply along for the ride. Decisions are called for and by the end players win and lose on their own merits rather than according to the vagaries of a spinner or dice.Practicalities: Having come this far, congratulations on your interest! Now how can you get you involved:
In any case, because World War II sent millions of Americans around the world and made millions more acutely aware of the problems of war, the first real strategy games of the era were military games, the form being pioneered by Charles Roberts and his Avalon Hill Game Company. But then as now, a company based purely on such complicated games of conflict could only find a limited audience. So by the late 1960's Avalon Hill, having already once been rescued, bought out a series of rather experimental games that had been created at the 3M corporation.
The Legacy of Viet Nam
These games were usually not about war and in any case were much shorter, simpler and more accessible than the usual Avalon Hill product. Several of them were invented by the now legendary Sid Sackson. In particular, Acquire, his game of hotel speculation and acquisitions, in many ways became the inspiration for the much later flowering of board games in Germany. One simple indicator of this is that the names of Sackson and his fellow pioneer Alex Randolph are much better known there than in their own country.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In America, maybe because of the Viet Nam conflict and the ongoing Cold War, military conflict continued to dominate strategy games through the 1970's with Avalon Hill and the a New York company Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) ruling the roost. Toward the end of the decade there was a great move to fantasy and science fiction – a different reaction to war? Escape – and a number of new small publishers to support them. This was the golden age of the role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons and all its competitors. During the 1980's SPI failed, role-playing continued, computer and video games arrived and board games seemed to go into a creative lull. Americans who wanted anything else new were stuck with the likes of Talisman out of the UK.
A Few Wise Heads
Meanwhile in Germany a few wise heads got together and decided to create the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award with themselves as the jury. They were all journalists writing for mainstream newspapers, reviewing games. That a newspaper would even publish such stuff is news to an American, but in Germany for any topic under the sun there's somebody writing about it. Anyway, the goal of these writers was to draw attention to games of strategy that were neither the usual TV or movie tie-in nor the latest Monopoly clone. With this award and the annual pre-Christmas games fair in the city of Essen and for a number of other reasons which remain hard to pin down even to this day, both the quality of the games and the number of players made steady gains year after year.
They were not war games. In the post-war era anything of this type carried the negative associations of the Nazi period and if sold at all, had to be purchased "under the counter". Having to find topics other than war, the German publishers made a virtue from a deficit. Taking Sackson's Acquire as their model, they created what they called Gesellschaftspiele, society games. The message was clear. The games are not about the lawlessness and disorder of war, but the normal operation of civilized society. There were business games, racing games, card games, trading games and many others, often taking their themes from medieval history or exploration of strange lands.
As they became more successful, even Americans put down their Talisman sets and began to take notice. (Bob Scherer-Hook has written a history of the American reception.) Meanwhile, by the mid-1990's the Essen fair was selling over a hundred thousand tickets a year. The Spiel des Jahres was helping many choose that year's holiday gift and an unprepossessing game called Die Siedler von Catan (Settlers of Catan) signaled the dawn of a new era.
The first German game to make a huge impact, especially outside its borders, was invented by Klaus Teuber. Depicting the efforts of new arrivals to colonize a mythical island, it has spawned a number of expansions, variants and computer games in many countries including even the Far East, so that by now over three million Catan products have been sold worldwide. Meanwhile the attentions of game fans has centered on Germany and grown and grown. While in America virtually every game company has been absorbed by Hasbro – Parker Bros., Milton Bradley, Avalon Hill, TSR, Wizards of the Coast to name a few – in Germany of number of smaller firms continue to produce several new titles annually and still thrive. In 2000 another new game, Carcassonne, was a very successful and very accessible title which also promises a long career.
This brings us almost to the present where trends become difficult to discern. Some which might be mentioned are the following. More and more German games are being translated and imported around the world. The soft economy, true in Germany as well as in the US, seems to be inspiring more re-makes than original designs, but maybe this is a nice development for the American audience which missed them the first time around. There are even a couple of German firms experimenting with military games, albeit applying a characteristic German treatment to the presentation. Which of these developments are truly significant is impossible to tell. In ten years it will only start to become history we can dissect with a little certainty. But until then, there seems to be no end in sight of games to enjoy. Happy playing!