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The 10 Most Famous Board Games
RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .
13 March 2014

A recent Lodi News-Sentinel article discussed the ten best known board games, at least as far as the general public is concerned. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at these games from the point of view of the gaming world, which tends to see these titles quite differently. How many of them stand up to close scrutiny today? After all, there could be nothing wrong with such popular games! Or could there ...

Let's start with number 10.
10. Risk
"The game of world conquest" dates from 1957 and the Cold War atmosphere shows. An important precept has developed since those days: Everybody Plays, and has a chance to win, right until the end. But not in Risk, where players can be eliminated hours before it's over. Then too, it features a cards collecting mechanism designed to help out those with smaller board holdings, but whoever is luckiest at collecting cards receives the most reinforcements and tends to do the best. Much of the strategy is in deciding when the odds favor taking a
particular player out of the game and thus receiving more cards to cash in for extra armies. While there is plenty of excitement, there is little profit in long-term planning and the best strategy often does not correspond with victory. It's high time to put this warhorse out to pasture.
9. Pictionary
This curious list takes us from one extreme, the war game, all the way to the other, a party game, in this case dating back to 1985. As you probably know, it's all about drawing a picture of a random word while others guess it in a limited timespan. Drawing skill is rewarded as is players knowing one another well. Objects are easy, but some words, e.g. "wide", can prove quite challenging and stimulating to creativity. It's not entirely without problems. When two or more groups are playing at the same time it can be difficult to tell who finished first, not to mention the possibility of unscrupulous players who train their eyes on their artist's picture, but their ears on the guesses of other
teams. This is a communication game and humans are so creative in communication that facial and hand gestures can sneak in, definitely against the rules, but difficult to entirely rule out. At times it can drag on too long as well. But the main goal of the party game: getting people to relax, reveal a bit of themselves and have some great laughs is almost always achieved.
8. Trivial Pursuit
Continuing with another 80s party game (1981), we come to a game of knowledge and pop culture. Although generally a bit more tame than Pictionary, it has the same power to bring out many of the same outbursts and emotions. Presenting a very clear picture of each player's progress (using innovative playing pieces that build over time), finding the sweet spot of easy and not-so-easy questions and not lasting past the point of player patience are a few of the things that this does so well.
7. Othello
With Othello we go back to the 80s, 1880, that is. Originally called Annexation or Annex this two-player abstract flickered out, only to return to popularity and gain its semi-classic status in the 1950s. A likely descendant of Go it differs in that there is a white side and a black side to each token, the object being to outflank the opponent by getting own disks
on both ends of a line. This flips the opponent's disks to the acting player's color. Although flavorless and lacking in variety, there is certainly strategy and plenty for the mind to chew on. Simple rules and setup certainly contribute a lot to its accessibility; anyone can sit down and without much explanation, just start playing.
6. Cluedo/Clue
Dating to 1949, Clue probably owes a lot to Agatha Christie, A. Conan Doyle and also World War II. A topic as outré as murder had been rare in board games, but the worst war the world had ever seen desensitized the audience in such matters. (You can see similar trends in the movies of the period.) Although subsequent games have taken its focus on logical deduction further, it can still often mostly work. Probably there are not enough die rolls in the game for probabilities to work out fairly and a player who rolls consistently badly can be a disadvantage. In addition players probably have too much control over others, being able to pick up their pieces and move them to wherever they are on the board. If the table
considers a particular player the most likely suspect, even if wrongly so, they tend to lose control of their fate. Still, the character personalities and the English mansion setting have become iconic and delicious. It plays much better when players also note the results of card reveals in which they are not involved.
5. Monopoly
The original version dates from 1904, among gamers this is probably the most controversial game in this list. Some continue to love it while the rest have left it far behind. Its supporters like to point out that few play it as intended – so many use variants such as placing tax payments to be claimed on Free Parking and the omission of the auction rules for unpurchased properties. These lengthen play time quite a bit and contribute not a little to the general dislike, which tends to make the game's fans even more adamant. But they have to admit there are other serious problems. Players are eliminated. The first player has an unfair advantage because the earlier you roll the better property purchasing opportunities you have. The two card decks are rather
unbalanced. This game can be so frustrating that it is probably the game second most responsible for flipped boards in history. Those who cherish it probably do so more because it is the first such money and strategy game they ever played than for rational reasons. But they are in the minority. With the rest this one has generated hatred, not just for it, but by association for all strategy games, the best reason of all to just let it go.
4. Scrabble
The classic word game from 1931 is not only about vocabulary, but also strategy since the board has a definite geography in terms of double and triple letter and word spaces. It would be great if it were about knowing lots of different words and being good at figuring out what you can make with your letters, but developing proficiency in this one goes in the wrong direction. Most experts tend to form very short words to limit severely the choices of opponents. Fanatics memorize every obscure two- and
three-letter word in the official dictionary (words never used in real life), an artifact of play which tends to be a polarizing factor in its popularity. Finally, because of deficiencies in the challenge system, strictly speaking this only works in the two-player situation.
3. Backgammon
This abstract is a true classic, apparently dating back five thousand years to Mesopotamia. It may share a common ancestor with Pachisi, was probably related to the Egyptian game Senet and spread everywhere by Roman legions. Popularity surged in the United States during the 1970s and continues today, probably for the gambling element. Like Othello it is also quite easy to learn. The gambling aspect saves the game's main problem, its extreme vagaries of luck. The only way to really play it is to make an entire
evening of a series of games, gambling on the outcome of each match, the smart player will then usually do better because he can tell when to raise the stakes and when to refrain. But a single playing or two, the only possible circumstances for most, is bound to be just a disappointing exercise in dice luck.
2. Checkers
Here is another true oldie, an abstract whose roots stretch all the way back to ancient Egypt, when possibly it was not quite so abstract. Today, versions vary and the UK and USA seem content to play on a 8x8 board while continental Europe prefers a 10x10 board. Other parts of the world, such as southeast Asia, even use 12x12. Generally quite popular, although somehow lacking the exalted reputation of Chess, to which it is often compared, probably on the basis of the similar board even though this is not really appropriate as the two are quite different.
Admittedly quite accessible, this game has been "solved", in the sense that computer analysis has determined everything that can be known about it, even determining that the first player has a slight advantage. If that doesn't discourage, when it comes to both flavor and variety, it's rather lacking.
1. Chess
The last of the true oldies has obviously experienced a large number of rules changes over time. Allowing pawns to optionally move forward two spaces is a fix to speed things up while the en passant rule is a fix to this fix. Strategy is very deep, but computers are beating even the very best players these days. Unlike many of the games above, there is no luck apart from who starts. Despite its former reputation as a quaint, sissy pursuit, it is increasingly becoming recognized, for example as in The Joy Luck Club, that good play is mostly about aggression. As with the similarly popular Bridge, the very extensive amount of literature about the game prove to be its downfall. In the words of Baldesar Castiglione who wrote his Etiquette for Renaissance Gentlemen in 1528: "That is certainly a refined and ingenious recreation," said Federico, "but it seems to me to possess one defect; namely, that it is possible for it to demand too much knowledge, so that anyone who wishes to become an
outstanding player must, I think, give to it as much time and study as he would to learning some noble science or performing well something or other of importance; and yet for all his pains when all is said and done all he knows is just one game. Therefore as far as chess is concerned we reach what is a very rare conclusion: that mediocrity is more to be praised than excellence."
Next time: some suggestions for more modern games that can replace some of these and ratchet up the fun....


by Rick Heli