Are There Still Good Board Games?

Bryant and May, Media

After emptying your Uzi into a bunch of nuns to facilitate your escape from a betentacled behemoth on a computer screen, shuffling little bits of plastic around a folder piece of cardboard seems somewhat recherche at best. As a kid I played Monopoly (boring), Cluedo (slightly less boring) and a horrendous thing called The Game of Life in which you had to be pious and earn lots of money in order to win respect (unutterably boring).

But in the back of my mind there’s an idealised board game that’s exciting, interesting, surreal and attractive – I just don’t have any idea what it is. My concept for the board game in ‘Hell Train’ was an old Methodist poster I once owned that showed a train going across the bridge between Heaven and Hell, with the stations marked ‘Drink’, ‘Loose Morals’, ‘Dishonour’ and ‘Obesity’.

Reviewing ‘The Last of Sheila’ for this site I was reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s fetish for board games (part of his collection featured under the opening titles) and started wondering if they still sell. It would seem appropriate one day to create a Bryant & May board game (rather than a videogame) – but how to make it exciting?

All suggestions, silly or otherwise, here…

15 comments on “Are There Still Good Board Games?”

  1. John Howard says:

    I remember Risk with fondness, possibly rose tinted as I haven’t played it for decades. As for Bryant & May, you have a purchaser here. How to bring in all the characters is a poser, wouldn’t want to give them as players pieces, the risk is run of missing out some of the great characters, my fondness for Janice knows no bounds. Just solving a murder would give it the feel of being similar to Cluedo (have noticed your lukewarm appreciation of that). Would it be silly for the point of the game to be find out IF a murder has been committed rather than who did it?

  2. Alan Morgan says:

    Oh yes.

    In Germany especially. The yearly Essen Spiel had over 150,000 attendees last year. The variety and setting of board games is bigger than it ever was.

  3. GB Steve says:

    Try boardgame geek for all such needs. Their directory has pretty much every game ever published, ranked in order of popularity. My current faves are Betrayal at House on the Hill and Roborally.

  4. Jez Winship says:

    The design of board games could often be more interesting than the playing of them. I remember an interminable Lord of the Rings boardgame I had which never lived up to the promise of exploring Tolkien’s map. Haunted House was always fun, and extended the board into three dimensions. The witches’ ball, which could sweep your playing figure from the board, did tend to get stuck in the chimney, however.
    The artist Olivia Plender invented a boardgame called Set Sail for the Levant for her latest exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, which parodies educational or morally instructive games (which could be said to include Monopoly, I suppose).

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    I agree with Alan and Essen Spiel is growing fast.
    I play board games with my youngest granddaughter and there are a few good games out there. But for me here is where board games seem to have gone “wrong” over the past decades. They have become too involved, have too many little bits, and you have to spend too many hours setting up and then playing. And the instructions are far too complex. Also, the D & D style game is too “abstract” and long and often creepy.
    One of the best old games was Caroms – a British adaption of an Eastern game, I think – I could play it until my shooter finger was numb. It was fast, too.
    May I suggest a B & M game should have a Fowler’s London board, relate to the incidents in your novels, have the books’ primary and secondary characters and stacks of clue cards by character (Janice reports the lipstick was from the ’40’s… Arthur says it was a man on stilts), places to go for guidance (ie. the witches), and it should have underground rivers that can be used to travel about or be trapped in just before a storm hits. (Go to nearest underground river. You have 2 plays to get out or you will be swept off the board for 3 turns.) And cleaning Crippen’s box might be a place the very unlucky are sent. (Shift litter looking for clue that was lost by Arthur while cleaning his pipe; 1 turn.)
    Just some thoughts while I’m still waiting on the post.

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    You probably won’t want to agree with me too greatly, Dan. I’ve been working in all sorts of ‘creepy’ games for twenty-six year now. ;0)

    Pays the rent.

  7. Giles Williams says:

    May refer you to Mr. Wil Wheaton:

  8. Dan Terrell says:

    Alan: I don’t have anything against intense games set in alternative realities. But what I find creepy is the player that uses the game, whichever it may be, as sort of a personal Rorschok test and gets creepier as the game goes on. Of course, I wouldn’t want to play with EC’s Crypt Keeper either.
    Perhaps, this comes from having had a friend whose father ran a funeral parlor. We kids used to play cards in their kitchen. Most nights after dinner the father would walk through the kitchen and go down to the basement.
    Finally, we asked our friend what his father did down there. He told us sincerely that his dad walked through an underground tunnel over to the funeral parlor and finished preparing the deceased. His dad liked to put the small smile on the body after having dinner and wine. Sort of a finishing touch.

  9. Sam Tomaino says:

    The best board game of all time is Sorry. It’s mostly luck b it does need some strategy.

    What’s great about it is adults can play it with kids and the kids can win without the adults dumbing down their game.

  10. snowy says:

    [staggers in under the weight of a bucket of cold water and a slightly moist blanket]

    It’s not going to sell as a game, but as a limited edition, numbered and signed object, tied to a book release, it might work.

    What would it look like, well a large match box naturally.
    4 Player pieces (small die-cast figurines would be nice)
    1 Die
    1 Playing board (though using a printed “silk” square, rather than cardboard has a certain appeal)
    52 “Game” cards
    4 Sealed “solution” cards

    The scenario:
    Four members of the PCU are missing (now where have I heard that before?)

    I’ll spare you all a detailed description of the game play and board, but the game starts jolly and then turns adversarial. The object is to collect a set of 13 cards, while other players try to take them off you. Once you have a set of cards you win.

    If you were to lay the 13 cards out in order you would be able to read a short story describing what befell that character. But to discover their fate you have to open the sealed card. But you can’t tear open the sealed envelope or can you? It’s a collectors item after all. 😉

    A smart writer might be able to construct four individual prologues, one for each character, that link to the book. Anyone not having read the prologues would just start the book to discover the team recovering from some unknown individual adventures. Or there might be a reference to the unseen events as the story unfolds.

    [Wanders back off to tinker with recovering data from a scratched DVD, doubtless harsh language will follow.]

  11. Iain says: is highly recommended but is incredibly overwhelming to use at first, so a few recommendations (based on games you already know):

    – Settlers of Catan. Forget Monopoly, Settlers was the big breakout hit from Germany in the 90s and is the game I’d recommend to start with. You are building a civilisation of settlements, roads and cities which generate resources that you can trade with other players (as you’ll never have what you need.) Plays in an hour, no player elimination, a variable board (so each game is different) and all the players are involved through the game –

    – Sleuth. Cluedo with no board and added complexity. A set of jewels is missing and you have deduce what they are. Two decks of cards, one of the jewel combinations (so one card is removed and the rest are dealt out to the players), the other are questions you can ask of the other players. Plays like one of those logic puzzles where you have to work out specific information from the described relationships (e.g. Player 1 has 5 blue cards, but no diamond cards, etc.) –

    – Ticket to Ride. Simple board game with rummy-like game play. You have a map of America (in the base game, there’s also Ticket to Ride: Europe and Ticket to Ride: Asia) and you get tickets which have two cities you have to connect by the end of the game. You draw and play train cards (in various colours linked to the board, including wild cards) to link the cities together. Very easy and very popular. –

    – Funny Friends. If possible, get the German version of this, rather than the sanitised American version. Great replacement for the Game of Life. You have life goals (such as being an overweight smoker, or having had several marriages, or dying alone, etc.) and bid on activities that change your scores in various categories (weight, happiness, smoking, drinking, drug taking etc) to try and meet those goals. You can even have relationships with the other players (including same sex ones, or poly ones if you’re playing the German version.) Mind you, not a game for the kids. –

    The board games hobby really took off after Settler of Catan became available in the US, and the Internet made English translations of the rules available.

    And I already have the game “Hell Train” – (well, “Hell Rail: Third Perdition”) it’s about ferrying souls through the circles of hell –

  12. I collect board games, too. I’m not sure what the appeal is. I haunt the local resale shops and buy ones that look interesting (and still have all their pieces). Then I have to cajole my kids (now adults) into playing them. Some of them are only played once, but others turn out to be fun and come out again. I’d like to point out the important role board games played in helping young people develop number sense as they moved pieces around a board (especially Parcheesi), figured out what rolls they needed (or didn’t want), added up word scores in Scrabble, etc. When these same games are played electronically, these incidental benefits disappear. Math teacher woes. . .

  13. Alan Morgan says:

    No worries, Dan. Intense obsessives can be found in any hobby. As a job there are worse.

  14. There has never been a better time for board games than the last 2 years.

    It used to be that you had no chance of an independent person bringing out their own board game unless one of the “big guys” bought the rights. They only wanted mass appeal style games. The problem sometimes with mass appeal is that you have to lose sophistication and drop the level of difficulty to be virtually nil.

    Nowadays, with the likes of Kickstarter etc we’re seeing average joe’s bring out some really sophisticated, intriguing and damn right fun board games. They create games that require deep-thinking, logical moves and can tell they were built with a passion and eye for detail.

  15. Well…. I have invented and am currently marketing what I consider to be an excellent money-based board game called Realism.

    We sent some games to MyBnk for evaluation and we were very pleased with their response. They said:
    “We got together for lunch last week and played the game. It was incredible just how realistic it was and how much detail it went into. As the game went on people really seemed to be enjoying themselves and had a great time. Overall, I would say that we are very impressed with the game and it is something I would encourage my close friends and family to play.”

    MyBnk is a charity who deliver financial and enterprise education directly to schools and youth organisations.
    So watch this space guys!

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