Early last year, the combined Eldritchian power of the internet and the hipster community managed to extend the lifespan of another unexpected property. They've done this a couple of times before in the recent past, most notably with cats. But this time around, it was the turn of an activity that most reserve for the quieter moments of a family Christmas, or a rainy Sunday immediately following the completion of the Breaking Bad boxset. Those moments when the world seems bereft of all possibility, and the only way to get through the hours is with a bit of light-to-medium competition. We are discussing, of course, the illustrious and occasionally misunderstood world of the board game.
At this point, it’s probably best to lay my cards on the table (two wheat and one wood; anyone got a brick?) and admit that I love board games. Love them. I’ve got those canny hipsters to thank for that, of course, as this affection developed properly following the (rightful) crowning of Settlers of Catan as “the new Monopoly” (and subsequently seeing the actual new Monopoly go bananas), but in some way or another I’ve always been interested, if not quite as devotedly as I am now. They were always a staple part of growing up, but my knowledge really only extended to the most traditional of games and rarely took a detour beyond those confines. Even when it did, I was still pretty prosaic about my choices, as with the beautifully designed but childish (and now crazy-expensive) HeroQuest or the distressingly simplistic Candyland.
I also still vividly recall playing the VHS edition of Atmosfear, my earliest taste of a horror game, and jumping out of my skin when the Gatekeeper yelled “MAGG-OTS!” So the tendency was always there; it just took the resurgence of the medium to bring me right back in. In the last six months I’ve been making up for lost time, purchasing a lot of new games to get up to speed, and keeping an eye on the hectic BoardGameGeek website. This is where where fellow nerds recommend or – more typically – slag off the new batch of games being released on an almost weekly basis (seriously: the top aggregate score of any board game ever is 8.2 out of 10. Compare that to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s 97/100 on Metacritic).
The experiment has yielded some top drawer entertainment, but it’s all for nought if I can’t share my findings with the wider world. So let’s take a whistle stop tour of my personal Top 5 and why you should stop reading this and go play them right now…
MY TOP FIVE
5. Letters to Whitechapel
This has just been reprinted by (the oft-lamented) Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) but tends to go out of stock quickly, so it’s worth grabbing a copy while they’re about. It pits one player (or a team) as the Whitechapel constabulary against another player taking the role of the nefarious Jack the Ripper. The twist comes in that Jack doesn’t actually play on the board; as he flees each night's murder scene (five in total) through the streets of the slum district, he records his movements on a notepad hidden from the police, who have to then track him down using clever movement and deduction. It’s a more adult version of the classic Scotland Yard and just as easy to pick up and play, and a stunning example of theme, gameplay and production working in harmony. My recommendation is to stick to two players, as the police work tends to be quite diluted when shared amongst a team. But with a head-to-head set up, the game becomes a brilliantly suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase (and a bit of a history lesson to boot).
4. Mansions of Madness
Another FFG game, and for my money one of the best of their Arkham Horror series, MoM is a combination of DnD-style combat, Usborne puzzling and Choose Your Own Adventure exploration. It’s the closest thing to a novel brought to life, and once again pits one player (as the Keeper) against a team (as the Investigators), who are charged with unraveling some gruesome mysteries in the eponymous Mansions. Each story in the game necessitates a different layout of the included room tiles, ‘seeded’ with items and clues kept secret to the Investigators until they find them. The Keeper takes the role of both the antagonist and the storyteller, moving the story along even as he or she is doling out supernatural punishments to try and drive the Investigators insane (or, all else failing, mutilate them horribly). Absolutely dripping with the 1920s Lovecraftian theme and inventive almost to a fault, it’s a heavyweight, long, confusing, occasionally brilliant, exciting and undeniably satisfying experience.
3. Power Grid
‘Eurogames’ (and specifically those from Germany) are a particular subset of board games. And these are the anthithesis of the theme-heavy/rule-light ‘Ameritrash’, in that they’ve been constructed with mathematical precision and often feature in-depth rule sets and abstract play. Of these, Power Grid is one of the finest examples, charging players with connecting a map of cities to the grid, while balancing the need to buy larger power plants with the fluctuating resource market of coal, oil, garbage and so forth. The full mechanics of the game aren’t entirely clear until about the second or third round, but once understood, their clockwork precision is magnificent. Everything has its place. Everything works.
2. Settlers of Catan
For someone looking to bring a casual gaming group together with a view to moving onto more complex titles, Settlers is the best starting point there is. Simple enough for beers-and-crisps nights, but with enough Eurogame depth to keep it bubbling along nicely, it pits players against one another as they try to collect randomised resources (Wood, Brick, Stone, Wheat and Sheep) by luck and persuasive bartering, in order to build roads, towns and eventually cities and accumulate Victory Points. Its pleasant, almost textless design makes it a great game for families too.
1. Elder Sign
You know the only way to make gambling more fun? Gambling IN ORDER TO KILL CTHULU! This phenomenal dice game, from the same Arkham Horror stable as MoM, is set in the Arkham Museum and has the player characters facing off against the forces of a Big Bad that slumbers beneath. The evil entity differs in each game, but the object is the same: turn over an event card and roll the right combination of symbols displayed there to succeed. Easy. Or not. Because it’s purely luck-based, it totally depends on the way the bones tumble. But having to balance Investigator stamina and sanity adds a role-playing element and although you do sometimes feel that the board's stacked against you, it adds to the drama rather than diffusing it. A perfect pick-up-and-play bit of fluff and beloved by the old hats too, Elder Sign is the perfect addition to anyone's gaming horde.
So there we have it - a very quick round-up of games to get you started. Let me know in the comments below what you've been playing and any recommendations I might have missed!