This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
I owe a lot to board games. They were, after all, my main motivation in learning to read. The youngest of six, my siblings would take out their frustration at having to include me in games through the invention of spurious ‘rules’ the veracity of which their illiterate sister had no way to check. Frowningly constructing the jam sandwich each Monopoly loser must present to the winner (“that’s what it says here”) or shaking out the ritual 10p loser tax from my piggy bank (“blame Hasbro, they wrote it”) I smelt a rat but was powerless. One determined path through a set of Ladybird Learning To Read books later, and I knew I’d been had. The result: an ongoing sense of unspecified mistrust in humanity and a lingering resentment at anything involving dice.
Childhood passed by without board games making much impact on my time (having mastered reading, I quickly turned pro. People may think it’s impossible to successfully navigate a field of cattle and two stiles without once looking up from your Terry Pratchett, but on the way to and from school, I did it twice daily with minimal shoe scuffing. What can I say? I’m an athlete.)
A bit of Mousie Mousie here, a haunted edition of Coppit bought from a jumble sale there… I could take games or leave them. We were never going to be bosom buds, me and them. I just wasn’t feeling it.
Fast forward to (mumble) years later. It’s midway through a week off work I’ve divided between building a series of cities in the south of France and trading sacks of exotic spices for camels in the hope of receiving an invitation to the Maharaja’s court. From time to time, to unwind from the pressures of life as a medieval architect or middle-Eastern market trader, I relax by constructing multiple railway lines across turn-of-the-century Europe. Or, if all that gets a bit much, I stitch together a patchwork quilt made from Tetris pieces while amassing a fortune of tiny blue cardboard buttons.
In short: I’ve fallen for table top games, hard.
The major, light-through-the-clouds revelation for me is that not all tabletop games (I’ve learned that’s what you’re supposed to call them, even if you can play them equally well on top of duvets, park benches or sticky pub window ledges) are difficult and complicated. Granted, they may sound difficult and complicated when you read the rules, but so does making a cup of tea if you’re try to understand how to do it by reading step-by-step instructions. Even for the least initiated player (me), one play-through was enough to grasp the ones below.
By the end of your third go around each of the following, you’ll be happily destroying your marriage/friendship with killer moves that display enough strategic nous to make even Napoleon salute you as a sly minx. Unless you’re playing against Napoleon, in which case, faced with one of your killer strategic moves, he’ll probably do what my husband does and go quiet for a minute, swallow hard then mentally cut the budget for your birthday present in half. In this scenario though, I see Napoleon acting in more of a spectator/cheerleader capacity.
Simmering resentment aside, these games are a brilliant way to spend time together. Less stressful than Call of Duty or whatnot, you can bob along them, moseying down a river of tea and Club biscuits on your way to the final turn. You can play them in a power cut, after the apocalypse or at Center Parcs. They’re adaptable like that.
And for the more herbivorous and pacifist among you, many don’t even require a killer instinct. I’m not experienced enough to know all the lingo or categories (I dipped my toe into YouTube tabletop gaming channels, quickly regressed to the same state of panic experienced having accidentally wandered into a Games Workshop in my late teens) but the five chosen below are all great for beginners. They’re also perfect for two players, because including myself, that’s the number of people I can generally stand to spend any length of time with.
Jaipur is hands down the most fun I’ve ever had with pictures of camels. It’s slightly onerous to set up each game, but quick to grasp, nicely compact and very pretty. The object is to trade your stock (cards depicting diamonds, gold, spices, silks etc.) for as many points as you can by collecting sets, swapping items for camels, and picking up bonuses.
Each game is divided into a best of 3, and the winner earns an invitation to the Maharaja’s palace (which I imagine to be filled with Turkish delight, bouncy castles and that massive walk-on keyboard from Big.)
It says it’s for ages 12+ but I’d say it’s fine for younger kids, 8 upwards probably. I mean, I understood it. Each game, like most on this list, lasts around half an hour so there’s no big time commitment either.
Patchwork is just delightful. Again, it’s a 2-player game that lasts 20-30 minutes and is very quick to pick up. Essentially, each player is trying to fill up their own grid with Tetris shapes (the patches for your patchwork blanket) while collecting currency in the form of buttons. The player with the most buttons at the end wins, but you also need to complete as much of your blanket as possible, as unfilled spaces are taken off your total. Kids will easily grasp it. Requires a medium-sized coffee table.
You can get lots of nerdy versions of card game Fluxx including Adventure Time and Firefly editions, but I bought the original and very quickly took against it. As a fan of slow-build strategies that pay off big, to begin with I was utterly lost with this one, which doesn’t reward that type of play. Instead, it’s all about adapting.
Suitable for 2-6 players, it involves laying cards that change the rules of the game from turn to turn, so there’s little point in carefully planning ahead, you have to react and go with the flow. Soon though, the utter joy of this game’s unpredictability won me over. It’s fast and chaotic, surprising, and perfect for pubs.
Ticket To Ride
This is a handsome game that turns out to be a surprising amount of fun even if you pretty much hate trains. The aim is to complete routes (chosen from a set of goal cards) between different geographical locations by creating trains of carriages between them. I was given the Europe version as a present, which is great, but it’s also available in a range of different editions and in a non-tabletop mobile version too. Good for learning capitals too, so, you know, education!
Well, obviously Carcassonne. This is the game I used to see yellowing in the window of the local poorly lit gaming shop that felt so inaccessible and unwelcoming it may as well have been presided over by the actual Sphinx. I forget its name but think it was called ‘Casual Gamer? Fuck off’.
Something about castles and farmers, or bricks and monks, from the outside Carcassonne looked dull and hard. From the inside, it’s neither. The goal is to score points by building and claiming ownership of cities, abbeys, roads and fields by placing little wooden men on little square cards. So well-established and celebrated, this will come as headline news to nobody, but Carcassonne is ingeniously simple and brilliant. I love it so much that on a recent browsing bookshop trip, I picked up a slim volume about medieval town planning. You know, for tips.
To conclude then, I’m a tabletop gaming novice and I am in. So much so that I wrote this all as a cunning ruse to ferret out recommendations from you fine, knowledgeable people in the comments section. (I’ve just bought one called Android: Netrunner, which looks worryingly complex and I hope won’t make me want to flush it down the toilet.)