It’s Complicated, It’s Complex!

(Arrrgghhhh! Safari just crashed on me, right on the verge of finishing a long post, reconstructed below. Let no man give Apple unqualified praise now – they have erred, and they have erred greviously in allowing such a shoddy, slow, pre-beta, crash-prone piece of bug-ridden garbage such as Safari to be released to the general public. Mozilla might be a memory hog, but it never had problems with my pressing ‘undo’ in a textbox. Damn you, David Hyatt, damn you to Hades!)

Last weekend, I went over to the Mitre pub here in Oxford, walked upstairs and immediately found myself embroiled in such a charged atmosphere of political intrigue and horse trading that it would make even the most hardened BBC Today programme journalist blanch in fearful wonder. No, I hadn’t accidentally gone into a meeting of the Oxford Union (I would only ever come near them accidentally) – I’d come to the OxCon boardgame convention.

In the US and UK, boardgames are treated like a distant relative – you don’t mind spending time with them at Christmas, and you even occasionally enjoy their company, but seeing them isn’t something you’d like to do every week. Boardgames just aren’t all that popular anymore. As the highly knowledgeable BoardGameGeek FAQ succintly puts it:

“Here in America anyway, when someone says ‘boardgames,’ 99% of the population (aka, ‘non-gamers’) think of Monopoly or Scrabble, maybe Pictionary, and that’s about it. ‘Non-gamers’ think of gaming as a once-a-year event under the Christmas tree, rather than a viable way to spend an evening with a group of friends on a semi-regular basis.”

What is it that stops most people from venturing beyond the likes of Monopoly into the verdant pastures of new, beautifully designed and balanced games like The Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne? Undoubtedly the rise of more visceral forms of entertainment like computer games and TV (as it is today) must shoulder much of the blame, but I feel that ignorance and anxiety are also responsible. It really is true that most people wouldn’t be able to name more than a couple of boardgames other than Monopoly, so no wonder they aren’t playing anything else. Yet at the same time it’s unlikely that they’ve never encountered new boardgames like Settlers. The fact is, people are scared of new boardgames, especially those that contain more pieces than I have fingers. They think that they’ll be too complicated and boring.

This is demonstrably not true.

When I made it up to the boardgame convention, to meet a reader of this weblog (Chris Dickson) I felt a bit out of place. I’m not what anyone would describe as a boardgame player – in fact, I only own two ‘advanced’ boardgames, and I bought one of them at the convention. So despite everything that I’ve said here, I was a little anxious that I would, yes, find the convention a bit boring and too complicated. My fears were only deepened when I sat down at Chris’ table to watch them play a space colony boardgame that seemed to involve a plethora of complicated cards and little markers.

As it was, after Chris was kind enough to answer my questions and I watched for twenty minutes, I pretty much had all of the rules figured out. This was without actually reading the rule book. This means that anyone reading this would be able to pick it up just as quickly. Similarly, when the game finished and we started a new game of The Settlers of Catan, I knew exactly what I was doing within ten minutes (of course, I still lost).

The point is not that all of these ‘advanced’ boardgames (in the sense that they are a bit more complicated than Monopoly) have simple rules. They’re not always simple. But the rules of the good ones are always straightforward and logical, and they make sense.

Of course, the real reason why people play these games has nothing to do with the rules, it’s to do with the fact that they’re a lot of fun. In fact, the reasons why they are fun are almost identical to the reasons why they’re not like games like Monopoly.

Firstly, they reward skill, not luck. You could be the best player of Monopoly in the world (not that that’d be difficult) and you could still very easily lose. That’s not fun.

Secondly, they involve you actually talking to your friends about the game. Many of these advanced games require interaction between players, for trading and bargaining of some sort, and that’s where the real fun comes from in boardgames.

The third and final reason is that they invariably don’t involve direct competition between players. The majority of players find this sort of thing uncomfortable and occasionally upsetting, for good reason, so in advanced games while there is still enough competition to make things exciting, there’s also an element of co-operation. A side-effect of this is that in the best-designed games, it’s literally impossible to be knocked out of the game and have to sit the rest of it out on the sidelines – all of the players will play to the end, and they’ll have a stake in the final result even if they don’t have a realistic chance of winning.

The new and popular advanced games like Settlers, Carcassonne and Puerto Rico are in a completely different class to what most people think of boardgames. They’re incredibly rich experiences that offer many more possibilities than just hoping that your next roll will be a six. I don’t mean to denigrate Monopoly that much – I know that it can be a fun game – but let’s face it, it’s not that game that’s fun, it’s the company. That’s the reason why boardgame players beat on it so much to the extent that a recent review of Settlers said:

“…They liked the game enough that they are going to buy it. Another family that doesn’t have to play Monopoly anymore, the world feels at peace.”

Have a look at the top 10 games at BoardGameGeek. See if any of them sound interesting to you, and take a chance, buy one of them and introduce it to your friends; that’s what I’m going to do. I promise that it’ll be more fun than seeing that distant relative once a year.

(Coming soon: a review of The Settlers of Catan…)

One Reply to “It’s Complicated, It’s Complex!”

  1. Glad you enjoyed it and it was wonderful to get the chance to meet you! If you want to get the chance to try out many more games to see which ones take your fancy then there are a number of small board gaming groups in the area; I would recommend the Oxford University Diplomacy Society which meets on Wednesday evenings as a starting point, though there are other local ones with fine folk in as well.

    Your reasons as to why the best modern board games are so good are all accurate and perceptive, though it’s also true that part of Settlers’ popularity as a gateway game is because it is relatively close to the traditional model despite not falling into many of the traditional pitfalls. Settlers really is becoming a slow-burner breakout game; I’m seeing more and more people with a passing interest in games at large (but principally computer games rather than board games) take an interest in it. It’ll not outlast chess, but globally it should outlast (to take a reasonably familiar, high-profile mainstream example) Cranium and could well outlast Pictionary.

    See you at the same place this time next year, I hope!

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