Introduction to Modern Board Games
I love board games but they can be overwhelming for the newcomer. The hobby continues to expand and grow at an incredible rate. Kickstarter games, deluxe editions, games the size of small family homes, and thousands of releases a year. These things may be the sign of a healthy hobby but they can also be overwhelming for those just discovering this wonderful world.
Let us take a breath. Take a moment. Now answer this question. How do you introduce people to the tabletop games hobby in the modern era? More specifically to the board and card game hobby. RPGs and miniatures games feel like they deserve a separate set of ideas. This has been pinballing around my head since a friend on Twitter asked about sampling what modern boardgames can do.
Here we have then my Introduction to Modern Board Games
Depending on your situation you may not need to spend very much money to sample some of what modern board games have to offer. Board game cafes and venues have been popping up all over the world in the last decade or two. Many will have staff who can happily teach you games and recommend titles based on your knowledge and preferences.
Look around facebook or your social media platform of choice and you might find other like-minded folk in your vicinity willing to show you the ropes.
This would be my first recommendation for getting a taste of the hobby as it is. You don’t need to dive in head first with your credit card held between your teeth.
Getting a Taste
Whether you go the direction of a games cafe or establish your own collection you are going to want some suggestions of where to start. I am going to recommend some games that will let you sample different types of mechanisms. However, it is often best to be guided by other things you are interested in. Do you like birdwatching? Try Wingspan. Are you a sci-fi nut, seek out sci-fi games. Having a hook into a game with something you already enjoy can be a wonderful way to discover the hobby. Drop me a line any time and I can make some suggestions.
That said, here are my own personal recommendations for games you might like to try. All the games I am about to suggest are widely available, cover a good range of price points, and will introduce you to different types of mechanisms that you will find in many modern board games. I’ll explain a little about those mechanisms as I go. Think of this as a sampling menu that is going to give you a taste of what the hobby has to offer.
I’ll link to my own reviews of these games where I have them.
2 – 4 players, Low Complexity
Not only is the game from a master of the game design craft, Sid Sackson, it is also a perfectly formed push-your-luck game. These sorts of games involve you taking greater and greater risks. You teeter on the edge of failure before pulling back to maximise your play. Often you push yourself over, and that is part of the fun. Can’t Stop is a masterpiece of minimalist design with maximum tension.
2 – 4 players, medium complexity
A great example of how lavish board games can be. The production here is top notch and the game underneath is one of my current favourites. Whatever you end up thinking of the game it is a beautiful piece of art.
Everdell will give you a taste of two different mechanisms: worker placement and tableau building.
Worker Placement involves you using a limited pool of worker pieces to gather resources by placing them on a space on the board. Of course other people can go where you want. One of the joys in this kind of game is working out when and where to place your workers.
Tableau building is most commonly expressed through cards being placed into an area in front of you. Those cards then interact with each other, and give you various bonuses. Neither of these elements is terribly complicated and they make a really nice combination.
2 – 4 players, low complexity
Azul feels like one of those classic games you may have learnt from a parent or grandparent. It is an example of what we might call an abstract game. That means there is little in the way of theme or setting to inform what is happening on the board. Chess, Draughts and Backgammon would all fall under this classification.
Azul is a lovely game that is easy to teach, beautiful to handle, and has a streak of mean through it. It was a winner of the coveted Spiel des Jahres in 2018. This award is given out annually by a Jury of German critics and shows the wider public the games that the jury thinks are approachable and worth playing. It’s a big deal in the tabletop hobby and can boost sales of the games that are awarded it.
1 – ? players, Medium Complexity
You might be browsing board games online and in your local games shop and realise they can take up a lot of space! Well games don’t need to be massive to be interesting and well designed. Voyages is an example of a genre that has been getting a lot of traction over the last few years. Roll & Write.
In this type of game you have a randomiser: dice or a deck of cards most commonly. You then use that randomiser to give you results that allow you to cross off points, draw houses, or write something on a sheet in front of you. The other aspect of Roll & Writes that might interest you is that you can play them at basically any player account as long as you have enough sheets printed off!
The team at Postmark Games have taken this to its logical conclusion and made very cheap games, £5, that you can print off at home! You don’t even need do to that. I’ve played several games of voyages using my laptop and the dice roller built into google search! Environmentally friendly, interesting games, that don’t cost a lot.
Star Realms/ Star Wars Deckbuilding Game
2 player, medium complexity
I love card games and either of these titles would be a good introduction to the world of deckbuilding. Whereas with a game like Uno or any game that uses a regular 52 card deck you just shuffle the deck and get on with the game, deckbuilding games see you manipulating the deck of cards you have as the game progresses. You can add cards, get rid of cards, and build combinations of powers to propel you to victory.
Both the games I’ve mentioned here are a really straightforward introduction to this mechanism, but you will find it in lots of other games if you wade further into the hobby. Mechanically they are almost the same game, so just choose whichever one appeals the most.
3 – 5 players, low complexity
No introduction to modern boardgames would be complete without a tile from the man who has designed hundreds of games, Dr Reiner Knizia.
Originally released in 1992, Modern Art has had many editions over the years and is a fantastic example of complex interactions emerging from simple rules. In Modern Art’s case, the core mechanism is that of auctions. This game will give you a sample of lots of different types of auctions and have you marvel at what a simple set of rules can bring to the table. Games don’t need to be complex to be incredibly engaging.
2 – 4 players, Medium Complexity
Most folk coming into the hobby will assume that all the games they are going to encounter will be competitive: you are trying to beat the other players! There is a large category of games that instead see you fighting with the other players against the game itself. This genre is referred to as co-operative and Pandemic was the first game to really bring it to the attention of modern audience.
If you want to avoid the worldwide virus theme of this game, for totally understandable reasons, Forbidden Island by the same designer gives you a similar co-op experience in a smaller package with a less controversial setting.
2 – 4 players, High Complexity
This is the most complex game I am going to recommend to you but some people will want to experience something a bit crunchier from the off.
Root looks like an adorable game from the Kyle Ferrin art but is actually a wargame that sees these critter factions fighting over the woodland. Unlike something like Risk, every side in this conflict goes about winning in a different way. This mechanism is most commonly called asymmetry, where each faction approaches the goal of the game differently, or may even have a completely different goal. A symmetric game would be something like Chess or Draughts, were both sides start out basically the same.
Root is complex, but the player aids and rules that publisher Leder Games provide are second to none and there is a lot of game in the core box. If you really get into it there are several expansions that introduce new factions. Its one of those games you could play for a long time and not get tired of.
Men at Work
2 – 5 players, Low Complexity
The physical presence of boardgames is an important factor in their appeal. Dexterity games like Men at Work takes that presence to its logical conclusion, making balancing and placing the components part of the challenge of the game. Think of the tension of Jenga but turned up to 11 and you have something akin to what Men at Work feels like to play. It’s a game that is more subtle than it first appears and is a great one to bring out to show friends what games can be.
Jaws of the Lion
1 – 4 players, High Complexity
Now this is the only recommendation in the list I haven’t played, but bear with me. If you are coming to modern boardgames having played things like Heroquest, or just like the idea of delving down a dungeon then my choice would be Gloomhaven. Gloomhaven is £100 or so. I am not recommending that to you, much as I love it.
Jaws of the Lion is Gloomhaven with a lot of the extra classes, bells and whistles stripped out, but the core game remains and gets very good reviews. It has a great set of introductory scenarios to help you learn the game, and is easier to setup and breakdown than its bigger cousin.
A dungeon delving game like this sees you heading out into scenarios, gathering treasure, gaining experience and levelling up your character as the game progresses. The game also features a great combat mechanism that I really adore, and is closer to £40 to boot. A great way to get an idea if this sort of game is for you.
As I said at the start I really think the best way to get an idea if boardgames are for you is to visit a games cafe or group. Your preference might be to have friends round to your house to give this boardgame thing a try, and hopefully the games I have recommended above will get you an insight into what the modern hobby can do.
If you are thinking that this might be for you then there a couple of other things I would like to make you aware of as you wade into deeper waters.
Apps and Digital Implementation
Many boardgame companies produce apps for phones or PC of their games. This can be a great way to cheaply sample a game, but of course it won’t give you a feel for the physicality of that game.
You will also find many sites out there that have digital implementations of games, not apps as such but boardgames made for a browser based interface. The best of these is Board Game Arena where you can find loads of games, and opponents, to play. Not all the games there have the same level of attention applied to their implementation. There is some rough to be taken with the smooth. However it is a good way to sample a lot of games very cheaply and get an idea if you would like to buy them for yourself.
The other online venues for boardgames at Tabletopia, also browser based, and Tabletop Simulator, a programme available on Steam. Both these are basically physics simulators that have been used to make boardgames. Like Board Game Arena the games can range from easy to play, to a complete pain.
It’s entirely possible that the world of crowdfunding is unfamiliar to you. On a crowdfunding platform, folk can put up projects and then ask for money from the public in order to be able to deliver that project. These projects will generally include an initial funding target, and then goals to be hit after that, which will bring more to the project.
The world of boardgames has been turned upside down by crowdfunding in the last decade. If you get into the hobby you will likely come across a game that has been crowdfunded before too long (in fact Everdell was initially crowdfunded from my list). Starting off with the platform Kickstarter, there are now several venues where individuals and companies can go and try to bring their tabletop dream to life. The other big names are Gamefound and Backerkit which are both aiming for a piece of the boardgame pie that Kickstarter is so greedily mashing into its face.
When you pledge money to a crowdfunded project you will get something in return. This could be just a thank you or a game delivered to your door depending on the amount you pledge. Sounds good right?
If you decide to back a project on any of these platforms I would like you to know the following:
- These platforms are not stores, no matter how much they look like one. You do not have the same rights as you would buying from a store
- You may never get your reward.
- Projects often overrun, be kind to the creators
The really good games often make their way to retail anyway, so don’t feel you are missing out. There are thousands of games to play that don’t mean you have to go through the stress of backing a crowdfunding campaign.
You may have noticed that Jaws of the Lion and Voyages can both be played by a single person. That’s right you can play loads of modern board games solo. What’s more there are some games specifically made for solo play and nothing else! Now I am not really into this myself so I recommend checking out my friend Adam over at Punchboard for some great recommendations if you would like to explore this part of the hobby.
Play to find out
The world of modern board games is vast and expansive. No longer are there just sci-fi and fantasy settings for these games, there is something for everyone. The list I have provided here should provide a good example of some of the mechanisms that make these games tick, and hopefully give you a taste for more.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to go all in to get the best out of board games. Having a few games that you play a lot is as equally valid as having a thousand strong collection of games. Do what makes you happy. Let your interests outside of board games draw you towards the titles that you might find enjoyable. Join communities. Go to your local cafe. Have the neighbours round for a game. I guarantee you will find something to enjoy in a hobby that is going from strength to strength.