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LOW←TECH MAGAZINE

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Gaming unplugged

The newest generation of board games is more fascinating than most computer games.

The era of Monopoly, Risk, Cluedo and Stratego is over. In recent years, a remarkable amount of board games have appeared that raise the genre some levels higher. These games find their inspiration in modern computer games …

The newest generation of board games is more fascinating than most computer games.

The era of Monopoly, Risk, Cluedo and Stratego is over. In recent years, a remarkable amount of board games have appeared that raise the genre some levels higher. These games find their inspiration in modern computer games, and also in military simulations and miniature war games. They mix strategic depth with simple rules, a limited playtime and visually attractive boards and counters. That’s why they can appeal both to hardcore gamers and their families.


“In more than one aspect, these games are the opposite of classic games like Monopoly or Risk.”

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The rise of the computer game since the eighties looked to herald the demise of the traditional board game. Video games offer some interesting advantages compared to tabletop games. They can be played alone, they don’t occupy the dining table and they offer ever more lifelike images of vast virtual worlds, packed with audiovisual effects like talking soldiers, explosions and shrieking tyres. In other words: serious competition for plastic counters, dice and folding boards.

However, in recent years, sales of board games have gone up again – some manufacturers present growth figures between 10 and 50 percent a year. The computer gaming market is still a lot bigger, but the revival is remarkable considering the technological superiority of videogames. Some are finding an explanation in the need for more social interaction. Even if two people join to play a computer game, they both look at the screen, not at each other. This social element certainly plays a part, but the most important reason for the resurrection of board games is simply the quality of a new generation of products.

Chess ?

For a long time, there was hardly any evolution in the world of board games. Everybody was playing Monopoly (1935), Cluedo (1946), Stratego (1947), Scrabble (1948) or Risk (1959). On the website Boardgamegeek, the worldwide reference for the new generation of board game fanatics, these classic games have disappeared from the top one hundred. Even the centuries old chess game (1457) holds only the 198th place.

The list of boardgamegeek is topped by much more recent designs, most of them have only been on the market for just of couple of years: Puerto Rico (2002), Power Grid (2004), Twilight Struggle (2005),Tigris and Euphrates{width=”1” height=”1”} (1997), Caylus{width=”1” height=”1”} (2005), El Grande (1995),The Princes of Florence (2000), Shogun (2006), Age of Steam (2002) and Agricola (2007).

All games that were developed during the rule of the computer game – and they did a good job borrowing interesting concepts of them.

The new generation of games is best known as “Eurogames” or “German-style games”. For some reason (we will not go into that any further here), Germans are masters when it comes to designing fascinating strategy games. Other European countries, like France and Spain, are catching up. The games are not always translated in English, but that does not stop the geeks: you can download the rules and even add-ons for cards and maps from websites like Boardgamegeek.

Dice are taboo

Eurogames are also known as designer games since – contrary to traditional games – the name of the designer is prominently displayed on the box. Of course, the interaction between videogames and board games is not entirely new. Civilization, one of the most popular computer games, was originally a board game. Quite a few computer games have been converted to board games, and the other way around. However, it is mostly not these games, but the original ones that are runaway successes.

In more than one aspect, Eurogames are the opposite of classic games like Monopoly or Risk. A first major difference is that the luck factor is removed as much as possible – dice are taboo, while in classic games they play a decisive role. Just like is the case with chess, the best strategist wins – without the rules being more complicated than in a classic tabletop game.

A second change is that the playing time is limited to one or two hours, while games like Monopoly and Risk can go on forever. Most designer games contain a mechanism that stops the game after some time, whatever happens.

Thirdly, no-one gets eliminated before the game ends – watching a game after you have been thrown out is not exactly having fun. A fourth difference is the visual appeal. Lots of attention is given to the finishing touch and the presentation of the counters and the boards. And last but not least: some games can be played by a single player.

Themes

Just like computer games, Eurogames are built up around a certain theme. The players have to develop a city, a civilization, a transport infrastructure{width=”1” height=”1”}, an electricity network{width=”1” height=”1”} or a business empire. On the whole, the games are situated in a historical era: the Middle Ages, the age of discovery, the start of the industrial revolution. War games are also popular, and so are pure simulation games like the managing of a farm{width=”1” height=”1”} or a zoo{width=”1” height=”1”}. Sometimes the same games are being marketed in several themes or historical era, again - just as happens with computer games. Even tabletop first person shooters are popping up.

To remove luck as a winning element, game development and mechanisms are heavily based on those of computer games. Players have to take the right decision when it’s their turn. For instance, in Puerto Rico{width=”1” height=”1”}, where you govern a slave colony, you have to decide which crops to grow, when to harvest them, when to ship them to Europe.

In the meantime you have to develop your city; extra buildings stimulate the harvest and the sales. At the same time you have to take care that your slaves have enough food and that the treasury remains filled. With every turn, you can only implement a limited amount of acts and every decision you make determines your success in the further development of the game. One has to think many steps in advance, while at the same time anticipating the actions of other players.

The visual appeal of designer games manifests itself in colourful boards, cards and figures. Sometimes several boards are delivered with the game, or the boards can be put together in different combinations, so that the game can be played in different environments - again just like a computer game. The same amount of attention is given to the counters, in quantity as well as quality. Some tabletop games are sold with hundreds of different figurines, vehicles or ships.

War games

have also been influenced by war games – battles with very complicated rules that can go on for days. These games can be roughly divided into two genres: military simulation games, which have a detailed board and (mostly) cardboard cards as counters, and miniature role-playing games, in which the counters are decorated miniatures.

The latter category does not use boards, they can be played everywhere - the movements of the miniatures are determined by a set of rules, a meter and a compass. These games are mostly played in a miniature environment, complete with miniature buildings, rivers, bridges, trees and hills. Miniature war gamers spend at least as much time decorating the figures and the landscape as they do gaming.

Eurogames copy the board structure of military simulation games, typically divided in hexagonal tiles to arrange the movement of the counters. From miniature war games, Eurogames copy the model-building element. Board game geeks personalize their games; figurines and vehicles are being painted or replaced by scratch-build specimens, boards are being decorated with miniature buildings and structures.

Figurines

Another popular pastime is the design of new boards. All this also happens in computer games, but to a minor extent since not all gamers are able to write code (and because not al games offer the possibility).

It may sound a bit weird that in times of lifelike computer games people revert to miniature figurines, buildings and trees. In a computer game there is never a shortage of counters – they can be duplicated indefinitely. That’s why there is no limit on the amount of variations, for instance in combat units.

But even if the diversity of counters in a board game can never match that of a computer game, somehow there seems to be a desire for palpability, a desire to hold, touch or grasp something. No matter how realistic counters and landscape elements on a computer screen become, it will always remain impossible to touch them.

Moreover, after some time the lifelike audiovisual effects in a computer game have a contrary effect. In the beginning, the sensory richness of a virtual world makes for a very realistic experience, but if you have seen and heard the same things over and over again, the enchantment is gone. Even worse, when that has happened, every effect reminds you of the fact that it’s just a stupid game. A bit more room for fantasy (an imaginary “Boom!” or “Aaaarghh”) could make a game more interesting for a longer time.

© Kris De Decker (edited by Vincent Grosjean)

Thanks for the tip, Marià !





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