Where Do You Get All These Games?
An Introduction to Contemporary Board and Card Games
by Mike Petty
Part I: Trying To Define "These Games"
Introduction To The Series
Many people who stop by the Fair Play Games site are overwhelmed with the number of games available--far more than they even knew existed! When I bring part of my personal game collection to a family or social gathering, I'm always asked, "Where do you get all these games?" Well, believe it or not there's an enormous number of new, thoroughly entertaining board and card games being published every year. Actually, most of these games are nothing like the board and card games most Americans buy from the shelves at Wal-Mart or Toys R Us. Instead, these contemporary games are generally quite sophosticated and they appeal to a wide range of ages and tastes. There are growing numbers of groups around the country that get together just to play them. Board game sales in general are on the rise and a few major newspapers have even highlighted this increased interested in gaming in their areas. Ocasionally one of these games will get mentioned in a magazine article or a television program. A quick web search will reveal the many sites of game publishers, board game discussion groups and online retailers.
Still, the fact remains most people know nothing of these entertaining, new-style games. While I'm still surprised so many people haven't heard of them, what's even more surprising is that I can always find one or more of the games that match the tastes of any group interested in playing. In other words, these games aren't just for brainy people, competitive people or people with no lives! There are fun games out there for everyone to enjoy. It's just more people just need to discover them.
And that's been one of my goals in recent years. I enjoy introducing these games to as many people as possible, hoping they'll find the many benefits of gaming with their families and friends. So, if you've stopped by Fair Play Games and wondered "Where do they get all these games?" keep reading! This short series of articles is yet another of my attempts to provide a starting point for newcomers as they begin their journey into this exciting new world of interactive entertainment.
What Makes These Games Unique?
Many people have gone to great lengths to classify these games I've been referring to. The best adjectives and names for the games have been suggested, disputed and found lacking. As more and more great games are being published every month in a huge variety of styles, the fact is it's getting much harder than ever to pin down a concise definition. So, it's likely any attempt I make at generalizing the style will leave some of the games out. More importantly, generalization runs the risk of making the games sound similar and, quite possibly, not to the taste of some individuals. So, before proceeding, I want to emphasize my purposes here are simply to make more people aware of what types of games are available. Also, within this class of games there is enough variety that it's almost certain there are several games that will meet the requirements of any individual looking for something new.
Forging ahead, then, in an effort to describe these games, there's one thing I can say for sure about them. They're inspired by the great games coming out of Europe, particularly Germany. Germans take their games seriously and game designers working within that market have gone to great lengths to explore the possibilities of entertainment with cards, boards and other gaming equipment. While many game designers here in the US are now following in their footsteps in terms of style, it's not uncommon to still hear these games referred to as "German games" and "eurogames".
But "games originating from Germany" probably doesn't tell the average person much, and it certainly won't inspire many to want to play! So let's get more specific. What characteristics do these games share? Probably more than anything else, the games distinguish themselves by their simple rules which present interesting decisions to the players. By "simple rules" I don't mean the games are always easy or that they're even intuitive. Instead, the games focus on central rule systems (generally referred to as "mechanics") that allow for many fun decisions and emerging strategies.
Furthermore, a focus on making decisions during the game doesn't mean they're all taxing on the brain. It's just that interesting decisions take a more prominent role instead of things like simulation and surprise, which we might find as central elements of American board games. Those looking for some light games to play with families or friends will find plenty of 20-minute games full of laughs in this broad class of contemporary games. And if anyone wants a brainburner, there are many such games available that push the decisions to the extreme, making for intense strategy that gives players much to ponder.
And while we're on the topic of these interesting, fresh mechanics, many will note right away when playing these games that the designers focus on a game's mechanics over its theme. "Theme" is a term gamers use to describe what the game is about. For example, as gamers in the US, when we see two archeologists on the front of a game box, there are certain elements of that theme that we'll expect the game to simulate to some degree. Perhaps we'd expect to uncover artifacts and sell them for big money. Well, the designers of these games make no promises that the game will contain these elements! In fact, Lost Cities is a wildly popular game in this contemporary style has that exact picture on the box, but there are no rules for finding and selling artifacts in this game. Some gamers who love the "let's pretend" element of gaming find these "tacked on" themes hard to accept at first. It's been my experience, though, that most players come to appreciate the exciting, fresh rules and eventually pay little attention to the thin and sometimes disposable themes.
Another common characteristic of these games, particularly when published overseas, is high quality of components. Cards and boards are printed on more sturdy materials than games here in the U.S.. Instead of lots of plastic, you'll find wooden components. These higher production values mean higher prices than what we're used to seeing on popular games like Monopoly and Sorry, for exampe. Those who have discovered the appeal of these games, though, are more than happy to pay the higher prices for a quality game that will entertain many people over many years.
A final characteristic worth mentioning has to do with the credit given to the games' designers. When we consider the most popular American games, do we immediately think of their designers? Who created Monopoly, Scrabble or Taboo? Well, the publishers of eurogames definitely want to give the designers credit. Rather than just listing their names in small print at the bottom of the rules, though, European publishers prominently display the names right on the cover of the box. In fact, it's been suggested we use the term "designer games" to distinguish them from more traditional styled games. While the name hasn't been universally accepted among those in the hobby, I think it's very fitting. It represents the talent of those who dream up these games and speaks to each design as a creative work of art.
If you're interested in learning more about these games, great! Be sure to read Part II where I'll get more specific, citing several examples of games within categories, such as family games, social games and even heavier strategy games.
Other articles in the series "Where Do You Get All These Games?"