The big problem when discussing modern board gaming with the uninitiated observer is that the subject is just so firmly associated with a handful of really dry, old games that have come to be labelled as ‘classics’ by a mainstream audience.
Take Monopoly. It’s seen as a classic game and I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t played it. I’ve also never met anyone who truly loves it. It seems to be more of a shared experience that we have all endured – a bit like recent mothers bonding over the agonising pain of childbirth and the joy they felt when it was finally over.
And you know what? It’s not a truly awful game; it’s just not a good one either. It goes on far too long, usually devolving into a war of attrition that only ends when someone throws in the towel or flips the table in abject frustration. The dependence on a roll and move mechanic places a massive focus on luck when it comes to landing on just the right spaces for your fragile strategies to work.
In the game’s defence, the rules are quite straightforward and easy to explain, and yet the vast majority of people ignore them almost completely! As an example, the vast majority of Monopoly players neglect to hold auctions for unwanted or unaffordable places, further prolonging the game. Don’t even get me started on some of the bullshit people do on Free Parking.
Having addressed some of the design problems inherent in this supposedly venerable game, I’d be remiss if I were not prepared to provide a few modern, more palatable alternatives.
Settlers of Catan was released in 1994 and was one of the games that heralded the ascension of the German or Euro style game. These games have a good balance of luck and skill, a lack of direct confrontation, an elegance of design in regard to rules, and a minimalist approach to theme and flavour.
Like Monopoly, Settlers of Catan is an economic game where players compete for resources and control of the board. Unlike Monopoly, this is not done through the single resource of cash, but rather through management of five distinct resources (sheep, wheat, brick, stone and wood) which can be found on the island of Catan. The rules are quite straightforward, comparable to those of Monopoly but with the ability to become more complex with the addition of expansions.
The biggest difference between Settlers of Catan and Monopoly, and the biggest advantage Settlers has in my mind, is the clear and attainable victory condition. It’s not a matter of wiping out other players, rather it is simply achieving a specific score (10 points) before one’s opponents. The leading position can change hands several times, but you always feel that the end is in sight. This, coupled with the resource-management aspect of the game, encourages bartering and trading between players in a way that just doesn’t happen in Monopoly.
Another alternative is 2004’s Power Grid. Another economic game, Power Grid really does away with the luck elements of Monopoly (and to a lesser extent, Settlers of Catan) and tips the balance firmly towards skill. The game is quite unforgiving and the best player will almost always win. This puts me off a little, partly because it is nice to be surprised from time to time, and partly because I am rarely the ‘best player’ in any circumstance!
Like Monopoly, Power Grid uses cash as the primary resource as you attempt to create an actual monopoly with your power company. You play the commodities market and develop a network of power plants, constantly struggling to strike a balance between upgrading existing plants and expanding your network to new cities. The need to bid against fellow players for these plants and the race to claim prized routes also adds an indirect competition mechanic to the game which keeps you distrustful of your fellow players. Are they putting in bids in an effort to claim this plant, or merely to drive up the cost of the plant, limiting the money you have for later expansion?
The final game I am going to mention was also published in 2004 and, like Settlers of Catan in 1994, was winner of the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year) award. It is also the only game in this list that is not German in origin, although the design was clearly influenced by German style games. Ticket to Ride is, by far, the most accessible of these games for the average family. The game sees you building rail links across America in the age of steam, crafting routes between distant cities in the pursuit of points.
Ticket to Ride does not use money as a resource, but rather colour-coded cards corresponding to colour-coded routes on the board. Do you want build a route from Duluth to Toronto? That will be 6 pink cards, please. El Paso to Dallas? That will be 4 reds. The game doesn’t get much more complicated than that. You have tickets that show specific routes the game wants you to complete in exchange for bonus points at the end of the game, and you will be penalised by the same number of points for any tickets you fail to complete. If you manage to create a vast, snaking route across the continent you may also be rewarded with bonus points for the longest continuous route, however convoluted that rail may be.
Ticket to Ride doesn’t quite fit the archetype of ‘economic game’ in the same way as Monopoly, Settlers of Catan or Power Grid, but it does involve resource management and the buying of property. It’s also the best fit of the four in terms of finding a good ‘family’ game.