If there has been one happy — if unintended — consequence of the videogame’s takeover of children’s leisure time, it has been that a lasting love of gaming has been created in Generation Y and their younger siblings. Kids who grew up on Super Mario Bros., who spent whole weekends defeating every level of Mega-Man, who cut their teeth on the (ultra-violent, for the times) Wolfenstein 3-D, found that although they enjoyed playing against the computer opponents, they also loved sitting on the sofa with their friends and blasting away at the opposition together — or fighting each other, as the case might be.
And now they’ve grown up, and although they still love video games, these kids have discovered that awesome games come in non-electric forms as well, that can be played anywhere with a flat surface and a bit of light, and never require batteries or a recharge. Board games and card games are undergoing a boom such as we haven’t seen in almost 30 years in the toy business, as young adults (some with children of their own by now) bring their love of gaming full-circle.
These gamers are sophisticated, and they expect to be challenged by the games as well as by their opponents. They are looking for games that are designed in such a way that winning requires skill as well as luck; games that call upon the players to make decisions; games where the outcome is uncertain right up to the end of the game, so that no one is languishing far behind and certain to lose interest. And game designers have come through for them.
The grand-daddy of strategy board games with broad appeal is probably Settlers of Catan from Mayfair Games. This classic has it all: a board composed of hexagonal resource tiles dealt out randomly at the start of each game (so that each new game is played upon essentially a different board); a series of agonizing decisions to be made and no clear path to victory; and a game mechanic that ensures every player is active on every turn, so that players don’t lose interest. The opportunity for players to sabotage each other’s play keeps things interesting, too. The original Settlers of Catan is designed for three or four players, and a game takes approximately 45 minutes, short enough to fit a grudge match into the evening. There are thematic expansions available for sale that enlarge the scope of the game beyond the original, as well as numerical expansions that allow five or six total players. Each kind of expansion will also make the game take longer, as well. Ages 10 and up.
A slightly newer game with a darker appeal is Gloom, from publisher Atlas Games. Gloom is a card game in which each player controls the fate of a different family, but — as you might guess from the game title — the object of the game is to help your eccentric families suffer mightily (and more than their opponents do) before shuffling off this mortal coil. Yes, that’s right — players want to kill off their family members as speedily and as horribly as possible, while simultaneously trying visit happy occurrences upon their opponents’ family members.
Family members (such as Angel the Starry-Eyed Serial Killer or Elissandre de Ville, the Illustrated Lady) may be visited with such unfortunate events as being “Pierced by Porcupines” or “Pursued by Poodles” — which would lower the characters’ self-worth points (that’s good) — or with happy events such as being “Blessed by the Bishop” or “Wondrously Well Wed”, which would raise self-worth points (bad if it’s you, super if it happens to your opponents). The game tends to encourage a sort of rambling narrative, as these cards are put down on top of the character cards (the cards are clear overlays, so that the character card may be seen below). It becomes a game in itself to try to logically incorporate the next card into the storyline!
Gloom is lots of fun in a macabre and slightly twisted way (after all, you are trying to do in your own characters in the most grisly, as well as the quickest, way possible). Two to four players (best with four), about 60 minutes or less, if you’re speedy.
As basketball superstar Michael Jordan famously said: Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.*
* I know he was talking about basketball, but it applies equally here. If not more so, since maybe I could beat Michael Jordan at Settlers or Gloom, but I’m pretty sure I would lose a game of basketball playing against him. You have to pick your battles.