Back to the gaming board
The humble board game is back with a bang, and our tabletop gamer is just one of the many fans celebrating the resurgence
Published 29/09/2016 | 02:30
After a long, hard day banging my head against a computer screen, I have a favourite way of unwinding. I will set forth on a dangerous fantasy quest, battling goblins and evil wizards. Or I may investigate a haunted house and solve deathly puzzles. Sometimes, if I'm feeling lazy, I'll throw together a squad of space marines for 30 minutes of lock 'n' load destruction. Last night, my crew and I tangled with an ice demon on an asteroid. A good time was had by all (apart from the ice demon).
I'm not crazy - I'm a board gamer. A hobby once associated with dreary Sunday afternoons chucking dice with your grandmother is booming again. Gaming stores are popping up around the country, while pubs are putting on dedicated gaming nights. Many bars supply games of their own - and not just novelty items like Jenga but "proper" board games such as 'Zombicide' (in which you dash about slaying undead with shovels, axes etc) and 'Elder Sign' (save the world by rolling glowing green dice).
Internationally, the gaming industry has become a very big deal, with annual sales of almost half a billion. A recent Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the fantasy title 'Massive Darkness', for instance, raised $3.5 million. Movie stars Vin Diesel, Jessica Alba and Elizabeth Banks have 'come out' as table-top geeks. On the world's favourite sitcom 'Big Bang Theory', meanwhile, characters are often shown trading one-liners over popular games such as 'Talisman', 'Settlers of Catan' and 'Forbidden Island'.
Why have board games become popular now? Part of the reason is that they are just more fun to play than in the past. Who among us could bear more than five minutes of 'Connect Four' or 'Ludo' - games seemingly designed to send you into a stupor?
Contrast that with a popular modern release such as 'Coup', which consists of a simple deck of cards and which has the players vying with one another for control of the galaxy. You can play in just 15 minutes - and the design is so slick you'll be drawn in straight away. I recently brought a copy along to a pub where I was meeting friends. Whoosh - three hours later, we were on our umpteenth round, attempting to cheat, bully and scheme our way to conquering the cosmos.
"Game design has dramatically changed from the days of 'Monopoly' and 'Cluedo': these are still great games but compared now to what's out there, it's like chalk and cheese," says Ronan Murphy, who set up Dungeons and Donuts, a game store and doughnut bakery in Galway in 2012.
"At the moment there are more and more games coming out that require you to use a smartphone app to play or assist playing.
"Myself and my playing group recently played 'Mansions of Madness' second edition by Fantasy Flight Games which requires you to use an app. Before the app this game required a player to run the game for the others and a huge amount of set-up.
"Now all you need to do is what the app tells you.
"It's amazing, and by linking your device to your stereo you get the most out of the eerie background noises and soundtrack."
"The social element is hugely appealing," adds Trevor O'Shea, of clubbing empire Bodytonic, who runs two gamer-friendly bars in Dublin, the Back Page and Square Ball (the latter is undergoing a major transition that will see its library expanded to up to 500 games).
"You can play a game like 'Cards Against Humanity' with four people and it doesn't get that competitive. With board games, it's a social thing. People like to go out and have fun - it's a way of doing it beyond having 20 pints."
There is also an argument that gaming provides a tactile experience in an increasingly digital world. You can of course battle goblins and sling fireballs in a video game. However, a board game is a more hands-on experience that doubles as sweet relief after a day gazing at your computer. Board games are the ultimate unplugged experience (weirdly, this feels true even where an app is involved, as with 'Mansions of Madness').
"'Normal' people are now seeing how engaging and exciting these games can be," says Murphy. "Game designers and publishers have also come on leaps and bounds and the days of the boring board game are well and truly gone."
"Board games give me a sense of camaraderie and nostalgia," adds Gareth Cummins, a founder of Nerdai, a gaming group which puts on weekly events at Thomas House in Dublin and which also records a regular podcast.
"Everyone plays video games and I think we can agree that the best video games are multi-player ones, where you and real people play together or against each other. This carries over to board games.
"You can sit together and have a conversation while working together for a common goal."
Let the games begin: the board games to play before you die
Cheat, lie and bluff your way to dominion over an unstable dystopian regime. Consisting of a deck of cards and cardboard tokens, ‘Coup’ retails for less than €20 and is great fun for two to six players. The game is all about maintaining a calm face as you spin untruths to your rivals — the winner is inevitably the individual with ice-water streaming through their veins.
You’re going to need a big table for this one — but the gameplay is straightforward and intuitive. The zombie apocalypse is at hand and you and your fellow gamers are in control of a rag-tag of survivors. You have to collect resources, plan your escape route and mow down the dozens (and dozens) of zombies eager to chomp on your brains.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu
The latest in this line of “co-operative” games in which the players work together against a common foe. In regular ‘Pandemic’ you fight a global contagion. ‘Pandemic Cthulhu’ is more atmospheric, with you and your companions trying to prevent cultists summoning god-like beings from the beyond and laying waste to civilisation.
Lords of Waterdeep
A relatively complex “euro” game in which you must allocate resources and commit workers to tasks in an attempt to upgrade your abilities and score more victory points than your rivals. It sounds complicated, but once you start dispatching your warriors and wizards on missions, you’ll be quickly into the sword and sorcery swing. Set in the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ universe, and so will appeal to fans of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Legendary: A Marvel Deck
Iron Man, Wolverine, Spiderman, Black Widow and the gang have assembled to do battle with various villains and henchman. Legendary is a “deck building” game in which you construct an optimal hand of cards by “buying” superheroes and pruning your deck of weaker cards. Again, it may seem a tad mindboggling but gameplay is smooth and logical. Before you know it you’ll be sending Captain America into battle against Red Skull and his minions.
Kingdom Death: Monster
Retailing at $400 plus shipping, ‘Kingdom Death’ is for the serious hobbyist. But it’s cash well spent as you are sucked into a brutal fantasy-horror setting, laced with nightmarish imagery and thrilling encounters. In a dystopian neverland that may or may not be Purgatory, players work together to build a settlement and hunt a series of “big bad” monsters. The game is not for children and is currently out of print — however, a crowdfunding campaign for a second run gets underway in November.
The year’s most hyped game is set in an alternative history 1920s Europe in which players compete for resources, embark on missions and slug it out utilising giant armoured robots. Tricky to get into but absolutely addictive when you are up and running.