Christmas is for winners: how to beat your family at board games
You can't beat a game of Scrabble, Monopoly or Cluedo at Christmas – especially if you've got a few expert tips to see you to victory...
Has there ever been a game of Monopoly that hasn't descended into a full-on family ding-dong? As anyone who has ever angrily swept the plastic houses off the board will attest, a genteel, post-lunch game can bring out the worst in people.
The world's best-selling commercial board game can spark fierce arguments long before the first properties are swapped or rents collected. No, I want to be the Scottie Dog. No, it's my turn to be the banker.
If you want a peaceful Christmas, think again before you reach for a board game. In a survey of 2,000 people about festive rows, they emerged as a leading cause of disharmony, with nearly a third of people admitting to cheating. The key perpetrators were 16 to 24-year-olds, who thought nothing of rolling dice again when no other players were looking, slipping extra hotels on their Monopoly properties and sneaking a peek at other players' tiles in Scrabble.
Charles Ryan, marketing manager of Esdevium Games and a former chairman of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design, says that to avoid a tinderbox scenario you need to choose your opponents carefully. Don't declare all-out war on Grandma's territories during a game of Risk unless you know she's up for a bloody fight.
"There's no point in getting viciously competitive if everyone else is just there for a few hours of face-to-face, social fun," he says. "The way to avoid a scene is to make sure winning is what everyone cares about."
A seasoned gamer, Ryan knows all the tricks and shortcuts that can secure victory. While there's a strong element of luck involved in most games, skilled players who apply a strategy can give themselves a sporting chance. "First, you need to think of ways to win that might be different than those used by other players," he says. "Then, understand your victory conditions and think about how to achieve them." In a game requiring rolls of the dice, for instance, you'll need to call on a basic understanding of probability. "So when rolling two standard dice, you have about a one in six chance of rolling a total of seven, but only a one in about 18 chance of rolling a total of three."
When playing Monopoly, it pays to be unscrupulous. "If you have low-valued properties, be quick to build four cheap houses on each," says Ryan. "There are only 32 in the box, which will create a housing shortage. Be first to use them up so the other players can't buy any, or are forced to buy hotels on their more expensive properties." Likewise, always buy up a property if it blocks someone else from completing a set.
Statistically, the orange properties are a savvy investment, because of their proximity to the Jail. As the most common dice rolls result in totals between 6 and 8, players emerging from incarceration will often land on an orange square.
The canny gamer can also turn the Jail to their advantage. If you land in the slammer early in proceedings, Ryan advises you get out as quickly as you can. "That way, you can keep up with the buying and building. But if you land in Jail later in the game, stay as long as you can to avoid paying rent on other people's properties."
With Scrabble, surely the brainiest wordsmith wins every time? Not so, according to Allan Simmons, national Scrabble champion and professional Scrabble consultant, who says the key to winning is not necessarily coming up with long obscure word, but thinking small. "Two-letter words are important as they allow you to play parallel words," he says. "There are 124 of them, but most people only know half – if that. For instance, the musical notes – do, re, mi, fa, so, la, si, do – count as two-letter words."
Similarly, there are 16 legal words you can spell with a 'Q' that don't require a 'U' – such as qwerty, qindar (a monetary unit of Albania), and trank, an accepted shortened form of tranquilliser, precisely what your opponents will need if you lay it over a triple word score. Quietly consult the Q page of a dictionary for a refresher before you play.
It sometimes pays not to lay the longest word you can from your seven tiles. "Most players rarely think about what they can keep back on their rack," says Simmons. "For instance, 'E' is a solid investment. It's worth sacrificing a few points to retain any of the letters in the word 'retains' since these will help maintain a balance and greater choice of plays. Casual players never think they'll be able to play all their letters in one go, which results in a 50-point bonus. But investing in holding onto an 'S' or blank helps."
Don't concentrate so much on one word that you blind yourself to other options. "Rather than just finding a word on your rack, also let the premium square opportunities on the board drive your thoughts, looking horizontally and vertically." Equally, avoid opening up the bonus point squares to other players. Instead, play a short word and let them open it up for you.
However, when it comes to Trivial Pursuit, you're pretty much on your own. Even Robert J Heller, who wrote a 1984 best-seller entitled How To Win at Trivial Pursuit, admitted that the only sure-fire way to victory is to memorise the answers to all 6,000 questions in the box. It's a feat that took eight-times World Memory Champion Dominic O'Brien a month to complete.
To keep the peace, it might be worth challenging the in-laws to a game of Monopoly instead.