August 6, 2009

Leisure Academy: German-Style Board Games

Over the course of the last couple years, I have had the great fortune of stumbling into the world of strategy board games. Previously unknown to me, and to probably most of Earth's population, is a vast collection and subculture of expertly designed, aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually stimulating board games. We are not talking about your Monopolys, or Apples to Apples, or Magic: The Gatherings here, we are talking about the kind of game that most people will only experience as a shelf filler on the lower most, out-of-the-way, endcap at Barnes and Noble. These games are typically found at local board game, hobby, or "educational" toy stores...a place where only geeks have ventured, but I assure you these are games that anyone who enjoys playing a good game with their friends should know about. And the most highly regarded of the strategy board games are the German-style games. I'll let Wikipedia define them further:

German-style board games are a broad class of tabletop games that generally have simple rules, short to medium playing times, high levels of player interaction, and attractive physical components. The games emphasise strategy, downplay luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends. German-style games are sometimes contrasted with American-style games, which generally involve more luck, conflict, and drama.

German-style games are usually less abstract than chess, but more abstract than wargames and traingames. Likewise, they generally require more thought and planning than party games, such as Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit, but less than strategy games, such as chess and Go. Their rulebooks are typically four to twelve pages long and playing times are on the order of 30 to 120 minutes. These games appeal to a wide range of ages, though generally not very young children. The audience includes casual gamers, who play with family and friends, as well as more serious hobby gamers.

Another cool aspect of these games is the designer as an auteur. You've probably never heard the names Klaus Teuber, Alan R. Moon, or Andreas Seyfarth, but in the world of boardgames these men are rockstars. There are a number of game designers who have developed quite the following of players who will buy their products simply because of the name of the designer. We're talking Steven Spielberg status. Germany loves it's boardgames so much that they award the coveted Spiel des Jahres ("game of the year") to the year's most excellent game. It is hard to imagine this bizarro land where boardgame designers are so revered and respected, but I think it is pretty sweet for such creativity and ingenuity to be recognized. Thanks to Xbox's release of virtual versions of some of these game titles, German-style games are reaching new audiences and gaining more and more popularity. Personally, I'm just a n00b in the German board game world, but I intend to explore it further and I encourage anyone who enjoys games, but is frustrated with the lopsidedness and luck factors of American games like Monopoly and Risk, to head out to your local hobby shop and pick out a German game. I promise it will be a more rewarding and stimulating experience than sitting around watching Top Chef. And now I will provide my thoughts on some of the most popular games I have enjoyed, but these are just the tip of a humongous iceberg.

The Settlers of Catan:
Klaus Teuber's Catan is often considered the "greatest game ever made" and I'm not one to disagree. The perfectly balanced board, multiple avenues of winning strategy, aesthetically pleasing elements, and just the right amount of luck make this resource management and trade game one of the crown jewels of boardgames. The game builds in intensity as each player tries to develop their colony on the new found island of Catan. The expansion sets also add new and fun ways to play, Seafarers of Catan is probably my favorite way to play.

Puerto Rico:
Like Catan, Andreas Seyfarth's game is a race to develop your colony of the recently discovered New World of tropical Puerto Rico. Unlike Catan, however, Puerto Rico is completely void of the luck element, and winning is entirely based on out-strategizing the opposing players. This makes the game more difficult to learn and master, while also proving frustrating when there are different levels of players competing in the same match. There is also a lack of fun and colorful game elements, but that does not mean its not a worthy challenge when engaged in a heated match between similarly experienced players.

A personal favorite of mine is a game based on the French Medieval town of Carcassone. Players take turns placing randomly chosen pieces of land to form the Medieval city and create their own castles, cloisters, and farms without having them stolen by encroaching players' "meeples." This unique gameplay mechanic makes every game a unique puzzle. With an endless supply of expansions and land tiles you can customize the game to be as short or as epic as you have time for. "The Princess and the Dragon" or "Traders and Builders" are both worthy expansions that enhance and enrich the simple and addicting gameplay.

Ticket to Ride:
Alan R. Moon's train game for 2-5 players is simple to learn and fun for the whole family. On a beautifully detailed board designed as a map of turn-of-the-century United States, players compete to build railroads across the nation and connect America's cities. It's easy, fast moving, and my mom loves it. There is a unique secrecy game play mechanic that make it so you do not know who the winner will be until the absolute end of the game, so players always feel like they are "in" the game as you never know who is ahead. If you get tired of unifying America, there is also a gameboard for Europe or the more focused Germany and Nordic Countries gameboards designed for 2-3 players.
So I guess that's it for now...go straight from work and pick up some sweet German-style boardgames! They are a great way to spend your free time with friends and family.

Leisure On!

1 comment:

  1. Carcassonne has to be one of my favourite games – complexity and fun spring from simple and elegant rules (well the farming scoring can be a bit complicated to explain at first).

    I also really enjoy Ticket to Ride, though I find that after playing it a lot you can anticipate where the giant routes are and block them. I've only played the European one though, so America might be different.

    I know everyone loves Settlers of Catan, but I find it too anxiety provoking: there's nothing you can do as cards fill up in your hand and the specter of a 7 looms.

    Pueto Rico is alright, but a bit politically problematic. After all, its about buying brown "tokens" from ships and making them work on your plantation.