The following article was originally published on our old, crappy website in November of 2009. It is presented here on our new gloriously shiny website as a way to relaunch our re-tooled Board Gaming column:
1. Why Do We Play Board Games?
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
– George Bernard Shaw
Four Hundred Dollars. I just bought a four hundred dollar board game. Go ahead. Read that again. I’ll wait…
Yes, four hundred dollars. No, I’m not kidding. I just paid $400 to pre-order my copy of the limited, Collector’s Edition of WAR OF THE RING from Nexus Games and Fantasy Flight Games. I’m not entirely sure that I don’t regret it.
One should note, however, that this sort of behavior from gamers and game publishers is nothing new. Four years ago, to celebrate the game’s 10th anniversary, Mayfair Games unveiled the $500 SETTLERS OF CATAN 3D Special Edition Treasure Chest set. What is relatively new is the high price point that some non-special edition games are now sporting as their regular selling price. Games Workshop released a $100 SPACE HULK earlier this year, and this winter, Fantasy Flight is unleashing RUNEWARS upon the unsuspecting masses, also with a $100 price tag. And countless gamers of all stripes have gladly offered up the $90 it requires to take home that gigantic box with the word DESCENT written upon it. It’s only too expensive if nobody buys it, right? But why? Why do we spend such silly amounts of money on what amounts to bits of paper, plastic and cardboard? To ask a far broader question, why are board games so important to us?
I’ve got some ideas, two actually, but to properly explain them, you’re going to have to get into the WayBackMachinetm. Go ahead, get on in, but watch your step. Yeah, strap on that helmet and connect those little electrode things. Careful, not too tight! OK, flip the switch. *click!* What do you see? Huh? Becky Jenkins saying that she’d never go to the prom with anybody who’s on the chess team? Oops, we’re not back far enough. Here, try it again. *click!*
Now what do you see? You’re sitting at the coffee table with Dad as he brings out a large, flat box. It makes a telltale shuffling, rattling, shook-shook noise as he carries it over and sets it on the table. He lifts the box lid off and begins to set up the board, a barely perceptible crackling noise reaching your ears as it unfolds. MONOPOLY! Dad sets up the plastic banker’s rack of brightly colored paper money, and he starts to shuffle the “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards but you’re already two steps ahead of him. You’re on to the next part. The best part! Picking which of the little metal pawns will be your piece to move around the board. The proper selection of a pawn is tantamount to winning the game outright! And you clearly know which pawn is the best! (It’s the horse by the way.) Sure there are hotels to build and opponents to bankrupt, but you’ve got your little metal horse and the sight of your pewtery equine avatar galloping around that circuit of squares, surrounded by all those tiny plastic buildings just fills you with a sort of joy.
This brings us to our first answer. Board games are tactile, sensory experiences. There’s a reason that playing chess online is never as much fun as playing in real life, and part of it is that the electronic experience can never match the feel of a heavy marble rook in your hand, felted base gliding across the squares. Or even that of a cheap, well-worn plastic pawn scratching the surface of a cardboard grid that’s been split nearly in two after years of use. Fantasy Flight Games knows this. They’ve practically built an industry onto themselves by creating games that have very high production values and come with lots of pretty bits. (Indeed, they’re attempting a veritable paradigm shift in role-playing games by applying this philosophy to their new edition of WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY. But I digress.)
I mean really, all things being equal; whose version of SCRABBLE would you rather play? The ugly old brown boxed thing in mom’s basement, or the 50th anniversary edition that I have, complete with rotating board, electronic timer, mini dictionary, silver and blue letter tiles and an embroidered canvas bag to draw them from? Yeah, I thought so. Sure the brown thing gets points for nostalgia, but c’mon, rotating board…so pretty…
Alright. It’s time to fire up the WayBackMachinetm again. Quit your whining, it so did not hurt last time. That is totally not a burn mark on your scalp. OK, fine, I’ll do it. Step aside. Gimme that damn helmet. *click!*
The year is 1997 and this beautiful woman named Dani has come back to my place after a night at the club, only to find a huge collection of board games, RPG rulebooks and painted miniatures cluttering every available surface in the apartment. I see the look on her face and suddenly I don’t think my date is going as well as it once was… oops. Huh, the calibration must still be off. Hold on a second, let me adjust these dials. Frakking stupid machine… *click!*
The year is 1942 and the world is at war. As commander of the German forces, I have sent an insane, anachronistically large force of aircraft to bomb London. There is no way that the city can withstand such a relentless assault. It is only a matter of time before England falls to the might of the Third Reich. Ah, but what I didn’t count on was the man behind the anti-aircraft artillery. His name? Jeff Krupsaw. His leadership and the skill of his gunnery soldiers would soon turn this impressive display of the Luftwaffe into nothing more than falling fireballs and smoldering aircraft skeletons.
You see, never mind that this particular episode in this game of AXIS & ALLIES came down to Jeff repeatedly rolling a “1” on a single six-sided die over and over again. That it basically all boiled down to luck. It was Jeff that took out those airplanes and saved the day for England. This brings me to my second answer. Board games are social experiences. Despite all these trials and tribulations and little wars that we go through, it’s the people that we’re playing these games with that we remember, not necessarily the game itself.
I remember playing CITADELS and watching as our friend Warren was assassinated turn after turn after turn, the look of distraught on his face only fueling the tears of laughter that the rest of us were crying into our hands.
I remember Brian targeting Larry with that game-changing meteor strike in a game of CONQUEST OF PANGEA, knowing that it would very likely hand the win to the third player, despite a $500 cash prize and an Origins Tournament title on the line. I also remember the string of calmly delivered threats that came out of Larry’s mouth. And I wasn’t even playing in that game!
And really, is there anything more gratifying than shutting up your mouthy WIZ-WAR opponent by sealing him into a stone closet, Cask of Amontillado-style? And his only option is to take 20 turns beating down the wall with his bare hands? Man, there were a few times I wish I could have sealed up Kyle behind a wall like that in real life.
I know all you young-uns enjoy your World of Warcraft, but it is my opinion that we are many years away from online gaming being remotely close to replicating the kind of social experience that one gets by having a group of living, breathing, human beings sitting around a table playing a board game. And the fact of the matter is that while it’s unlikely that you’re going to get Grandma or Uncle Joey to join you in a game of WoW, you’ll probably manage to get a board game on the table with the extended family after Thanksgiving dinner next week. (But then, who am I to say? Your Grandma could be a Blood Elf Hunter named Slayer1933 for all I know.)
So. Let’s sum up.
1. Board Games are tactile, sensory experiences and,
2. Board Games are social experiences
Yes, there’s plenty of other things that are appealing about board games, whether it be the strategic stimulation or the capacity to teach deductive reasoning or their use in education, but it’s the two factors listed above, in conjunction, that separate board games from the rest of the hobby. Put simply, our board games provide us with an engaging activity that lets us spend quality time with friends, and it allows us to do it while playing with pretty bits. And sometimes those pretty bits step it up a notch and attempt to become physical works of art, worthy of passing down to someone in your freaking will. Art like one of those really over-the-top carved stone chess sets. Or a rare hardwood backgammon board. Or 246 hand painted figures and a giant game board printed in Elvish all packed in a gigantic wooden box made to look like the The Red Book of Westmarch. Yeah, like that.
Nah, I don’t regret spending that money at all. Who wants to play?
Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Board Game Night every Tuesday. His earliest hobby gaming memory is sitting on his brother’s lap sometime in the late 1970s perusing the AD&D Monster Manual. Paul promptly threw up all over the Blink Dog.