Board Games: A Good Reason to Gather

Are board games the cure for what ails ya?

According to Quartz writer Annaliese Griffin, they just might be.

She suggests that board games provide a “temporary respite from the problems of 21st-century life.”

By bringing people together — something often lacking from today’s increasingly isolated lifestyles where people interact more through social media than face-to-face engagement — board games become a community builder, a catalyst for socialization.

From the article:

A good board game builds in enough chance so that any reasonably skilled player can win. Even in chess, famously associated with warfare and military strategy, the emphasis is not on who ultimately wins, but on the ingenuity that players display in the process.

In all of these ways, board games release players — however temporarily — from the maxim that life is divided into clear, consistent categories of winners and losers, and that there is a moral logic as to who falls into which category. As film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan tells The Atlantic, board games prompt us to reflect on “turn-taking and rules and fairness.”

[Image courtesy of Catan Shop.]

What’s interesting to me about the article is that she mentions Euro-style games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne — which are two of the industry leaders, no doubt — but still games that pit players against each other.

What’s interesting to me about an article that’s meant to be about how board games can make you “a nicer person with better relationships” is that the author focuses exclusively on competitive games. I am a huge fan of a smaller subsection of board games — cooperative games — which invite the players to team up against the game itself. You collaborate, strategize, and work together to overcome challenges, succeeding or failing as a group.

In cooperative games, the glow of your successes are heightened because you get to share them with your teammates. And the failures don’t sting as much for the same reason.

[Image courtesy of Analog Games.]

Co-op games like SpaceTeam, Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, The Oregon Trail card game, and Pandemic — not to mention many roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons — reinforce the positive, social qualities of all board games. I highly recommend checking them out.

And with the rise of board game cafes like The Uncommons in New York and Snakes and Lattes in Toronto, plus play areas at conventions like Gen Con and events at your Friendly Local Game Shop, there are more opportunities than ever to engage in some dice rolling camaraderie.

You can even make it a regular thing. Every Wednesday, we play a game at lunch time, and it quickly became one of the highlights of the week. (This week, we celebrated winning Forbidden Desert on our Instagram account! I always intend to post something every Game Wednesday, but I often forget because I’m so focused on playing the game.)

Take the time out to enjoy puzzles and games. You won’t regret it.


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Tile style puzzling!

Tile puzzles and tile games have been with us for centuries, but I daresay they’ve never been as prominent in our game/puzzle culture as they are these days.

Let’s start with the basics: dominoes.

Chinese Dominoes, which are slightly longer than the regular ones pictured above (not to mention black with white pips), can be traced back to writings of the Song Dynasty, nearly a thousand years ago. Dominoes as we know them first appeared in Italy during the 1800s, and some historians theorize they were brought to Europe from China by traveling missionaries.

The most common form of playing dominoes — building long trains or layouts and trying to empty your hand of tiles before your opponent does — also forms the core gameplay of other tile-based games, like the colorful Qwirkle, a game that combines dominoes and Uno by encouraging you to create runs of the same shape or color.

A tile game with similarly murky origins is Mahjong, the Chinese tile game that plays more like a card game than a domino game. (Mahjong is commonly compared to Rummy for that very reason.)

Mahjong has been around for centuries, but there are several different origin stories for the game, one tracing back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), another to the days of Confucius (500 BC). The gameplay itself is about matching tiles (called melds) to build winning hands.

Rummikub, another tile game (but with numbers instead of characters on the tiles) also resembles card games in its gameplay, and anyone who has played Texas Rummy or Go Fish will instantly recognize the gameplay of building runs (1, 2, 3, 4 of the same color, for instance) and sets (three 1s of different colors, for instance).

All of these games employ pattern matching and chain thinking skills that are right in the puzzler’s wheelhouse, but some more modern tile games and puzzles challenge solvers in different ways.

The game Carcassonne is a world-building game wherein players add tiles to an ever-growing landscape, connecting roads and cities while placing followers on the map in order to gain points. Here, the tiles form just one part of a grander strategic puzzle, one encouraging deeper plotting and planning than some other tile games.

The Settlers of Catan also involves tile placement, but as more of a game starter, not as an integral part of the gameplay. Both Fluxx: The Board Game and The Stars Are Right employ tile shifting as a terrific puzzly wrinkle to their gameplay.

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a puzzle combining crosswords and tiles, Brick by Brick, which encourages the solver to place the “bricks” on the grid and fill in the answers.

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most popular electronic tile game in modern memory, Tetris.

Tetris — which turns 30 this year! — requires quick thinking, good spatial recognition, and an ability to plan ahead (especially for those elusive four-block pieces that can eliminate four rows at once!). There are plenty of puzzles that employ similar tiles — Blokus, tangrams, and pentominoes come to mind — but none that have engendered the loyalty of Tetris.

Last but not least, there are the sliding-tile puzzles. These puzzles take all the challenge of tile placement games like Dominoes and add a further complication: the tiles are locked into a frame, so you can only move one tile at a time.

Frequently called the Fifteen Puzzle because the goal is to shift all 15 numbered tiles until they read out in ascending order, sliding-tile puzzles are chain solving at its best. Whether you’re building a pattern or forming a picture (or even helping a car escape a traffic jam, as in ThinkFun’s Rush Hour sliding-tile game), you’re participating in a long history of tile-based puzzling that has spanned the centuries.

Heck, even the Rubik’s Cube is really a sliding-tile game played along six sides at once!

[Be sure to tune in on Thursday, when I explore tile-based word games like Scrabble!]

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