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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International Tabletop Day is almost here!

Saturday, April 29 is International Tabletop Day, a day that has been set aside for family and friends to get together and play games. Board games, card games, role-playing games, puzzles… anything that involves gathering in person and having fun around a table fits the bill!

Although the actual holiday is Saturday, we’re celebrating early around here! The PuzzleNation Crew is getting together with our friends from Penny/Dell Puzzles for a few hours of Tabletop Day fun this afternoon!

Games will be played, snacks will be consumed, and fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers will be introduced to some terrific games.

(Sadly, a lot of personal favorites will have to be excluded — Forbidden Island, The Oregon Trail card game, choice offerings from Cheapass Games and other great companies — because they take more than 30 minutes to play. It IS a work day, after all.)

[The Nashville Public Library has an Eventbrite page up for their Tabletop Day Event.]

And as for the day itself, there’s a plethora of events to enjoy! Check out the official International Tabletop Day Facebook page for information, as well as your local library, community center, and friendly local game shops! There are sure to be events, game demos, get-togethers, parties, and more if you just go looking for them!

Heck, the crew at The Loft Game Lounge in Ottawa is even hosting a Tabletop Day Prom!

Oops, gotta go. It’s almost time for our Tabletop Day celebration. Let us know how you’re celebrating in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The Connecticut Festival of Indie Games, Part 2!

And we’re back!

Yup, I attended the CT FIG event last Saturday, and there were so many great games to talk about that I simply couldn’t get the job done on Tuesday. So we’re back with the second half of my event recap.

Last time, I focused on games that are available now or will be soon; this time around, it’s all about games in development!

I’d say that more than half the games at the event were in development or not yet published. Some were clearly in beta testing or working with a prototype, hoping to gauge the interest level of puzzle and game fans. Others were gearing up for Kickstarter campaigns, or in the middle of one, or had even tried Kickstarter previously, only to go back to the drawing board. Still others were hoping to impress game publishers or make contacts to help take their games to the next level.

It was interesting and insightful to see the creative process at work here, not only to observe how crowdfunding has revitalized the puzzle-game and board-game markets, but simply to watch firsthand as designers interact with players and learn from each and every playthrough.

And, to be honest, it’s fun and invigorating to be around enthusiastic people. Virtually everyone I met at the CT FIG was genuinely excited to talk about their games, and they clearly loved what they do. For many of them, these prototype and unreleased games are their babies, their pride and joy, and they were absolutely stoked to show them off.

That’s the kind of infectious energy I can definitely get behind.

One of the first people I talked to at CT FIG was Darrin Horbal of DPH Studioz. He had three games to show off, all in varying stages of development.

His flagship game is The Guardians of AsunDur, a collaborative game where players work together as guardian angels to defend AsunDur from dark forces.

By rolling dice and utilizing colored gems, they battle back the forces of darkness in co-op game play that encourages teamwork and strong strategic planning.

That same style of game play factors into another of Darrin’s board-game projects, Starguard: The Grey Wars, a space-combat game where alien conquerers threaten six different star systems, and only a concerted team effort will prevent the invading alien forces from running roughshod across the galaxy.

I’m a big fan of co-op games, and both of these games had in-depth, elegant systems of play that offered plenty to keep experienced players busy without losing younger players in the shuffle.

The last game he brought for display was Khroma Zones, a more traditional player-versus-player card game that was easily the puzzliest of the three games. Utilizing the same color-matching game mechanic as Guardians of AsunDur in a simpler format, it’s a great game for families and younger players that might not be ready for more involved game play.

But Darrin was far from the only game designer to have multiple projects in the works.

[Ravenous River, a card game inspired by the classic cabbage-goat-wolf river-crossing brain teaser, shares space at a table with ChronoSphere, a Timeline-style card game with bluffing (recently funded on Kickstarter), and Baker Street Irregulars, a crime-solving puzzle game set in the world of Sherlock Holmes.]

I’m pretty sure Isaac Shalev of Kind Fortress set the high-water mark for the event. He had six games at his table, each with their own unique flavor. (Only one, the abovementioned Ravenous River, was available for purchase there, but I sincerely hope some of his other games follow suit soon.)

There was something for seemingly every style of card game or board game fan here, from the card-flipping game Flip the Table to the resource-management strategy game set in feudal Japan, Daimyo.

But the one that most appealed to my puzzly sensibilities was Seikatsu, a three-directional tile-placement game that mixes and matches elements from a half-dozen classic games to provide a wonderfully balanced game-play experience.

Unlike many scoring games where tile placement can easily disqualify you from gaining points, Seikatsu assigns one of three directions to each player, meaning virtually every tile on the board could score points for every player. This simple tweak adds massive game-play opportunities, making for a wonderful puzzly session that encourages, rather than discourages, new players.

Kickstarter was a recurring theme in many of the conversations I had with game designers that day. Several of the games I covered in Tuesday’s post were funded and brought to market thanks to crowdfunding, and many others would soon be following suit.

Super Hazard Quest, a card game inspired by 8-bit side-scrolling video games, is on Kickstarter right now (and recently passed its funding goal, thanks in part to the team’s impressive hustling during CT FIG, no doubt).

In the game, you take on the role of a classic video game archetypal hero — the floating princess, the spy, the alien hunter, etc. — and you build and explore a unique video game world while racing to be the first to reach the final boss.

As several event goers and I played through a spirited round of the game, co-creator Mike Mendizabal told me that the game was actually intended as a cooperative game (like Guardians of AsunDur or Forbidden Island), but the players in play testing refused to work together! So they ended up retooling the game for individual achievement.

I love learning little in-development details like that.

Christopher Bowden of Winter Moon Games shared his own story of development tribulations and lessons learned as I observed a playthrough of his company’s flagship game, Pandemonium Estate.

A board game with shifting board pieces and game play that encourages players to betray each other, Pandemonium Estate is a colorful, dark, and very fun game that indulges the more playfully mean-spirited side of board games. (You know that shamefully satisfying feeling when you play Sorry and bump another player’s game piece back to the start? Multiply that by about 50 and you get something approximating the sinister glee of Pandemonium Estate.)

Christopher told me that he and his team had already taken the game to Kickstarter, but they quickly realized they’d done so before either they or the game was ready. They took some much-needed time to retool, refocus, and get their ducks in a row, and it proved to be a valuable learning experience.

They’re looking forward to bringing their new and improved version of the game to Kickstarter sometime in the future, and I suspect they’ll have great success when they do.

One game that I expect will do quite well is This Is Only a Test, Carl Van Ostrand’s game featured at The Board Room’s table. (I also referenced The Board Room in my previous post when I covered the DNA dice game GATUCA.)

This Is Only a Test is a resource-management game fueled by ’50s nostalgia and doomsday prepping, as you and your fellow players try to gather the necessary materials to survive the end of the world. But be warned…this might be a real nuclear threat, or it might simply be a test. Neither you nor any of the other players will know which is the case until the very end of the game.

It’s an intriguing game mechanic, one I haven’t really encountered before. In most games, you might not know who will win, or how they’ll do it, or what obstacles they’ll face, but I can’t recall another game where the actual endgame is unknown until the last card is played.

Oh, and speaking of the end of days, that brings me to our next game, Pyramidia.

In this puzzly game of curses and construction, you and your fellow players are racing to build the finest Egyptian tomb possible. You gain points for your management of labor, for how much gold you save, and for how magnificent your structure is.

I think the physical building aspect, as well as the numerous ways to win the game, will appeal to puzzle solvers and board game fans both. The triangular game pieces not only added a nice touch stylistically to the game, but they created game play openings for players to either curse each other or themselves for a tactical advantage.

As the game was explained to me, it immediately became clear how much effort had gone into balancing the various styles of play, and I could easily imagine how many hours and hours of brainstorming and playtesting go into each and every one of these games.

And hey, if you’ve got a board-game idea and you’d like to meet up with fellow aspiring designers and players, look no further than CT FIG attendee Alex Wilkinson. He’s part of a group called Let’s Make Games CT based out of New Haven, and they’re always happy to participate in game testing, brainstorming, and all things game development.

He had two games to show off — a space exploration game called Hypergate that allowed for some engaging role-playing scenarios, and a hilarious card game called Misfit Monsters, where lesser-known creatures like the YOLO Phoenix and the Half-Centaur could do battle.

It’s genuinely exciting to be around people who love what they’re doing, and that positive energy was all over the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games.

I want to send a big thank you out to all of the amazing developers, designers, and game fans I talked to. I wish them all great success, and I hope to see many of these games on the shelves of game shops and retailers in the near future!


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Prep for College the Puzzly Way!

It’s summer here in the United States, which means many high-school graduates are already looking forward to starting college. But for those soon-to-be freshmen, as well as high schoolers looking for an edge before university, have you considered puzzles and board games?

Now, it comes as no shock to me, but this article from the U.S. News and World Report website might surprise some, since it lists puzzles and board games as two of its five tools to develop critical thinking skills before college!

Naturally, I’ve been an advocate of puzzles as a learning tool for a long time, so it’s gratifying to see a major publication sharing the same views and ideas.

From the article:

Collections of crossword puzzles, logic problems, riddles, sudoku, word problems and word searches can be found at your local bookstore or library. The puzzles in these books are a wonderful strategy to activate different parts of your brain for a round or two of mental gymnastics, and many collections even discuss what each puzzle is meant to target within the mind.

Allow me to expand on this for a bit. Different puzzles can target different skills, so which puzzles you solve can make a big difference when it comes to critical thinking.

Crosswords encourage deduction (figuring out words from a few common letters) and a facility with wordplay (dealing with crafty clues and alternate definitions), while word searches offer great practice in pattern recognition and quick reaction times.

And the demand that Sudoku puzzles place on active attentiveness and concentration exercises parts of the brain associated with forming new memories, encouraging better memory retention.

[All three of the above pics come from our line of puzzle apps! Perfect for puzzly pre-college practice! Shameless plug now concluded!]

But the article also mentioned that certain board games can be excellent tools for honing valuable mental skills for college.

Choose board games that require more than luck – namely, strategy – for players to win. Any game where players must carefully consider their next move, recognize patterns and remember details will aid in honing critical thinking skills.

The article goes on to suggest some classics, like Chess, Checkers, and Mastermind for learning chain-thinking (planning several steps ahead) as well as Scrabble and Boggle (speedy information analysis, as well as word formation) and Clue and Risk (anticipating and reacting to the gameplay of others).

But I think they’re excluding some prime examples of board games that could benefit younger minds.

  • You could pick a cooperative game like Pandemic or Forbidden Island, which not only encourage strategic thinking, but teamwork and the free exchange of ideas (something that forced group exercises in school never really managed).
  • You could choose a rapid-change game like Fluxx (either the board game or the card game), which forces the players to adapt quickly to constantly changing rules and gameplay (a perfect microcosm of problem-solving in the real world, where things rarely remain static for long).
  • You could select a mixed-play game like The Stars Are Right, which incorporates several forms of gameplay (in this case, pattern-forming, tile-shifting, and a strategic card game akin to Magic: The Gathering or Munchkin) and forces players to exercise different forms of strategy and puzzle-solving all at once.

Just think about it. You could turn Family Game Night or Family Puzzle Time into College Prep Time in a snap. It’s win-win, or perhaps even win-win-win. What could be simpler, or more fun, than that?

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United we solve…

[President Bill Clinton and Brit Hume team up to tackle one of Merl Reagle‘s crosswords.]

A while back, I wrote a post about some of the many puzzle competitions and tournaments that are hosted around the world. But ever since then, I’ve been pondering how odd it is that puzzle competition is so prevalent when puzzles themselves have always been a collaborative effort.

Think about it. Jigsaw puzzles can be solved alone, but aren’t your memories of previous jigsaw puzzles always the ones you solved with others? When you get stuck on a crossword, what’s the first thing you do? You ask someone nearby. I know plenty of couples that solve crosswords and other puzzles together.

[How great is this stock photo I found? It makes me laugh every time I look at it.]

Paradoxically, most group puzzle games are competitive, like Boggle or Bananagrams. Even the games where you build something together, like Words with Friends, Scrabble, Jenga, or Castellan, are all competitive games.

Board games follow the same pattern. The vast majority of them pit players against each other, encouraging adversarial gameplay that leaves a single winner.

[Let the Wookiee win…]

But thankfully, there is a small (but growing!) number of board games that have the same cooperative spirit that pen-and-paper puzzles often do. These cooperative games encourage the players to strategize together and help each other to accomplish tasks and achieve victory as a team. Essentially, instead of playing against each other, they’re playing against the game.

Whether you’re defending your castle from monsters (Justin De Witt’s Castle Panic) or trying to stop a monstrous evil from conquering the world (Arkham Horror), you succeed or fail as a team. It’s a wonderful gameplay experience either way.

One of the top names in cooperative board games is Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic and Forbidden Island. His games are exceedingly challenging but an immensely good time, even if you fail to stop the viruses or the island sinks before you can gather up all the treasures. It just makes you more determined to play better next time. (This is a wonderful counterpoint to the disillusionment that can crop up when one player trounces another in standard board games.)

There are some cooperative games, like Shadows Over Camelot or Betrayal At House On The Hill that have it both ways, serving as a team game until one player betrays the others, and then it becomes a team vs. spoiler game.

While competitive gameplay certainly does have its advantages, sometimes it’s nice to take some time out and win or lose as a team.

What do you think, PuzzleNationers? Do you prefer games with a winner, or do you enjoy cooperative games? Are there any great cooperative games or puzzles I missed? Let me know!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!