They don’t make’em like they used to.
The above phrase is used, most often it seems, as a pejorative. But in the case of board games today, I think it’s a good thing. Moreover, I hope a time will come when I don’t have to say the following: board games have come a long way since you last played Monopoly. I would rather not have to say anything – it would be so much better if everyone simply knew how nicely board games have evolved.
If you are a 4X or strategy game fan, chances are you have flittered about with a board game or two in the past. Or perhaps you’ve heard from a friend or even “the Internet” about these newfangled contraptions that are taking over vast swaths of geekdom. Or maybe not. Either way, we’ve got you covered in A Brief 4X Gamer’s Guide to Modern Board Games.
Hopefully we won’t leave you “board” to tears! (eh? eh?)
A Super Brief History of Modern / Designer / Hobby / Tabletop Games
If you were to take a jaunt down the game aisle of your local big box store (e.g. Walmart, Target) you’ll see plenty of games that you’ll no doubt recognize. Monopoly, Sorry, Chess, Checkers, Risk, Candyland (god help you), Clue. Then there are the mountains of word and party games: Scrabble, Pictionary, Taboo, Trivial Pursuit, Twilight: The Movie: The Card Game (among other licensed IP products).
These games are, what we more discerning gamers would call, mainstream games. A lot of mainstream games were birthed back in the early twentieth century (Monopoly was published in 1935 but based on a patented 1903 game design). Abstract games are even older – Go is about 3000 years old, plus or minus a few centuries – and haven’t changed much since.
But there is another world of board games that exists, one that the Matrix of mainstream games has blinded people to. A world is thriving and growing. You may have heard people talk about “modern” board games, or “designer” games, or “tabletop games.” These terms are all used interchangeably to refer to games made for board game enthusiasts and are generally found quite far from the shelves of mainstream outlets.
It bears mentioning that the hobby game market has been around for a while. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Avalon Hill (currently a subsidiary of Hasbro) was practically a household name and the company published a variety of games – but predominantly wargames or heavy simulation-style games (like 18xx train simulators). They also published Civilization, a bit later in 1980 (originally published by Hartland Trefoil). This was the same era of game design that birthed the big role playing games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons in 1974). You also had some breakout games that penetrated the mainstream market, like Cosmic Encounter in 1977, a game that is ostensibly a gamer’s game and the precursor to “special power card games” like Magic: The Gathering.
This trajectory probably would’ve made hobby gaming even more of a mainstream thing if video games hadn’t risen to dominance in 80’s and stolen the show. You had publishers like Avalon Hill and offshoots of bigger companies releasing hobby games through the 1980’s and early 90’s, but not in huge numbers as before. In the United States, most of these games came with a LOT of plastic pieces – like HeroQuest (photo credit), Fortress America, Axis & Allies, and Dark Tower. These sorts of games, heavy on pulp fiction action themes (space battles, barbarians, world war 3, etc.) are now affectionately referred to as Ameritrash by many board gamers.
You also had Games Workshop and FASA plugging away in the miniature gaming world (with Warhammer 40,000 and Battletech respectively). Then in 1993, Magic: The Gathering was birthed and created an entire market through the collectable card game (CCG’s) concept. By the late 1990’s, “hobby gaming” was largely centered around CCG’s and Miniature games, along with the game stores that sold them and provided venues for competitions. Standalone board games popped up here and there, but not at all like what we see today.
So what changed? In a nutshell, Settlers of Catan (photo credit) happened. And to understand that, we need to go to Germany.
In Germany, starting in 1979, they had this little thing called the Spiel des Jahres – or Game of the Year. Legend has it that Germans were discouraged from making games with violent themes (for example, making wargames was a no-no), and so designers starting making all sorts of other family-friendly games in pursuit of the coveted Spiel des Jahres award. It was typical for many German households to purchase the Game of Year, without blinking an eye, every year for Christmas. This meant a guaranteed sale of 100,000+ copies – imagine that!
While the games were intended to be family friendly and easy to learn, the award process fueled a culture of game innovation design and of game designers. Game designers now had their names attached right next to the title of the game – just like an author’s name being on the front of a novel – branding many of these designer games. Even more, many successful board game designers were able to earn a living (or close to one) if they landed the Spiel des Jahres award.
Settlers of Catan won the Spiel des Jahres in 1995. It would take a few years for it to catch on outside of Germany, but when it did it had a transformative impact on the world of hobby gaming. People who played it, whether a gamer or not, found it appealing. Look at the nice wood pieces! Look at the modular board! Look at the interactions! It only takes 60 minutes to play?! When I used to play Monopoly with my siblings, games would last days! (or so it seemed). This is almost like monopoly, but better in almost every way!
Settlers of Catan and other “gateway games” (Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are the biggies) had design innovations that corrected many of the problems that kept the average non-gamer away from board games. Stuff like player elimination, excessively long playtimes, fiddly and complicated rules, and violent themes. Instead these new German games focused on simple rule systems that created interesting spaces for player interactions. Many games feature bluffing or negotiation, or auctions and bidding, or tile placement and route-building. These were all new gaming ideas for many people.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. When German games stormed the world, the ideas they embodied started to hybridize with other design traditions. One direction was towards “Eurogames” – which are heavier strategy games that build on the tenets of German game design but provide a significant step up in complexity (like Agricola above, photo credit). Another was cross-pollination of German games with the design of Ameritrash style games, resulting in hybrids that feature bold, high action themes (favorites like Lovecraftian horror and the zombie-apocalypse), but implemented with new engaging mechanical techniques that made the games more accessible to people. If curious, my blog post Schools of Design, describes these trends in greater detail.
So by the mid 2000’s, the newly reinvigorated hobby / designer game market was growing and diversifying quickly. New publishers were springing up left and right, and established publishers found themselves in a rapidly growing market. In the past few years, many hobby games have started to break back into mainstream outlets. Check out Barnes and Nobles or the Target game section. In addition to the old guard, you’ll likely find Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders, Forbidden Desert, and more. It grows every year.
Above is a chart I assembled (up through 2014 data) of the number of board games with at least 50 ratings on Boardgamegeek.com – meaning it’s likely a properly published and distributed game. This includes all sorts of games (party games, kids games, etc.). But if even half of these are loosely in the strategy game realm (it’s probably more than that), that’s still 200+ different strategy games a year being released. There isn’t anywhere close to 200 major strategy video game releases in a year. Pretty staggering to think about.
Then crowdfunding added another log to fire. In 2015, tabletop games raised twice as much as video games did. That’s significant! And in an era where video games seemed plagued by over promises, unmet expectations, and pre-order scandals – it’s amazing that board games are doing so well. To put it in perspective, somewhere around 2010 the video game industry surpassed the gross sales of the film industry. And now, in at least in the Kickstarter metric, tabletop games are bringing in more funding than video games. Interesting times!
Additional reading: If you want to know more about the history of board gaming and some major trends and milestones, check out this geeklist I assembled on boardgamegeek.com.
The Allure of Cardboard
This is the part where I, as a fan of 4X and strategy games and as a player and designer of tabletop games, try to give you the sales pitch. What do I, in my esteemed judgement, see as the appeal of playing a board game (emphasis on strategy games) and why should you play some as well?
#1 – Time to Disconnect
Many of us probably work all day long on computers, and then go home and game all night long on computers. Turning off the screen to experience something analog is a rather nice change of pace. Furthermore, the production values of modern board games are vastly higher than games in the past – and manipulating all the bits and pieces while you soak up the artwork has a definite aesthetic appeal. Board games also aren’t slaved to a power supply and Internet connection, so they provide a higher degree of portability. I went on a family camping trip recently and managed to squeeze quite a lineup of games into a small footprint.
#2 – Social Engagement
Boardgames foster human to human interaction (unless you are playing solo games of course). The degree to which this engagement is a meaningful part of the game varies wildly depending on the type of game you are playing of course. A “beer & pretzels “raucous game like Ca$h ‘n Gun$ (photo credit) is going to induce a lot of trash tracking and interaction among the players. A contemplative abstract game is going to be less “above the board” player-to-player interaction – but there will be plenty of strategic interaction that happens “on the board.”
#3 – Better Designed
This one is more subjective – but compared to video games in the strategy sphere, I think board games are better designed and create more interesting decision spaces for players. Part of this is no doubt the result of compressing a big sweeping epic narrative down into something that you can play in a few hours or less. The result is that a lot of the fat, bloat, and irritating micromanagement stuff is simply eliminated – leaving the player to face a much greater density of significant strategic decision points. When you couple this with the fact that most board games are played against cunning human opponents – you get the kind of strategic challenges most video games aspire to, but never reach on a regular basis.
I also think, that within a given genre or theme, there is far more diversity among the design of board games compared to video games. Video game genres (e.g. 4X, or RTS, or Grand Strategy) are stuck within genre conventions and beholden to player expectations (and publisher/market pressures) to a much greater degree than board games. Video gamers expect to be able to pick up a game and already know how to play it. Board gamers pick up a game expect to read the rules to learn how to play. This is a big difference, and it affects what designs are possible because players are more willing to learn new systems. As a result, every year there are dozens of board games within a genre that use new mechanics and create interesting new experiences.
Historically Inspired Civilization Games
At this point, you are no doubt trembling with anticipation. You want to know about the board games that might scratch that 4X, civilization-ish, empire building itch. The following list includes a range of games within the broad “historic civilization” umbrella. Some of these are older (and often hard to find) classics that are worth knowing about. I’ll try to keep the descriptions short, and will link entries to boardgamegeek.com, which has the largest database (and web community) for board game aficionados.
This is the granddaddy of Civilization games. It plays up to 7 players and takes in excess of five hours (more often like 10 hours) to play. It is known, among other things, as Sid Meier’s inspiration to create the first Civilization video game. However, contrary to what people might expect, the video game and the board game have almost nothing to do with one another mechanically. I was shocked the first time I played Civ (the board game). It is a vastly simpler game mechanically than I was expecting, and the real “meat” of the game lies with a slick resource trading system between players, which sets the context for a wonderful game of diplomacy and negotiation. It’s a brilliant game if you can find a copy (and copies sell for over $300!) and muster the required players and time.
Clash of Cultures (2012) by Christian Marcussen (photo credit)
In many respects, this is a quintessential historically flavored “4X” game. There is a map to explore, cities to found and develop, technologies to research, armies to raise, wars to rage. It plays 2-4 players in a far more manageable 3-4 hours. Production values are tremendous. And it’s still in general distribution so you can get yer paws on it easily enough.
Antike (2005) by Mac Gerdts (photo credit)
This ancient empire, civ-like plays 3-6 players in under two hours. The original version was released in 2005, with an updated version in 2014. Both are a little hard to track down (ebay or the BGG market is your best bet). However, Antike is my go to civ-game because it is easy to teach but provides plenty of depth. Player turns go quickly through the use of the “rondel” mechanic that structures how players take actions (see that little pinwheel in the top right of the board?). This action pinwheel contains the actions you can perform on your turn, by moving your pawn to the action you want to take. The rub is that you can only advance for free to one of the next three actions – if you want to jump ahead you have to pay resources to do it. It creates a great action planning and bluffing mini-game as players all watch each other’s position on the board – and their upcoming actions – to try and seize the initiative.
Through the Ages (2006 & 2015) by Vlaada Chvátil (photo credit)
So it maybe doesn’t look like much – but Through the Ages has been among the top ranked civilization-themed game for a long time. The game does away with any sense of geography (there is no board) in favor of card driven gameplay focused around your technological advancement. It’s going to take a good four hours to wade through, and designer Vlaada Chvátil is no stranger to complex card interactions – so brace yourself for a learning curve. Still, this one is a classic among board gamers for a good reason.
7 Wonders (2010) by Antoine Bauza (photo credit)
If you are looking for a civilization-themed game that plays quickly and, more importantly, lets you play with an entire room full of people (up to 7 anyway), then 7 Wonders is a good option. This is also a card-driven game (like Through the Ages above), but vastly simpler. Gameplay revolves primarily around “drafting,” which works like this: Each player has a hand of cards. Each turn all players simultaneously pick a card they want, then pass the remaining cards to the left. The chosen card is placed into your personal play space in front of you (i.e. the “tableau”) as various types of building, resources, technologies, military advancements, etc. Keep going like this through three different ages, then tally your points at the end based on your level of development, wonder construction, and military might. It’s a great gateway game and introduction to drafting.
This is one of my favorite games – and it’s perfect example of a “hybrid” game that fuses Amertistrah stuff (like plastic miniatures, mythological monsters, and warfare) with mechanics straight out of the German game school of design. Each round of play kicks off with players making offerings (e.g. bids) to win the favor of different gods in order to evoke their associated power. Ares lets you wage war, Zeus allows you to summon up monsters, Athena expands your philosophic might, Poseidon lets you move fleets, etc. Through all of this, you are trying to build and/or conqueror two Metropolises to win. When the game starts players are almost immediately in position to win. So it’s a constant knife fight of backstabbing and treachery as you plot cunning moves. Brilliant “dudes on a map” game for 2-5 players in a brisk 60-90 minutes.
Were I to single out one game as the representative of excellent design and deep emergent gameplay, Reiner Knizia’s Tigris & Euphrates wins hands-down. On the surface, the good Doctor Knizia’s tile-laying, empire building masterpiece comes across as an abstract take on the ancient civ theme. But that’s only half the story. Gameplay revolves around building up different regions by playing tiles, and positioning your leaders to control these regions to earn points as the region grows and assimilates others. The rules are relatively simple, but create a tantalizing dynamic as leaders rise to power, are swept under the rug, and rise again later. This is all quite thematic when you actually think about it. An exceptionally well-balanced and strategic game, this is one that you could spend a life-time studying. Just re-printed in a new edition too!
Science-Fantasy Inspired Civilization Games
The following games take the civilization/4X concept to new frontiers – either in space, on other planets, or through strange alternate histories.
Twilight Imperium (3rd Edition; 2005) by Christian T. Petersen (photo credit)
TI3 is the 800 pound gorilla of space 4X board games. The game comes in what is affectionately known as the “coffin box” – a monstrous rectangular slab of cardboard that you need two people to move (well, not quite). The game plays 3-6 players in about 8 to 16 hours (yes, hours). The game is legendary and is now in it’s third, and most ostentatious, iteration. The game is big on theme, diplomacy, and negotiation as players vie for control of the galaxy. Playing the game is a hobby unto itself – but for delivering an experience worthy of the best space operas, nothing quite does it like TI3. Oh, and check this out. I want one.
Eclipse (2011) by Touko Tahkokallio (photo credit)
Ever since Twilight Imperium has been around, designers have been trying to find a “TI3-lite.” It is sort of a pointless endeavor, because the epic scale and scope of TI3 isn’t really suited to being condensed. But nonetheless, Eclipse has garnered the most acclaim for being an exceptional 4X-lite game, supporting 2-6 players and playing in about three hours. For those coming from video game land, it’s also one of the closest boardgames to being the analog version of Master of Orion 2. Eclipse features awesome production values and some very clever mechanics. There is economy management, research, ship customization, warfare, exploration, and diplomacy. It’s all there, and it’s all done very well. Eclipse is available in an iPad digital version – which we reviewed previously.
Race for the Galaxy (2007) by Tom Lehmann (photo credit)
This card based game of galactic expansion is one of the finest card games around. The game is structured around “role selection” where players simultaneously choose a role card for the round. Then each player performs the associated actions for all of the selected roles in sequence, with the owner of a particular role taking an amped-up version of the that role. There is a moderate amount of intricacy in the card interactions and role selection to sort through – but once you do the strategic play opens up considerably. This is a very slick and fast playing game, one of my favs. The first expansion adds a clever solo mode.
This is another card based space conquest game. This time however, it is a 2-player “deck building” game. Deck building games are NOT what you might think deck building is. If you are imaging this to be deck building like you do in Magic: The Gathering or other CCG’s – that’s wrong. “Deck building” as a board game mechanic means that the players are drafting cards in some fashion to build their own personal deck over the course of the game itself (not before it like in Magic: The Gathering). How/when you add or remove cards from the deck is the heart of the gameplay. Star Realms is a very pure, 2-player deck building game where each each player is using the strength of their cards to “win” cards from a central pool, adding those cards to their deck. Players must decide whether to use their power to claim cards from the middle or use it to attack their opponent in an effort to deplete their authority. It’s a solid deck-building game if looking for a quick 2-player game.
Impulse (2013) by Carl Chudyk (photo credit)
Impulse is a dense little “micro” 4X game by designer Carl Chudyk. Chudyk’s hallmark is multiple uses and functions for cards within a given game. In the case Impulse, the same set of cards comprise the galaxy map you explore, and then provide a system for actions based on controlling those locations. Cards are also used as part of longer action chain impulses. If it sounds confusing – it is. Chudyk’s games often take a while to sink in, but when they do they provide clear mechanics with interesting gameplay that you don’t see elsewhere. Impulse plays 2-6 players in around an hour.
Hey, this name sounds familiar! SE4X is a wargame styled “hex and counter” empire and conquest building game from GMT Games. In many ways, it’s a throwback in style and mechanics to wargames and space games from the 70’s – which in turn influenced the creation of Master of Orion and early 4X video games. While the design looks spartan, the game is anything but. You’ll be conducting exploration, settling new colonies, and engaging in the deepest military maneuvers of any of the games presented here. There is a lot to sink your teeth into – but you’ll need to rely on your imagination to help fill in the thematic gaps. A very well regarded game nonetheless.
This guide attempted to cover a range of different types of games, mechanically, within the umbrella of civilization and 4X style games. Of course this list only scratches the surface of what’s available. Some places to start further digging, for 4X-ish games, includes the geeklist: Space Empire Builders of the Modern Era and similarly Ancient/Historic Empire Builders of the Modern Era. Those links both list a number of games with detailed descriptions of each to start you on your journey.
If you are curious about any of the terms for different genres or mechanics used in games, and want to see some examples of each, the best classification attempt is Selwyth’s Classification, which is worth bookmarking for future reference.
If you have any questions, or are seeking any recommendations or insight beyond what this article covers, please ask away!