As I touched on in my review of 4 The Birds, sometimes it’s hard to introduce new people to board games. We’ve all played the classics like Risk or Chutes and Ladders, but the genre of games known as “Eurogames” is something else entirely. They’re often more complex and offer more direct interaction with fellow players. But the stigma in America of board games as a kid’s pastime persists.
In his article, “Why You’re Never Too Old to Play Board Games”, Alex Yeager of Mayfair Games talks about the myth that board games are for kids and how to overcome it. Interesting in learning more, I got in contact with him for an interview.
Dude has a pedigree. Over twenty years of hobby gaming experience and working in the industry for over fifteen. Before that he had background in the broadcasting and automotive industries. “One of the fun parts about being in this job is you get to use so much of what you know and what you have in your experience in one way or another.” Between playtesting, developing and other involvements he’s contributed to over 200 games. So yeah, I think this guy has a pretty decent handle on board games.
Board Games in the 20th Century
Now, board games in America haven’t always been associated with the likes of Clue and Mouse Trap. In fact, one of the games that any American thinks of gathering around the table to play with the family at least once in their lives is Monopoly. Yet this game has its roots in the very early 1900s as a parable on capitalism. “This game was created as a moralistic warning story to adults, this wasn’t meant to be a kid’s game. This was meant to be, ‘This is the crushing view of capitalism, this activity is going to end up with one person with all the money, and everyone else broke.’” It’s a very advanced message and its mechanics are more involved than most. It also has direct player negotiation; though not necessarily codified, there’s player-to-player trading, alliances, and naturally the breaking thereof that add an additional level to gameplay.
That negotiation and player interaction happening above the game board is much of what defines Eurogames – and, ironically, in a few American games mid-century. Before we got games from the continent, designers such as Sid Sackson were making complex themed games like Acquire (which I really, really need to get a copy of for myself). Thematically it can be compared to Monopoly, except for commercial ventures rather than real estate; but the omission of dice reduced the random element drastically, and made for more direct competition against the other players rather than the fate of the random number generator. Companies like 3M and Avalon Hill put such games out in the 60s and 70s, then demand dropped, and with it development.
Then, of course, games from Germany hit American shores. “Really, when Catan comes over in ‘95, ‘96, you have this audience that has a taste for games, but […] a lot of the companies that were kind of the classic board game companies had kind of gone by the wayside at that point. […] So the Eurogame came along just right at that perfect moment when people had this desire for games and wanted something different.” Alex points out that part of the reason for the success of this sudden influx of games comes from the fact that publishers bringing new games to the United States were able to cherry pick from twenty years of games so American players got the best of the best, the cream of the crop. Players realized that there were great games with depth and interaction they’d never seen before, with very different sorts of mechanics – and this time, the genre was here to stay.
So with such a cornucopia of these games on the market, how does one get into hobby gaming?
“The best advice I can always give somebody is to say, you know, find a hobby game store near you, if possible, go in and say, ‘I like this kind of game.’” And a good employee, the sort you often find at a local store, will ask questions about it, what you like about it, what sort of game length you’re looking for, and begin to make recommendations.
We talked a bit about gateway games, particularly Catan. Sure, the game’s design is 22 years old, but Alex points out that while newer games have built on the foundation that Catan laid down, this makes Catan a great ground-level game for people to learn the genre on. By learning the basics of a game that doesn’t involve board movement, that not only allows but actively encourages player negotiation, it primes the new player to be ready for more of the genre.
The other thing a game like Catan provides is an instant playerbase to game with. 4 The Birds might be a great game to introduce someone to gaming, but good luck discussing it with most other players; meanwhile, if you want to talk to someone about how you came from behind because of a monopoly on wool with the same outlier number and then that number being rolled a bunch of times in a couple of rounds, people can relate and you’ll have people you’ll want to play with. When I asked him about being a gamer looking to introduce new people into the hobby, he told me, “I’m always as eager to propose a game that’s going to provide a new player with a support network as [I am to propose] just a good game. […] That’s gonna be the shared experience that is going to kind of get them ‘into the tribe’ that much faster.”
Just because you can teach a game well doesn’t necessarily make it a gateway game. Nor are your favorite games necessarily the ones that are good gateways – Twilight Imperium may be great, but I can’t imagine that someone on the fence would be enticed into the wide world of board games available now when it takes us two hours to set the game up and take the first turn. What do you mean, you didn’t set the entire day aside for one playthrough of the game? You’re looking for something popular, simple to learn but with somewhat complex mechanics to discover, and with a relatively short playtime so that even if they don’t do well on their first game, the new player is likely to say, “Let’s try that again.”
On Your Way
Whatever you call them – hobby games, Eurogames, or just “those games with more strategy” – they’re popping up everywhere. From local hobby shops to Target, there are plenty of great board games out there that are different from the standard American fare of the previous generation. Board games once were totally normal for adults to play; with the new generation of games aimed squarely at adults again, it can be intimidating to get into. But if you’re looking to get into the hobby, look at those gateway games and see if you can find a guide in a friend or a friendly store clerk,. And if you’re looking to be such a guide, do so carefully – you don’t want to turn someone off of the hobby that you enjoy so much. Because –
Do I have to?
“Yes, this is a comic review site.”
Because with great power comes great responsibility.