Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nerd Bread: Board Games

Nerd Bread: There are a lot of things that go into making a nerd. Nerd bread describes things that are absolutely necessary to qualify for the title. The corollary, nerd butter, deepens the nerd experience to something much more profound, much like butter does to bread.

Today I'm going to touch on a piece of Nerd Bread that is near and dear to my heart: board games. Board games are a huge part of the Nerdery's relatively amicable home. They're a weekly staple in our house, we play them regularly with friends, and it's one of those things that's a great way to spend an afternoon with family over the holidays. We have board games that work for one or two people, or games that we only pull out when we have five to eight savvy players with at least six hours to burn. Some of these games are quick, party-oriented affairs with equal parts chit-chat, joking, and gaming, and others are more strict shut-up-and-take-your-turn board games.

Board games are great.

But, if you're like a lot of people I know, you're about to give me the old eye-roll and make a comment about Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, or Life.

"You still like board games?" is the common refrain.

Yeah, that's right. I play board games. And not even in a trendy or ironic way, without drinking involved. And board games are alive and well these days, despite the mass public perception otherwise. There are more companies, bigger games, expensive franchises represented by an international variety of board games than have ever existed before. That's why it's Nerd Bread. And to help give you an idea of why board games are Nerd Bread, here are the rules of board games:

The first rule don't need to make a Fight Club reference every time you start a list of rules.

The second rule is that virtually everyone likes some kind of board game. When anti-nerds say they don't like board games, they almost always are thinking of the big ones--Monopoly, Risk, or Life. And, despite being successful and long-standing traditions in board gaming, they are terrible. Monopoly is a pointless, luck-grind that takes hours to play and only minutes to sap your energy worse than a double helping of Thanksgiving turkey. Risk is a geographic tug-of-war that constantly frustrates the concept of having the lead in the game with unbalanced mechanics that are designed to extend play time without adding depth, strategy, or fun. And Life is just a procedural, going-through-the-motions version of Candy Land for non-grown-ups. No, people who hate board games just hate the particular board games they were forced to play as a kid, and most of those games deserve the ill-will. But there are so many different games out there that anyone with an open mind and willingness to experiment should be able to find one that suits them.

"Some of these games are quick, party-oriented affairs with equal parts chit-chat, joking, and gaming, and others are more strict shut-up-and-take-your-turn board games."

The third rule of board games is that different board games fit different occasions. There is no one-size-fits-all board game, and sometimes the game you're most enthusiastic about is the least appropriate game for a particular setting. I love Twilight Imperium. It is absolute Nerd Butter, featuring complex rules, deep strategy and like six decks of cards with special rules and effects. It can be played by up to eight people if you're willing to blow most of a day on it and have a six-by-four-foot play area. In short, I never get to play Twilight Imperium, because it is tremendously prohibitive to ordinary schedules and get-togethers. And that's ok, because we have other games that are perfectly suited to impromptu play sessions, or for playing when our latest RPG session gets canceled, or when the kids are asleep and we just need to get our Marvel on quietly. Board game variety is a great investment.

Fourthly, board games are not about being over-competitive dorks. The hackneyed board gamer image is of a near-sighted nerd straining over whether his friend is allowed to move one square or two, and arguing about it shrilly over spilled Mountain Dew. This isn't necessarily true, although being competitive and rules-lawyering can have its place in board games, and I generally recommend you always keep soda on a different surface from your favorite board game. And no one--NO ONE--is allowed to try to open a can of soda one-handed while inside the game's splash zone. That is serious business. But board games themselves are all about having fun, and there are a lot of games that offer light-hearted competition or even a fully cooperative experience. Picking out a game with the right objective--whether it's fun cooperation or cut-throat strategy and humiliation--is all apart of the game night experience.

"No, people who hate board games just hate the particular board games they were forced to play as a kid, and most of those games deserve the ill-will."

Fifthly and finally, the recommended age system for board games is a mess. There is no standardized system for age recommendations for board games, so always treat them as fuzzy, beer-goggled impressions of whether they'd make a good date. Some companies seem to pick their age recommendation as the age at which a person could read, internalize, and comprehend the rules. That's a good rule of thumb if a kid is wanting to pick up and play the game, but most of the time younger kids are going to pick up a game at the table and therefore be relying on a friend's or parent's understanding of the rules and ability to explain them. Poorly written rules can seem to inflate the age recommendation for a game that could otherwise be more friendly for casual players. Games with violent or suggestive art might have age recommendations that have nothing to do with the accessibility of the game's mechanics. When it comes down to it, nothing beats having a sit-down with the game and its components to evaluate if it'll be a fit for you. Second to that option, pull a nerd out of line at your local store and ask him to explain it to you quickly. Labels are a poor substitute to the impressions of players and how excited they do or don't get over the experience of playing that specific board game.

So those are the essential elements for understanding board games as a keystone of being a nerd. In the future, I'll highlight some of my favorite board games with full Nerdview reviews complete with odor, beef, gravy, and cheese. Until then, keep gaming.

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