Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The New World of Board Games

It's been a beautiful week and a half here on the coast of the Delaware Bay. I've tanned. I've been chased off the beach by those fat, biting flies that crave ankle flesh. I've floated in the dead calm brackish waters. And, seeing as I'm the oldest of three, I've played board games. A lot of board games. In fact, it feels like I've taken a trip through a board game museum this week.

And all this play time has, in some small way, been enlightening and sad. I've played the games of my youth, the games of my parents' youth, and brand new ones released in the last decade. They don't make these games like they used to. But if they did my seventeen year old sister probably wouldn't play them. Let's talk a walk through the water-damaged and dusty cardboard halls of board game history. I mean come on, it's the summer, what else are we going to do?

Ancient Games

I wish there was a counter that automatically tallied how many times I've played Checkers in my life. In the hundreds? Thousands? How many times have I said "King Me?" Playing this simple, ancient game after playing complex current games was refreshing. There's no order of play beyond a simple "Me, then you, then me, then you." Nothing's needed but the board, those familiar, ribbed checkers, a friend and some forethought. This ancient game, like Mancala (another family favorite) seems so completely uncluttered.

The Golden Age of Gaming

I'll admit that I'm a sucker for Monopoly. It's the elephant in the room. The game you want to play and absolutely don't want to play. You know it will suck four precious hours (at least!) out of your life, but if you're hyper competitive how can you resist? Playing Monopoly with my friends has always brought out the worst in us. The whiners whine the loudest during Monopoly. The cheaters cheat the hardest. The easily bored give up almost immediately. But this is an old game and it still has so much of the classic "game-ness" to it. Like Scrabble, both games exude a sort of early 20th century need to entertain.

Scrabble, too, is a family favorite. Playing Scrabble against my siblings has always been a self-induced proving ground for me. I'm the writer in the family. I have to score the highest in the game (I almost never do). These games are old fun. They're what most people think of when they think of board games. But the 1980's saw a sharp new revitalization in the world of cardboard and plastic pieces.

The Silver Age of Gaming

Until I wrote and did research for this article I assumed Pictionary was a game from the first half of the 20th century. In its simple premise and immediate gratification I saw an older-world view of having fun. I was shocked to find it created and released in the mid-1980's! I like Pictionary because it naturally changes depending on who you're playing with. Play the game with your college friends and it turns bawdy. Play with little siblings and it's an exercise in explaining how ancient items worked ("No, they're called Jacks and you throw a rubber ball and snatch them...forget it!").

Now Scattergories feels like an '80's game. The social, board-less game of words and association screams new generation. These games were good games. A lot of games that came out in the '80's and early '90's were good games (Trivial Pursuit, Mousetrap, Hungry Hungry Hippos). So what's gone wrong for the new generation? What else but the internet.

The Modern Era of Board Games

It should come as no surprise that board games are losing steam. We're at a point now where most young people (under 20? does that sound fair?) have been so inoculated by the quickness of the internet that playing a board game has little appeal. And why should it? If you can blast your best friend's head off in videogame without having to go to his house, why would you want to schlep a big box over and set it up. A particularly tech-drowned college classmate of mine once bemoaned having to play Monopoly, calling the set-up of the board "loading time" and saying the game was slow and "laggy."

Today's board games attempt to combat that in various ways. Some address the issue of speed and, in my opinion, fall flat. As fun as Scrabble SLAM! may sound, the game is poorly designed. Using cards with letters on them and a fast, competitive gaming mechanic. But you can only use your cards to make four letter words. Lame.

A whole crop of these games were released by Hasbro. Bastardizations of classics with terrible titles like Sorry! REVENGE, The Game of Life Adventures, Monopoly DEAL and Yahtzee HANDS DOWN. They're all aimed at being fast to keep the flow of the game continuous, and they all loose the essential qualities of their predecessors.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Cranium brand of games keeps expanding, is wildly popular with the youth, and invites the gamer to sit down, suck it up, and have some fun. We played both Cranium Turbo Edition and Cranium Pop 5. Both concessions made to the youngest of our clan. The Turbo edition of Cranium still took a good hour to play, but the questions and answers were fast paced and, to my surprise, very difficult (how do you hum the "Hotel California" to a 17 year old?). Pop 5 is all about pop culture, so the game's shelf life won't last long, but it forced us to get up and act, to draw and even to sculpt with clay! If the future of the board game has to go anywhere, I hope it follows it's brain and goes the Cranium route!