How to get your board game on this winter

candle loadshedding

I’ve had a gaming resurgence lately. It all started with Diablo III, reigniting my passion for single-player gaming and leading me to play gems like Firewatch, one of the most memorable games I’ve played in the last decade.

From there I picked up a pastel pink Nintendo 2DS and was fortuitous enough to get my hands on a free PS4, and it’s been all downhill from there. My backlog is now so severe I may have to Sophie’s Choice my way through the remainder of my library, jettisoning weaker games in much the same way the Eskimos discard the elderly.

With the mornings and evenings getting progressively colder and the threat of load shedding looming on the horizon, things are only going to get worse. Luckily, I’ve developed a new gaming obsession over the last month that’s perfect for the season of candles and those annoying solar jars: board games and tabletop gaming. And no, I’m not talking about Monopoly, the family fun sponge that lurks in every household like a vengeful demon. After the jump I’ll break down the journey that got me here, the things I’ve learnt about this amazing hobby and the games I recommend for those keen to jump in.

At rAge 2014, I went in with a mission – to crush Matthew Fick at the board game tables. Unfortunately, that never came to pass. I’m not sure why exactly. Perhaps I was too busy destroying Delano at Mortal Kombat X.

So I went to rAge 2015 with renewed vigour. If you haven’t been to a rAge expo (shame on you), there’s always an awesome Unplug Yourself section with tons of tables and chairs with board games laid out for newcomers like Matt and I to experiment with.

We sat down to learn and play Versus System (the Marvel heroes version) and only got up again some three hours later (three hours of, um, “research”, for an “article”). I made good on my promise of crushing Matt, but in his defense I think (I know) he had the shoddier deck.

Still, those three hours were some of the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on and without a jumping castle. The “Unplug Yourself” mantra really rings true here – there’s something awesome about handling physical objects with another man (phrasing Chris, phrasing) that you just don’t get in video games.

That experience stayed with me, but the board game bug has only really taken root in the last month or so. In that time, I’ve learnt some interesting things.

“Gateway games” are a thing, as are elitists

For the most part, the board game community is pretty swell. However, like every group, it has its hipsters that shuffle around in waistcoats and a cloud of body odour. See, beyond the usual trash like Monopoly and Risk (I know, I know, I also secretly love Risk), there are the games that sit in the grey area between mainstream games and serious business board gaming.

These are the games that you won’t find at Pick n Pay, but you will find at Exclusive Books. Some of the elitists say these games are bad – they aren’t. In truth, these are called gateway games for a reason – they ease new players into the complexities of heavier games (quick aside: game complexity is described in terms of weight – light, medium, heavy).

These games are also really, really fun. If anyone tells you Settlers of Catan is a bad game while adjusting their fedora and hitching up their jeans, don’t listen to them. It’s awesome, and even with my newfound snobbiness I still love playing it. Are there better games? Sure, but I’ve never not had everyone enjoy it whenever I’ve brought it to the table.

Recommended games: Ticket to Ride Europe, Settlers of Catan

"Hey man listen, I'll give you two bricks for one wheat."
“Hey man, listen, I’ll give you two bricks for one wheat.”

Board games can destroy your relationships (in the best possible way)

I absolutely LOVE the genre of game typically referred to as “social deduction” games. You may have played one of these before with a deck of playing cards, the most common variants being Mafia and Werewolf.

Essentially they involve players having hidden roles (some good, some bad), with the baddies trying to lie, cheat and steal their way to victory while the good guys attempt to figure out which of their friends is a dirty lying asshole.

The best of these games turn into an all-out war, with players shouting their innocence in furious tones whilst concealing a Werewolf card under their hands. There’s no better feeling in the world than having the good guys vote off the wrong person, only to smugly reveal your evil role card. The excommunication from your friends will only last a couple of weeks; that feeling of the win will last a lifetime.

If you’ve never played this type of game with an experienced group, you haven’t experienced the palpable feeling of getting thoroughly owned by a veteran. The first time I ever played it, it was down to me and two other people, and an innocent-looking woman crafted a gleaming turd of deceit and made me pay top dollar for it. I was the swing vote, I failed horribly, and the wolfish grin she gave me afterwards taught me the kind of lesson usually reserved for people dumb enough to believe they really did win several million dollars in a competition they didn’t enter.

Recommended games: Ultimate Werewolf, The Resistance, Secret Hitler, Mafia

Cooperative games are a thing

I’m not sure why this surprised me so much, but it did. I guess it’s just something I’d never really considered. To me, board games involve people playing against each other. There are winners and there are losers. Without seeing Delano’s crestfallen face as I wrapped a second Winner’s Bandana around my head, would I really have enjoyed Mortal Kombat X as much? Without Matt looking dejectedly at his hand of useless cards as my army of Iron Man overwhelmed him, would I be writing this article today?

Apparently not everyone is a flaming asshole like me, because cooperative games exist and are enormously popular. In these games, everyone plays as a team against the game itself. The game does everything it can to beat you, and it’s your job to work together to stop it. I’m hoping someone will design a South African themed co-op game where different political parties band together to take down the government. We could have event cards like Load Shedding, Parliament Brawl and Your Offices Are On Fire. Perhaps I should get a Kickstarter together.

Anyway, these games even have adjustable difficulty levels, and can be played with variable numbers of players.

All the recommendations here are by the same designer, the king of accessible co-op games, Matt Leacock. I’ve listed them from most accessible to most difficult.

Recommended games: Forbidden Island, Pandemic, Forbidden Desert

Find the treasure. Get the hell out. Don't die.
Find the treasure. Get the hell out. Don’t die.

Solo games are a thing too

I suppose this stems naturally from the concept of a cooperative game, but the notion of a board game played completely alone is pretty crazy to me – apparently I forgot Solitaire was a thing.

Still, we play video games and watch TV by ourselves, so why not have an awesome solo board game experience? After all, sometimes the hardest part of playing a board game is getting a group together. This is one of those things that people generally find odd or anti-social, like going to the cinema by yourself. But those people are idiots because going to a cinema alone is awesome, and in a world where split-screen multiplayer has been relegated to the pile of non-essential features, I’d say solo board gaming fits in quite nicely.

Worth noting here is that these solo games are not for the fainthearted; for whatever reason they’re generally the heaviest in terms of complexity, and may take a couple of playthroughs to fully grasp the rules and the gameplay.

The two I’m linking below are two of the top-rated solo games, and both can accommodate up to four players – a nice bit of adaptability.

Recommended games: Robinson Crusoe, Mage Knight

Phew, okay, I think I’ll cut it there since I’ve strayed deep into triple-digit word counts. I’ll just note at the end here that certain board games can be hard to find in South Africa, but you can find most of the “gateway” and less complex games on Takealot. For less mainstream titles I’ve had great service and assistance from Timeless Board Games and Wizards Warehouse, so I’d recommend both for when you dive deeper into the hobby. Don’t forget to check out, Skycastle Games and Blowfish Entertainment as well.

Also, be sure to head to rAge expo in Johannesburg in October for a massive selection of games available to purchase at the Unplug Yourself stand, and the option to try some of them out for yourself!

Okay, now listen carefully: I’m the detective, and Matt is Mafia.