Nerdy Board Games – good social fun for the strategist in you








I’ve broken down my friends’ post-college hobbies into three distinct activities.  With few exceptions, most all of my young adult friends currently participate in at least one of these activities.

1.  Photography – This is by no means male specific, but a lot of folks are finding rich creative output through the camera lens.  Here’s one such photo blog from my very talented buddy Aaron.  I’m no good at photography.  My idea of ‘artsy’ is Kincaide-esque shots of sun shining on trees and rural churches.  Sickening and unfeasible in the city.   Also, I never really know which parts of urban decay are worth immortalizing; when I tried, I just ended up with a roll of shots of the dumpsters behind 7-Eleven), and the only photos I really even like to look at are underwater pictures of sea life.  Keep on snappin’ folks.

2.  Home-brewing beer – This one is a tasty variation on the ‘hot-rod-in-the-garage’ type man project.  Unfortunately, I’m not dedicated enough to pursue.  Plus, I like my beer in bottles, kegs, mini-kegs or in my belly.  Things I’ve heard from some of my pals about explosions and such give me the willies.  However, I’m a strong supporter and freelance bottling volunteer for the sole reason that I like drinking my friends’ beer.  My buddy C-Joy (<–rapper name) just made a delightful porter.

3.  NERDY BOARD GAMES.  Here we go!  While less creative, board games have become my hobby of choice.  What follows is a full breakdown of what these sorts of games tend to offer, why I love ’em, why they’re fun and why there’s a board game out there for everyone if only you can suspend revulsion to terms like “Victory Points”, “Special Abilities”, and, if you’ve been unlucky enough to play me in Dominion:  Intrigue, “Minions.”

What I have termed “Nerdy Board Games” (NBGs*) is not an entirely accurate description, since the games I’m profiling here run the gamut of complicated to accessible.  ‘Eurogames’ is a term that’s often used, but the board game craze is alive and well in the States.  I say ‘nerd’ in order to indicate that these games are more intellectually stimulating then your average trip around the Sorry board.  One need not be a ‘nerd’ to enjoy them, but it is a bit off the beaten path for the average shee–ah…citizen.  I use the term loosely, and in the parlance of the times.  NBGs are mechanically, no different than Monopoly  or Skip-Bo, except that they’re typically a lot more fun and better-constructed.  I’ll be comparing my profiles of NBGs to well known games for clarity’s sake, but expect a vastly different experience playing them.

That said, there are a couple of low hurdles that need to be cleared in opening the mind to a NBG.

First, these games have ‘themes’.  A theme is really just packaging for internal mechanics.  Somewhere along the line, someone decided that these games would be more fun if instead of just colors and numbers, they introduced art and an overall scenario.  Consider the difference between a Skip-Bo card and a card in Dominion, a similar card-based game in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1

Both cards do roughly the same thing.  However you will notice that, in Dominion, you have not been dealt a ‘draw-three card’ (you have), you have enlisted the services of the village smithy!

The theme just gives a little pizzazz to what is essentially, a mechanical game with a set of rules and conditions of victory.  Forbidden Island, you’re not moving from one tile to another before they’re flipped over (you are), you’re escaping from a sinking island!!!!  Dun dun duuun!.  In Dominion, you’re not just cycling through decks of cards and playing against probability (you are), you’re establishing a vaguely medieval kingdom!!!!!  In Race for the Galaxy, you’re not putting down combinations of cards to get you points (you are) you’re racing for the galaxy!!!!  If these thematic elements turn you off, then consider why there are Kings, Queens and Jacks in a deck of cards.  The mind often recognizes symbols more readily than numerical values, and themes give you symbolic cues to allow you to pick up on complicated rules more quickly.  For instance, I may not remember that a ‘draw three card’ works well with a ‘+2 actions’ card, but I may remember that a ‘Smithy’ goes well with a ‘Village’ and reflexively use the two in succession.  Themes don’t replace the numerical basics of gameplay, they just offer some symbolic triggers to what you’re doing and, I think, make the game more fun by offering some campy set dressing.  There are mainstream precedents for themed games: Monopoly is certainly a themed game, as is LIFE, but NBGs tend to have historical, sci-fi or fantasy themes.  This can certainly be a hurdle, but for the most part, my favorite games have themes that aren’t very complicated.  You know what spaceships are, you know what knights are, you can go with it.

Now, to clear up some common misconceptions:

1. THESE ARE NOT COLLECTIBLE CARD GAMES.  None of these games, no matter how geeky-looking are in any way ‘collectible’.  No Pokemon, no Magic: The Gathering, no Dungeons and Dragons.  These are all self-contained games in which you and the other players have everything you need and an equal chance at victory.  Everyone’s on the same footing, and you don’t need to know anything about Pokemons, Star Warriors or Necromancer Trolls to be able to play them.  Additionally, there is typically no ‘broader universe’.

2. THERE ARE NO STORYLINES.  With very few exceptions, there are no underlying ‘plots’ in these games.  These aren’t the games you weren’t allowed to play when you were a kid because they supposedly spawned satanic spirits (if you know what I’m talking about then we need say no more on that).  You’re not acting out a story or playing a role.  You’re trying to freaking beat the other players (or in some cases, the board itself!) and win.  Competition is the driving force and NBGs never stray from that.  Though the creative mechanics often make these games just as fun to play as they are to win, there are always winners and losers.  I’m not very competitive, but it’s important to put this down because it’s a universal concept that resonates with everyone.  No matter how geeky the game may seem, you can always count on a motivation to win!

3.  THESE GAMES DON’T (usually) TAKE HOURS TO PLAY!  As much as I loved playing a three-week long game of Risk with my floormates in college, this is typically not the kind of thing anybody is jonesing for in real life.  Listen, I’m with you.  As much as I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I don’t actually have that kind of time.  The ones I’m going to be profiling usually take about 30 minutes.  There are some exceptions of course, and some hour to two hour games are very fun, but it should definitely affect your decision.  It’s no fun starting out a game thinking it’ll take a few minutes and still be stuck two hours later slogging through card shuffling and tile-flipping.  Now, explaining the game does usually take some additional time, but once that’s done (as my family will attest to), the game itself tends to go quickly and usually ends with strong demand to play again.

4.  THESE GAMES ARE DIFFERENT, BUT NOT BORING!  When was the last time you actually had fun playing Monopoly…and you weren’t ten?  Yeah, never ago.  In my mind, the right NBG can guarantee a fun social experience.  It’s all about estimating the level of complication your audience is willing to handle (i.e. Does one of your friends work with statistics?  Complicated strategy will be stimulating.  Does another of your friends teach crafts?  Might wanna go simpler.  Are these people married?  Best to find a game that will meet in the middle).  You may think a conceptually challenging game would be boring.  This can certainly be a danger (don’t play Twilight Imperium), but with the right instructions, it can really be a good mix of a new activity infused with some good competition.  See figure 2 for proof:

Fig. 2

See?  See how much fun these young men are having?  Well, that leads me to my next point.

5.  GIRLS LIKE PLAYING NBGs TOO!  They may take some convincing, and it’s an extra plus if they’re already married to you, but this is not a gender exclusive activity.  It may be slanted a little toward the male (as most nerdity is), but NBGs are not just physical versions of video games.  They are highly participatory, interactive and intellectually challenging.  See figure 3 for proof.

This simply reiterates the fact that the point of these games is fun and active social interaction.  These aren’t video games where you’re absorbed in a screen, these can really be fun reasons to gather.  The ‘Bridge Club’ for the 21st Century.

And now…Pick the right NBG for you to enjoy!  Pick the one that’s right for you.  I’ll be publishing a series of posts on each game.  Stay tuned!

*Not all of these games involve boards, however, to term them NCGs may unfairly place them in the realm of collectible card games such as Pokemon, Magic, etc.  I’ve attempted to draw the distinction in strong terms.  Also, many of the card-based games I’ll be profiling are board-game mechanics translated into card game form.  So NBGs stands.


About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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2 Responses to Nerdy Board Games – good social fun for the strategist in you

  1. Sally Wilgus says:

    I understand so much more, now about the games people play. My favorite part of your article is figures 1,2 and may be 3, except I just have the tiny blue box w/the question mark in it for fig. 3. What’s wrong? How can I access that fig. 3?

  2. Will says:

    I submit that these games ARE collectible, though on a larger scale. Dominion has suddenly morphed from a self-contained game into a two foot stack of expansion packs: Intrigue, Seaside, Alchemy, Prosperity, Cornucopia, Hinterlands… It’s like a gateway drug or the sudden realization that your 3 energy cards, trainer, and Snorlax can only go so far.

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