Catan

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… that I’ve played since Christmas, anyway. Prompted by the fact that a) I’ve suddenly played a lot of board games in the last couple of months, and b) it’s the first time I’ve played ‘German-style’ games.

TL;DR : old board games can be good fun, but there’s a reason all the cool folks are playing Eurogames these days …

But first some old classics that got broken out again recently:

Cluedo (Clue in the States, I think?)

It’s kind of fun, this, but being reintroduced to it after decades away makes me think of it kind of as a card-based game that couldn’t quite figure out how to dispense with the board element. All the little murder weapon tokens and the moving round the board is kind of beside the point really; I mean, the way it’s designed they’re technically necessary, but the crux of the game is all in the cards. Just feels like a board game with a slightly cleaner card game hidden somewhere inside it.

Have to admit, it’s possible my slightly ‘meh’ reaction to it may be connected to the fact that I’m no good at Cluedo. And that’s putting mildly. I suck at this game. Epically. My chances of winning are slim to none, even playing against children (and trying!). So there you are.

Monopoly

My theory about Monopoly is that around half the games you play, you can predict the winner from pretty early on. You know how it goes: someone nails down one of the key sets (somewhere in the orange to green zone), and has at least enough money on hand to match anyone else’s housebuilding pace. From that point on, it takes some bad luck, bad trades or general bad judgement, to come out on the wrong end. Everyone else is spiralling the plughole, whether they know it or not (and usually they do).

The other half of the games, though – and even some of the ones that look like foregone conclusions – can turn into long drawn out slugging matches that can be kind of fun, if a little wearing. I like the fact that even though it’s a game that can be analysed mathematically to produce optimal strategies (e.g. like this or like this), there’s enough of the human factor and the chance factor to make it at least a bit unpredictable.

Although I definitely like it rather than love it, it was never really bettered amongst the seriously old school board games. Which is why it’s still around, I guess.

Risk

I like Risk. Honestly, though – even more than Monopoly perhaps – it’s one of those games where you can often see the plughole coming from quite a long way off. There’s a lot of toing and froing, ups and downs, but it seems like maybe 6 or 7 times out of ten, the first third or half of the game is pretty competitive then the rest is playing out a conclusion that’s more or less obvious to everyone. Sooner or later the player who’s been in the strongest position for a while gets to put down a gigantic pile of armies, and that’s it. More often than I’d really like, feels like there’s way less strategy involved than there really should be. Game over, man.

So, as far as those old boardgames are concerned, I’m having fun but probably ready to try something a little bit more … Eurogame-y. Which is exactly what’s happened, the last month or two:

Pandemic

It’s a bit of a one-off, Pandemic. For starters, it’s a co-operative game: all the players are playing together, on one team, against the game itself. You’re trying to save the world from hideous diseases that pop up all over the place. I’ve never played a co-operative game like this before, and I really like both that idea and the premise. Don’t like the execution, in this case, quite so much, although it’s still fun and I’ll certainly be coming back to it.

My main issue with it is that it inverts something which I think of as a Eurogame signature: superficially pretty simple rules that lead to surprisingly subtle or complex play outcomes. In the case of Pandemic, the rules are (comparatively) complicated – or not complicated, maybe, but ever so slightly convoluted; but the play, which initially appears quite complex and multi-faceted, I’m starting to suspect isn’t. How you win (i.e. beat the game) is the same every time, and I’ve got a sneaking feeling the way you get there is too – it’s certainly turned out that way each time I’ve played so far.

Interesting idea; less interesting but not terrible execution, imho.

Catan

Yes, I had never played Catan until these last couple of months. Yes, I am pathetically behind the times. And yes, it’s a good game. Really good. Pretty simple rules lead to pretty fluid and unpredictable gameplay that offers different approaches to winning. You couldn’t ask for much more. I get why it was pretty much the launch code for the Eurogame rocket back in the day. It’s just a completely different gaming experience compared to what boardgames had offered up until then.

Still, I have nitpicks of course. There are too many turns where you can’t do anything (unless another player is willing to trade with you). The dice rolls exert too much of an influence on the course of the game: a bad run of rolls can spoil you day fast, especially since it’s a game that can be over quite quickly if someone’s having a good day.

It’s great, but not perfect.

Ticket to Ride: Europe

Which brings me to Ticket to Ride: Europe. Wow. What a cool, cleverly designed game. Now I’ve got to admit, I’ve only played it once so far, so these are only first impressions, but … A lovely board and cards and pieces (and box – seriously, this is the first boardgame box that makes me feel warm inside). Simple(ish) rules and play mechanics that lead to actual play that’s way less straightforward and obvious than you might expect (although I didn’t win, so possible I was over-thinking!).

Bottom line is it’s easily my favourite of all the games name-checked here. Every single turn you have to make some kind of decision(s), and almost every turn you’re doing something that feels like progress, and trying to plan ahead. There’s certainly an element of luck, but it’s somewhat mitigated by the way the play mechanics force the player to make conscious decisions about various things all the time.

Playing it was great, but the truth is my brain – my nerdy brain – was spending a decent chunk of the time just being amazed at how subtle and clever the design of the game was. Maybe next time I’ll be past that stage and might actually have a chance of winning …

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