This morning, I was treated to an unusual crowd at the store: a steady stream of parents and grandparents who had seen Eureka mentioned in the Boston Globe and were curious about introducing their families to these “designer games” they had been reading about.
The article in which they’d spotted us was “The Quest for Fun: Inside the Board Game Renaissance” by Leon Neyfakh, on the front page of the Ideas section. (You can read it here, although you may encounter a paywall.) Eureka’s own Mackenzie Cameron is featured in a photograph of a play-testing session, and the store received a brief shout-out as one of the few locations in Boston where you can pick up these games, despite the city’s reputation as a major American hub of the board game renaissance – say, the gaming world’s Florence. As the article points out, Alan Moon, creator of the massive hit Ticket to Ride, is a Boston native, and Cambridge’s Carol Monica was the first American vendor to import this style of game…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Working in the narrow world of Eureka, it’s sometimes hard to remember that many – that is, most – people are unaware that there is such a thing as a “designer game” and would likely be highly skeptical of the notion that there could be a “board game renaissance” in progress. As this morning’s foot traffic reminded me, most adults still think of board games in terms of Monopoly and Risk: drawn-out, chance-driven affairs to be endured when your children are eight and forgotten by the time they turn twelve. Yet in a world where entertainment is dominated by video games and television, and parents are eager for new ways to bring the family together, these same adults would be thrilled by the games smaller companies are bringing to the market, if only they knew what was happening in the world of strategy games.
To put it briefly: there are games out there that take minutes to learn and only around an hour to play, that rely on cognitive skills like spatial reasoning, resource management, negotiation and risk assessment far more than on luck, and that are fun to the point of addiction for children and adults alike. You will love them. Your eight-year-old will love them. You will both develop your minds while playing them. There are dozens of these games, and if once you get hooked on them, there are also dozens of more complex games that build on the skillsets introduced in the starter titles to create an even more enthralling and immersive experience.
Or as Neyfakh puts it, “Above all, modern game designers are driven by the belief that it’s possible to systematically engineer things like tedium, unpleasant stress, and randomness out of games… The best games invite deep thought but still manage to move swiftly — they must be complex enough to accommodate a range of strategies and allow for some uncertainty, but not so ‘fiddly’ or ‘crunchy’ — to use the terms of art — that players buckle under the cognitive load.”
This alternative style of games – generally referred to as “Eurogames” in the community because of their origins in Germany – sprung to life almost all at once, in 1995, with the release of The Settlers of Catan. This game is the major hit of the Eurogame genre, having sold 15 million copies to date, and even a decade and a half later, few games have matched its finely-tuned blend of trading, networking and investing that makes for an engaging, highly interactive experience with endless possible strategies emerging from a few elegantly simple rules. For families whose youngest children are ten or twelve years old, this is absolutely where I recommend you start. While settling the island of Catan (whose geography changes every time you play), you’ll need to trade scarce resources with your opponents while competing for tight space, all in the pursuit of more settlements, cities, and the elusive Longest Road. In college I repeatedly stayed up until four in the morning or later settling Catan over and over again – but a single game will take an hour to an hour and a half, perfect for a family game night.
Neyfakh mentions numerous other designer games in his article, and Eureka carries almost all of them. (And you can bet I’m now looking into the ones we don’t!) I also have to briefly recommend a few superb introductions to the genre that Neyfakh didn’t bring up: Carcassonne, where you build the board as you play; Masons, a frantic building game with constantly shifting ways of scoring points; Castle Panic, a cooperative game where players work together to protect a castle from hordes of monsters in the surrounding forest; and Cargo Noir, a tense bidding game of working the black market in ports across the world. (Your best resource for learning more about these games is www.boardgamegeek.com.)
If you’re new to the world of designer games, you should know that strategy board games aren’t just for children and nerds. They’re a booming art form, and they’re a perfect pastime for your family. Come on down to Eureka sometime and ask us about them.