I’ve had enough of talking about books right now.
You know what I want to talk about, with Christmas a ridiculous week-and-a-bit away?
Board games. Yeah.
I am, as we all know, a gaming nerd, primarily of the role-playing variety. But for various reasons it’s been hard to get all my peeps together regularly this year to fight monsters and psychic cowboys, and often we instead turn to various board games to fulfil our need to both be social and to defeat (or enable) evil.
Now personally, I like the heavily themed games with lots of sub-bits, cards, tokens, art and similar things, and happily there are a shitload of those to choose from. So in the leadup to Christmas, here’s a quick run-down of six games I like, what’s interesting about them and why they’re fun. Maybe you could buy one for the nerd in your life. S/he might like that.
S/he might not, ‘cos nerds be haters, but it’s worth a shot.
Lords of Waterdeep
This is a game of fantasy intrigue set in the Forgotten Realms, that hoary old D&D setting that’s full of bullshit names and backstory stuff I can’t be bothered remembering. Fortunately, none of that is necessary for enjoying this game, which is a solid ‘worker placement’ game with a really steady, effective rhythm to it. Over eight structured turns you send agents to recruit faceless adventurers in taverns, then throw their lives away to fulfil quests, gain victory points and work towards your hidden agenda. What I like is that it’s a competitive game but not a confrontational one; you can briefly stymie another player but you can’t attack them, and most of the extra events and twists you can throw in help you while helping everyone else (to a lesser extent). It’s an interesting move away from the directness of most competitive games, and makes sure that everyone stays in the running to the end.
Last Night on Earth
This is a game about surviving a zombie attack on a small American town – or, more accurately, the cliche-laden movie about said attack. It’s an interesting mix of co-op and competitive, with the human players teaming up to escape the machinations of the zombie player(s). Unashamedly cinematic, the game throws in unfair twists to keep the citizens constantly on the run, even while allowing the occasional event in their favour. As well as its excellent production values, I love the pacing of the game; every session has always been a nail-biting race to the finish line, with victory (or gruesome defeat) coming at the very last minute.
Vampire: Prince of the City
This game may lack some of the colourful production values of the others, but it makes up for it with atmosphere and depth. Based on the Vampire: the Requiem RPG, you play elder vamps scheming against each other to become top dog of a city compromised of hexagonal districts. Unlike LoW, this game is highly confrontational; when you’re not attacking other players directly, you’re often working to undermine their plans, steal their resources and make their unlives miserable – except when you’re asking them to help you deflect a band of monster hunters or cover-up a plot gone wrong. I like that twist and turn to it, but what I really love is how well it evokes the tone and feel of the RPG; the two mesh so well that I’m planning to use them together at some point. (Hopefully soon.)
Sticking with horror, but drifting a little from the strict definition of ‘board’ game, this is a fast-paced, really fun Call of Cthulhu spin-off. It’s the trimmed-down cousin to games like Arkham Horror, but throws away all the sub-boards and endless sprawling fiddly bits for a focused game based on cards and special dice. Players explore a museum, fighting back cultists and spoooookiness until either the world is saved or Azathoth bursts from the grandfather clock to cornhole all of reality. Like Prince, I love the atmosphere of this game, but I also love its speed and general simplicity – there are enough fiddly bits to keep you engaged, but it all boils down to tense rolls of the dice to save the day.
At this point I’m basically abandoning the board entirely, because it’s my list and I’ll do what I like. And what I like is this excellent two-player card game of cyberpunk hackers trying to pillage data from heartless corporations. Play style is different for each player; the Corp sets up hidden servers and protective programs, revealing them to surprise the Runner – who meanwhile is cobbling together programs, skimming resources and trying to stay as mobile as possible. Netrunner started life as a CCG, way back in the 90s, but has been overhauled into a complete, balanced game that still has room for expansion. I like that room for growth, but I also like that it’s just two-player, and the asymmetry of it; it’s really interesting to find a game that switches feel and strategy depending on which side you take.
My last board game is a straight-up RPG – but hear me out, because Fiasco is special. Like a board game, there’s no Dungeon Master, no pre-prepared plot, no need for complex setup and no continuing play; instead it’s something that 4-5 players can pick up and run with minimal effort in 3-4 hours. A game of heists-gone-wrong, lethal love triangles and dysfunctional and destructive relationships, Fiasco uses frameworks called playsets to quickly create characters, situations and problems that then bounce off each other until something breaks. I love it because it’s so self-contained, so perfectly pick-up-and-play – and also because it’s incredibly affordable, with a super-cheap rulebook and dozens of free playsets online.
Anyway, those are six of my faves; let me know what you think of them, or if you’ve got a particular nerd game to throw up for consideration.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play with my new dog.