When I made the impulsive decision to start a 12 Days of Gaming feature, I expected to stick to a fairly narrow, comfortable range of games I enjoy, mostly played solitaire. However, as time has passed, my personal definition of the scope of both the personal challenge and the article series has expanded to include other writers, board game meetups, and now, online board gaming.
My personal journey to and through board games has taken an unusually circuitous route (much like the famed seaside road that inspired the first game I’ll discuss today). Throughout the early days of the modern board game Renaissance (which began, arguably, in the mid-nineties with Settlers of Catan, while I was still an elementary school kid, although some German-designed board games had trickled into the American hobby culture up to a decade earlier), I didn’t even know they existed. I was enamored of video games–so much untapped potential, such technological cutting-edge. When I first “discovered” this amazingly robust, invisible world of elegant, diverse game design in 2012, I initially sought the aspects of tabletop games that make them unlike video games: the social aspect, the unpredictable human element. However, as I’ve settled comfortably into the hobby, I’ve returned to the faceless electronic, the tablet games and online implementations, as a way to sate my ludivorous hunger for new designs, new innovations.
While I do play some of these digitized board games with anonymous strangers or against the deadpan AI, though, it’s also my most reliable access to that social connection board games enable. Thanks to the various online-enabled board game implementations and video-chatting services like Skype or Google Hangout, I often connect with my mother (who lives out of state) over a game, and I’ve also been able to connect with my long-distance friends in the single-player gaming community.
Digital board gaming sounds like an oxymoron to those who might seek tabletop games as a way to escape our generations constant screen-connectedness, or those who don’t see why you aren’t just playing a good video game, but it’s a great platform for learning about some of the classics of the hobby on the cheap. You have many options available to you: Mobile and tablet apps often come with a full-featured tutorial to teach you the game without cracking open the rulebook, as well as AI for offline play, but they come at a price that, while a significant savings from the cardboard version, may seem inflated compared to the normal app store prices (a good-quality board game app will run you anywhere from $5-$10). In contrast, websites like BoardGameArena, boiteajeux.net, Dominion Online, Pretend You’re Xyzzy, or Boardgaming Online will give you free access to shelves worth of high-profile designer game, but they seldom include offline play or any kind of tutorial, meaning you’ll need to learn the game some other way (almost every modern board game has its rules published online somewhere, but reading rulebooks is so gauche). Finally, virtual tabletops like VASSAL grant you the widest possible access (VASSAL Engine currently has 1,518 games implemented in its system) in exchange for the clunkiest user interface–playing a game in VASSAL is literally identical to playing it on your table, with no degree of rules automation, so it’s most valuable to board game veterans.
For the best combination of accessibility and access, I recommend BoardGameArena. They host a growing catalogue of 67+ games, an active community (it seldom takes longer than a minute or two to fill every seat at your “table”), and an attractive user interface capable of running both real-time and turn-based (asynchronous) games. What this means in real terms is that, when you start or join a game, you can specify whether you want to play it quickly, all in one sitting, or at a leisurely pace over several days or even weeks. You can even do both–if you want to start a game with your buddies online but don’t have time to play it to completion, you can start a turn-based game, play as much as you can, then schedule a date to wrap it up. The only significant roadblock to getting started on BGA is the fact that you ought to know the rules, at least in general terms, before you join your first game. However, the website helps as much as it can in this regard, linking to gameplay videos, rules PDFs, and handy rules summaries for most games. You can even “spectate” at a game in progress to see how it all works in their interface.
Or, if you have the good fortune to know a gamer, you could have them teach you the game as they would in person. This evening, I dialed up my mom over Skype, and we played three of our quick, simple favorites.
Tokaido comes from designer Antoine Bauza, a French game designer who’s mildly obsessed with China and Japan (his major releases include Hanabi, the Japanese word for “fireworks”; Ghost Stories, a cooperative game set in the world of Chinese spirits and kung fu masters; Takenoko, a colorful game about tending a bamboo garden while cohabiting with a hungry panda; and his latest, Samurai Spirit, a take on the Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai). More than any other game I’ve played, Tokaido exudes a peaceful, contented atmosphere–many gamers refer to it as “Zen gaming.” In the game, players are travelers on Japan’s historic Eastern sea road from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto. One by one, the players choose which stop to make along the road, each stop presenting them with a simple opportunity: bathe in the hot sprints, take in a panorama, donate to the temple, stop in the village to purchase souvenirs, or have a chance encounter along the road. Each stop contributes, in its own way, to a player’s point total. Four times along the route, all players stop at an inn and purchase a meal. Generally, the only worry involves managing one’s supply of coins, which can only be gained by stopping at the highly contested farms for a little agrarian labor. Because the player farthest from Kyoto always moves next, often, the best move is simply to stop at the next empty space–enhancing the game’s Zen atmosphere, it’s truly about enjoying the journey and the beauty of the somewhat exoticized Japanese culture on display–but knowing when to skip a single space or a daring 2 spaces separates the winners from the second-best.
Next, we played Michael Schacht’s Coloretto, a brilliantly simple, fairly abstract card game for 2-5 players (although the BGA implementation doesn’t support the official 2-player variant). Although Coloretto lacks any sort of in-game narrative, its colorful chameleon-design cards make it a visual treat to play. A variant on the “trick-taking” genre of card games, Coloretto‘s rules couldn’t be simpler: on a player’s turn, they must either draw the top card of the deck, adding it to one of several rows (as many as there are players), or they must take one of the rows, which can contain 1-3 cards. Cards in Coloretto feature no numerical values or other elements, only a color, of which Coloretto offers seven variations. As players collect rows of cards, they gather sets of cards in each color. The value of these cards increases exponentially based on how many cards of the same color you own: from 1 point for 1 card in a color to 21 points for 6 or more of a kind. The twist (there’s always a twist): you only score positively for your three most plentiful colors, with the other four colors impacting your score negatively. This means that, over several rounds, you’ll want to pick up as many cards as possible in up to three colors while actively avoiding the other four, with wild cards and flat-out score boosters mixing things up somewhat. This quick-playing, easy-to-understand game works wonderfully in social occasions, when you don’t want complicated rules getting in the way of the conversation.
Finally, we started up another Antoine Bauza design, the Spiel des Jahres award winner, Hanabi–although, taking advantage of BGA’s asynchronous play feature, we only played a few rounds before putting the game on hold for another day. Hanabi‘s simple, clever design never struck the same chord with me as it did with many other gamers, but I can appreciate why it’s so, well, appreciated. For one thing, it’s a cooperative game that, unlike most, can’t be controlled by a single player, since Hanabi‘s twist is that the players hold their hand of cards facing outward–you can always see your opponents’ cards, but you can never see your own. The goal is to play, in order, cards 1-5 in each of five colors to create a beautiful fireworks show, but when you can’t see the cards you’re playing, this is easier said than done. To compensate for this handicap, players can spend their turn providing clues to each other, but even here, information’s limited: you can tell another player about a color or number they hold in their hand, but never both, and you must clearly indicate (with no special emphasis) all cards of that color or number the player holds. The resulting game, like Vizzini’s famous death scene from The Princess Bride, relies heavily on analyzing (and overanalyzing) the subtext behind every tiny clue, every unconscious gesture. The BGA implementation, which removes the memory aspect of the game (it clearly indicates all clues given and received, as well as discarded cards) and the possibility of unintentional clueing via body language, generates a surprisingly distinct, but no less enjoyable, experience compared to playing the game in person.
P.S.: If you do start up a game on BGA, don’t be afraid to tell people you’re a new player–board gamers tend to be gracious and courteous, even online. Don’t forget to wish your opponents “gl” (good luck) or “hf” (have fun), and let them know it was a “gg” (good game) after it’s all over. Finally, you can find me on BGA, boiteajeux, or a variety of other platforms by searching for the username kittenhoarder–I’m usually up for a game!