Play This, Not That! An Intro To Strategy Board Games

Board games. Thought they were just for little kids? While there is a lot more to board games than what is seen on the shelves at Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys 'R' Us, many people still unfortunately view them as children’s playthings. You can’t blame them, though, when you see that the stock on those shelves hasn’t changed much in ages.

Are we really supposed to believe that nothing could ever topple the classics? I can’t think of another form of entertainment where this has held true, but I also can’t remember the last time I met a group of friends who were excited about a game of Monopoly (in any of its countless incarnations, John Deere Monopoly, anyone?). Fortunately, the past few years have seen both a shift away from the luck and randomness-filled classic games, and a huge groundswell of support for truly strategic board and card games (often referred to as hobby games or tabletop games).

These strategic games are finding a welcome home with a new generation of gamers. With video game multiplayers now primarily played online, perhaps the popularity of board games is growing in response to a culture where players interact more over microphones than in person. Regardless of the cause, gathering at the table to play board games has become today’s geeky equivalent to your father’s old late-night poker game, and companies are responding to the demand by putting out some of the best titles seen in years. In fact, if you look at the most recent sales data, hobby games are trending up while video games are trending down! (Source: ICv2 vs NPD figures)

Over the next few weeks, I’ll introduce readers of MTV Geek to new alternatives to classic board games, and explain why you should consider giving each a try. This week, let’s start with Monopoly, the best-selling board game in the world.

Play: Settlers of Catan

Instead of: Monopoly

Even if you play Monopoly perfectly by the rules (no money on free parking, auctioned properties), the game still commits the cardinal sin of having a runaway leader. Most games end with everyone resigning because the decisions players are allowed to make are not powerful enough to stage any sort of comeback. People like to feel accomplished when they win, but all of the game’s major decisions are predicated on rolling the die and landing on the right spot. The luck of that die outweighs the importance of every other choice you will make in the game! Even without doing the math, people start to realize this, and as the most iconic title, Monopoly leaves the impression that board games are boring.

For those who see the appeal in some of Monopoly’s mechanics, but disagree with how they are implemented, I would recommend The Settlers of Catan. Think of it as a shorter version of Monopoly where the best player wins. It's a great alternative because it offers many of the same elements such as building on property, earning income, and trading resources, yet it solves all of the aforementioned problems. Here’s a look at how the game plays, so you can decide for yourself:

The goal in Settlers is to build as much as possible, with each building worth one or two points, and the game ending once a player reaches ten. Each space on the Settlers game board has a number and a resource type. These spaces will pay out resources of their type, so players can build houses on them in order to earn those resources. If you earn more, you can build more, and building wins the game.

On each turn, two dice are rolled, and if the number of a property on which you built, comes up, you get paid one resource of that type. Depending on what you get, you may or may not be able to continue building more stuff, so knowing where to build is very important. The beauty here is that there is no moving around the board with a player piece, so nobody can get an advantage by having a better roll of the die. Every time the dice are rolled, each player gets paid. Yes, if you have properties in different locations on the map, you will be paid with different resources, but there is a winning strategy for every combination of resources. Every time you collect more, the current mix of available resources will dictate a new optimal strategy, and the player’s challenge is to always know what the best move is.

Turns are quick, and the ability to trade resources keeps you interested in what is going on during the other players’ turns. Overall, the game usually wraps up after an hour, so you're not spending your whole night playing one game. As one of the most popular hobby games, The Settlers of Catan is beginning to make its way into mainstream stores, and you can often find a copy in your local book store for around $35. If not, there are plenty of fine local game shops, which you can find using the Mayfair Games store locator.

Hopefully this has convinced you to give Settlers or other games like it a shot. If not, come back next week for another great example of old vs. new when we delve into war games. Think you enjoy playing Risk? Well, I’ve got a game that will put it to shame!

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