The word “boardgames”, conjures images of Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders. It’s not unlike the way many people associate “spaghetti bolognese” with Italian food. A popularised favourite often epitomises our definition, and contains familiar thematic flavours. Hopefully you’ll be enticed to try something new next time you sit down at the family dinner table.
Monopoly typifies traditional boardgames, entering the public consciousness in a way few games have been able to emulate. But development of boardgames games certainly didn’t stop in the 1930s. There was Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, Wargames in the 1980s, the boom of Collectible Card Games in the 1990s, followed by the Eurogames explosion in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While videogames have continued to grow and change since their inception, so to have tabletop games, the encapsulating umbrella term that collectivises the full gamut of games. Limited only by imagination and physical components, the shapes, sizes and varieties of tabletop games are infinite.
The fundamental ingredients of a tabletop game (dice, miniatures, a board, rules, those tiny pencils) allow us to take conventions and components that feel familiar, and explore further afield. But as with trying anything new, it’s sometimes challenging to know where to start. To make it easier to roll your first new dice, I wanted to share some common genres of tabletop games, hopefully enticing you to try something different when looking for your next game to play.
You might have heard of games like Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico or Carcassone, rising to popularity in the mid 1990s. Accessible and emphasising ease of play, it’s clear to see why they gained traction. Eurogames celebrate non-direct confrontation with other players, and limited player elimination. That means everyone is in the game, and in the running for victory until the very last turn.
Mechanics are the primary focus of this genre, with clear victory conditions, and a defined duration of play often set by a limited number of turns. That means it’s easy to play a game, determine a winner, then get straight into another round. However, themes can be abstract which can put some new players off.
Thematic Games (sometimes referred to as “Ameritrash”)
On the other end of the spectrum from Eurogames, this genre focuses on thematic experiences and player interaction. Luck can often play a significant role in this genre. Gameplay can be quite fluid, and rules are less tightly defined while mechanics keep the game moving.
Games like Arkham Horror, or Betrayal at House on the Hill (a great little horror game from 2004) are great examples of this genre. Storytelling is defined by the mechanics and game components, meaning players can experience the narrative together without needing to role play. With a huge variety of different flavours of thematic games available, these can be a great way to get new players into tabletop gaming.
Multiple groups of tabletop experiences lay claim to typifying “wargames”, however they are all unified by a common element; direct player confrontation and elimination is the key. True to its name, games in this genre hold warfare, historical or fictional, as their core.
Within this genre, the three primary subgroups are Tabletop Miniature Games (such as Warhammer), Tabletop Historical Miniature Games (such as De Bellis Multitudinis) and Board Wargames (such as Advanced Sqaud Leader, or Harpoon).
If the perspective feels familiar, strategy videogames including Panzer General or The Operational Art of War are digital examples of this genre.
Role Playing Games
Dungeons & Dragons. The impact this game had on the RPG genre, both in pen-and-paper and videogames is evident. Needless to say “D&D” continues to evolve, and recent challenger Pathfinder, built on the 3.5 version of the Dungeons & Dragons rule system, is currently the most popular RPG on the planet. Some RPGs like D&D and Pathfinder have focused more on the participants ability to role-play, where you become a character and forgo the need for miniatures, dice and boards, the best examples being the wonderful Call of Cthulhu and Burning Wheel.
New players looking for a videogamey dungeon crawling experience should explore the rather epic co-op campaigns of Descent’s 2nd Edition: Journeys In The Dark, or even The D&D Adventure System featuring Wrath of Ashardalon, Castle Ravenloft and The Legend of Drizzt, all offering a procedurally generated dungeon crawler playable solo.
Card Games (Collectible/Trading/Living)
Magic: The Gathering spawned a whole genre of games, and it remains integral to this section of gaming. While many other games have created their own rulesets and identities, most continue to emulate their old master.
Countless Card Games have come and gone over the life of the genre; most forgettable, many atrocious. One notable game, recently been resurrected, is Netrunner. First released in 1996, the game was recently released as Android: Netrunner. With a reputation for balanced gameplay, it was originally developed by the creator of Magic: The Gather, Richard Garfield.
These are a handful of genres to help categorise and defined the myriad types of games. While some players may stick within their preferred genres, there are many games which have blended mechanics and themes from multiple genres into a single box. Games such as Lords of Waterdeep, Friedrich, Twilight Struggle and Neuroshima Hex sit comfortably across genres, and are far better for it.
I hope that this brief introduction will help start you down a path towards cardboard goodness. And I hope that we’ll be able to game together soon.
– Ken Lee