Game Night in America: Are you ready for some boardgame?

We fill the long slog of winter nights with games whenever we can. Those damn nights are so dark so early, and even when the light comes back, this is still Chicago, and that means winter lasts until … well, let me put my head out the door. Yep, until about now.

But games, man, games. We love ‘em in this house. They’re fun, they warm the brain, and they give me something to do with kids that doesn’t automatically end in me throttling, yelling or banning desserts from all involved. (Those things might still happen, but games have the potential to delay Daddy’s snap.)

Last Christmas, Santa did his usual augmenting of the game closet, and we’ve had great new games in heavy rotation ever since. Here’s how we spent many a night this past winter, with our clothing-optional game nights before the roaring fire:

To be fair, they put their shirts back on after the resin-rich fatwood burned off. I mean, that stuff is the kindling from HELL.

If you’re at all interested in sharing moments of strategy, tactics, dumb luck and sick laughter with your family (preferably with the preponderance of your clothing on), consider this hit parade:

Pizza Box Football

The official BoardGameGeek entry on this dicefest game says that it’s suited for kids 12 and up, and many reviewers insisted only older kids would enjoy it. But they never met my 8-year-old son. When he daydreams, it’s of all-star baseball match-ups, buzzer-beating jump shots and Hail Mary passes into the end zone.

Pizza Box can intimidate, with pages and pages of laminated charts, and a bag full of dice in many colors and sizes. But once you crack the system, it flows. By the end of our second game, we already memorized some common dice results, and the game blazed by. The defense decides what kind of play it thinks the opponent will choose (run, short pass, or long pass), and chooses one of three colored dice in secret to reflect how it will line up. The offense announces which of those three it will run. Then dice are revealed and rolled. Charts are consulted. Plays unfold.

The charts! They could probably paper a bathroom wall with their pages of contingencies, cross-references and special cases. If I roll poorly on my long pass, I might get a result of “QB Pressure.” Quick, check the QB Pressure chart! Another roll, and you might save the day with a scrambling completion … or just get your sorry ass sacked. Whatever happens, move the down marker and march the peg on the “time clock” another tick closer to the end of the game. Hope you can hold the ball (or wrest it back) with smart decisions and hot dice.

It’s not for everyone, all this rolling and chart-consulting. But my little Butkus and I get a lot of energy from the back and forth slugfest that really does capture the feel of a pigskin brawl. In our second game, with the final “seconds” ticking away on the time track, and the ball on the 13, my son needed a touchdown to win the game. I lined up for the pass, and he surprised me with a run. A bushel load of dice rolled across the table. When all the modifiers were applied and the charts had spoken, he gained 12 yards on the final play of the game. I had stopped him at the 1.

How great is that? We still talk about that game, and how he came back in the rematch to stomp me like a narc at a biker rally. Pizza Box Football is probably a bit dry and abstract to most, but to the sports nut it’s the next best thing to Monday morning quarterbacking.

Enchanted Forest

Usually memory games are a big zippo for me. Who has fun matching pairs of butterflies and hot dogs? But Enchanted Forest makes it fun by adding really nifty plastic trees and wooden pawns that are fun to manipulate. This is the kind of game that my daughter will remember in 30 years, and get all nostalgic and go on eBay and pay too much for it.

This is a simple game. Roll the dice, get to a tree, peek under it, and try to remember the fairy tale image underneath. Meanwhile, there’s a stack of cards over at the king’s castle, and the topmost card informs you which image you’re looking for. Once you peek under the correct tree, you must race over to the castle and declare which tree hides the matching image. There’s some gamesmanship afoot (“Uh-oh, Daddy’s heading for the castle! That last tree he peeked under must be the one!”), and an interesting roll-and-move variant that lets you choose to move backward or forward in any combination of the two dice. Just enough analysis to give little minds something to noodle, and it plays mercifully fast for my waterlogged memory.

Summoner Wars

This smart card game has been in solid rotation since last summer, but Santa saw fit to drop a couple of new decks in Oldest Boy’s stocking. At Christmas, who doesn’t want to find undead hordes lurking by the chimney with care?

The new decks are killer great fun, and they only further my opinion that Summoner Wars is one of the best two-player cards games since Fifty-Two Pickup. Combine miniatures games with “Magic: The Gathering” and throw in the essence of chess, and you’ve got 30 minutes of tense dueling on a table top. What’s so refreshing about this game is that you can get a couple of decks for cheap and enjoy it just fine; and if you want to add some variety, you can stir in a new deck every so often for another 10 bucks. Decks are complete — unlike most collectible card games, there is no “blind buy” or hunt to find a rare amid the common cards  — so the allure of collectibility and customization are there without the expense.

The only problem with this game is that since Christmas morning, I’ve gone 0-8 against the boy. In fact, I played the first 7 games with one of the new decks (a pack of healing humans called “Vanguards”) vowing that I would win with them once before trying a different deck. Then he said, “Dad, I’m gonna play the Vanguards against the army of your choice, and I’m gonna win.” The little snot was right.

This will sting less if Summoner Wars sparks his career as a brilliant military tactician.

Coloretto

Cool and abstract, this set-matching card game came highly recommended from my gaming adviser, BoardGameGeek. Santa thought my daughter would really dig a rainbow-colored pastime — but it was kind of underwhelming to discover that the cards come in an odd palette that included gravel gray, pressboard brown and spray-tan orange. With a stoic chameleon blending into the textured “art school photography class” backgrounds on the cards, “cuddly” and “fun” aren’t words I’d use for this aesthetic.

Gameplay is clever, however. Players draw cards from a deck and lay them down in the set of their choice; over a round everybody will have to claim one of these sets. The idea is to specialize in three colors, while collecting as few extra colors as possible. (These will count against you in the final scoring.) Players have nice, compact little decisions to make about where to put each colored card they draw; they try to put it in sets that either serve themselves, or frustrate their opponents. It isn’t flashy, but with simple mechanics that run just deep enough, this one has been a quiet success.

Zombies!!!

Totally ridiculous and chance-driven, this basically brainless game (yuk yuk — see what I did there?) is still a hoot with the right crowd. And with two boys aged 8 and 11, I always have the right crowd. In Zombies!!!, you’re a guy in a zombie-infested town, and you’ve got to bash your way to the helicopter, one undead obstacle at a time. You’ve got nothing but the bullets in your pocket and the 4s or higher on your six-sided die. It doesn’t get much deeper than that. (Well, maybe it does. Do you dare raid the zombie-filled hardware store to play the coveted “chainsaw” card? If you care about theme, yes, you do.)

Not for every family, as some of the card artwork is pretty gruesome. I just hope my children will tell their therapists some day what an awesome dad I was for screwing them up with fun games like this.

Heroscape: D&D style

My continued admiration for this miniatures wargame continues with this most recent set, a D&D-themed group of sharp-looking trolls, drow elves and shiny sword-bearing heroes. The game has a nice stand-alone feature that replicates the feel of walking through a D&D “dungeon crawl,” but as always, Heroscape is at its most fun when you mix the armies of different sets. If you’ve ever wanted to see Hulk and Spider-Man team up to take down a gnarly black dragon, then Heroscape is your game. The rules are simple enough for my boys to play, but deep enough to warrant some meaningful decision-making each turn.

Lost Pyramid

Note the addition of water glasses to hold down the egdes of the board. It just didn't want to lie flat. A small complaint.

I almost ignored this box at Toys R Us, because it was all alone on a bottom shelf — like a wallflower at a school dance, this game was begging to be treated like a loner. Plus the box artwork was miserably fuzzy. Who produces a boxed board without high-res art?

But the deeply discounted price tag – $7! – made a tempting temptation.

That crazy low price works both ways: Like seeing the box alone on the bottom shelf, a next-to-valueless price seems to project a low self esteem that’s hard to get cozy with. But there was something kind of interesting about the photo of the game board, and heck it was only $7 …

So imagine my surprise when we finally cracked open the game board, and it unfurled like a Robert Sabuda pop-up book. Look at that photo up there — that’s the game board right out of the box. That’s so cool.

The game play is interesting enough that I felt super bad about dismissing this box before I got to know it. It’s a move-around-the-board game, normally a pretty boring concept, but it twists the usual roll-and-move mechanic. Instead of rolling dice, players use cards that have multiple uses – for example, some cards bear both a stated movement value, or instructions for disabling a trap. It’s your choice how you want to use it.

Players must deduce the locations of all the pharaoh’s treasure while avoiding the mummy chasing after them. As they move, they face blocked paths or sliding hallways that can be moved in their favor – or against their enemies – by playing the right card.

Which proves that even though good games can comes in big, beautiful boxes, sometimes the awkward girl in head-wrapping orthodontics and taped up glasses is worth asking to dance.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Game Night in America: Are you ready for some boardgame?

  1. Carol

    Have you ever played the card game Pit? You try to corner the market in one commodity, with much shouting and trading going on amongst the players. Beth & Ken introduced us to it.

    • jdrewscott

      I can’t believe I’ve never tried that game — I knew it was a classic and I just checked: It’s been around for 108 years. Next time we get our families together, I insist we try it!

  2. It’s not a board game but you should also check out TRIPLICA. Fun game.

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