Tag Archives: Risk

Dice are nice: The growth of gaming as revealed by Gen Con 2010

A few weeks ago I returned from an occasionally annual pilgrimage to the game convention Gen Con, the self-professed “Best Four Days in Gaming.”

I like this kind of hyperbole, and am not inclined to disagree.

Gen Con, held each year in Indianapolis, is a four-color wonderland of dice and decks and divertissements of every nerdi-cultural stripe. In 1968, it was little more than a wargamer’s coffee klatch, but was soon taken over by the 300-lb. gorilla of gaming: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D, the great grandaddy of role-playing games, is still around, still going strong, and while it is still a central pillar of the proceedings, the scope of the Gen Con each year is a far, far bigger thing than it has ever been before.

The convention floor, which is just a fraction of the total real estate devoted to tables and tables and tables of gaming. (Photo by Tim D.)

I love it, and I think I love it a little bit more each time I go. I’m on record as being a pretty big advocate for games, not only as a laugh-filled timekiller but as a way to reconnect with family and friends, and to teach fundamental mental skills to young ones (or buff them up for adults).

My affection for Gen Con itself has taken some time to blossom, though. Gaming used to have a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as the bastion of large, pasty basement-dwellers with bad B.O. That was certainly an impression I got when I visited my first Gen Con in Milwaukee circa 2001. More than once did my nose intake a human scent that can only be described as “ripe.” Odors are a pretty rotten way to make an impression, but a great way to shoot your hobby in the foot.

But look at that image above. The mind boggles. Gaming has gotten so much bigger and more diverse since the days of swine and odors. The crowds are as eclectic as the games and hobbies represented within. It’s a bazaar of nerd culture, a glorious melting pot of people who like using their brains to have fun. My friends are tired of me going on about it, but the hobby really is becoming like comics: a once-marginal pastime seen as mildly toxic to mainstream grown-up types, but which is now enjoyed openly and unironically by a host of humanity. And for good reason. Gaming, like comics, is a fun and rewarding way to spend time, if you take the time to pair yourself with a match that’s right for you.

Let’s be clear about what “gaming” means in the context of this swell of popularity — because no matter how huge this looks, it’s still just a subset of a subset of the global population. This demographic of “gamers” who “game” may suggest all pastimes involving tables, dice and friends, but it’s more specific than that. Like Gen Con, the hobby generally excludes Monopoly, the Game of Life, Jenga and most of the other famous family games of my youth. There are many reasons for this:

* Snobbery. Let’s call a spade a spade. Those big-name games have crossed over into the main mainstream and are no longer cool. Such snobbery is true for fans of indie bands and indie movies, why not for indie games, too? Excluding collectible hobbies like Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering, a game found at Wal-Mart is more than likely going to earn a turned-up nose from a gamer. (Not that gamers wouldn’t mind large retailers selling their favorite games at huge discounts. But those games only appeal to a subset of a subset, remember, and truthfully I think a lot of gamers enjoy the guilty pleasure of geek elitism.) Besides, some of those games already have an insular culture that is so devoted to itself, it doesn’t welcome the outside distraction of more gamers. Take Scrabble, for instance.

* Intellectual rigor. No matter how you slice it, Trouble truly lacks the same mental discipline as, say, a six-hour recreation of the Battle of Smolensk. Risk begins to straddle this gap: approachable enough for a mass audience, while being just on the outer edge of the number of rules and hours the masses are willing to face to play a game. As a result, Risk is sometimes represented on the show floor, if only for nostalgia’s sake; many a gamer would prefer Risk’s super-charged cousin, “Axis & Allies.”

* Tactics. Hard-core gamers favor tactics over luck. Sure, luck (i.e., dice and cards) plays a big part in many gamers’ games, but usually it is balanced in some measure by a player’s planning, turn by turn. (Whereas Monopoly, for example, is 90% about where you land.)

* Strategy. Some games reward forethought as far in advance as the hours and days before you even sit down at the table, from improvements to a D&D character’s power set, drafting the right commanders for your WWII panzer regiment, or making sure Pikachu has an ample supply of support cards to make his ginormous zap attack.

* Story. Not everything at a game convention  weaves a narrative into its gameplay. Often a game is just an abstract series of decisions and lucky breaks that results in a winner — but not always. And what truly great gamers’ games have is an ability to call upon the imagination, and to ask us to invest a little more of ourselves than just a roll of the bones.

I consider myself a gamer because I support all those tenets. (Even, yes, the snobbery one — though not because I want to exclude people. Quite the opposite, I would love it if the rest of the world joined me in my enthusiasm for brainy, time-consuming, chin-stroking games. I just don’t hold out hope for that. Nearly 20% of my fellow countrymen believe our leader is a secret Muslim, despite every verifiable fact to the contrary here in the “Information Age.” So yeah, I’m a little down on how willing we humans are to use the brains God gave us.)

I found a lot to satisfy my gamer requirements at this year’s Gen Con. Next post, I’ll walk through the things I saw and did and bought that make my inner gamer feel like a pair of boxcars.

(If you’re interested in learning more about what makes a gamer tick, visit a community of them at Board Game Geek — be careful, it’s almost impenetrable to a newbie — or sample one of the reviews of gaming guru Tom Vasel, who deconstructs games for a broader audience better than anyone I’ve read.)

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Winter Games: Passing time with kids, but without pixels

Board games are good for the brain, obviously, but they’re good for the soul too. They draw people together, create friendly competition, ask for your attention, and reward you for your focus.

We game in our household year-round, but the snowed-in season has brought a flurry of opportunities to gather at the kitchen table with TVs off. But not just for any old game: Not all board games are created equal.

Games of pure chance are time-fillers on par with flipping coins. I know kids love Sorry and Trouble. I know this. But who cares how many die rolls it takes to get around a board?

The Sorrys and Troubles and UNO Deluxe Spin Ultimates of the world constitute a vast swath of the Target game aisle. That place saddens my heart every time I walk past it, expecting something magic to pop out, and getting instead a weary mix of played-out classics (original Monopoly is really not that fun; it gets no better when rebranded with puppies or sports teams) and classless junk made of cheap plastic and cardboard (with names like “Don’t Wake the Schoolmarm!” and “French Fry Frenzy!”)

Uninspiring.

As a wee Drew, I loved me some Mousetrap. I would set that contraption game up by myself and play rat catcher all afternoon. But today, oy. The only thing worse than the cover art on the modern version is its flimsy … flimsiness … that permeates the air when you open the box. This one doesn’t feel satisfying to snap together, and it fell apart in our hands shortly after opening. (Little cardboard chits of cheese are still floating around my house years later. What were those things for? Who knows.) None of us fell in love with the plasticrap in that box.

Thus, behold me now: an unabashed Game Snob. I look for games that ask for more noodling; for premises that tickle the fancy; for tasks that appear simple but are deceivingly layered; and even for parts of satisfying quality. There’s nothing that feels so good as a solid wood gamepiece in the hand as it is slammed onto the table as an act of final triumph over your opponents.

Here then is the hit parade, the games we’ve been getting out with regularity this season. These are the ones we can play as a family, but children are not required to be present before busting one of them out. (If you can find them. You’ll need to go further afield than dear old Target. But oh, it is worth it.)

Ticket to Ride (by Days of Wonder)

A modern Colossus of games in my opinion. Simple rules, object-oriented play, decisions to be made, gambits to be gambled upon. Even the 6-year-old (above) could understand gameplay, though he is more comfortable paired with an adult.

In Ticket to Ride, players connect cities by building their own railways. The mechanic is straightforward: Match cards in your hand with colored spaces on the board to claim a route. Need to connect Denver and Duluth? That’s six orange spaces; you’ll need six orange cards. From this simple gameplay opens up a rich (but not *too* rich) series of decisions to make about when and how to connect your given destination cities while blocking (or avoid getting blocked by) your opponent. Great replay value.

Portobello Market (by Playroom Entertainment)

Looks like Ticket to Ride, plays totally differently. Portobello Market requires a leap of abstraction. Your job is to place “stalls” in the famous London flea market, then score points by attracting rich customers to your lane. Your available choices of what to do next are small: Place another stall? Invite a customer over? But the variety provided therein makes for a wealth of decisions — or at least just enough decisions to keep an adult (or an 9-year-old) from going mad with “analysis paralysis.” It looks more complicated than it is, and it only lasts 30 minutes or so when you get the hang of it. Just right.

Risk (plus the variants 2210 A.D. and Godstorm, all by Hasbro)

Classic Risk gets good play at our house. Over at Board Game Geek, where real Game Snobs make me look like Peter Populist, a great debate rages over whether classic Risk is a truly great strategy game or a predictable relic from the era of the Game of Life. I say it is an addictive gateway to more modern fare, and a welcome way to spend time … every now and again. Risk spawned a number of heavily themed variants like the post-apocalyptic 2210 (above), and the ancient-mythological Godstorm, both of which we enjoy greatly. (We also own the Lord of the Rings version, but found it wanting.) These variant games have real drawbacks: The rules are dense and easy to get wrong, and the number of variables gets overwhelming at times. The addition of “power cards” adds a great deal more reading to perform special attacks or defensive maneuvers, which makes this more age-prohibitive than other games. (It’s one thing to be able to read, it’s another thing to decipher gamerspeak.) As a result, these are good indulgences that fill you up when you crave them. Just not too often.

Heroscape (by Hasbro)

Constructable battlefields? Classic heroes in miniature? Comics-accurate superpowers reduced to simple mechanics? Check, check, check. I’m in! Like many tabletop miniatures games, each of your unique troopers has special powers that can be activated by die rolls to damage their opponents. What makes Heroscape special is a versatile tile system that can form as many battle maps as you can imagine; an innovative die-rolling system that’s fun to reconcile; the ability to run special scenarios, so it’s not always fight-to-the-death; and, ahem, the Marvel license. (There are scads of other generic Heroscape minis you can recruit — Vikings, Knights Templar, vampires, robots — but make mine Marvel. DC, where are you?)

13 Dead End Drive (by Milton Bradley)

Sometimes you just want a game board with 3D pieces that replicate a mansion populated with characters you’re trying to kill. The appeal here is the goofy factor of triggering the chandelier trap to fall on unsuspecting game pieces, or tipping the suit of armor onto their heads. There’s some simple strategy involving which characters you should move closer to their dooms and which characters you can maneuver to safety to claim a dead widow’s inheritance. Just enough decision-making to cause a 5-year-old to pause in contemplation, coupled with just enough silly backstabbing to make that contemplation worth it.

Sherlock (by Playroom Entertainment)

Put away that boring box of Memory cards. No one wants to set up that mass of tiles anyway – and there’s always one of the pairs that’s half missing. Where’s the other hot dog? Why do we have only one tennis shoe? Bah, make room for Sherlock, the easy-to-digest memory game with a kinetic kick. In a circle of eight face-down cards, players must recall what objects are on the hidden cards. When you guess one right, the top of each card gives you a direction (left or right) and a number of spaces to move the “Sherlock” character. This system automatically tells you which card to recall next. When Sherlock lands on a face-up card, you keep it, and replace it in the circle with a new object card. This makes the game renewable — it can last as long as you can stand. Plus it’s is WAY easier to clean up and set up. My daughter has been awesome at this since she was 4.

Catch-a-Match (by Playroom Entertainment … again!)

Can you find the one matching pair? (Mouse over for the answer.)

A simple deck of cards that can go anywhere, including doctor’s offices, restaurants and the lines at Disney World. On each of the 15 cards, there are 15 differently colored objects. On any two pair of cards, only one set of those objects will match exactly. Find it first, win the round. I don’t know how it works, it just does. Try it yourself. What object — and only one object — on the two cards above is exactly the same? (Harder than it looks, right?)

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