From bored to board

Wil Weaton’s YouTube series Tabletop has brought board games to the masses

Wil Weaton’s YouTube series Tabletop has brought board games to the masses

There is a show being produced for Kenyan television that turns the issue of African migration to Europe on its head by depicting the opposite trend in a changed world 50 years in our future.

In the show — Usoni — climate change, resource scarcity and stagnant economies have plunged the west into decline, and economic migrants are flooding into the less claustrophic and burnt-out countries of Africa in pursuit of opportunity and a better life.

It’s not an unreasonable projection.

However, it would be more than a little paranoid of us to assume that it is exactly such extrapolations that have prompted a surge, in the western world, in the popularity of board games that cultivate and promote tactics and strategies for colonising and re-conquering far-off distant lands.

It would be going too far, surely, to assume that once-and-future colonising  countries are dusting off  and practising the old imperial pastimes of resource management, military deployment and aggressive infrastructural development simply to prepare a new generation for life after Europe.

Suggesting that we on the contested continent ought to prepare ourselves against neocolonial aggression in a similar fashion is probably a step too far.

But if that’s what it takes to convince more people to play board games in South Africa, then I’m not above stoking the fires of paranoia.

Fortunately, it looks like I won’t have to. Board games are on the rise throughout the world and South Africa is no exception.  Settlers of Catan, the gateway drug to a new generation of board gamers, is already so popular in South Africa that Catan competitions have become a regular feature at conventions such as Rage and Icon.

It is doing a brisk trade in retail bookstores and it has even been translated into Afrikaans (IsiZulu, Sesotho or isiXhosa versions to come? I certainly hope so).

Entirely unscientific, anecdotal evidence also suggests more people are playing more often around the family dinner table, in schools and at internet-brokered meet-ups and weekly game-themed evenings at restaurants.

The real reason for the rise is difficult to pin down. But Germany and Wil Wheaton have more than a little to do with it.

Germany is where game designers first looked at the stagnant pool of Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk and decided to shake things up a bit.

As far back as 1978, when the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award was established, Germans have been looking at systems, balancing chance and strategy, cultivating engagement and delight, and creating elegant games.

Catan

First published in 1995, Die Siedler von Catan was among the first to find purchase outside of Europe.

The board is the map of an unsettled island, containing areas from which resources such as ore, wood, clay, wheat and sheep may be harvested by the players — the game’s settlers — who build towns to access and develop resources, roads to expand and (in later expansions to the game) armies to defend against invading barbarian hordes.

Unlike, say, Risk, there is no outright aggression between players. Rather, they race to accumulate victory points, which are obtained by building towns and cities, maintaining the largest army, or constructing the longest road.

The first player to reach 10 victory points wins the game, and players can more or less tell who is in the lead, but elements such as development cards can secretly bestow extra victory points on a player, who is obliged to reveal them only once he or she announces to the other players that, actually, the game’s just been won.

It seems simple enough and not particularly groundbreaking. But the strength of this game, and many of its successors, is in the game dynamics.

The way the rules and the gameplay fit together to produce an atmosphere in which everyone’s attention is riveted to the board from the moment the first die is cast.

And this is why the old games such as Monopoly are gathering dust in the cupboard.

In those games, for much more than the most part, when it is your turn everyone else is relegated to the status of observer. What you do has no real bearing the way they will play, your actions won’t affect their strategies and so their attention can drift without consequence.

In Catan and its like, everyone is invested in everyone else’s turn. Everyone prospers from your dice roll, for example, receiving resources to spend on development in their turn  (or, in the 5-6 player expansion, in your turn). It might not seem like much, but it makes for an uninterrupted cycle of strategy, activity and reward.

The boredom that kicks in on other people’s turns in some of the older, more traditional board games doesn’t stand a chance.

How to play
Another breakthrough has been in the way the games are learned. Modern game designers know that it doesn’t matter how marvelously rewarding their games are once they’re in full swing, it doesn’t count for a thing unless people play.

And if they can’t figure out how to play fairly quickly, then they probably won’t.

So a lot of attention is given to how the rules are presented, and learning to play from the rulebook is mostly a painless experience. But it’s not the best way.

The best way is to be dropped straight into the game and taught how to play by someone who already knows his or her way around the board. And this is where the magic happens.

You introduce me to the game, I have so much fun playing that I get it for myself and introduce someone else to the game and before you know it the pastor’s gran and her friends are chortling under their breath every time someone makes the “Can someone give me wood?” joke.

The second-best way to learn a game is to ask Wil Wheaton. If you’re of an age, you’ll remember him as the annoying kid who kept bothering Patrick Stewart in the first few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

If you’re not, you might know him as Sheldon’s occasional nemesis in The Big Bang Theory. In real life, he’s an adorable and unreconstructed nerd and, pertinently, he hosts a show on YouTube called Tabletop. Here, Wheaton does nothing much more than play board games.

It helps that his ever-changing roster of fellow players are geek celebrities (from Seth Green and Felicia Day to and the Mohawk guy from Nasa), and that the production values are really quite slick for a YouTube show.

In each half-hour episode of Tabletop, Wheaton explains to viewers how the game works by playing a proper game with his guests.

It adds humour and geek *squee* to what is essentially a technical rule-learning experience, and it’s given the popularity of a great number of fantastic games exposure they never would have had otherwise.

It’s also helped introduce the rest of the world to one of the latest and most exciting trends in board games: the co-operative game.

European games are known for their simple and elegant dynamics. Games across the pond have tended to concentrate more on giving the game’s owner lots of shiny stuff.

Whereas Catan has little wooden monopoly houses to represent cities, a game like, say, Dungeon Command will have elaborate hand-painted miniatures depicting heroes and monsters — but in turn has significantly more complex rules, which precludes casual play with, say, your mother-in-law.

The co-operative games are a little guilty of this. The games tend to be on the complex side of the spectrum, but they make up for this by having all of the players on the same side, playing against the game itself.

In Pandemic, players must pool their resources and work together to stop the spread of four killer diseases before they overwhelm the entire world.

There many ways to lose the game, and only a few to win — each person controls his or her own turn, but their actions will have an effect on the others, so every move is carefully negotiated, its consequences extrapolated.

The co-operation is tense, and losing to the game is as devastating as winning is thrilling.

So perhaps it is true that some of the games beloved of so many enthusiasts cultivate expansionist strategies and reward aggressive behaviour.

But more and more they’re also adding negotiation, compromise and mutual self-interest — perhaps an acknowledgement of the best way that board gaming spreads: the more people win, the more they’ll want to play. And if everybody wins, well … then everybody plays.

Let the bug bite
If you’re curious about board games but haven’t yet played, start with the Settlers of Catan.

Exclusive Books should have it, but also try your local comic book or craft shop.

Then watch the Catan episode of Tabletop on YouTube to familiarise yourself with the rules, invite friends or family members to the table and the rest will take care of itself. Off you go.

Places to get board games
• Exclusive Books
www.exclus1ves.co.za
•Board Games South Africa
www.boardgames.co.za
• Outer Limits in Johannesburg
//outerlimits.co.za
• Wizards Warehouse in Cape Town
www.wizardswarehouse.co.za
• The Unseen Shoppe in Durban
www.theunseenshoppe.co.za

Matthew du Plessis

Matthew du Plessis

Matthew du Plessis is the Mail & Guardian's managing editor, and chairs the Adamela Trust, an NGO that administers journalism fellowships. He writes on science, technology and culture. Read more from Matthew du Plessis