A short history of board games, by doug
The bronze age
The earliest board games date from ancient Sumeria and Egypt - these, unfortunately, are long
out of print! The Egyptian board game Senet (pictured
here) is 3,500 years old. All cultures that we know of have played some sort of
board games, one of the most popular being chess, which dates back in a
primitive form to sixth-century India (though no one knows its true
origins for sure). The modern era in board gaming begins with the publication
of Monopoly in 1903, arguably the
most popular board game ever. Other Bronze Age classics include the racing game
Sorry (1934) and the detective game Clue (1946).
Bronze Age board games usually consisted of a
cardboard game board divided into squares or rectangles, a set of metal or
plastic playing pieces, dice and a set of game rules. Although strategy and
diplomacy certainly played a role in winning or losing, luck was a major
factor. Think of rounding the last row of properties in Monopoly and trying to avoid rolling that deadly seven which would
land you on Boardwalk with a big red hotel on it. There were exceptions,
however, Scrabble (1948) for one.
The golden age
From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the board
game industry was dominated by American companies. With a few exceptions, the
industry was split between fairly simple and “fun” family-orientated games such
as Life (1960), Risk (1959) and Careers (1955)
produced mainly by Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, and
more historically orientated complex strategy games such as Afrika Korps (1964), Panzerblitz (1970), Squad Leader (1977),
Ironclads (1979) and Civilization (1982) produced by Avalon
Hill, Strategy & Tactics magazine (S&T), Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW),
Yaquinto, Battleline and a
handful of other companies. These latter games were designed for adults, with
hundreds of titles covering all major historical conflicts and eras published
in this period.
By the late 1960s the great majority of
American wargames featured detailed historical maps
overlaid with a hexagonal grid along with a hundred or more cardboard counters
representing military units. The numbers printed on each counter usually
represented the offensive and defensive strengths of the unit in question,
along with its movement speed expressed in hexagons per turn. Players moved
these counters around the map according to complex rules during the “movement
phase” of their turns, then rolled dice on “combat
results tables” during the “combat phase” of the turn. The most complex of
these wargames might have twenty or more pages of
rules. An extreme example was GDW’s Drang Nach Osten (1973), a simulation of the Eastern Front of
World War II. Its map covered the best part of a ping-pong table, and it required
dozens hours of play time by teams of three players per side to complete (yet
was itself only one part of GDW’s massive Europa simulation of the entire European war).
Some strategy games dealt with
economic conflict or civilization building, and featured maps divided into
provinces or areas instead of hexagons, e.g. Gibsons Games’ Britannia (1986), Avalon Hill’s Civilization, and Milton Bradley’s Conquest of the Empire (1984), one of
its classy “Gamemaster” series of strategy games
which also included Axis and Allies (1981)
and Shogun (1984). These late Golden
Age games used simpler methods of conflict resolution than earlier wargames, and in some cases included plastic or round
pieces, resource counters or civilization cards (these become more important in
Silver Age games).
Another genre of game that became tremendously
popular in the Golden Age was role-playing games. These games involved players
playing the role of one or more individual characters in a series of adventures
and conflicts in fantasy and science-fiction universes. The king of such games
was Dungeons and Dragons (first
edition, 1974; third edition, 2000),
which in its many expansions and variants became so popular that it spawned a
minor moral panic about its players taking their roles as magicians, elves and
dwarves so seriously that they’d act out their fantasies in real life as
assaults, murders, and suicides. Many other fantasy and science-fiction
role-playing games followed, including FASA’s Star Trek: The
Role-Playing Game (1982-1989, with many supplements and adventure modules).
Part of the place of RPGs in the gaming market has
been taken up over the last decade or so by computer adventure and fantasy
games, which eliminate the need for human “game masters” and complex sets of
rules for interpreting player moves: the computer does all the background
calculations and record keeping for you.
Two other genres of board games from
the Golden Age merit mention. Knowledge-based family games such as Trivial Pursuit (1981) and Balderdash (1971) were won and lost
based on each player’s brainpower and memory for trivia. Trivial Pursuit has published dozens of expansions and variants,
and is still popular today. Games about space exploration and starship combat
occupied a significant niche of the board game market in Golden Age. One such
game was Task Force’s Star Fleet Battles (from
1979 to now), a game of starship combat set in the universe of the original Star Trek TV series. Its full rulebook
requires a hefty binder to keep everything together, including an endless
series of expansion booklets which added new rules and hundreds of new starship
designs to the handful in the original package (these expansions are still
being produced today). It morphed into the computer games Star Trek: Starfleet Command (1999) and Starfleet Command II: Empires at War (2001), where players
commanded a single ship in tactical battles and strategic campaigns. Other
examples of scifi games from this period include
Avalon Hill’s Stellar Conquest (1975)
and GDW’s Imperium (1977).
The growing popularity and sophistication of
computer games in the late 1980s and 1990s severely reduced the output of the
American board game companies, killing some of them (though others dropped out
of sight as early as the “pong” era of computer games in the 1970s), forcing
the survivors to dramatically reduce their output of game titles. A few North
American companies soldiered on: Hasbro in family and strategy games, and Columbia Games with its attractive line of wargames using wooden blocks, “fog of war” and step
reduction of units. Even the mighty Avalon Hill, the largest games production
house during the Golden Age, was disbanded in the late 1990s, its catalogue
bought up by Hasbro, which has re-released a select series of old AH titles.
Games based on popular films such as The
Lord of the Rings also still have some cache. But the Golden Age of
American gaming was over by the time the Commodore Amiga and Atari
ST hit the store shelves in 1985, the home computer killing the popularity
of adult-orientated board games.
The silver age
In the mid-1990s the board game industry was
revived in Europe, notably Germany, thanks to companies such as Kosmos, Hans im
Gluck, Ravensburger, and Alea.
English-language versions of these games are sold in North America by Mayfair, Rio
Grande and Fantasy Flight Games.
Silver Age Eurogame
designers became mini-stars, signing their games like book authors (unlike
Golden Age games, where the designer’s name was no where to be seen on the
outer box). The king of German game designers is undoubtedly Doctor of
Mathematics Riener Knizia,
with over one hundred designs to his credit.
These “Eurogames” are
usually historical strategy games, but are quite different from their American
equivalents in the Golden Age:
- They are for the most part much simpler, averaging 4-8 pages of
rules (about as complex as Risk).
boards, counters and boxes are of higher quality than earlier games. Their
games pieces are often made of painted wood; counters and tiles are made
of thick cardboard with the pictures on them sometimes having a durable
linen finish. In the best cases, e.g. Wolgang
Kramer and Michael Kiesling’s games Tikal, Java, and
Celtica, the art is remarkable.
emphasize pure strategy over historical detail and luck, player
interaction over structured turn-taking.
they can feature direct conflict, some of the most successful ones (e.g. The Settlers of Catan,
Carcasssonne) are more concerned with
economics and civilization-building. Pure wargames
no longer dominate the adult board game industry. Eurogame
designers favour the ancient, medieval and early
modern eras as source materials (as opposed to American Golden Age
designers, who favoured the military conflicts
of the twentieth century, especially World War II).
mechanics usually involve the use of action points, cards, resource
counters, player trading and catastrophic events instead of combat factors
and combat results tables. Their units and counters usually don’t have
numbers printed on them (except pieces representing money and victory
points), and they don’t use combat results tables to resolves battles. In
fact, many have no dice, spinners or other types of random number
generators at all.
are usually limited to a set number of rounds of play or a reasonably
achievable level of victory points, thus making them playable in anywhere
from 30 to 90 minutes, unlike the more complex American wargames of the Golden Age, which might take a whole
evening or more to finish.
Some outstanding examples of Eurogames are seven I own myself [my ratings in brackets,
out of ten, subject to change]:
- The Settlers of Catan (1995), from Mayfair Games, designed by Klaus Teuber.
This was the “breakthrough” Eurogame as far as
the North American market goes. Its million-copy sales success in Europe has spawned several expansions
(the Seafarers and Cities and Knights of Catan) along with parallel designs (The Settlers of the Stone Age, The Starfarers of Catan). Catan is an
island made up of a series of oversized hexagons whose placement can vary
each game. Each turn players generate new resources (brick, ore, wool,
grain or lumber) on randomly determined hexes, using these to build roads,
settlements (worth 1 victory point), or cities (worth 2 victory points). There’s also special development cards, soldiers, and a
robber who steals resources. The first player to get ten victory points
wins. It can be played in an hour by 3-4 players. Its rule book is only
four pages long, with another ten pages of almanac. Winner of the German
Spiel des Jahres for 1995. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Settlers_of_catan
for an overview. [7.5]
- Carcassonne (2000), from Rio Grande Games,
designed by Klaus-Jurgen Wrede,
is a tile-laying game where players score points by the strategic placement
of followers or “meeples” - farmers, knights,
thieves and monks - on an expanding map of an area of medieval France (see
the picture of a game in progress). Playable in less than an hour by 2-5
players, its simple rules fill only four pages and are fairly intuitive in
nature. There are several spinoffs from the
game, the most interesting being the stand-alone variant game Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (2002),
a prehistoric “prequel.” It doesn’t use dice. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres award in 2001. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carcassonne_%28board_game%29.
- Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (2002) is a stand-alone sequel to the
original which moves us back into the dim recesses of human prehistory.
Once again it’s a tile-laying game for 2-5 players playable in 30-45 minutes,
though this time the objective is to connect forests, rivers and lakes,
collecting points from fish, deer and wooly mammoths. A slightly more
complex (with six pages of rules) and arguably better game than the
original, player huts, bonus cards and saber-tooth tigers complicate
matters just a tad. See http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/4390.
- Tikal (1999),
from the prolific German design team of Kramer and Kiesling,
is part of the “mask” trilogy of games which also includes Java (2000) and Mexica (2002), all from Rio Grande. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 1999, and playable by 2-4 players in 90
minutes, players act as heads of archaeological teams searching the
Central American jungle for Mayan artifacts. The rules are nine half-pages
long (with the auction version adding another three pages), placing it in
the low end of moderately complex games. It features top-rate graphics,
including a solid game board picturing a largely empty jungle, oversized
terrain hexagons, square temple tiles, round treasure pieces and wooden
expedition workers and camps. The game works on an action-point allocation
system: each turn players have ten action points which they can allocate
to place or move workers (1 point), uncover a temple level (2 points),
recover or exchange a treasure (3 points), build a camp or place a guard
on a temple (5 points). This system can slow things down if one player is
indecisive, though this is a minor flaw of the game. The point of the game
is to get the most victory points from owning treasures and controlling
uncovered temples. These are only counted in the three semi-random turns
when a volcano hexagon is placed along with the last turn, after the last
terrain hexagon is placed. An odd mixture of cooperative
and competitive strategies are promoted by the game, whose only
luck factor comes from the partly random drawing of terrain hexes. Highly
recommended! See http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/54.
- Tigris and Euphrates (1997),
from Mayfair Games, deigned by game ace Reiner Knizia.
This is a real “gamer’s game,” playable by 2-5
players in 90 minutes. Its 14 pages of rules are full of examples and
pictures, making it a game of moderate complexity (there’s a four-page
rules summary to simplify things). It’s a fairly abstract strategy game of
tile-laying and leader placement on a map representing ancient Mesopotamia with no dice or random events,
rating number 2 on Boardgamegeek.com. The object of the game is to build
small kingdoms using your kings, priests, farmers and traders by linking
together four types of civilization tiles: settlements, temples, farms,
and markets. Uniquely, you keep track of four separate totals of victory
points (roughly representing urbanization, religion, agriculture and
trade), and only count your lowest total at the end of the game to see who
has won. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tigris_%26_Euphrates.
[8, haven’t played it yet]
- Puerto Rico (2002),
from Rio Grande Games, designed by Andreas Seyfarth.
The game can be played in 1-2 hours by 2-5 players using rules of medium
complexity (11 pages of rules, of which 4 deal with special rules for
buildings). It concerns colonization, plantation building, resource management, shipping and trading in
post-Columbian Puerto Rico (sixteenth century). Each turn is divided into seven phases, each
phase “run” by one of the seven roles players can take on: the settler,
mayor, builder, craftsman, trader, captain or prospector. Each player has
their own mini game board divided into a series of city and plantations
squares on which he or she grows crops, adds colonists, and constructs
buildings (which have various costs expressed in dubloons).
Players may sell their corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco and coffee at the
Trading House, or ship it back to Spain for victory points. The point
of the game is to accumulate as many victory points as possible. Number 1
on both the Boardgamegeek.com and Internet Top 100 Games List. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Rico_%28board_game%29.
[8, haven’t played it yet]
- Ticket to Ride (2004): From Days of Wonder, Ticket to Ride is a relatively
simple 2-5 player game playable in an hour or less. It features a map of North America cities connected by a series
of colour-coded railway routes which players
claim with plastic railway cars after playing the appropriately coloured cards. The longer the route, the more points
scored. There are also destination ticket cards which the players draw
intermittently throughout the game: these award the player points for extended
routes (e.g. LA to New York), but subtract points if not
completed by the end of the game. The trick comes from the fact that
they’re held in secret, adding another level of strategy to car placement.
Winner of the 2004 Spiel des Jahres. See http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/9209.
Computer games have taken over most of the
market for historically accurate war simulations and role-playing games: their
graphics and ability to silently number-crunch odds and combat results in the
background of the game itself make the experience of playing a video game
version of such a game less mentally taxing that its board-game equivalent.
However, video games take the social aspect out of gaming, even if the computer
gamer is playing another human being over the Internet. And you can’t taunt or
bluff a machine!
Board Game Geek – a comprehensive site
featuring detailed information and reviews and pictures of thousands of games: www.boardgamegeek.com
of September 1, 2006, the top rated games on this
site were Puerto Rico, Tigris & Euphrates, Caylus, Power
Grid, and El Grande, all of them Eurogames. At the bottom of the list, at #3048, is
Tic-Tac-Toe! There are thousands of unranked
games also on the list.
Internet Top 100 Games: http://scv.bu.edu/aarondf/Top100/list.txt
list is compiled from ratings on the Usenet board rec.games.board.
Puerto Rico and Tigris & Euphrates were rated 1st
and 2nd as of August, 2005. Its top 15 games are all Eurogames.
Mayfair Games: www.mayfairgames.com
Rio Grande Games: http://www.riograndegames.com/
Columbia Games: http://www.columbiagames.com/
Fantasy Flight Games: http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/