Early 2012 has been a little slow for me in the new games department and it looks like the summer drought is going to be in full effect, so I don't expect things to change over the next few months. To fill that time usually reserved for the latest AAA hotness, I've found my interests shifting to tabletop games as of late.
As a kid, I moved away from board games because video games pretty much streamlined that whole process. Nowadays, I find I'm incorporating more and more tabletop games into my routine for the exact opposite reason. Occasionally I want a more tactile experience than video games can offer, and I'm finding there really is no substitute for the experiences you have sitting around the same table with a group of pals, rolling dice, moving markers, and hurling good-natured insults at the person sitting to your immediate left.
Read on for more table top ramblings and a handful or recommendations for you gamers looking for an alternative to having a controller in-hand through the entire summer break.
When I was younger, it wasn't uncommon to find me sitting on the couch with a friend or family member, playing hours and hours of multiplayer. In the super early days, that usually involved passing the controller for games like Super Mario Bros. or BurgerTime. The Super NES gave us more options to play together and, with the wonderful invention of the multitap, up to four (FOUR!) of us could jump in at the same time.
The next generation (Xbox, PS2, Dreamcast) started giving people the ability to play online, but most of our multiplayer sessions were still being done on the couch, sitting side by side. Nowadays, online multiplayer has all but overshadowed the single player campaign in many games, and a solid couch co-op experience is proving harder and harder to come by.
If I'm going to play with other people, I usually prefer for us to be in the same room. That, coupled with fewer big games drawing my attention these past few months, has pulled me away from the television and instead sat me in front of the kitchen table.
For the longest time I had some serious trouble forking over the dough to buy a tabletop game. I'd pick up a box that caught my eye, flip it over to find a $50 price tag, and throw it back on the shelf, laughing. Never mind that a board game will likely have me coming back for years on end, spending untold hours playing it. The thought of spending half a Franklin on a board game just seemed preposterous. Bizarre, if you consider how many times I've happily plopped down $60 for a video game that would keep me busy for three days before finding its way to my shelf to collect dust.
I've been bit by the board game bug pretty hard. The greatest advantage is playing face-to-face with your friends, but there's also something about a board game's tactile nature that gets my endorphins flowing. I guess you could blame the "ritual" that comes with playing a table top game, too. I love setting up the board, managing the cards and dice, moving wooden markers around and eventually turning a plain map into a crisscrossed cacophony of multicolored plastic pieces. Board games take time to set up and, after a while, there is visual and physical proof of the progress you've made while playing. That's an experience video games can't quite duplicate.
So if you're having trouble finding something to play this summer, why not put down the controllers, invite a few friends over and give tabletop games a try? I know I'm speaking blasphemy here. In this age of all digital, all the time, it's hard to imagine having an actual human being come into your home to sit in the same room and play a game that doesn't keep up with your stats for you. But give it a shot. You might just have a good time.
And if you're looking for recommendations, here are a few more recent games that I've found especially entertaining. Nothing here is too taxing on the wallet or the mind (which is not to say that they are light on strategy).
Zombie Dice is about as simple as tabletop gaming can get. Players blindly select three dice from a pool and let them roll. The object of the game is to reach 13 brains before your fellow zombies without getting blasted by shotguns. With red, yellow and green dice offering different risk/reward ratios, the strategy comes in knowing when to stop your rolls and bank your points until the next turn. The expansion, Zombie Dice 2, offers three additional dice for another eight bucks. The price may seem a bit steep but, if you're enjoying the game proper, you'll absolutely want to insert these new rules into the game.
Fluxx, and one of its many offshoots, Zombie Fluxx, is extremely simple to explain because the rules of the game depend on what cards you play. Players draw new cards and then take turns laying down those that will help themselves, hinder their opponents, and literally change the rules and the winning conditions as the game progresses. The object of the game is to manipulate the cards in such a way that you complete a win condition before someone has the chance to change it. Or, even better, play a winning condition that you've already got the cards to achieve.
The term "munchkin" references the type of player who always tries to grab the best loot, equip the most monstrous gear and bend/break the rules to become the most powerful character imaginable. That's exactly what the card game Munchkin (and its many, many variations) offers, wrapped in a wonderful world of ridiculous humor and delicious back-stabbery. Your goal is to equip yourself with ridiculous goodies while waging war against comical monstrosities. On the sidelines, players will play cards to help or hinder one another in this spastic race to be the first player to reach level 10.
Cards Against Humanity
For those adults familiar with Apples to Apples, the best way to describe Cards Against Humanity is to say that it replaces those family-friendly cards with horrible, unspeakable alternatives that are far more entertaining to play. One player reads a statement on a black card while everyone else plays a white card to fill in the blank or answer a question. The best response is selected, and play continues until someone wins enough rounds or, if you're playing with us, you finally run out of cards. One of the least offensive combinations I can think of off the top of my head: Someone plays "Harry Potter Erotica" in response to "What keeps me up at night?"
Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers
Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers is a tile laying game, which means players literally spend their turn drawing a tile, placing it strategically on the playing field, and then using markers to build up more points than their opponents. Simple, right? The tiles are used to create streams, forests and open plains with markers utilized to claim those areas of precious resources. The strategy comes in closing off the areas your opponents are creating while building your own as big as possible, thus netting more points. If you're especially clever, you can even lay tiles to steal big point areas from another player.
Ticket to Ride
My gaming group's current go-to title, Ticket to Ride is so simple its entire instruction booklet is just four pages long. Players take turns drawing color-coordinated train cards and laying down routes in an effort to connect specific cities or block other players from achieving the same goal. The game can be taught in about three minutes but, once players get the hang of it, there's a nice amount of strategy to dig into. Deciding which move to take and when can get pretty hectic. For instance: Picking up those two orange cards would finish a big route you needed, but there's also only one route left into New Orleans at the moment, you have enough cards to claim it, and anyone could steal it on their next turn. What do you do?
Infinite Ammo is a weekly column by Ryan Winslett about video games, the industry that make them and the people who play them. He can be stalked via his blog at staticechoes.com and followed on Twitter @RyanWinslett.