Gamer's Advisory 101: Breaking the Monopoly
The hobby board game market is booming. Everywhere news media outlets pronounce that board games are "making a comeback" or are "going through a golden age" or experiencing a "renaissance" or are "in full swing." NPR even flipped the whole thing and did a piece on board games that stink (and, of course, not a single one of these are in print).
According to ICV2, a website that tracks the trends of different hobby markets, the modern board game market has seen six consecutive years of growth and is more than twice the size it was in 2008. According to the venerable BoardGameGeek, the amount of published games has doubled since 2008. Independent publishers and individual designers are developing, publishing and funding projects on crowdsourcing sites such as IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. Modern board games have a greater presence in retail stores such as Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart.
The popularity of the Youtube series Tabletop, created by Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton, is exposing more and more people to the hobby. Thus the sheer quantity of board games available can quickly become overwhelming even to those hobbyists deeply entrenched already.
In the "Board in the Library" series, I provided an introduction into modern board games, produced a survey of popular mechanisms and themes, discussed starting gaming groups, and made some recommendations for good gateway games.
In this series, I am diving a bit deeper by breaking down some classic and mass-market games into their core mechanical and thematic elements. These elements can be used as touchpoints to learn about modern board games and recommend similar games to patrons. In short, we are exploring the librarian's role in gamer's advisory.
Games such as Monopoly, Risk, and Clue are well-worn territory and provide good reference points into games which are similar, but offer a much richer experience. Some of the games I recommend will be easier to learn. Some games will be more advanced. But they will all strike a familiar chord because they are all related (in theme or in game-play) to many of the games we are intimately familiar.
Let's start with a game nearly everyone knows and loves to hate -- that grand old sir of board-gaming -- Monopoly.
No game in existence has the brand recognition of Monopoly. Originally created as "The Landlord's Game" by Elizabeth Magie in 1904 and later "repurposed" by Charles Darrow, the iconic board game of real estate development and bankruptcy has been destroying familiar bonds, wrecking sibling relationships, and has been a cause for couples counseling for decades.
A hallmark of most family holidays and adult get-togethers, everyone recognizes the pewter pieces, the look of crushing defeat on the faces of younger siblings, and the weird mustachioed dude on the box. However, even when it is played correctly (without all the house-rules and Free Parking variants) the game is still extraordinarily dated. So, despite being reskinned with every intellectual property from Disney Princesses and The Super Mario Brothers to NASCAR and M&M's, we may need to explore some more modern alternatives to this mass-market classic.
We will first look at some small box beginner games with simple rules, limited mechanisms (usually one or two) and a short playing time.
Intermediate games come with more complex rules, increased player interaction and maybe a few more mechanisms for fun.
Finally a few expert level games with longer playing time, more set-up, and complicated rules.
However, these are only guidelines and you should jump into whatever feels right.
These are small box games with simple rules, limited mechanisms (usually one or two) and a short playing time.
If it is the auction mechanism of Monopoly that gets your heart racing, then you will love For Sale's double auction action! Not only do you have a live auction during the first half of the game but you also have a silent auction during the second part.
During the live auction, players try to buy the best properties. Property in this case is represented by cards, numbered 1 through 30, with 1 being the lowest valued property and 30 being the highest. Players build up a hand of properties that they try to sell through the next auction -- a silent auction.
During the silent auction another deck of cards representing different amounts of money (cheques) are displayed on the table. Each player places a property face down in front of them (remember each property has a value from 1 to 30) and the winner (the highest valued property played) gets the largest cheque in the middle of the table. Once all the property is sold and all the checks are gone, the player with the most money (either saved from the beginning of the game or earned through the sale of property) wins.
It is a condensed, simple, and quick game compared to Monopoly, allowing players to bid, out-think, and compete for properties without spending hours to do it. For Sale plays 3-6 people and takes about 20 minutes to play. Its compact size and limited components also make it the perfect game to play a few demo rounds at the circulation desk.
If you take Monopoly and reduce it down to only the cards of the game and the sublime feeling of having your older cousins stab you in the back, you have Monopoly Deal.
Unlike For Sale, where the primary mechanism is the auction, in Monopoly Deal the primary mechanism is set collection and betrayal (dirty, filthy betrayal). During each turn of the game, players draw two cards and then can play up to three. The goal is to be the first player to get three complete sets of property cards. In order to shake this up a bit, action cards allow you to steal properties played by the other players, charge rent, or gain bonuses.
While the collection of property sets may be what draws players to this game, I'll venture to say that the player interaction and back-stabbing is what will keep people playing. If you liked seeing other players squirm and enjoy being mean then this is your jam. However, while in classic Monopoly meanness slowly evolved over the hours to bitterness and torture, in Monopoly Deal it stays fresh since it is all over in 15 minutes -- like a band-aid being ripped off quickly and then salt rubbed into the wound.
These smaller card versions of classic mass market games (Monopoly Deal, Scrabble Slam, Pictureka! Card Game, and Clue Suspect) are great ones to pick up if you have limited funds and want to prove the worth of a board/card gaming group. They are cheap, quick and, most importantly, fun and familiar to your patrons.
Acquire is a classic game designed by Sid Saxon in 1962. Not as venerable as Monopoly in popular culture, but in modern gaming circles Acquire has a pretty good pedigree.
In Acquire, each player is taking on the role of a hotel mogul, buying stock and developing hotel chains in a race to earn the most money at the end of the game. Each player has 6 tiles at the start of their turn which will represent hotels and can be placed on the appropriate position on the board. Each tile corresponds to a specific place on the board. When a tile is placed: a hotel chain be founded if the tile is placed next to a tile already on the board, hotel chains may merge when a tile is placed adjacent to two or more established chains, or a tile may be placed by itself with no additional actions.
When chains merge, the owner of the larger chain takes over the smaller, with bonuses paid to the largest defunct chains. Players have the option of buying stock in the hotel chains for additional points. The game ends once one chain gets too large (41 tiles or more) or several chains all become safe (are 11 hotels long).
Unfortunately, the game components of the most recent edition are fairly dull. However, for a 1960s design, the mechanisms of the game are still engaging and have held up well. There may be better games out there but the abstract nature of Acquire along with its simple rules makes it an easy game to pick up quickly and it provides good replayability.
Acquire is a true classic and probably should have had the monopoly over Monopoly in the first place.
These games have more complex rules, increased player interaction and maybe a few more mechanisms for fun.
If any board game has taken over the mantle of the "game to play during the holidays" -- it is Catan. This game, unlike the beginner level games, has a heavy dose of trading and negotiation as players try to settle the ephemeral and economically flighty island of Catan. In order to do so players spread their influence through roads, settlements, and cities.
Unlike Monopoly where players simply purchase properties, in Catan players need to collect resources in order to build and each turn of the game players are awarded different resources -- grain, wood, brick, sheep, or stone. Players positively need to trade and negotiate with each other in order to win. While rolling the dice each turn will provide certain resources, the only way to get what you need is to trade with players. Since every other player is likely in the same boat (deficient in certain resources) there will be plenty of table talk, hard negotiation and bartering.
Catan has also reinvented itself several times in numerous expansions which add additional players, mechanisms, cards, etc. and provides more than enough variability to keep the game interesting for years of holiday parties to come. Catan can be a bit on the long side at 90 minutes; even longer if you are just learning the game. At the same time though, with the low price point and high popularity, Catan can be a perfect game for library tournaments.
So far most of the games have been fairly dry. Not much excitement (although Catan can get a bit heated). But what about a game for the people that really enjoyed the social aspects of board games. The buzz of negotiation? The agony of the dice roll? What if you want a game that is fast and loud but also economic?
In Panic on Wall Street, players are either investors (relying on the market and buying company stocks) or managers who are gobbling up the companies and selling stocks. What makes this game particularly frantic is that it is another example of a real-time game where players have two minutes to negotiate the price of stocks, with investors and managers alike both wanting the best deal and most value for their stocks.
Each Manager starts the game with three companies. The level of risk of the company is marked by color – blue is low risk, green a bit riskier, yellow are risky, and red companies are dangerous. The company cards come with dry erase markers and managers are screaming to entice investors while investors are yelling to get the best price. At the end of the two minutes of negotiation, four dice are rolled each corresponding with a color (blue, green, yellow, red) to see where the market goes. Red is extremely swingy and can absolutely sink a company or make you a fortune. The blue dice barely moves and is thus more reliable but it will never make you a lot of money.
This game has everything: It plays up to 11 players, it plays in 30-45 minutes, it is loud and crazy and hectic, it has negotiations and auctions, and the stock market is partly determined by the fickle hands of fate. It has everything a party game version of Monopoly should have. Honestly, I have a hard time not yelling even just writing about it. Everything I just wrote, was yelled.
These games tend to have much longer playing time, intricate set-up, and complicated rules.
Power Grid is a classic route-building and auction eurogame with very little player interaction, plenty of competition over resources, and very little luck.
In Power Grid, you are a power company and you want to power the most cities. To do this you must purchase the right power plants, watch the resource market (coal, oil, garbage, and nuclear), and build a solid network of cities to power. Finally, each player will power however many of the cities in their network that they can for income. The winner is the person able to power the largest network at the end of the game.
Like Monopoly, this game has plenty of math and bookkeeping, rewards long-term strategy, can take a long time to play (at least 2-3 hours), has cut-throat auctions, and can leave new players in the dust if they aren't prepared. Power Grid is not for everyone and the length of the game will likely not make it a good pick for most board gaming events in your library. As a circulating title, though, it has been very popular.
Las Vegas may be the land of broken dreams but, as a Lord of Vegas, you can at least have a bit more fun building it up to the center of debauchery it is known as today.
As an entrepreneur in the early days of Vegas you have the ability to flip some of the decaying shops, parking lots, and abandoned lots, build one of five different casinos, gain influence, expand to nearby lots, and reorganize or remodel the casinos already on the board. Similar to Acquire, players can build large casino complexes when the same colored casinos are built adjacent to each other. Larger groups of casinos score more points and generate more cash but nothing is sacred in Vegas and your influence is never guaranteed.
At the end of the game, casino owners with the most influence gains more points and win. This game is chock full of strategy, gaudiness, luck, and loads of fun. It even has some craps! It is practically the opposite of Power Grid where the gameplay is dry and mechanical; in Lords of Vegas everything is bright, fluid, and always susceptible to the whims of chance.
Do you want your library to be the loudest place on the block? Do you want the fire department and public works folks to stop by and politely ask you to keep it down? Have you always wanted an excuse to yell at your patrons? The Pit is your answer.
Another real time game, Pit was designed (or at least first sold) in 1904, making it a contemporary of Monopoly but a heckuva lot more fun. Pit is all about trading. You want your hand of many commodities to be a hand of only one kind of commodity. Each player starts with nine cards of a variety of commodities (Wheat, Barley, Coffee, Corn, Oats, Soybeans, Oranges). At the start of the game, players blindly trade cards as fast as they can. You can't say what you are trading. You can only say the number (one to four) of the same commodity that you are offering. Another player with the same amount can trade with you.
Once you have the market cornered on one type of commodity, you yell "Corner on Corn/Coffee/etc!" and the winner scores that round.
Monopoly is one of many mass-market games with the potential to launch libraries, librarians, and patrons into the world of modern board games. It is practically everywhere and has been rethemed more times than I can count and it is likely that it is the first game that comes to mind when you bring up board games. But this hobby thrives on innovation, originality, and immersion, and all the games listed above incorporate similar themes, mechanisms, and evoke similar emotions as Monopoly but also add something new and exciting.
If you like simple auctions, complex economic mechanisms and themes, intense interpersonal interaction, or just love holding wads of paper money, you will find a good fit in the above games. Next month I'm going to dip my toes into the deep end of the pool and find some good fits for those conflict-seeking, border-skirmishing, Kamchatka-conquering lovers of Risk!
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