Board Game Bestiary: How To Get Started with Modern Board Games

By Loyd Case

New to board gaming? Hobbyist board gaming comes with its own jargon, subculture and genres. Loyd focuses on a few of his favorites, but also gives advice for which board games are good starting places for each genre.

Board gaming is its own pocket universe inside the broader gaming community. Like any other subset of gaming, it’s got its own jargon, genres and archetypes. I’ll take you on a little guided tour of the board gamer’s slice of the gaming multiverse. It’s by no means an exhaustive tour but should be enough to get you started.

The current generation of board games really begins in 1995, with the release of Settlers of Catan. Yes, cool and interesting board games existed before Settlers, but that game supplied the trigger that eventually grew into the current, large scale generation of hobby games. Settlers odd mix of nonviolent theme, strategic route-building, limited player interaction and randomness captured the imagination of countless players and re-launched an industry.

Photo Credit: Flickr user gadl via Creative Commons

And there’s a piece of jargon right there. What’s a “hobby game?”

A hobby game is a game that’s not Monopoly. That’s a somewhat facile comment, but the old games we played with our families when we were kids, like Monopoly, The Game of Life, Clue and similar games aren’t considered hobby games. More generally, hobby games tend to have less randomness, more strategy and choices that matter. That’s not a sharply defined definition, though. Some games which have passionate followings and high level tournaments, like Scrabble, aren’t considered “hobby games”, but they’re pretty serious fare nonetheless.

On the other hand, relatively lightweight fare, like many party games (for example, Dixit) are often considered hobby games. It’s a continuum, with outliers and tentacles.

Like all games, board gaming genres can be a little fuzzy. If you think of videogames, is Borderlands an RPG or a first-person shooter? It's a little bit of both, with elements from other genres thrown into the mix as well. The same can be true with board games. But if you get down to basics, there are discrete genres like any other gaming activity. I’ll focus here on a few of my favorites, but will also talk about games in each genre that make for good first games. I’ll link to the various pages on the Board Game Geek site for each game.

Co-Op Board Games

My favorite genre isn’t really a genre, in the sense that there’s no universal mechanic. I love co-op board games. Co-op games pit the players against the game. Perhaps the signature co-op game is Pandemic.

If you’ve played the iOS game by the same name, this is the polar opposite. While the iOS games makes you the disease, the board game has you playing researchers fighting to stop disease outbreaks. Each player takes on key roles, which differ in abilities. Co-op board games are generally very tough; a well-designed co-op game is typically beaten about one-third of the plays. I’ve got the first edition of the game, which came out five years ago; the publisher, Z-Man games, just released a second edition with updated components and artwork.

I’ve got a number of other co-op games, including:

  • Ghost Stories, another classic, in which you team up to defeat an undead wizard sending ghostly minions to plague a Chinese village

  • Last Night on Earth, cheesy good fun in a zombie survival game

  • Elder Sign: push-your-luck dice rolling in a Call of Cthuhlu mythos setting

  • Sentinels of the Multiverse, a card driven, co-op superhero game, where you play a team of superheroes trying to bring down an evil supervillain.

If you’re looking to get started with co-op games, Pandemic can be a little daunting. A good first game is Forbidden Island, designed by Matt Leacock, who also designed Pandemic. It’s simpler, and a great game to play with your family, too.

Deck Building Games

Remember Magic: the Gathering, which had you taking out second mortgages or selling your soul so you could continue to buy expansions? Part of the fun of Magic was not playing the games, but building that perfect deck that would allow you to win. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a game that focused on that part where you built the perfect deck? Welcome to deck building games.

The first deck building game was Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion, which took the board gaming world by storm in 2008.

Deck building was the first genuinely new mechanic in a long time. Now a host of new games using the mechanic pioneered by Dominion. You start with a very basic deck, which allows for limited actions. You use those actions to buy or acquire more cards, which improves your deck, and allows you to do more stuff. Most deck builders also supply you with more card types than you might use in a single game, allowing for good replayability. Some newer games mixes the deck building mechanic with other genres.

Dominion is actually the perfect first deck builder; the rules and basic mechanics are quite simple, though if you’ve never played it, wrapping your brain around how it works might take a few plays. Stick with the suggested card layouts for the first few games. Random layouts can be fun, but also can be result in pretty odd gameplay. Other good deck builders include:

  • Core Worlds. This is my current favorite, using a theme of space barbarians encroaching on a decadent galactic empire. While it only has ten fixed turns, it can take several hours to play, and you do have to plan your strategy somewhat carefully. At the same time, you may have to discard your strategy and adopt another quickly if the cards you need don’t come out.

  • Thunderstone Advance. The original Thunderstone was one of the first deck builders after Dominion. It was a little clunky; the new version cleans up some of the issues, resulting in shorter games that tend not to stall.

  • Nightfall. Deck building games have often been criticized as “group solitaire”, since there’s relatively little interaction between players. Not so Nightfall, which forces you to attack your opponents every round. Nightfall is flawed, but still fun to play. Wrapping your head around the chaining mechanic, where you can riff off other player’s cards, is probably the biggest impediment to learning the game, but it’s also the key to winning.

Worker Placement

On the surface, worker placement games sound dull. You have a set number of “workers” (pawns, which may represent actual workers, or abstract other ideas, like energy.) You have more actions available to you than workers, but you can only choose an action by placing a worker on it. So choosing the right action at a given time is strategically important. Many variations of this mechanic exist, but that’s the gist of the game style.

Classics of the genre include Caylus, Agricola and Le Havre, but I didn’t warm up to any of those games. I’m one of those gamers who value theme and immersion as much as the actual game play, and early worker placement games seemed very dry (Caylus) or had unappealing themes (Agricola and Stone Age.)

Eventually, though, worker placement games with themes that appealed to me arrived on the scene.

  • Alien Frontiers. In Alien Frontiers, you’re one of several factions vying for control of a newly explored planet. Alien Frontiers is a weird mashup of area control, worker placement and… Yahtzee. And yet, somehow, it works, and works well. The choices are hard, but the game is quick to pick up. This would be one of my two picks for a first worker placement game, though it’s not “pure. Alien Frontiers is also famous for being one of the first successful board game Kickstarter projects.

  • Lords of Waterdeep. This is a Dungeons and Dragons game, but without a Magic Missile spell to be found anywhere. It’s a strategic board game set in the Forgotten Realms universe of D&D. You play one of the mysterious Lords of Waterdeep, a major city in the Forgotten Realms, placing your agents (workers) to hire heroes, acquire quests and play cards. It’s another game I’d recommend as a first worker placement game. The rules are simple, and there’s an excellent how-to-play video that’s less than 9 minutes long.

  • Eclipse. Eclipse has elements of 4x games: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate – in a board game format. Tiles are revealed as you explore, uncovering new worlds and hazards. There’s even a tech tree. But at its heart, it’s a worker placement game, as your workers determine your actions: exploring, researching, conquest, etc. Unlike Alien Frontiers and Lords of Waterdeep, I wouldn’t recommend this for first time players. It’s complex, and games can take three or more hours.

Other Genres

Now I’ll touch on a few other games which might make for great games for new players. I may not have multiple games of each type, but do have a few recommendations.

  • Route building. The aforementioned Settlers of Catan is a route building game, in which you connect geographically dispersed points. Settlers is a good first game, but the randomness probably turns some players off. A bad series of die rolls can leave you permanently behind.

Perhaps a better first game is Ticket to Ride, where you build train routes. The original Ticket to Ride is easy to pick up, though I prefer the slightly more complex follow-up, Ticket to Ride: Europe.

  • Push your luck. These games typically involve rolling a bunch of dice in an attempt to increase your score as your dice pool gradually decreases over time. The tension comes when you either roll too many bad dice, or have too few dice to succeed. One of the most fun (and short to play) games in this style is Richard Garfield’s King of Tokyo.

I’ve also mentioned Elder Sign, a co-op game which uses the push-your-luck mechanic, but it’s not strictly a push your luck game, since once you start you can’t stop until you succeed or fail. One of the key aspects of a true push your luck game is when you decide to stop rolling. Simpler and less expensive games, which are easily portable, include Martian Dice and Zombie Dice.

  • Pick up and deliver. These are usually games which involve some type of wandering merchant theme, involving buying goods at one location and delivering them for higher prices at another location. I’m generally not a fan of this style of game, but my exception to the rule is Fantasy Flight’s remake of the classic Merchant of Venus, probably because it includes elements of exploration, plus has some campy good humor built in.

  • Area control. Area control games are an evolution of old school war games, but typically much, much simpler. Good examples of this include Small World, Chaos in the Old World (a strategic conquest game set in the Warhammer universe) and A Game of Thrones. While the last two are pretty complex, Small World is a good first game in this style, and offers a lot of replayability.

  • Ameritrash. Seemingly a pejorative term, Ameritrash is often affectionately used to refer to games which have strong themes and lots and lots of bits.

Fantasy Flight Games is probably the leading publisher of this style of game. There’s no one genre; taking a game to the edge of playability in pursuit of a theme seems to be the overriding esthetic. These are typically not great games for first time players, either, though, due to their complexity. They span a variety of genres, including area control (i.e., the aforementioned Chaos in the Old World) and co-op games (like the classic Arkham Horror, with its five hour plus marathon games).

Go Play Some Games

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the rich array of board games available. Hundreds of new releases ship every year now, and it’s impossible to play every game, or even every genre (for example, auction games, which are hugely popular but don’t appeal much to my tastes.) A good place to start, if somewhat daunting, is the Board Game Geek website. One podcast I like, which is pretty accessible, is the Dice Tower podcast, hosted by Tom Vasel and Eric Summerer.

Now, what are you waiting for? Go forth and play!