I write a lot about the games I play with my students, but the fact remains that I do the vast majority of my gaming alone. Most of the time, I will not purchase a game if it doesn't have solo rules, because I know that I won't be able to play it. Ironically, although I have played board games for a long time, I began to get more serious about them as a possible way to spend more time with my boyfriend. As it turns out, he typically prefers to unwind by watching TV or playing a video game. Plus, he dislikes deckbuilding games but enjoys Munchkin. Woe.
Recently, however, I bought a game that we've played together more than once or twice: Mice and Mystics. Initially my boyfriend wanted to try it because he used to enjoy tabletop RPGs and because he thought the mice looked cute. Then, when we actually played it, we got really into the story. If you aren't familiar, Mice and Mystics is both a game and a story. At key moments, you read aloud from a "storybook" that propels the narrative forward and gives you setup information for the next "scene" in the game. Reading from a storybook feels corny at first, but then it adds a lot to the experience. And although Mice and Mystics doesn't have a particularly complicated combat system (move mouse, roll dice), it's fun to decide who will take on which roach or rat, or to help each other fight a giant spider. It's also easy to get attached to specific characters. Certain mice in the box are "mine" and others are "his" because we each have our favorites. (Lily forever!)
What is interesting is that I adore Mice and Mystics, but I'm not sure I would if my boyfriend didn't love to play it. The game is fine, but it's only fine. The idea of playing it alone doesn't have quite the same spark for me. Mice and Mystics is somehow both simple and very fiddly because there are so many specific rules. I often find myself improvising rules on the fly because I'd rather keep the flow of the game going than go back to the rulebook to see whether I am playing 100% correctly. Frankly, I'm not convinced it makes that much of a difference. None of the mechanics in Mice and Mystics are new or special, and there aren't any interesting tactical decisions to make. Also, because each session is part of a story, you really only play each scenario one time. Unless you enjoy revisiting the same story over and over, you can only get limited play out of the box. And to be completely honest, I wouldn't revisit this story over and over—it is just okay so far. We haven't come across anything that has blown my mind.
But now that Mice and Mystics is one of those things that my boyfriend and I do together, every time we play feels special, and the story means a lot more to me. We now have "memories" of the time we disguised ourselves as rats and gambled with our enemies to get intel, or of the time we thought a huge spider was going to get the best of us. Whenever we play this game, I know that my boyfriend and I are going to spend 2–3 hours of quality time together, without interruptions from the TV or cell phones. That alone makes this game magic, whatever its shortcomings.
I guess all of this goes to show that the "best" games aren't always the ones that win your heart.
When I found out that Disney was about to release a movie about a girl who plays chess, I was very excited. Who doesn't love a good heartwarming movie? And one about chess, to boot? Since the movie isn't out yet, I decided to read the book: Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers. I have only said this about The Godfather before now, but... I think I will like the movie better.
I will be real with you: The book itself is not written very well. The beginning is super jumpy, and it takes forever for us to be introduced to our young chess enthusiast. I think the book should have started with Phiona, rather than with full descriptions of the lives of several people connected with her. I also would have loved to see much more in-depth discussion of Phiona's chess playing and her place in the chess world. I am glad I had some gift card credit, because $11.99 is a lot of money for 200 pages, a large chunk of which aren't even about Phiona.
But if you can navigate through those choppy waters, you will find a very interesting story. Phiona Mutesi has grown up in Uganda in such crushing poverty that she is not able to eat every day, much less afford to go to school. However, she becomes so captivated by the game of chess that it changes her life and eventually her circumstances. Phiona has no understanding of formal chess theory and no training beyond her Ugandan coach and teammates, and yet she is able to put up strong performances at international events in Sudan and later in Russia. Sure, she loses to other players who have more experience and better training, but she is smart enough to figure out mistakes on her own without the formal education from which those other players have benefitted.
Today, Phiona is thriving. She is going to school and has dreams of working as a doctor and of becoming a chess grandmaster. Phiona's talent has also brought tremendous hope to her family and to her community. I have no idea how Phiona's chess game has developed since the book was written, but I would love an update. Has access to new resources allowed her to improve her play? Did that game with Bill Gates ever really happen? More importantly, how did she do with Kasparov the other day?
One thing I can say for the book is that it's honest: Phiona is a talented chess player, but because of her circumstances, it's not clear whether she will have the opportunity or access that she will need to fully blossom. (Uganda cannot consistently afford to support a women's chess team at international events.) Hopefully, the publicity from The Queen of Katwe, both the book and the film, will give her the boost she needs. But no matter what, her story is inspirational: Phiona Mutesi proves that young girls can be brilliant and determined, that they can dream, no matter where they come from.
I haven't read it yet, but I just downloaded a book whose premise excites me. In The Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom suggests that the queen—which did not exist in the earliest versions of chess—became an integral part of the game in response to the rise of powerful female leaders in Europe from the year 1000 on. Although I haven't yet read her argument, she is touching on a concept that captivates the historian in me. What do the mechanics, themes, and symbols in our board games say about us?
This question is particularly difficult to answer right at this moment, because we are living in a very productive age for boardgames. There are new boardgames all the time, many of which are testing out new themes and new mechanics. What will future historians of recreation and pop culture see when they look back at us? How much are we able to take a step back and look at ourselves?
I don't yet have full answers to these questions, but I can think of some potentially productive directions:
1) Games with a traitor mechanic. I thought Mafia was a folk game until I did some research and learned that it was invented in 1986 in the USSR by Dmitry Davidoff. More recently, the game has been repackaged as Werewolf, and we have seen a proliferation of games with a "traitor" mechanic. From The Resistance to Dead of Winter to Shadows over Camelot to Spyfall, gamers have come to embrace games in which the enemy is among us. Is this mechanic as new as it feels? Or does it have deeper roots than I realize?
2) The rise of cooperative games. Cooperative games exist both in opposition to and in combination with the traitor mechanic. You could say that Dungeons & Dragons is one of the original cooperative games, but co-ops seem to have caught fire only recently in the world of board games. What does the proliferation of cooperative games within the hobby say about us and about what we want to get out of playing games together? Will cooperative gaming become more popular over time, or will it die down as gamers gravitate towards more competitive options?
3) How historical games reveal our understanding of history. If I were to look at, say, an array of games set in the Roman Empire, would I discover anything revealing about our approach to ancient history? Which aspects of Rome do we focus on? Do games that focus on Roman war or politics capture more about the realities of ancient Rome... or about us? What about other games that focus on Europe, the age of piracy, etc.?
There are not yet definitive answers to questions like this—especially because there do not seem to be many up-to-date histories of board games. The last edition of the Oxford History of Board Games was published in 1999. It is an understatement to say that a lot has happened in the world of board gaming since then.
I think a lot of gamers feel it—that slight tinge of shame when you tell non-gamers that you spend most of your free time pushing tokens around on a game board or planning to do so. Recently, a poster on Board Game Geek was devastated by a relative's disapproval of his hobby, while a pro-gaming article from a couple of days ago described board game cafés as "kitsch." Board games are cool right now, but they are also viewed by our wider culture as inherently frivolous.
I, however, beg to differ. Gaming is an essential part of life and possibly one of the best ways to spend free time. I had my Latin students read some excerpts (in English) from Seneca's On the Shortness of Life, which is a text that never fails to get me thinking. It has some real gems in it, such as "Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing," and "Learning how to live takes a whole life and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die." Which of course leads me to ask: Am I spending my life in a way that I won't regret? Including all of that time I spend playing board games?
The time I spend gaming is often the time when I feel the most alive. When I play with others, I connect with them in ways that deepen our relationships and truly give me a sense that I had a quality interaction with someone. We are in the fourth week of school, but I am already closer to my students because I have played games with them. Playing Mice and Mystics with my boyfriend has put an extra spark in our relationship (and we are coming up on our six-year anniversary). Some of my best family memories involve playing men vs. women Trivial Pursuit or trying to keep up with my older relatives in a round of Facts in Five. I remember those evenings more vividly than any movie we watched, any present anyone ever gave me, or even any one family dinner we had together.
When I play alone, it's one of the few times I am truly in the present moment. Normally, I am constantly worrying about the future, mulling over the past, fretting about things. But during a game, my focus is entirely on the game. My brain is on fire. I'm living out an adventure as a mage, a castaway, or a vintner. I'm also a voracious reader, and a good game scratches a lot of the same itch that a good novel does. As George R. R. Martin has written, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies." What about a gamer? It's no surprise that excellent game designer Ignacy Trzewiczek chose to title his blog (and later his book) "Boardgames That Tell Stories." Even abstract games like chess or Hive tell stories of tension and dueling wits. And what is it that gives life meaning, if not a story?
I have spent a lot of time contemplating ancient Roman history, and one of the most difficult realities for me to absorb is that millions of people have lived, died, and left no trace of themselves. Seneca's writings have reached us, but even he isn't around to know that. In fact, he learned firsthand about the shortness of life, because his former student—Emperor Nero—forced him to commit suicide. I wonder sometimes: Did he feel that he got to live enough before that happened? And what about all of the nameless farm workers, shop owners, bath attendants, and other people we never get to hear from? I know they did a lot of work for very little money. But I hope that they also talked to their friends, told stories, and played games.
Elder Sign is obviously a beloved game that winds up on many lists of recommended games for solo players. It was #24 on Ricky Royal's 2015 Top 100 and #15 on Board Game Geek's People's Choice Top 100 for solo games for the same year. The game is intended to be a shorter and more manageable version of the massive Arkham Horror, with a Cthulhu theme but also with stripped-down dice-throwing mechanics. Each player takes control of an investigator, and investigators work to complete "tasks" by traveling to different locations and successfully rolling certain combinations of dice. Successes are rewarded with special items and/or Elder Signs. Failures are punished with loss of health and/or sanity. The ultimate goal is to collect Elder Signs that will prevent a Lovecraftian Ancient One from awakening.
I love a wide range of games, but Elder Sign is not for me at all. I've played it solo and groups, and found it lackluster on all occasions, even when everyone else gloried in a last-minute victory over an awakened Ancient One. The only reason I haven't traded it away already is that my boyfriend would be disappointed. (He, too, inexplicably loves the game.)
So what is it about Elder Sign that fails to move me? Part of it is that I don't enjoy dice games. I happily roll dice during RPG battles, and can accept dice mechanics as part of the games that I play. But a game that is all dice? I don't have that kind of luck, and I usually end up very frustrated. It's not satisfying for me to achieve victories purely through the vagaries of fortune. Even though Elder Sign gives investigators special abilities that allow them to manipulate the dice a bit, I prefer to play games that give me a greater sense of control over my own victory (or defeat).
But beyond that, by boiling down the mechanics of Elder Sign, the game seems to have lost a lot of the theme along the way. The game's art is great, and there is some pretty good flavor text, but the Elder Sign doesn't give me that feeling I wanted, the feeling of exploring a sinister museum where hidden dangers lurk in the shadows of the display cases. For me, the mechanics and the theme do not work together well enough for to provide an immersive experience. The dice tasks listed on the location cards feel meaningless—what exactly am I trying to do, anyway? And why is it so random? Although I don't always have the time, I'd rather pull out Eldritch Horror for a fuller, more story-laced ride.
I don't always need a lot of theme to make a game enjoyable, but if the game is going to be light on theme, I want it to be heavy on strategy--Dominion's theme is super pasted-on, but I still adore it because I can get creative by combining different card mechanics. My brain has something to chew on the whole time.
Elder Sign can't be a bad game, given how many people seem to love it. But I can't stand it, and I dread the next time I am asked to play it. Perhaps I can collect Elder Signs to prevent Elder SIgn from reawakening.
Although the new school year means a lot more social gaming with colleagues and students, I am still maintaining my solitary habits. One of my solo favorites at the moment is Ascension. I love both Magic: The Gathering and deckbuilding games, so it was inevitable that this game would become addictive for me. Ascension is a card game invented by two MtG Pro Tour champs, but it isn't a collectable card game like Magic. Instead, the game comes in one box and has many (many!) expansions that add layers of strategy. In Ascension, players acquire cards that are pulled from a draw deck and placed in the center row. The goal of the game is to be the player with the most honor at the end, and acquired cards either provide immediate honor when you defeat them or delayed honor when you calculate the value of your deck at the end.
What is best for me, though, is that the solitary Ascension experience can be had in two forms, each of which is strategically different. I can either play a hard copy of the game with solo rules, or I can play on my iPad against the AI. Each is really playing solo, but the rules and resulting strategies are different enough that I get a lot more out of my game.
When playing on the iPad, the game is more "traditional." The AI isn't brilliant, but it's good for learning and studying the cards. I can play with my own deckbuilding goals in mind, looking for card synergy and focusing on particular factions. In other words, the iPad version of the game mimics a real game with another human—and can turn into one if you want to play online. This is also a great way to get used to each card, especially since the app offers so many expansions.
In a lot of ways, the official solo rules make Ascension more challenging. In solo mode, your "enemy" is guaranteed to acquire two cards per round—the two cards that are furthest to the right on the center row. Denying your shadow opponent any advantages forces you to acquire different cards in different patterns. Cards you might not normally be interested in—especially those that allow you to banish valuable center-row cards that you can't currently acquire for yourself—suddenly become hot commodities. True solo play is also harrowing because in the early game your deck is weak and you don't have much buying power. This usually turns the end of the game into a frantic attempt to catch up to your automated nemesis.
As I get better at Ascension and come to know the cards and what they are capable of, I am glad that there are two ways to play the game by myself. Playing on my iPad helps me to hone my skills for when I eventually find face-to-face opponents, and playing the analog solo variant forces me to work my brain and exploit my cards in new and creative ways. Ascension is definitely a new favorite for me.
Even before I can convince them to play those "weird," "nerdy" board games, most of the students in my classes will play Uno. In fact, they love it, and will play it whenever they have a chance. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is take things my students already enjoy and make them work in a classroom context. This week, Uno gave me a great chance to experiment.
I'm teaching two Latin I classes this semester, and numbers are a standard part of the curriculum. So I bought some blank cards on Amazon, borrowed a fellow teacher's colorful sharpies, and went to town. I recreated an entire Uno deck using Roman numerals, the Latin names for numbers, and the Latin for "wild," "reverse," "skip," "take two," and "take four." There is no Roman numeral for zero, so I had to improvise a bit there, but "nulla" (none) is a useful vocab word, too.
Although the students technically didn't learn 1–10 (I–X?) until today, they were already primed for numbers because I let them play Latin Uno, which I'm calling Unus, last week. They recognized most of the names and numerals immediately, and actually said it was because they had played Unus. Even better, they tried it without hesitation because it's exactly like the game they already know and love.
I am hoping that I can continue to use games throughout the semester to help my students internalize vocabulary words in a deeper, more meaningful way. Flash cards can be helpful and all, but they don't guarantee actual language acquisition. I guarantee you that my students will at least know the Latin numbers, one through nine, by the end of this semester!
This early success has me thinking about several more possibilities, including turning Lunch Money into a gladiator fight game with the Latin words for various attacks and weapons. I could even include messed up ancient art and creepy Latin quotes. Learning is fun... until your friend brutally defeats you in the arena!
Ever since Pandemic Legacy came onto the scene, I have heard constant talk about legacy games—games in which the choices you make are permanent, in which you rip cards in half and write on the board, in which there can be plot twists. The legacy system brought new life to Risk, and has now done the same for Pandemic. With Seafall finally hitting players' tables, there has been yet another surge in Rob Daviau love. Legacy games are hot right now, and they've probably had a permanent impact on tabletop gaming.
All the same, I don't think I'll be purchasing a legacy game anytime soon. There are several reasons why they don't seem like a good fit for me. Some are situational, while others are a matter of taste.
Socially, legacy games are a challenge if you don't have a regular gaming group. Because the point of a legacy game is that the game changes over several sessions, you need a consistent group of people to play with over time—and you will preferably play often enough to remember what has happened from one session to the next. There is no way I could fit this into my life right now. My friends and I have trouble getting together even for sporadic game nights. On top of that, I would rather not commit to playing the same game for months on end. I like seeing several different games come to the table, and embarking on a legacy gaming adventure would kill game night variety for weeks on end.
On a personal level, legacy gaming doesn't fit with my motivations for tabletop gaming or for purchasing games. I consider my board games a good investment because they are replayable. I enjoy the process of mastering a game and improving my performance from one round to the next. Even if i play a game so much that I burn out on it, I can take it back off of the shelf after a few months and experience that old familiar thrill. The whole point of a legacy game is that it isn't replayable—nor can it be traded away, because a played legacy game is no longer intact. I already struggle enough with limited-play games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, and I haven't tried Time Stories yet because I know I'll have to keep buying expansions to continue playing the game. But at least I could theoretically lend or trade Time Stories to other players once I was done with it.
I think it is exciting that legacy games are now part of our hobby, and I respect Rob Daviau for developing such a game-changing concept. (See what I did there?) But legacy games don't provide what I'm looking for in a tabletop experience. I wish Seafall well, but I don't plan to add it to my collection.
I am really excited about the upcoming Pokémon Go update. Niantic Labs has officially confirmed that the game will soon feature a "Buddy System," which will allow players to bond with specific Pokémon and receive special rewards for doing so, including additional Pokémon candy. One of the biggest frustrations of the game for me has been the difficulty of farming enough candy to evolve my Pokémon, and only a couple of posts ago I complained that I would like to develop stronger relationships with specific Pokémon in my collection. Now it looks like that will actually become possible!
This update is also well-timed because Pokémon Go is becoming a regular part of my life now that the school year has started. I put a Team Mystic logo in my classroom window and the response I get from students has been overwhelming—a lot of them play the game, and they are excited to know that some of their teachers play it, too. I've gotten a lot of interest in a weekly Poké Walk, where we all walk on the school's running track so that we can hatch eggs. Now it looks like we'll also be able to collect candy thanks to the Buddy System! If trading also becomes possible in the near future, even more students will be attracted to the game and to the club. Nothing is better for me as a teacher than finding additional ways to connect with students and helping students enjoy the time they spend at school.
Our school year has officially begun, and soon, our board game club will be meeting again! I am not ashamed to say that the best part of my job is playing games with students. I am always trying to push the kiddos beyond much-beloved classics like Uno, Jenga, and Connect Four. Learning through play is real, and I want my students to push themselves both in class and during game time.
I've ordered some games for the new school year to try out with the kids, and I cannot wait for them to arrive in the mail:
1. Paperback (2–5 Players)
As both a word game and a deck-building game, Paperback is going to be board game crack for me. (That's right, students, this is how we teachers "turn up" on the weekends!) In Paperback, your goal is to write cheesy pulp novels, and you do so by using your hand to create words, purchase additional letters, and eventually acquire victory points/publish novels.
I love that the words you make in this game help you towards a larger goal and that new cards allow you to take interesting new actions on later turns. Scrabble is fun when you're in the mood to assemble words, but you can be stuck with the same crappy letters for a long time, and if you're only playing for a high score, the game can get discouraging. (Playing Scrabble with my mom can be exceptionally brutal.) Paperback eliminates a lot of these problems because in deckbuilders, you discard your whole hand at the end of a turn and start fresh. There is always something you can do to try to improve your situation. I think Paperback could help my students get in touch with their inner word nerds.
2. Spyfall (3–8 Players)
Teenagers tend to use words like cudgels rather than like rapiers. And while there is a place for bluntness in life, I want to make my students' brains melt as they seek out just the right words for any occasion. Spyfall will help them practice while also having a ridiculous amount of fun.
Spyfall is a social deduction game in which the players are working to detect a spy. At the beginning of the game, each player receives a card that is kept secret from the other players. Most of the players receive a card that reveals their location, for example, a casino, a pirate ship, or a movie studio. The spy, however, receives a spy card. Through a delicate process of asking and answering questions, the spy tries to work out her location, while the rest of the group tries to detect the spy. Answer a question too specifically, and the spy will easily guess where you are. But answer too vaguely, and everyone will think you're the spy! Players score points by successfully accusing and revealing a spy, while the spy scores points by revealing himself and correctly naming his location. I think the element of suspicion and the challenge of coming up with appropriately subtle questions and answers will be a lot of fun for the kids.
3. Cat Tower (3-6 Players)
Cat Tower is a dexterity game that offers a fresh take on towers for anyone who has gotten tired of Jenga. In Cat Tower, each player has a hand of seven cards with cats printed on them (you can bend them to create the "legs" and stack the cats). The goal is to get rid of all of your cards first, but beware—just stacking them won't be enough. Each player also has to roll a die which causes special game effects. You may have to add "fat cats" to the tower, put cats on upside-down, or place extra cats during your turn. If you mess up and knock over part of the tower, you have to take cat cards back into your hand.
Cat Tower is cute and has simple rules, but it can be challenging to stack the cats! It is also a more interesting game than Jenga, because it ends when a player runs out of cat cards—not when the tower falls. This gives everyone a chance to keep the fun going, and to get in enough practice to actually improve their gameplay. It's also great for players of all ages, because it's simple enough for kids to play but entertaining enough for a group of adults. I think it'll work well with teenagers who want something light.