Some readers of the text in this space know that I make software with a cognitive bent as a day job. Well, I’ve been talking to our CEO, Dr. Galen Buckwalter, about doing a study about board games for a while. Dr. Buckwalter was the founding scientist behind eHarmony and I’ve learned so much about psychology and, specifically, how to understand personality in the last five years since I started working with him.
Now, I’ve got the chance to do this study. NEON ID, the data independence platform that Galen and I are working with now through our company psyML, has agreed to sponsor the study I’ve been interested in for years.
If you’re willing to help build on the research of our hobby, all you need to do is go to: neonid.com and take the quick survey there, which will give you what we call a Color Fingerprint that shows off the key elements of your personality score based on HEXACO, the industry standard for personality understanding. Then, take the survey below. You can also just as easily do the survey first…just please make sure you do the personality survey with the same email address so we can connect the data.
Prizes will be awarded in early December! As we get more prizes into the pool, we’ll announce them through social media and here. Thanks for helping us build understanding about our hobby!
What is NEON ID? To learn more, take a look at this video:
Before all of my other roles in professional life, I’m a writer. Ages ago, I wrote a novel that was the evolution of my senior thesis in college. Then, I did nothing with it.
Sure, some people got a chance to read it. I had some initial feedback and I made some changes. To a few people within my circle of friends, the book was something of a myth. Was I ever going to publish it and was there some dark reason why I didn’t?
A Promise Fulfilled
About three years ago, my father asked about the book when I was doing my weekly duty of bringing him reading material from the used bookstore. He jokingly asked if I could bring him my book to read. In the course of our conversation, he basically said “just go publish it and be done.” Although my dad’s thinking could be cloudy in the last years of his life (he passed in early 2018), that was a moment of clarity. I promised him that I would.
So I decided to publish the book. I did give it a good edit and I got some beta readers who gave me some feedback but I told them that all I really wanted was a basic technical review of the book. I refused to completely re-write the story as I might from the perspective of a far older man.
What’s It All About?
So there is the backstory. Now the front story. Tired of Singing Trouble is about a man named Jay who is summoned back to his home in Southern California to attend a wedding as the best man, even though he’s lost touch with all of his hometown friends over the years. He is surprised by this and finds out that even though he left town years ago, the persona of him was still alive and well amongst his friends. The story takes place over just a couple of days (okay, there are flashbacks) with him attending the wedding festivities, reconnecting with friends and meeting some new people on a journey of discovery and acceptance.
Now, I’m sure that most of you are wondering: Where are the boardgames? Not to worry. There are board game references here and there within the book because Jay and his friends play tabletop games. I would even claim that the playing of games is a motif within the novel. . The book is live on Amazon here, as a Kindle or a paperback. I hope you will enjoy the book. Thanks in advance for all of your support. Every single copy that sells is both a huge joy to me and another tiny bit of proof that I honored my promise to my dad.
If you are generous enough to want a signed physical copy, please send me a note to: firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll figure out the logistics.
Here is a current author photo, with a COVID-19 mask in place for your protection.
Much of the board game community was gripped in grief this week at the loss of a gamer who so many of us truly adored, James Miller. If you didn’t know James, suffice it to say that if you did, you would have loved him, too. He was kindness personified, someone who took an interest in everyone he met, an ace game explainer and a funny yet sweet presence at every game table. I don’t want to say he was a prince; he was what we want in a prince.
As the tributes poured in on social media, some with happy pictures (James had a smile that conveyed pure joy every single time) and heartfelt memories shared (especially about his exceptional Time’s Up skills), and others succinct enough to follow Twitter’s original character limit, they all were strongly expressed and it was obvious that the network of James’ friends extended across the world. We all felt the loss in a very real sense even if we only saw James at game cons (as was the case for me). Yes, this was because James was one of those friends one appreciates so much. But the number of people who added that this was just another thing tearing at the soul during this challenging time in our world was enormous. I felt it myself. Could 2020 stop taking everything from us? How are we to cope?
A Period of Grief
I have been through a lot of grief in the last few years, including the passing of my father, an uncle who was like a second dad, two other close uncles, a close aunt, a young adult who I watched grow up, and even my mother just two and half months back. That isn’t even mentioning some other gamer friends who also left us too soon. It’s been a very tough few years.
In 2018, I felt the same way most of us are feeling about 2020. Early that year, my father passed and literally the Monday after the funeral, I found out about this young person passing who I cared about and who my children looked up to as an older brother. After this, every other bad thing that happened, from my mother’s dementia accelerating to my basset hound passing to even a favorite author dying, made it feel like the year itself was getting crueler. Work became untenable, with some people at my organization doing completely insane things. I could feel myself losing touch with the things that brought me joy.
Thankfully, I had a plan in place to travel to the UK at that point to spend time with my sister and brother-in-law, who live there most of the time. The trip was about memorializing my father properly and we did so by traveling to Ulverston, the birthplace of Stan Laurel. In addition to staying at the Stan Laurel Inn (a charming tavern), we spread his and my uncle’s ashes in the river there (yes, we had a Lebowski moment), and spent time at the Laurel and Hardy museum that occupies an old movie house in town. While there, we talked to the museum owner and other attendees about my father and my uncle, their great love of the duo, how they had met Stan Laurel when they were young, and how our trip was to honor their memories.
Yes, the trip was for my Dad but also for my Uncle Bill. Just six months before my father’s passing, my uncle had died and perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to tell my Dad that his brother, his practical twin, had passed. While his cognitive abilities were impaired by a stroke a dozen years before, he’d gotten quite good at controlling his emotions. But this broke us both down. I hugged him and we both cried so much; I recall thinking that our tears must have gotten mixed up. I told these stories to my sister while I was visiting her third-floor flat and we spent a lot of time crying but also a lot of time telling happy stories about our wonderful dad and our cool, witty uncle.
A Process of Mourning
While I cannot discount the healing value of having spent the week after our trip to Ulverston walking through the towns of Northern England (even a trip to Liverpool – home to both The Beatles and my family) with my beloved sister Isabel, it was that storytelling and those shared memories that helped me with the mourning process. Someone smarter than me clarified in a book I read that grief is something we experience but mourning is a process you go through and actively work to complete.
I realized I was getting to the end of my process of mourning when I was on the plane back to the US. I could feel my father firmly placed on one shoulder and my uncle on the other, ready for me to call upon their wisdom when I needed it. My father is where I got my passionate loyalty, my sense of right and wrong, and the toughness to take things on when I needed to do so. My uncle is where I got my intellectual curiosity and love of learning, along with my gregarious nature, and sense of wonder for the future. They were still with me through my memories and when I passed them on to others, I could keep them alive.
A Commitment to Heal and Endure
When I returned to the States, I had lunch with my friend and colleague Dr. Galen Buckwalter at our favorite sushi spot. Galen is one of the world’s leading psychometricians and a man of profound understanding that I’m honored to still work with on my new project, NEON ID. When he heard about my travels and their healing quality, he noted that this is why we have ritual. We honor those we lose and invest the time in mourning to help us process what they meant to us so we can continue to live. Those memories and those stories we tell keep them alive for all of us who remain. Yes, sometimes tears accompany those moments but this process is what helps us find the strength to endure. I don’t use memories as a wall to block out grief; I use them as a filter to transform those sad moments into learning and gratitude for the time we had with them.
If I had not gone through 2018 and found a way to cope, I don’t think I could have handled 2020 at all. While I have not completed my mourning process for my mother, I have begun it. I took a smaller trip for my birthday last month and spent time reflecting on her loss while sitting on a beach with my feet in the sand and my eyes resting on the waves. This was a strong start to the process but I know it will continue. She’s begun to manifest next to my father on my shoulder, the gentlest of reminders about what she taught me regarding unconditional love. For now, I remain her student and will keep at it until I’ve processed in what I have to learn from her life. I’m drawing strength against despair from her each and every day.
And this weekend, I will be honoring James by getting my family to play his game Control Nut. I am so happy that I acquired a copy some years ago. I will admit that I bought it before playing the game. I snapped it up because of James, because he was someone I liked so much that I wanted his game on my shelf. I happen to also like the game and I’m happy for the excuse to get it back to the table.
In the future, I will remember him and my happy memories of time playing games or just shooting the breeze with him when I play it. Heck, I will remember him every time I do a solid job of explaining a game since I know I picked up some of my skills from him over the years. I can take those learnings from him and, I hope, maybe I can even learn to be a kinder person from hearing how he positively affected the lives of so many gamers across the world. He lived life well and the huge impact is strongly felt across our community. How much more can be asked of any of us?
This will be part of my way of processing this loss even in this horrible moment in history. We must go on, we must cope, we must right the ship and we must thrive. All of those who passed who loved us would want that and it’s our duty to keep honoring their lives by doing so. I will get to work with it and I hope you will, too.
I always turn to books when I need help and this was no exception. Here are some books on this process that have helped me in recent days:
Hiring isn’t easy. Lots of books will tell you to hire for culture fit, hire the person and sort out the job for them, or to simply bring in a diverse set of voices that will create the energy and creativity to help you grow your business. How can you tell what really works?
I’ve hired hundreds of employees in the last twenty years, so I look for the shortcuts where I can, just not problematic ones like ‘hiring people who just look like you or went to the same school.’ I’m looking for the insight from elsewhere in a candidates’ life. My greatest mentor, Morgan Underwood, used to come into interviews with great ‘personality’ questions. He always said that if we’re going to spend so much time together, we should hire employees whose company we enjoy.
Nowadays, we’d probably drop that into the aforementioned ‘culture fit’ and, while that concept gets a bad rap sometimes, I find it useful. I love to hear that a candidate devotes time to charity. It’s exciting to hear they have an artistic side of an interesting hobby that offers insight into the type of person they are. This last point is most useful when I hear that a candidate plays modern board games.
Now, full disclosure: Board games are one of my main hobbies. I encourage play of them everywhere I work so it might sound like I’m just fishing for more players at lunch time and after work but hear me out. I like to hire board gamers because I think they make great employees.
Mind you, I’m not talking about people who play lamentable classic board games like Candyland with their children. I’m talking about people who play modern board games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. These folks are participating in a hobby that is surging in popularity, on its way to a 12 billion-dollar valuation in 2023. I have always said that this resurgence in popularity is a reaction to so much screen time. More importantly, these people are spending their leisure time with the most intellectually stimulating hobby around.
Why are these people likely to be great employees? Let’s take a look at what you get when you hire a board game fan.
Intellectual Exercise – Their hobby is an intellectual exercise. In addition to being one of the best ways to combat dementia, board games are mentally stimulating as they involve resource management, planning, trouble-shooting and puzzle-solving – often all within a single game. Modern board games ask players to manage situational luck, weigh options that all sound attractive, and make a large number of decisions every hour they play – all in the name of fun with friends. I want people on my teams that do this kind of activity as a hobby because they are getting trained to make real business decisions when it counts for my company.
Interaction with People – Forget the introverted geek stereotype. Most modern board games involve a lot of interaction. The best of them hone your people skills with a chance to negotiate and trade, participate in auctions, work cooperatively or semi-cooperatively, and basically learn more about people through deep interaction. In some games, you need to ferret out a player who is working against the others. Often, you have to weigh what’s important to you against what the other players want or need. In others, you just have to flat out convince people to support what you want to do. These are absolutely valuable as business skills. Sure, you can build camaraderie by going bowling or out for drinks, but board games offer you insight into the way people can successfully work together, compete, and win with our minds, using skills that are more directly related to how a business runs.
The Art of Winning and Losing – Board game players get more chances to win and lose than the average person. Every time you release a product, run a marketing campaign, or try to close a sale, you get important feedback and an opportunity to learn. Board gamers get this experience with every game, learning from failure in a place where the stakes are lower. Since modern board games are driven by decisions, strategic thinking, and managing risk, players get a chance to learn from their errors, dissect success, and – to paraphrase one of the world’s greatest game designers, Reiner Knizia – to see winning as a goal and to focus on that goal, not the winning. When we face these highs and lows more frequently than just a quarterly report of success, it helps employees manage the stress of these key moments.
Bias to Action — For board gamers, the focus is on action. Sure, people watch movies, tv and sporting events to relax. There’s nothing wrong with that. In contrast, board gamers simply put on another hat and get to work for their fun. No, modern board games are not work. Yet, this hobby trains minds to engage, to act in a timely manner, and to make considered moves. That drives a bias to action, to push ahead with plans and avoid indecision. Board games will give them 10 turns to build the means of being successful and then running the engine to generate that success.
Knows the Rules — Board gamers like to learn new rules. They are good at finding paths to succeed within the boundaries of the possible. Modern board games are not an endless slog like Monopoly. Most have fixed endings that give players focus on a strategic plan. That sure sounds a lot like a good business plan. Board gamers learn the rules both to follow them and find the opportunity hidden among them. Sure, rule-breakers are cool. But a smart business really wants a team of employees that can find a way to success by playing by the rules and using them to effectively drive ongoing success. If your employees are always thinking about how to make things work with what they have, even during their leisure time, they are building up the mental muscles to be strong when it’s time to build and grow your business.
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that you should include a game of Terraforming Mars or Scythe as part of your interview process. Yet, I do think that when you hear your prospective employees are playing board games in their spare time, you are likely speaking to a smart person who has the problem-solving skills to be a great contributor to your business. I rank it right up there with people who read a lot, have cool side hustles, and those for whom Coursera is a YouTube substitute. Grab these people before some other smart company does. They will help you win the game your business is playing time and again.
P.S. Yes, introduce a board game night or lunch at your company. This will help you build these skills with your existing team while also increasing a sense of camaraderie amongst your employees. Look here for a set of party games I recommend.
LAHAINA, HAWAII, April 16, 2020 —Outta Our Shells, the new family-friendly ice-breaker card game developed by Greg Johnson, co-creator and designer of ToeJam & Earl, smashed through its original funding goal and wraps up its Kickstarter campaign with two fully funded stretch goals and launches later this year.
The charming, conversation-starting Outta Our Shells has raised over $41,000 over the course of its Kickstarter. Inspired by this reaction, Johnson has decided to add additional artwork to the front of the Question and Fortune cards. Thanks to hitting the $25K and $30K stretch goals, the game will now include 50 brand new cards to help flesh out the game even further, as well as do-it-yourself cards to add some personal flair to each session.
DIY cards spice up the game however players see fit. Write out special Questions to delight and entertain friends and family. Create Cat or Rat cards that offer choices that feel relevant and resonate with the people in your close circle. Formulate Fortunes, either or Good or Bad, that you feel should be in the game and will make others laugh.
Each game includes three decks of cards featuring adorable art. Draw Question cards to learn more about each player using prompts designed to inspire storytelling. Glean new details from each anecdote to learn what they like, then try to guess those inclinations with Cat or Rat cards. Trade in Cat or Rat cards for Fortunes until players obtain three Fortune cards they are satisfied with. Ultimately, the real goal is to get to know each other and have a great time.
“Running a Kickstarter is always exciting,” said Greg Johnson. “You never know what’s going to happen. Still, the really exciting part starts once the game gets into the people’s hands and they start enjoying it and talking about it. That’s really the part I can’t wait for! I am so excited that Outta Our Shells is finally getting out there after all of these years of playing it with my friends.”
Outta Our Shells will be available in English this year for $24.99 at local retailers and available online. Each box includes 250 cards, along with 6 Blank DIY cards for custom cards. The final version of the game launches later this year so players can forge new friendships or cement existing relationships.
Like so many in the Southern California tabletop gaming community, I’m deeply saddened about the recent passing of the mighty Chuck Robbins, the owner and operator of Game Empire in Pasadena, California – one of the finest tabletop gaming stores we are honored to have in Southern California. We were friends and I always enjoyed visiting the store for the games but even more to chat with my buddy Chuck. I’ve known him since before he opened the store and I’m happy to have had a small part in him achieving his dream, which he sought to pay back recently. Let me tell that story in his honor.
Chuck and I first met years ago when I happened to wander into his brother’s store (also called Game Empire) in San Diego while I was on holiday with my family. When I travel, I love to patronize local game stores and Game Empire was place of choice that trip. After browsing through the store, I wandered into the play area (a hallmark of Game Empire is that there is always great space to play games) and Chuck actually chatted me up when he saw I had a copy of a two-player Kosmos game in my hands. We got to talking and he found out I was from Los Angeles. Before long, he told me of his desire to open a local game store in Pasadena.
Now, if you are reading this blog, you may know that I used to have a podcast called Boardgame Babylon from 2005 to about 2015 (with occasional revivals here and there). That’s still the name of the blog, of course, and maybe the podcast will be back one day. I digress; one of the key things to know about my podcast is that I had a journalistic bent to some of my shows because I have been a journalist in one form or another for some of my professional life. One of the features of my podcast was to do occasional series. Notably, I did one about the Demise and Rise of the Friendly Local Game Store, which had me talking turkey with many a game store owner in SoCal.
Now, I have lived near Pasadena for most of my life so when Chuck talked about that area, I had a perfect frame of reference. We connected about the area and discussed the gaming and shopping options we have had in the San Gabriel Valley over the years, from the long-gone Game Keeper in the nearby mall, to the Last Grenadier’s Arcadia haven, The Gaming House in Pasadena, to Lionheart in La Verne and Gameology (originally in Claremont), All Star Games in Diamond Bar (and their cool, brief stint in West Covina), and all the tiny shops that opened after Magic: The Gathering broke. If you had a game store in SoCal in the last 35 years, I’ve been your customer and Chuck appreciated my comprehensive knowledge of the stores in town and thereabouts.
Having just talked to one of the staffers at Pasadena’s only game store at that time (Game Zone), I told Chuck that the store was for sale. I said why not just buy it and develop it out as he clearly would do. Pasadena would love him for it.
He told me, no – the owner had told him it was NOT for sale and made it clear in no uncertain terms. He’d spoken to him fairly recently and it had led Chuck to scout out other areas in town, knowing he’d have the established player to take on. He knew he could outwork Game Zone, which was a pretty oldschool FLGS, with all trappings you might expect.
For those who don’t know, The Game Zone started as “THE ZONE”, a game retailer who used to have a regular table at Strategicon. He got attention and sold games the old fashioned way: Discounts and shouting. Bill, the owner at the time, was loud – calling people over to his booth as they tried to walk by and not make eye contact (hey, we’re geeks!). He had discounts, he had ding and dent games, and he might have bought closeout games. I don’t recall completely, although I do remember buying the Warhammer Mighty Fortress foam castle from him years ago, which was never really used but it looks sweet and his price was right. Eventually, Bill opened The Zone and, while it was fine for a while, he eventually sold it and had to get a day job. In those days, he had more competition from the Last Grenadier in Pasadena and another game store in Eagle Rock (Something Unusual), so it was probably harder. But he sold it and I’m not sure how many owners there were before the last fellow bought it.
Now, I knew the current owner a bit and he was a quiet, unassuming fellow. Chuck – well, he was not. Chuck was an attorney for many years so he said what he meant and did so powerfully, with confidence you don’t always find among the geeks and nerds in tabletop gaming. He wasn’t rude, but he also didn’t mess around. I always admired that about him. Yet, I thought it might not work well when he spoke to the Game Zone’s owner.
When I insisted that Game Zone was for sale and that I knew the owner was looking to exit the business to pursue other concerns (quite positive ones, actually), Chuck went back and got the deal done. Some time, not too much time later, I actually interviewed the Game Zone owner before he officially sold the place and it came out that I was the one who had told Chuck the store was absolutely for sale. To his credit, the guy wasn’t mad at me but he was surprised and perhaps he just eventually realized it was what he wanted anyway. His staffer who told me may have gotten some heck thereafter, I suppose, but what was I to do? I was a podcasting journalist. No one told me it was off the record – something I have always respected (believe me, there are a few stories I’d LOVE to tell that I never will because they were told in confidence by some cool folks).
Game Empire Pasadena Arises
Chuck took the space at the Game Zone, and the space next door and built out an almost exact duplicate of his brother’s Game Empire in San Diego. Both stores were intelligently designed to entice casual visitors at the front with more traditional items, and as you walked in, you got more exposure to the more hobby-oriented games. Although both stores would move locations and abandon some of that concept, I appreciated how Chuck and Cliff built their businesses. Both offered friendly service not always seen in game stores of the past, a wide selection of titles and they made sure they provided a clean, well-lit game space to play. They built community with events and by building friendships with their patrons.
I frequently visited and enjoyed patronizing such an excellent store. I’d usually spend 20% of my time shopping and 80% of it talking to Chuck about the business, the industry and new games. Some time later, I had a conversation with Chuck where he mentioned to me that he was in the process of bidding to buy our thrice-yearly tabletop game conventions in Los Angeles, Strategicon. As a nearly life-long Southern Californian, I began attending Strategicon back in 1986 (after my first con, Origins ’86 – which was hosted in L.A.) I had been a regular attendee into the early 90’s but stopped around 1995 or so. So, it had been about a decade since I had really attended a convention and the word was that they had gone steadily downhill. I figured new blood in leadership was probably a great idea.
At the time, Chuck told me that he was bidding against two other groups. One of them was led by a fellow who used to run conventions AGAINST Strategicon, the same weekends, often just down the street. I knew him just a little bit and that was more than enough. The current Strategicon ownership had little interest in selling to someone who was focused on hurting the cons in the past – a position I definitely respected.
Chuck didn’t know who the other people were. I wished him well in the process, as he had become a key retailer in the dealer room and I felt Chuck would do a lot of good for Strategicon since he’s transformed the tabletop store options in Pasadena. I was excited to see what he could do.
Big Mouth Strikes Again (with apologies to The Smiths)
Not long after that discussion, as part of the Demise and Rise of the Friendly Local Game Store series, I interviewed the primary owner of Strategicon, who also ran a game store in Southern California that has since closed down. In the course of the discussion about him running his game store for decades and the story of when he acquired Strategicon alongside many of the SoCal Game Retailers, I mentioned that I knew about the sale of the conventions. He was momentarily upset that I knew about it, paused the podcast, and then we continued talking – although I would say that he seemed a bit off for the rest of the show.
Later on, I heard from another person that the Strategicon owner was really upset that I was spreading information about the sale of the convention. A mutual friend of ours kindly reminded him that I was a journalist and it’s my job to know what’s going on in the industry for SoCal. I’m told he eventually accepted that and turned his ire on Chuck. He decided that this breach disqualified Chuck from bidding for the cons, so he went with the other group.
Chuck was upset at me, apparently. But his brother noted what my other friend did; when you talk to a journalist, you need to note if something is on the record or not. Nothing like that passed between us and, to be honest, I think Chuck probably told me a lot of other things that were sensitive that I had not revealed before. But this came up in my process of covering my stores so it came out. Chuck told me later that he’d forgiven me because, yes, he knew full well that I was a journalist and spoke to all the game store owners regularly.
We remained friends thereafter and I always enjoyed stopping to chat with him when I came in to get my board game fix. Even when I would fail to get to the store for months or even a year, we’d talk like no time had passed. I attended playtesting events at Game Empire sometimes, but always made time to talk to Chuck about business, what I was doing at my various software startups and such.
The Wisdom Lasts
Last year, I visited him after a long while and I was surprised to see him sporting a bald head. He told me immediately about his healthy challenges but that he was prepared to beat the big ‘C’ in the same way he took down his enemies on the miniatures table. I had full confidence he would.
More importantly, he expressed his always-present interest in what was going on with me. As I said, Chuck cultivated relationships with customers – we were his friends, not just patrons. I told Chuck how I had left a startup after a really rough time. I had put my heart and soul into a business for three and a half years, only to have it not get there because of nonsense outside my control.
Chuck offered me words of wisdom: He made me take stock in the years of professional life I still have in front of me (let’s just say it’s fewer than I have behind me). He quizzed me, pressed me to come up with the person who has the job I wanted more than anything. Then, he told me to do everything in my power to get there; to get to that place where I loved every day of my work.
I knew this stuff, but Chuck’s fervent words reminded me and inspired me to take action. Like most people, I had gotten caught up in the challenges of life, including some recent losses and tough times with transitions in life. His powerful words helped me find clarity and focus back on what’s important. I really appreciated his concern and his effort to get me back on track.
Chuck was a wonderful guy and I’m so glad he was my friend. I could go on for a lot longer about all the conversations we had over the years as I held a game in my hand, ready to buy but not until we had gotten through all the subjects in front of us. Yet, this last conversation last year is the one that will continue to have a lasting effect on my life and I’m so thankful to him for that.
Thanks to Chuck for the great community he built right here in the SGV, for the amazing store he built for local gamers to enjoy, but mostly for being my trusted friend who knew when I needed a poke to get my life back on track. RIP, good sir – our community is so much richer for your efforts, your humor, and your humanity.
Board games are a wonderful way to spend quality time with your family and friends but it pains me to see people buy the same old board games for their family if they didn’t really enjoy them as a child. While the hobby is getting more popular, the vast majority of people don’t know how many amazing games exist just beyond the half-dozen that get heavily advertised by the toy conglomerates.
While any time spent with your children away from screens is a very good thing, I can speak from experience as a parent of two now-grown children that there are reasons to bring modern board games to the table instead of yet another night yelling at one another about whether you really get money when you land on Free Parking.
1) Modern board games teach more decision-making. Too many board games of old rely on randomness and chance to determine outcomes. While all gameplay helps children learn rules and follow directions, when consequential decisions are involved, children learn to make decisions in a safe play-space that helps them feel confidence ahead of a time when they need to make them in the real world.
2) Games on this list evolved from earlier games — and solved many of their problems. Shorter play times are welcome in our busy age. Modern games usually don’t eliminate players as you go, so everyone gets to play the whole time. They have catchup mechanisms so you have a chance to win even if you fall behind. They’re often optimized to give kids a chance without having to ‘let them win’. They include cooperative games you can work on together. These changes help make games more about time well spent than frustration and the feeling of being left out.
3) Modern games that are more fun for everyone also means you’ll have a better time and young players can tell. Kids are sharp. They watch you, emulate your actions and detect falsehood. Your fake enthusiasm for that game with nasty-looking candy all over it? They can see right through it earlier than you think. Play a game you will all enjoy and your kids will love it. You might even find yourself more willing to play again and more often when everyone is having a great time.
So take a look at this list of alternatives which have delighted tens of thousands and really should delight millions. When you go to buy that a gift for the kids in your life, remember there’s a reason why Wal-Mart sells the ‘classics’ for $5. Instead, buy a modern board game that will truly delight your family.
Winning Alternatives To the ‘Classics’
Buy Sushi Roll instead of that game with rent and hotels — We are so busy these days, does anyone have time for a game that seems like it never ends, that has player elimination, and a confrontational air? Instead, try Sushi Roll, a delightful dice-game from Gamewright that can be played in 20–30 minutes and will delight everyone at the table. Everyone gets to play the whole game, you get three rounds of play to even out the luck of the die rolls, and a chance to swap and re-roll helps kids learn to make choices to mitigate luck and pick the times when it matters most. Instead of being directly confrontational (I take money from you), it’s competitive (we compete to acquire the most of some elements, while I collect sets independently in other cases). Add to that the charming look and intuitive game play, and you have a winner that will come out a lot more often than the Game That Takes All Night. Buy Sushi Roll on Amazon.
2) Buy Animal Upon Animal instead of that one with the ice — Dexterity games can be a blast, but when it’s mostly about luck, it can get a bit boring. Animal Upon Animal is a stacking game where you roll a die to set the stage for how you perform your turn, while still giving you a chance to pick what you will use. Even the younger players here get a chance to make choices about what animal they’d like to play each turn and how they would stack them. With small, nimble fingers used to this kind of activity, my kids would frequently beat me badly in Animal Upon Animal when they were young, try as I might. That’s part of why I’m saving it for my grandchildren one day. Grab it and enjoy the 15-minutes of laughing and fun. Buy Animal Upon Animal on Amazon.
3) Buy Qwirkleinstead of that one with all the words — Often called “Scrabble for Everyone”, the award-winning Qwirkle levels the playing field for kids and adults alike, allowing you to build lines like in that word game we all know, but using colors and symbols. It’s a charming way to let everyone play with the same level of knowledge by removing the significant advantage one with massive vocabulary has in that other game. Available in the original, a Travel Edition, and with variants, Qwirkle will hit the table more often when everyone feels like they get a chance to win. Ages 6 and up. Buy Qwirkle on Amazon.
4) Buy Simon’s Cat instead of that ‘one’ one — Simon’s Cat is a cute online cartoon but what I’m talking about here is the card game from Steve Jackson Games. This plays like THAT card game a bit, but the decisions are more interesting and there are not nasty cards that make children frustrated because they lose turns, draw a bunch more cards or when the rotation shifts. Simon’s Cat replaces that with variable numbers of cards in each suit, a manageable play-time, and charming artwork. For the ailurophiles out there, this is a huge treat! Buy Simon’s Cat on Amazon.
5) Buy Codenames Disney, Marvel or Harry Potter instead of that memory game — Memory games have limited educational value, but coming up with words to associate multiple concepts is highly useful. That’s what Codenames will teach your kids. While the regular version is a hit with teens and adults, your kids can enjoy the same great experience with editions themed to Disney, Marvel and Harry Potter. Using the pictures or images, you and your family come up with one-word clues to get members of your team to guess multiple cards on the board. In the Disney version, you might clue “Cat-3” to get them to guess Shere Khan from the Jungle Book, Raja the Tiger from Aladdin, and Figaro from Pinocchio, with the ‘3’ denoting that there are three that cat references in some way. Get the version that suits your kids’ favorite franchise — they don’t get more popular than Disney, Marvel and the Boy Who Lived. The Harry Potter one is fully cooperative, which can add to the experience, too, and can be played with as few as two players. Buy Codenames Disney, Codenames Marvel, or Codenames Harry Potter.
6) Buy Forbidden Island instead of that mystery game — As with Codenames, cooperative games are a modern wonder of board games that brings the family together. This fun game of searching for treasure and stopping an island from falling into the sea is a family-friendly take on the same designer’s co-op hobby game, Pandemic. While that game is wonderful, Forbidden Island works best for the younger set, allowing you and your family to explore the island, work together to discover the cool artifacts included with the game, and to escape before the island sinks. Buy Forbidden Island on Amazon. Sequels Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Sky are also a good time if you enjoy the original. Ages 6 and up.
Don’t Limit Games to the Holidays
Make playing board games a regular event. Plan a family game night, even if you can help yourself and you buy the ‘classics.’ Any time spent playing board games with any age-appropriate board game is an investment that benefits everyone in your family.
Keep playing them after your kids are off to college, too. They’re so good for you, a welcome respite from your day and they help keep the mind active. This is a modern tonic for our screen-obsessed culture; time to look at faces, talk and interact with people IRL. I believe you will find it to be time well-spent.
This article contains affiliate links. If you choose to purchase my recommendations via my affiliate links, you help support me at no additional cost to you.
Everyone loves a party but what do you actually do there? Not a birthday or anniversary — just a gathering. Sure, you talk to people. But if you don’t really work the room, you can miss the chance to connect with most of the people there.
That’s why the party game exists — to bring people together. Party-style board games give you an excuse to interact and laugh with people you like, love or even you just met. These days, we spend nearly a quarter of our time in artificial social spaces. Do I even need to quote research to say that’s not a good thing and we need more time with friends IRL? (okay, here you go.)
The great news: Party games have gotten so much better than even just 15 years ago. If you pick the right ones, you get half-hour experiences that can wonderfully bring a party of people together.
So let’s get to this list of excellent party games that have given me hours and hours of joy with friends both old and new:
Not so much a game as a fun activity, this drawing game doesn’t require you to be an artist at all. In Telestrations, players draw a picture of representing the word on their card into a dry erase book with multiple pages and passes it to the next player. That player looks at the drawing and writes a word or two to describe it. Then, books are passed again and the next player draws based on those words…and so it goes, varying between a word and a picture. When the books reach the original player, they are revealed and everyone gets to see the hilarious interpretations. Telestrations is a riotously fun experience for up to twelve players.
This award-winning game from Vlaada Chvatil is a team-based word game, but one with minimal ‘word nerd’ pressure. Like the classic game Password, each of the two teams has a clue giver providing a word to their team to elicit one word responses. The catch in Codenames is that the clue giver can clue more than one word each turn, in a race to identify all your words on a 5×5 grid before the other team guesses theirs. You need two people willing to come up with clues, but the rest of the team can enjoy the game without feeling any pressure. There’s no upper limit on players if everyone can see the cards. You can even get bigger cards with the XXL edition.
Wits & Wagers
An award-winning trivia game that won’t frustrate people without a Trivial Pursuit mind. Every question in Wits & Wagers is a number you can guesstimate. Furthermore, if the question is just not your thing, the second part of a round involves betting on who got it right. This excites the gambler in your players and gives people a second chance. Wits & Wagers is enormous fun and it has been a hit at our parties for many years.
The newest game on the list, Just One is probably the easiest of these games and it’s also cooperative. That means everyone is just working together to do well and laugh it up. Each turn, the active player has to guess a word based on one word clues from everyone else (written on individual display stands). However, if the players come up with the same clue, they aren’t revealed and that limits the information the active player gets. You play to see how many of thirteen words you can get. While Just One requires a little thinking, it’s noto so much that you can’t do it after a couple of glasses of wine. A definite winner for up to 7 players.
— Maybe you know Apples to Apples (or its NSFW cousin Cards Against Humanity). A wonderful similar game is Dixit, which has the same “judge picks the one they like” concept but uses gorgeous and unique images on each card. The active player plays a card and gives a creative word or phrase to describe it. Everyone else puts a card from their own hand into the mix, and players then guess which one the active player added. The goal is to not be too on-the-nose so everyone picks your card. Ideally, you want just one person to get your hint. Poor guessers can still get points for people picking the card they submitted instead of the original. Dixit is a blast and has many expansions available.
Why We Party Game
Let’s be clear on one last point: Party games are not about winning! They are about having fun in a shared experience, not crushing your competition. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time competing, it just means that you should focus on the fun and the people first. It’s a party, folks!
So toss out the old Trivial Pursuit (unfair advantage), Bunco (boring), and Taboo (tiresome) and replace them with the winning choices above. Turn your next party into a great experience for everyone and build those real-life friendships that we all cherish so much more than a zillion “friends” online.
This article contains affiliate links. If you choose to purchase my recommendations via my affiliate links, you help support me at no additional cost to you.
When you’ve been playing games all your life like I have, maybe it’s a foregone conclusion that new mechanisms are a big deal. Sure, I love an interesting theme that is well-implemented. Most of the time, though, it’s not enough. I like to see new ideas and I can admire them even when the game isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. For example, I’ve often spoken about my admiration for the design of Power Grid even if I do not find playing the game to be much fun.
Thankfully, I like all the games on this list that pleasantly embody a concept I call “Low Effort Creativity” (LEC). As a marketer and product designer working in social media-focused technology, I have used this term to describe apps like Instagram where the simple application of a filter onto an image makes users feel like they had created something special. And maybe they have; what mattered is that sense of creativity being expressed, which is more important than what others think of their creation.
In game design, I see LEC manifesting as a way of giving players something that engages their creativity without building from the ground up. Instead, they’re empowered to make a contribution that gives them an output that is uniquely their own.
Dungeons and Drawings
Despite my passionate love for board games, I first thought about this concept after playing a role playing game. Strictly speaking, it’s not a proper RPG, where high-effort creativity is common. There, players come up with their own characters, a back story and maybe even act things out in a bigger way. Four Against Darkness brings the dungeons and maybe some dragons, but is short on the acting and storytelling.
What it does bring into the mix, however, is a pleasant solo experience with an outcome I didn’t expect. I’m not speaking of the success of my band of four adventurers who delved into the cave of some kobolds. No, I was surprised to find out that the process of wandering in the dungeon was going to lead me to creating something mildly artistic.
4AD, as the serious players call it (a moniker which throws me off as a fan of the British record label with that same name), gives the player a chance to quickly put together a four-person adventure party and start into a dungeon with the simple roll of two dice. Those values tell you the type of entrance, corridor or room you are entering, and another roll or two will tell you if there are monsters and loot to be had. It’s not very “RPG” but it is a pleasant pastime, especially with the solid adventures written by andrea sfiligoi (the designer) and his online cadre of creators who are taking the game in a variety of directions. This concept in itself is admirable and I really love to see such deep community involvement in creatively expanding what can be done with this light game system.
The most compelling part of the 4AD experience is drawing your dungeon on graph paper. Sure, the dice tell you the shape of the room, and what’s inside, and all monsters and such are cleverly denoted by certain symbols. The player gets a chance to show off their artistic side in the depiction of the map.
While I’m no artist, I find this part of the game a lot of fun as I track my progress through dungeons, caves, and castles. My own drawings are just lousy but I’ve seen gorgeous renderings online by talented folks who have brought their own flair to the design and decorations of their dungeon. With the game and its mechanisms as inspiration, players get a chance to engage in some low-effort creativity to make their final map a creation worthy of keeping around to enjoy.
A Conspiracy of Cartographers?
A similar tack is taken with Cartographers, a fine new game that released at Gen Con 2019 to popular acclaim (due out to stores Labor Day Weekend). Like 4AD, Cartographers (from Thunderworks Games) asks its players to get out the pencil and fill in their map with renderings of the different types of terrain designated by turns of some game cards.
Like roll-and-write games, Cartographers players pick where the selected terrain goes but unlike most of those games where I box is filled in, X’d or checked off, here players get to draw trees, water, and other terrain types onto their boards to score points based on designated parameters each quarter of the game. As you progress, your map gets filled with your artwork and, again, while I didn’t have the best looking map, I had a lot of fun with the drawing and wanted to play again promptly. While the variations on goals and terrain offers the replay value, I think the little bit of creativity you get to express helps make the game more enjoyable.
The Creative Call
While both of the aforementioned games ride on your drawing skills (or enjoyment drawing regardless of your skill, as in my case), Brotherwise Games’ Call to Adventure instead engages one’s storytelling skills. In fact, the very name of the game is attractively drawn from the first stage in Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, from a book that should be ready by all writers and storytellers.
As with the other games, players are given some parameters on which to hang their creative efforts; Call to Adventure (reviewed here on BGB) asks players to acquire cards that collectively tell the story of their character, from their origin and early days, through the driving force that motivates them, and ultimately to their destiny and the crowning achievements of their quest to get there.
This is played out in simple but clever game play, using throwing runes to acquire various traits, defeat certain challenges, and foil the plans of villainous adversaries as you collect the stories components of your character’s life. The mechanisms are clean and well-implemented but the fun begins when the game ends and you are encouraged to tell your character’s story.
The nine cards you collect, three each for the three stages of the character’s life give you plenty of material with which to work. This isn’t for everyone but I’ve really enjoyed the fact that you can come up with something special by selecting what kind of character you want to be from the various options that come up. You might want to be a hero but find the road hard. You can focus on being an anti-hero, making choices that could be interpreted different ways.
Or you can go flat-out evil and try to be a force for the dark side of life. The choice is yours and it allows you to tailor the story you want to tell at the game’s end. Yes, there are points to count at the end and someone ‘wins.’ But like many of the best games around, it’s most about how you play, what your individual experience delivers, and your own creative way of conveying your story at the end.
Creative Energy Engaged
All three of these games are tapping into the concept effectively, letting players have a bit of a say in the experience they get while gaming on the tabletop. Yes, Legacy games can feel like your own thing because the order in which you experience things and sometimes what you discover versus the next person might vary. Yet, it’s a story you are following. Similarly, the attractive Crossroads mechanism in some Plaid Hat games makes the game experience vary strongly, but it doesn’t engage one’s creativity as the previously mentioned games do.
Was this already present in Pictionary or Telestrations, games that had you drawing up a storm every turn? Maybe, because you could enjoy the artwork produced. But since both of those games have a time element going on, they don’t offer the players a chance to focus on the art instead of the answer delivered at breakneck speed.
I feel like the games I referenced offer the opportunity to truly engage the artistic spirit, both in the slow individual play of 4AD that allows one to take their time drawing up the elements of their dungeon or the chance to build up a story in Call to Adventure over the course of the 45-60 minute play time.
I am excited to see more opportunities for board game and tabletop designers in general to come up with new mechanisms that tap into the notion of this low-effort creativity, which unlocks the fun of owning part of the game experience beyond just the decisions of how to spend cubes each turn or which spot to drop a Meeple on. Let’s see what you’ve got, designers…
Silver Amulet (also known as Silver, since it introduces a new line) is a card-shedding game for 2-4 players newly-released at GenCon 2019 from Ted Alspach and his shingle, Bezier Games. You can learn a bit more about the game by watching my recent 5 Quick Questions session with Ted (or read it – we are all about the options at BGB now). If that’s TL; DW, basically this is a more ‘gamer’ development of the game Cabo, which Bezier Games brought back into print earlier this year.
Since Ted is involved, Cabo wasn’t just given more interesting new elements, it’s seemingly going to grow some werewolf fur. More on that later.
Like Cabo, Silver provides players an initial set of face-down cards of which they only get to view a couple. The object of the game is to optimize the cards in front of you to get the smallest total value.
One does this by drawing from the draw pile to activate them, swapping with those cards or one from discard pile and using some special abilities. Players keep taking turns like this until they feel they have the lowest raw card value among all players. If they do, they use their turn to declare the round is over, giving each other player one last shot to optimize before comparing scores. After four rounds of this play, the player with the lowest value wins.
The difference from Cabo (which is, itself, charming and enjoyable) is that Silver gives every card special powers instead of mostly just values. Different cards allow you to swap, reveal or peek at cards, or gain a power on your turn like drawing extra cards.
Shedding cards from your tableau isn’t easy, though. The main way to shed cards is to trade them for another one in a many-to-one trade. This is done by matching cards on your tableau; if I have two 6 value cards, I can trade it with the top card from the draw or discard pile, hopefully reducing my value. Be careful, however – if you flub an exchange because you try to trade a card (even as part of a set) that doesn’t match, the trade is cancelled and you take an extra card for screwing up. Boo.
Cards number from 0 to 13, but the special powers make some cards more attractive than others. For example, the Doppleganger can match the value of other cards so she’s easy to trade out. Yet, she’s the highest value card in the game so you’ll get stuck with her if you don’t trade the card away before scores are compared. Many of the game-changing powers are on higher-value cards, but even the lowly 2-rank Empath lets you view face-down cards on your tableau. The 3-rank bodyguard (and cover star) protects another good card from being swapped or discarded, so most of them are good in one way or another.
As mentioned above, the game has a Bezier Games-signature Werewolf feel. While the initial set has some of feel of those games with Villagers and Seers, we will probably have to wait for Silver Bullet (the first expansion) later this year to get actual werewolves into the game.
Ted’s Going To Need You To Vote
So if you think you’ve got the lowest value cards, you can declare the round over or ‘call for a vote’ because Werewolf. Really, this is just to compare the total values of your cards. If you called for the vote, you best be right. If not, you get not only your card total in points, you get a 10 point penalty.
However, if you do get it right, you get 0 points for the round. You also get that nice bit of metal, the Silver Amulet. This item can be used by the round-winner to protect a card from other card activations.
After four rounds, compare final totals (which you can do on the provided score pad).
Silver is a Lovely Production
Silver’s cards are gorgeously illustrated in a Pixaresque style (they feel a bit like the film Brave to me) and this immediately excited the folks who have played the game with us.
Equally exciting for game geeks like me: Bezier Games worked with Game Trayz to create an insert that fills my heart with joy. While essentially simple in design, it’s highly functional to hold the game’s cards and those from future expansions. The amulet is a pleasant additional touch, even if its ability is the least appealing part of the game for me. I’d call that a minor complaint, this little rich-get-richer element, but it’s a quick game so those kind of balancers are less important.
Silver is a Good One
I quite like Silver and it was enjoyed by everyone with whom I played it so far. My wife was already a Cabo fiend and, indeed, she dominated the first play of Silver, winning three of four rounds. I thought the need to remember the cards (you cannot keep looking at them) would throw her off but it’s not too much of a weight on the mind.
In the end, it plays in 30 minutes or so, includes some interaction when it’s not your turn because you are watching to see what other players might reveal about their hands, and the learning curve is shallow. Additionally, Bezier was clever enough to release an app of the game (previewed in my video podcast) that is completely free. This lets you try the game out in solo play mode so you can learn the game, and see it in action. While I am enjoying the solo play, it’s no substitute for in-person play and the chance to see people surprised when you somehow slipped below their total when the cards are revealed.
Some might ask: Do you need Cabo and Silver? I’d say probably not. Silver is more fun for me, as the special powers make the game. Yet, Cabo is even more approachable than Silver (and the theme is less, um, ‘geeky.’) So maybe there’s a reason why, but I’d go with Silver over Cabo any day.
We quite enjoy Silver and we’re looking forward to Silver Bullet’s Spiel 2019 release so we can add more cards to the mix this holiday season.
Silver is available NOW on the Bezier Games site and will soon be in stores near you.