Agricola. Settlers of Catan. Dominion. Carcassonne. Arkham Horror. If these names are familiar, then you're probably a board game geek. This article is for you.
If they aren't, or if they are but you're put off by the high prices, obtuse rules, and complex set-up of these "German style" games, this article is for you, too.
Today, German-style board games are a niche hobby, one that plays itself out at a few game shops across the country, at conventions like PAX, and in the homes of übernerds like Bitmob Co-founder Dan "Shoe" Hsu. But they are on the cusp of breaking out to a much wider audience. I can easily foresee a future where families here in the United States spend their evenings much like they they do in Germany: huddled around a table, enjoying a board game together. All that's needed is for designers to pick up the pieces and go digital.
Whether you find that statement intriguing or heresy, here's why the board game revolution is inevitable — and how the iPhone and the iPad have already started it.
Board games are expensive.
I recently bought the brilliant iPhone adaptation of Carcassonne — pricey for an iPhone game at $4.99, but peanuts compared to $36.99 asking price for the physical game. And that's cheap for a German board game: Agricola retails at $69.99. Even a card-based game like Dominion will run you $44.99.
You do get some bang for your buck with these games. German board games are all beautifully designed, brimming with cards made from heavy stock and exquisitely carved wooden pieces. But it's an extremely high barrier of entry for anyone curious about the games.
By eliminating the production costs of these games with relatively small print runs, board game publishers can decrease the prices of their games dramatically. What formerly cost $310.60 (the combined retail price of Arkham Horror and its many expansions) can now be made available for a fraction of that cost.
Board games are complicated.
I just watched a tutorial video for Race for the Galaxy on YouTube. Why? Because the game still didn't make sense after pouring over the 12-page rulebook included with it. And I'm a board game geek!
This is a common problem with German-style games. Most of the time, they make sense after a play session or two, but they can be incredibly dense to penetrate at first. You can't blame people for taking one look at this video of Space Alert in action and fleeing in horror.
Even the most casual-friendly games, like Settlers of Catan, can appear daunting to players raised on Clue and Monopoly. The rules for those games can be inscribed on the inside of the box. The rulebook for Arkham Horror, on the other hand, runs 24 pages — and that's not including the revisions and addenda often published online. In fact, Shoe custom-created a quick reference sheet for Arkham Horror in Excel so that each of us playing could figure out what was going on at any given moment.
Contrast that to my first game of Carcassonne on the iPhone. A fully narrated tutorial guided me through the first few actions, until I had found my bearings and could make choices on my own. If every board game came with a handy guide like that, I wouldn't have to scour YouTube to figure out how to play Race for the Galaxy, and new players would be far less intimidated by the wealth of options these board games provide.
Board games are messy.
My friends and I routinely spend more than 15 minutes setting up a board game. You must remove all of the components from their containers, shuffle deck after deck of cards, pass out the starting materials to each player, and make sure the bank is set up properly. There's a certain obsessive elegance to getting all of the pieces in order that I enjoy, but it severely hampers spontaneity. Try to set up Arkham Horror during a party and people will lose interest a minute or two into the set-up.
With digital board games, that dirty work is eliminated. The physical version of Small World contains over 200 components to manage before you start the game. Starting a new session on the iPad version, on the other hand, is a matter of a pressing your finger to "New Game."
And that's just the set-up. Scoring these games can often be just as complicated. Most games use "victory points," chits that you collect over the course of the game, but there are also penalties, bonuses, multipliers, special cards, and more that get factored into the final score. An iPhone developer has actually created a program called Score, whose sole function is to calculate the scoring for the most popular, complex board games.
Digital board games don't have that problem. Scoring can by done on the fly, at any point in the game, with no margin of error. The iPhone version of Carcassonne even breaks down what portion of your score came from roads, fields, fields, and monasteries. This sort of stat tracking allows you to improve your play over time.
The revolution has already started.
Digital board games will never perfectly replicate the experience of playing a physical board game. But they can come close, and they can be a lot more accessible.
When my friend and I play Small World on the iPad, we slide our fingers over a map, pushing virtual pieces into place. The game orients itself depending on whose turn it is, so we don't have to constantly flip the iPad around while we play. Once the game is over, it immediately calculates our scores and declares a winner.
Throughout, the addictive core concept of the game remains intact. In fact, it's been brought to the forefront by streamlining the off-putting aspects of board gaming — and at a fraction of the cost.
With a few movements of his finger, my friend can start up a new game. We'll lean over the screen, tapping and swiping until we decide it's time for dinner. He can hit the sleep button and slide the iPad into his desk drawer, where it waits, every component of our game preserved, until we return.
The board game revolution has already begun. To board game geeks, and to anyone who has never touched a German-style game before but wants to now: Welcome.