The objects above are "meeples", which is short for "my people". They are the generic icon for Board Game Playing Piece... you know, the little object that you move around the board. Monopoly has a shoe or a racing car, but a German game called Carcassonne uses these meeples.
I spent Labor Day weekend near Los Alamos, NM, playing boardgames with some nuclear physicists I know. It's a 96 hour orgy of gaming geekiness. We rent a youth hostel out in the middle of the desert that can sleep up to 50 people. Entire families come - parents, kids, pets - with the only requirement that everyone pitches in on chores and has fun.
If you haven't played a boardgame in years, now would be a good time to check them out again. In the last 10 years, there has been a renassaince of wonderful, beautiful, and expensive games imported from overseas. In Germany, boardgames are so popular that the newspapers run reviews of new games next to the movie and CD reviews. Luckily, there is an active following of fans here in the US who translate the game rules into English.Check out these websites for a good introduction:
Here are some of my favorite games:
1. Apples to Apples
The best party game around. Forget Pictionary. This game will have a roomfull of people laughing out loud and yelling at each other within minutes. The idea of the game is that the dealer draws a card with an adjective on it (like "fuzzy"). The rest of the players have a handful of cards with random nouns ("Brigitte Nielsen", "The Eiffel Tower", "Star Wars") and you have to find the card that is the most "fuzzy". Then the dealer chooses a winner, and the next person is the dealer. The fun part is knowing the dealer. If you know he's a bear, maybe "bath soap" would be the best possible choice. Hilarity will ensue.
The meeple game I mentioned above. The best thing about this game is that it's easy enough for a 6 year old to learn, but tricky enough that my friends and I haven't mastered it in hours of gameplay. The idea of to place little tiles in order to create a little village with cities and monasteries. Or, you can place your meeples to claim fields or roads as your own. The winner is the person who is standing in the largest field, or who owns the largest castle. However, even though you are competing against other people, you can have a lot of fun placing tiles and meeples. So, even if you lose, you feel like a winner.
3. The Settlers of Catan
Both the Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne (above) are also now XBox Live games, so you can play them on the internet as well. Like Carcassonne, this game involves placing tiles and then claiming stuff as your own. The game "mechanics" are elegant. After the first few turns and you get the hang of the rules, you start to expand and you hit other people's territory. Then, you have to decide how to spend limited resources, and make some very difficult decisions. That sort of tension makes for a great game. But also like Carcassonne, you feel like you've acheived something even if you get your butt kicked horribly like I usually do.
I got to play this once twice over the weekend, and every time it is an absolutely joy. It falls into the "abstract strategy" genre, meaning that you are trying to put pieces on a board, but they don't represent anything in particular. They are just red/yellow/green/blue colored tetris shapes. Every piece you place has to be catty-corner from all your other pieces, so you can imagine that soon you hit other player's pieces and run out of room. An absolutely beautiful game that can be played in 10 minutes or less.
5. Ticket To Ride
Some people love train games. And I mean they *love* train games. All the games have a similar theme... you buy sections of rails, and try to send your little locomotives back and forth between cities to make money. This game keeps the main idea while simplifying the rules. It feels wonderful to complete a section of track before your friends... kind of like being a little robber baron.
6. Lord of the Rings
There has been a new little genre of bopardgames: cooperative gaming. The idea is that there are five or six players at a time, but we are all on the same side. Instead of fighting against each other, we team up to try and defeat the game itself. It makes for a nice change from head-to-head combat, and it's a great way to let small children play, since you get to help them make decisions. This is one of my favorite coop games, although there are some new ones that are also great: Shadows Over Camelot, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and Arkham Horror. However, a guy named Reiner Knizia designed this game, as well as about a dozen other amazing games (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reiner_Knizia) and that makes the guy a rock star in my eyes.
There is a common game mechanism in many board games - the idea of "action points". You have a selection of things you could do in a turn (make money, buy a building, move a piece, etc.) but you only have a limited number of action points to spend. This is fun because each turn you get to do several things, but not as many as you want. YOu have to make tough choices... do buy a building this turn while depleting all your reserves? Or do you save up your money... knowing that the building may be gone by the time your next turn arrives? This game is published by Rio Grande Games (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rio_Grande_Games), which is a great import house that takes foreign language games, localizes them, and sells beautiful copies in English. Everything they publish is just great, and highly recommended.
One of my favorites. It feels like a boardgame version of Dungeons & Dragons. You wander around a track trying to kill monsters and "powering up" enough to beat the Big Boss at the end. There is a new game called "Prophecy" that feels similar. But I'll always love this one. It's a long game, and some people hate it, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart!
Oh man, I'm out of room and I didn't have time to mention all the other great games out there: Set, Once Upon a Time, Power Grid, Pitch Car, RoboRally, Richocet Robots, and many many others. You'll have to come over to my house and discover them for yourself. Next to sex, playing boardgames is one of the best things you can do on a Friday night that won't cost any money. Bring beer and a good attitude, and we'll get along fine!