Explaining Board Games as a Hobby: Why I'm a Board Game Hobbyist | Fanboys Anonymous

Explaining Board Games as a Hobby: Why I'm a Board Game Hobbyist

Posted by Aaron Yoder Wednesday, September 25, 2013
I don't like to tell people I'm into boardgaming. It elicits strange looks. When I meet folks for the first time and they ask about hobbies, I just say that I'm into gaming. They get that. Most of the world has heard about video games or played them and they know they're fun. But I'm not really talking about my PC or my Xbox, even though I have those, too. That really isn't my primary hobby. The problem is that when I tell people—even other gamers—that I'm into boardgaming, they look at me with this gaze that says "really?" out of the corner of their eye and they invariably ask "like Risk?" or "like Monopoly?" Sometimes, I get "like Settlers?" Maybe you're asking the same question. I wouldn't put it past you, I have a lot of gamer friends that don't do board games. This is a geek website, so I'm guessing most of us know what Magic the Gathering is, or Warhammer 40k. Maybe you think that's what I mean. That isn't what I mean either. So there's this problem because of the lack of exposure to the hobby and the wealth of poor analogues, when you ask boardgamers what the hobby is like, it is extremely difficult to explain.

It is difficult for one reason because I am forced to say, that technically, yes: they are board games like Monopoly or Risk or Settlers. It is the only thing I can compare it to. Yes, in broad terms, these games are like Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer 40k. It is a bit like asking if a Jeep is anything like a Lamborghini. They're really not very similar if you know anything about cars, but they are similar if your frame of reference is an automobile. They both travel at high speed along a road, have four tires and a windshield. Pretty much the same thing, right? Similarly, most modern board games aren't really very much like the games most people know, other than that they have bits and pieces and they're all played on a table. So people give me weird looks. Or video gamers ask me if I play Magic: the Gathering or Warhammer. I don't, for the record.

This problem of explaining what it is I do for fun is compounded by the fact that making a hobby out of boardgaming doesn't make sense to people because the few board games people are actually familiar with aren't really very fun. They're games you played when you were a kid because you were bored and didn't have anything better to do. I've pretty much just given you the entirety of what people perceive as the hobby-ish side of board gaming. Risk, Monopoly, and Settlers of Catan are pretty much it as far as the mainstream is concerned. Sure there's Scrabble and some weird party games out there that pretty much insure you hate your life for however long you're stuck playing it, but in general, those are the games that the vast majority of the mainstream knows about. How can you make a hobby out of that? How could you even enjoy doing that?

Different versions of Monopoly games listed
So much time, so little fun.

I honestly don't enjoy those things. In fact I avoid them as if they were plague-laden blankets. The issue is that until Settlers of Catan came out, that's all there really was in the hobby, aside from wargames, RPGs, and board game rip-offs of Dungeons & Dragons. I think some of those games are great, even today, but their barrier to entry is pretty high. None of them were easy games to get into, most looked pretty boring, and a lot of them required a lot of time just to set up, let alone to play. And there was a stigma around them that suggested if you were into this kind of gaming you lived in your parents' basement and didn't ever see sunlight.

Things are a little different, now. In 1995, the Settlers of Catan hit German audiences. It was a board game Messiah, of sorts. Settlers ensured the game lasted an hour to an hour and a half. Now you don't need to have gobs of time to play a game, like you did with Risk or Monopoly. It included all the decisions that those two games had, but it had more of them more often with less time between them. Settlers had the spatial aspect of Risk, deciding which territory was best to get into, with the gathering and negotiating that was so much fun in Monopoly. Most importantly, everybody can get something on every turn, whether it is their turn or not, and since everybody can trade with the active player, everybody has something to do all the time; downtime is no longer an issue like it is in Risk. Having a variable setup insured that no two games played alike, protecting the game against feeling like a chore, or like it was playing out the same way it always did. The game, in essence, was all about making itself as fun as possible. It didn't stand in its own way. It didn't need to be this thing that you got out because it was raining and you had nothing better to do for several hours. You could bust it out after dinner, drink some beers, hang out with your friends, and get punched in the gut by the freaking robber. You could have fun with your friends around something that itself was fun to play. That's awesome. And that could sum up modern board gaming pretty well.

Play Settlers of Catan Online Mobile Version
You're doin' it right, Settlers.

The Settlers of Catan was brilliant for its time. It did nearly everything right, and it set an example for the future of the industry. Designers, with fresh ideas of what a board game was and what it could be, started pumping out games that were nothing like Settlers, but held to the same tenets that had made Settlers great, designing games that were fun, instead of games that were chores.

That's not to say that Settlers is a perfect game. It isn't. And to be quite honest, I started playing Settlers around a decade ago, and there's nothing I would like better than to toss every copy of the Settlers of Catan into a woodchipper. That's because that as of right now, there are thousands of titles just sitting on the shelves of game stores, waiting to be discovered and played. Just within spitting distance, I have games about building civilizations, creating a trade empire in the Middle Ages, running a noble family in medieval France, the first train companies in Germany, solving mysteries with Sherlock Holmes, putting down insurgents and drug cartels in Columbia, and even a game about being a near deity and being given the choice to burn monasteries and raid innocent villages. I have games about city building and mushrooms and zombies and revolutionary France and building the Vulgate language in Italy and working as a team to keep your spaceship from exploding and a game about being stranded on a deserted Island. And those are just some of the ideas behind the games that I can see on my shelf as I'm writing this.

Part of the hobby is just collecting. Finding designers you like and gathering their work is a lot of fun. Seeing all the bits and pieces that come in the box is always pleasurable, too, especially if there's a lot to eyeball, or if the art is particularly eye-catching. Some people turn upgrading their components into a hobby all on its own. Of course none of it would matter if the actual games themselves aren't fun to learn and play. As it happens, there's as much variety in how you play a game as there is variety in the themes of those games. The most important bit though, is that you can't really game alone. It is a social hobby. If you're a boardgamer, you gather with friends and family to experience something together, to enjoy each other's company. You get to be clever and compete in good natured competition. Laugh when an opponent makes a terrible roll, taunt them when you're in the lead, console them if their luck is truly terrible, chatting when it isn't your turn or in between games. It's an excuse to sip a beer and laugh and enjoy the people you're with and the game you're playing. What comes from it, in my experience, is the formation of personal, interconnected communities of people with a common interest and wildly different backgrounds. It is such a pleasure to be a part of the hobby if for no other reason than because the community is a necessary and vibrant piece of that hobby. The relationships and the community is why I game, and that, more than anything else, is what is special about being a boardgamer today.

Wisconsin Gaming Con cancer benefit
We take all kinds.

In my next post, I'll recommend some good games you can crack open if you're interested in getting something to the table. I will ensure they're easy to teach and learn, will be easy on the wallet, and play in less than an hour. Let me know about your gaming experiences and if you have any favorite games for newbies in the comments!

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