The world of board games is no longer the
exclusive purview of chess masters and Candyland fiends. A new breed of
games, known as designer board games, is claiming the attention and
time of children and adults of all ages.
Designer board games originated in
Germany, and even though they are now developed and produced in the
United States and around the world, they are still referred to as
“Eurogames.” Sporting names like Borneo, Carcassonne and The Settlers
of Catan, these games are quite mysterious at first glance. But they
share several characteristics that separate them from Clue, Scrabble
Designer games prominently feature the
creator’s name, much like a book names its author. The games are
usually conceptually simple, with a focus on developing a strategy over
several matches. They are also generally based on player skill rather
than luck of the dice or random choices, and players are not eliminated
as in Risk or Monopoly. According to Eric Martin, editor of board
gamenews.com, designer board games are unique because they have “a
point of view and a personal style.”
Mind games: Eric Martin oversees a board game Web site devoted to the unusual and skilled.
Boardgamenews.com, also known as BGN, is
devoted to previewing, reviewing, critiquing and explaining the world
of designer board games to fans of the genre as well as curious
readers. The comprehensive and well-organized site debuted Nov. 28,
2005, as the brainchild of Rick Thornquist, a board game enthusiast and
leader of a game group in Washington, D.C. According to Martin,
Thornquist had been posting tidbits of gaming news on a site for his
group since 2000. “I started writing for Rick in the summer of 2006,
then took over as editor in November,” says Martin.
Martin was a professional freelance writer before
becoming editor of BGN, and continued freelancing during his first
months as editor. “For the past five months, I’ve done only Boardgame
News,” he says. “While not a full-time paying job, it is a full-time
working job.” Martin had started his own board game Web site,
funandboardgames.com, in October 2006, but abandoned that project in
April 2007 to focus on BGN. While funandboardgames.com is still online,
it has received no updates for more than 18 months.
Martin, who lived in the small town of Wappingers Falls,
N.Y., from 1978 to 1990 and Albany from 1990 to 1991, graduated from
Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1999. He
credits his transition to the writing life to his wife, Linda
Formichelli. “She was enjoying her work and the ability to set her own
schedule, and since I had helped her with a couple of articles in those
years, including an article co-written for Games magazine in 1997, I followed in her footsteps,” he explains.
In the late 1990s, Martin published about a dozen short
stories he had written. Then, in 2005, he and Formichelli co-authored
two very different non-fiction books. The first, Tools of Timekeeping: A Kid’s Guide to the History & Science of Telling Time, was published by Nomad Press in July 2005. In October of the same year, they co-authored The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting and Running a Coffee Bar (Alpha Books) with Susan Gilbert, a California café owner.
His background in math prepared Martin
to appreciate board games at a mechanical level. While he never studied
game theory, Martin still enjoys finding the systems and patterns
behind the game. “It’s just the way my brain works,” he notes. “I like
figuring out how things work.” His interest evolved into a passion in
2003, when, he says, “I really got heavily into the games.”
In Concord, N.H., where Martin currently
resides, he found and became involved with a weekly board game group.
“The person who hosted the game group, she had almost 500 games. We
would try new games all the time,” he says. Before joining the group,
Martin had played some games without knowing they were designer games.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but the first one might have been
Fluxx,” he says, referring to a card game which changes rules as cards
Nearly 10 years later, Martin still
plays Fluxx and another of his first games, Lost Cities. The strategy
and competition against other players keep him coming back and
interested in new games. “I like the competition against other people,”
he says. “I like interacting in general with other people.”
Games People Play
“Many people think games are just something to do with
family once or twice a year during the holidays,” Martin continues.
However, games have more social potential. In fact, they are a lot like
good books, movies and television programs. “I like talking to people
and seeing what kinds of games they like, and find games that fit the
same way you’d recommend books.” Just like several readings of a book
provide the reader with a deeper knowledge of the author, repetition
with a game leads the player to encounter the mind of the designer.
Board games can also provide a
family-friendly alternative to less socially interactive forms of
entertainment. “I watch television maybe an hour a week, and I play
games the rest of the time,” says Martin. Because designer board games
tend to have simple rules but complex strategies, children and adults
of nearly all ages can play together on a similar level.
Martin believes that there is a game to
fit every personality, although he admits he has met people who are
predisposed to dislike games. “I have definitely encountered people
that hate games, and all they’ve played is Scrabble,” he says. “It’s
kind of like reading one book and saying you hate reading.” Positive or
negative experiences with board games are very often the result of the
personalities of the other players more than the game itself.
When playing a game for a review on BGN,
Martin tries to have as many different experiences with it as possible.
Even then, he says, “There are no objective reviews. I try to make that
clear when I do the review.” To provide the most accurate
representation of each game, Martin plays each one several times,
varying the group members and group sizes. The goal of the reviews is
to help readers find the right game for them, even if they are
unfamiliar with gaming lingo. “I try to write reviews so that anyone
can read the review not knowing anything about games,” he says.
All designer board games have a social
element, but some focus more on strategy. “Some games are all about the
social aspect while other games are very much about playing the
system,” he explains. The way these elements balance determines the
style of the game. As long as the players are engaged with the game and
each other, the game can be a success.
Martin says the creative problem-solving
necessary in many designer board games appeals to him. “You can come up
with a plan, and then you have to react,” he says. Critical thinking is
a useful skill for people of all ages, and games help teach those
skills. “I really like games as a way to teach people how to think, how
to reason. The fun element keeps you interested.”
Apparently, it keeps lots of people
interested, because Martin reports that BGN receives 8,300 daily visits
and 40,000 unique hits per month. Much of the content on BGN is
provided by Martin and about two dozen U.S. and international
columnists, and most of it is free of charge. Readers who want complete
access can pay $25 for a 12-month membership. Members receive access to
previews of the massive Nuremburg and Essen game conventions in Germany
and exclusive interviews with the game designers at those conventions.
Members are also eligible for game
giveaways that take place almost every month. Guests as well as members
can post comments on the reviews and other articles. Martin and the
other writers often respond to the comments, providing even more
detailed information for the readers.
Martin and BGN serve as moderators
between the developers and publishers and the players and readers. Some
game publishers have been willing to help Martin, while others require
more work. “It varies from one end to the other,” says Martin. “Some
people I have to ask every single time if they have anything new.”
Martin likes to preview games whenever possible, but he does not ask
for copies of games from the publishers. “I don’t because my response
time for reviews is sometimes slow. I don’t want to ask for something
and sit on it forever,” he admits.
Martin gives away many of the new games
he gets from publishers in exchange for a donation to the Concord
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “I feel wrong selling
games from the publishers,” he says.“I thought this would be a nice way
to funnel money to the organization while also getting the games out of
my house and into the hands of others.”
Designer board games can entertain, facilitate group
activity and even help the players “figure out how to think and how to
live,” Morgan believes. He is spreading the word about games and their
potential. But there is one drawback: “There are so many more games
than one person could possibly cover.”
Punch This Ticket
Ticket to Ride, from well-known game
publisher Days of Wonder, is a great introduction to the world of
designer games. Loosely based on Around the World in 80 Days,
Ticket to Ride finds a group of old friends gathered to celebrate
Phileas Fogg’s successful journey with a whirlwind race of their own.
The objective of the game is to travel
to as many American cities by railroad as possible by connecting train
lines. Players are assigned cities that they must connect by train
before the game is over. The gameplay is fast-paced and the rules are
very easy to learn. Recommended for ages 8 to 99.
Ticket to Ride is available locally at
Go! The Game Store in Shoppingtown Mall, 3649 Erie Blvd. E., DeWitt.
Call 449-4263 for pricing and more information. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO