Modern board games emphasize cooperation over crushing opponents

by Tim Blangger

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

8 February 2009

Settlers of Catan 

Quietly, stealthily, board games have undergone subtle and significant changes.

The games many baby boomers grew up on, the megalomaniac bankruptcy of Monopoly and the world domination of Risk, are still around—popular as ever with new generations.

But a raft of newer games, many with open-ended play strategies that emphasize negotiation and cooperation, have emerged in the last decade, especially in the last three years, board game enthusiasts say.

“When I was a kid, it was Stratego or chess or Monopoly,” says Oliver Hochron, owner of The Encounter, an Allentown gaming emporium. “But today, board gamers have moved onto something that is more strategic.”

Many of the most popular games were first developed in Europe—Germany, in particular—and then exported to the United States. As a consequence, gamers refer to them as Euro-style or Eurogames, even if they were developed in the United States.

The variety of the new games is remarkable. Some are designed for two players, others for eight or more. Some can take 40 minutes to play, others typically run for hours.

Players of Settlers of Catan, one of the most popular of this new generation of board games, establish plantations on an island and can take a number of paths toward accumulating points. They can grow agricultural products and ship them to other lands; they can establish villages and towns, or they can do a combination of both strategies. As with many of the newer games, there is no single, agreed-upon way of accumulating points. In more direct games, such as Monopoly, the goal is always to accumulate the most money and bankrupt the opposition, for example. The newer games are much more complex and nuanced.

The open-ended nature of the games appeals to players, many of whom also play console or computer games, says Karl Kemmerer, who owns Game Keeps LLC, a gaming store in West Chester, Pa.

“The biggest difference between playing a computer and playing an actual person is that with an actual person, you can only guess what they might do. With a computer AI (artificial intelligence), obviously there are patterns. Human players are more adaptable.”

While some of the newer games have a wide appeal, the hard-core strategy player tends to be between 30 and 50, says Jim Carvin, who runs game nights at the Salem-Bern United Methodist Church in Hamburg, Pa.

“For the teens, I think that the time commitment and, frankly, deeper strategy of some Eurogames doesn’t interest them greatly,” says Carvin. “They tend to want fast and simple games such as crokinole, Settlers of Catan, Werewolf, Ticket to Ride, Formula De, Blokus, Transamerica. Once the game crosses the one-hour threshold, they start to drift and get bored. So I try to steer them toward games I think they will like and try hard to keep the games moving.”

The teens do surprise, occasionally. “At our last game on Jan. 9, we had eight teens show up, probably a record number. A few of them insisted on playing Age of Empires II despite my protests that it was about 2.5 hours and they might get bored. These were junior high kids, and I truthfully didn’t think they would sit through the rules explanation, let alone the game. To my surprise, they stuck with it to the end and had a great time.”

The attention demands required of players varies from game to game, but generally the games aren’t the sort of light party game hosts use to break the ice at social gatherings, says Dennis Kearney, 26, an avid gamer who lives in Bethlehem, Pa.

Kearney grew up playing what he calls zero-sum games, such as Monopoly and Risk, games where there is usually one winner, often at the expense of the game’s other players.

As he grew older, Kearney began to consider the implications of the games he played. “Risk is a game of war where, albeit metaphorically, you’re trying to commit genocide on everybody else. I came to realize this might not be the best way to spend an afternoon with friends.”

A pastor in Massachusetts first introduced Kearney to the Euro-style games, and he was hooked. During a typical week, he plays 10 hours of board games.

One of his favorites is a cooperative board game called Pandemic, where players, acting out specific roles, work together to prevent the spread of four unnamed diseases around the world. To win the game, the players eliminate and offer cures for the diseases. The players win or lose together.

Kearney and three friends played a round of the game last week at the Portal, a comics and gaming store in Bethlehem Township where each Thursday Kearney leads a round of the popular role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. As the regular players of Dungeons & Dragons prepared for their night’s session, Kearney and three friends played Pandemic. The game took less than 20 minutes, although two of the players were very familiar with the game and the others were experienced board gamers.

With two cards to go, Kearney took his turn and the card was exactly the one the group needed to end the pandemic.

“That’s it! We won,” Kearney said, proudly showing the card to the others.

“See, we always win when I play,” joked another player, Alexis “Lexi” Rasimowicz.

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