At one particularly heated point during November’s Republican debate, Jeb Bush declared Donald Trump’s Middle East policy was “like playing Monopoly or something.” As a society, we should hold our politicians to better insults and better board game references. Chess, Monopoly, Risk, Backgammon, Jenga, Scrabble, Sorry, Life — these are the old-guard. To stay fluent, you’ve got to expand. We’re in the midst of a gaming renaissance, where tabletop and physical games rake in crowdfunding cash and where board game cafes sprout up like boutique cupcake shops circa 2008. What we’re saying is, the water’s warm. In that spirit, here are five of the best games to get your toes wet, even if no Bush has yet heard of them.
If the American board game community was a rusting Ford Pinto by the mid-’90s, 1995’s Settlers of Catan dropped a nitrous oxide engine in hood. Here’s the Washington Post describing Settlers of Catan, 15 years later: “The game for our time.” The reality is a little murkier than that, but what’s true is that Catan was the gateway dice roll that introduced large swathes of Americans to European-style board games. Euro games, to borrow the board game jargon, aim for elegance, de-emphasizing early elimination in favor of victory points that accrete over time. (It’s a design philosophy that originated in Europe, particularly associated with Germany, but these sorts of games can be from anywhere, really.) The result is a kinder approach to winning — unlike, say, Risk, an early misplay or bad roll doesn’t mean you’ll be swiftly relegated to the sidelines. If Catan settles anything, it’s that boredom and seething is poor game design.
In Catan, you’ll snag resources to build roads, cities, and armies, thanks to strategic deployment of your settlements as well as a fair bit of luck. In certain board gamer circles (which can adopt the hipster stripes of diehard music fans), it’s become fashionable to dismiss Catan as having too much luck, but rolling bones to bankruptcy at Park Place this is not.
In Pandemic, you and up to three compatriots take on the role of intrepid germ-busting healthcare workers, trotting around the globe knocking disease cubes off the board while managing a hand of cards that could lead to a potential cure. Pandemic isn’t the first cooperative board game, but its rules are as clean as its theme is contaminated, making it an easy one to pick up. If you’ve never played a co-op game before, the concept of a non-intelligent, non-digital deck of cards that beats humans could be a hard one to grasp. But consider Pandemic’s stack of infect cards like the deck of 52 playing cards in War: This isn’t so much decision-making as it is predestiny. For a game where it’s human heads against randomization, Pandemic can be tough, particularly on novices. But when you finally cure all the diseases ravaging the earth, beating a stupid deck of cards never felt so sweet.
There are well-balanced games, in which players of equal skill will stay neck-and-neck until the bitter end. And then there’s Power Grid. A game in the cutthroat world of running power plants and distributing energy, Power Grid is what happens if you were to take the rubber-banding effect of, say, Mario Kart, and translate that onto the tabletop. Players who surge ahead in Power Grid find themselves a disadvantage — if you’re winning, perhaps you don’t get that shiny new windmill, or your coal is more expensive than everyone else’s. The result, like the Mario Kart race in which a red shell power-up means everyone’s back in it, is a game where everyone feels they have a shot at winning. You can try to out-game the game by sandbagging as you go, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to pull ahead in time.
Arthurian subterfuge meets old-school party game Mafia in The Resistance: Avalon. It’s the game on this list that works best with more than four heads, as you end up with two teams of people who aren’t entirely sure who to trust. Mordred and assassins try to derail quests by preying on gullibility of the good knights — choose wisely, or you’ll end up with a traitor in your midst. The wrinkle here is that one player sands down the asymmetrical information edge by taking on the role of Merlin. He knows who the assassins are, but can’t tip his hand too heavily, in case the assassins figure out Merlin’s identity. It boils down to a game of communication: Accusations fly, fingers wag, egos bruise. Fun!
A Euro-style game like Catan, Agricola is deceptively non-confrontational. You take on the role of a small agrarian family; your goal is to grow your farm, nurture your bloodline, and feed everyone all the while. The problem is one of scarcity: There’s a pool of actions, shared by you and your opponents, that you’ll have to choose from. But once someone takes that move — a pile of wood you’ve been eying to build fences, or a cluster of sheep you need to eat — it’s gone till the next round. It’s a bit like a fantasy sports draft, or choosing teams for playground kickball: If your opponents know what’s up, you’ll never be able to take all the best. Agricola is, perhaps, the toughest game on this list to learn; in order to be competitive, you have to find balance on the farm.
There are plenty more games, of course, that didn’t make the list. (BoardGameGeek, the ur-resource for ranking and talking about board games, lists some 80,000 games.) For the lighthearted and younger gamers, there’s the dexterity-testing Galaxy Trucker or monster-smashing, dice-rolling King of Tokyo; Dominion, a game where you and your opponents draft decks from the cards laying out in front of you; and Quantum, an elegantly designed game of solar system domination where dice are starfighters. Once you’ve graduated from these, a cardboard world awaits. Don’t thank me till you’ve conquered the orc-filled cities of Mage Knight or you find yourself staring down the U.S.S.R. in the peerless Twilight Struggle.
Then, maybe, telling someone their foreign policy is on Monopoly’s level actually becomes a sicker burn.