“Where to Start With” is our ongoing series of essays detailing where one can start with any number of SFF/popgeekery topics, from where to begin with the morass of X-Men comics to diving into the expanded Star Wars canon. Today, we’re thrilled to present guest writer Lulu Kadhim’s point of view, on where to start with SFF board games.
Board games are currently in their golden age. While most people have played Monopoly or Clue, over the past ten years, modern board games have become a blossoming industry. These days, board games are as complex and different from each other as novels, though they might share different genres. While we think of science fiction, fantasy, and horror in speculative fiction writing genres, board games are largely split between the affectionately named “Euros” and “Ameritrash.” (While “Ameritrash” is sometimes seen as a bit pejorative, it is a tongue-in-cheek designation.)
Euros truly drove the board game industry resurgence. tend to be heavy on mechanics, don’t rely on luck or combat, and stereotypically have very dry themes. Lots of Euros have a reputation of being “multiplayer solitaire”–the lack of combat mechanics means you can usually only affect other player’s indirectly (by taking the moves they wanted to take, or picking up cards that would help them just to spite them). The most established name in Euros is Agricola by designer Uwe Rosenberg, in which you’re a farmer trying to feed your family. BoardGameGeek is the board game equivalent of Goodreads, and Agricola, released in 2007, was voted #1 on the site for over two years. Yup, that’s #1 out of every board game you can think of. It presented a meaty game, with endless replayability thanks to the variable cards and, because of the imminent threat of your family starving, tension you could cut with a knife. It was the old style game of sitting round your table for hours, filled with analaysis paralysis as you decided your next move and bemoaned everyone else taking a full 20 minutes to decide theirs. But it was also extremely unfriendly to new players–on top of the bland theme, the rules are complex, the game unforgiving of mistakes, and if you play with anyone who knows it much better, you’ll be left in the dust.
Euros have been getting more exciting since, mind: Feast of Odin, by the same designer as Agricola, lets you play as Vikings, exploring and setting up your villages, and is just one example. But what they’ve really succeeded at is being more inviting to new players, with more intuitive rules, and the ability to right any mistakes you make in the early game.
Ameritrash, on the other hand, relies much more heavily on luck-based mechanics and combat. Much is dependent on dice rolls, and there’s a ton of conflict and generally more interaction overall. Ameritrash games are sometimes called “thematic” games, since the games tend to be immersive, and gameplay is dictated by the setting and characters.
Within Ameritrash and Euro, there are also plenty of subgenres, but they are too vast to cover here.
Of course, this is very prescriptive, and many games don’t fit either genre–for instance, party games are a genre onto themselves. Many games straddle the lines between Ameritrash and Euro besides.
But caveats aside, unsurprisingly, science fiction and fantasy games are usually Ameritrash, but that’s not always the case.
Maybe you want a game that won’t scare of your non-board gaming friends, with a doorstopper rulebook or needing to set aside a day to play. Or maybe you want to unwind at the end of long play session with something light and fun. Perhaps you just don’t want to spend an hour setting up all the fiddly pieces! If that’s you, these are the games to grab!
The Resistance: Avalon
The Resistance: Avalon is my absolute go-to game for newbies and big crowds. The game accommodates 5-10 players, and plays in about 20 minutes. You’re each handed a card, which contains your secret role that you must keep closely guarded. Some of you are straight-shooting men and women of Merlin, but a few will be sinister Minions of Mordred who must pass themselves off as good guys. And one of you? One of you gets to be Merlin, who is the only good guy who knows who the Minions are. You must gently guide your fellow Arthurian Knights towards victory, without tipping the bad guys off–because if the Minions work out who you are at the end of the game, they’ll win by assassinating you!
This game is all social deduction–players will get a chance at being the “King”, and decide who goes on missions with them. If they pick Minions of Mordred, the Minions can and probably will purposefully fail the mission. And so, the accusations begin flying around the table as you try to read each other’s poker faces, try to remember who went on what mission, and check if anyone is giving another player meaningful looks… This game is lively as hell, and the perfect start or end (or both!) to an evening, because you can play so many rounds in quick succession. You can also have fun trying out different techniques to deduce or deceive.
Once you’ve worn yourself out on the basic mechanics, you can then add in special characters cards, such as Oberon, who is a Minion ignorant of who their fellow bad guys are, or Morgana, who impersonates Merlin.
If you want to play a game where the story unfolds around you, there’s the Zombies, Run! Board Game! We released this just last year, and it has 10 hours of audio narrative, including guest encounters by Elizabeth Bear, Joanne Harris and more. The story starts as you arrive on an island on holiday, and just as your plane lands, the zombie outbreak begins. You know, typical vacation shenanigans. You and your friends will play a real-time card game while listening to a story on the app – and you’ll have to make snap decisions, figure out both physical and digital puzzles (some of which come in super secret envelopes!) and navigate the island without getting caught by zoms.
It makes for an interactive, fast-paced game that can be played in as little as 30 minute chunks, with an app that saves your progress (with no input needed from the players!) so you don’t have to spend ages setting up at the beginning of each play session. Perfect for those who don’t want to commit to a 3-hour sesh.
These games are slightly more complex, but still fun and interactive. Great for when you want to while away an evening, creating stories with your friends.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
Nothing says Ameritrash quite like Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s one of my favorite lightweight games, developed by Wizards of the Coast, with all sorts of amazing guest writers in the brand new expansion. Each player gets a character with different levels of sanity, intelligence, strength and speed, which can change depending on what happens in the game. You then get to go out exploring a haunted house, with room tiles that make your game table into a beautiful tapestry, and each new game delivering a brand new house. Sort of dungeon crawler lite!
As you come across rooms with an omen icon, you must roll to check if the betrayal has begun. That’s because, at some point in the game, one player will become the Traitor–and will get one of 50 scenarios (in the base game, with 50 more in the new expansion) to play out. The Traitor and the survivors are then given two different rulebooks, and have no idea what the other party’s objectives are. They could be a giant snake that, each turn, grows much larger. They could be a vampire, who only has until sunrise to kill you…
I can’t say more without spoiling scenarios, but this is such a fun little game. It allows you to create stories–of the time you and your fellow survivors desperately needed to get down to the basement to retrieve an artefact but couldn’t for the life of you find the elevator, or the time one of you accidentally set off a bomb too early, blowing everyone to smithereens, or… You get the idea.
Unfortunately, not all scenarios are created equal. Some of them are silly or atrociously unbalanced, leading to disappointing and sometimes even boring games. But, some of them are tense and frightening and fantastic. It’s a real mixed bag, but I think the good scenarios are worth it.
Mice & Mystics
Is your group more interested in tabletop RPGs? Mice & Mystics might be a good stepping stone. You play as–you guessed it–mice! With needle blades and thimble helmets, this game is a delightful Redwall-esque adventure across flagstone kitchens, battling cats and other predators. The game comes with campaigns for you to play through, and beautifully illustrated map boards.
Not only that, but it has detailed figurines for anyone who loves miniature painting.
M&M is also perfect for children and family games, as it is lighthearted, without heavy mechanics. The stories are well-written, and there are a few expansions for when you’ve struggled across the finishing line of the base game.
Sink Your Teeth In
You might already be well-versed in board games, or just aren’t afraid of diving headfirst into some head-scratchers! Here’s the games that take longer to play, but are oh-so-rewarding when you watch your carefully planned strategy fall into place.
Terraforming Mars is one of the few science fiction Euros that is actually thematic. You are—as you may have guessed—terraforming the red planet. Each player chooses a corporation, which helps you decide your strategy. Then it’s off to the races while you try to buy and then pay to play cards that both give you points and resources, and that help increase the amount of oxygen, lower the temperature, and increase ocean coverage on the face of the planet. This latter element means this game is semi-cooperative as you’re all working towards the same goal. But, you can trip up other players by say, increasing temperature to the point in which they can no longer play a card they were holding back.
There is an element of randomness in Terraforming Mars, introduced by the drawing of the cards. But this can be negated by card drafting. Basically, each person draws 5 cards, and then they pick one of the cards to keep. The cards are then passed to the person on their left. The fun thing here is that it introduces a little more interactivity, because you can now “hate draft”! Which, I won’t lie, is one of my favourite things to do. Is the person in the lead building up animal-based cards? Steal them before they can get to them!
This one is pretty atmospheric, and there are tons of ways to win points – so you can play it loads without running out of strategies to try. This is the game that has hit my table the most in the last year, as my play partner just can’t get enough.
Do you like Magic: The Gathering? Well, even if you don’t, Android: Netrunner is a gorgeous, well-thought out, “living” card game. It’s a two-player game that is cyberpunk to its core–this is the lovechild Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. One person plays as a massive corporation, and the other plays as a hacker, trying to break through the corporation’s system. It’s an asymmetrical deck builder, which means you can either play with a rulebook-suggested deck, or build your own out of the cards. There are many different corporations and hackers to choose from, too, so you can figure out the way you like to play.
If you get really into this, there are even leagues and tournaments. But, you can stay small with the base game and still have really varied play. The art is also gorgeous!
You can’t really talk about SFF games without talking about Arkham Horror. This game is huge–both figuratively and literally. Each player works as an investigator (with suitably eye-roll-worthy artwork of women), travelling around Arkham, collecting clues and trying to close gates to stop monsters and horrors crawling through. Each game will have a different big bad for a final battle–Shoggoth, Cthulhu, you know, the usual suspects.
Arkham Horror is a hallmark of modern boardgames, but to me? I just never got into it. The game took me about 4 hours to learn and do a single play through. It’s bloated and the mechanics are ridiculously convoluted. (Plus Fantasy Flight’s older rulebooks are troublesome and not intuitive at all! You might find the mention of a “X” mechanic which “Y” mechanic is reliant on in Page 4, but then “X” mechanic isn’t actually explained until Page 15. That kind of thing.)
The one tip I have picked up, but have yet to try, is having everyone take their turn simultaneously. This will cut down on playtime significantly. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s been a mainstay of the hobby since 1987. It’s clearly stuck around for a reason, and someone out there is enjoying it!
There really is an amazing world of board games out there. If you find you like a particular element or mechanic of one game, a quick scroll through BoardGameGeek’s catalogue will net you 50 other games to try that are similar! Dip your toes in, and you’ll have an out of control collection of beautiful board games in no time.