I was sitting in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, and my wife was holding a gun to my head.
It was a troubling situation, alleviated only slightly by the fact that our son had taken aim at his mom from the other side of the table. He, in turn, was squarely in the sights of a bearded, grinning, pistol-wielding guy who'd joined us just a few minutes previously. It was a Mexican standoff playing out over bagels and Americanos, and it was clearly confusing the shit out of the waitress who'd only stopped by to gather up our empty cups.
Fortunately, no one died that day. The firearms were made of foam, props in a board game called Cash 'n Guns. It puts players in the shoes of gangsters dividing up a pile of loot after a successful heist. Rather than working things out sensibly, like adults, they hold one another at gunpoint and threaten to cold-bloodedly murder anyone who dares to make off with a share of the ill-gotten gains.
If the very mention of board gaming has you rolling your eyes in disgust, I can't say I blame you. The overwhelming majority of games people are introduced to as kids, like Monopoly and Clue, are crap. But as a pure, primal, social experience, Cash 'n Guns manages something with a few bits of cardboard and plastic that the most technically sophisticated video games couldn't hope to match.
Improbably, it's both agonizingly tense and ludicrously funny. Each player has a limited supply of ammunition, and you never know whether the weapon pointed at your face is loaded or not. Players do ridiculous things like brandishing their guns sideways, gangsta style, or busting out quotes from Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry—an almost involuntary reaction to being handed a squishy handgun and a stack of fake banknotes.
If you hadn't already noticed, board games are getting to be kind of a big deal. Recent years have seen a wave of critically acclaimed releases from independent designers and publishers, and while the stereotypical image of a tabletop gamer might be an unkempt and socially inept dude with crippling BO and Cheetos-stained fingers, the truth is that more and more people from all sorts of backgrounds are discovering these games. Sales have been growing steadily for over a decade, and cafés and bars with in-house gaming libraries are opening up everywhere from London to Toronto to Los Angeles.
Where has this all of this enthusiasm come from? Well, it depends who you ask.
Some people will tell you it's part of a general trend for all things analog. Just as vinyl record sales have defied expectations by increasing in spite of digital streaming services, players are turning to board games for a tangible alternative to pixels and polygons.
Others say board games' biggest draw is their fundamentally sociable nature. In an era where much of our entertainment is consumed in a solitary setting, usually while sitting in front of a screen, there's a real thirst for anything that can bring people together in meatspace for some shared fun over a couple of beers.
Both of those theories have some merit, but they overlook the simple fact that board games are amazing these days. Must-play games are coming out on an almost weekly basis, and wherever your gaming preferences lie, there's something out there for you to fall in love with.
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Fancy some epic, Civilization-style empire building? You might want to try Clash of Cultures, which puts you in charge of a small tribe and challenges you to explore strange lands, discover new technologies, and form mighty armies to beat the crap out of your rivals.
Prefer something more lighthearted? Snake Oil casts you and your friends as slimy salespeople attempting to pitch a series of ludicrous products dictated by randomly-drawn cards. How would you try to sell someone a Poop Hook, a Shame Eraser, or a Danger Monkey? More to the point, what the hell are they? It's up to you, and it's hilarious—an infinitely better alternative to the popular but deeply shitty Cards Against Humanity.
Or if you're looking for something to really get your teeth into, a couple of recently released games have experimented with adding ongoing plot elements to their designs—essentially board games with a story mode.
T.I.M.E. Stories is a science fiction game where players travel through time attempting to prevent paradoxes that threaten to destroy reality. A bit like a mix between classic point-and-click video games like The Secret of Monkey Island and films like Duncan Jones's temporal-tinkering adventure Source Code, it deposits players in a mental institution in 1920s Paris.
It's a captivating setting with gorgeous artwork, twisted characters, and an atmosphere of mounting, pervasive dread. As you play you'll discover hidden locations, see off deadly threats, and piece together information in an attempt to unravel the mystery of what's really going on at the asylum.
It's a hell of an achievement, not just as a game but as a piece of interactive fiction. But it's not alone putting its storyline front and center.
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Pandemic Legacy revolves around a group of medics fighting deadly diseases around the globe. Designed to be played a finite number of times, it changes with every game session. Cities fall into chaos as rioting mobs take to the streets. Players' characters form relationships, pick up injuries or suffer mental scars from exposure to traumatic scenes. The result is a gripping, unpredictable plot that can branch off in any number of unexpected directions, gaming's answer to a hit TV drama.
This is the best time there's ever been to get into board games. Is it all a bit geeky? Yes. But if you can park your prejudice for ten minutes, you'll find that that's no bad thing. The cleverest, most exciting, original ideas in gaming today aren't on your PC or your console, they're on your kitchen table. Why would you want to miss out on that?
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