I listen to a lot of podcasts.
One of my favorites is The Dice Tower, which is the most impressive board gaming podcast available. The Dice Tower is worthy of a full review and I’ll get on that soon, but for now suffice to say that it’s a podcast that you should be listening to.
I’d qualify that by saying, “if you like board games,” but let’s be real. You’re reading my blog. It’s a given.
In their most recent episode, #350 (yes, Tom Vasel has 350 weekly podcasts about board games under his belt. The man is a machine), they did a Top Ten list of board games that were important to them from their childhood, games that had a big impact on the gamers they became.
I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately and this list struck a chord, so I decided to put my own list together. This list is not in order of importance or quality, it’s just ten games that influenced my future as a gamer. Also note that I am not including role playing games in the list.
Without further ado:
1. Checkers - Checkers is one of the earliest board games I learned and was taught to me by my grandmother. Almost every visit to her house included a game of Checkers and it was something I looked forward to. It was the first abstract strategy game I learned, but more importantly it came to represent the bond that gaming can create between friends and family, and bonds like that don’t get much stronger than between a little kid and his grandmother. We played other games too, but Checkers was our favorite and I can still picture her study, her chair, and hear the sound of her clock while we played.
2. Chess - My grandmother taught me Checkers. Chess was the game my father taught me. Dad gave me my first set and taught me the rules. He gave me an instruction book that I greatly enjoyed, one which I have passed on to my own son. Playing Chess with my father was something I looked forward to. Beating him was an elusive goal that, when finally achieved, was a great victory.
Chess was also the first game that I spent a lot of time playing with my friends. For a while in high school we had an informal club that played every day. We were never good enough to play competitively and didn’t take it that seriously, we just enjoyed the game. For a while I collected Chess sets and I still own quite a few.
I still enjoy Chess, though I’ve gotten rather rusty. I especially enjoy historical variants of the game, my two favorites being Byzantine and Papal Chess. The first is played on a round board, setting the armies up back to back. The second includes a stationary piece in the center of the board to represent the pope and includes an alternate victory condition. Instead of checkmate, if you have a piece close enough to control the pope, without interference from an enemy piece, you win. The political commentary is not subtle and it was not appreciated by the Papacy. Apparently until the early 20th Century there was a canon law on the books that said you could be excommunicated for playing Papal Chess.
How many board games can say that?
3. Trivial Pursuit - Trivial Pursuit was the first game I remember that caused a pop culture stir. When it came out it was THE big thing and everyone had to have a copy. It’s the first game where my parents and I went over to my best friends’ house specifically so that we could all play the game together.
The rules are nothing special and there were plenty of times we dispensed with the “game”, grabbed the box, and started asking each other questions. But what Trivial Pursuit showed me was that adults could get together for gaming days too, that it wasn’t something limited to kids and that it wasn’t something I had to outgrow.
4. Stay Alive - Stay Alive is a game that I have almost never played, but I was deeply fascinated with it as a kid. For those unfamiliar, you have a grid with marbles on it and slides that control strips of plastic running down and across the grid. The strips have holes in them at different points and on your turn you pull or push one of the levers to shift the strip. If holes in the top and bottom strips line up a marble drops through the trap door. The goal is to drop all your opponents marbles first.
It’s a game of eliminating your foes by dropping them through trap doors! How cool is that!
To this day I love the concept of this game. Is it any wonder I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons? Just imagine if you could combine Stay Alive with lead miniatures and the modular wall system from that horrible Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth game! That would be fantastic!
There is an edition of Stay Alive currently in print, but it’s lame. The classic game was on a 7×7 grid and each slider had several settings. The new version is a 5×5 grid and the sliders look limited to two or three positions. They’re asking $50 for what amounts to a travel version of the classic. I think not.
5. Scotland Yard - This was the game that introduced me to hidden movement, resource management, and asymmetrical warfare, though it would be a while before I knew those terms. All I knew was that it was different from any game I’d played before.
The game is set in London. One player is “Mr. X”, a master criminal on the run. The other players take on the roles of detectives hot on the trail. Players move through the city using cabs, subways, and buses. Mr. X’s location is revealed at different points in the game and the detectives are forced to guess or deduce which way he is going.
It took me a few tries to warm up to this game because the uneven sides seemed unfair, but once I got used to the concept I came to embrace it. The noir crime / secret agent theme of the game didn’t hurt either. It’s a genre that I love but which we don’t see very often. (Honorable mention goes to Stop Thief on this point).
6. Risk - Ahh, my first game of global conquest. These days Risk seems to be looked down on by a lot of gamers, usually after they send 20 troops against two defenders and get their butts kicked because they can’t make a good roll to save their lives. Yes that element of randomness can be frustrating, however the heroic stand is not without its historical precedents, it does lead to memorable games, and lucky dice rolls will not substitute for a sound strategy.
Australia is a death trap!
Risk is a fine transitional game between abstracts like Chess and simulationist war games. Many better games now fill the same niche, my favorite being Shogun/Samurai Swords/Ikusa, but I’m still happy to dive into a game of Risk and watch the dice roll and I credit the game for preparing me to devour those other games when they hit the scene.
Which brings us to…
7. Conquest of the Empire - In the mid-80′s Milton Bradly launched the Gamemaster Series. Their first release was Axis & Allies, which we played the heck out of. However Axis & Allies suffers from one fatal flaw; with competent players the game always resolves itself the way that World War II actually did.
The second game in the series was Conquest of the Empire. This was like Risk in the Roman Empire but with cities, and roads, and catapults, and ships! The basic mechanics of combat were similar to Risk, but the variation of unit types and infrastructure made it a much deeper game. On top of this a rudimentary economy was put in place, causing players to make strategic decisions based on triggering inflation in the Empire.
Shogun (later published as Samurai Swords & currently as Ikusa) was the last in the Gamemaster line and was my favorite. In many ways it was a refinement of Conquest of the Empire, which did have some flaws, but Conquest was the game that raised the bar for what I wanted in that style of game.
8. Uno / Euker - I’m lumping these together. While mechanically they are different they fill the same role among my friends. Both are simple, fast, and fun social games. I discovered both when I was very young and they were games I could play with friends my age and with adults. We could take the game anywhere we went, find a corner, and deal the cards.
And we did.
All through grade school, all through high school, and all through college, Uno and Euker were not far away. They were especially popular during my high school years, when I was part of choir, drama club & stage crew, and several other groups. My junior and senior years it was a lunchtime ritual.
We were also ruthless. We used house rules in Uno that let you stack Draw cards or turn them back with Reverse and Skip cards. We accepted using signals in Euker, as long as you didn’t get caught. It became a point of pride to see who could develop the most subtle signals.
Have deck, will travel.
9. Car Wars - It was 1981 and I was part of a Dungeons & Dragons group that met at a Friendly Local Game Store. I didn’t stay in the group very long, but it was long enough for me to see this small plastic box from Steve Jackson Games sitting on the shelf.
Car Wars. This game blew my young mind. You mean I get to roar down the highway, or scream around an arena, in a car bristling with weapons? It was James Bond! It was Mad Max! It was Hot Wheels! It was…
It was awesome!
And we devoured it. The Armadillo Autoduel Arena was our favorite, but we also had the complete city of Midville for our homicidal pleasure. And when we were not playing on the table, we were playing Autoduel on the Apple II (a horrible game, BUT WE LOVED IT!).
My love of Car Wars is still there. Years later when I’d graduated from university I hosted an online Play-by-Post game. I’d receive moves from the players via email, roll the results myself, use Photoshop to update the arena map, and post it up on a website. It was a lot of work, but we loved it.
With the success of the O.G.R.E. Kickstarter, Steve Jackson Games is looking at revisiting Car Wars and I cannot wait to see the results.
10. Illuminati - Another masterpiece from Steve Jackson Games, Illuminati came out in 1982 and has been wrecking friendships ever since.
In Illuminati each player controls a secret organization bent on covert domination of the world. Each group takes control of other organizations, who in turn take over more organizations, until you have assembled a web of power with your secret society at the center. In the meantime the other players are using their own groups to try and crush you, or aid you, but always for a price.
Most games are confrontational by their nature. Illuminati doesn’t just take this to the next level, it transcends to a higher plain of backstabbing treachery. I won’t say that Illuminati can make Diplomacy look like Candyland.
But I will infer it.
So there we go, my list of ten games that profoundly influenced me as a gamer. How about you? What games did you play that you are still playing now? Or that stick out as having an impact on the geek you’ve grown up to be? I’d love to hear about them.