Back in college, a friend of mine would disappear for the better part of every Saturday, returning sometime around dinner from something he called the “Gaming Club.” Occasionally, we would actually have to seek him out, which meant a voyage to the upper level of the student union, where he and fifteen other friends were spread out in a conference room amid opened boxes of exotic-looking board games, debating over rules or wrapping up a walk-through of a new arrival.
I grew up with board games as a family pastime, one that lasted about as long as the most easily-frustrated gamer could tolerate losing. As we got older, the appeal of old standards like Candy Land and Trouble grew stale, and no one could relish playing through an hours-long rendition of by-the-book Monopoly, so the games found a home on a shelf, collecting dust. By comparison, my friend’s college exploits seemed reminiscent of the “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer and Newman tote a mid-game RISK board through the streets and subways of Manhattan, each unwilling to trust the other out of sight. Their gatherings were not as adversarial, and the games they chose were far removed from Candy Land.
I was into computer gaming in my college days. We didn’t need a club for that, just a high-speed network. But years later, I would jump down the rabbit hole with my friends, as we began gathering for parties and rekindled what, for many of them, had never really gone away as it did for me. The idea was the same, but much as my friend discovered in college, the experience was far broader than the dusty stack of family standards in the basement.
Welcome back to Game Night.
Game Night with the family is a bonding and coping exercise, bonding through agreement and coping through dissatisfaction. Game Night with friends often invites argument and welcomes discord, as long as it can be settled in the next game. Game Night with the family can be an obligation. Game Night with friends is a welcome diversion for a Friday or Saturday night.
And, of course, Game Night with friends who are into gaming is a lot more open-ended.
Back in college, the world of the tabletop gaming enthusiast, at least from my eyes, seemed more arcane and more untouchable for the uninitiated. Maybe it was the choice of games when we stopped by; maybe we were blinded by the mad rush to the dining hall. There’s certainly a place for the hardcore enthusiast today. But even family gaming has slipped out of the clutches of Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers; some of the modern favorites have found their way into a broader awareness.
The Settlers of Catan, first released in 1995, is a resource-management game that was one of the first “German-style” board games to attain popularity in the United States. So-called “eurogames” or “German-style” games, compared to “American-style” games, favor strategy over luck, minimize direct conflict between players, and don’t rely on player eliminations. Those who have survived a three-hour game of Catan may take offense to those constraints. I’ve described it as the game where “you spend 30 minutes setting up the board and two hours losing your friends.”
Other German-style games include Ticket To Ride (travel a series of train routes from city to city), Carcassonne (build walled cities in medieval France), and Alhambra (think Carcassonne, except with a palatial garden). I first encountered Ticket To Ride among these three, and was blown away by the beauty of the game’s artwork. The boards, cards and tiles of these games are detailed lovingly and extensively, helping to build the world of the game. And when those worlds seem exhausted, expansion sets can add new maps or rules to change the pace of the game.
Sometimes cooperation is the name of the game. That was the case when we broke open Between Two Cities. Each player has to build and plan two cities simultaneously, one with each of their neighbors at the table. Only the lowest-scoring is counted, though, so merely neglecting one partnership is not an option. Similar teamwork is necessary to survive Betrayal At House On The Hill, a Halloween-themed game where the entire party explores a haunted house until one member is revealed to be the traitor behind “the haunt.” From there, the traitor plays to beat the party, and the party plays to defeat the traitor. And in Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, you need to make sure the entire party survives to win.
If driving fast and taking chances sounds more appealing, there’s Formula D. Speed is determined by a roll of the die; the die is determined by what gear you’re in. Don’t go too fast, or you’ll find yourself managing how much of the car you can “use up.” And there’s always the completely irrelevant. Some friends acquired a game called Velociraptor Cannibalism based on its “Eat your friends!” tagline. It’s not quite that simple, but the game takes a lighthearted look at science as you “evolve” your velociraptor, fight your rivals, and lay eggs to win.
Even party games have come a long way from Pictionary. Among these is the beloved Cards Against Humanity, a decidedly adult take (I can’t bring myself to say “mature”) on the family-oriented matching game Apples To Apples. I remember years ago when a friend unveiled CAH at a party; he had printed the game’s cards to cardstock (they had not yet released a “real” version of the game) and we spent an hour cutting out cards before we could play. The effort was worth it. Now you can buy the game, professionally printed on playing cards, as well as a long list of expansions and knockoffs. And now, you can suffer the embarrassment of losing at Cards Against Humanity to your siblings or your parents.
Admittedly, even our twisted minds have found CAH to be too predictable. The new party-game darling in our circle is Monikers. Drawing from an extensive and growing library of cards listing both important things and infamous Internet memes, each team must guess the cards at hand through three rounds: a full description of the card, a one-word description, and some form of charades. Acting out the Doof Warrior from “Mad Max: Fury Road” may be the high point of my charades career.
Game Night can be part of an existing party, or an excuse for a gathering all its own. And as the nights are still too cool for outdoor revelry, this is a great time of year to rediscover an old game or a new favorite.