How board games sum up the meaning of life through colorful cards and painted pieces
Nerd Curious is an occasional series in which Todd VanDerWerff tries the nerdy things he missed as a kid, either due to lack of access, time, or ability. He has a rough schedule planned out, but feel free to use the comments to suggest more nerd experiences he needs to have.
No matter how many times my nephew tries, he can’t save the world.
One by one, cities fall to the dreaded blue plague sweeping across North America and Europe. Paris. Essen. Toronto. Chicago. Atlanta, his home base. He moves personnel in and out of these cities, cleaning up disease, but also hemmed in by it.
And then South America explodes, as does Africa—with a completely different disease. And he’s out of time, out of chances to develop a vaccine, and out of cards. So he reverses time. Puts the cards back in the deck, lets the disease take over Europe again. He tries his best to stop the second disease before it pops up, but this time, the blue one starts to bubble up before an entirely different plague seizes hold of Asia. Again, he reverses, to give the world another chance.
He’s playing a board game called Pandemic. My wife and I introduced him to it, and the three of us have yet to win a game. He’s set up four different places around the board for himself and three imaginary players he controls, in that way of young boys who can’t get anybody else to join them for a game. The rest of us are busy watching a baseball game, but he goes back and forth in time, trying to stop the world from getting gobbled up by one of four different diseases. Every time, something new gets him. He runs out of cards, or there are too many outbreaks, and the situation spirals out of control.
Many of the so-called “European-style” board games that have gained in popularity in the United States in the last two decades aim to simulate some complicated facet of life, be it train service, a power grid, or the settling of a new continent. But Pandemic does as good a job as anything I’ve ever seen of depicting how the world ends, how a small, isolated incident spirals outward until there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it—not even an 11-year-old boy with three imaginary cohorts. Winning Pandemic requires a lot of great strategizing, but it also requires a huge dose of luck. In its own way, it suggests that if, say, Ebola ever breaks out in the midst of civilization, we might as well just give up and hope for the best.
This time, the cities fall in the Middle East, where it’s very easy for the game to get out of hand quickly. (By comparison, if a plague spreads through South America, it’s relatively easy to contain because of the continent’s geographic isolation.) Baghdad and Tehran and Delhi all fall, and he just has the one piece there, trying to mop up. It fails. The world ends.
Back to start. Do not pass go.
The question I aim to answer with every Nerd Curious column is twofold: Why didn’t I get into a given nerd obsession before, and was it rewarding to get into it as an adult? But where the topics of Dungeons & Dragons and Superman offered plenty of opportunity to wax philosophical on the former question, European-style board games don’t. The reason I never got into them is simple: They’re ridiculously expensive. When I was a kid, Monopoly was between $10 and $20, and most American families already had a copy moldering somewhere. Games like Ticket To Ride are around $50. That isn’t awful—it’s roughly the same as a videogame, or taking a family of four to a movie-theater matinee, and it’s only a small fraction of my monthly cable bill. But the sticker shock is still there. Board games aren’t supposed to cost this much, right?
In addition, Euro-style games first started making serious inroads into the U.S. in the ’90s, which would have been precisely when I was paying the least attention to board games, what with going to high school and college. The European movement is so named because most of the designers and companies putting out the games are based in Europe, but that isn’t a prerequisite for the label. The main thing setting these games apart is the general aesthetic, and the sticker shock is a deliberate part of that. The games aim to occupy the void left between the extremely complicated war simulations and tabletop-miniatures games that only a handful of specialists play, and the kinds of board games everybody plays, the ones dragged out to entertain kids or drunk dinner-party guests. They’re lovingly crafted, often gifted with elaborate rules that take a while to explain (but become second nature as soon as players know them), and meant to feel of higher quality than, say, Clue.
Now that Euro-style games have been around for more than a decade, they’re making larger and larger inroads into American culture. Many of the most popular ones are readily available at department stores or bookstores, and Settlers Of Catan, especially, has become something of a crossover sensation. These sorts of games are still just outside the mainstream enough to be played by the nerds on The Big Bang Theory… but they’re popping up on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory. In a real way, they’re not just avoiding the ghettoization that plagues tabletop RPGs and comic books. They’re breaking free of that trap and heading into the aisles of Target, using the specialty game shops they used to exclusively occupy as a sort of farm system that weeds out too-complicated or poorly designed efforts, and lets the most accessible rise to the level of being considered by bored suburban soccer moms at Walmart, at least until they see that price tag.
My journey into the world of European-style board games began with two iPad apps. Board-game companies are increasingly flooding the iPad market because it’s a reliable form of promotion, and they can make a little money at it at the same time. Tablet players likely won’t just buy the initial app. If they get well and truly hooked, they’ll buy expansions and add-ons and new items. The trick is releasing a full enough game with the initial purchase that it invigorates players, while not making it so full that they feel bad about spending more for a new board to play on, or new complications to add into the mix.
One of these two apps is the best gateway drug for European-style board games I’ve seen: Ticket To Ride. An accurate representation of the game’s original U.S. map, the app boasts solid AI and plenty of expansions, including new challenges and additional maps to play on. At its heart, Ticket To Ride is a grand simulation of a race across the country (or Europe, or some other place), a game meant to boil down the 19th-century railroad craze into something enthralling and oddly beautiful. Players take cards that feature a route that must be completed with tiny train pieces, of which they have limited numbers. They trade in cards to use those pieces to link cities. Once any two cities are linked, the players receive points, and they’ll receive points for all completed routes in the endgame as well. Of all of the most popular European-style board games, it’s likely the simplest to pick up (though it takes a handful of games before players understand its intricacies), and when a game has the maximum of five players (particularly in real life), the boards become unexpectedly beautiful, with kaleidoscopes of colors running every which way and trains rushing to reach some hub city in competition with each other.
Designed by Alan R. Moon and originally published in Germany, Ticket To Ride is, on its best maps (particularly the European map), perhaps the best-executed Euro-game I’ve played. There’s a nearly perfect balance between strategy and luck, and the game finds ways of rewarding and punishing just about any strategy you over-rely on. Cutthroat players are forced to choose the exact moment they want to stab another player in the back. Built-in mechanisms ensure that point-chasers can eventually screw themselves over. The best board games offer unexpected thrills, a moment when the simulation becomes real and the player achieves an impressive kind of clarity, and there’s nothing like a Ticket To Ride game where a player realizes that, hey, even with only five trains left, they can hook Seattle to New York for a huge number of points. It’s simple enough for casual play and deep enough for someone who’s really into the robber-baron era being depicted.
The other app that rapidly sucked me into this world was Carcassonne, another German game from designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, yet one that tips more toward the abstract side of the board-game spectrum. In some ways, the iPad version of Carcassonne is better than the board-game version for newbies, if only because it features soothing music and takes care of all of the scoring. (This can be a very complicated game to score.) Yet there’s something exciting about the board-game version all the same, in that it’s the very definition of taking a formless space (a blank tabletop) and putting something there (in this case, a medieval city, built tile-by-tile by competing players). The more add-ons a given player purchases, the larger the joint creation becomes, allowing for additional points or different strategies.
It can take a while to pick up Carcassonne, but what it loses in instant accessibility, it makes up for in handsomeness. This might be the most beautiful of the games I’ve tried, on iPad or in reality, and the feeling of constructing something together with others is palpable, particularly as the game reaches its end, and there are fewer and fewer places to put that long, straight road tile. Some games sprawl all over the place, but the best, most competitive games tend to cluster, until it really does seem like players are building a city that’s stepped out of the past, and making it come to life would be as easy as simply stooping down to hear the church bells and squabbles in the market square.
Pull back far enough, and you can see the whole. Zoom out all the way, and it will all make sense. If you could just see everything that was happening, you could put things in a row and watch all of the dominos fall. To see everything that has ever happened, to understand every decision someone has ever made, that’s the way to perhaps understand yourself, why you do all the things that don’t make any sense, why you’re stuck in a relationship you hate or why you can’t break that bad habit or why you’re not happy anymore, for God’s sake.
The earliest known board game is senet, which was played by the ancient Egyptians. We have copies of boards and pieces dating back to 3500 B.C., and though nobody really knows how it was played, we have some guesses. Fittingly, the popularity of the game was tied into the Egyptian religion. Like all board games, it relied on a healthy amount of luck, and those players who were particularly successful were said to be blessed by the gods, as the Egyptian religion was heavily into determinism, the idea that everything you do is dictated by some god somewhere, flailing away at a papyrus scroll or a tapestry. Just as the pieces in a board game don’t control their actions, you don’t either, goes the thought. Whether it’s a god somewhere, or we’re all characters in a novel, or we’re just a collection of psychological tics we’ve been powerless to escape since we were toddlers, determinism says, “Hey, you don’t really have control.” (Just another way around the one rule.) Successful senet players—and even those who weren’t, but wanted some sort of path through the afterlife—were buried with elaborately beautiful sets, the better to find the way forward through the mists after death.
We also have plenty of games that existed centuries ago, but are still played today. Forms of chess date back to at least the sixth century, and backgammon is almost as old as senet. Checkers and Parcheesi have similarly long histories, and Go, the Chinese game that’s found increased popularity in online settings, stretches back centuries as well. For the most part, these games seem to be increasingly abstract simulations of battleground tactics. It’s obvious how this relates to chess, but it’s a bit more unclear the further out you go. What battle, for instance, would have any relation to backgammon? Yet there is the idea of getting pieces to a safe space and making that space less safe for your opponent, warfare boiled down into colorful squares and tiny pieces.
The evolution of the board game, grossly oversimplified, follows these two tracks as well. Some games are rough simulations of some larger, more complicated thing. Other games are deliberate abstractions that bear no real relation to reality. Think about it in terms of the two most famous games the United States has produced, Monopoly and Scrabble. Monopoly, which emerged out of the weird snap that was the Roaring Twenties becoming the Great Depression, is a simplified simulation of the Atlantic City real-estate market, particularly if you play by the actual rules. (Monopoly has a reputation as this long, unwinnable game that eventually bores everybody playing it to tears, but if you play by the rules that come with the game, it’s relatively fast-paced. The house rules so many players use are what drag the thing out.) Scrabble, on the other hand, is just letters forming words in a formless void, with occasional squares granting extra points. It’s possible to argue this as a sort of crossword-puzzle simulation, but even that’s far more abstract than what Monopoly is trying to do.
All of these games are abstractions and simplifications, and there are many types of simulations and abstractions, sub-categories like war games (like Risk) or story games (like Clue) in the simulation category, or word games (like Boggle) or party games (like Apples To Apples) in the abstraction category. If I were forced to bring a definition to all of this, it would be this: Simulation board games attempt to bring chaos to order, while abstract board games attempt to bring order to chaos. Monopoly is a rigid space that becomes different every time through play. Scrabble is a formless void, and even if every game is different, the very act of playing installs a sort of order to its emptiness. Simulations start with certain fixed variables. Abstractions are often all variables.
In their own way, each form of board game is seeking the meaning of life.
A few years ago, I tried to write a short story in which a man tried to reconstruct his dead lover through words, hoping to create an accurate simulation of her. The not-so-deep idea (which I, naturally, thought was incredibly deep) was that art can only be a simulacrum of reality. You can describe a woman in all the myriad ways she existed, yet never capture who she really was, what she thought, what she looked like. Yet art is a gateway to something, a key in the lock that opens the door to the great systems that roll behind us, that can only be understood in very simplistic forms because we’re limited by our own perceptions. My protagonist wanted to simulate a woman, but the simulation was sand between his fingers, just as my prose could never hope to recapture the feelings of loss and hopelessness I was experiencing at the time
Art is just a simulation. Religion is just a simulation. Politics is just a simulation. Sports, philosophy, psychology, language, maybe even science… they’re all just simulations. Everything that becomes known only opens up more unknowns, and the further back you pull, the more you realize that the space behind you is infinite, and you can never get far enough back to take it all in. They’re attempts to construct series of rules that will bind infinity and make it manageable. Or, put another way, what goes up must come down, until Albert Einstein comes along and says, “Almost always, but let’s expand on that idea just a bit.”
We’re cursed with the knowledge that everything we do either has a deep, purposeful meaning, or no meaning at all. The drive behind board games is all about order and chaos, about finding a space where you can comfortably pull back and see everything. If you can just put a fence around reality, you can create a space where you are, effectively, God, or at least one of a number of gods competing to create something out of nothing, or give something a good dose of nothing. And the best games, the ones that really matter, go out of their way to hop the fence, to get up in your face until the world is ending, so all you can do is hope to contain the chaos.
And really, how is that any different from really, strongly believing in any creed, hoping it will bring meaning to life and re-order all the systems that no longer seem to make sense? Maybe the Egyptians had it right. Maybe we’re all just playing long games that are determined by others rolling the dice and moving our pieces. Maybe we keep inventing sets of rules because without them, we realize with a wild terror how little we know, and how impossible it is to bring complete order to the world around us, no matter how we might try to tame it. We have the one rule or the Golden Rule or whatever you want to call it, but it’s hard enough to follow that we go ahead and invent Everything Else, and every fence we put up, we soon jump right over.
The game that really brought European-style board games to the masses was Settlers Of Catan, which was first published in the mid-’90s in (again) Germany. Designed by Klaus Teuber, the game is the foremost example of a kind of game that’s become more and more popular since Catan was first published: the resource-management game. The basic idea is that you and the other players are settling a newly discovered island (or continent, in some of the more far-flung expansions), and you compete to place settlements in the areas most advantageous to collecting certain resources, which you can then use to build more settlements, or exchange for the resources you really need. The game ends when one player reaches a certain number of “victory points,” attained via building more and more stuff, achieving certain goals, or buying certain cards.
What’s fascinating about Catan—and what might have made it so popular—is how easily it straddles the line between simulation and abstraction. Yes, it’s literally a settlement simulation, but it’s also almost endlessly customizable. You can rearrange the map in any order you like. You can make it more or less difficult to obtain certain resources. You can win through a variety of strategies. It’s a small-scale re-creation of reality, yet reality keeps shifting. There’s something fascinating about the way the game is recognizable as itself, though it’s completely different from session to session, based on how you move a few pieces around.
I first played Catan at a local board-game convention, the other side of one of the conventions put on by the Strategicon organization, whose February convention I attended when writing about tabletop RPGs. The board-game halves of these conventions are wildly entertaining, but in a different way. Where the RPG section takes place in a series of small rooms and encourages players to get to know each other, the board-game section takes place in a giant, open area, with table after table full of people playing any number of games, from the less-complicated Ticket To Rides of the world all the way up to the most elaborate war games, which can go on for hours on end. (There’s also the occasional marathon session of Apples To Apples, which players are encouraged to drop in and out of at will.) The activity lasts all day over the course of a long weekend, and it’s common to wander through at 3 a.m. and find numerous small games going in all corners of the room.
Yet where the RPG section was conducive to meeting people and getting to know them, the board-game section was more insular, more closed-off. People weren’t unfriendly or impolite, and there was certainly plenty of joshing and trash-talk around the tables. But the focus tended to be on playing the best game possible, on maximizing the moments of luck to better build out strategy, not on collaborative storytelling. It was less to my liking than the RPG side, but I can see where it’s addictive all the same. The more board games I tried, the more I saw that there was less conversation on average than in the RPG world, but also far more variety. The idea of “board games” is wide and encompasses so many different things that it’s difficult to pin it down definitively. I participated in a team Ticket To Ride game where my wife and I weren’t even allowed to talk to each other, but I also played Pandemic with two super-sharp kids who worked with my wife and me to very nearly win, before we were overwhelmed in the end.
That sort of cooperative game ultimately speaks to me most, so I vowed to try perhaps the most popular cooperative game, Arkham Horror. Like Pandemic, Arkham Horror is about a number of players teaming up against the board, which works to defeat them at every turn, as more and more Lovecraftian monsters invade a small town. But where Pandemic is usually over within 45 minutes, Arkham Horror can last five or six hours, more like Shadows Over Camelot, one of the original players-vs.-board games to attain widespread success. (I also tried Camelot. It’s all right, but nothing on the other two.)
The game of Arkham I sat in on lasted four hours. I was told repeatedly before we began that we would not win, that the fun is in seeing how close we can come to closing the Old Ones out of Arkham before they inevitably pour in and devour us all. Characters gain and lose cash, get beaten up and lose health, and slowly have their sanity drained by lumbering beasts. It’s a simulation game, sure, but it’s also similar to the RPGs I fell in love with when I first tried them out. The longer we played, the more frantic things became, and the more we became convinced there was no way forward: Arkham was going to be destroyed, no matter what we did.
And then something wonderful happened. We realized we could win. We just had to make sure everything was done just right.
The great thing about a cooperative game is that everybody feels as if they’re working together toward some larger goal, but everybody also has a smaller goal within that larger drive. I, for instance, was tasked with closing a particular gate into the netherworld from which monsters were spilling forth, and once that was accomplished, I went about mopping up the monsters in the street. It was all controlled by card-draws and dice-rolls, but it started to feel real, like we were really able to see everything that’s going on, and had complete control of the situation. The Old Ones, the unknowable terrors, were no match for us. For just a little bit, we found a way to rein in the simulation, to take control of reality just a bit.
It worked. We won. The gates were closed, the monsters were defeated, and we congratulated each other on a good game. In the best European-style games, even the more competitive ones like Catan or Ticket To Ride, the board becomes its own work of art. It’s a place where players work together to create a story of some other world, a place where order and chaos work in tandem to create something wonderful.
There’s a song I really love from the musical The Light In The Piazza called “The Beauty Is.” The concept of the musical is that the mother and daughter of a well-to-do Southern family travel to Europe in the mid-20th century. While there, the daughter meets a young Italian man. The two can’t communicate, but a quick attraction arises between the two, leaving the mother to consider whether she should tell the young man the truth about why her daughter seems so sweet and innocent. (I’m not going to spoil it.)
“The Beauty Is” arises early in the first act, and it’s the first we really hear from the daughter. She’s wandering a museum, looking at classical sculptures of male nudes, her mind slowly opening to all of the things she’s never even thought about. Surrounded by simulations of the male form, she gets a brief look at what’s behind those forms, the unexpressed desires and haunting loneliness that have plagued her since she was a young girl. The “Beauty” of the song’s title is that which we can never fully grasp, that bright and shining thing that lies behind anything that seems to transcend our own lives.
All of our simulations, systems, games, and pretend often seem to be driven by how little we can grasp that moment. We catch glimpses of it, like the girl in the song, but they float away as soon as the moment ends. Eventually, you stare long enough, and it’s just a statue, or it’s just a bunch of musicians playing together, or words on a page, or people running around on a field, or a beautiful, hand-crafted board that promises to unlock secrets. And after a moment, it’s gone. We build our simulations to get a better look at the mystery, but the mystery remains elusive. We have one rule, but it’s not enough. We want the whole book, to tell us how many spaces to move, how many dice to roll, how close we can get before it all whirs to an end.
So we come back, again and again, hoping this is the time we get a good, long look before it swims off into the cracks left between everything.
My nephew comes close, but he can’t stop the end of the world. While Pandemic is fun for a game or two, there’s also a certain limit to contemplating the end of all things and your own death in a global epidemic. Yet for whatever reason—maybe because he’s 11, and the notion of the world ending is still just a nightmarish fairy tale to him—he keeps plugging away. He wants to beat the game, to assert his control over the fake disease that keeps hopping the fence and rushing through his defenses.
Maybe the game he drew was unwinnable. Supposedly, if you take the exact right course of actions, you can win any game of Pandemic, but I have my doubts about this. My nephew seems to have exhausted all possibilities of this game, and he’s no closer to figuring it out. Maybe he just needs a pair of fresh eyes.
Eventually, he, my wife, and I all sit down to play a quick game, the low summer drone of the baseball game a sort of soundtrack. The disease starts out nicely spread out, and we think we have things in hand, but as these things often go, it quickly starts to spring up where we’re not prepared for it, and then it just keeps spilling over all our lines of defense, and we’re in a mad scramble to not lose too badly. The world goes down to an inglorious death, and somewhere in the little board-game world, the disease runs rampant, maybe even consuming us. We’re too late.
That’s the beauty of this game—of any game. Once the world ends, we can clear the board and start again, and maybe this time, we’ll win. Or figure something out. Or build something wonderful together. It’s a simulation of something awful, but if we just string the right actions together, we might gain a kind of power over it, the kind of control we’ll never have outside of this rigidly defined space.
Pieces are swept into bags. Cards are shuffled. We pick new characters. We can win. We just have to do everything just right.
“Let’s play again,” he says. And so we do.
Next time: Ray Bradbury