The Modern Alternatives to “Classic” Board Games pt. 1
Cardboard Reality really isn’t for those people that don’t play board games. I know that and don’t expect non-gamers to be frequent listeners. We talk about so many mechanisms, publishers and game titles, I don’t understand how our regulars keep up.
There comes a moment for a gamer when they are explaining a game or a non-gamer is listening to someone talk about a game. The board is described, and it’s a picture of the world map as we know it. The first question out of the non-gamer’s mouth is “So, is the game like Risk?”
A gamer would instantly think “no,” but in writing this, I’ve been thinking “why don’t we play those games?” Those who have played an array of games can pinpoint good game design. Those that haven’t really can’t distinguish the minute rules that can make a game good or bad. And to be honest, that is not their fault. The way board gaming works for the masses is to revere a small handful of classics instead of ushering in the modern designs that work to shape and perfect what we’ve learned over time.
This series of articles is for people that want to make that comparison. We’ve all played mass market games, and to be honest, they have flaws that stick out once apparent. This series seeks to speak on the appeal of the mass market games, ask why they aren’t generally played by hobby gamers and provide a modern alternative to those games.
Talk about a classic. Connect Four has been sold to the masses by Milton Bradley since 1974. We’ve seen dozens of games all about lining up a certain number of things in a row, all the way up to seeing it in to modern designs. Connect Four is one of those iconic games you see kids and adults playing.
It is a game beloved in its simplicity. Each player takes turns dropping a piece in the grid. First one to line up four wins. It’s as simple as Tic-Tac-Toe. It also has the slider on the bottom of the grid to drop all the pieces. Games can be played, reset, and started over with ease, especially with the 10-minute playtime noted on the box.
The biggest problem with Connect Four is that the game is solved. James Dow Allen and Victor Allis both independently solved the game in October 1988. It is determined that if the first player begins in the middle column, they can force a win. Both Allen and Allis developed strategies that resulted in them mathing out the states of the game which resulted in wins, losses and draws, all based on which column the first player places their initial piece.
With that in mind, there is also very little depth to find from the game. Because of the way the game is played, there are only really seven choices to make on your turn. When a piece is dropped, it goes immediately to the bottom. So even though there are 42 spots on the grid, you cannot pick and choose where to place them like in the game of go, for instance. (Note: I am not suggesting go as the alternative. While a good game with immense depth, the game can really melt the brain of beginners.)
My replacement for Connect Four is one that is similar in that you’re looking to make a connection of like-colored pieces, but this time the number is five-in-a-row. The game I’m talking about is called YINSH. While it may have one of the oddest names you’ve seen for a game, YINSH is as silky smooth as abstract strategy games come.
On your turn, you move one of your rings. Next,place one of the stones with your color face-up inside the ring, then move the ring as far as you want across the board until it hits another ring. If the ring jumps over a stone, it goes until the first vacant spot, stops immediately, and then flips the disk to the opposite side, regardless of which player’s color is showing. If it jumps over a line of stones in a row, it flips ALL of them to the other side just the same.
When five of your stones are lined up in a row, they are removed from the board, along with one of your rings, which goes on your score track. First one to get five-in-a-row three times is the victor.
YINSH offers a lot of the positives that Connect Four has, but with more fluid gameplay. Both are about lining up pieces of the same color. Both are about setting up your opponent to make a mistake. But YINSH has a wealth of decisions. Do I risk flipping this line of pieces of mine and my opponent’s to get them to move a ring? Should I move my ring to block my opponent from being able to flip my set of four stones? Which ring should I remove now that I’ve gotten my first five-in-a-row?
I want to give a quick caveat. While I am a HUGE fan of YINSH, this comes with a slight warning that the game is between printings. As of January 2, 2019, the current price for a new copy of YINSH on Amazon is around $120. While I adore the game and it is one of my two favorite abstract games of all time, it is not worth paying $120. I have heard word that the publisher Rio Grande Games is looking at reprinting the game early this year. Keep an eye out for it once it hits stores around the world.
What Players Love: Simplicity, familiar concept, quick
Game Flaws: Solved, limited decisions
My Alternative: YINSH
Trouble and Sorry
Let’s continue with a twofer to get the people excited for this series. Trouble is a game that is best known for the bubble in the center of the board to roll the die, which is nothing but a gimmick if we’re all being honest. However, I will admit that it prevents the die from rolling all over the table or falling onto the floor. But it’s just a way to roll the die.
Sorry is quite similar, using cards with a few special abilities as opposed to rolling the die. Sorry also added the sliders where the players can receive a small boost in movement when landing on them. Otherwise, both games have the same basic idea: first to get their player pieces in their final spots wins.
What people like about Trouble and Sorry is that they are both mean, specifically when you land on another player’s piece, their piece has to go back to their starting positions. But that’s also the big flaw to the game. While players love that “meanness” of the two games, it is random when you send other players back to start. And what does that do for the game? Only extends the time players must play. In addition to what has been mentioned, what is the theme for either Trouble or Sorry? Most wouldn’t identify them as an abstract game.
To scratch those same itches, I picked out The Downfall of Pompeii. The Downfall of Pompeii is played in two parts: the settling of Pompeii and the escape from the city. In the settling of the city, you are playing cards with numbers on them to get your player pawns into buildings of the matching number, so for fans of Sorry, it uses cards to get pawns out on the board. But in Downfall of Pompeii, you have a hand of cards instead of flipping a card and doing what it says.
Once the final omen card is drawn, Mount Vesuvius erupts. No more player pawns are added, and now the ones on the board are rushing to escape. Similar to Sorry and Trouble, you’ll be moving pawns around the board to get to one of the city’s seven exits. But this isn’t an easy strut to safety.
When a player takes their turn in this phase, they draw a tile out of the bag that represents the lava falling from the sky or flowing through Pompeii. Each tile has a symbol on it matching a spot on the board. The active player places that tile on the square matching the symbol or adjacent to lava with that same symbol. If there is a pawn on the square, the pawn dies (morbid, I know. It’s abstracted in the game) and is tossed in the actual volcano that looms near the city walls.
The lava tiles scratch two itches for Sorry and Trouble fans. For starters, the volcano is a gimmick. You get a nice chuckle every time you chuck a pawn or two into the pit. But really, it’s nothing but a spot to put the removed pawns. What else the lava adds is meanness, like you would get in Sorry and Trouble. The big benefit is that it is not random. You get to pick where you place the tiles instead of people at the fate of a die roll or card draw with zero choice.
The Downfall of Pompeii is a fairly easy game to get into as well. It’s a step up from Trouble and Sorry, but will be a fun one to play with family and friends who are both gamers and non-gamers.
What Players Love: Pop-o-Matic dice rolls, moving around the board, being mean to other players
Game Flaws: Random movement, having to roll/draw certain number to start AND finish, extended time from “meanness”, lack of theme
My Alternative: Downfall of Pompeii
Apples to Apples
While the other games I’ve “replaced” stick to playing 2-4 players at most, Apples to Apples is my first example of a party game we all know about. And it’s another one that is easy: cards are given to players, a question is asked by that player’s judge, and everyone submits what they think best answers the category, even if it in no way relates to the question at hand. The choices are judged, a person gets a point and the judge role is passed.
Apples to Apples is another one that is easy to understand. Pick a card and see if people agree with what you’re thinking.
It’s a game that is all about developing a nice laugh. Name something patriotic: mashed potatoes. Name something quiet: NASCAR. Name something useful: a toaster. While all three of those are debatable, you might find a judge in the right mood and remember watching NASCAR growing up and falling asleep if you put it on mute. And it makes for a great laugh when that happens.
Where Apples to Apples falters is the lack of creativity. Similar to the adult version of this game, Cards Against Humanity, the jokes in Apples to Apples tell themselves. When you think of a joke, listeners are always waiting for the punchline. It’s that line that hits them in the gut for a laugh. Apples to Apples has a punchlines, but they’re handed to the players. The laughs are generated not from funny people, but a funny mishmash of cards. AKA, the jokes tell themselves.
In a similar manner, you will be seeing a lot of the same cards pop up, potentially even in the same game. While it may generate a nice laugh the first time you see it, the humor in that card dwindles each time. You’re almost expecting it once you know the cards well enough.
To respond to those flaws, I’m here to provide you with my alternative, Snake Oil. It is very similar in formula to Apples to Apples, but gives the players a platform to show their own creativity and humor. The judge in Snake Oil picks from two roles on a card, representing who the others are selling a product to, examples being a sorority sister, a vampire, a student or a dog. The players reveal two cards from their hand, combining them to make a single product that the judge should buy after performing a sales pitch.
As you can see, while the games are similar, Snake Oil offers the ability for hilarity through acting and smart combinations. Roleplaying is common, from both the sales people and the customer. It’s a spectacle to be a spectator as much as it is to be a performer. And due to the card combinations plus the creative minds players bring to the table, you get a much less repetitive experience compared to Apples to Apples. Each person will have a different style of delivery and sales-pitch script.
What Players Love: Laughs, outrageous answers, simplicity
Game Flaws: Lack of creativity in jokes, zero punchlines, repetitive
My Alternative: Snake Oil