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Counter culture: The revival of the board game

Board games are back, with an imaginative new twist, as a new generation discovers the joys of sociable, tabletop gaming. By Greg Mattocks Evans

Board games were once a vital part of a family Christmas; not only were they centrepiece of any young child's stocking, bit also an enjoyable way to while away post-turkey Christmas evenings in the company of your nearest and dearest.

For a while it seemed to board game was fast becoming a thing of the past, with those battered boxes of Risk, Monopoly and Cluedo destined to spend he rest of their days marooned in the attic as the console became king.

Thanks to a new generation of games designers and entrepreneurs, however, the board game is not only back, it's actually fashionable, too, and sales of board games are booming, up to 20 percent last year according to one survey. Today's board games are not only imaginative, creative and absorbing but some are actually co-operative rather than competitive, with all the players working together to a particular end, be it ending a pandemic or helping the Thunderbirds team to thwart the evil Hood.

It is this sociable element that is key, not only in the playing of some of the more recent board games, but also where they are played, with special cafes springing up all over the country where you can enjoy a cake, coffee or craft beer while playing a game of Ticket to Ride or Catan.

The internet has played its part in the revival of board games; not only are they more easily available, through online retailers, but, thanks to smart phones and tablet, it is often possible to try digital versions of a game before investing in the physical edition.

Social media and online forums have also created a community where 'gamers' can share tips and advice, as well as recommending new games to each other. But perhaps the most important reason is, quite simply, that the new generation of board games is more interesting to play.

Rather than simply involving chance and the roll of a dice (many early board games were essentially variants on Ludo) there is more skill involved in today's games, and there's often an element of storytelling involved as well.

Some games dispense with dice altogether, unheard of for those who were  brought up with earlier board games. That doesn't mean they are hard to play, far from it, and once you have mastered the basic rules they can be much more satisfying. Carcassonne, for instance involves players collectively building a map, while claiming individual chunks of territory, a process that can be both exciting and creative.

There has always been a market for specialist role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, but as this new revival is different, as Peter Wooding, who has been running the game shop Orc's Nest, in Covent Garden, for 30 years explains. Rather than what he calls the "stereotypical gamer", usually single white men, "You now get a lot more couples- young professional, just bought somewhere. They still want to meet up with mates but they don't wamt to go out and get drunk anymore. They like the idea of getting a game out, having a few drinks, a bit of fun for two three hours around the table."

The new board games

The settlers of Catan Since its release in Germany in 1995, The Settlers of Catan, or Catan as it is now known (Mayfair, £44.99), has gone on to be one of the most popular board games in the modern era.

As of 2015 more than 22 million copies have been sold and published in more than 30 languages. It is a classic example of a genre known as the 'Eurogame' where the focus is less on luck and conflict and more on strategy.

Players take on the role of rival settlers landing on a foreign island ans attempt to create the largest and most prosperous colony.

To win, you have to earn victory points,, which are gained by building settlements, cities and interlocking roads. To build these requires resources, which are produced by certain dice rolls. 

What is key to the enduring charm of Catan is the rule that all players can trade resources with each other at any time, even if it is not their turn. This makes for an engaging experience where no one player is left out of the action and often leads to a tense finish with many players on the cusp of winning.

Ticket to Ride One of the finest examples of modern board gaming, Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder, £39.99) is elegant, and simple to lay, but has enough, depth to keep players refining and developing their tactics.

Players compete to claim rail routes across the USA and complete 'tickets'- cards that challenge players to connect far-flung cities by rail.

Since its release in 2004, the game has won countless awards and spawned a series of sequels, including Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails, released in 2016, that gives players the chance to connect routes across the world using shipping lanes as well as rail routes.

The board and pieces are wonderfully detailed which makes for a fully immersive and satisfying experience.

Carcasonne Ask someone what Carcassonne is and they may tell you that it is a Medieval French city, but, increasingly, they may tell you that it is one of their favourite board games-= albeit one where players create the board themselves.

Carcassonne (Z-man Games, £32,99) sees players placing tiles to create a patchworl of the French countryside, complete with roads, cities and monasteries.

Players score points by completing these elements, deploying 'meeple followers' (wooden tokens) as knights, robbers, monks and farmers to score more points than their opponents. 

Like the best of modern board games it is simple enough to pick up but each game presents a fresh challenge. There is also something deeply satisfying about seeing a city form in front of your eyes, created by you and  your fellow players. Carcassonne picked up the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year) award when it was released in 2001.

Thunderbirds A relatively new board gaming idea is the co-operative game, where players are not out to best each other but instead worl together to beat the game. This idea fits seamlesslu with the ethos and atmosphere of Thunderbirds and this crowd-funded boad game (Modiphius, £53.35) sees players tale on the role of the Tracy borthers (or Lady Penelope of course), and attapmt to avert the disasters whilst thwarting the schemes of the evil Hood.

The game is a real test of teamwork and problem-solving skills with several ways to lose.

Focus on completing daring resces and the Hood will cause you downfall, but focus too much on the Hood and  you risk too many disasters going unresolved.

It's certainly a challenge, but a rewarding one, and the pieces and board are lovingly designed.

Family favourites

There are still plenty of traditional board games around too. Word Rush (Tactic Games, £19.99. www.tactic.net), is a game of quick thinking words and categories for ages eight-plus that involves players taking turns to come up with a word that fits the category card from one of nine letters placed on the game board. With a dash against the sand timer and the threat of lost round if you can't come up with a rd, Word Rush is a test of wits, probably best played before, rather than after, the Christmas turkey.

Mr & Mrs (19.99), from Rascals, is based on the Mr & Mrs TV show, where players are challenged to answer in depth and entertaining questions about their partner, friends or family members. It's easy to play and great fun, and with the new Pocket Edition (£9.99), suitable for ages ten plus, you can play whilst on the move.  

As the title suggests, the Really Nasty Horse Racing Game (Rascals, £19.99) is a more unforgiving take on the old Totopoly, the difference being that here it pays to be devious, and winning the most money and therefore the game, can involve a certain amount of subterfuge and mischief-making. It's a great game to play with a group and is suitable for two to six players or teams, aged 12 to adult. And it really can be Christmas every day with The Very Merry Christmas Game (£19.99), also from Rascals, which is suitable for ages eight and above and for two to four players or teams. Players aim to accumulate the most lavish set of presents to full their stockings, ranging from the most covetable to the really naff. You can pull a cracker to steal a better present from someone else's stocking (you can use real crackers for this), or land on the carol singers space and sing your favourite festive song to avoid losing one of your presents. And watch out for the dreaded sprout cards.

What do you think of this article? Are you keen on board games? 

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