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The Joy of Modern Board Games

Depiction of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet
Board games have been enjoyed for thousands of years. This category includes card and dice games, as well as table-top games with proper boards. In the 19th and 20th century, standardized commercial games began to appear, with Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and Hasbro dominating the themed "American board games" market into the late 20th century. This includes popular titles such as Monopoly, Risk, Trivial Pursuit, and Chutes & Ladders. These are the games that many current young parents grew up playing at home.

The Settlers of Catan
In the late 1990's, board games experienced a revolution. New games emerged in Europe (especially Germany) such as The Settlers of CatanThese games combined the accessibility of Monopoly with a level of strategy previously found only in hardcore wargames and role playing games. These quickly became popular around the world. They scaled from family board game sessions to college game nights. This accessibility was due to relatively short play times (compared to wargames and role playing games), strong themes attractive to a wide audience (compared to chess), and the crucial ability to accommodate many players who are not eliminated during play. Many entries in this new genre of "Eurogames" drew on advances in design from video games and from mathematical principles such as set theory.

Today, there are hundreds of well-designed games in this mold. The BoardGameGeek website is an excellent resource for discovering them. I play Eurogames with my students, peers, and family. In fact, my game design course begins with these games and only addresses video games at the end of the semester. I'm not alone in that--game design at most schools builds from board games in the same way that computer science builds from mathematics and digital art from natural media.

The classic introduction to these Eurogames is Settlers of Catan, which is sort of like Monopoly redesigned for fun, strategy, and intelligence. From there, Carcassonne, Dominion, Puerto Rico, Seven Wonders are natural next steps, although there are really so many good games that it is hard to go wrong with anything rated highly on BoardGameGeek. Some of my personal favorites are Space Alert, HiveEminent Domain, and Space Hulk: Death Angel, all of which tend towards hardcore.

A key point for families: children who can perform addition and are just beginning to read are able to play Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. My own children started with Abandon Ship at age four and then graduated to these other games within a year. Even such young children can quickly develop the critical thinking skills of strategic play through these, including minimax logic, basic probability, statistics (well, card counting), and negotiation.

Like many families, we have house rules for our favorite games. As a game developer, author of game textbooks, and game teacher, I try to understand our intuition and motivation for these changes and frame objective arguments for why these rules improve the games. I've written about those in many places previously and will start to collect some of those on this blog. But my first goal in a series of upcoming posts is to begin to publicly document some of our house rules to share them with a wider audience (...and to have a place to point or warn friends before they come to visit.) I'll begin with Carcassonne in the next post.

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor of Computer Science at Williams College, visiting professor at NVIDIA Research, and a professional game developer. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.

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