The never-ending brilliance of board games

18th May, 2023

What is the point of games? For Lizzie Magie, the idiosyncratic genius who inspired Monopoly, the answer was clear: she thought games are educational. Klaus Teuber, the equally brilliant designer of the board game Catan, had a different view: he thought games are fun.

Teuber died at the beginning of April, after a brief illness. I was sorry to hear the news. He was a charming person and seems to have been viewed with great affection in the German board-games industry, the world’s most influential purveyors of cardboard entertainment. He won Germany’s Spiel des Jahres prize four times. The annual honour is awarded to the best new board game, and given their importance in the country, Teuber’s achievement is not unlike a novelist winning a quartet of Booker prizes.

But his greatest triumph was The Settlers of Catan — now simply Catan — which replaced Monopoly in the affections of anyone who knows anything about board games. “Settlers of Catan changed everything,” says James Wallis, a game designer and author of a new history of board games, Everybody Wins. Players gather resources and trade with one another to build cities on an island. Catan is as simple to learn as Monopoly, but vastly more enjoyable — quicker, more interesting when it’s not your turn, building to a climax rather than a grinding elimination of the weak.

There’s no secret ingredient to Catan; it’s just a superbly executed collection of good ideas. “You’re involved with the game at all times but not so much that it demands your complete focus,” adds Wallis, “and although there’s a lot of dice rolling it almost never feels that you’re at the mercy of unfair randomness.”

Catan ushered in the golden age of board games which began in the 1990s and has continued ever since. Cardboard games have thrived despite competition from computers, partly because the internet provided a new way to find the best games and meet other players. When the pandemic struck, sales of Catan soared as people looked for something fun to do at home. Board gamers also flocked to websites that replicated their favourite tabletop games online. We all learnt quickly that Zoom hang-outs can be grim without some kind of activity, and board games are more fun than most other options.

Games continue to evolve. One of the stars of recent years has been Pandemic: Legacy, a game in which all players collaborate to try to contain and then eradicate a deadly virus, and which contains a kind of cursed advent calendar that keeps throwing challenges and new plot twists at the increasingly stressed players. Imagine a cross between Risk and The Last of Us TV series, and you might be close. A little on the nose, perhaps, but it’s incredibly tense; my family is hooked.

There are many reasons to applaud board games. Lizzie Magie patented her Monopoly precursor, The Landlord’s Game, in 1904, and she hoped to use her game to illustrate the benefits of Henry George’s ideas about taxation. It was embraced and adapted by various economic radicals.

Magie was not the first to think of games as teaching life lessons. Milton Bradley’s Checkered Game of Life, from 1860, encourages young players to embrace virtues such as honesty and bravery, while rejecting idleness and other vices. That educational, even moralistic, strain of thinking continues today. Thankfully, modern games wear such pedagogy more lightly.

Almost any good game will have cognitive benefits: the mental arithmetic of instantly summing a pair of dice, or the acts of strategic imagination, surely stimulate the mind. And many enthusiasts emphasise the social benefits of gaming, of getting children to compete in a safe environment, away from their screens. Klaus Teuber himself told The New Yorker about a boy in a sanatorium who didn’t speak to any of the other children until, one day, someone set up a game of Catan. “He came to the other children and started to play,” Teuber said. “Now he gets contact with other people. Catan is the medium for that.”

But there’s a trap in this, something which in a different context the writer Adam Gopnik has termed the “causal catastrophe”. The causal catastrophe occurs when everything has to be done for some other reason; nothing can be worthwhile in its own right. It’s a tempting mistake, and a tragic one. Life must sometimes (always?) be lived for its own sake.

There is nothing wrong with having a good game with some friends, even if nobody becomes a smarter, wiser person as a result. Indeed, when the Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga tried to define a game, back in 1938, one of the defining features he identified was that games were played for their own sake. Games played for some other reason are no longer games.

Teuber understood this better than anyone. He was sure that computers would never entirely replace tabletop gaming. “People miss sitting around the table together, interacting with each other, laughing, joking and talking,” he told me when I met him back in 2008. He has been right ever since, and the lockdowns of 2020 merely underlined his point.

“It is a part of mankind to play games,” he continued. “We played in the Stone Age. We played in Roman times. It’s an escape from the everyday grind. Every day we work hard and we make mistakes, and we are punished for those mistakes. Games take us to another role where you can make mistakes and you don’t get punished for them. You can always start another game.”

Five of the best board games

Agricola (Uwe Rosenberg) Plough fields, invent new technologies and — if you have time — have children. Set aside two hours, but the gameplay is rich and satisfying. All-time favourite.

Colt Express (Christophe Raimbault) A fast, slapstick wild-west train robbery. You’ll get shot, but you won’t get hurt. A delightful family game.

Dominion (Donald X Vaccarino) An elegant, highly adaptable deck-building game. It’s easy to give younger players a head start.

Roll for the Galaxy (Wei-Hwa Huang and Thomas Lehmann) Bucketloads of dice rolls resolve your attempts at galactic exploration, trading and conquest. The online version is rapid and addictive.

San Juan (Andreas Seyfarth) Tactics, strategy and luck all in a portable format make this our favourite for family holidays.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 21 April 2023.

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