Board games for which I am thankful

On Thanksgiving, I’ll take this opportunity to highlight some board games I enjoy and some I wish to explore further. On a sociological note, these games are great ways to both enjoy time with friends and family as well as have structured competition. To the lists:

Games I enjoy the most (in rough order starting with my current favorites):

  1. Agricola. My favorite game set in Germany several centuries ago in an agricultural setting. This game has its complications but if you play with the card decks (which provide occupations and minor occupations), there is a lot of variety even as you try to acquire the same elements each game. In other words, it has some predictability alongside intriguing variation. And with the Farmers on the Moor expansion we recently acquired…
  2. Diplomacy. Awesome game, difficult to actually finish since you need seven players and lots of time. It is like Risk but there are no dice: your armies can only advance at the beginning by either cooperating with other players (who support your moves or don’t block them) or fighting them. There is a lot of negotiation. I’ve played a few complete games via email – a round per week – and this involved hundreds of emails.
  3. Race for the Galaxy. It took us forever to read the instructions and understand all the different symbols but the payoff has been really good.
  4. Innovation. This card game is like pursuing the technology tree in the game Civilization but with each player seeing different cards and paths from the Stone Age to now each time. There is a nice mix in the cards allowing actions you can take against other players, things you and other players can both do, and things you can do with your own tableau.
  5. Puerto Rico. Even though the rough idea is similar – build your own social group – to Settlers of Catan, I prefer this one much more. Perhaps it is because you can be a different role each turn? Perhaps because they are no numbers on your hexes deciding your fate?
  6. Trivial Pursuit. Yes, it is often seemingly random knowledge. Yes, the games can take forever – in recent years I have been part of several family games that took over three hours. Still, where else can people who know all sorts of “trivial” information come together?
  7. Stratego. In my mind, the key to this game is that you don’t know what pieces your opponent has across from you until you risk an attack. Few games have this much secrecy.
  8. Suburbia. I’m a sociologist who studies suburbs. The board game does a nice job simulating suburban growth (and the recent expansion pack we purchased adds some new elements). See my earlier quick review.
  9. Carcassonne. The building aspect plus seeing random tiles adds up to fun.

Games that were close to the favorites list: Guild Hall, 7 Wonders, Bohnanza, Chess (a game I am not very good at but is still alluring).

Games I would like to explore further/play for the first time:

  1. Memoir ’44. I haven’t played many war strategy games but this one consistently receives high marks.
  2. Splendor. This is on my Wish List for this year.
  3. Patchwork. It is hard to find good two player games and even though I have only played this once, I think this one could have a lot of replay value.
  4. For Sale. I’ve played this a few times and it is a rare filler game I would want to play a lot.

Games I used to like more but would still be happy to play:

  1. Monopoly. Still fun at times. However, too many family games of this ended in predictable ways.
  2. Scrabble. I like the game. However, different people want to play with different variations (i.e., not using a dictionary at all, using the latest official dictionary, looking up words in said dictionary).
  3. Careers. Lots of fond memories of playing this as a kid. But, if I only played once every years now, that would be enough.
  4. Settlers of Catan. The game that may have introduce Euro games to the United States. I generally like it but it is not a favorite and would almost always prefer a game from the favorite list above.
  5. Pandemic. Cooperative games can be interesting and this one, particularly with some of the expansions, offers some fun opportunities. But, it is almost too hard: even on the easiest levels, those epidemics break out too often.
  6. Ticket to Ride. This game always plays out the same way for me: I reject the long routes early on because I’m not sure I can complete them, I build a lot of short routes, and few points result. Still, the concept is fun.
  7. Risk. Somewhere between my notes above on Diplomacy and Monopoly.

Perhaps I tend to like longer building games with structured variety. These can take up a lot of time but they do require both more attention (with the player often thinking they alone hold their fate in their hands) as well as prolonged interaction with other players. I’m not entirely convinced that Euro games are more enjoyable for everyone just because they get to build something but most of the favorite games I listed above do allow for multiple strategies for winning.

To close, a quick peek at our main game storage area (though other games, both classic and new, are scattered elsewhere):



Cracking down on massive hide-and-seek games in Ikea stores

Ikea in the Netherlands has banned viral hide-and-seek games inside its stores:

Ikea has quashed the dreams and shortened the bucket lists of tens of thousands people, saying it won’t allow several guerrilla hide-and-seek games to take place in its stores in the Netherlands. “It’s hard to control,” an Ikea spokeswoman told Bloomberg. “We need to make sure people are safe in our stores and that’s hard to do if we don’t even know where they are.”

More than 57,000 people were invited to participate in a May 16 game of hide-and-seek at the Ikea in Eindhoven, Netherlands, according to a Facebook page for the event, with about 32,000 people RSVPing. Twelve thousand were invited to a similar event at an Ikea in the Netherlands’ Breda on May 9. Had either game moved forward, it could easily have broken Guinness’ record for the world’s largest game of hide-and-seek, which was set in January 2014 in China and involved a mere 1,437 participants.

While this isn’t the first time Ikea has contended with plans for massive hide-and-seek outings in its stores, it may be the first time the company has banned them outright. A game that took place in 2009 at an Ikea in Sweden reportedly attracted about 150 people and forced organizers to apologize for the “whooping and cheering” that scared customers straight out of the store. And when thousands of people in Melbourne, Australia, signed up to play hide-and-seek at an Ikea the following year, the company said it would “discourage” customers from participating in the event but would not “go so far as to ban them.”

At any rate, the more interesting question here is how many people an Ikea store could reasonably host for a game of hide-and-seek, were the company’s management to get on board. The Eindhoven store, which opened in 1992, is 28,600 square meters, according to Ikea’s website. That’s about the same as four standard soccer pitches, or 5? American football fields. Let’s stipulate that for a really good game of hide-and-seek, you need at least 20 square meters (about 225 square feet, or a 15-foot-by-15-foot spot to stand in). Less than that and you might as well play sardines or blob tag instead. Also, presumably not all 28,600 square meters in the Eindhoven store are usable space, or even accessible to customers looking for hiding spots.

Think of all the hiding places! I’m not surprised that safety was the primary reason for banning the games though I assume the real reason was that this could be bad for business. (Yet, how many of the game players would purchase something – from meatballs to another Billy bookcase) on the way out?) If you think about it, a lot of businesses could be overwhelmed by such viral efforts. (Maybe all those extra parking spots mandated in American parking lots would then be filled.) How far away are we from outright bans on indoor games in multiple countries or from other stores and businesses as well?

At the same time, why doesn’t Ikea turn the tables on this and host some special hide-and-seek events with a lottery system for participants. This could generate good publicity and reestablish the brand’s cool factor.

Quick Review: Suburbia (the board game)

I study suburbs so it was appropriate that I received the board game Suburbia for Christmas. Here is my review of the game after three playings:

1. The game is built around constructing five different kinds of land: residential zones, commercial zones, industrial zones, civic zones, and lakes. You purchase hex pieces and your suburb grows as each zone gives you different abilities such as a growing income, a growing reputation (which increases your population), and more money. Because it is hex based, it is kind of like a cross between Catan and Carcassone where the hexes allow you do things but you have choices of what you build.

2. Like in real suburbs, zoning definitely matters. You have to keep certain properties away from each other. For example, industrial zones usually decrease the reputation of adjacent residential or civic zones. One residential zone, housing projects, have to be the most removed as they decrease your reputation if placed near residential, commercial, or civic zones. Because of these different zoning rules, you tend to have clusters of different properties. The one thing that can help break up the clusters? Lakes.

3. It is interesting that you have to reduce your income and reputation each time you cross a certain population size. As the game goes along, you have to find ways to keep your income and reputation up because as you grow, these go down. As the game suggests, quality of life is hard to maintain as your suburb grows larger. Thus, having a growing population is a kind of penalty even though you need the biggest population to win.

4. Getting a Casino and a PR Firm can really help you win – if you can afford them. They don’t come along until later in the game but they stop you from losing reputation/population (Casino) and income (PR Firm) when you cross each population threshold. These would be harder to obtain in a four player game but in a two player game where one player had both, they made for an easy win.

5. One nice twist of the game is that the players look at four common goals and then each player has an individual goal (unknown to the other players). Winning each goal (and ties do not count) leads to a population bonus so your planning and zoning is affected by these different goals. This helps vary the gameplay quite a bit.

6. One oddity: each player is building a borough and all of the boroughs constitute suburbia. The terminology for the level below suburbs as a whole likely reflects regional terminology. But, why not use municipality? Community? Just call each player’s board a separate suburb? Players actions can affect those of others so it makes some sense that each board is not a suburb but I found the word choice interesting.

As a suburban scholar, I think this game does a nice job simulating some of the broad aspects of suburban life. As noted above, zoning matters but a winning outcome also likely requires a mix of zones as a community needs population, income, and reputation to get ahead. Finding the right balance can differ from game to game given the goals.

Game identifying random locations through Google Streetview

Love to see random sites around the world? Check out the game Locatestreet where you are given a picture from Google Streetview and you have to guess (with multiple choice and with the opportunity to utilize a few hints) the correct location.

After playing the version with random US locations, I discovered that context matters – check out the housing styles and the vegetation for some insights into the location. Indeed, you might just see lots of trees and landscape. Also, knowing where population centers are can go a long way in making a closer guess as to where the exact picture was taken…

h/t Atlantic Cities

Do “Anthropological Video Games” lead to anthropological learning?

The New Yorker has a short article about several anthropological video games including “Guess My Race,” “The Cat and the Coup,” and “Sweatshop.”

A cluster of teen-agers gathered around a small table, and passersby could hear them exclaim, “Asian! Yeah, I knew it!” and “Aryan? That seems ridiculous.” They hovered over two iPads in the Grand Gallery of the Museum of Natural History during the Margaret Mead Film Festival, playing a game called “Guess My Race.” It was one of five video games in the Mead Arcade; the others included “The Cat and the Coup,” which traces the downfall of Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and “Sweatshop,” in which you hire and fire workers for your loathsome factory.

Aiding the swarms of museum patrons who stopped to play were volunteers from Games for Change, a New York City-based nonprofit that encourages the development of what it calls “social-impact games.” (All of the games at the arcade are also available for free through the organization’s Web site.) I sat down at a laptop to try my hand at running a sweatshop. To a bouncy techno soundtrack, the boss floor manager, who keenly evoked Hitler, spewed insults and directions—”Lazybones! How are you today? Shh-h-h-h. I don’t care!”—and the orders started pouring in for shoes, shirts, hats, and bags…

In 1940, Margaret Mead created a card game along with her husband, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Called “Democracies and Dictators,” its cards contained instructions such as “Dictator! Crippled Industries: You have put your leading industrialists into concentration camps. (lose a card in 5).” Mead wrote that it was based on “the basic ideas that democracies and dictators play by different rules and work with different values.” She tried to sell the idea to Parker Brothers, but it was never produced for public consumption. The games on display at the Mead Arcade have been markedly more successful. “Sweatshop” had a million plays during its first three months, and “The Cat and the Coup” has received acclaim from gamers around the world—including one German reviewer who wrote that it is “like Monty Python being dropped in a bowl full of Persian kitsch.”…

But if games train players in the rules of culture, what happens when those rules become too complicated to follow, or, perhaps, obsolete? Settling down to play “Guess My Race,” the player looks at photographs of ten faces—no artifacts here, the subjects are familiarly modern. You choose from six possible races that vary widely from one round to the next—descriptions might be nationalities, skin colors, religions, or loaded epithets like “Illegal” or “East Coast.” The player might have to select from options that would seem to be simultaneously plausible (i.e., Asian versus Indonesian, or Black versus Caribbean) with answers that suggest race is self-defined, not regionally or ethnically determined.

And so the gamification of the world continues. I’m not surprised these games are featured at a museum; when recently visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for the first time in a few years, I was struck by the number of hands-on exhibits and games that allow one or two users to explore some dimension of science. It is interesting to see that these games have had so many downloads – people are either interested in the topics or there are a lot of gamers out there willing to trying a lot of things.

My biggest question about these games is whether players learn the intended lessons. As the article notes, games have been used and proposed for decades to teach players different lessons. We know, for example, that Monopoly is partly about capitalism. It seems to me that the crop of more recent Euro games, from Settlers of Catan on downward, tend to teach about what is needed to grow a community or society. Even new video games like Assassin’s Creed III are related to historical events. However, having played a lot of games over recent years, I wonder how much I’ve actually learned about anything as opposed to enjoyed competing. Is the point of the board game Agricola to teach me that Germans living in the 1600s needed a diverse base of multiple foodstuffs? Did the video game Civilization (II-IV) teach me something meaningful about how civilizations actually develop? I’m not sure.

Also, I have to ask: what would a sociological game look like?

Games about infrastructure: street cleaning and the construction of power plants

Perhaps everything can go through the gamification process: I recently ran into two games that tackle issues involving infrastructure.

1. Here is a new street cleaning game recently released in Germany:

The game – known as Kehrmaschinen-Simulator 2011 in its homeland of Germany – puts the player behind the wheel of a street cleaning truck and promptly serves some of the dirtiest gutters and asphalt surfaces a city could provide.

Sadly, racing your sweeper at high speeds is not an option. What you can do is drive slowly, move the sweeping apparatus in a wide variety of ways, and – like a good street sweeper must – keep the streets clean. You can also get intimately familiar with the more mundane aspects of the street sweeping profession, from filling up the water tanks to turning on the truck’s various lights to checking your email…

Overall, the game provides what it promises: the player gets to clean city streets. How appealing that is depends on your personality.

“They say war games teach kids how to use guns and kill people and be violent; I don’t really believe in that,” one reviewer notes. “But if you do, maybe you should feed your kid some street sweeping games so he can get ready for his future job.”

The 15 minute video will give you a better idea of what the game is about.

2. We recently played the board game Power Grid for the first time. The idea of the game is that you have to build power plants, power them with resources you have to purchase, and then expand to new cities (which costs you) and also buy more powerful power plants (which also costs you more) to power more cities at a time. For an involved board game, the Amazon reviews are positive (4.5 stars out of 73), the review from Dice Tower is positive, and Board Game Geek offers a lot more information.

My takeaway comes with a caveat: anything can be made fun if done well. However, I do like thinking about infrastructure and city-building anyway so I may have more interest in such games.

Why not also pitch these games as learning opportunities? Give people the idea that playing a game might also be educational and these things might fly off the shelves. Power Grid requires a good amount of math to balance out how much new plants, resources, and city connections will cost versus how much a player will take in each turn based on their number of powered cities. While it is difficult to model complex events exactly in a game, these sorts of games could give kids and adults a better awareness of what it takes to clean streets or provide power. These are not unimportant tasks; I don’t think most citizens want dirty streets and dark houses.

Board games that teach about housing discrimination

Americans may like the real estate game Monopoly but it lacks one real-life phenomenon that a few games over the years have included: housing discrimination.

The Pop-Up City blog drew our attention last week to a great project from Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan, who has created a board-game-as-artwork enticingly titled The Game of Urban Renewal (OK, this is enticing to us, at least). The project reminded us that there is something of a history to board games dramatizing low-income and discriminatory housing policy. An earlier such game – one that looks like an antecedent to Trevisan’s, although he had not heard of it – makes a brief cameo in the House & Home exhibit currently showing at the National Building Museum.

That 1970 predecessor, called Blacks & Whites, was produced by the magazine Psychology Today, and was created to teach white players about what life was like for blacks in an era when all the housing rules were stacked against them. Not surprisingly, Blacks & Whites never went mass market (it doesn’t even appear to have gotten enough traction to have widely offended racists of the era)…

If you visit the exhibit, the game garners only a brief mention (and scanned image). But the most telling details are on the board itself and in the instructions. Blacks & Whites is organized like a Monopoly board, with properties increasing in value as you move around it. The property clusters have fantastically blunt names: the “inner ghetto,” the “outer ghetto,” “lower integrated” and “upper integrated” neighborhoods, “lesser suburbia,” “greater suburbia,” “newer estates” and, lastly, “older estates” (namely, Bethesda and Georgetown!). The board mimics the concentric housing rings of many cities as you move out toward the suburbs, from the all-black “inner ghetto” to the all-white “older estates.”

According to the instructions, the game tries to emphasize “the absurdities of living in different worlds while playing on the same board.” “White” players get a million dollars from the treasury to start the game; blacks get $10,000, and they’re restricted in where they can buy properties. Blacks and whites also draw from separate opportunity card decks.

You mean Americans don’t want to be reminded about social ills when playing their board games? At the same time, I bet it could be done if the game properly balanced between playability and concept. Pedagogically, games can be a great way to teach. By putting players into new situations and showing them what it takes to win and lose, certain values can be imparted. This reminds me of George Herbert Mead discussing how children learn about social interaction and adult life through playing and creating games and debating rules. These games also sound similar to social simulations that are occasionally used in classrooms or by some groups. Think of Monopoly: it is a game yet it also could be viewed as expressing some of the basic values of capitalism. In contrast, more recent Euro style games are built around different concepts. Perhaps some enterprising sociologist can properly achieve the gamification of an important social issue.

Now that I think about it, imagine what Simcity could be like if it had a more complex societal element. The biggest social issues that come up in Simcity are crime, education, traffic, and pollution yet there is little about social class (though one can build low, medium, and high rent residential, commercial, and industrial properties), race, immigration, discrimination, and religion/ideological differences. Similar to Monopoly, the game is geared toward accumulating higher levels of money and land values. Perhaps all of these real-life issues would be difficult to model but I bet it could be incorporated into the gameplay.

Should kids be playing Monopoly rather than Settlers of Catan during this economic crisis?

This Chicago Tribune article rehashes an argument I’ve written about before: a newer set of European games, epitomized by Settlers of Catan, allow all players to build and compete in a way that is quite different from classic American games like Monopoly or Risk where one players crushes the others. However, Monopoly defenders say the classic game may just be the perfect game for our troubled economic times:

Games like Monopoly and The Game of Life and upstarts such as Settlers of Catan come with powerful lessons about personal finance, experts say. Just don’t expect the experts to agree on which lessons are best.

University of Texas at Austin professor Daniel Hamermesh said he demonstrates in his introductory economics class the concept of diminishing returns through a Monopoly property deed…

The game [Settlers of Catan] involves a bit of nation-building. Players are settlers of a new land and trade for commodities like sheep and lumber as they build roads and towns, but no one is eliminated during play.

The whole idea irks Orbanes, who believes that the lessons of the traditional games — there is one and only one winner in the jungle — are being lost.

Here is a summary of Orbanes’ perspective: in a cutthroat world, game players, particularly younger children who are learning about how the world works, should practice being cutthroat. Games like Settlers of Catan are not realistic enough for an economic world where everyone does need to fight each other.

This all sounds to me like it could be another generational argument: the younger generations are too soft as they play games where “everyone is a winner.” It could also be that Orbanes thinks that a classic piece of Americana is being lost – Americans once flocked to Monopoly during the Great Depression but aren’t turning to it during this period. Or perhaps he is motivated by business: these European games are taking away market share from American games in a sector that has had some difficulty in recent years.

Regardless, he is right to suggest that games and play can teach kids and others about cultural values. This article hints at a larger cultural argument that we could have: should kids learn about teamwork or winning?

New sociology course: sociology of games

A “new minor in Game Studies and Design” at the University of Montevallo includes the chance to take the elective course “sociology of games”:

Cartier and Tyler, both of whom hold doctorate degrees in math, were approached by university President William Stewart shortly after his arrival on campus last June about the possibility of offering such a course of study at the liberal arts school.

“The original idea was to focus on video games,” Cartier said. “Benton and I went to California to do research, and we found there was more to the design process than just the ability to code.”…

Students who minor in Game Studies and Design must take 24 hours in specific subjects. All students must take History of Games, Survey of Modern Games and a two-part Game Design Workshop.

The remaining 12 hours must come from a combination of: Creative Writing or Technical Writing for Games (English); Principals of Marketing (Marketing); Mathematics of Games (Math); Aesthetics of Games (Philosophy); or Sociology of Games (Sociology).

The pictures for the story show students playing Settlers of Catan, perhaps the most well-known game in a wave of newer games that have swept the market in recent years. Such games are supposed to provide a different experience than some classic American games, like Monopoly or Risk, that prompt players to crush their opponents, often leading to one happy winner and several bummed out opponents. In games like Settlers or Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride or Dominion, each player gets an opportunity to build and pursue their own goals, giving some sense of satisfaction even if they don’t win.

While some might question the need for students to pursue the academic study of games, this would seem to fit with a number of recent articles I have seen about the process of “gamification.” If society is moving toward taking more average/normal activities and making them into games, wouldn’t this minor prove useful? There could be a lot of potential for growth in this area, particularly in field like health.

I wonder exactly where the “sociology of games” might fit in the broader field of sociology. I’ve heard about the “sociology of leisure” but it isn’t a current ASA section.There is an international group for the sociology of leisure and the Wikipedia page suggests it is “fairly recent subfield of sociology.”


Next hot topic in sociology: one journalist suggests Quidditch

I am always interested to see what people in the media think sociologists should study. According to a blog at Time, some sociologist should link the study of emerging adults (and particularly those who ones who delay real adulthood after college) and the growing game of Quidditch:

A sociologist looking to underscore the narrative of Generation Y’s prolonged immaturity would have had a field day with the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup, the Harry Potter–inspired sports competition that drew legions of muggles to midtown Manhattan this past weekend. Quidditch is, after all, an event inspired by a magical sport in a line of far-fetched children’s books that most of this weekend’s competitors read way back in elementary school. Indeed, at the event’s opening ceremony, many of the 700 athletes arrived dressed in costumes, capes and T-shirts, singing songs from 1990s Disney musicals while masses of media surveyed the endless Potter in-jokes proudly scrawled on their attire (“Pwning Myrtle”). The high point of these people’s lives, it might have appeared, was sometime around 1998.

But this sense of nerdish camaraderie came to an abrupt end right around the time of the first gang tackle.

Quidditch is a sport striving for legitimacy.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a sociologist is indeed studying this. This phenomenon has been growing for a few years as I remember hearing about competitions at Notre Dame at least four years ago. (The story suggests it began at Middlebury in 2005.)

But if sociologists did take this seriously (and perhaps there could be some nice ties to ideas about the sociology of sport with leisure games that begin at elite private colleges), would they just be laughed at and become another light viral news story like the recent stories about the sociology class about Lady Gaga?

(A final question: is it really worth playing this game without flying brooms?)