You might not realize it yet, but the Germans have successfully invaded the Americas, leaving in their wake a path of such thoughtfulness and creativity as has been rarely seen in human history. Today's board games—heavily inspired by a well-established German gaming culture—are reviving an ancient form of cultural expression and meaningful activity.
If you grew up with Monopoly, Scrabble, and Risk in a musty closet and haven't given them much thought since you left your parents for the adult world of literature and cinema, you might be excused for thinking that games are the weak link of human cultural expression. You wouldn't be alone, either: until recently, with the singular exception of chess, our culture has typically put games in the same wastebasket as crocheting, waterskiing on the lake, and monster-truck rallies—relatively meaningless pastimes with varying degrees of acceptability. The church has sometimes led the criticism of games, associating them with addiction and slothfulness.
But that's begun to change. For starters, the swiftly developing medium of video games is forcing us to reconsider our literary and film-based assumptions about storytelling and visual and aural art—a topic worth discussing another day (that's the book I'm working on right now). But the growth in popularity of board and card games, nursed in part by the role-playing game community and (since the 1990s) by the lively German gaming culture, has created a vibrant, global community of gamers. Low-tech, screenless games highlight something we can see in games as old as chess or the ancient Egyptian game Sennet: games can touch and encourage a part of our humanity that can go underdeveloped in a culture focused solely on books and films and television. The boom in board games shows us that God created humans to be remarkably complex beings with many avenues for expression.
The game that is most responsible for this international resurgence is Klaus Teuber's Settlers of Catan, first published in 1995 and now available in thirty languages; it has sold over fifteen million copies. Players take turns colonizing an undeveloped island, building roads, villages, and cities to collect and trade resources which are used for further expansion. Several features of the game make it particularly attractive. It's very accessible: learning enough to play takes only a few minutes, especially if you're helped by an easy-to-find devotee. Yet its relatively simple rules mask a great strategic depth—I've played the game dozens of times, and it's rarely stale (several expansions offer some variety for the experienced). A related strength of the game, though, is that it is not purely strategic. This is the barrier of chess, a game of skill with no forgiveness for mistakes. Dice-rolling and various rules keep Settlers balanced: it is unusual to see runaway winners or losers. Finally, as with many German spiele, the game forces social interaction via trading and the race for good position on the board.
The German gaming tradition popularized by Settlers has spawned an incredible array of board and card games from designers and publishers all over the world. People looking to start with a very accessible game could pick up American Alan R. Moon's Ticket to Ride (or the superior sequel Ticket to Ride Europe). This handsomely illustrated board game moves quickly because every turn, a player can only perform one of three possible actions: pick up route cards that determine where the player builds, pick up colored tickets, or spend those colored tickets to build rail lines. A more interactive simple game is Uwe Rosenberg's classic Bohnanza, a card game that has players collect, trade, and plant beans ("bohne" in German, thus the title). Guillotine is a goofy, cartoony card game by American Paul Peterson in which players take turns as rival executioners in the French Revolution, playing a huge variety of action cards to collect unfortunate nobles. Although the subject matter will be on the border of good taste for some, it features great interaction, and accommodates a wider number of players than many games.
One of the best entry-level games of the last few years, however, and one that really deserves its own review, is American Matt Leacock's Pandemic. This is a board game simulation of the grim topic of global disease outbreaks; players take control of the medical effort to prevent deadly viruses from spreading out of control in our hyperconnected world. Each player has a role with special abilities, such as the quick-healing Medic or the cure-researching Scientist. The game has two noteworthy aspects. First, it is a remarkable model of global outbreaks of disease. Second, it is part of the growing trend of cooperative games: the players are all on the same side and either win together or lose together.
In the category of medium difficulty, a standout is the recent hit 7 Wonders, a fast-moving game about building in the ancient world. The easy-to-learn Dominion has players build and cycle through decks of cards—but any given session features only ten of the dozens of card types available, meaning each playthrough offers new possibilities. Power Grid has players bid for power plants and fuel, trying to provide electricity to cities in the U.S. or Germany. And if you're interested in games with a twist, Shadows Over Camelot is an Arthurian-themed cooperative board game in which one player may or may not be a traitor.
At the highest level of strategic complexity, the classic Puerto Rico is hard to beat: players create plantations and buildings by choosing from a wide range of actions. History buffs with detail-oriented minds will love the two-player Twilight Struggle, which replays the Cold War. And at the top of the heap, in my opinion, are Uwe Rosenberg's economic games Le Havre and Agricola. This latter, a game about building a medieval farm, has so much variability to it that the possible strategies it supports are nearly endless.
Several themes wend their way through these games, themes that highlight the cultural potential of the medium. Certainly they support a new kind of narrative experience: playing a settler is not the same as reading about one. But such cultural potential, a skeptic might argue, is better developed by video games, which can invoke much richer and more varied artwork. Maybe—but in any case, board games are particularly well-suited to developing two kinds of God-created human activity: structured sociability and system play.
Playing games builds a distinctive kind of community. Non-solitaire games require interaction. More important, games implicitly build community on playfulness and competition. Freeform play, as when imaginative children become wild beasts for a morning, has its own distinctive rewards, but the structure of rules and defined goals that characterizes games creates a focus for social interaction. In addition to being a great venue for idle chitchat, games allow iron to sharpen iron, encouraging clever minds to give each other exercise, just as athletes glory in the relationships built on physical competition. That doesn't, of course, mean wart-free relationships: I was particularly petulant in a game gone sour with my siblings on my last vacation, and episodes of poor sportsmanship are endemic to gameplay. Such behavior, however, is hardly limited to games. And we keep coming back to play, as the highs outweigh the lows.
But games are not only rich in sociability. Every game, whether simple or complex, is a symbol machine, an attribute that distinguishes games as a form of communication. Settlers of Catan, for example, is a set of interrelated cause-and-effect rules: roll the dice and collect resources, spend the resources and buy a road, move the robber and block resource-gathering. That's just like a blender or a drill or a car. But a game isn't a physical machine: the wooden pieces wouldn't do or mean anything if the players didn't invest meaning in them as symbols. Games are also unpredictable machines, whether due to elements of chance like dice or the inscrutable decisions of other players.
To a romantic mindset, this might sound terrible: mechanization is dehumanizing! Certainly this is an issue: as Jacques Ellul argues, it was a mechanical, bureaucratic attitude that made the Holocaust possible. Over-mechanization, like other distortions of our nature, takes one part of being human and inflates it out of all proportion. In the anti-technological backlash, however, we often miss the point that God made us to be system-makers. One of the first things we see Adam doing in Genesis is categorizing and organizing the world around him by naming it. We are wonderfully created with the ability to order and structure whatever we encounter. Good games are clever, intricate, imaginative systems that allow us to play with them to see what happens. This kind of structured playfulness is unique to games, and is a great gift.
As with reading or viewing, playing games is sometimes banal, frustrating, or disappointing, but it is often enjoyable, and, at its best, it provides opportunity for deep social play and creativity. And the great part is that there's never been a better time to find a good board or card game. You can thank the Germans for a successful invasion.
[Postscript: I've hardly provided an exhaustive list of games, as any gamer reading this could attest. If you're interested in more, head over to the vibrant community at www.boardgamegeek.com to learn more than you'd ever need to know about the universe of excellent games available.]
Kevin Schut is associate professor of media studies at Trinity Western University. He has a book on video games and the Christian faith forthcoming from Brazos Press.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.