Geek gaming gone low-tech


— 1:00 AM on January 23, 2009

What do nerds do for fun? A few weeks back, I wrote some tips on how to throw a successful LAN party, a favorite activity for my friends and me. However, in recent months, my get-togethers have taken on a decidedly more old-school focus, and in the process reignited a childhood passion of mine: board gaming.

Sure, the games have changed. Sorry! and The Game of Life are out, instead replaced by the likes of Settlers of Catan and Risk, but the fundamental experience is the same. There's just something incredibly pure about gathering a few friends around a table, matching wits for hours, and cursing over dice rolls. But what makes that different from competing through video games? Why have I chosen cardboard pieces and plastic tokens over headshots and rocket-jumps?

Put simply, LAN parties have lost their luster. In their heyday, LAN parties offered a completely unique experience: playing video games with a large group of friends. Dial-up connections weren't exactly suited for large-scale online gaming, and many of my friends were lucky if they had even that. Getting a bunch of friends together for a chance at 6v6 Quake 3: Team Arena was a rare treat, and one that was worth all of the equipment and setup time.

Nowadays, with the mass adoption of broadband and enhanced matchmaking services, spending an hour fragging your friends can be a nightly occurrence. Services like Steam, Xbox Live, and Xfire make it easy to maintain a list of your buddies, keep tabs on what they're playing, and use a mic and webcam to communicate obscenities without even resorting to emoticons. What an age we live in.

Attendees don't need to pack up their desktop PCs—let alone own one—to play board games. Forget everyone needing a copy of each video game along with all of the necessary patches, drivers, and other easily overlooked things that can throw a wrench in the works. Just have the board games and a table to play them on, and then all you need are people. They don't even need to know the rules: teaching and learning new games is half the fun, and an integral part of the experience.

The whole scenario is actually somewhat odd, if you think about it. The LAN party seems like the natural evolution of the board game night, almost an electronic version of the same event. Now, the LAN party finds itself being rendered obsolete by more robust online capabilities, leaving its predecessor as the best activity for nerd gatherings. Although some of my friends have dismissed the activity as too juvenile, trust me: don't judge a book by its cover. What may appear simple in passing can turn out to be an incredibly rewarding experience, with hours of gameplay to offer.

Take Munchkin, for example; one of my favorite discoveries in recent months. On the surface, it's a straightforward game: two big decks of cards that play like a watered-down version of Dungeons & Dragons. In reality, though, Munchkin is a parody of D&D and board gaming as a whole, and it simultaneously manages to be a well-designed and enjoyable experience on its own. Players set out on a journey to be the first character to level 10, along the way encountering fearsome monsters like the Shrieking Geek, Plutonium Dragon, and the Gelatinous Octahedron (a less-than-subtle play on the famous D&D monster, the Gelatinous Cube). The game's sense of humor goes beyond curiously named creatures and extends into the gameplay itself. Unfortunate players can be cursed with such maladies as the Hungry Backpack, which forces them to roll a die at the end of each turn to discover how many of their items their knapsack consumes.

Not content to be a simple parody of other hero-quest games, Munchkin adds a layer of complexity by allowing players not only to help, but also to hinder each other. You can jump into combat with an ally, coming to their rescue in their most desperate time of need, or throw buffs on a monster to ensure your fellow adventurer's utter demise. Invariably, Munchkin ends up becoming a game of politics, and one simple rule becomes clear: no one forgets a grudge. Combined with the intentionally poorly written rules, replete with loopholes and gray areas, the age-old board gaming tradition of arguing always ensues. Truthfully, I can't ever help but laugh. The game's designers have no doubt spent countless hours around sticklers in D&D games, so creating a rule-set that intentionally angers those kinds of players, while still retaining its appeal for everyone else, is truly impressive. Munchkin succeeds in mocking almost every aspect of traditional gaming—it is the ultimate troll for people who take games like Dungeons & Dragons too seriously, which is probably why I love it.

German-style board games have become increasingly popular in recent years, too, with creations like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne as standard-bearers for the genre. It's easy to understand the appeal: they're quick to learn, quick to play, and offer a variety of strategies to win. It also helps that they're generally non-elimination games, meaning you won't get knocked out 30 minutes into the game and wait for two hours while the remaining players fight over Park Place and Baltic Avenue. The genre looks ready to grow even further, with both of these titles gaining success in digital forms on Xbox Live Arcade, and several more German-style games on the way.

If you've got an Xbox 360 and a few spare bucks, do yourself a favor and pick up one (or both) of these titles—I could always use more random players to challenge. Who knows? You might find yourself liking them so much that you'll shell out the extra cash for the board game versions, as I did. All it takes is one or two games to start hosting your very own board game night. Before you know it, you'll have a library complete with Talisman, Shadows over Camelot, Puerto Rico, Dominion, Risk, Axis & Allies, Race for the Galaxy, Ticket to Ride, and Blood Bowl.

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