For this, the 11th edition of The Eleven (posted on 11/11 at 11:11 am), I thought I’d do something different and reflect on some of the games that have been important in my development as a gamer. This is different from my gateway games – these games are ones that have some sentimental value to them, as well as getting me to the point where I am now. I’m doing this list in rough chronological order.
First up, Cribbage, designed in the 17th century by Sir John Suckling. I grew up watching Cribbage being played. It was something my father and grandfather would do every time they got together. That, and fish. Of the two hobbies, I found myself more drawn to Cribbage – I hate fishing. Early on, I was fascinated by how it worked. You used a standard deck of playing cards, then put them down in certain combinations that would allow you to move a peg around a board. When I got older, I asked to learn, and I was taught how to play. My dad had a book about Cribbage that I read cover to cover several times, picking up a lot of strategy along the way. I was able to join the cribbing when our family got together (never the three-player game – my father and grandfather had never even heard of it), and was able to be competitive. I remember the last match I played with my grandfather – I won 2 of 3, and was very proud of myself.
Cribbage is still a game I play with my father when we get together. We’ve actually joked about wanting to get a Cribbage Cup that can pass between the winners of the series when we play. To this day, Cribbage is the only game I rate a 10, and as far as I’m concerned, it will remain the only game I’ll rate a 10. Not only does it hold a lot of sentimental value to me, but it’s a great game that taught me that it’s not about the luck of the draw, but what you do with the cards you’re dealt.
Park and Shop is a 1950 game from Milton Bradley. It’s an uncredited design (I probably wouldn’t take credit for it either). The game is played on a large board showing a number of city blocks. You begin in a car, which you drive from your home to a parking lot, then you get out and walk to shops around the board as shown on a deck of cards you’ve been dealt. Movement is done by rolling dice – two if walking (because you have two feet), one if driving (because a car has one motor). If you think about it, this makes NO sense – it’s like saying five pennies are more than one dollar because five is more than one (thanks Shel Silverstein!). There are gray spots all around the board, and if you land on one of those, you have to draw an extra card which could give you an extra turn, move you to your next spot, send you to jail, lose a turn, or give you extra tasks. My favorite is the card that says “You get stuck behind a woman driver. Lose one turn.” Ah, the 1950s.
After completing your list, you return to your car and must complete one final task (a parking ticket that makes you go shopping – man, this game just DRIPS with theme), then must get back home by exact count to win.
Park and Shop is a TERRIBLE game. And yet, it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s one that I hope they do on Flip the Table some day. The reason it’s on my list is because my grandparents (not the side that taught me Cribbage) owned a copy, and when visiting, I would sit and play this game all by myself. I am an only child, and got very good at entertaining myself, so I would move around the board trying to complete the entire deck (usually, you’re only supposed to do seven) as quickly as possible. When my grandparents died, I inherited the game, and it still holds a hallowed spot on my shelf, beat up as it is. As bad as the game is, I wouldn’t give back a single moment playing it – it provided some great memories, and that’s what gaming is all about.
When I was in middle school, I lived down the street from a couple of kids who were big into video games. I never had much in the way of video game systems (I had a Game Boy, and that was it until we got our Wii a few years ago). So I was surprised when one of the kids got this new board game called Heroquest. This was a 1989 game designed by Stephen Baker and published by Milton Bradley. What it was was a big board dungeon crawl system. The base game came with about 20 different scenarios, and you could build a campaign with one player as the evil overlord and the others as the band of adventurers.
I loved this game. I loved it so much, I asked for it for Christmas. And got it. But then my friends didn’t want to play anymore (having just gotten a new video game system). As an only child, I didn’t have any siblings to play it with (I did try a campaign with a younger cousin once, but as he lived three hours away, it was difficult to keep any momentum going). And unfortunately, HeroQuest is not really a good game to play solo – you have to be playing with an overlord who can set up the map and reveal the big ugly monsters all over the board when you walk through a door. Still, it was my first experience with a dungeon crawl, and paved the way for my enjoyment of the genre. I still have my copy – very well worn, but well loved.
When I was in high school, I learned the game of Hearts. This was my first exposure to a trick-taking style game, and I took to it immediately. In Boy Scouts, the game was Spades, and I hate Spades, so I was glad that Hearts was better. If you don’t know, Hearts is a game where players try to avoid capturing hearts and the Queen of Spades – each one is worth points, and it’s the lowest score that wins the game. However, you can try to capture all hearts and the Queen of Spades. This is called “shooting the moon” and gives everyone else 26 points.
I liked hearts because of its simplicity and the potential for strategy. There was none of the bidding of Spades, just one objective – don’t take hearts. So you learn how to play your cards to minimize your chances of being the only one taking cards in the end. Personally, Hearts has meaning because of experiences. At one point in high school, I remember sitting down with a group of 10 people to play Double Hearts (two decks). THAT was chaotic, but really fun. The other big experience is that it led to my first dedicated game group – as an adult before getting into the hobby, I would gather with a group of friends nearly every Sunday afternoon to play Hearts (and Cribbage, but Hearts was the focus). So I’d say that Hearts is really important to my development as a gamer.
In college, I had a group of friends that I hung out with all the time. As we weren’t part of the party crowd, we would watch TV, play video games, and play ERS (an abbreviation for Egyptian Rat Screw). This game is basically multiplayer War with some violence thrown in. Everyone takes turns playing cards until someone plays a face card or Ace. At that point, the next player has a certain number of chances (1 for Jack, 2 for Queen, 3 for King, 4 for Ace) to play another face card or Ace. You’re just flipping cards off the top of your deck, there’s no strategy to this. If you do flay a face card or Ace, the next player has a certain number of chances. This goes until someone fails to play a face card or Ace, at which time the player who played the last face card or Ace wins all of the cards. The object is to win all the cards.
Now if that were it, this game would be completely stupid. However, if a pair of cards ever comes up, all players can attempt to slap the deck. The first person to get their hand down wins the cards. If you false slap, you have to put a card from your deck on the bottom of the stack. This leads to some injured fingers, and a rule that NO ONE can wear jewelry on their hands. I have a friend who to this day swears he still has a scar from someone’s ring.
ERS is a dumb game. But it was fun, and we spent HOURS playing it. We played in the dorms, we played in restaurants, we played everywhere. We had a blast, and it really taught me the sense of community you can have while trying to break each other’s hands.
Civilization III is the only item on this list that is NOT a board or card game. So why is it here? Well, when I was in college, my parents got a CD-ROM of some game demos, and I tried them out. One of them was Civ-II, and I loved it, and started asking for it for Christmas. I ended up getting Civ-III later, and played it for HOURS. I mean, we’re talking 3 am and I look at the clock realizing I need to be in bed, then playing until 5. I got really addicted to the game, which was the first time I had ever had that issue. I know Sid Meier was inspired by board games when creating it, and it helped me to learn about tactical strategy, tech trees, and so on. Definitely a biggie in my development as a gamer. I still need to play FFG’s Civilization board game to see how it stacks up.
Cosmic Encounter was ALMOST my gateway game. Originally designed in 1977 and released by EON, this Bill Eberle/Kack Kittredge/Bill Norton/Peter Olotka classic set the standard for a lot of variable power games we play with today. Here’s a brief rundown – each player is a race of alien with a specific special ability. On your turn, you will have 1-2 encounters with other players. You will aim at one of their planets and send a number of ships to fight. Each player may then ask for allies, then choose an encounter card that will hopefully win the fight for them. If the offense wins, all defensive ships go to the warp and all offensive ships establish colonies on the planet. If the defense wins, all offensive ships go to the warp and defensive allies can claim rewards (cards and/or ships). The first player to establish five foreign colonies wins. There is of course a lot more to it, but that’s just a brief recap.
When I got my first job, I was living on my own for the first time. Two thousand miles from home, I hadn’t really made a lot of friends yet, and I started looking for places to play board games online. OK, specifically, I was looking for a place to play Monopoly. I’m ashamed to admit it. However, I did a search for online board games, and found this site called Cosmic Encounter Online. I had no idea what it was, and when I played it, I was amazed. It was so much FUN! There are only six available aliens to free players, but I found out there were a lot more because this was based on a board game. I instantly wanted this board game. Unfortunately, by that time it was out of print. I looked for a while, then gave up. Had I looked a little harder, I might have found that there were more games out there like that that blew Monopoly out of the water, so I like to call Cosmic Encounter my ALMOST gateway game.
I have never really liked party games. I like them less now than I used to…I just feel that most of them are activities people desperately try to pass off as games. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Imaginiff. Imaginiff was first published in 1998, designed by Jack and Andrew Lawson. Like most party games, it’s very simple to explain – players draw cards and insert each other’s names into certain situations on cards. For example, “Imaginiff JESSE were a food. Which food would he be?” There are then six choices, and each player would vote on the one they think the majority will say. Once revealed, everyone in the majority moves two spaces on a track, and if the person who read the card is in the majority, he moves two. Whoever gets to the end of the track first wins.
Like most party games, I think this one works best when no one cares who wins. It’s an activity, and it can be a lot of fun. The reason it’s on my list is because it’s the game I played on my first date with my wife. It was a group date, and we won a couple of challenges together. It was one of the first games we added to our collection after we got married, and it’s one that we still play from time to time. It’s on this list because it laid the foundation for our relationship to include games.
Now we get to the hobby part of my development. Like many people, The Settlers of Catan was my gateway game. Everyone knows this one – the 1995 Klaus Teuber design that brought Eurogames to the US, and has steadily grown into one of the most popular games in the world. You roll dice, produce resources, and slowly try to build up yourself into the best position to win by points.
I must have played this one for the first time in 2007. We had friends that owned a copy of the game, and I remember the first time they asked if we wanted to play. I refused because I thought it looked stupid. While my wife played Catan, I went off and played Mexican Train with someone else – I had never played this version of dominoes before, and it WAS stupid. After we were done, I wandered over to watch the game, and I was pretty amazed at how fun it looked. We played several more times, and when our friends got Cities and Knights, we played with that too and I liked it even more. It was this game that led me to BGG for the first time in August 2007 – I had an idea about starting a game store for more obscure games (like Settlers) and was looking to see if there were more out there. And boy, did I find some.
Catan may have been my gateway game, but it was Puerto Rico that really got me into gaming. This 2002 classic designed by Andres Seyfarth was the first big Euro I owned. I asked for it for Christmas in 2007 because hey, it was #1 on BGG. I didn’t really know anything about it other than it had what I considered to be a bizarre theme for such a popular game. For those of you who don’t know, Puerto Rico is a game about selecting roles that will help you produce goods, make money, construct buildings, and ship goods for points. Settlers get you more plantation tiles, builders get you buildings, the mayor gets you colonists, the craftsman gets you goods, the trader allows you to sell goods for profit, the captain allows you to ship goods for points, and the prospector gives you cash.
To this day, I view PR as the gold standard in game design. It is an incredibly clean design, all the roles are extremely intuitive, and it keeps everyone engaged throughout because there’s always something to do. I understand the complaints about it – a dry theme, colonists that are more likely slaves, too predictable, veterans will slaughter newbies because they have solved it. But I still have fun every time I play. I’m consistently amazed at how well it has held up for me, and I can see myself playing for a long time to come.
Galaxy Trucker is on this list because, though I was already fully immersed in the hobby come 2008 when it hit the States, it is the first game I ever got deliriously excited about. Designed by Vlaada Chvátil and published by Czech Games Edition, this is a real time spaceship building game where players take tiles and construct a ship simultaneously with everyone else. When the ships are done, you basically start flipping cards to see how well you did.
I first heard about this game on an old video podcast called Obsessed Board Gamers. It looked amazing, and it instantly went on my wish list. The first printing in the US was sold out at that time, and I began frothing at the mouth waiting for the next one. I read the rules far too many times. I think I probably drove my wife crazy. When I finally got the game, it was as great as I had hoped, and my transformation was complete – I was a gamer.
So that’s my story. I’d love to hear from some others about the games that kind of shaped their careers, so please comment if you have some. Thanks for reading!
PROGRAMMING NOTE: This is the last edition of The Eleven for the year. It will return in January.