Yesterday I was doing an interview about a gaming strand I’m presenting for Glasgow Film Festival. The interviewer and I got to talking about board games, and why there seems to be a little bit of a “boom” happening right now. Why are so many people starting to play board games again? Why are so many games websites covering boardgames too? I suggested that it might be because computer and video games are becoming less and less physical. As downloadable games become the norm, we lose the ability to hold our treasured things in our hands. Gone are the big thick manuals and the books of lore, gone are the cloth maps and the otherworldly coins. Game collections seem increasingly like nothing more than temporary personal access to some strange ghostly lending library.
We like something we can hold. We like something we can lay out and look at. That’s my theory anyway.
What do we mean by a “beautiful” board? Are we talking about the illustrations? Are we talking about how the board works as a key component of play? I think we’re talking about all of this together. I don’t think an elaborate, staggeringly illustrated board can be beautiful if it fumbles delivery of the game. And I don’t think a totally practical board can be beautiful if it does nothing to emphasise the theme or the feel of play. A beautiful board, then, is a special thing. A rare treat. It’s a board that delivers an experience to a high level, but also recognises that there is artistry in any design of an object of play.
I wanted to show you a few beautiful boards from some less well-known games, because we all know that Talisman looks gorgeous, right? I also wanted to illustrate the beauty of these boards with nothing more than little snapshots. If you want to see these boards in their full glory, go out and pick up the physical objects. These things can only be properly appreciated in the flesh, or the cardboard. And these are all great games. You should own them anyway.
Shall we take a look at a few?
LETTERS FROM WHITECHAPEL adapts the well-known design of the Scotland Yard board into a blood-spattered, sprawling, sepia take on 19th Century London. The board is clean and easy to use, but over the hours of play within the game the board transfers a feel of desperation and bleakness. The crime scenes start to dot the map. The streets start to blur and mist as Jack the Ripper evades your grasp. This is a dark, attractive, and very emotive board.
ANDROID has a board that captures the feel of the cyberpunk world of the game’s setting. We see the city, the sky, the stars. The locations, gaudy and neon-like, carry icons that aid play. A player’s visits to each location are executed using a template that represents vehicular travel. You are no slave to adjacency here. The locations feel distinct and look almost lonely as they hang in that futuristic city skyline, unconnected. You’ll visit those locations with some troubled characters who are struggling with connections of their own. A fascinating, beautiful board for a fascinating, beautiful game. We really have to take that look at Android that I’ve been promising for so long.
HIGH FRONTIER is truly beautiful. And as with any truly beautiful person, the beauty can remain hidden until you dig deep enough to understand where the beauty lies. At first glance, High Frontier’s board is like an illustration from a school science textbook. But as you play, and as you realise that the board is one giant invitation to a universe of discovery, you start to see the beauty within. It’s information-heavy, practical, detailed… and yet with familiarity, the lines and icons become romantic swoops that suggest true wonder. As your finger traces these trajectories, your brain riffs on the possibilities. You know there is magic out there in space. You can see that strange roadmap laid out before you. How to get out there is the trick. How do you follow those lines out and out and further out?
High Frontier’s board is a promise. A tease. And further confirmation that science itself is beautiful.
THE REPUBLIC OF ROME is a game of negotiation. The board is used as somewhere to organise components, track the status of various events, and display information for the player. In that sense, it is unlike the other boards I’ve mentioned so far. The Republic of Rome is a game that takes place in the mouths and minds and hearts of the people at the table, so the board could almost be an afterthought. And yet, this staggering board does all it can to create the impression that something truly epic is taking place at the table. It’s beautifully illustrated, beautifully organised, and invites a player to stare at it in awe. It’s also an incredibly intimidating board. It suggests that this game has a million things going on – and it would be right. But nobody ever said that beauty has to be a safe and friendly thing. Beauty can be frightening to approach.
NEXT WEEK –
Prepare for a tale of mystery, as I hand over my column to the great Sherlock Holmes. Yes, next week, the great man will set you a challenge that you might not be fit to overcome. That’s if he isn’t all fucked up on cocaine or opium or something. He is a junkie, let’s be honest.
Keep rollin’ and/or stay dicey.