At Least I Know Where Kamchatka Is, Part 2: 

The Part In Which You Also Learn Where Kamchatka Is


Last time, I gave a couple recommendations for newer board games, if all you know (or all your friends know) are games your parents grew up with. This time…this time I’m going to keep doing that, if that’s ok?

If you like conquering territories with mighty armies and your friends all like Risk, try Small World.

It’s worth mentioning that some people don’t want to play any games with conquering and soldiers and fighting. Games have abstracted combat in all sorts of ways, from chess to The Campaign for North Africa (a wargame that takes ~1,500 hours to finish), but let’s face it, that sort of thing is not for everybody. If games about crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women are likewise not for you (famed and prolific game designer Reiner Knizia doesn’t like “bloody games” either), check out the equally-awesome game recommendation after this one.

Still here? By continuing to read, you affirm that you are old enough to have “The Talk” about Risk. This is similar to ones you may have had about Santa Claus, the unsexy reality of women’s prisons, and your “permanent record.” Illusions are endangered, is what I’m saying. Ok? Ok. Do you have fond memories of Risk? Everyone I’ve met (who has played it) has one of four kinds of memories about Risk:

“This one time, we played and it took all day! It was epic!”

“Man, this buddy of mine would always [some quirky thing]…”

“I was always the first one eliminated.”

“I hate that game!” [stomps off, punching a puppy in the face and slamming the door]

I’m not going to tell you that you can’t have fun playing Risk today (you can!). I’m not going to tell you that you weren’t having fun playing Risk back then (you… might have?). I am going to tell you that for the experience it purports to provide—strategy! diplomacy! global conquest!—it doesn’t do a very good job of it. There’s really only one strategy, little negotiation, and the dice (the dice! the moaning and the groaning of the dice!) get rolled over and over and over again.

It’s a fact: Risk would likewise be improved ~1% if one of the soldiers in a funny World War I hat had a snot bubble coming out of his nose the way the dwarf here does.

So why play Small World instead? First of all, the game has a set endpoint. You play for a set number of turns, because while you are still contesting territory, you are not aiming for—and cannot achieve—the Risk-type elimination of another player, who has to go do something else for two hours (besides, presumably, resenting you) while the rest of you finish up. Second, well, kind of that thing I just said, that there’s no player elimination. Everyone is crushing enemies and stuff until the end! Third, there’s a 98% reduction in die-rolling; if you’ve ever played Risk against a computer, you’ve already seen what a difference this makes in game speed. Finally, not all armies are created equal; each game features randomly-paired descriptors and species, changing the game every time you play it.

If loving Swamp Wizards is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

The game is faster, prettier, and more forgiving than Risk. It’s better for younger players than Risk (the rules are simple), and better for people new to boardgaming than Risk. What it does not have—and I do believe these things are in Risk’s favor—is real-world geography and WWI military imagery, but then, Risk doesn’t have Aquatic Amazons, and your friends might be willing to play Small World more than once in an evening, so I think Small World still has the advantage.

If you like having a story evolve that is mostly (but not entirely) out of your hands in The Game of Life, try Tales of Arabian Nights.

Pictured: one of The Game of Life’s few decisions. Go to college for a chance at all of the lucrative careers, or don’t go to college, and nearly guarantee you make less than anyone else. Strategy! Also note the blue car driving backwards through college, Life imitating life.

Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life is kind of old. The original game—not much like the modern one—was made in 1860(!), and when it turned 100 it was re-done; thus, the first incarnation of the spin-and-move track game played today was born. The semi-moralizing message has been there all along: stay in school, buy insurance products, get married, have lots of babies if you’re lucky, retire in the 1%. The way life ought to be. There’s not that much choice; you’re obligated to get married, for example, and the paths seldom diverge on the board. The game still succeeds today to some extent on a narrative level, providing a randomly-generated series of events from which you could tell a (capitalist, moralizing, somewhat dated) story. Whether that’s fun for you depends on how much you like having a series of events handed to you, forming the outline of a life. If you like that sort of thing, well, have I got a game for you.

Pictured: the contents of the box. Not pictured: the story it will generate, in which you attain fabulous wealth, lose it all, but nonetheless woo the fair princess, only to have your sex changed to female by a curse.

Like The Game of Life, Tales of the Arabian Nights is not a game of high strategy. You will not be able to plan your way to becoming sultan much better than your opponents can, nor will you be able to force them to be captured by pirates, swallowed by whales, cursed by spirits, haunted by ghosts, or driven insane any better than you will be able to avoid those things yourself. And maybe that’s ok, because just like real life, the journey is the thing, not the destination.

How does all this happen? You will note (if you shop for the game in real life, or compulsively check shipping labels) that the box is rather heavy. It contains a huge book of paragraphs that describe a thousand different things that can happen to you and your friends. For example, on your turn, you might find yourself face to face with a lion(!). If you try to fight, the player holding the book will read one paragraph to you, but if you flee or pray or cry out, the player reading will give you a different outcome from a different paragraph, according to your choice. It is rather like a large, cooperative, less-deadly version of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books.

The beauty of this is that while The Game of Life gives you the events from which you could tell a story, Tales of the Arabian Nights gives you the events and bits of story and dialogue too. It’s beautifully-illustrated, too, which adds to the atmosphere as well. It’s not a game with winners or losers (so some might argue it’s not so much a game as a guided activity), but that’s not the point—the point is remembering the time that Aladdin crossed half the globe to get changed back into a guy just in time to marry the vizier’s daughter. The way life ought to be.

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