Growing Up with Board Games: The Power of Nostalgia

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Hey there, everyone! My name is Maria. I feel like the Goldilocks of boardgames. I don’t want to play a game that is too intense (no offense, Dominion), I don’t want a game that is too easy (I’ll only play Go Fish with my 3-year-old niece). Instead, I find myself somewhere in the middle when it comes time to picking out a game. Part of this is because of my early years growing up with board games.

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Brandon asked me to write a few guest posts for you all to give the perspective on games from someone who plays, but isn’t what most would consider a “hobby board gamer.” He says that’s because the board game market is a lot bigger than people think.

In this post, I’m going to share a little bit about me and the games I grew up on. I’ll also be writing future posts like: 

  • My Top 5 Games
  • My “I’d rather clean the bathrooms” Games 
  • Board Games for Dating
  • Marrying a Game Developer 

Growing Up with Board Games

I was born in the late 80s to parents who love games, specifically card games. Being the fourth member of the family, my parents saw an opportunity in our little quad of a family to play games regardless of our age. Some of my early memories of aluminum foil (don’t you think about your early memories of kitchen accessories?), was sticking my Uno cards in the box because there was no way I could hold all the cards at once.

By the time I was 6, I could tell you what Knobs meant, the importance of an Ace of Spades, and why you should never agree to “playing blood”. I much preferred a rousing game of Rummikub over Sorry! but, desperately clutched at Snakes and Ladders over trying to learn Backgammon yet again. 

My childhood is full of fond memories, many of which involve some form of game. I also recognize, however, that my childhood was not a normal one. When I was almost 4 years old, my family moved from the US to Saudi Arabia; I mention this, because travel board games were my mom’s go-to in keeping me quiet during the 24-26 hours of travel.

In addition to my own backpack of stuffed animals, Mom would always pack the giant purple “Game Bag” that held all kinds of amazing activities and SNACKS. Airplane food was definitely lacking, and our layovers were often at times where airport restaurants weren’t open, so this bag was the saving grace.

It had name brand crackers (Ritz), trail mix (M&Ms with obstacles), fruit roll-ups (pretty sure these were considered in case of emergency), and the aforementioned travel games. My favorite game was Guess Who because I liked looking at all the little pictures of people and imagined what they would talk about when we put the game in the box. My brother’s favorite was Battleship, and despite always having to play him so I could have someone on my end of the guessing game, I’m still terrible.

Board Games Were a Huge Part of My Childhood in Saudi Arabia

Since I grew up in Saudi, where there were no malls or movie theatres, and we didn’t get British TV until after a few years of living there, games were a stable in my childhood. Another aspect of living overseas meant that all the expats were their own little community.

Kids called adults by their first names. Adults expected kids to join in on the day’s activities. It seemed only natural that if my parents wanted to play a rousing game of Spades, then they had to teach me and my brother in order to complete the table. To their credit, we did play a lot of Uno too.

I could talk about dozens of games, but I’m going to focus on five. I’ll include a longer list of games at the bottom of this post if you fancy a trip down memory lane. 

  1. Monopoly
  2. Clue
  3. Mastermind and Mastermind Jungle
  4. The Game of Life
  5. Titanic

Growing Up with Monopoly

Let’s go ahead and talk about Monopoly to get it out of the way. I hate Monopoly. I used to love it when I was a kid because I thought the little pieces were so cute. The little Scottie was always my piece. It helped that Mom would let me pick whatever trades I wanted if I couldn’t fork over the money.

But Dad? Yeah, Dad was the real hardass in the game. If you landed on his hotel then you had better pay up, mortgage your properties, or walk out. Once I got a little older and my cute “but daaaaaad” didn’t work, we stopped playing the game. The below meme (courtesy of Facebook) is painfully true for my family.  

Growing Up with Clue

Clue. LOVED that game. I loved any kind of mystery, and this game let me play a sassy character: Scarlett. Looking back on it now, I can see how the game would get old after a while, but I do still enjoy games that target the same audience (I’m looking at you 221B Baker Street). I realize that I could just try and solve the crime without moving the puzzle piece around, but there is something so satisfying about hearing the dice roll and getting to click-clack your piece around the board. Almost like getting to play with a paper dollhouse…but a dollhouse with a murderous past. 

Growing Up with Mastermind

I actually forgot about this game until I sat down to write this post. Have you ever heard of it?

I remember when my brother and I found the game in the basement that had no directions and we tried figuring it out (apparently we found the 1972 original version).

Definitely getting those 1972 vibes.

Essentially, it is a 20 questions game that can be played without speaking and rather than answering “Who Am I?” you are trying to figure out the hidden 4-sequence pegs. This probably led to my lifelong interest in mysteries and heists.

While the first edition we played was certainly not physically accessible, we ultimately got a “jungle edition” that had the different colored pegs also be differently shaped animals. The hippos were purple, so it was pretty easy to guess my sequences.

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Growing Up with the Game of Life

So inaccurate, and yet accurate, all at the same time. It would explain a lot if 2020 were being caused by the spinner in Life flying off its inset.

I loved this game because it was always the game that we would play at my grandma’s house when we were visiting. Looking back now, I don’t know why my parents never bought us a copy of our own. Perhaps it wouldn’t have made the game feel so special.

We would play that game over and over again. In the early wee hours of the morning before anyone woke up, in the evening while grandma was cooking dinner, or during a lazy afternoon sprawled out on the floor.

That’s the other thing about that game, I rarely remember ever playing it on a table. We always played it on the floor either in the middle of the living room or between the living room and dining room. Pink and blue pegs everywhere, the raattttattatatattatatatat of the spinner always clicking away, and me continuing to ask the question “but why is the teacher salary so much less???”

Ah, to be so naive!

Don’t they look so happy?

Growing Up with Titanic

I’ve saved this game for last, because it is my absolute favorite. Perhaps it is one of my favorites because I am as stubborn as I am Italian (…I’m really Italian in case the implication wasn’t clear). My parents STILL groan if I ever mention the game. Even my husband refuses to play the game with me!

I don’t recall who gave us the game, but I was obsessed with it. First off, the board for the game folded outwards horizontally, not into a big square like every other game I was familiar with at the time. Then, it was split up into 3 different sections where you could not advance to the next section until having met certain objectives for your current section. That was mind boggling to me and a completely new concept.

And then, best of all, there was a PURPLE Lady in an AMAZING HAT as a character. I was sold. If I were to look at the game now, as an objective 30-year-old without a lifelong adoration of the game, I would possibly admit that it isn’t very complex and is really just a game of chance. Even Monopoly has more strategy than Titanic.

But goodness I was in love.

The art on the board was also so intricate for a game at the time. You had to pick up cute little passports that had fun details on them. You had to move around the board that was based on a real-life boat, and the cards referenced such swanky parties on the upper decks.

To a little girl who hadn’t even hit the double-digits club, this game had it all (except, of course, strategy). Even though the only person who will ever play this game with me is my cousin, it will always remain as a personal favorite and is why I dragged it out of the Goodwill box and have it safely tucked under my desk to this day. 

*Bonus Game: Rummikub*

I couldn’t stop at just 5 games. Rummikub is a game I have been playing since I was…5? 6? The only thing about this game that is a lie is the “Fast Moving” part of the catch phrase. That, and the happy smiling faced on the box.

We play by “Aunt Sue Rules” which is apparently different from the rulebook rules. I don’t care what you say, but if you’re going to replace a wild card, you must play it with 2 from your own hand. And don’t even think about moving the played wild card when switching tiles around; that’ll get a flipped table for sure.

When the pegs fell out of the stand and all your tiles fell….ah memories.

The Common Thread

Looking back on all the games that I played growing up, I see now why so many made such an impact on my game preferences now. They pretty much all incorporate the below factors: 

  • Great art or colors
  • Included a clicking noise, but wasn’t the entire game (I HATED Yahtzee because it hurt my ears) 
  • Tactile, but not needlessly fidgety 
  • Dynamic character roles

Even now when I pick out a game, if it has great art or just enough physical pieces, then I’ll give it a go at least once. I’ll talk more about what draws me to a board game in my next post, “My Top 5 Games” but the factors are not going to be too far from the above. Looking at my list of games to discuss in the next post (My Top 5 Games), I can definitely see that the common thread goes far beyond my childhood years.

That’s All, Folks!

I hope you have enjoyed my trip down memory lane as I shared with you the games that made my childhood. This is really nostalgic for me, even having left a bunch of games out.

I’ll leave you with this. All the games below are ones I played in the first ten years of my life. Let me know if any are nostalgic for you too!

  • Monopoly (Washington DC version)
  • Clue (Original, and Simpson’s)
  • Mastermind (Original and Jungle)
  • The Game of Life
  • Titanic
  • Rummikub (Aunt Sue rules)
  • Cribbage (don’t ever play blood)
  • Spades (girls against guys, duh)
  • Uno (did you know that you aren’t supposed to keep drawing until you get the right colored card???)
  • Battleship
  • Guess Who
  • Candyland & Snakes/Ladders
  • Gin (I literally always thought this was based on the alcohol)
  • Jenga (Only play on carpet)
  • Twister (Fun factoid, our game was in Arabic)
  • Sorry!
  • Connect 4 (play Gomoku if you were a fan of C4 as a kid!)
  • Mancala (Wasn’t huge on this game, but I liked the beads)
  • Chinese Checkers (Same as Mancala)
  • Trouble

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Board Games, Seen By a Non-Gamer is written by Maria Polcari, Brandon’s wife. The series is meant to both make you think about games in a different way, and to give Brandon a much needed break!

This is the first in a five-part series (maybe more)!

Board games, seen by a non-gamer: an upcoming short series

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The long, strange summer of 2020 brought me a lot more work than expected. I’m currently working on handling an unusually high volume of client work for the Pangea Marketing Agency. I won’t deny for a second that it’s a problem of privilege, especially in this grueling and unfair economy. Nevertheless, responsibilities are accumulating, and I must attend to them.

Yet I still want to keep posts going on this blog. That’s why over the next few weeks, my wife, Maria, will be writing a handful of posts. The theme of this short series will be “board games, seen by a non-gamer.”

Despite playing Twilight Struggle and Terraforming Mars with me, Maria doesn’t exactly see herself as a board gamer. At least not in the “always watching Kickstarter, painting minis, and 500 games on the shelf” sense. Instead, she’s somewhere in the middle ground between the diehard board gamers I just described and the “I used to love Monopoly as a kid” crowd.

Board games have been growing for the last decade, and I feel like, at least based on what I’ve seen, they’ve become a mainstream part of Millennial / Generation Z life. My friends would play Codenames in college around 2015. Even after my graduation, I didn’t have to go to the game shop to find people to play Pandemic before the pandemic.

For this reason, I think Maria’s point of view will echo the feelings of many people who are quiet fans of board games. Remember: board gaming is big, but hobby board gaming is relatively small. Taking a moment to consider other perspectives may help you to build a business in the long run.

So readers, stay tuned for what will prove to an enlightening short series of articles. And Maria – thank you for giving me a chance to catch my breath!

The Top 10 Best Solo Board Games (for Coronavirus Quarantine)

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Board games have been wildly successful in the last ten years. Much of this can be attributed to people’s need to socialize in person. That’s why many are surprised to hear that solo board games not only exist but are very common.

Good thing, too. In 2019, no one could have predicted that we all have to isolate ourselves in our homes to hide front a yet-undiscovered virus. At the tail end of the year, the coronavirus was just starting to spread in Wuhan, China, and now people across the globe are sitting six feet apart, looking for ways to entertain themselves.

Odd little world we live in these days. To help you survive not only the virus but the stultifying boredom of being stuck in your own home, I’ve put together a list of the very best solo board games in the world.

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How I Chose the Top 10 Solo Board Games

First things first, I want to go over how I chose the top 10 best solo board games. As you can imagine, any “top 10” ranking of any sort is subjective by nature. To keep things as fair as possible, I referenced Board Game Geek’s Top 100 best board games.

From there, I started at the top of the list and worked my way down, finding the highest-ranking board games with solo modes. Of the top 25 board games, 12 – almost half – had solo modes. As such, this list has a lot of overlap with The 10 Best Board Games of All Time.

Is there a better way to pick the best solo games? Oh yeah, definitely. And in fact, I’d love to hear your favorite solo board games in the comments below. We’re going to inevitably miss some phenomenal solo games in this article. There are too many to choose from!

10. A Feast for Odin

A Feast for Odin is a truly epic game: it takes a while to play (usually) and it’s got a whopping 3.83 out of 5 complexity rating on Board Game Geek. That means all the satisfying strategic maneuvering that hardcore gamers appreciate is present in this game.

The publisher describes it as a “saga in the form of a board game.” In it, you play as a viking tribe that explores and raids new lands. The end goal: accumulate the most material wealth.

While generally considered a multiplayer game, A Feast for Odin can easily be modified for solo play. In the robust solo mode, your goal is simple: achieve the highest score you can.

9. Wingspan

Photo by PZS69, CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/4647501/wingspan

Wingspan is one of the most recent board games published by Stonemaier Games, a name you will see a few more times on this list. Designed by
Elizabeth Hargrave, it is described on Board Game Geek as a “competitive, medium-weight, card-driven, engine-building board game.”

Despite the avian theme, Wingspan has a lot in common with another perennial strategy gamer favorite: Terraforming Mars. It is an easy to approach, relatively quick-playing engine-building game.

In Wingspan, you use the Automa Factory when flying solo. After each of your turns, you flip over Automa cards, resolve the effects, and then proceed with your turn. The effect is that game builds an engine all on its own while you are. It’s pretty challenging too!

8. Viticulture

This is the second of three Stonemaier Games that you will see on this list. Much like Wingspan, Viticulture also has an off-the-beaten path, natural world theme. You and other players now have vineyards to run in the Tuscany region of Italy.

Over the course of the game, you allocate your workers and resources in different ways. This lets you slowly change your vineyard to take advantage of different seasons, create more attractive winery tours, build structures, and plant vines. Your goal: run the best winery in Tuscany.

When playing solo, you again have an Automa deck just like you do with Wingspan. Your goal is to score more victory points than the Automa. What makes Viticulture remarkable in this regard is that there are five different difficulty levels, and you can also use an “aggressive variant” that changes how scoring is calculated. The means you have a remarkable variety of options.

7. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Arkham Horror is based off of the terrifying works of H.P. Lovecraft, complete with “mystery, monsters, and madness.” In the game, your characters reside in the New England town of Arkham where things are not quite as they ought to be, what with the haunted houses and hellish creatures…

The game itself is a living card game in which you can create custom decks of cards. The multiplayer game is cooperative. You’re playing against the evils of Arkham.

Now beware, solo gamers. It’s said that playing alone is very similar to playing in a group, but you lose the player interaction. For this reason, it’s said to be very difficult, but very satisfying to win!

6. 7th Continent

Imagine this: it’s the early 1900s and after a sailing voyage, you discover that there is an entirely new continent that no one has ever seen before! But after you visit it, you are cursed and you must go back to the continent to have the curse lifted.

Like Arkham, 7th Continent is a solo or cooperative game. It’s also an exploration game in which you must create tools, weapons, and shelter to survive. It’s also a brutally difficult game that will kill you again and again and again.

Similar to Arkham again, 7th Continent does not change much at all when playing solo. All you lose is the ability to rely on others to back you up. The game itself is largely unchanged!

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5. Spirit Island

Spirit Island is another cooperative game, but what really sets it apart is its unique theme. In this game, you play as an island spirit with unique elemental powers. The villains in this game are colonizers who wish to exploit your lands for profit. (Which they won’t if you have anything to say about it!)

The invaders act in ways dictated by the game itself, spreading across the island and attempting to build an engine. Meanwhile, you spread to other parts of the island, seek to increase your powers, and then eventually wipe the invaders off the map.

While many recommend playing Spirit Island with 2 or more players, it is a perfectly serviceable one-player game. You don’t have to change anything about the game itself in order to play it alone. You just don’t have backup when you may want it!

4. Scythe

The final Stonemaier game on this list is a big one: Scythe. A ton of physical and digital ink has been spilled to describe this game and I don’t know if it’s ever fallen off the Board Game Geek Hotness list in the last four years.

To borrow directly from the Board Game Geek page: “it is a time of unrest in 1920s Europa. The ashes from the first great war still darken the snow. The capitalistic city-state known simply as ‘The Factory’, which fueled the war with heavily armored mechs, has closed its doors, drawing the attention of several nearby countries.”

This is an engine-building, competitive game at its core. Every single aspect of the game has some engine-building element to it. There is also very little luck in the game, making in the kind of brain-burning, crunchy game that hardcore board gamers adore.

Scythe relies on an Automa deck for its solo mode. Each card specifies what the Automa player gets, does, or deploys. In short, the game builds its own engine while you do the same. Some even describe the Automa as being aggressive, so in many ways, the game will feel like you are playing against other real people!

3. Gaia Project

As if Terra Mystica weren’t a fantastic achievement in board gaming in its own right, Gaia Project is a souped up version IN SPACE. It doubles down on everything that made Terra Mystica brilliant – the complex decision making and the epic theme of expanding civilization. Then it marries the game to a theme board gamers have demonstrated time and time again that they love – science fiction.

Gaia Project is a picture-perfect study on how to “fix something that ain’t broken.” The game’s existence is proof that the creators were listening to feedback on a deep level, addressing gamers’ basic needs while taking the game in a surprising cosmic direction.

The 10 Best Board Games of All Time and What We Can Learn from Them

Gaia Project uses an Automa deck to play solo. The Automa takes one action per turn and slowly builds its deck by adding random cards. Much of the surprise comes in how familiar cards are used in odd and new ways. The clever chemistry between different cards keeps the game fresh for a long time.

2. Terraforming Mars

In Terraforming Mars, you and your opponents play as different corporations. Each corporation does its part to make Mars a more liveable place by raising the oxygen level, creating oceans, and increasing the temperature. You can do this through clever allocation of resources as well as the use of different project cards.

Terraforming Mars has so many unique cards that no two games feel alike. This penchant for creative play is extended to the solo mode as well. The board starts with a couple of neutral cities and greenery, whereas it would normally be completely barren. You have 14 generations to terraform Mars to a livable state. That’s not much time, and you have to be very efficient to make it happen.

1. Gloomhaven

Photo by Daniel Mizieliński. Found on Board Game Geek under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Last but not least, we have the ultimate in all epic games, the #1 on Board Game Geek for two or three years running: Gloomhaven.

Goodness, where do you begin with describing this game?

You play as a wandering adventurer in a dark, menancing world of dungeons and ruins. The story branches and unfolds in unique ways that always feel fresh no matter how many times you play. Many people have likened it to “a choose your own adventure” book in board game form.

Gloomhaven is a cooperative game based on dungeon crawling and hand management. It’s a heady, complex game for people who love complex games.

When you play solo, you act as two or more characters at once. Not only can you play the game with minimal changes to the rules, but you don’t even see many changes to the gameplay itself because you take on multiple roles. Gloomhaven is a formidable challenge in solo mode, and that makes it quite possibly the perfect game to learn while under lockdown!

Honorable Mentions (September 2020 Update)

This post got a bit more attention than I expected when I posted in April 2020. I’m updating this list as of September 2020 since this article is still highly relevant to our current time.

Here are a handful of favorites mentioned by commenters along with their short BGG descriptions. Carl King left a big list, including:

  • Nemesis: Survive an alien-infested spaceship but beware of other players and their agendas.
  • Everdell: Use resources to build a village of critters and constructions in this woodland game.
  • Anachrony: Venture into the wasteland, or back in time, to gain resources & avert the cataclysm. 
  • Rurik Dawn of Kiev: Claim your father’s throne! Build, tax, & fight through unique “auction programming.”
  • Barbarians the Invasion: Enter the mysterious World of Thunmar, a place where barbarian clans rule the wild lands and corrupted civilizations live in their decadent cities.
  • Raiders of the North Sea: Assemble and prepare a formidable crew of vikings to pillage towns and gain glory.
  • Architects of the West Kingdom: Will you be a virtuous or nefarious servant of the king? Build your way to glory.
  • Paladins of the West Kingdom: Invaders are coming from everywhere. Keep the faith and defend your homeland.
  • Bag of Dungeon: A dungeon crawling tile-based game harking back to the good old deadly days of exploring dungeons, slaying monsters and stealing treasure.
  • Mythic Battles Pantheon: Gather your team from the vast Greek pantheon and fight to the death!

Everett So recommended Hellenica: Story of Greece, which is where you “lead your city-state to become the preeminent symbol of Greece in this 3.5x game!” Wicaksono Adi recommended Mage Knight, a game in which you “build your hero’s spells, abilities, and artifacts as you explore & conquer cities.”

Want me to include more games? Let me know in the comments below! I’d like to keep this list updated so that nobody gets bored during this pandemic.