February 20

A Tabletop Renaissance

Firstly – a public service announcement: for the optimal experience whilst reading this multi-part post, you may wish to have the Rocky soundtrack playing in the background. You’ll see.

A couple of years back, roughly coinciding with quitting booze, I found myself thinking about doing something more social with family and friends, that didn’t involve the pub.

Back in my teenage years, I recalled loving some classic but niche boardgames – Blood Bowl being one, Block Wars, another – and wondered if such things still existed. Over the course of a series of bursts of five minute investigation, I was amazed to find that there is still very much a thriving sub-culture. The non-mainstream tabletop game industry is, apparently, alive and well, having gone through a series of massive evolutions that were driven, I suspect, by my fellow geeks using the social web as the perfect breeding ground for collaborating about such things, with passionate intensity.ahc02_art_foul-sorcery

Within the industry, collectible card games (CCGs, to the initiated) have become ever more popular. This describes games like Pokemon and Magic, along with numerous Japanese games, which are often played by a relatively young audience, with cards traded to enable the player to develop their card pool, which in turn facilitates them coming to each game with a stronger deck of cards, increasing their chances of winning.

In addition to the content being not my thing, the fact that these products are largely sold with randomised contents was really off-putting. Inevitably, when someone finds a card of genuine rarity, it has a huge resale value on Ebay etc. But, of course, the rarity means the chances of doing that are slim and can only be improved through spending more.

However, in recent years there’s been the advent of a slight variation on this model – called Living Card Games (LCG). Also, there has been a significant growth in collaborative games – both board and card-based – as opposed to competitive, which is the classic, mainstream model.ahc01_art_gardens-of-luxembourg

These developments are really aimed at people that dislike the randomisation, don’t need to be fired by competitiveness and are often aimed at putting the games’ narrative at the heart of the experience. They also appeal to people that like collecting, or are completists (as neither is really practical with most CCGs, particularly once they have been around for a few years).

LCGs tend to launch their main product – often called a Core set – and then, about twice a year, a ‘big box expansion’ which kicks off a new story arc which is then followed by a series of monthly small expansions, consisting of about 60 cards each.

So, there’s a continual, regular drip feed of new cards, which often can complement or supplement previously released products – hence the concept of it being a Living Card Game.

One particular publisher – Fantasy Flight Games – seems to specialise in this area, with products around Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in particular. I recalled enjoying playing with HP Lovecraft-based games around the mythical god Cthulhu as a teen, so stumbled across one that was just launched – and has since become a huge hit within the gaming community – called Arkham Horror LCG.ahc01_art_figment-of-your-imagination

Arkham is a collaborative experience, centred around investigation and keeping the character you control alive for long enough to escape or (considerably less likely) overcome some eldritch fate. Thematically, it’s akin to Stranger Things, without the 80s overtones.

You can play it alone (solo, being the preferred term) or with others. Or, because it’s collaborative, not competitive, you can play as multiple characters, concurrently.

In short, I found Arkham to be engaging but gentle, thought-provoking but calming, rewarding but easy to pick up and put down.

For me, it was love at first sight and exactly what I’d been looking for. The cards provide a tactile, physical aspect to the experience which is fundamentally missing from reading or watching a film, and arguably considerably more relaxing than the ever-more high tempo videogames that dominate that industry.

So, my shelves are now bulging with cards. When I have a bit of downtime away from work and the family, it’s something I can fiddle with without requiring anything from anyone.

And so, a few years into this, I found myself looking for others, to get a new hit of new toys, which brings me to my next post, as I found my way to the world of Android; Netrunner.