Just like other leisure activities, geeky hobbies have their peak seasons. For instance, comic books usually have bigger events in the lazy days of summer. It's best to don medieval armor and get in some live-action-role-playing (aka LARPing) in the spring and early autumn. In the ever-expanding world of board-gaming, this is the perfect time to get your game on. This year's top crop of games has been released just when people must figure out what in the world to do with a house full of extended family.
Last month, I traveled to Essen, Germany, to attend Internationale Spieltage, the German gaming industry's largest event. The four-day extravaganza consists of virtually every established game publisher selling, demonstrating and debuting games to the more than 160,000 attendees (that's bigger than San Diego's Comic-Con).
Germany's impact on board-gaming in the second half of the '90s and the past decade can be compared to the explosion of video-gaming in the '80s in Japan. Instead of Mario and Zelda, this time the world is being introduced to The Settlers of Catan and Power Grid. Which, granted, might not be quite as visceral as Call of Duty: Black Ops, but these board games are self-contained, ultimately inclusive and a flat-out superior brain-burning experience for the sophisticated gamer.
Arguably the second most important convention for fans of European games is the BoardGameGeek Convention, or BGG.CON, which took place Nov. 17-21 at the Westin DFW. Gamers from this hemisphere flock to our airport to taste the goodness coming out of Essen for the first time, catch up with friends and, just like in Essen, pitch their game ideas to each other (my primary reason for attending Essen was to demo my new game prototype for publishers). American players' incredibly important opinions about the new products from Essen are decided in a giant hotel ballroom at the airport just in time for the holiday gift-buying season.
Fanboy's gateway board game suggestions
Is your family tired of Monopoly? Try ...
Ticket to Ride
Age 8 and up, 2-5 players; 10 minutes to learn, 45 minutes to play; $59.99
Your job is to connect the cities of North America to each other by claiming their routes with your colored trains. But be careful not to reveal your final destination too early or you might get blocked by the competition.
Want something better than Magic: The Gathering? Try ...
Age 8 and up, 2-4 players; 10 minutes to learn, 30 minutes to play; $44.99
This is the deck-building game that sets a new standard in replayability with cards you purchase and incorporate into your strategy. Scoring cards usually only help you achieve victory at the end and clutter your hands before then, while fun Actions and Treasure cards increase your power in the short-term if they come up in a fortuitous order.
Have a room filled with know-it-alls sick of Trivial Pursuit? Try ...
Wits & Wagers
Age 10 and up, 3-21 players; 2 minutes to learn, 25 minutes to play; $29.99
The best party game for people who like their trivia games fast, risky and manipulative. Each game consists of seven creative questions with numerical answers. Players write their guesses, then place them in order on the wager mat. Then the real game begins, as players bet chips on the options, coming as close to the correct answer without going over.
Fanboy's top three new faves from Essen
Because these games are so new, you'll have to be creative in seeking them out. If you want them before they start to make headway in the U.S. marketplace, good places to scout are www.boardgamegeek.com and eBay.
Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game
Age 13 and up, 2-4 players; 45-60 minutes to learn, 3-5 hours to play; about $45, through Amazon.com.
This new release is a love letter to the complex, holistic and intensely popular "Civilization" computer game series, which promotes multiple paths to victory (cultural, economic, technological and military). It's a brutal, unforgiving experience with hardly any luck involved -- think Risk without the dice and add resource management, politics, misdirection, deal-making and back-stabbing. Before you begin, please make sure all friends sign their "I Will Not Destroy Our Relationship Over This Game" contracts.
Age 10 and up, 2-7 players; 10 minutes to learn, 30 minutes to play; $49.99, through Amazon.com.
Games where you build massive civilizations are usually defined by how many hours they take to play, not minutes. With its innovative simultaneous-play mechanic, it doesn't matter how many people are in your group -- it will always be 30 minutes long. You choose which card to play from your hand, buying your neighbor's abilities or resources if you have to. Then pass your leftover hand to another player, trying not to empower him or her too much. Will you build the Pyramids? Raise the largest army? Or simply shut out your neighbors from the tools they need to succeed?
Age 8 and up, 2-4 players; 10 minutes to learn, 45 minutes to play, expected to retail for about $25
This clever tile-placement game may not make the hot lists, but I believe its appeal will strike the American specialty gamers once they see it played. Players make a map of tiles with trees filled with different numbers of crows, and place crow tokens on them. A player chooses a random tile, places it and any crow tokens on it on the board, and then places his representative "shiny object" on a blank tile. Once all players have done this, the crows move to the closest shiny object, and scoring is awarded to the amount of crows your object attracts. With its original theme; a creepy-cool aesthetic; and tiles like "graveyard" and "trash pile," this could be a hidden gem of 2010.
Scott Hinze is the host of Fanboy Radio: The Voice of Comics & Gaming heard 6 p.m. Sundays on KTCU/88.7 FM or at www.fanboyradio.com.