Overboard: the joys of table-top gaming

Student Life

The OxStu’s new high priest of board games, Jordan Saxby, leaves Monopoly behind and sets out for pastures new.  

We’ve all been there: It’s Christmas afternoon and your family are sat around the TV; full, sleepy and a little bit drunk. Your bored younger brother is tearing wrapping paper to pieces whilst the tail end of the Queen’s Speech wafts its soporific influence across the living room. Your grandmother, eighty years young, suggests you all play the new game you opened this morning. It’s from a long forgotten family friend. It was badly wrapped. It was almost definitely on sale at Big W. It is… The Simpsons Monopoly. Everyone groans but eventually agree to what they know will be ten minutes of novelty (Look! One of the Orange spaces is Kwikiemart!) followed by three hours of drudgery and allegations that the banker is, despite their seniority and standing within the family, smuggling 500s into the turn-ups of their jeans.

Be not afraid. The only place Monopoly will have in your life from now on will be in horrific memories like the one above.  This is a new world, a world in which gaming doesn’t start and end with Cluedo, Risk and Scrabble. Prepare yourself to build civilisations, conquer galaxies, swindle mob bosses, investigate haunted houses, run your own zoo, run from zombies, run for president or even do some farming; even games about farming are more interesting than Monopoly.

“But why are they more interesting?” you ask – because the designers have learned to exploit the best thing about board games, that you play them with other people. The real-life, breathing, utterly despicable people you call your friends. Monopoly plays pretty much the same on a computer as it does in real life; if I can’t tell playing with real people from playing with AI, then it’s not a good game.

Videogames have a similar problem; you end up sat on a couch staring at a screen, talking over a headset, or ignoring the world whilst you fire fat red birds at towers of blocks. When you play board games, you’re crammed with other people on your tiny college floor, and it makes all the difference. Suddenly a few bits of cardboard gain world-shattering importance, and you find yourself lying,  stealing, haggling, swindling and fighting – all to show that you are the best. But once the dust settles, you’ll be better friends than ever, and all be aching to play just one more time.

This hobby is amazing, and you should give it a go. Actually, you should stop reading now and buy the latest edition of Cosmic Encounter. If it’s not in Gameskeeper on Cowley Road, it will be on Amazon or boardgameguru.co.uk. Once you’ve bought it, come back here and see why you won’t be disappointed. Quick warning, it is about £40-£50, but I predict  this game may actually save you money – as the total cost is only that of about eighteen pints. If you buy some booze from Tesco and set up a game, you will have an amazing night for less than half the price – you only have to take boardgames over Babylove for a few nights (and most games are good for about 50 play-throughs – try getting that from a videogame) and the money you save will pay for the game!

Cosmic Encounter pitches 3-5 players (up to 8 with expansions) against each other in a battle across the vastness of space itself. You are all tasked with the survival of a race of aliens – and every race is different, with a neat dollop of backstory and artwork unique to each one filling out their card. These races range from sentient black holes bent on the devastation of all matter in the universe (The Void) through to The Remora – who are, for all intents and purposes, intergalactic butlers (coat-tailing with the best of them – whenever another player gets a reward, you get a smaller one). Your mission is to conquer five of the other players planets; to aid you, your alien race (of which there are 50 in the base set) can twist the very rules of the game to give you crazy advantages over your opponents.

For example, usually, when a player loses a battle, their ships are sent to a graveyard – “the warp” – from which they can retrieve them at the start of their next turn. But, if any ships have the misfortune of being killed by those black holes mentioned earlier, they are removed from the game. Permanently. If you lose against these guys too often, you will find yourself sat with your opponents looking greedily at your poorly defended planets, eager to capitalise on your misfortune for their own species’ gain.  At this point in Risk (or its million clones –playing in Middle-Earth doesn’t make it less rubbish) you would be doomed. You would spend the rest of the game watching as your opponents battled it out until one wins by either a slow boring grind to victory or an equally boring series of unbeatable attacks. However, this is not Risk – and Cosmic solves the problem of sitting in last place with nothing to do with beautiful simplicity: it makes your worst enemies into your greatest friends.

Alliances. Whenever you attack or defend, the difference between crushing your opponent into little alien chunks and your cute little aliens being served up for dinner will come down to who’s on your side when the first shots are fired. If you can persuade another player that you are going to win a battle, they will usually drop a load of ships to help (in exchange for some tasty rewards, come on, they aren’t going to do it for free. Well, they might). As soon as you look to drop out of the running, every player is suddenly your best friend, helping you in defence and attack. But this has a flip side; when you’re winning, you come up against a wall of ships bristling with more crazy weapons than you can shake a death star at.

All of this leads to a fantastic game. There’s more to it than this, but the internet has more information if you really need it. Just buy it, and see for yourself how amazing it is (I have played over 100 games, and I’m not bored of it yet). Cosmic Encounter is a brilliant example of the games that this column will cover, and is the perfect springboard to propel you into the Olympic sized swimming pool of cardboard mayhem like a nerdy Tom Daley. Trust me, you will never see the old games you used to play in the same way; and the next time you get a game down from the shelf to play on Christmas day, your entire family will actually *pause for effect*  have *pause for effect* fun. Just imagine: your grandma, eighty years young, at the helm of a battlefleet of Zombie aliens (their ships NEVER DIE); your younger brother is throwing attack after attack to slow her down, and she is just laughing maniacally as she obliterates his forces. And you? You are just sat back, waiting for your turn to come around. You have a plan. And it will be amazing.

 

PHOTO//Fisikal Rex

PHOTOS// Phil Romans