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The designer games that people play

Smarter board games gain appeal as party must-haves and a way to have fun without dice or trivia.

August 14, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

During the dot-com years, they seemed as anachronistic as jousting. But board games lately have acquired a kind of old-school cool: Young Hollywood types are raving about Cranium and Pictionary, while InStyle magazine recently counseled readers on throwing board game parties. Like golf, cardigans and swing dancing before them, board games have become the latest retro pleasure.

But there's a whole world of games beyond those drawing actors and publicists. These "designer games" are built on strategy and tactics instead of luck, pop-culture knowledge or charades-like party tricks. And while their sophistication might compare to fanciful games found in video games and on the Internet, these are not so complicated that they are imposing.

The best of them have titles like Princes of Florence, Puerto Rico and Carcassonne. On the surface, they're like normal games, despite having a Teutonic name -- the designer's -- bannered across the cover.

Most begin with the techniques of familiar fare like Monopoly, Risk, Clue or Rummy, but take them in a more challenging direction that's less dependent on luck. In some, each player has his own board; in others, the players build one as the game evolves.

The phenomenon started in Germany, where an ingenious trading game called Settlers of Catan started selling into the millions in the late '90s. There, where TV hasn't killed family interaction and there's still a stigma around war games, designer games have an enormous audience.

In the U.S., their following is small but fiendishly devoted: They're the foreign films, perhaps the indie films, of the board game world. They're the games the characters in Wes Anderson's movies would play, while listening to Belle and Sebastian.

"They're not confrontational," says Scott Alden, 32, a Dallas video game designer who co-founded www.boardgamegeek.com, gaming's version of the Internet Movie Database. "You're not blowing up someone's buildings or something. They're usually about building up rather than shutting down."

Unlike basic games, though, and the war games that have fascinated testosterone-stoked American men for a generation, there are often no dice involved.

In Princes of Florence, for instance, each player runs a principality in Renaissance Italy, where they try to develop a livable spot, with landscapes, entertainers, theaters, and laboratories, that will attract artists and scholars. The winning player attracts the most talent and does the most with it. (Impersonating characters, a la Dungeons and Dragons, is not encouraged.)

Between German games and the American classics that inspired them, there are games about planning a medieval French town (Carcassonne), conquering ancient civilizations (Tigris and Euphrates), solving mysteries (221 B Baker Street), bidding for paintings (Modern Art), raiding corporations (Acquire), and negotiating and backstabbing on the eve of World War I (Diplomacy). They're set in the "Braveheart"-era Scottish Highlands, in the India of the Raj, in feudal Japan.

But the appeal in these games is hard to paraphrase: It's built into the mechanics. The latest hit is a 2002 German export called Puerto Rico.

The game's premise -- players run plantations in the 16th century West Indies and produce coffee, sugar and other goods that they ship to the Old World -- doesn't describe its unique rhythm.

Puerto Rico's genius is that each turn allows every player to take an action; it's a game without any downtime or thumb-twiddling. Like most popular games, it has provoked several home-grown variants; one of them, circulating on the Internet, updates the game with organ harvesters, brothels and drug houses.

What makes the games fun, in the end, is the combination of social interaction with intellectual energy. The fact that you can talk, drink and play records while playing -- unlike, say, watching a bad movie -- doesn't hurt.

"It's sanctioned competitiveness," says Henry Rath, 32, a MBA-wielding consultant who points out that games are entirely harmless. "If I win, it doesn't put anyone out of business."

Despite their new Hollywood chic, games are really anti-celebrity and almost Luddite in their indifference to technology: They represent a lost world swept aside by TV and PCs. Those who use computers for a living often enjoy the tangible, old-fashioned social quality of board games.

"I like the human contact," says John Parziale, 35, who runs a computer repair shop called Macadamia and spends most of his time staring at screens. "When I play board games there's a need in me that's fulfilled, and the next day I have a really good day."

Ideally, Los Angeles would have a store like Amoeba Music -- a shop where the newest German games are available before their English translations, where you search for an original 1982 black-tube edition of Pente like out-of-print Elvis Costello singles.

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