Board of Education

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For the last 15 years or so, Christmas morning has delivered me a lovingly wrapped weighty hardboard box. Beneath the paper and cellophane lies a new game that will require careful perusal before bringing it to life for others to play and hopefully enjoy.

For many people Christmas involves bringing family together and what better way of doing this than over the railroads of North America, a dwarven gold mine, or King Arthur’s round table.

Teaching a game in my family ordinarily involves convincing members young and old to gather round a hastily cleared dining table. Given they (and I) will have undoubtedly by this point consumed varying levels of alcohol this is often a tough crowd.

Balancing fun, interest, family politics and ensuring wine levels are topped up are all part of the game tutors task. Above all the experience needs to be enjoyable for all, and in this column I’ll share some thoughts on how to get the most out of a new game whilst leaving sibling rivalries healthily in tact. Some suggestions of good starting places are also provided, though once you start browsing Amazon or your local independent game store then do dive in with whatever takes your fancy.

Back to Christmas Day … after peeling off the cellophane, and lifting the lid (mmmm - new box smell) I’ll recruit a younger family member to assist with punching out all the little cardboard bits and dispose of the shell of the boards in the overflowing recycling bin. Note : Saving these outer bits of cardboard is like your grandparents leaving the in-store sticker on their JVC hi-fi, get rid of them.

Finding a quiet corner (this is becoming increasingly difficult with my growing and adorable collection of nieces, nephews and my own children), I’ll skim the rule book, then try and read it cover to cover. If you’re lucky you can first turn to YouTube before even hitting the rules. The Watch it Played YouTube channel is an excellent resource for an overview of many games. Understanding the flow of turns or player dynamics is essential and seeing Rodney running through a sample game really brings it to life. The oft-touted phrase “You’ll understand it when you play it” is very true so give them a flavour of the game and get them playing quickly.

It’s a fine balance between delivering all the rules and getting on with the game. I’m often accused, unfairly I feel, of drip feeding rules during the course of the game to my advantage.

Delivering an enjoyable gaming experience and seeing people interacting and having fun should always be front and centre. And I’d say that ensuring that all players understand the victory conditions or ways that the game can end should be covered at the very top. More experienced players will start formulating their strategy early on and won’t thank you for moving the goalposts midway through.

An increasingly common theme amongst games released in recent years is one of cooperation. All the players will either win or lose together, and this works very well with a Christmas family game where the potential for a huge falling out over Dad winning ‘again’ is high.

Some firm favourites that will bring new and old gaming crowds to the table are as follows;

Forbidden Island (2-4 players) or Forbidden Desert (2-5 players). Both of these teach and play quickly, and are a fantastic intro to games. Crucially they play well with kids from 6/7 upwards. Granny will also enjoy helping to escape the sinking island, or building the flying machine to evacuate the desert sandstorm.

Pandemic which will topically have you join forces to battle a rising tide of diseases intent on wiping out humanity. Not exactly a cheery theme, though the discussions that ensue over the best course of action do lead to some tense moments.

If you’re after something a bit lighter in theme, then Shadows over Camelot is a challenging cooperative game where you and your fellow knights will be taking on quests to recover the Holy Grail, track down the rogue Sir Lancelot and push back invasions from the Picts and the Saxons. Whilst this is a cooperative game, there is a possibility that there may be a traitor in your midst, one knight intent on preventing overall success. This possibility, rather than guarantee leads to fraught exchanges in the final rounds of the game.

Finally, if you’re really looking to offend granny, then one game guaranteed to do this is Cards against Humanity. Definitely not for kids, and you’ll certainly see your parents and siblings in a different light once you peer into their psyche.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how best to bring a new crowd to the table, or your experiences (good and bad) with teaching a new game. What are your favourite cooperative games? Any games that I should add to my Christmas list this year?

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