Today, we're always being told that video games are social. It's only recently that I've been able to take enough of a step back to realise that this is weapons-grade nonsense.
Social gaming isn't a "share" button, achievements or single shard servers. Social gaming is getting home and not being able to have sex because your partner wasn't kidding about you invading Kamchatka. Social gaming is an entire match coming down to you looking your best friend in the eye and deciding if you can trust him.
And as a fundamentally social hobby, it makes sense that co-op board games are popular. Disease-battler Pandemic gets a lot of love, and, as an aside, if you play it and feel brave, you should totally move up to either Ghost Stories or Space Alert.
But I think there's something even more social than co-op games. I'm talking about team games. I'm talking about working together with your friends but against another tribe of competitive humans. It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on. If you were seeking to take your clothes off, or will stop at nothing for the most social experience imaginable, I'll just direct you to Tease: The Liberating Game for Couples & Groups.
Where was I? Right, yes. My favourite five team board games!
Memoir '44: Operation Overlord
I should save the best for last, but I'm too big a show-off.
Memoir '44 is an incredible WWII strategy game for just two players. An agonisingly tense duel over a narrow strip of land, where the orders you can issue — and the game's intimidation factor — is limited by the cards in your hand. Move 2 Units On The Right Flank or Infantry Assault?
It looks like this:
Memoir '44: Operation Overlord looks like this:
Overlord takes three such games of Memoir and bolts them side by side in one grand battle, where each general is only dimly aware of stuff happening in their peripheral vision. It's impossibly epic, but it gets better.
The full extent of what's happening is overseen by the fourth player on each team, the Commander-In-Chief. This guy's responsible for handing out Memoir '44's signature order cards to each of his generals, but can only speak to one of them every turn. In other words, here's a game where you neglect to talk to your right flank because you're sure he's got it under control, only for an ambush that player had to watch creep up for three turns to suddenly strike.
The entire game's as epic, entertaining but accessible as Memoir '44 itself. A full, six hour game of Overlord might be my favourite board gaming memory in the last two years. Get it bought, get it played.
Ladies & Gentlemen
Course, if you think Overlord is an exhausting battle, Ladies & Gentlemen might literally kill you. Players are divided into Victorian husbands and wives hurriedly assembling outfits for a ball happening in six days time. At the end, the most elegantly dressed couple is the winner. Simple!
Not simple. The realistic part of Ladies & Gentlemen is that the ladies and gentlemen are, respectively, playing two entirely different games, and have no idea what the hell their partner is doing at the stock market / shopping arcade. At the end of a brutal day the women hand their desired clothes to the gentlemen, whose monocles immediately pop out into their tea at the prices.
"You need MORE SHOES? These cost £1200!"
"OK, £1200 is very reasonable. Secondly, THAT'S A HAT."
That's an actual quote from the game I played yesterday. Best of all, if you have an odd number of players, the last player is a courtesan who can ask any gentlemen she likes to buy her gifts. If the courtesan is the best dressed lady at the function, she wins along with the gentleman who bought her the most. If she's the worst dressed, she scandalises the wife of the man that bought her the least.
Best game ever!
Rex: Final Days of an Empire
Rex is a weird one, partly because it's about a collective of bizarre aliens scrabbling for control of a planet even as it's still being bombed, but mostly because it doesn't start as a team game.
If you've played the Game of Thrones board game, you'll know what to expect. Too many players, not enough resources, not enough room, but if someone can control just 3 Important locations (such as the space-docks, the power plant, the government building) then they win.
Where things get interesting and potentially awful is when the Temporary Ceasefire card comes up. At that point, any of the six players can form alliances of two or three players, but this ups the victory condition for that team. Alone, a player needs three locations. With more players, your alliance needs four or five.
This gives the game a beautiful flexibility. At the flip of card, it could grow from a free-for-all to 3v3. Half an hour later, it might collapse into a 2v2v1v1, as powerful players try and cut the dead weight from their team. Video game designers! Steal this idea. Thank me later.
1812: The Invasion of Canada
A wargame where your friends deserve a medal for even showing up, 1812: The Invasion of Canada is a game about America's famous (not famous) failed invasion of Canada that demands exactly five players. But wait! It's awesome!
1812 is a rarity because it's a refined, smart wargame, with all the wooden cubes and historical accuracy you'd expect, but that's just a great deal of fun. The Canada team is made up of players controlling the British Army, Canadian Militia and Native Americans, while team America is the American Army and American Militia.
In theory, everyone carefully discusses a plan, then launches joint assaults and retreats. In practice, someone uses the fact that they have one cube in a province to drag everybody else into a fight, then everyone gets to roll big, chunky dice and you see who lives (usually nobody), who dies (usually the most important people) and who runs away (usually the militia). It's absolutely joyous, with yet another genius mechanic regarding victory conditions.
It's better to defend than attack. But whichever team's controlling more territory when the game ends, wins. Except the game ends only when everybody on one team's managed to play their Ceasefire card, hidden somewhere in their deck. Don't get put off by the board, or the theme. This is tactics with all the absurd tension of Buckaroo.
We'll end with a secret one. Shh!
Galaxy Trucker is a disaster simulator by my favourite game designer, Vlaada Chvátil. 1-5 players race to build interstellar trucks before taking off in a convoy. Twenty minutes later you'll all (probably) arrive at your destination piloting ships that could be anything from sheared clean in half to missing minor details like their entire crew or cargo, at which point you'll do it all again with an even bigger ship.
It's perfect. But at the back of the manual is a tiny little team variant. I didn't think Galaxy Trucker could get any better, but check this out: Players are split into teams of two. At intervals throughout the building process, you have to sprint around the table to continue building whatever your friend was building.
I've played this exactly once. On the very last round of the game, where you're flying HUGE ships with dozens of crew members, my friend and I finished building and felt confident. We'd made a good showing. Then I went to join the convoy and exactly half of my ship took off, leaving another, entirely unconnected half on the runway.
You know what? I'll be right back. I'm off to organise another game of it right the hell now.
Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by their scent. He is not proud of this. You'll find his analogue ramblings at Shut Up & Sit Down, his board-game site, and @quinns108 on Twitter.