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Boardgames and game history

Bored? Try playing a game.

So this is Christmas. [Off to a good start. -Ed] Which must mean that it's time to crack open the Advocaat and get on with a board game. But which board game? If the only traditional board and card games you know about are the ones you play at Christmas, you might be surprised how far they've evolved since the last time you played. They've had to. With today's fickle audiences able to access almost every spectrum of gaming entertainment from their game consoles, or internet browsers, or even from the pages of facebook, many manufacturers of traditional games have found themselves falling back on technology to make their games more attractive.

Indeed, many of the most well known boardgames are already available in videogame editions, and have been for some time. Earlier this year, EA licensed some of Hasbro's most popular games, including Monopoly, Scrabble, and Yahtzee. As far back as the PSone, it was possible to play videogame conversions of well known boardgames such as The Game of Life, while Risk debuted on the Commodore 64, before also appearing on the PlayStation. More recently, the DS version of Scrabble got in trouble for allowing players to score points for 'lesbo' with the kiddie-filter switched on, which just goes to show that even traditional games have the capacity to subvert the innocence of youth.

It also goes to show that even the newest console platforms are proving to be a receptive home for conversions of traditional games. In Japan, the DS is home to a whole series of jigsaw puzzle games, all of which are surprisingly entertaining (a good place to start is with Hudson's Puzzle Series Vol. 1: Jigsaw Puzzle). And with the advent of Live Arcade, the 360 seems to have found a natural home for these sorts of simple multiplayer games, providing an outlet for two of the more successful newer boardgames in Catan and Carcassonne.

There are, however, just as many electronic versions of traditional games that don't require cutting-edge technology. Diplomacy is a behemoth of a boardgame that recreates European politics at the turn of the twentieth century. It requires seven players and as many hours to play, which, in real life, makes it suited only for the most devoted (and sociable) of gamers. But thanks to various freeware applications, it's been possible to play it over email and the internet since the late '80s (an extension of the fact that it was one of the earliest games to be played by snail mail). It's still a bit of a logistical nightmare to set up, but once you've got it set up, it's no more complicated to play than the average PC turn-based strategy game (indeed, it's been converted into a fully fledged PC game itself, twice, though neither was well-received).

That's just the tip of an iceberg of cheap, unofficial ports of traditional games that are playable in internet browsers, or via email, or, now, with the likes of Scrabulous (Scrabble) and Attack! (Risk), on facebook. There are also actual, real-life boardgames that differentiate themselves by means of technology. Take Magic: The Gathering, for example. Back when it was launched in the early '90s, you'd have struggled to call it in any way conventional, but it's since extended traditional card games into an entirely new genre, of collectible card games (with Vampire: The Eternal Struggle being another excellent example).

Now, however, it's gone online, with players able to sign up to Magic: The Gathering Online, where they can buy and trade virtual cards just as they would in the real world with real cards - indeed, earlier this year, the game's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, reckoned that online card sales represent about 40% of its overall Magic business. More recently, the company set up Gleemax, a web portal/social networking site aimed at players of traditonal tabletop games which will have its own browser-based game unveiled in 2008: Uncivilized: The Goblin Game.

It's the culmination of a fusion of tabletop and technology use that goes back a long way. As far back as games like Electronic Battleships, or Electronic Stratego, for example - or even the likes of Operation. And then there are the games like Milton Bradley's early '80's videogame conversions such as Berzerk and Zaxxon. Instead of making use of actual technology, these were just a series of traditional boardgames based on the videogames that were cutting-edge at the time. There's still a healthy amount of crossover in this direction, with notable videogames making the transition to the tabletop including World of Warcraft, Big Brain Academy and Age of Empires.

Just as significantly, a whole genre of videogames has sprung up that aims to recreate real-life thrill of a decent parlour game. Games like Buzz!, or Who Wants to Be a Millionare?, or Scene It? or Smartypants have sprung up in recent years, leading several financial analysts to declare them (after the horse has bolted) the next big thing.

As for the real thing, well it's never gone away, and it's never going to. Sure, there might one day be a Wii version of Rapidough, but it's hardly likely to compete with the real thing (for the foreseeable future, at least). A game of Catan round a table is a wholly different, more raucous and entertaining experience compared to the dry strategy of the Xbox Live version. Because, of course, it's the human element that make traditional board and card games so entertaining to play even in our era of electronic entertainment.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the start: which board and card games are you going to play this Christmas? Well, depending on your fellow players, here are some recommendations: If you're surrounded by fellow gaming enthusiasts, you might consider checking out either Heroscape or Magic: The Gathering. Both are collectible, and reward a little bit of time spent learning the rules with a deep, strategic experience. Gamers who are after a more collaborative experience could do well to check out Shadows over Camelot, in which they attempt to co-operate to defend Camelot against a boardful of threats. If you're surrounded by non-gaming enthusiasts who are prepared to take a risk on learning a new game, Settlers of Catan is simply unparalleled. If they really need persuading, calmly explain to them that it's less complicated than Monopoly, it's quicker to play, and it's about a hundred times better. And if they can't be persuaded, then play Pit. It is, simply, the most fun you can have with any game, ever. And if all of that fails? Well you can always fall back on Rapidough. And Advocaat.

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Dave McCarthy