Good Games for Adventurous Imaginations
Away From the Computer Screen and Back to the Table
"Let's pretend, but with rules." In these storytelling games, one player (the gamemaster) creates a setting and situation, like "Ogres have kidnapped the princess." Two to six other players, sitting around a table with the gamemaster, imagine themselves as characters in that setting, and together you create a story around the situation. When there's a question about whether your character can accomplish a task, you roll dice to decide what happens.
Role-playing games (RPGs) let you imagine yourself as a Xena-like warrior, Star Wars alien, superhero, Wild West gunslinger, or even your favorite cartoon character. You can create your own settings and stories, or buy supplements and adventures for your favorite rules set. (And just to reassure Grandma: The ridiculous "Satanic panic" of 10 years ago died utterly. RPGs are harmless -- and big fun!)
Of the hundreds of RPGs, here are some suited for beginners:
* Dungeons & Dragons (TSR). For various reasons, there's no good introductory version currently in print of this granddaddy of all RPGs. Try looking for the big black box with a red dragon on the cover, published a few years back (good for ages 10+). Many gamers plunge right into the far more popular Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though this requires a bigger buy-in: the hardcover Player's Handbook ($29.95), Dungeon Master's Guide ($24.95), Monstrous Manual ($29.95), some polyhedral dice (ask the store clerk), and probably a "campaign setting" such as the boxed Forgotten Realms ($30). The basic rules are fairly simple by RPG standards, but the sheer amount of material makes AD&D suitable only for ages 13 and up.
* Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game (West End Games, $19.95). In this excellent space-opera RPG based on the Lucasfilm movies, you don't actually play Han Solo or Princess Leia, but you still find plenty of action fighting the evil Galactic Empire. This recent boxed set offers simplified rules and everything you need to play; don't confuse it with the older hardcover rulebook (Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game). A huge line of support adventures and supplements describes absolutely every thingie and location in the movies. (Ages 12+)
* Street Fighter (White Wolf Game Studio, $14.95). Based on the hit video games, this fine 1994 introductory RPG is out of print, but you can still find it on dusty back shelves. Mystic martial artists fight the Shadoloo crime empire, using fancy combat maneuvers and super powers like Acid Breath and Zen No Mind. Also needed: lots of ten-sided dice. (Ages 12+)
* TOON, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game (Steve Jackson Games, $19.95). Play Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, or anything you want in silly cartoon adventures. No one ever dies; they just "fall down" for three minutes, then bounce back for more mayhem. An ideal first RPG for new players, but "Animating" (gamemastering) the hilariously fast-paced adventures takes skill and fast thinking. Great value. Also needed: six-sided dice. (Ages 10+)
* Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf, $25). You play the vampires in this modern "Gothic-Punk" horror game big with the leather-and-angst crowd. It's AD&D with clove cigarettes -- easy to play and stylish, but definitely for mature gamers. Also needed: 10-sided dice. (Ages 16+)
* Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games, $35). American edition of the most acclaimed German board game of 1995, and maybe ever. Lay out terrain tiles, then colonize and exploit their resources; build houses, roads, armies, and technology. Diplomacy and skillful trading are essential in this superb strategic game. (Ages 13+)
* Manhattan (Mayfair Games, $30). Another German import -- all the best family board games today come from Germany. In this elegant city-building game, 2-4 players place plastic buildings in six neighborhoods. You can steal control of opposing buildings by topping them with your own pieces. Simple, elegant, addictive for all ages. (Ages 10+)
* Credo: The Game of Dueling Dogmas (Chaosium, $14.95). Historically accurate game (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) of the Nicene Councils (AD 325-637). Players represent different Christian factions (Orthodox, Arian, Monophysite, etc.) struggling to shape the Apostolic Creed to their beliefs and thereby gain 11 million Flock or 117 Council votes. Fun and enlightening, but not widely available; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for order info. (Ages 14+)
* Old favorites: You can't go wrong with the classic Cosmic Encounter (Mayfair Games, $35), where 4-6 players become aliens, each with a unique power to break the rules, and try to establish bases on opposing planets. The current version of Talisman (Games Workshop, $60) is astoundingly expensive, but search for older, cheaper editions of this classic British fantasy boardgame. Junta (West End Games, $20) is back in print after a long absence; government officials in a banana republic compete to sock away foreign-aid money in their Swiss bank accounts. Acquire (Avalon Hill, $30) just got a pointless graphic overhaul, but it's still a brilliant abstract game, as easy to learn as Monopoly and tons more fun. (Ages 12+)
Traditional Card Games
These card games are "traditional," as distinct from trading card games (described below), because each game contains everything needed to play. All these games are suitable for ages 10 and up.
* Dilbert Corporate Shuffle (Wizards of the Coast, $12.95). A brazenly unfair, fast-playing, and hysterical game of office truckling, based on the hit comic strip. Empty your hand of cards first to become Big Boss. Also released as The Great Dalmuti.
* Groo: The Game (Archangel Entertainment, $14.95). Easy, addictive four-player game based on Sergio Aragones' bumbling comic-book barbarian. Roll dice to get resources to play building and army cards, but watch out if Groo wanders by! An expansion deck ($8.95) adds 55 new cards, permitting six players.
* Knightmare Chess (Steve Jackson Games, $16.95). Played in conjunction with a game of chess, these 80 cards allow weird one-shot effects: switch piece positions, build walls, turn the board sideways, etc. Great for handicapping unevenly matched chess games.
* Titan: The Arena (Avalon Hill, $20). Though dressed up with fantasy creatures (minotaur, cyclops, unicorn) from the old Titan board game, this simple but deep card game adapts a German horse-betting game (Grand National Derby). Four to five players wager on eight creatures battling in an arena. Plays in 30-45 minutes; endlessly replayable.
* Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game (Atlas Games, $15.95). Loud, high-spirited game in which players create a story using cards showing fairy-tale story elements. Try to guide the plot to your own "Happy Ever After" card's ending, but careful what you say, or other players will interrupt you and take over. Great for parties.
* Lunch Money (Atlas Games, $16.95). Two to four kids in a nasty street fight use attack cards to knock out opponents. Graphics are spooky, unparalleled; you must see these cards.
* Dino Hunt (Steve Jackson Games, $29.95). Pricey but nice educational game suited for 2-6 young (8+) children. Move back and forth in time to bag dinosaurs and score points. Simple, clean design can be expanded with additional cards in randomly sorted booster packs (five cards, $1).
* Nuclear War (Flying Buffalo, $19.95). Lure enemy populations to your side with propaganda and, inevitably, nukes. Often nobody wins, but this long-lasting 1965 game is a blast anyway. Two great expansions, Nuclear Escalation and Nuclear Proliferation ($19.95 each), add weapons, Supergerms, state secrets, and Stealth bombers. I'm not making this up.
Trading Card Games
Adventure gaming's new obsession, these card games let each player build his own deck from a large universe of cards, some common and some rare. Buy "starter decks" of 60 randomly sorted cards, then add to your collection by trading or buying 15-card booster packs from the latest expansion set. If you're buying for a novice, get at least two starters and maybe six boosters to give a decent beginning selection of cards.
From a crowded field a year ago, only a few survivors have emerged. Any one trading card game is a hobby all by itself, if not a lifestyle. Gamers buy whole display boxes of each new expansion, often spending hundreds of bucks on thousands of cards. In the constantly evolving play environment, they want to stay competitive.
* Magic: The Gathering -- Portal (Wizards of the Coast, basic two-player game $8.95;
15-card booster packs, $2.95). A fine 1997 introductory version of Magic, the 1993 game that started this whole category. Two players become wizards dueling to drive each other to zero life points, using spells, creatures, and artifacts. Magic's rules are horribly complex, but Portal elegantly strips away the complexity. Learning is easy using the preconstructed decks and play mats, and games last less than 15 minutes. Note that Portal starters aren't randomly sorted, so buy only one. (Ages 10+)
* Legend of the Five Rings -- Obsidian Edition (Five Rings Publishing, 10 different starter decks, $8.95 each; 15-card boosters, $2.95). The newest and most accessible edition of this popular Japanese-fantasy multi-player game of honor, warfare, and epic struggles. Each expansion has furthered the story of the falling Hantei Empire and the Clans that struggle over the ashes. The card game inspired a good role-playing game of the same name. (Ages 13+)
* OverPower (Fleer/SkyBox, starters $7.95, boosters $2.95). Simple but richly strategic game of superhero combat. Several stand-alone versions of the game exist, keyed to different publishers' heroes (Marvel, DC, etc.); the best are IQ OverPower and Monumental OverPower. (Ages 10+)
* Other trading card games: You won't go far wrong buying Shadowrun (an attractive cyberpunk-magic hybrid), Imajica (based on the Clive Barker novel), or the second (not first) edition of the licensed X-Files card game. To get into Decipher's Star Wars Customizable Card Game you need a whole lot of cards, or buy the Parker Brothers Introductory 2-Player Set. If you're buying for a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasies, the Middle-Earth: The Wizards card game is popular and pretty but very complex; be sure, too, that you're buying the original game (subtitled "The Wizards") and not an expansion.