The Next Gen Of Board Games (Quietly) Arrived
For most of recorded history board games have been tragically underwhelming. Just a few short decades ago the only board games you were likely to find in most houses were Risk, Scrabble, or Monopoly -- games mostly based around long, arduous roads to inevitable victory after two to eight hours of fostering an intense loathing for the other players.
The ‘90s introduced a new wave of games with outlandish gimmicks from the Rube Goldbergian Mouse Trap or the disturbingly titled Don’t Wake Daddy. Then in the early ’00s, Eurogaming finally reached its peak, and games like Catan, Dominion, and Ticket to Ride started making their way into homes and cafes all over the world. Eurogames tend to involve more complicated uses of resources, more thematically interesting settings (not just kill everyone for money), and are focused on the strategy of the game instead of the spectacle of a 2-foot-tall mouse trap.
But since Catan entered the pantheon of games that even boomers can understand, there hasn’t been too much moving and shaking in the board game space (except in Yahtzee, which still involves lots of shaking). For a while, social deduction games like Avalon and Werewolf seemed to rule the roost, but applying hidden roles to other games always fell a little flat. There have been tons of fun, unique games, but for about a decade board game fanatics have been waiting for the next new era. And during the pandemic, Leder Games has quietly ushered it in.
Over the last two years, it's been harder than ever to assemble a game night crew -- already a herculean task before it became a literal question of life or death. This means if you don’t have your ear to the board you may have missed Leder Games’ rise. The spunky St Paul company has released three games, all to critical success and most to commercial success. Vast, Root, and Oath are completely different games with completely different themes, styles of play, and goals, but they share a central tenet of asymmetric gameplay.
Asymmetric games have been around forever; they’re any time two people aren’t playing identical sides. Chess and Checkers are symmetrical -- besides who goes first, there’s no difference between the two sides. Same with Risk, Monopoly, and Scrabble. But Leder games are more like Starcraft with the factions or characters you choose having different capabilities which promote different strategies.
There have been other games like this -- Twilight Struggle or Cosmic Encounters come to mind -- but Leder Games’ style takes asymmetry a step beyond. In Root, each player is using almost wholly different rules to align your play with your factions’ history. You really are trying to resurrect an old dynasty or cast off the shackles of the warring states. In Oath, players start somewhat symmetrically and over the course of the game develop different abilities and usually completely different victory conditions, all while engaged in a political struggle against a powerful ruler or playing the ruler themselves. And while these games are definitely more challenging than Risk, they’re still accessible to people who play games, and after being trapped indoors for a year straight that’s basically everyone.
Unlike social deduction and hidden role games, star designers Patrick Leder and Cole Wehrle appear to be able to apply this new kind of genre to almost any theme, from exploring caves to a war game in a roost to political intrigue and finances. Their next game is apparently set in space, and other studios are taking note. By the time you end up back at your board game friends’ table in late 2030, expect to be playing a game that looks a lot less like Catan and a lot more like politics.
Top Image: Leder Games