Welcome to Tabletop 101
One of the main goals of this website is to give people new to this hobby the tools they need to get involved. To that end, this collection of articles is intended for those who have recently discovered hobby tabletop games. My hope is that it will give you a launching point into the the hobby and make you feel comfortable navigating the terms and trappings that come with it.
If you are familiar with hobby tabletop games or have been playing for any length of time this resource is not intended for you. Feel free to move on to other articles on the site. Or you can stay and help refine this resource by using the contact form on the Outro tab and letting me know what should be added, removed, or changed.
Hello and welcome to Tabletop 101! I want you all to take out your book entitled “Everything I Know About Board Games I Learned From Monopoly” and set it gently in the trash. That is old news now. 1933 news to be exact. Game design has progressed a long way since then just like cars have. You wouldn’t expect a car designed in 1933 to hold up to today’s standards so why would you expect the same out of a tabletop game. Years of progress and innovation in game design has led to some truly great modern games. Certainly we want to respect the ones that have come before as the progenitors of this great hobby but we don’t want to see them on the table too often just the same as we wouldn’t want to take a Chevy Series AD Universal on a road trip.
There are many paths that may have brought you here. You may have played one of these new games and wondered what else might be out there. You might have a friend that keeps spouting about hobby board games and you want to know what they are talking about. Maybe you just happened on this article in a chance Google search. No matter how you got here my goal is for you to leave here better-educated and hopefully even a bit excited to jump into tabletop games as a hobby. There is a whole world of games out there far more interesting and engaging than the ones typically found at a big box store and I want to help you discover that world.
What is a hobby tabletop game?
This is the first logical question and a great place to start. First let me define what I mean by a tabletop game. This is any game that can be played on a flat surface. This includes board games, card games, miniature games, and RPGs. But when used here it will refer to board and card games. You will hear the terms “tabletop game”, “board game”, and “hobby game” used interchangeably here.
There are two main segments of the tabletop games market. There are the mass market tabletop games (think Monopoly, Candyland, or Life) that usually consist of rolling dice and moving. Most of these games are either very old or are an extension of an old game. Then there are the hobby tabletop games. One difference you may notice is that these games have a designer listed on them similarly to how an author is listed on a book. This allows players to follow their favorite designers the same way people do their favorite authors. Aside from that esthetic difference there are some other qualities that set designer games apart.
Hobby games are much less random than their mass market relatives which means that players can develop a strategy and see it through. Some randomness can give a game flavor, excitement, and replayability but too much can make it frustrating or boring.
Hobby games emphasize meaningful player choices since their plans matter. This empowerment of a players choices makes a game much more engaging and fun.
Players can easily dive into the world, story, or systems of a hobby game. There is great attention paid to the art, components, and mechanisms of the game to create an immersive experience.
Most mass market games make for good activities. They keep people diverted with some social fun along the way. Hobby games are deep enough that they can become a hobby. They can be played again and again finding new strategies. Some hobby games provide so many options that you will never play the same game twice. And there are enough new and inventive games coming out each year to keep anyone busy.
Why tabletop games?
This is the next big question. Why choose to focus time and energy (and money) around a bunch of cardboard bits on a table? There are many reasons, fun being an obvious one, but let me highlight just a few for your consideration.
Hobby games are inherently a social experience. Players are sitting down at the table together and engaging in a shared activity with a common goal: to have fun. This is in stark contrast to sitting around the living room looking at Facebook status updates or Instagram pictures.
Because these games are a shared social experience they are unifying. Having fun around a social activity like this builds relationships. This is personally very important to me as I have small children and I want as many ways to build closer family relationships as I can.
These games provide a wonderful way to teach valuable lessons and skills especially to younger people but don’t think you can’t stretch your brain some if you are older. They teach math, critical thinking, planning and adjusting plans if need be. They teach how to win and lose gracefully as well as how to simply interact with other people. This is a skill sorely lacking in our social media society where anyone can say anything behind the safety of a screen.
So, to me tabletop games are much more than just cardboard bits on a table. They are tools that help us develop relationships with people and teach valuable lessons while having fun along the way. Sound interesting?
Next up: Where do you start?
Does this sound interesting to you at all? If so you may be wondering where to start. If you were to Google “board games” one of the results would be Board Game Geek. While BGG is has the most info in one place on tabletop games, starting here might be a bit overwhelming. So let’s limit your choices a bit.
Here are a list of games that you should be able to find at a big box retailer (Walmart, Target, or your local equivalent) or a large book store (Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million). Any of these would be a good place to start. Just read through these and pick the one that sounds most interesting to you.
You will probably find a good many other games to try at a large book retailer but if you want to dive deeper into the hobby and see what is available here are some other options, both local and online.
Friendly Local Gaming Stores (FLGS) – you may be fortunate enough to have a gaming store near you. If so these can be a great place to find games to play and players to play with. If they provide a good selection, good places to play, and actually are friendly consider supporting them. If they are a good store they should be able to point you to games that will fit your tastes and experience well.
Cool Stuff Inc. (coolstuffinc.com) – If your FLGS does not fall into the Friendly category or all they play is Magic the Gathering (this can be an issue) or you don’t have a large book retailer in your area then another option is to head online. Cool Stuff has any game you can want at great prices.
Fun Again (funagain.com) – Another online store with great selection. This is where I started buying from. They list out their best sellers which is a great way to find new games to try. They also have some great introductory articles to selecting board games.
Amazon (amazon.com) – Amazon is another great place online to find games. Occasionally you won’t find a game here you could get at Cool Stuff or Fun Again but the free shipping is hard to beat if you are a Prime member.
One thing to remember, board games as a hobby in the US grew out of geek culture. This means you will find lots of fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero themed games out there. If this isn’t your cup of tea don’t worry, there are plenty of other themes out there to try.
Next up: Game Genres
Now that you have some starter games under your belt and a good idea of where to look for games let’s talk about all the different kinds of games out there to be found. There are many different experiences in tabletop games so if you run into a type of game or theme you don’t like, don’t fret. You will find something you can enjoy.
The best analog to these categories that you are probably familiar with is book genres. These are very general and you will find lots of overlap but hopefully these can aim you at a category you are interested in. Or at least these can show you many of the different types of game experiences available.
Adventure – these will take you to some exotic place, ask you to collect some rare items, put you in some kind of peril, and then have you escape. Think Indiana Jones.
Examples: Survive, Forbidden Island
Abstract Strategy – these games are usually simple to learn but allow for lots of deep strategic decisions. They have no real theme attached to their mechanisms.
Examples: Qwirkle, Blokus, Zertz
Civilization/4X – these allow players to build to build a civilization or empire either history, fantasy, or sci-fi based. The 4 Xs stand for: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. Players will explore new areas, expand into them, exploit the resources to advance their technology and build armies, and then use those armies to exterminate their opponents.
Examples: Sid Meier’s Civilization, Twilight Imperium, Nations
Cooperative – players are put on one team and given a goal that they must work together toward. Each player usually has some unique ability that allows them to contribute to the team in different ways.
Examples: Pandemic, Forbidden Desert, Hanabi
Economic/Financial – these games simulate, to varying degrees, economic systems (like supply and demand) or financial systems (like the stock market).
Examples: Powergrid, Acquire, City of Iron
Historical – these attempt to reenact some bit of history, hopefully giving the player some understanding of the event and surrounding circumstances.
Examples: Freedom: The Underground Railroad, 1775 Rebellion
Narrative/Story-based – these games tell a story. They usually come with some type of campaign that tells the story as you play through the chapters. One player usually takes on an opposing role against the other players who are the heroes or the games has a way to simulate an opposing force.
Examples: Descent, Mice and Mystics, Imperial Assault
Party – these games focus on social interaction and large groups. These game focus on entertainment and laughs rather than serious strategy.
Examples: Say Anything, Wits and Wagers
Social Deduction/Bluffing – Players take on the secret roles and try to figure out who is on what team through deduction and bluffing to throw other off of who you really are. These work well in large groups.
Examples: Ultimate Werewolf, The Resistance, Coup
War – These range from very complex simulations to more simplified representations. You will find history based as well as fiction based war games. These will focus on troop movement and battle on a map.
Examples: Julius Caesar, ASL system, Kemet
Next up: Behave Yourself
Any social situation you are in requires manners, some more stringent than others. Playing tabletop games is no different. It is good to know these going into the situation for the first time so that you don’t accidentally step on anyone’s toes and cause ill will. The key here is to think about others.
Obviously all of these will be subject to the group you are playing with but these guidelines should be general enough that they can apply to most groups.
Let me put is as simply as I can: Have fun and be fun.
Having fun just means you enjoy playing games for the sake of playing games (whether you win or not).
Being fun means others enjoy playing with you. You are pleasant to be around. You are a thoughtful human being. Be considerate of your fellow gamers. Recognize that others may be different from you and that is OK. Try new things.
Now for a few specific pieces of advice. Some of this may seem obvious to you. Believe me, it isn’t obvious to everyone.
- Don’t leave the table in the middle of a game. Make sure you have enough time to play the entire game before you join. And please don’t leave because you are currently losing.
- Be a good winner or loser. When playing a game the goal is to win. But it is the goal that is important, not the winning.
- Food and Drinks – Be courteous. Don’t smear food on game components. Keep your drinks in a place that they won’t spill on the game.
- Don’t Cheat. This goes back to the winning and losing. The only reason to cheat is to ensure your victory. if winning is all you care about to the point that you will cheat go play elsewhere.
- Stay engaged with the game. Leave your phone in your pocket especially during rules explanations. TV is not recommended. Obviously these are up to each group.
- Timely Turns – pay attention so that when it is your turn you can take it as quickly as possible.
- Personal hygiene – You are about to sit in close proximity to other human beings. Please come prepared to do that.
- If you are teaching a game, learn it before you sit down to teach other players.
Next up: Keeping up with the hobby.
Wow! You are still here. That mean you want more information. Hmmmmm. I don’t have much more to give here in Tabletop 101 right now, but I can point you in the right direction. Despite the tabletop industry being such a niche market, there is no shortage of places to get news and information about the hobby. Thank you, Internet!
YouTube – One of the best ways to get information about tabletop games is video. And there is a ton of tabletop videos on YouTube. Here are a few channels to follow:
- The Dice Tower – Tom Vasel and others with reviews, reviews, and more reviews.
- TableTop – watch Wil Wheaton play games with other geek celebrities.
- Shut Up and Sit Down – a great resource for reviews.
- Watch it Played – Rodney Smith teaches games and plays them.
Podcasts – I don’t listen to the radio in the car anymore. Or music. There are plenty of great board game related podcasts to fill my driving time. Here are a few to start with but you can check the Dice Tower Network for plenty of great other podcasts. Look these up in your favorite podcast app. I use iTunes to subscribe to podcasts.
- The Dice Tower – Tom Vasel and Eric Summerer talk about games and gaming topics.
- The Secret Cabal Gaming Podcast – These guys provide one in-depth review per episode as well as other board game related banter.
- Plaidhat Podcast – This publisher gives an inside look at publishing games and talk about other board game topics.
- Blue Peg Pink Peg – Two guys and their wives give a unique perspective on games.
- Ludology – Geoff Engelstein and others talk in depth about board game design.
Blogs – The internet has provided a platform that anyone can share anything and many people have decided to put board game related info out there. Just like this blog. Here are some others that provide great resources and info.
- Dice Tower News – Keep tabs on the board game industry and announcements.
- The Esoteric Order of Gamers – great resources for tabletop games.
- Shut Up and Sit Down – Reviews and gaming commentary.
- Various Publisher Blogs – Find a publisher you like? Follow their blog to keep up to date with what they are doing. (Examples: Plaid Hat, TMG, Fantasy Flight)
Communities – Social media has opened up a great way for gamers to connect with each other. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Board Game Geek – The largest source for tabletop game info and discussion. But it can be a bit cluttered.
- Google+ Board Games Community – My favorite place for tabletop game discussion. Great group of people here.
- Twitter – Many game designers, publishers, and fans engage here.
Kickstarter – Many independent designers and publishers are finding Kickstarter a great way to fund a game. But there are many more duds than great games so some sifting is required. Still a fun way to engage in the tabletop game hobby.
FLGS – If you have a good local gaming store you can get lots of great info and engagement here. But not all local gaming stores are created equally.
This should be enough information to get you started. If you have any questions please feel free to ask them here: