If you are gamer the likelihood is that you have more than a few gaming books on your shelf. The likelihood is that you will have few books if any about gaming itself on your shelf. There are any number of good reasons for this, but it can be put down to the fact that few such books have been written and to the other fact that most gamers prefer to buy a book about or for their favourite RPG rather than some generic book about various games or gaming in general. I do not fall under the category of “most gamers” in that I have more than a few gaming books on my shelves and elsewhere – in fact I have hundreds. I also have a few books about gaming itself on my shelves – there not being enough to occupy more than the single, quite small shelf – and most of them have been enjoyable reads and some of them have been useful. So I do have copies of Fantasy Roleplaying Games by Doctor J. Eric Holmes and Ian Livingstone’s Dicing with Dragons as well as Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games by Lawrence Schick and Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball’s Things We Think About Games. Each in their own way is a product of their times, but still a good book nevertheless. The latest addition to limited selection is Family Games: The 100 Best from Green Ronin Publishing.
As the title suggests, Family Games: The 100 Best is sequel to the Origins Award winning Hobby Games: The 100 Best, a collection of essays in which the hobby’s crème de la crème – designers, authors, and publishers had the chance to write about the games that they liked, the games that they thought to be clever, and the games that inspired them. The games discussed included RPGs, CCGs, miniatures, wargames, and board games, with contributions from luminaries such as Gary Gygax, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, Monte Cook, Greg Costikyan, Marc W. Miller, Alan R. Moon, Sandy Petersen, Greg Stafford, and Martin Wallace amongst many, many others.
Family Games: The 100 Best does exactly the same with many of the authors returning, except that whereas Hobby Games: The 100 Best only delved back fifty years into the history of our hobby – back to the start of our hobby with games such as Gettysburg and Diplomacy, both from Avalon Hill and both dating from the late 1950s – the new volume goes back almost another sixty years to discuss some of the earliest commercially available board games on a widespread basis. Thus we start chronologically with John Wick writing about Pit, released in 1904 by Parker Brothers, before going over many of the great games that have figured in the contributors and readers’ childhoods and beyond to come right up to date with Rob Heinsoo’s contribution about Small World, published by Days of Wonder in 2009. In between appear short essays about a further ninety-eight games, bringing the total to one hundred, though a whole lot more are discussed if you take into account the foreword by Mike Gray (designer of Fortress America and Shogun); the introduction by the book’s editor, James Lowder; Wil Wheaton’s Afterword; and the two appendices. All of the entries though, describe games that can be played and enjoyed by children, by the family, and by non-gamers without the need to memorise lengthy books of rules, without the need to analyse every move in detail, and without too outré a theme.
The same format as Hobby Games: The 100 Best is retained for Family Games: The 100 Best though. Arranged in alphabetical order, each entry is comprised of its name, designer, publisher and year of publication, plus its suggested number of players and age range, followed by the essay itself before ending with a short biography of the essay’s author. Each essay itself includes the background and history for each game, a description of how it is played, suggests some tactics, and gives a chance for each writer to tell you why he thinks his choice of game is worthy of its inclusion here. Rather than tell you in laborious detail what exactly is in Family Games: The 100 Best, I can show you. Or rather Matthew Tarbit can.
What is readily apparent about the selection given in Family Games: The 100 Best is that it is much broader in scope than was Hobby Games: The 100 Best. As its title suggests the majority of its entries are written with the family in mind rather the hobbyist gamer, which means fewer Euro style games and even fewer RPGs. In fact, only three RPGs make an appearance – John Wick’s Cat, Green Ronin Publishing/Firefly Games’ Faery’s Tale Deluxe, and Chaosium, Inc.’s Prince Valiant. All three are very light, and can easily be run with or for older children, hence their inclusion.
The selection is also more American. Titles such as Candy Land, Fortress America, and Game of Life (all three from Milton Bradley), plus the Stat-O-Matic Game Company’s Stat-O-Matic Baseball all point to that. Many children’s classics are included too, such as Battleship (Milton Bradley), the aforementioned Candy Land, Connect Four (Milton Bradley), Mouse Trap (Ideal), Sorry! (Parker Brothers), and Uno (Uno Games/International Games), as are some very traditional classic family games like Clue(do) (Parker Brothers), Monopoly (Parker Brothers), Scrabble (Selchow & Righter), and Yahtzee (E. S. Lowe). These are joined by the adult games Cranium (Cranium, Inc.), Pictionary (Western Publishing Company), Trivial Pursuit (Parker Brothers), and Wits & Wagers (North Star Games LLC). There are of course lots of essays about other games that from the rail game Eurorails (Mayfair Games) and the abstract Blokus (Educational Insights) to the card driven wargame Memoir ‘44 (Days of Wonder) and the modern co-operative Pandemic (Z-man Games).
What is so interesting about Family Games: The 100 Best is that it includes many games that unless I have more children I am unlikely to ever play again, such as Mouse Trap. Similarly, I have no plans to play Trivial Pursuit again either. Yet I read the essays on all of these games, and the others, with interest, because each shed new light on said game such that I might, just might play these games again. Well, maybe not Mouse Trap. Even where I might disagree with the author of essay or with the inclusion of a particular game – and such occurrences were far and few between, the actual essay was itself at least worth reading.
Once all of the essays are out of the way, our dork and everyone’s dork gets to extol the virtues of being a gamer and in particular, a gamer-dad. Wil Wheaton’s afterword sort of dovetails (in the same way that the dovetail you made back in woodwork class at thirteen sort of dovetails) into the first of the appendices, of which Family Games: The 100 Best is rounded out with two. The first, “Games and Education” by David Millians provides an introduction to using games as part of the education process and to that end comes with several pages of useful references. The second appendix is “Family Games in Hobby Games: The 100 Best” and gives short descriptions of the twenty entries in that volume that can be considered to be family games.
Family Games: The 100 Best is about celebrating not just our hobby, but about celebrating what got you into the hobby. It is about the games that you played as children, that almost every gamer played as a child, and in many cases still does, whether that be with his children or because they are still good games. It is also a book of reviews – and as a reviewer, some day I would love to be able to contribute to a future volume – telling you how good the games you like are and how good the games you liked were, and if enjoyed reading about one game, then the opportunity to read about another game is just two or three pages away. It is also a book to dip into or to pick up, read, and then put down again – it does not need to be read a single sitting. All good reasons why someone who read and liked Hobby Games: The 100 Best will equally enjoy Family Games: The 100 Best.
When Hobby Games: The 100 Best came out, I gave it as a gift, and in all likelihood, I will give this new book as a gift too, but in that there is a difference between the two. I would not give Hobby Games: The 100 Best to a non-gamer as a gift, but I would with Family Games: The 100 Best. The reason being that a non-gamer is more likely to recognise the titles of the games being written about and once he has read about the games that he heard of or played, the likelihood is that he will be curious enough to read about the other games described. Whether that curiosity is enough for him to look for or try those other games is another matter, but in its own way, Family Games: The 100 Best is an excellent primer for playing games, and a potential stepping stone into the hobby.