Cover Image: Avidly Reads Board Games

Avidly Reads Board Games

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So, I approached this book with great anticipation – I enjoy board games, love pop culture history, and was looking forward to learning about how board games have evolved throughout the last 100 years or so.  As a result of these expectations, I was disappointed in this book.  The author focused on a few board games and used them as a starting point for the discussion of societal trends, and how board games play a role in our culture.  Catan, Monopoly, and Pandemic were the main games discussed (along with a Nazi game developed in the 1930s), with very little history – the author focused mostly on his personal experiences and how the games reflected aspects of different philosophies.  This came across as a blend of personal reflections paired with a brief synopsis of various academic studies.

Once again, this is less a critique of the author or this book, rather this is more of a misalignment of expectations on my part.  If one is interested how various types of board games reflect trends in society, then this is an excellent introduction.

I requested and received a free advanced electronic copy from NYU Press via NetGalley. Thank you!
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Most books about board games give strategies for winning or tell anecdotes about playing the games.  Thurm's book puts its emphasis on the philosophy of board games. He is particularly interested in collaborative games like Catan, where the players must work together in order for anyone to win.
According to the author, it is this face-to-face interactivity that distinguishes board games from their video counterparts. 
Thurm looks at the history of politically motivated games on both the left and right but questions whether the creators' political intent is actually realized by playing the games. 
Avidly Reads Board Games will mostly be of interest  to readers looking for games in which there are multiple winners.
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As a board game player myself, I found this to be an interesting collection of essays about the history and joys of playing board games. In some ways, the collection quite academic in terms of "reading" ganes critically as a subject but the tone is quite light and the essays are not too heavy to read.
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Avidly Reads Board Games by Eric Thurm is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early October.

Thurm studies the history of board games and offers cultural and psychological analysis while speaking of the shared knowledge of a game, symbolically using the time it takes to play it, sometimes bringing people fundamentally together while (other times) plugging in a wedge of ire and competition, potential of seamless co-op play, feeling content or filled with rage at the end of a game, depending if they bested it or felt the sting of defeat.
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I LOVE board games! This is the first book I have read on the topic and I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s narrative. I learned SO much about myself and board games and even added a new genre to my collection after reading this book! 

From this book, I realized why I enjoy Eurogames, a genre of games I did not know existed, but realize a majority of my collection fits into this category. Eurogames, unlike Monopoly or Chess, players are rarely “knocked out” or “game over” before the game has finished. There is more strategy required to win and players are focused more on co-op, trading, accumulation of resources, etc. vs. destroying their opponents. Personally, I enjoy longer games among bigger groups, it’s an excellent social experience and the variables a larger group brings in further enhances and challenges players, keeping it new and fresh, especially if you do not have a regular game or player group. 

Further, I learned I am a “Hobby game” enthusiast, defined by being an adult that devotes time to gaming as a hobby rather than any particular genre or rule set. The author is spot on in his assessment that board games are teaching tools and even delves into some of the deeper history of board games. It is likely most know Chess was based upon developing battle tactics, but did you know Chutes and Ladders is founded upon a history of 2000+ years in India as a reflection of karma with snakes and ladders being symbolic of vice or virtue?

This fascinating read was an enthusiastic page turner from my perspective. The author strongly relies upon Catan as his foundation for board gaming bliss, and it is referred back to fondly throughout the book. For some readers who may not have ever played, it could be hard to follow. Catan is a great game and I encourage everyone to try it, and for the most part the author does a good job of representing other games throughout. If you do not like Catan or have no interest in ever playing it, this may not be the book for you as it is a reoccurring theme. This was not a detractor, at least for me, but thought it should be mentioned. I learned a lot, was highly entertained by the random facts around board games I never knew and likely would never know if not for having read this book. Board game enthusiasts will be thrilled and delighted, I think, by reading this. Even as die hard “settlers” can you honestly say Catan took the Green Bay Packers by storm, so much so the team went to one another’s houses and avidly played?! 

There is a deep history to board games and many new versions are based on old games and concepts. It is interesting to follow their paths through history and after reading this I would say the pivotal time for game development to take flight and evolve into what it is today began Post WWII. A Monopoly variant was built in a Polish ghetto during WWII, and quite sadly, used as a way of teaching children tools for survival. Post WWII is where we see  Eurogames begin to rise. I thought these types of games were more recent, but in context the timeline makes sense and yet another learning experience. Lacking the licensing for popular Western family games that were popular at the time they were forced to create their own...with a few tweaks, of course! Their innovation in game development is what makes them so beloved and wildly popular in recent years. Western games, they noticed had issues with play time. Family games are meant to be fun for everywhere, but when players are eliminated while the game continues, that’s no fun, so designers in Europe focused gameplay and mechanics centered around keeping everyone in the game and forcing collaboration and trade as advantages to the winning outcome.

European innovation in the gaming industry certainly makes them formidable competitors for “table time” in today’s friends and neighbors board gaming sessions. And just when I think that is the peak of the industry, I keep reading and learn of Legacy games where a long term game is played through, and only once. I have seen Gloomhaven topping the charts at for some time now and Pandemic is up there, too. Well, I’m all in, I purchased Gloomhaven continue to carry forth with what I have learned from this book into the next phase of experiencing the Legacy effect.

It is very clear the author’s life has been shaped by board games, from the very first story in the hospital and the countless tales afterwards (including one intense session where Catan is presented at the table to the opener “Sandstorm”) and that passion and enthusiasm emanates off the page. The funny thing is the author, early on makes jokes about “nerdy” gamers in his college experience and after moving to New York yet quickly follows up with his own stories of fitting in with that category. I won’t ruin too much here with spoilers but I think the author embraces his inner “nerd” whether he realizes it yet or not. :) There is a very useful Gameography appendix that lists all the games cited in this book, several of which have been added to my wishlist as well. Enjoy, and happy gaming!
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I really enjoyed reading Thurm's look at board games both personally and in a historical context. He takes us through his personal experience as a board gamer with his family and friends, but also mixes in a rich history of board games and the social and political context that surrounded the creation of some games. This includes a Nazi board game, racial and political board games, and others that make the player take a closer look at how these games can reflect real-life problems. I found the book to be very intriguing and the author's passion for board games shines through on every page.
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In the Avidly Reads series of short books, an author mixes of personal narrative and research to closely focus on a single topic (similar to the Object lessons series but less constrained), something that both moves the writer personally but also has some impact on culture at large.  For Eric Thurm, that subject is board games.

The straightforwardly titled Avidly Reads Board Games opens with Thurm and his siblings setting up a game of Settlers of Catan in the waiting room of a hospital as they waited to make their final farewells to their dying grandfather. Which they eventually did, after which they returned to the waiting room and then “without a word, started rolling the dice.” This, the reader quickly picks up, is someone really into games.

From there, Thurm interweaves his own personal experiences playing with some historical research on board games, a description/explanation of their various categories with some deep dives into specific examples,  and discussion of what they reveal about the culture.  While much of it was fascinating and engaging, overall the mix was a bit uneven.

The personal narrative does a nice job in conveying Thurm’s enthusiasm for “hobby” games, brings a humanizing emotion to the research sections, and allows him to employ an appealingly light and conversational tone.  That said, for such a short work, the balance felt off, and I could have done with less detail in these sections and fewer of them.

The overview of gaming in general (such as the concept of the “magic circle” — one’s thinking and actions are directed by the rules and gameplay) and the various categories, such as collaborative gaming (games such as Pandemic or Scotland Yard) or legacy games (the newest genre) are clear, fluid, and enlightening.  And Thurm offers up detailed, concrete examples of the more abstract concepts (some readers may find them perhaps too detailed; your mileage may vary).

The historical background is equally detailed and often fascinating, though some of it may be familiar to anyone who has read on the topic (the history of Monopoly, the impact of war simulation games, etc.)  Thurm generally does a nice job here of placing these historical references in their cultural context, though I did wish he had dug a bit deeper in spots or expanded those sections to provide more insight.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of time or thought, for instance, to see how Mystery Date reveals some problematic views toward gender roles. To be fair, some, if not all, of my lack of satisfaction here could simply be Thurm sticking to the constraints of the series’ desire to keep the books short.

The book is at its strongest when Thurm connects all the threads —history, cultural criticism, and personal experience — especially when he and a group of friends play Juden Raus, “a Nazi-Germany era game about forcibly removing Jewish families from their homes in order to deport them.” Sit with that sentence a moment.  I won’t go into any detail on that game-play experience, especially as Thurm himself writes that “Most of my other expectations for the Juden Raus session were upended.” Suffice to say its intersection of emotion, introspection, analysis, and horror showcases Thurm at his best.

Avidly Reading Board Games did leave me more than a little unsatisfied, but the good certainly outweighed the not-so-good, and Thurm’s clarity and fluidity, combined with a winning voice, easily carried me through the book in a single setting.  Recommended.
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I received a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. I found it to be a fun, light read, with a mix of general board game history, and the author’s personal game playing experiences. It touched on some games I knew, and some I did not, and presented it all with the enthusiasm of an avid gamer.
It is not entirely clear to me who the intended audience is here - avid tabletop gamer or newbie - but as someone who falls right in the middle, I found it to be an enjoyable read.
Peculiarly, there is a review on Amazon by someone who seems to think this book is socialist propaganda, offering the author’s enthusiasm for cooperative games as the smoking gun. Allow me to pause in my laughter long enough to say nope, nope, all the nopes, Cooperative games - which by the way are awesome -  are no more socialist than escape rooms are. They’re about working as a team, to solve a dilemma, and beat the game itself,
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Thurm uses the theme of board games to discuss culture, family, friendship, prejudice, and more. An engaging and highly readable little volume that evokes nostalgia and discomfort together. And it'll really make you want to dust off your board games and invite some friends over to play!
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This book tackles games in such a fashion that it has made my recent obsession with board games feel more than justified (I have had other little successes recently but this put a whole academic spin on it). My love for board games is a personal thing, as personal as the number of players required lets me keep it. With the reaches of the internet and my yearly plan to spend x amount of money on games and the discovery of, I have learnt a lot about the 'industry'. Game night is an oft-repeated and very familiar word to people of my generation. I am yet to be that socially active but I have passed on the bug to a few of my relatives. I love the idea of games as an alternative to other forms of entertainment because of the time involved and the space it gives for conversation if required (unlike movies or tv in general). I applaud/salute the intelligence involved in crafting the perfect rules, (I adore/am in awe of the simple rules of Dixit) because I attempted creating my own a couple of times when I was younger and only playing would indicate how absurd my flights of fancy were and they all lie abandoned somewhere. The last few pages of the book have a list of games, their designers and the year they first released. This section surprised me most of all. In India, growing up I watched the original Hannah- Barbara cartoons assuming that they were current. It was only when I first moved away from home, had access to the internet did I discover that they were first released in 1970s! Similarly, all the 'popular' games that I had access to the well-known ones like Clue(1949), Monopoly(1933), Scotland yard(1983), and Life(1960) seem to be much older than I would have ever imagined them to be, their age was something I never gave much thought to. This book has me thinking about that and more! 

I will now come back from this entirely personal narrative to talk about the book itself. Apart from providing enough fodder for me to wax poetic about my own history with games, it taught me a lot of new things. It is an almost technical and analytical discussion divided into multiple subcategories about what board games are, their social implications and how it might be underused in some ways and how in others there were attempts to use it as propaganda. There were only a few mentions of the games I knew or played but despite that, the author's love for it all shines through.  There is a lot of thought that has gone into this small book, and although it is not all-encompassing and I am sure that there is more that can be wrung out from the dynamics of playing board games, it is a great read. It will have you think about and respect (if you do not already) board games and those who play with the rules a whole lot more than before. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has a passing fondness for board games just to enrich your thought process.

I received an ARC thanks to NetGalley and the publishers but as you can see the review is entirely based on my love for games and appreciation for the authors writing.
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love board games. I've been really into the hobby for the last two years, but I played plenty of games growing up, from games of Clue with my whole family or intense showdowns of Stratego with my sister. While I have moved on to slightly heavier and more niche games, the attraction of board games for me is the opportunity to get immersed in the world of a game with one or several other people for an hour or two. In Avidly Reads Board Games. Eric Thurm clearly captures the joy of board gaming while also providing interesting history and context for how the board game industry has expanded and grown.

Board Games is a quick, accessible read that would probably be best for those already at least somewhat immersed in the board game hobby. While I haven't played all of the games mentioned, I had enough of a frame of reference for many of the games mentioned, which was fun while reading it.

I really enjoyed the chapters that were more history focused- Playing Along with Complicity and Monopoly and Its Children. Playing Along with Complicity was especially fascinating, as I had never heard of either Juden Raus or Train, and this lead me to do some additional reading on Train. One of my favorite things about reading nonfiction is learning something that sparks some interest and leads me to learning more about it. I had heard about some of the variations on Monopoly like Public Assistance, but I was unfamiliar with Class Struggle, and found it to be fascinating. 

If you are an avid board gamer like me, I think you will find much to enjoy in Board Games. It really makes me want to do more research into the history of the hobby!

Thanks to NYU Press and NetGalley for the ARC!
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This was a promising start for me to a new semi-academic series of books, a bit like the Bloomsbury 'Object Lessons' imprint.  Our narrator did fall into the trap of reciting too much I already knew, especially about the origins of "Monopoly", but went much further into 'legacy games' which to me seem a wasteful, single-use version of something computer software could do so much more sensibly.  But the argument against that opinion is that board games can only be board games if you take all electronica out of the equation, and just use the rule book and the board(s) and avatars you get.  This book would demand you agree with it, that there is so much more culturally significant about them than that reductio ad absurdum might imply, and that the way they add narrative to social occasions and demand everyone together obeys a set of rules unique to each game, whether for solo or group victory, et al, are worthy of academic study.  This might feel a little inconsequential in that regard, but consider it a very eye-opening initial salvo.
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