Cardboard Cinema: Board Games For Video Gamers

The Cardboard Cinema series was created to explore the overlapping worlds of movies and tabletop, to recommend board games to film fans looking to dip their toe into a hobby that is currently undergoing a golden age. This highly irregular column exists because we love board games here at /Film and want to share them with our fellow movie buffs.

We're taking a bit of a left turn with this edition, which is all about board game recommendations for video gamers. After all, the pop culture streams have crossed. The lines between entertainment mediums have blurred together. Your average movie fans plays games and your average gamer watches movies. It all blends together. Welcome to 2016, where pop culture enthusiasts have a toe in several pools of media.

Sure, writing about board games for video game fans on a movie website admittedly doesn't make a ton of sense. But go ahead and indulge us, won't you?

board games for video gamers

XCOM: The Board Game

The aesthetic choices of XCOM: The Board Game will instantly strike a chord with anyone who played 2012's fantastic XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Like the terrific video game, the board game version has players running an organization that is tasked with repelling an alien invasion of Earth, and every single design choice is taken straight from the game or in harmony with it. As an adaptation, it's nothing short of stellar.

But Fantasy Flight Games and designer Eric Lang didn't take the easy way with with translating XCOM to your table. As easy as it would have been to toss together a tactical miniatures game where you maneuver plastic soldiers and aliens across a map, XCOM: The Board Game chooses instead to adapt the other half of Enemy Unknown – the part where you essentially play politician, secretary, and accountant for a multibillion-dollar science fiction organization. Although one player is technically in charge of deploying troops, there is no direct combat here. There is only you and three other players desperately trying to keep your unwieldy program on schedule and on budget.

And this is more tense than any simulated gun battle with a laser-wielding extra-terrestrial. XCOM: The Board Game is played in real time using a free companion mobile app. One player acts as the communications officer, handling a tablet or smartphone that generates threats and throws constant wrenches into your team's workings. It's up to this player to keep everyone else, working as head scientist, military commander, and group leader, on track as threats increase, nations fall into panic, and your budget slowly dwindles to nothing. This is a game about making difficult decisions on the fly and this app is a stroke of brilliance, adding a terrifying digital layer to the tabletop experience.

Interestingly, this rapid-fire board game is faster and more intense than its video game counterpart. While XCOM the video game is all about taking things slowly and slowly realizing that you're in the middle of a fight you cannot possibly win, its tabletop cousin never gives you room to breathe. You keep on moving, you keep on shouting, you keep on making choices. If you've ever wanted to know how your friends would act in a crisis, gather them together for a game of XCOM: The Board Game and watch them crumble. This would be a punishing experience if you weren't having such a great time. Play this with people who know how to laugh at misfortune and terrible luck.

board games for video gamers


There are a ton of great city-building experiences in the digital and tabletop realms, but Suburbia ranks in the upper echelon of them all. Here is a game about constructing a neighborhood that is easy to learn and difficult to master. Its simple, elegant design and straightforward art mask a game that is deep, challenging, and frequently hilarious.

Suburbia is different from other city-building games right off the bat in that you don't get to construct an entire city – you are in charge of a single borough in a larger metropolis, with other players' neighborhoods representing the rest of the city. This instantly leads to all kinds of great trash talk around the table as you watch one section of the city rise to prominence (Shopping malls! Neighborhoods! Parks!) and others fall into total disarray (Casinos! Waste dumps! Noisy airports!). Although the game itself is a terrific puzzle that relies on the player making mathematically and logically sound decisions, the theme of struggling to build a functioning home for your fictional, often angry, citizens is ever present. Yeah, placing your fifth fast food joint in a row may get you a lot of points, but it's going to earn you some great snark from your fellow players.

Suburbia is deliciously simple. When its your turn, you spend some of your hard-earned income to purchase a tile representing a new development from a public area in the center of the table. The longer a tile hangs around, the cheaper it gets, forcing players to make those hard choices. You really want that fancy hotel for your borough, but you suspect your neighbor does, too. Do you buy it now or do you wait until it won't break your bank? The result is cutthroat Sim City, with you and your friends cast as the most asshole-ish city council members of all time.

With a set-up that determines a different game every time you play, Suburbia never gets old (and the expansions keep it fresh, too). The result is a fast-playing, light-hearted sim that allows you to feel the pride of building a functioning city where your fictional citizens are totally happy. Or you end up building a toxic waste dump next to some luxury apartments and everyone else has a great laugh at your bumbling misfortune. Everyone wins.

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Space Cadets: Dice Duel

Don't let the goofy box art fool you: this may be one of the most intense gaming experience of your life. A spin-off from the very good (and very different) Space Cadets, Space Cadets: Dice Duel successfully recreates the tension, fear and stress of a pitched space battle on your table. Those who love micromanaging space sims like FTL or hilarious, scream-inducing mobile experiences like Space Team have just found a new great way to spend an evening with their buddies.

Dice Duel, which is best played with a full squad of eight players but also functions great with four or six, divides everyone into two teams representing the crews of two spaceships. Everyone on each ship is in charge of several key ship functions – shields, weapons, tractor beam, engines, piloting, etc. – and as the name of the game implies, you operate your little corner of operations by rolling dice. And you roll them as fast as you can, because this game is played in real time. Your ship moves as fast as your pilot can roll the dice and find the proper combination coordinates. You can fire your torpedoes as soon as the weapons officer has rolled the dice well enough to assemble your arsenal. You survive if the poor schmuck running shields managed to roll well enough to get them up in time. Meanwhile, the beleaguered engineer has to roll well to give the other players the necessary power to do anything they want to do.

While the dice themselves do rely on a certain amount of luck, they do an incredible job of simulating the chaos of a pitched battle. After a few minutes, it no longer feels like you're rolling a fistful of dice. If starts to feel like you're struggling against the clock to get the ship's computer to cooperate with you, to find a way to re-route power to where it needs to be, to enter whatever algorithm is necessary to lock on a target. Don't let the dice fool you. This is very much a game of skill and using your judgment in the heat of the moment to make the right choices, to utilize your dice correctly, is the key to winning.

If you do play with eight players, one person on each team will not roll any dice at all. They are the captain and they are in charge of their team. In this scenario, only they are allowed to announce the firing of a torpedo (which pauses the game) and every other member of the crew must rely on their judgment, listening to him or her as he or she tries to get the team working in union. Playing as the captain is a humbling experience. When you scream "Fire!" and realize too late that no one was ready and you just wrecked your crew's hard work, you will find yourself melting under their stares. Here is a game that asks you to be Captain Kirk... and here is a game that shows you exactly why you're not Captain Kirk.

board games for video gamers

Rum & Bones

Board games and video games have been borrowing from each other for years, but Rum & Bones represents the rare time a tabletop game has attempted to directly replicate a specific video game experience. The back of the box doesn't even try to hide its inspiration: this is a "multiplayer online battle arena," or MOBA, on your table.

Although relatively new in the grand scheme of electronic gaming, MOBAs are often the game of choice for "hardcore" gamers, requiring countless hours to learn and genuine skill to master. There's a reason Dota 2 and League of Legends have led the charge in organized professional gaming tournaments – there is a thrill in watching people who are actually good at these games play them well.

Rum & Bones has the basic elements you'd expect from a MOBA: unique heroes, AI controlled drones, "lanes" where players do battle, etc. It just wraps everything in one helluva theme – ship-to-ship combat between pirates on the high seas. Players pick a side (the box comes with both regular pirates and undead pirates, with more on the way), assemble their forces, and simulate a scenario where two dueling crews attempt to board one another's ship for the purposes of destruction and plunder. Players directly control their individual heroes, who have unique figure sculpts, names, special abilities, and so on, while their crew is controlled by the game itself through some surprisingly simple and elegant movement rules.

The result is a game that feels and plays like exactly what it set out to emulate. It also looks amazing, with publisher Cool Mini or Not's renowned production values on full display. If there's a real problem with the game, it's the eye-roll-worthy depiction of several female characters, who look like they were ripped out of the imagination of a horny teenager with a naval fetish. Still, if you want a handsome game that will scratch that MOBA itch while allowing you to stare your opponent right in the eye, this is the purchase for you.

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There are too many zombie games and most of them are no good. This applies to both video games and board games (and movies for that matter), so recommending a game with this theme can be tough. How do you cut through the noise and find the games that actually make proper use of this theme? And when you do narrow down the zombie games to the great handful, how do you pick the one that is right for you?

I hope to one day cover the other great and completely different zombie board games on a future edition of Cardboard Cinema (be on the lookout for City of Horror and Dead of Winter, folks), but Zombicide is the one that has the easiest "in." After all, this is essentially Left 4 Dead shamelessly transplanted to board game form. Thankfully, the execution more than surpasses that elevator pitch. This is one of the most flat-out entertaining tactical games out there right now.

What separates Zombicide from the countless other games where you movie little plastic people across a board and shoot a bunch of stuff is the sheer volume on baddies on the board. This is the only zombie game out there that properly captures the feeling of being surrounded and feeling trapped. This is the only zombie game that truly creates a genuine horde of undead adversaries. Like every zombie story, every game of Zombicide begins with everyone around the table picking off single ghouls and laughing about how easy everything is. Like every zombie story, every game ends with the entire team wounded and on the run and screaming and trying very hard not to die as a literal army of rotting flesh closes in on all sides. As a fully cooperative game (the zombies are controlled by the game itself through an ingenious system where they move toward the "noisiest" player), Zombicide unifies every player in the ultimate "us versus them" scenario. You win together or you die, screaming, together.

This is a thematic game through and through. Nothing about Zombicide is especially subtle and the mechanics all exist to create a fast and furious game full of dramatic moments. Gamers looking for something thoughtful need to look elsewhere. But if the thought of Left For Dead twisted into a turn-based tactical action game sounds up your alley, prepare to go all-in on Zombicide.

board games for video gamers


You can't walk two steps through the worlds of video and tabletop games without stumbling over a 4X game. Standing for "explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate," this genre typically puts the player in control of a kingdom or empire and lets them loose to build forces, manage an economy, and attempt to expand to nearby turf before their enemy can... and kill them if they get there first. This genre has produced its fair share of classics for a reason – this is an engine that encourages drama and excitement and action and everything else that you play games to experience. Games like Alpha Centauri and the Civilization series have stood the test of time.

While there are countless 4X board games to recommend to video gamers looking to take the plunge into the tabletop world (every serious gamer will have to face Twilight Imperium at some point), Touko Tahkokallio's space opera simulator Eclipse is guaranteed to please serious gamers and ambitious novices alike. Everyone wants to battle for control of the galaxy and this is the rare "epic" board game that lets you do so in under two hours.

This gigantic box is densely packed with components and ideas and concepts and little bits and bobs, but it's strangely accessible. This is what happens when you wrap American board game concepts of war, destruction, and chaos and wrap them in elegant European design concepts that allows you to read the table and assess in any situation in a single glance. Blowing shit up in Eclipse is just as satisfying as running a functioning economy and both are accomplished through reason and careful thought. Blundering into every conflict is how you lose this game.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Eclipse is ship customization. Although every player controls a unique alien race with its own strengths and weaknesses, every ship starts on equal footing. This changes quickly. As you increase the size of your coffers and research new technology, you can start adding cardboard upgrades to the ship schematics on your player sheet. Suddenly, your fighters are so much faster than your opponent's... but his warships are so much deadlier than yours. This makes every game of Eclipse a special kind of nail-biter. Every 4X game will find your wheeling and dealing, making alliances, breaking alliances, and watching your borders like a hawk, but this is the rare game where you literally have no idea what kind of fight you're in for until you're knee-deep in the game. Knowing that your enemies and allies have fleets with unique advantages and disadvantages makes negotiation all the more intense. You can tailor your threats and they can respond accordingly.

Other games offer upgrades and some level of customization, but Eclipse beats them all for simplicity and, more important, pleasurability. Outfitting your ships and surprising your opponents with your new designs is fun. And that's all that matters in the end, really.

Previously on Cardboard Cinema...Board Game Recommendation Grab BagStar Wars Board Games, Episode 2Star Wars Board Games, Episode 1