Today I have a foolproof guide for how to select a board game for you collection, purely based on its cover. This may seem impossible, given the traditional and well proven advice to not judge a book by its cover, but I assure you with these few steps you will be playing the best games possible in no time!
Now you may think, since we’re judging games by their cover, that you would be looking for an awesome sci-fi vista, or perhaps an action packed fantasy battle. We are looking for fun games, so an exciting cover should be key, right?
But no! The secret is what I call, the Handsome Mans Principle or HMP. Illustrated wonderfully by this cross stitch my girlfriend made for me some years back
You see, nothing ensures a surefire hit quite like a stern, bored looking European guy on the cover of a board game. Take the fellow below. He is clearly getting up to some very important work with his quill pen. This is not a bait and switch, and there isn’t a fantastic space game hidden inside this box. What you see is what you get right down to the map in the background actually being an image of the game board itself. You may think this is a boring game, with the business like attitude of the poster boy, but I assure you it is fantastic, even if it is about trading goods during the 1100s.
There is a second tenant to the Handsome Mans Principle (HMP) , and that is that it works even better if someone is holding or looking at a map or document on the cover. Take for instance the game below:
Those are some very stern looking fellows and they are clearly looking at some important plans. This is a surefire hit, as it has both of the key tenants of the HMP. And it is indeed one of my favorite games, as players race to rebuild London after the great fire, building an engine with cards while trying to avoid the poverty penalty that comes with running that engine inefficiently.
However, there is one final tenant of the HMP that is missing from London. While it is great to have both stern looking European guys AND a document, it is even better if the name of the game is difficult to pronounce, or perhaps the name of a French city that no one has heard of.
Now we’re talking! These are some serious looking guys that have very important business to do, and hence, these are very awesome games to play! Each game features the riveting theme of medieval European living. Building towers and churches, expanding influence with powerful families, hiring knights and trading goods. What could be better?
So what if a game doesn’t meet these criteria? What if it only meets one tenant of the HMP? Let me tell you, I have been there my friend. One day I wandered into Zombie Planet and there was a nearly perfect game looking at me from the shelves. It was about farming in Europe, and even featured the Spanish word for farm as its name, La Granja. But it was missing something, and I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I asked my friend George, the store owner, if he could fix it for me, and he worked his artistic magic. When he was done, the game met that perfect trifecta of the HMP, and I walked out of the store a happy owner, eager to get it home and play.
The reality is, a game, just like a book, cannot be judged by its cover. When I first started playing games, I would have avoided all of these games like the plague. Coming from a background in video games, books and movies, these all seem super boring. What could be fun about farming, or being a French noble, or trading in the Hansaetic league?
The reality is, I may never read a book, or watch a movie about those things. But when it comes to playing a game, the game itself often matters more than the theme, or story, that it tries to tell. Many designers from this board game revolution that has been happening since the mid nineties, come from Europe, and created games about the countries that they knew. Hence the popular term Euro Game. They often chose a theme that was as neutral as possible, instead of War, Fantasy, or Sci Fi, and focused on the game instead. No one ever thought building towns and roads and trading sheep could be fun, but a game about just that, Catan, has sold million of copies, and more importantly, has entertained families for more than 20 years. In a way, the neutral themes of these games mean that, more than ever, the game itself has to be great. A board game can have the most scintillating theme and beautiful art, but if it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth the cardboard its printed on.
So while you may not have a surefire hit on your hands by using the Handsome Mans Principle, make sure to give the more “boring” seeming games a closer look. You may be surprised at just how much fun is hidden behind those dour faces.