Relaxing into Cardboard: Rikki Tahta and the Magic of Coup

Despite their superior playability and truly passionate audiences, Eurogames are still underdogs when it comes to the U.S. market. Part of that is undoubtedly due to cultural difference, but part is also due to the fact that the gaming world, in Tahta’s apt analogy, resembles the literary subculture around poetry. There is at the moment an almost total overlap between creators and their audience; just as most poetry readers are themselves poets, most serious gamers are themselves designers, commercially published or no. Another apt comparison might be to the world of film, where a sharp divide can often, but not always, be seen between lovers of difficult but rewarding independent movies and theatergoers interested in big-budget fare. Should you decide to take the game you’ve been refining in private for years to perfect its mechanics to market, be prepared for modest results. Selling in the low four figures is considered a success. It’s a high-volume industry: an estimated 1,000 new games are produced every year. It has a central forum for criticism and community-building, the website BoardGameGeek. And it has its industry leaders, too. Japan and the Czech Republic, in Tahta’s opinion, currently dominate the field in terms of innovation and beautiful design.

One of his personal favorites is the Czech game Tzolk’in, which combines a unique cog-based timing system with a resource-management mechanic clothed in the evocative myth of the Mayan celestial cycle. Other personal favorites include Puerto Rico, a 2002 title from Andreas Seyfarth where players manage the economy of a Caribbean island; A Brief History of the World, where you get to play as an entire civilization; Navegador, a game of discovery and wealth acquisition set in the late 15th and early 16th centuries; and a version of his own game called Coup: Guatemala, which transplants the action to the aforementioned banana republic.

Tahta also recommends “gateway games,” through which the uninitiated can discovers the joys of high-level gaming. He likes Pandemic, another breakout hit where a group of two to four players, each slotted into a skill class, struggle cooperatively to defeat the outbreak of a disease; Ticket to Ride, a railway game from legendary British designer Alan R. Moon that swept the international awards scene in 2004; his own Coup; One-Night Werewolf, a slimmed-down version of the social-game classic; Ghost Blitz, a lightning-fast (as the name suggests) reflex-and-visual-skill test whose appeal spans almost every age demographic; Love Letter, where you play as suitors for the hand of the imprisoned princess of Tempest, trying to deliver a romantic missive to her; and Dominion, in which you try to acquire as sizable a piece of real estate as you can.

The centerpiece of the philosophy animating the design of all these seems to be that serious games are serious fun. So ignore the old Biblical saw about putting away childish things and pick up Coup — or one of its intellectual relatives — today. Given the gloomy state of global politics and the queasy world market, you’re going to need some stress relief.