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Playmakers — Nothing beats fun of old-fashioned board games

For entertainment value, social interaction, skill development and just plain fun, few things beat the old-fashioned board game. Except, these days, board games aren't so old-fashioned.

There's something out there for everyone, whether you want quick-and-easy, deep strategy, games for one or two players, games for a roomful of people, games that allow you to show off your knowledge, games that rely mostly on luck. There are games with space themes, and games set in medieval times. There are games based on popular movies. There are new versions of old favorites.

"Games sales are way up," says Greg Jones, a game distribution rep for Fred Distribution, and a game aficionado of long standing. "Board games are a better value than ever," he says, "and that's important in this economy. For the price of taking the family to a movie, you can buy a game that offers an enriching social experience every time you play it."

A lot of today's board games sell in the $20-$50 range, although you can find some for less and some for more. "But these are games you can play multiple, multiple times," says Casey Sartain, owner of The Tutoring Toy Shoppe.

Strategies and actions may vary, he says, "but games are always good for building self-esteem, bringing families together, taking time out of your hectic life to have fun."

"Our sales of games is strong, in fact, thriving," says Matt Molen, vice president of marketing for SimplyFun, which sells games through in-home parties. "In times of uncertainly in other areas, people focus back on those things that are most important to them: security, community, faith and family. Playing together as a family is not only fun, but it connects people and ties them closer together."

"We get lot of people who say they have a tradition of playing a game every Sunday night," says Toni Hansen, owner of Claypoole Corner in Layton, which offers a boutique corner of games. "Or, people get together with friends and neighbors." What she likes about games, she says, is that "every time you play, it's different. It's not like watching the same movie over and over."

A lot of people are looking for good family games these days, says Mike Compton, manager of Game Night Games. "Most people want games that are fairly quick to explain, with turns that rotate quickly, and that don't last too long."

Party games are popular, he says, "but we also have a lot of couples looking for two-person games. They want a fun way to spend a night at home."

Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan remain the best-sellers at his store — and for good reason, says Compton. "They offer all the things people are looking for."

But there are a lot of new games to choose from this year.

Compton's pick for the hottest new game this year is Agricola (pronounced a-GRI-cola; ZMan Games). That's Latin for farmer, he says, and the game is all about acquiring land, vegetables, grain, sheep. What he likes best is that it is very "scalable. There's a basic version for families, or you can step it up to an intermediate or advanced level, and you can even play it solitaire. It's all in the box."

Two printings of the game have already sold out. "We're hoping to get some by Christmas."

Another hot game, says Compton, is Pandemic (ZMan Games). That, too, has sold out two print runs. It's a cooperative game, but what makes it different is that all the players are on the same team, playing against the game. "Each player is a scientist or a medical professional or such, and you try to combat deadly diseases before they can spread or cause mass destruction. It's easy to explain and plays in less than an hour.

Sartain's favorite new game is one called Jishaku (RSV Productions). In this game you put magnets into an egg-cartonlike container, but if you cause any of the other magnets to stick together, you have to take away all the ones that are stuck together. The goal is to get rid of your pieces. It sounds very simple, but it's very fun to play, he says. "You never know how a turn is going to go."

His favorite new card game is one called Discombobulation (Continuum Games). It's kind of like Uno, in that you try to get rid of your cards, he says, but crazy challenge cards pop up every now and then. Maybe someone will have to pick a song and sing the first line; the next person sings the next line and so on until someone messes up and has to draw cards. "It's weird, wacky, goofy," says Sartain.

Jones' pick for the next big game is Dominion (Rio Grande). It's a game set in medieval times, but it is a deck-building game. "You build your economy through cards, so it is a new style of play for this kind of game. It's very compelling. Gamers are eating it up. It's also a beautiful — and one of our local guys, Ryan Laukat, helped with the graphics."

Another favorite this year is Worm Up (Gryphon Games). "It's the last game designed by the great game designer Alex Randolph, who recently died," says Jones. It is a racing game, where you build your worm and then race to the finish line. It can be very fun and straightforward for kids, he says, "but there are a lot of strategic elements for adults."

And then there's Ice Flow (Ludorum Games) , winner of the UK Games Expo Best New Board Game. "It's the most beautiful game I've seen in a long time," says Jones. You oversee three explorers crossing the icy waters of the Bering Strait, as the ice floes move in different directions. You collect rope and fish to help. "It's an interesting, beautiful game," says Jones.


E-mail: carma@desnews.com