The Gamers’ Bookshelf: Family Games: The 100 Best & Hobby Games: The 100 Best



both volumes edited by James Lowder


(Green Ronin Press, 380 pages each, $24.95 each)


Reviewed by Herb Levy

Anytime you attempt to list the “best” of anything, you are bound to get an argument. Rather than being deterred by such a prospect, James Lowder has embraced it, serving as editor for two books on games that attempt to do just that: Hobby Games: The 100 Best and Family Games: The 100 Best. (Hobby Games appeared first [in 2007]) with Family Games being published in 2010. As the books follow a similar format and operate on a similar premise, grouping them together seems only natural.)

hobbygamesLowder has taken an interesting approach with these volumes, recruiting an impressive selection of game professionals and hobbyists to share their views on their personal favorites in both the hobby and family categories in his aptly titled volumes. And the list of contributors is impressive.

Both volumes offer forewords by recognized authorities in the field of games: award winning designer Reiner Knizia (for Hobby Games) and award winning designer and Hasbro executive Mike Gray (for Family Games). The high level suggested by these forewords continues with the series of essays to be found inside.

Hobby Games presents a line-up of writers representing all genres of “gamer’s games” including such stars of the gaming galaxy as Gary Gygax (co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons), Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson (writing separately here but, together, the founders of Games Workshop), Dana Lombardy, Lou Zocchi, Joseph Miranda and dozens more. Family Games’ line-up is equally impressive. Livingstone and Jackson reappear here and are joined by others including many notable game designers such as Alan Moon (Ticket to Ride), Susan McKinley Ross (Qwirkle), Phil Orbanes (Cartel), Peter Olotka (co-designer of Cosmic Encounter), Leo Colovini (Cartagena), Richard Garfield (Magic, the Gathering) and many more.

Essays are arranged in alphabetical order by the name of the game discussed. In Hobby Games, they range from Acquire to Wiz-War; in Family Games, from 10 Days in the USA to Zooloretto. Of course, to avoid any appearance of bias, designers of particular games were not allowed to laud the merits of their own creations. But these fans – and make no mistake, these game professionals are, in their appearances here, fans – rise to the occasion. The caliber of the writing, in both volumes, is uniformly informative and entertaining.

familygamesPart of the charm of these books is the conversational style of writing adopted by the contributors. The tone is consistently light but not “lightweight”. You feel as if they are talking directly to you and this makes it easy to relate to their experiences and aids in understanding what makes these games, in their respective opinions, “the best” of their kind. Some of the essays offer interesting insights into designers’ psyches and anecdotal slices from their lives. In the Family Games volume, game historian Bruce Whitehill does a nice piece on the Parker Brothers’ classic game of Careers and reveals that its designer, James Cooke Brown, was the creator of the artificial language Loglan. Leo Colovini, a close personal friend of renowned designer Alex Randolph, tells in his essay on Randolph’s Twixt, how Alex, upon receiving the Gradara Ludens prize for his work demurred and felt he deserved the award not for his body of work but rather for being “the inventor of the profession of inventor of board games”. Ian Livingstone, in discussing the best-selling Can’t Stop by game designer Sid Sackson recounts how Sid’s home was burgled several times yet not a game from his legendary vast collection was touched! (That’s absolutely true. Sid told me that himself!) But it’s not only the typical boxed game that gets recognition. Phil Orbanes does a nice job on Sid Sackson’s A Gamut of Games, one of the classic books on games and possibly the first to focus (and Spiel des Jahres winner Focus was one of the games found therein) on ORIGINAL games and plenty of them!

Of course, the nature of books such as these means that dissenting opinions will emerge. 1960: The Making of the President is a terrific game (I said so when I reviewed it in the Winter 2008 Gamers Alliance Report) but I think it’s a better fit with the Hobby Games volume rather than the Family Games one in which it appears. (While 1960 was released in 2007 and probably too late to be included in the earlier volume, that still doesn’t make it a family game.) Dynasty League Baseball appears in Hobby Games while Strat-O-Matic Baseball earns a slot in Family Games. To the myriad Strat-O-Matic Fanatics out there, Strat is a game belonging in both books. Of course, you can certainly make that argument for several games for inclusion in one volume or another and, in Appendix B in Family Games, games featured in the previous volume that would fit into the other are listed.

These books serve as “snapshots” for the time. The biggest disappointment in books like these is that they whet your appetite for the games showcased and some of them are, alas, no longer in print. In Hobby Games, designer Kevin Wilson writes about Vinci which was, at the time, out of print. Fortunately, the game is back and better than ever in a re-themed version as Small World. And Small World gets a slot in Family Games too! Such was the case as well with Tales of the Arabian Nights, long out of print but now available in a new edition from Z-Man Games. But what to do if you want to get your hands on a Dark Tower? Expect to pay some heavy coin for that one. And, of course, readers will probably ask themselves why their particular favorite did not make it between the covers. (As a matter of face, we offer a suggestion for a great family game in this issue’s Game Classics article.)

Family Games: The 100 Best and Hobby Games: The 100 Best does for games what good parties do for people: they let you spend time with good friends you know, revisit friends you haven’t seen for a long while and meet some new personalities to pique your interest! These books will get you thinking, talking and debating about games. And it’s all good!


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