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The Independent Culture
Whether you regard them as essential companions on a TV-less country weekend, the only viable alternatives to the Queen's Speech at Christmas or aptly named time wasters, board games remain the most universally popular indoor adult entertainment after television.


We decided to test a range of modern board games designed to appeal to both adults and family groups from age eight upwards; to see if they have the appeal of all time classics like Monopoly. Scores of new games appear on the market each year, but only a handful survive a novelty period to become household favourites. We found their quality in terms of production values, orignality of concept and re-playable appeal varies widely, and is not necessarily related to cost.


Three households consisting of different age groups and social structures were recruited to test the games. Debbie Robinson, her husband Paul Jones and their daughter Rebecca, seven, played with a variety friends, neighbours and colleagues; university student Anthony Barlow played with his many housemates and I played with guests from abroad (Canadian, German, Italian) as well as other friends aged between 23 and 44.


pounds 19.99

You don't have to know much about football, so the manufacturers say, to be able to play this team-building game conceived by Terry Venables, but the interest helps. It's a long and complicated business - literally, since winning revolves almost entirely around money and the buying and selling of footballers as commodities, not goals or sport as such. My team found the turns too long. Each one involves five points to accomplish, ample time for other players to doze off, wander into the kitchen, or start an argument about whether the game money ("Banco de Venables") depicts the old pro wearing hairspray or not. All football fans on the panel complained that the football questions were disproportionately hard, or at least dated, in comparison with the entertainment and general knowledge questions. Debbie Robinson's team felt the "essay-like" and "ambiguous" instructions, plus the length of play, would put them off rushing to the cupboard to get it out again.

*****PAY DAY

pounds 14.99

A bestseller nationwide, and enjoyed by two of our panel teams if not the other, this game would have got Mrs Thatcher's approval: it teaches you how to manage the family budget. David Stanton summed up the general disgust with Pay Day's downmarket presentation with his comment that the board looks like a naff birthday card, while everyone agreed that the game money was "cheap and nasty". My team thought the budgetary opportunities and setbacks were naive. How is it, for example, that a company (typified by cards depicting junk-food outlets) is always an asset, never a liability? And how can a lottery win seem realistic with only four players in the running? Yet at the same time, play revealed an uncanny resemblance to the players' real life fortunes in all cases. "My Gran has never taken out a bank loan in her life and wouldn't in the game, either," mused Anthony Barlow. "She won every time." Ultimately, the realistic price of Pay Day, the fact that all members of the family could play, and that the majority of panellists asserted they would play it again - "because it doesn't take all night and is easy to understand" - made this game our overall winner.


pounds 19.99

The little plastic figures who trudge around this simple board game can be joined together like Siamese twins, and from its name and concept, most of the panel anticipated a real divorce-maker, in which the inability of team members to anticipate image cards chosen by their partners to represent random nouns and adjectives such as "feeble", "media", "happiness", would lead to a prolonged shambles. In the event, testers compared Compatibility to "a modern day `Snap' or `Mr. & Mrs', and complained that it was not so much emotionally explosive as intuitively based. To score points, you need to guess which images (a sunset, a baby, skyscrapers) other players will choose; your own authentic selection must be subjugated to the common consensus if you want to win. The most frequent complaint was that the game was "couple-ist", the image cards "dated - mostly Eighties go-getting stuff" and that it was impossble to use the one depicting a puffin (except for the wag who put it forward to represent "restaurant"). On the positive side, Debbie Robinson's friends enjoyed its straightforwardness; they reported that though they doubted this was a real "family game" as illustrated on the box, it had certainly brought out the competitiveness between the two couples playing.


pounds 26.99

Though not a unanimous favourite, all panellists were pleasantly surprised by the frantic enjoyability of this interactive video and board game, which is calculated to appeal to both old and young through the longevity of its characters. Like Atmosfear, it entails running a video during play, this one features clips from the Star Wars movie, mixed with game instructions from Lord Vader. The board is three-dimensional, with a central spaceship to capture, and there are lots of cards and plastic rebels and robots to make you feel you are getting value for money.

Anthony Barlow's friends "absolutely loved it - but then some are Star Wars freaks", while Debbie Robinson's neighbours found it dreary in comparison with Atmosfear; "The video input is more limited, so we almost started to ignore it and play under our own steam." The problem in our house was that the rule which insists you pass the die to the next player immediately after rolling it, before you have completed your turn, means there is ample scope for cheating. The other drawback is generic to video board games: during the first few plays, you feel impelled to stop the video while you read the instructions to stop the game disintegrating into chaos. This allows the television to come on, encouraging mutinous players to protest that they would rather watch the current programme.


pounds 14.99

It was difficult to determine, let alone appoint, players of the correct age range for this very (some said "nauseatingly") American game, resembling a regimented version of the Stateside "Truth or Dare". Spinning the board like a top reveals potentially embarrassing questions, such as "Have you ever been kissed by a boy? If so, describe it," or physical stunts such as press-ups or brushing all the other players' hair for 10 seconds. (`This copy missing

Nick Raffin, 40 ) Failure to comply with these tasks results in the award of a "zit sticker" on the player's face for the rest of the game. Notwithstanding the poor production values (flimsy cards, and it was hard to get the "ultra- cool spinner" to spin at all), the younger teenagers among Anthony Barlow's friends were "appalled" by this "very silly game", whereas Debbie Robinson's daughter Rebecca and her friend Camilla Hipwood (both "nearly eight") were "absolutely thrilled" with it, even if none of the girl-boy experiences applied to them. Its appeal was therefore deemed to be "aspirational" and Debbie Robinson cautioned that an adult needs to play with younger children, since they don't understand all the long words, "which is tedious for the parent".


pounds 24.99

We suspected from the outset that this game was designed for people with no general knowledge who feel frustrated by Trivial Pursuit and this proved to be the case, with many ludicrous or obscure statements giving players a 50-50 chance of scoring by guessing whether they are true or false. The complicated board reminded David Matthews of "an electron diagram for an atom", but after "a long time spent figuring out the rules" Debbie Robinson's team quickly felt bored, as did we. Anthony Barlow's friends were similarly frustrated by the lack of skill required and said that, since the game was often very quickly over, it represented poor value for money.


pounds 25, Ist sequel to Atmosfear The Harbingers, pounds 17.99 (must be played in conjunction)

Summed up as "a complete nightmare" by two of the three teams, this complex, interactive video and board game is alleged to be "the market leader", leading some of us to suspect such games are strictly for sci- fi nerds. In its defence, it must be said that the presentation is lavish: a double-sided board which looks like the space ship from Independence Day, Gothic character pieces from skulls to bats as counters, "headstones" bearing runic symbols to collect and a myriad high-quality, and densely illustrated cards, make the Atmosfear games great presents. Problems only arise in getting to grips with a set of rules as long as a novella - illustrated in comic strip form) - while "The Gatekeeper", a monstrous, green-eyed actor with indeterminate foreign accent, interrupts play from your video screen to instruct players to do yet something else from the moves already dictated by dice or cards. The game is recommended to be played "in the dark" for maximum effect - "preposterous!" said Philippa Yeoman, "it's hard enough to see what you're doing anyway," while Anthony Barlow's team dismissed Atmosfear as "not scary at all. It doesn't have the pace or urgency of Star Wars, the video is laughable and you can only play for 50 minutes." Debbie Robinson's team was impressed with the double-sided board and the possibilities of variety allowed by the add-on game Soul Rangers', but couldn't imagine the grandparents playing this one.


Toy and game shops nationwide.