Roll the dice: 7 board games that let you play around the world
Design the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or wander through Edo-era Japan. These games are about learning and exploring, not winning.
Like good books, travel-themed board games take your eyes off your screen and your mind far away. They’re about more than winning. They’re departure points, capturing a bit of the beauty, history and spirit of the places in which they’re set, provoking questions and talk of future trips.
With the games below – one for each day of the week – you can immerse yourself in Renaissance Florence, visit hot springs in Edo-period Japan, help design the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, wind your way through a bazaar in Istanbul and trek across national parks like Acadia and Canyonlands.
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list. There are all sorts of travel games inspired by landmarks, train rides and hotels. To discover more, check out BoardGameGeek, a searchable database with descriptions, reviews, user ratings and photos.
You may also want to Google games that have won Spiel des Jahres awards, created in the 1970s by game critics from German-speaking countries. Additionally, each year, members of Mensa play and rate the latest board games and award their top five choices with “Mensa Select” seals.
But first, a shortlist that will enable you to travel the world by rolling the die or drawing a card.
This refined game is all about the pleasures and wonders of the journey. It’s also a delightful way to learn a few Japanese words and traditions. It takes place “in days of old” on Tokaido, the storied road connecting Kyoto and Edo (modern-day Tokyo).
Along the way, travellers visit onsens; make donations at temples; buy souvenirs such as wooden sandals (geta), musical instruments (like the shamisen) and Ukiyo-e prints; soak up countryside vistas; meet new people (Shinto priests, samurai, Kuge nobles); and sample local cuisine, earning points for different experiences. As in life, the player who ends up having the richest experience wins.
A recent search turned up copies on eBay and some specialty game retailers. Cost: From about US$40 (S$57).
Set in Meiji-era Japan, players are merchants in the fishing village of Yokohama. The goal is to prove you’re the most capable one by travelling the city to places such as the silk mill, copper mine, fishing ground and tea plantation; fulfilling orders; learning foreign technology; and building shops and trading houses.
While this game may serve as a prompt to explore a compelling time in history – when Yokohama began developing into the major city and port that it is today – it’s worth keeping in mind that setting up the many pieces takes time, as does learning the rules. Cost: About US$60.
MONOPOLY: NATIONAL PARKS EDITION
In this outdoorsy version of Monopoly, houses and hotels are camp sites and ranger stations. Instead of classic tokens like a car and a top hat, there’s a bison and a ranger hat. And “properties” include parks such as Denali, Acadia and Zion (with game board spaces that have photographs and dates the parks were established), a volcano, a geyser and activities like nature hiking, rock climbing, bicycling and river rafting.
Corresponding title deed cards have descriptions of each park. For instance, the Mount Rainier card points out that it’s an active volcano that last erupted more than a century ago, and that the park has more than two dozen named glaciers.
Traditional Monopoly rules apply (you can still end up in jail), though there are additional features, such as historic sites cards with instructions like “Independence National Historical Park is closed for renovations. Go back three spaces.” (Though how you’ll feel buying majestic places like the Grand Canyon and the Great Smoky Mountains in a “quest to own some of America’s greatest treasures” as the game is billed, is another matter.) Cost: About US$40.
TREKKING THE NATIONAL PARKS (2ND EDITION)
This game’s board is a cheerful map of the United States dotted with stops for national parks. Naturally, the goal is to become the most experienced traveller by racking up victory points (through activities like being the first to visit a park).
While playing, you can learn about the various parks, thanks to “park cards” with glossy photos and facts, like the one that points out that the National Park of American Samoa is among the southernmost national parks, and another that says Haleakala National Park in Hawaii “has more endangered species than any other site in the national park system”.
Players who are mainly familiar with national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon can discover places such as Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana and Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida – destinations they may want to read more about and visit some day. Cost: US$50.
For those who prefer trivia to board games, there’s Trekking The National Parks: The Family Trivia Game, with hundreds of questions (“In miles per hour, how fast can a bison run?”) as well as plenty of fun facts to keep you entertained until you’re able to make a trip in person. Cost: US$30.
Not everyone staying home these days is doing so with others, which is why it’s especially great that this game can also be played solo. So why not fancy yourself an artisan in Barcelona, creating a stained-glass window in Antoni Gaudí’s basilica, Sagrada Familia? Your goal is to make the prettiest window, arranging colourful dice (your “stained glass”) while adhering to certain colour and shade restrictions. Cost: About US$40.
LORENZO IL MAGNIFICO
With a board the sunny colours of Tuscan farmhouses and terra cotta roofs, each player in this game is the head of a noble family in Renaissance Florence. To win, members of your family must go into the city and thrive by gathering resources, conquering territories, gaining military strength, and engaging in activities such as repairing the Cathedral and promoting sacred art, accruing points along the way. The player with the most points wins.
Because this is a complex game, the makers suggest initially playing using the basic rules. When playing the full game with the advanced rules, you’ll also be using “leader cards” featuring artists and other historical figures worthy of further study long after the game is over: Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, da Vinci, Lucrezia Borgia and Lorenzo de Medici among them. Cost: From about US$50.
Make stops around a bazaar in Istanbul using a merchant and assistants to acquire and sell goods such as fruit, spices and fabric. To win, be the first to amass a certain number of rubies (based on the number of players).
Even better, let the places you visit in this imaginary bazaar (created using game tiles arranged in a grid) spark your interest in the real-life bazaars, mosques, palaces and teahouses of the Turkish city. Cost: From about US$50.
By Stephanie Rosenbloom © The New York Times