The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

A Player's Guide to Table Games

Author: John Jackson
Publisher: Stackpole Books
ISBN: 0-8117-1902-2
Reviewer: Joe Huber

Joe's Bookshelf

First in a series of reviews of books about games.

It's hard not to start this series with the book that inspired it. I enjoy used book stores and was fortunate enough to come across this gem earlier this year. Rarely have there been books specifically attempting to cover the games available at the time of publication, and with good reason—reviews of Monopoly and Scrabble aren't of much interest, and the other games change too rapidly. But Jackson's coverage of the gaming scene, later updated and reprinted as The Playboy Winner's Guide to Board Games (credited as Jon Freeman), provides a fascinating look at the game industry of 1975.

A Player's Guide to Table Games is split into twelve chapters, each covering a variety of games, freely mixing traditional, classic, and recent (for 1975) releases. The twelve chapters are Card Games, Quasi-Card Games, Stock Market and Business Games, Family Games, Abstract Circular Race Games, Sports Games, Games of Detection and Deduction, Word Games, Abstract Games, Semiabstract Battle Games (War Games I), Multiplayer Conflict Games (War Games II), and "Pure" War Games (War Games III). As an example of the variety of games covered, the chapter on Quasi-Card Games includes dominoes, Mah Jong, Waterworks, Mille Bornes, Infinity, Image, and Monad. All told, over 100 games are discussed.

The greatest strength of the book is that each game is reviewed, not just explained. Jackson doesn't pull punches; in describing Billionaire, he writes "A basically simple (and relatively unexciting) concept has been ornamented with more randomizing elements than a Las Vegas casino" and "The simple board is… gratuitous; its only function is to keep players from conducting their affairs in a more straightforward fashion." Negative game reviews are hard to find; negative game reviews that are enjoyable to read are a rare treat.

One of the other notable aspects of this book is the mention of the authors of the games. It would be too easy to overstate this element; the only designers mentioned are Jim Dunnigan, W. Glinski, William Groman, Sid Sackson, and Lou Zocchi. At least they're recognized, as are the most relevant magazines of the time such as Games & Puzzles, The General, Strategy & Tactics, and important books including A Gamut of Games. Of course, Jackson doesn't treat the games from noted designers any differently than those which are uncredited; he finds both Monad and Sleuth dry, unexciting and even dull. He shows no bias against the progenitors of "German Games"; he rates Acquire, Twixt and Cartel all highly, and saves his harshest review for The Game of Life. He also favors Careers, a game which has won something of a following among German game enthusiasts.

The longest sections of the book are detailed strategy sections. These are present for classics such as Monopoly, Clue and Scrabble but also for Diplomacy. There are also sections explaining the laws of probability and the challenge of balancing realism and playability in wargames. The chapter on "Pure" War Games in fact ends with a ten page section covering war game magazines, game theory, playing to your strengths and using game rules to your advantage.

Overall, the book is a fascinating read and well worth tracking down—for those familiar with the games of the era, it's a trip down memory lane; for everyone else, it's a chance to read about the history of the hobby and possibly even discover hidden gems such as Smess or Coup D'Etat. I would strongly recommend this book, and would love to see someone attempt a comparable volume today.

- Joe Huber

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