In the past two years, I have delved into the wide world of tabletop gaming. I was not a complete stranger to this world. I have been playing Magic the Gathering, a collectible card game by Wizards of the Coast, and Exalted, a pen and paper role-playing game by White Wolf, for about ten years, and I had dabbled in a few other games from time to time. Recently, though, I dove headfirst into tabletop gaming after joining a local tabletop group. I have explored many game types from the heavier fare, like Terra Mystica and Agricola (I know there are bigger games but I looked at the inside of Empire: Age of Discovery and my eyes glazed over at the sheer volume of components), to the lightweight games like Zombie Dice and Seventh Hero. In this article, I would like to talk about these lightweight games and the value they have to players, both new and seasoned.
Finding praise or defense for heavy games is not a difficult task, but light games, often referred to as filler games, are regularly dismissed, and the term filler game is frequently used by many as a derogatory term. There are many reasons for this of course. Filler games often take less than twenty minutes to play, compared to their heavier brethren which usually take longer than an hour and a half. They also do not offer the depth of strategy or breadth of player decisions offered by longer and more complicated games, but let’s not count these smaller games out just yet. Filler games can warm you up at the beginning of an evening of board gaming and provide stepping stones for players to get into the bigger games.
What is a Filler Game?
To clarify, “filler” game is a loosely defined term, much like the terms “light,” “medium,” and “heavy” as game descriptions. For my purposes, filler games are fast games with few components, simple mechanics, easy learning curves, and low price points.
Example: every thing you need to know about setting up and playing Seventh Hero fits on one card.
Bare in mind that my definition is not universal, especially where price point is concerned. For instance, Tsuro is a beautiful game that meets every above criteria except the price point. Games last less than ten minutes, it has three components, its mechanic is tile placing and automatic movement, and it can be taught in about a minute. However, it costs about $30, which is pretty high for what the game offers. So, even with my definition, the term is still loose.
Crank that Brain Engine
Board game meetups generally begin with people trickling in and talking about what games to play. Many of the players are just getting off work, and need to shake off the weariness of the day. Filler games are perfect for the beginnings of any gathering. It gives the early birds (or on-time birds in some cases) a mental warm up while the rest of the group trickles in. Since, these games are brief, the later arrivals will not have to wait long to get into the longer games. Though these game are simpler and shorter, they do not lack in mental and social stimulus.
For instance, Seventh Hero requires players to make quick decisions about cards they cannot see, while keeping track of what the other players have. Sushi Go also requires the players to pay attention to the other players, while making decisions about the cards they pick for current and subsequent rounds. Additionally, games like Zombie Dice get players talking to each other as its basis in luck gives each turn the potential for epic failure or unbelievable success. The back and forth gets everyone’s energy up and brains working for the bigger games to come.
Typically, filler games are simply designed around a core mechanic, many of these mechanics play a significant role in larger games. Mechanics are often not unique to specific games; some of the more frequently used mechanics become game genres unto themselves, like deck building, card drafting, and worker placement. Since the larger games often require a decent length of time to teach to players, finding good filler games that use the same core mechanic of a larger game is an excellent way to introduce new players to the more complicated games.
For example, if you want to teach a group of players the game Elder Sign, the small game Age of War uses the same die rolling mechanic, which requires players to role dice and look for specific symbols to assign to sections on each card. All the group would have to do is play Age of War, get used to the way it plays, which only takes about ten minutes, then the teacher would only have to explain the other mechanics of Elder Sign. The same could be said of Sushi Go, a simple card drafting game, and Seventh Wonder, a much larger game that uses card drafting as its core mechanic. In this way, many filler games can serve as a learning basis for larger, more complicated games. I personally find it fun to explore not only what filler games have to offer, but their potential to be teaching materials for larger games.
Respect the Filler
Considering the above reason, it is still worth mentioning that games are fun, and that includes the smaller, shorter games that many brush off. There is a lot of fun to be found within the ten to twenty minute playing time of these games. Before writing them off for what they do not not have, find out what filler games do have. You may find yourself surprised.