A game mechanic common to board games and computer games is the “technology tree”—a sequence of upgrades your character or team earns as it gathers knowledge, acquires new equipment, and gains the powers necessary to attain the game’s ultimate goal. It usually involves some tough decision-making as you’re forced to invest in one technology over another, and if you make the wrong choice, you may find yourself stranded, inadequately equipped, and outmaneuvered.
If you’re a student of history or if you work with technical concepts, the tech tree feels obvious. Of course agriculture begat animal husbandry. Of course you need to build the CPU before you build the computer. And of course if you want to build a bomber plane, the skills you learn probably can’t be applied to building a Zeppelin.
So it’s easy to take for granted that, before the release of the board game Civilization in 1980, no such straightforward simplification of human innovation existed in gaming. Then, in 1992, the tech tree’s inclusion in the computer game Sid Meier’s Civilization, a game in part inspired by, but not affiliated with, the board game, brought the tech tree into the electronic gaming world. But as any deep geek will tell you, board games did it first.
Board games have been enjoying a Renaissance of late, and in this explosion, board games have not forgotten the tech tree. In an age where we are glued to the computers in our pockets but can’t fully explain how they work, board games can deconstruct the way tech shapes the world.
“The average person nowadays feels like the technology in the world around them is so complex,” says Kimber VanRy, the president of the Metropolitan Wargamers club in Brooklyn. “When you play a Civilization-style game where tech is an aspect, you get to really understand how this piece of technology got us from point A to point B. It makes the world make sense.”
Let’s take a look at some of the best tech-centric board games, from an upscaled version of the classic Civilization to a cyberpunk card game about hacking.
The computer game Sid Meier’s Civilization and its “four X’s” (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) might make up the “Civ” you know and love. But Meier’s game was at least in part inspired by the board game Civilization, released by Avalon Hill in 1980. Meier certainly cribbed from its tech tree mechanism, which was the first of its kind in a board game. Alongside that linear pathway to advancement based on smart decision-making, Civilization offered a game based on population growth, successful warring, and society-building from just after the Ice Age until the end of the Iron Age. Mega Civilization (Rating: 8) revisits that struggle in a game playable by up to 18 people at once. Each player starts with a single population token, but rapid expansion for that many players at once means direct conflict is inevitable. Those who can wrangle that many players together for the 10 to 12 hours it takes to finish the game will be richly rewarded. Buy for $250, five to 18 players.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
In Pandemic, players act as a team of infectious disease experts working to defeat a modern plague as they race around the globe to snuff out new outbreaks. Legacy: Season 1 (Rating: 9) spreads that format out over 12 to 24 gameplay sessions. Every session represents a month in game time, during which players, each with a special ability and role on the team, work to solve the deadly issues at hand. Designing the game as a campaign allowed the game’s creators to build a much richer narrative, with difficult decisions for players at every turn; the stakes are higher, too, since the game can really only be played through once. The game has consistently been ranked one of the best board games of all time. Players who finish the game have been known to paste some important cards to the board, frame it, and hang it on the wall. Buy for $70, two to four players.
It’s 1956, and the countries of the world are vying to win the space race. But what will it take to attain victory? That’s the question at the center of Leaving Earth (Rating: 8). Each player represents a single nation’s space agency. They each get to use a flat amount of funding every turn (year) to invest in space-age technology like rockets, capsules, astronaut training, and life-support tech. Then they use math to complete some simplified rocket science, calculating mass and thrust to see how far their rockets can carry them. Completed missions win players points—but should they take a literal moonshot (or Mars-shot) for a high number of points and risk failing and losing everything? Or should they embark on several lower-risk missions, like creating and supplying a space station, each with a smaller payoff? The answer will determine who owns the solar system. Buy for $45 (with Leaving Earth: Mercury expansion), one to five players.
No board needed: Innovation (Rating: 7) is played entirely with cards. The game is a race through a nebulous tech tree of sorts, covering not just technology but also ideas and cultural advancements through ten “eras,” from prehistory all the way to the Information Age. It’s a wide-ranging study of advancement from the wheel to railroads to robotics and beyond—and a lesson in how technology is shared and jockeyed among competing civilizations. Buy for $35 and up, two to four players.
In the original version of this game, players actually drew a series of power grids on a map using crayons. The updated version of Power Grid (Rating: 8) has set gridlines and no Crayola requirement, but the DIY feel remains.
Players build power plants, stretch their power grids, and use limited resources to buy fuel (coal, garbage, oil, uranium, solar, and wind) to power as many cities as they can. Fluctuating fuel prices and an auction system for buying new power plants make for an ultra-competitive exercise in the real-world challenges facing our consumption of natural resources. Buy for $45, two to six players.
It’s a duel that’s been played out, with ever-increasing stakes, in the real world for the past few years: the hacker versus the megacorporation. Based on a game designed by Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield, Android: Netrunner (Rating: 8) features brilliant asymmetric gameplay. The corporation player has resources and the ability to trap and bluff the hacker, but is bulky and slow to react. The hacker, on the other hand, is agile, and must aggressively probe the corporation’s “ice” firewall defenses while sidestepping disastrous traps and counter-hacks. And, since it’s a “living card game,” a steady release of new card packs gives fervent players the chance to play an ever-changing game. Buy for $40, two players.