Barring some tournament play (like our very own Sean’s cribbage adventure), board gaming is primarily a leisure activity, a hobby. We play to have fun, relax, take a break from our lives just as we would by reading or watching a movie. The experience for me is elevated somewhat when I can feel laid back and enriched by sitting down to play a game, by the look of it and the gameplay – if I feel encouraged to exclaim “this is so pleasant!” then I know it’s hit the spot. While my title today is inspired by the Bob Ross game “The Art of Chill”, i’m going to talk generally about how art and laid back gameplay combine to hit the spot in two particular games – Herbaceous and Sunset Over Water – and how that represents a niche of gaming to me that I’d love to find more of.
Despite much of our play being leisurely, there are still aspects of competition and conflict in many games – whether they’re simulated combat in miniatures games, or fighting for a spot in a worker placement game, you’re going head to head against other people. It can be nerve-wracking, stressful, and often not turn out the way you’ve planned. There’s a lot of energy and brain power going into the turns and rounds – which might be just the brain prodding you’re looking for, but can often just be a bit too much for me at the end of a long day or week. And honestly sometime, cooperative games can be taxing, too! So where is that little pocket of calming and relaxing combined – what game can invite a relaxing feeling while allowing for some level of competition?
Both Herbaceous and Sunset Over Water are small-box games, each with a deck of cards and a small rules booklet. There’s a nice low barrier to entry in learning both these games and diving into them not long after a good shuffle is pretty easy – this is a huge factor for me when it comes to a relaxing game experience. The comfort of knowing a game will be quick to set up and get into makes it much less of a barrier to entry – I can have a fairly stressless journey from wanting to play the game to playing it, which honestly sets the mood for me. For these two games, the nicest part about learning and set up is the laying out of cards ready for the game to start – for both, Beth Sobel’s art brings colour and life to the table, and draws me in and the clean, simple design from the team of Eduardo Baraf, Steve Finn and Keith Matejka seals the deal.
Let’s cover briefly how these two games play. Herbaceous is a set collection game, with a dash of push your luck – players will be flipping herb cards over and deciding if they go in a communal space or in their own “garden”; they will also take and “plant” various sets of herb cards for points in their pots from these two garden areas. In Sunset Over Water each player will play a “planning” card that allows them to move around in certain ways on the card grid, and paint landscapes (that is, pick up a number of gorgeous cards representing a variety of landscape paintings) – they can then sell these paintings in certain combinations for points on contract cards. Both are reasonably short, whether playing solo or with the full complement of 4 players, have straight forward actions to take and choices to make. And both are a delight, which has definitely caused me to sing their praises.
The casual nature of these games is a large part of their relaxing nature for me. I can chat with friends while playing and don’t really need to plan too far ahead, while still enjoying the way the games play. They look beautiful – and art, for me, can really set a tone for my mood at the game table. Much like when I can get away on vacation to somewhere I can see a forest, mountains or the ocean, the way these games spread out on the table in a calming tableau is key for their contribution in a relaxing experience. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some variety of art and colour (I can’t get enough of that 90s Dinosaur Island vibe!) but there is something triggering a laid back feeling in Sobel’s art for these two games in particular. In addition to all of this, and their low-anxiety play style, these two games are not high conflict and definitely non-violent thematically – gardening and painting aren’t really either of my real life hobbies but going through the motions in-game for these delightful card games gives me a chance to play in a way that is overall non-threatening and just makes me feel good.
My feeling about the non-violent theme is the one that stands out pretty starkly when thinking about this. Even when there is direct competition and interaction for points in a game – like Kanagawa, Sagrada or Cacao – the vibe of non-violence can really offer a refreshing tone for a game night. This is all to say, like I mentioned in my preface, I’m not against competition or direct conflict in games and can truly enjoy those experiences – but more and more I’m looking to space those out or pad them with something lighter in theme, gameplay and look. I won’t have to switch off entirely, can have exactly the leisure time I’m looking for and enjoy some eye-candy while I’m at it.
Thinking about this all, my aim here is to get people thinking about the worth of games like this. Their value is just as rich as other types of games, for their social experience and enjoyment and somewhat therapeutic nature. Of course, that’s not going to be for everyone – but I truly recognize my need more and more to the escape into the chill of a laid back game that will treat my eyes with its art (and/or components!). I’d love to hear what your thoughts area, dear reader, on games that sit in this niche for you. And considering my article’s title, I should really try to sit down for the Art of Chill – from all that I’ve heard, it will hit the spot for me!
Herbaceous and Sunset Over Water are published by Pencil First Games. Herbaceous is in retail already, and Sunset Over Water is hitting shelves next week!