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Recreating Excitement & Spectacle of the Olympics in a Board Game a Tall Order

by Michael Barnes (08/06/12).

An obscure Olympics game from an unheard-of publisher, circa 1975. The truth is, there are practically no board games with Olympic themes, barring a couple of decades-old obscurities that are largely shunned by collectors and players alike, that extend the experience of the world’s premiere athletics competition to your tabletop.

With the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London drawing to a close a the end of the week, you might be wondering if it’s possible to extend the experience of the world’s premiere athletics competition to your tabletop. The bad news is that there are practically no board games with Olympic themes, barring a couple of decades-old obscurities that are largely shunned by collectors and players alike.

The problem is that the nature of the Olympics is a huge challenge for game designers: how do you create an experience that encapsulates such a broad spectrum of both individual and team sporting events? Few have tried, and as a result the Olympics are one of the more unheard-of themes in tabletop gaming. However, there are games corresponding to individual events that may be of some interest to the Olympics enthusiast.

First up, and inclusive of most of the major track and field events, is one of the games Avalon Hill published in the 1970s in partnership with Sports Illustrated. “Decathlon” was originally published in 1972, as well as in the following year with a name change, nee “Track Meet.” It was revived by the company during the 1984 Olympic year with its original title. In the game, players take on the role of a real-world Olympian, such as Jim Thorpe or Bob Matthias, and compete in a variety of events that are all driven by die rolls cross-referenced to resolution tables. Fatigue, injuries and fouls are factored into each athlete’s performance so there is some level of detail. It’s not a particularly well-regarded or fondly remembered game, so it’s not difficult to find for under $20.

There are no games that I know of that cover Judo, Taekwondo, archery or weightlifting. But there is at least a very good fencing game. Master German game designer Reiner Knizia released “En Garde” in 1993 and it has seen a couple of reprints, including a 2009 edition by U.S. company Gryphon Games. It’s a tight, tense two-player card game that has plenty of foil-on-foil action and the flow of a fencing match is quite accurately replicated with cardplay simulating parries, ripostes and lunges. It’s a fairly common game still available at retail so the collector value isn’t there, but in terms of gameplay it is likely the best title listed in this article.

Game or spreadsheet? You be the judge. Avalon Hill’s “Decathlon.”

Taking to the water, there really aren’t any diving or swimming games. Sure, I could list the obscure “Maneater,” but that’s about swimming from sharks—not for Olympic gold. Sailing is one of the lower-profile Olympic waterborne sports, and there is fortunately a decent game for that. 3M’s “Regatta” from 1967 was one of its classic sports games packaged in a vinyl wrap-a-around board. Having played the game a couple of times, I’m fairly convinced that I would be a terrible sailor. Taking into account changes in wind, when to tack, and when to hoist the spinnaker make for a challenging simulation of the sport. Like most of the 3M sports games, it’s an inexpensive game in the aftermarket and I’ve seen copies at thrift and antique stores quite commonly. I wouldn’t pay more than $15 for a good-looking, complete copy.

An early version of Knizia’s “En Garde.” More recent editions have a swashbuckling theme.

Getting back on land, there is a beach volleyball game called “Strand Cup” that I’ve neither seen nor played. There are a couple of tennis games, including a recent title called “TC Tennis,” released by Victory Point Games, that simulates almost every major tennis star in the sport’s history. There are plenty of board games with shooting and horses, but not really in the Olympic fashion for obvious reasons. Boxing and wrestling—at least if we’re talking about “wrestling” and not “wrasslin’” —are barely represented on the table, and badminton, handball and table tennis are all but absent. There are at least a few cycling games, including “Um Reifenbreite,” a German title that won the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in 1992. It was originally published in 1979 as “Homas Tour,” but most copies that were manufactured under that title were burned in a warehouse fire, making that edition very rare and very desirable to collectors. I’ve never seen a copy of Homas Tour for sale and couldn’t hazard a guess as to its value, but the more recent prize-winning 1991 edition is worth around $40 and it’s a good bicycling game. It’s Tour de France-themed and not Olympics, but the game captures a strong sense of racing as part of a four-man cycling team with dice and cards driving movement and advanced rules for drafting and road conditions. The title translates to “the width of a tire,” which captures some sense of the drama of competitive cycling—at the Olympics or elsewhere.

This is one of the few editions of “Um Reifenbreite”—a German title that won the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in 1992—that wasn’t destroyed in a warehouse fire.

As for the higher-profile team sports—basketball, soccer and volleyball—there’re plenty of good games out, including the outstanding “World Cup Game,” possibly the best sports game I’ve ever played. But there again, it’s not exactly Olympics-themed. I suppose there’s just too much going on at the Games to boil it down to a comprehensive board game experience. Something about gymnastics just doesn’t translate to rolling dice and playing cards.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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One Response to “Recreating Excitement & Spectacle of the Olympics in a Board Game a Tall Order”

  1. Roel says:

    Hi,

    I recently got a copy of Homas Tour (the original version) in good shape and I’m wondering about it’s value.

    Do you have any indication of it? I would be greatful.

    Sincerely,
    Roel van Tiel
    The Netherlands

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