When one thinks of boardgames — assuming one ever does — one thinks of them as primarily mental challenges. They are known for employing the brain through strategy, tactics, negotiation, memory, or even factual knowledge. Yet there is an entire subgenre of games that, while it can involve these things, focuses primarily on physical interaction with the pieces. They’re called dexterity games.
A few of the most popular mainstream games, in fact are dexterity games. Perhaps the most classic example of this is Operation, a game centered around pulling bits of plastic out of a guy who’s ill because he’s got bits of plastic stuck in his open wounds.
Presumably, Operation is still fairly popular with kids, since there are several licensed versions of it available. You can pull organs out of Shrek, Homer Simpson, Spider-Man, and Stringer Bell.
This type of dexterity game is pretty limited to Operation. There aren’t that many other boardgames I’m aware of that use this particular model (I’m sure people will correct me in the comments.)
A more popular type of dexterity game is also found in a popular mainstream title, Jenga, which has a few licensed spin-offs (and several rip-offs). For both of you who have never played it, Jenga is a stacking game in which you pull blocks from the bottom of the tower and move them to the top without knocking it over. Stacking (and balancing) are very popular for dexterity games, and there are a lot of other ones out there that use this idea. Villa Paletti is a sort of artistic Jenga, with brightly colored pieces. Hamsterrolle, as its name implies, takes place in a wheel, where you’re trying to move the pieces up along the interior of the wheel without making it unbalanced and rolling all the pieces out.
One of the best games of this type is Bandu, which is tragically out of print at that name and price. (It is available under the name Bausack, but for significantly more than the $25-$30 you can usually find a Bandu for on eBay, or cheaper at a thrift store, where they often show up.) Bandu involves a number of odd wooden shapes that must be stacked on your tower without having it collapse. However, you have the ability to try to bid on pieces you want to add to your tower (say, to help out with something oddball you’ve been saddled with) or to avoid pieces you don’t want on your tower (and are trying to force on someone else). Bandu is a lot of fun and highly recommended, if you can get hold of one.
The final major type of dexterity game is the “flicking” game. The star of this show is probably Crokinole, which has its roots in marbles and shuffleboard. you take turns flicking wooden disks across a round wooden board, jockeying for position in the center. It’s insanely fun, but the high price of a good Crokinole board has made it only a dream for most gamers to own (though Mayday Games is producing an inexpensive board now — “inexpensive” being a relative term.)
For those not looking to drop a few bills on a board, there are much less expensive flicking games. Pitchcar, while still a little pricey, presents the disks as cars that are being flicked around a track in a race. In Elk Fest, you’re flicking disks in an attempt to let your wooden elk cross a lake. Perhaps the easiest flicking game to get your hands on is Sorry! Sliders, a game you should be able to find in any department store, which replaces wood with plastic pawns with ball-bearings in them. Much less expensive but still quite a lot of fun!
The most interesting recent development in this genre is Catacombs, which is a flicking game with a fantasy theme. That is, the disks represent heroes or monsters and you attack by hitting one with the other. The elf has arrows which are smaller disks that can also be flicked at enemies, and the wizard has a “shield” spell which is just a big wooden barrier the monsters have to get around. It is a spectacularly goofy concept that nevertheless results in a hilariously fun game.
There’s nothing worse than trying to teach someone a game and having them say, “Do I have to think for this?” Dexterity games allow you to put away The Nobles of Renaissance Italy, pull out something else and say, “Nope, you just have to balance odd shapes of wood on each other while someone flicks disks at you!” See what happens!