Review: 51 Worldwide Games is a trip through board game history

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51 Worldwide Games has exposed me. Despite my newfound love of strategy games in things like Civilization, when it comes to those classic games of pure strategy—shogi, chess, mahjong—I still collapse. I go play slot cars or toy tennis instead. Slot cars and toy tennis are fun, and don’t melt my brain.

Which is, I guess, another way of saying that 51 Worldwide Games has a great variety of different games. When it’s described as bringing together “tabletop classics from around the world”, you might expect a collection of the more familiar board and card games. While those make up a large portion of what’s on offer here, there’s a decent selection of less traditional games—and some that aren’t even tabletop games at all!

This means there really is something for everyone, or for a quick round of whatever mood strikes you. If you want a quick way to spend a few minutes while still working the grey matter, things like mancala and gomoku are perfect. If you want to delve into all the strategic depths offered by a game like shogi or chess, you can (with extensive tutorials for new players, too). If you want to test your luck, card games like war and takoyaki have you covered. If you want something more action-oriented, you’ve got things like mechanical tabletop variants of popular sports and tank battle games. If you don’t really want to deal with tabletop games at all, you can still go fishing, race slot cars, or play golf.

A screenshot from 51 Worldwide Games, showing a game of Texas Hold 'em Poker

The games all perfectly capture their real-life equivalent, right down to a visual style that simulates the tabletop environment (or playroom floor, or bowling alley, or darts hall). Functionally simple card and board games all work as smoothly as you’d expect, but even those games that demand a little more in terms of physics interactions and the like—think trying to keep a slot car on the track as you race around a tight corner—run flawlessly. Some games struggle to emulate a single analogue game well; 51 Worldwide Games gets everything spot on.

A couple of games—namely bowling, darts, and a shooting gallery—even give you the option of motion controls. Bowling and shooting feel as natural as they can without actually holding a bowling ball or a firearm, and while aiming your darts can take a bit more getting accustomed to, it’s easily the more enjoyable way to play that game when you do.

Most of the games have online modes with leaderboards, but the real attraction with these sorts of games is having everyone gathered around a table. 51 Worldwide Games makes the most of the Switch hardware to simulate the tabletop experience as closely as it can. For board games, you can set the Switch flat on a table and use the touchscreen to move pieces around; for games where keeping your hand of cards or tiles secret is important, you can link up to four Switch units together so each person can have their own hand (and you won’t need to buy extra copies of 51 Worldwide Games for the other consoles). A couple of games offer a rather unique “Mosaic mode”, where different configurations of Switches alter the playing field—for example, by changing the layout of a slot car track.

A screenshot from 51 Worldwide Games, showing a game of slot cars

But 51 Worldwide Games isn’t just a random assortment of games to play; it’s also a journey through a little bit of the history of games as we know them. Each game comes with a little bit of information about where it comes from and how it came to be—not screeds of writing to sift through, but just a little taste of historical context. In a lot of cases, that sample is enough to inspire further reading; even relatively simple, familiar games often have fascinating backgrounds. But even if you don’t, the little snippet you get from this collection itself is enough to add to the enjoyment.

In keeping with that idea, 51 Worldwide Games offers a bunch of different curated collections, each with four or five thematically-linked games. Accessing these curations comes via “tour guides” who show up on a map in the front-end of the collection’s menu, with more guides popping up as you spend more time playing the game. The ‘Historical Games’ collection, for example, is made up of games that have been around for hundreds (or thousands) of years, like backgammon and mancala; the ‘Games That Never Get Old’ collection is home to particularly strategic games you could dedicate a whole lifetime to mastering. One of my personal favourites is the ‘Nintendo History’ collection, which celebrates Nintendo’s pre-videogame history as a manufacturer of things like hanafuda cards and shogi pieces.

A screenshot from 51 Worldwide Games, showing a game of mancala

Don’t worry—there’s also a standard list of all 51 ones games that you can choose from if you want to play something specific, or see everything that’s available at a glance. The curations exist more for trying to share a bit more information and encourage you to try new things.

As good as the collection is, there are some noteworthy games missing, too. It’s strange to not have go included when shogi, mahjong, and even gomoku—which uses a go board and stones—are here. I assume it’s due to the difficulty of creating AI for go, but even just a multiplayer-only version would be good to have. It’s too important to the history of games to not include. I was also personally hoping to see seotda in the collection. It’s a popular game in Korea that uses a hanafuda deck (called hwatu in Korea), so would fit in nicely as a variation of the existing hanafuda game.

I also have to admit—though it might just be my lack of strategic ability talking—that I found some of the more complex games hard to wrap my head around, even with the tutorials available. I’ve played through the tutorials for shogi and mahjong again and again, and I still don’t really understand even the mechanics of the games, let alone the strategy that follows. Some more in-depth tutorials wouldn’t go amiss.

A screenshot from 51 Worldwide Games, showing a list of games

Still, 51 Worldwide Games is a lovely package. There’s an impressive variety of games included, all emulating their real-life equivalents as closely as you could expect, and the collection goes a step further by providing a bit of historical context that surrounds each game. Local multiplayer is particularly enjoyable, these being tabletop games after all, making 51 Worldwide Games a welcome addition to any family game night.

Score: 4 stars

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51 Worldwide Games is developed and published by Nintendo. It comes out on 5 June 2020 for Nintendo Switch.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.