Trophy Case

These Are the Board Games the Decemberists Obsessively Play on Tour

Guitars: check. Keyboards: check. The Settlers of Catan: check.

By Kelly Clarke November 20, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Michael Novak

Some touring rock bands drink to waste the downtime between afternoon sound checks and nightly performances; Portland’s lit-rock stalwarts the Decemberists posse up for epic board game battles, a tradition that started on a snoozy stop in Manchester, England, during a 2015 tour. “Games are puzzles. They dig a finger into the part of the brain that needs a scratching in times of stress and tedium,” explains lead singer Colin Meloy. “They’re a way of being with people.”

Flamme Rouge

“We have a road case full of games that we bring on tour now. Lately we’ve been playing a lot of [this] bicycle racing game using cards. Our bass player Nate Query bikes every day, and he swears it’s a very close analog to the actual thing. You have two cyclists in the game, a sprinteur and a rouleur. And they’re working off each other. There’s drafting and slipstreaming. If you’re at the head of the pack you get tired because you’re breaking the wind for everybody else. The real-life considerations of cycling are worked into the mechanics of the game. It’s pretty brilliant.” $59 at Rainy Day Games

Image: Michael Novak

The Settlers of Catan

“This was the game that our guitarist Chris Funk first showed up with in Manchester. I think Settlers is the ne plus ultra of contemporary board games. There’s lot of strategy and randomness and these cool mechanics where everybody does something on someone else’s turn so you are always engaged, you’re always moving. You can’t make a favorite board game list without it. It’s like making a favorite record list without mentioning Astral Weeks. You just don’t do it. It’s the Astral Weeks of board games … or maybe it’s the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of board games. Epic but approachable.” $49 at the Portland Game Store

Image: Michael Novak


“This is a really great tile-laying game—fantastically designed. It doesn’t have a plot. You’re laying tiles for some king or emperor, but it’s really more of an abstract game. It’s competitive and you can easily get angry at other people for spoiling your plans. It’s actually become so contentious that we no longer play it. I am probably the culprit of taking it too far. I have a hard time losing, but I’m working on it.” $40 at Cloud Cap Games

Image: Michael Novak

Pandemic/Pandemic Legacy

“We bought this on a lark in some game store in Winnipeg. It’s a collaborative game where you’re all trying to save the world from being overwhelmed by viral epidemics. (Thankfully, Portland isn’t on the game map.) Our drummer John Moen has a low threshold for complicated board games. If there’s too many rules, he can’t get there. And there’s an initial hump with Pandemic: you think it’s too complicated, but then it just clicks. And the Pandemic Legacy campaign games get really personal. You feel very committed to characters and the world. It solidified our love of games. We were no longer dilettantes. We played many nights, consecutively. The Legacy games are a huge time commitment, but if you’re a rock band on tour, it’s perfect.” $40–70 at Guardian Games

Image: Michael Novak


Two years ago the Decemberists created our own game. [My wife, illustrator Carson Ellis] and photographer Autumn De Wilde made a prop board game for a photo shoot circa 2008 for Houses of Love. The photo setup was that we were a secret society that meets to play a very strange board game in different places around town. We only ever did one shot of us playing it in a room at the Ace Hotel. Flash forward to 2015, the band had started loving games, and it occurred to me that we had this prop game sitting around. So why don’t we give this mysterious board game to a designer? It happened that Chris Funk knew local game designer Keith Baker, and he was a fan. Keith went away with the prop and came back with a game: Illimat. We haven’t really played it on tour. At home, Carson and I play it constantly. She hates complicated board games but loves card games. And it really is a game that appeals to both—people who love contemporary board games and people who like old-fashioned card games.” $40 at Rainy Day Games or

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