In this article, we discuss how the board game hobby has risen in the last 25 years, in what state it is today, and where it’s headed.
Are Board Games Dead?
Board games are certainly not dead. Contrary, for the last 25 years they are experiencing almost exponential growth, which is still very strong (if not the strongest ever) today and doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon.
Rise of Modern Board Gaming
For the second part of the 20th century, board games have had a constant presence in entertainment. While the casuals and families entertained themselves with the likes of Battleship and Monopoly, the true geeks were either playing Dungeons and Dragons or hex-based battle simulators. Games like Squad Leader, where you tactically control squads of soldiers in WWII battles.
But over in Europe, a different kind of board game was gaining momentum. Games where the main objective was to collect the most victory points using very tight mechanics: engine building, area control, resource management, deck-building, etc.
In so-called eurogames, the reliance on luck is minimal, there is no direct player interaction (no battles), and the theme is very pronounced, but not necessarily gameplay-related.
The trend that initially started in Germany caught on, and with the release of Catan in 1995, worldwide success was destined to happen. With a combination of easy-to-learn, but hard-to-master game mechanics, everyone was welcome to play. The colonial theme was still relatively fresh at the time and the dice provided an easy-going feel to it, while deep down it was an extremely strategic game, that spurred many debates.
The floodgates were opened and soon other games followed. Tigris and Euphrates (1997) Carcassonne (2000), Puerto Rico (2002), Power Grid (2004), Ticket to Ride (2004), and so on. Quickly, the trends turned. According to research by Mr.Vatvani, fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and deduction gained traction, while racing games, sports games, and trivia took the biggest hits.
Game mechanics shited focus to hand management, variable player powers, card drafting, area control, and set-collection, while the roll-and-move mechanic was starting to diminish.
Board games have come a long way since then. For instance, you can’t label them as easily. Eurogames, wargames, card games, role-playing games – the divides between the genres have blurred as there are more and more games that use elements from across the spectrum, trying to come up with original concepts and game mechanics.
Miniatures, card decks, dice, a hexagon map with tactical combat, a strong narrative with choices that affect the gameplay, app-driven games – there are titles where you can find all of the above. This is visible in an analysis by Dinesh Vatvani, showing how the number of game mechanics in board games by release date increases with time. Unfortunately, his graph only goes until 2017, but I’m positive that the line only points upward since then.
This shift in board game design ideology has had an immense effect on popularity. Since supply and demand go hand-in-hand, it’s no surprise the number of released games is skyrocketing. Ian Rapson has done research on BGG (the world’s largest board game database) and the numbers speak for themselves.
Interestingly, the quality is also going up. I’ve already talked about this in a previous article about board game trends, where again I drew from an excellent analysis of Vatvani.
(Also, check the second part of his analysis, where he analyses how the more complex board games are also getting better average ratings, why this is skewed, and what the BGG ranking is for corrected ratings. A very interesting read, although slightly out of the scope of this article.)
The improvement in game quality is no surprise. As the industry grows, more and more money is available for research, design, and playtesting. The competition is tougher as well. If you published a game like Catan today, it would be lost in a sea of much better titles.
Consequently, publishers must work a lot harder for a piece of the market pie, which forces them into innovation and improvement.
The Current Situation
Being a board gamer in the 2020s is nothing short of fantastic. You can name a combination of almost every game mechanic and theme, and there’s a board game for it. And usually pretty good and polished, as well. A card game with trains? First Class: All Aboard the Orient Express!. A dueling game with dinosaurs? Raptor. A Viking-themed worker-placement game: A Feast for Odin.
But there are pitfalls, as well. With the number of games released one person can realistically play only a small portion of it, negating the true point of board games – to play them, and I mean really play them. You can’t grasp the gameplay in two or three games. No, you need dozens and dozens of play, where every player develops his own playstyle, you know every detail of the game, players experiment with hipster strategies, and so on.
This is what we had with our group with Catan a couple of decades ago and this is the feeling I miss from board games today. The mentality has changed. A couple of sessions from a game and there’s already a shiny new object on the horizon, an object that will give us that feeling from our youth. Then we play that one a bit, something new comes up, and the cycle continues.
There’s always a game missing from your collection
The shiny new object and the fear of missing out syndrome are especially present on Kickstarter, which thrives from board gaming projects. It seems like every week there’s another massive title that promises to be the next big thing. While the presentation (art, components, and miniatures) is beyond spectacular, gameplay-wise, these projects often prove merely average, despite amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of backing.
Of course, there are exceptions with proven designers and publishers, and occasional one-offs – but backing dozen of projects in the hope that one of them is the new Gloomhaven, Frosthaven, Root, or Scythe, can be a very expensive undertaking.
And this search for that holy grail is one of the drives behind sites like Victory Conditions. To find that one game (and help you find it) that will hold us for hundreds of plays and let us develop-chess like strategies for it and remind us of the days of innocence. But, one thing I’ve got to admit – it’s a fun journey getting there.
No one knows how long current growth will continue, but the trends are ever-evolving. We already mentioned Kickstarter (which shows no sign of slowing down), then there’s the recent surge of cooperative and solo board games.
More and more games employ mobile apps as a tool to streamline and enhance the gameplay, and the themes are increasingly more original to make the games stand out (take Fort, a deck-building game, where you “grow your circle of friends, collect pizza and toys, and build the coolest fort”, according to the publisher).
Therefore, the near future is looking very bright for board games and board gamers. What the mid-distant future, where humanity will have to take a more responsible role for our surroundings, will mean for industries such as board gaming, is anyone’s guess. For now, let’s play. Whose turn is it?
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