Cardboard Children – The State Of Gaming 2015

Hello youse!

Board gaming is booming. Sales are up, and climbing. Kickstarters are launching every week. Board game coverage is blossoming, and people are earning a living talking about these things. Wil Wheaton is rolling in all that Tabletop cash. The Dice Tower (the best board game coverage on the internet) is expanding and being supported by its viewers. The big publishers are launching big games based on big intellectual properties and making big, big money. It is a golden, perfect time for board gaming. We are in the sunshine. But where do we go from here? Let’s talk about the state of board gaming, now, in 2015.

THE STATE OF BOARD GAMING

We’re about ready for a crash, aren’t we?

Well, no. I don’t think so. It’s been weird to watch this change happen, this shift from board gaming as some niche, hobby-level thing to the recent mainstream acceptance. Board games have always been accepted on some level, of course. That level being “Monopoly”. But what we’re seeing now is an openness to more advanced designs. An openness to learning more than two pages of rules. There are families who play Catan regularly, and students who play Netrunner, and drunk people who play Cards Against Humanity. There are pubs, real pubs, running board game nights and putting board games on the bar. There are people writing about board games in The Guardian. It’s an inarguable and plainly visible shift in the perception of board gaming.

When I started covering board games online with video reviews of things like Cosmic Encounter and Space Hulk, there were only a couple of other people doing a similar thing. This was only five or six years ago. There was Scott Nicholson, of Boardgames With Scott. A lovely fellow with a luxurious beard, he spoke straight down the lens about the mechanics and features of board games new and old, with an academic slant. There was Tom Vasel too, the man behind The Dice Tower’s empire, and he did a different kind of thing. He spoke passionately about the fun that these games provided, from a room full of games somewhere in Korea. These videos, mine and theirs, were zero budget things on shabby equipment, about hobby games that few people really cared about.

In fact, I remember that there was drama in the board game community about these videos. People were concerned about losing written reviews. “I hate these videos. I’d much rather read about the games. I can’t watch these videos at work.” And as more and more board gamers started to make videos about their favourite games, I remember seeing words like these a lot – “These videos are a fad – it will pass.” But the world, as we now know, was changing. The internet demanded video, and a lot of it. YouTube was about to become TV, and YouTubers were about to become celebrities. We were able to watch video on our phones and tablets and everywhere.

People saw board games in these videos, and saw how beautiful and fun they looked. People watched other people get excited by these fun, physical things. And people, more and more people, wanted to try them. Would reading about them have done this? I can tell you that I got this Rock Paper Shotgun gig after doing my videos. I doubt that I would even be here if I hadn’t made those videos first.

It’s now 2015. Already. Somehow. And there are video reviews for every board game you could think of. In fact, there are even videos of people just opening board games. But then, there are video reviews of everything these days, from crisps to sweets to toys and power tools. Board games are no longer niche – they’re now just another thing that people love to buy, open and share. Nostalgia is a major factor too. Pretty much everyone is a board gamer to some extent, because of games like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, and their place in our childhoods. Oh wow. Look how board games are these days. Those old family board games, love them or hate them, give people a way in.

Speaking of nostalgia and recognition – I think the recent trend for licensed board games is a major factor in the current boom. Sure, there were always licensed games, but very rarely ones of such high quality. The Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game is a genuinely brilliant design, wrapping a tight game system up in our love for Star Wars toys. (And it’s important to understand that there was nothing niche or nerdy about owning Star Wars toys. Everyone had them.) The success of the Game of Thrones TV show has put the Game of Thrones board game onto some Christmas lists, and the surprise waiting inside that box is that the game is good. Even shows with smaller audiences, like Spartacus and Sons of Anarchy, have great board games attached to the names. These games, in particular, kick board gaming further away from the “strictly for geeks” camp. Those games are bloody and wild and fun for any adult audience.

While I’m not a fan myself, Cards Against Humanity deserves a nod. It has been a huge hit, and its dark, cynical tone has done a lot to break down any preconceptions that gaming is for the meek or the mild. Games like Dixit appeal to creative people. A game like Coup is there to instantly tickle people with the thrill of deceit. Here is a game where you’re encouraged to lie, perhaps in every turn. It’s a game of eye contact and laughs, and it’s beautifully social.

I’ve said this before, but I think board games are booming because they’re needed. As social networks draw us all together as never before, we become aware of how these systems also keep everyone at a distance. We exist in each other’s pockets, but the distance makes it easier to bully and offend and be offended. It feels almost essential that we spend at least some time in the same room with people we know, for our sanity at least, and board games help us do that. It would be weird to all gather round a piano in the sitting room in 2015, because none of us can afford a piano. But it’s less weird to gather round a table with some drinks to eradicate some board game diseases together. Everyone is doing it these days, after all. Board games give us permission to attend a session of something where phones are off and eye contact is on. Board games give us permission to be with each other.

As we move into 2015, I’m excited to find out what happens next. I expect that we’ll see more and more people trying board games, and more and more people writing and making videos about them. There will be big hits on the hobby level, I’m sure (Star Wars: Imperial Assault) and breakout hits on the mainstream (look out for Spyfall). As computer and video games get worse at the whole “playing with each other” thing (has online multiplayer gaming ever been in such a sorry state?) I think we’ll find more people sitting down at a table to play something that will always work with people they know they like.

We’re all playing board games, and the future looks bright. Are you involved yet?

44 Comments

  1. Sweedums says:

    I have to say, it was your downtimetown videos that pointed me in the direction of board games in the first place. the very first game I bought as a result was Hour of Glory, which was probably a terrible idea as it felt like a beast to learn, but it woke my brother and I up to this whole world of “modern” board games. After that I got settlers of catan and dixit for over the following christmas period and got a lot more people involved. We are now at the point where we host a weekly games night with some friends and currently have a Descent campaign on the go and are about to start an RPG for the first time.

    Board games are great, I’m spending more time with friends as a result and we’re having a lot of fun, so thanks!

    • iucounu says:

      Yep, I think lots of credit has to go to Rab, as well as to Quinns and Paul Dean of Shut Up And Sit Down for the resurgence of board gaming. I mean, perhaps it was just time for it to come back, but I only really heard about these games via RPS and latterly SU&SD.

      • HopeHubris says:

        Wil Wheaton’s TableTop webseries is what got me into board gaming, then SU&SD got me to spend stupid amounts of money on more games

      • 88GJS88 says:

        It was a combination of SUSD and TableTop for me as well. I know TableTop has it’s detractors, but it was a great way in for me as it just showed a bunch of people having fun playing games – and it reminded me what I used to enjoy so much about playing FIFA or Worms or side-scrolling fighting games with a group of people crowded round a single console. And then SUSD really opened my eyes to the range and scope of board games.

        I’m actually on my own conversion crusade, with a group of people coming over at the weekend to play Space Cadets. I’m absolutely certain that when I proposed a “board game night”, the majority of the group were expecting Monopoly. Eventual aim is to get people keen enough that they’ll listen to a rules explanation for the Game of Thrones board game, which is about as complex as my brain can handle, but looked fantastically full of potential from the one 3player game I’ve managed to get going.

        • HopeHubris says:

          Funnily enough, Game of Thrones Board Game is one of the few games I’ve used to introduce people to board games, since they’d watched the show.
          More often I just used Werewolf though, lots of fun with big groups

          • 88GJS88 says:

            Really? I’m genuinely impressed, I can’t imagine anyone un-converted being willing to sit down and get their heads round how ports work in particular. I’m still not sure I understand and I’ve read the manual many many times!

    • Synesthesia says:

      Yup, downtime town was definitely my first step in. My very first games were: Dixit, Horus Heresy, Last Night on earth. SUSD came shortly after that, with those beautiful videos with unlicensed music. Man, the first time I heard tobacco on a board game review, i felt very good.

  2. thekelvingreen says:

    I love that board games are cool now, because it means that there are people with whom I can now connect where I couldn’t before because our interests didn’t overlap. These are people with whom I always got on but because I don’t like football or they don’t like Grant Morrison’s Zenith there was little common ground. Except now we have board games and we can spend an afternoon playing Britannia and bonding that way, and I don’t have to know who Liverpool’s manager is.

    • iucounu says:

      Can you imagine not liking Zenith. I mean, really, SOME PEOPLE.

  3. safes007 says:

    Shows like Tabletop and Shut up and sit down emphasise the most important component in Board games – friends! When we can see ourselves and our friends together boardgaming will obviously increase.

    Also, the licensced games such as game of thrones allow those already into board games to the siren call of the wood and cardboard. Personally, I bought game of thrones, then battlestar galctica and 7 wonders. Good stuff!

  4. Veles says:

    While it’s getting more popular I still don’t think it’s gone properly mainstream. If I talk about Carcassonne or Catan to someone at work they won’t have any idea what I’m talking about and look at me a bit funny when I say that I play boardgames. The closest they would mention is the infamous Monopoly.

    It has now become a major part of geek culture that does make it’s way outside of the caste in a similar way that comic books are for geeks but comic book films are mainstream, but you still wouldn’t say comic books are part of mainstream culture.

    To be honest I’m not sure I like the idea of it going properly mainstream. There is something nice about having this mysterious hobby that you can introduce friends to and then see the point when they realise how vast the world of board gaming is.

  5. Severian says:

    Nice piece, Rab. A couple random thoughts to add to all this:

    1. Look at all the awesome board-game cafes popping up in every major city! Board-gaming used to be confined to your not-always-friendly local (smelly, acne-infested) game store. But now people have nicer, more open arenas to try out board games in a less “embarrassing” environment (not that I’m embarrassed by being in a game store – but many people seem to be). And often good food/drink too.

    2. Kickstarter. Has done so much for the hobby, and I’m the first one to cheer crown-funding. But there are an awful lots of games being released on KS all the time and a lot of them have flimsy or derivative rule systems. Boobs and miniatures and fantastic art bring in the money, but good game design doesn’t. It remains to be seen whether the massive influx of games via KS will be good for the hobby in the long-run (I think it will).

    3. I love your point about board games almost becoming a necessity in an age of so much digital distance. It’s absolutely true. BUT I still confront so much hesitation about learning semi-complex rule-sets. People are addicted to quick/easy entertainment on their iPhone, iPad, etc. You pull out a 10 page rulebook and they freak out. I taught Concordia to a new group the other week (4 pages of rules!) and I thought a couple people were going to revolt half-way through my explanation. People (I’m generalizing here, obviously) are still scared of thinking too much as a form of entertainment. Or appearing stupid in front of a group (“I don’t understand these rules”, “I don’t understand the strategy here” “can someone just take my turn for me?”). There are still some major hurdles to overcome here, in terms of breaking through the thin patience-envelope the digital age has given us.

    • Rizlar says:

      The mainstream acceptance of computer games has to have some part in it too. People are more comfortable with playing weird, slightly geeky games in their spare time. And they are already used to learning complex rules and applying them competitively.

    • Ed Burst says:

      Rules explanations are boring. Boring things are almost impossible to remember. Where possible, I tend to explain the absolute minimum before starting, and explain the rest as it comes up in play.

  6. Arexis says:

    I recently purchased the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game based on a review written on this site many moons ago. My whole social circle has pounced on it with an unhealthy fervor. I’m talking multiple nights in a row finishing after 3am. First game of this type I’ve ever purchased. Now I worry that it’s a gateway boardgame.

    If I get a video game, I see the DLC and roll my eyes at the thought of spending more money. With this, it’s content I really want to throw my money at.

    Speaking of which, and recommendations for co-op board games that have a similar vein? Makes it much easier to teach a game if you’re working together.

    • Ed Burst says:

      @Arexis Sentinels of the Multiverse might suit your needs. Then again, Pathfinder ACG could be a gateway to actual role-playing games.

      • Arexis says:

        A couple of us are into D&D. My group just seems to have gone rabid for this for some reason. A couple of us play D&D whereas we don’t have enough room for all the people who want to play this game.

    • HopeHubris says:

      I’m quite fond of Legendary, the Marvel deckbuilding game. Fun, and with some co-op to it (there are rules for individual scoring if you do manage to beat the big villain)

      • Arexis says:

        Thanks for the recommendations guys. i will be looking into those. Probably won’t take as long to pull the trigger on them. With the Pathfinder ACG, I wondered about it for months until I saw it at 20% off.

        Anyone have some thoughts on Arkham Horror? The setting intrigues me.

        • Shiloh says:

          Hmm. Arkham Horror is a big old beast of a game, can be a bit daunting and fiddly (and time-consuming as well – our last playthrough took nearly 6 hours!). If you want something Lovecraftian, from the same company that brought you AH, try Eldritch Horror. It takes Arkham’s best bits and works them up into a cracking globe-spanning roller coaster of terror, Cthulu monsters etc. Lovely artwork, great flavour text and lots of fun. One thing – buy the Forbidden Lore expansion if you do go for it, it adds lots to the base game (you could argue the expansion’s cards/assets etc should have been in the base game, but the makers, Fantasy Flight Games, have a history of releasing expansions to beef up the core game).

          EH is much quicker to play than AH – for two players taking two investigators each, set aside about 3 hours including set up.

          • jomurph86 says:

            If you have even a passing interest in assembling miniatures, your groups enthusiasm for the Pathfinder card game and D&D suggests you’d all LOVE Shadows of Brimstone.

    • Xantonze says:

      Dead of Winter.

      Not very complexe, and yet so INTENSE!!! ;)

  7. botd says:

    As a member of the hobby for 15 years it’s hard for me to agree that we are in some golden age. Do I really care about the latest iteration on the same design Uwe Rosenberg has been peddling since Agricola? Or the latest soulless automaton that Stefan Feld calls a game? And the flood of deckbuilding and worker placement games that bring nothing to the the genre is unceasing. Obviously according to BGG I am alone in my sentiments, but the golden age was at least five years ago when these designers and genres were fresh and Reiner Knizia still made games.

  8. jgf1123 says:

    I agree with the author that boardgaming is enjoying a period of heightened interest and public acceptance. It may even have something to do with the prevalence of boardgame videos. But, personally, I do not like boardgame review videos, especially those focused on components. (I migrated away from video games to boardgames when developers were touting their triangle/polygon counts instead of their concept, design, narrative, etc. Components can make a good game great, but they won’t make a bad game good.) When boardgame review videos exploded into BGG, I noticed that the ones that got the most recognition generally were the ones with the best production value, not necessary those with the best content. But human brains are wired to think that something that looks good has similar quality in other aspects.

    Generally, the only segment of the Dice Tower video I find worth watching is the part at the end when Tom Vasel says, “Okay, so what do I think about this game?” That one to two minutes talking about when the rubber hits and road and you find yourself either playing a jumble of game mechanics or an experience you’ll want to share with your friends again and again is really what I want out of a review, not a paraphrase of the rulebook or pictures of components.

    (I also started watching a video of Tom Vasel’s university lecture about games in classrooms, something of great interest to me as a teacher, but was offended that he started the lecture with a prayer. I learned later that he was addressing Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, but I was ambushed by him thrusting his religion on me when I just wanted to hear him talk about games. I closed the video immediately and still haven’t watched his lecture.)

    • jomurph86 says:

      Did you ever watch Scott’s Ivory Dicetower segments on the early Boardgame Breakfast videos? As an educator, I found those very interesting.

  9. puppybeard says:

    It must be something in the water. In the last year, my brother-in-law bought Settlers of Catan, a gang of us played it and my brother bought himself a set. Same brother-in-law bought Zombicide. I’m after getting Arkham Horror, my first board game other than Scrabble in years. Loving it. I stumbled across this column’s review of it some time in the last few years, and I think that planted the seed. I know someone with a Netrunner deck so that’s probably going to happen, too.

    Last September I was in a gaming bar for the first time, Firefly on Carrer Bailen in Barcelona, it has a games menu and you ask for what you want to play, nice spot with an interesting mix of games being played. Actually one thing I noticed living in Barcelona, they’ve been big into this stuff for bloody years. Where I worked there was five comic shops within two blocks, at least two gaming shops and the aforementioned bar. The first time in my adult life that I played board games in a grown-up context was at dinner with some Spanish folks in Dublin, maybe five years ago.

  10. Akrahun says:

    About 2 years ago (2 years 2 months, if I’m not mistaken), a local organization in my area started what’s known as the DFW Nerd Night (shameless plug: their website is at href=http://www.dfwnn.org/ and if you’re in the Dallas / Fort Worth area of Texas at any point on the second Saturday of any month you should totally check it out). Anyways, The concept behind nerd night is pretty simple: a bunch of folks, averaging about 100 a month these days, come down to a local restaurant/pub bringing either just themselves or themselves plus whatever board games they happen to be interested. We grab tables, order decent food and booze the whole day, and play games together. Meanwhile, the event runners will accept voluntary donations for charitable organizations in the area, and normally that evening numbers will be drawn from a hat and folks will walk out with new games as a result.

    Anyways, it’s fun. It also brings together a lot of folks from all walks of life who in many cases obviously have trouble going out and finding folks to be comfortable with (I count myself in that group) and puts them in a non-threatening environment where they can all just enjoy each other’s company and not worry about what people will think. That’s something I think more places should look at doing which board games enable in a very unique way. There is just something non-threatening about sitting around a table with other people and playing a game as opposed to handing someone a controller and expecting them to react to stimuli in real time. Board games are definitely seeing a resurgence, and as that happens they seem to be becoming a major way that us geeky folks are getting to know each other, and that’s something which is special.

  11. AlwaysRight says:

    I’m on overwatch baby!

  12. Jackablade says:

    On a vaguely related note, Reiner Knizia contributed a keynote to the Global Game Jam that was on this weekend just past. It’s a little bit brilliant.
    link to youtube.com

  13. RuySan says:

    Seeing that there are so many knowledgeable people on this matter, can anyone recommend me a fun, easy to learn game for 2 people?

    • Shiloh says:

      Pandemic is a fun game. Either play it as a two player game with one role each, or take 2 roles each and play it as four player.

      It’s a cooperative game where you’re trying to eradicate four worldwide diseases, you play against the game rather than each other. Everyone wins or (more often than not) loses.

      Addressing Rab’s general point: I love board games, always have, although I came from a family that didn’t play them (except Monopoly and a game me and my dad made up about the BBC TV programme Secret Army back in the day). I’m currently trying to resist the lure of the Mountains of Madness big box expansion for Eldritch Horror (my top favourite game).

      Bought my youngest (11 yr old) daughter four board games for Christmas. Happy rainy Sundays!

      • JB says:

        My goodness, I can’t believe I forgot to mention Pandemic! +1 to that suggestion.

        For a slightly more “family-friendly” version of a similar type, try Forbidden Island. I hear Forbidden Desert is good too.

    • JB says:

      It really depends what sort of thing you’re after.

      Love Letter is a lovely, fast card game for 2-4 players. Everyone who I’ve played it with has enjoyed it, from my regular gaming chums to my daughters and my mum.

      Summoner Wars is a great 2 player battle game. It’s one of the games that got me into stuff that’s more “heavy” than Carcassonne et al.

      The Duke is like chess, but fun. I jest, but it is chess-like, but the pieces have abilities and flip to an alternate ability side when you use them.

      Android: Netrunner is a great asymmetrical card game with one player playing a hacker and one playing a corporation.

      Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is a fun survival game for 2-4 players. Harsh, but a lot of fun, and comes with 6 scenarios that play somewhat differently every time.

      there’s a lot of good 2-player games out there, good luck!

    • Xantonze says:

      Very simple, small games:
      Jaipur, Lost Cities, Carcassonne (with the “keep 3 titles, choose 1” houserule), Carcassonne South Seas, Hive.

      slightly meatier: Blue moon Legends

      deeper, also complexier:
      Netrunner

    • jomurph86 says:

      When my wife and I first got into boardgames, we started with Carcassonne, then Ticket to Ride, then Dominion.

    • Severian says:

      Jump in the deep end!

      1. Neuroshima Hex
      2. Claustrophobia
      3. Memoir ’44
      4. Star Wars: X-Wing
      5. Lord of the Rings: LCG (coop)

  14. Gothnak says:

    My fiancee invited a bunch of friends over for a boardgame night on Saturday, and i was the one who chose the games and taught them the rules. Knowing that they all had limited boardgame experience, i went for Descent first (they were geeky after all) which was a hit. Then i brought out Identik (the drawing party game) which went down well, but Take It Easy (The charades like game) was a complete failure. Deciding that i’d not pander to their more newbie tastes anymore, i got out Spartacus, they loved it, betting on decapitations and screwing each other over. Both couples that came over now want me to recommend them other games like that.

    It really shows that if you give non board gamers a chance to play something truly interactive they’ll like it more than what you expect them to like.

    • webs1 says:

      Wait – you played Descent, Identik, Take it easy and Spartacus all in one night? When did you start, after breakfast?

      • Gothnak says:

        We started around 2. We played the Introductory fight of Descent (Although took a while for me to read up on the 2nd edition rules as i hadn’t played that version before), we played one round of Identik, so 5 drawings that time, we did the first round of Take it Easy which took ages as a number of players hadn’t heard of some of the people and then they didn’t want to play round 2 or 3, and we played the short version of Spartacus starting at 7 Influence.

        I think we finished around 11pm, so 9 hours of gaming :).

        We also ate chilli and had various drinks/cigarette/stand outside in sub zero temperature breaks.

    • Premium User Badge

      teije says:

      Descent is a very nice game. Bought it for my 13 year old son recently, introduced it to him, and then last week, he and two of his buddies played a scenario on their own. I’m sure they mangled the rules somewhat since they finished in record time, but they had a blast. It’s taken over the pool table.

  15. webs1 says:

    I started to get re-interested in Board Games after seeing the Top 50 videos Rab did with Hope. Statted to read Cardboard Children and RPS in general after that, and also watched some Vasel and Wheaton (though I agree with jgf that watching videos about games isn’t that much fun most of the time – unless Rab is doing them).
    I then started to order games without anyone to play them with.
    I have now started a semi-regular night with some friends, and it’s been great. We meet every fortnight and for the coming months will probably be spend just trying out the games that we have amassed.
    Last saturday we played Istanbul and King of Tokyo; that made a nice contrast in terms of player interaction.

    For me, what draws me toward the hobby is the mixture of

    1. Acquisitiveness: even if you don’t get the time to immediately play the games after purchase it is fun just to look at the artwork, put them in the shelf etc..and in contrast to super hero figurines or something similar, you still can look forward to actually playng the game.

    2. Escapism. As I get older that is something I hardly ever achieve by playing video games anymore. Either the narrative aspects are done too poorly to keep me focused for a longer time, or I find the mechanisms tedious and a waste of time. Of course there are exceptions, but wading through a tonne of mediocre stuff to find the one pearl is just no fun. And the days of playing together in front of a console or a pc are unfortunately over.
    The great thing about board games is that you get to fade out your every-day problems while in the company of mates. Which brings us to my last point.

    3. Company. This has already been explained thoroughly by Rab and others here. I would just like to add that I fell out with a friend due to different live circumstances and values a few months before, and through playing together we have found some sort of new common ground to build on and time to spend together without talking about potentially controversial topics.

  16. Darko Drako says:

    Rab, you (and subsequently shutupandsitdown) can definitely be credited with getting me and my wife into boardgames. I now have an unhealthily large collection and play regularly.

    You are also to blame for me spending a wholly unreasonable sum on Space Hulk (before the re-issue). Unfortunately the wife doesnt like it! I will have to raise my kids quickly so I can exterminate them instead.

  17. wodin says:

    I agree with some others here..it’s still far from mainstream I reckon 85% of people would only think of monopoly and Trivial Pursuit if you asked them about board gaming.

    It’s still a geek pursuit.

  18. mattryx2000 says:

    Hi Rab,

    I don’t often post, but will do this time. I totally agree with your point that boardgames can and are filling a really useful function in this supposedly “connected” age – more needed than ever. I met up with some old friends a cuple of weekends ago and just played boardgames, and talked – I couldn’t have felt better.

    I regularly play Castle Panic with my eldest daughter, and am hoping to also get on with Mice and Mystics this year, and also get the youngest playing. Great times. Teaching your beautiful, bright, innocent daughter to delight in slaying unwelcome houseguests is a wonderful thing.

    Please don’t stop writing these things. Make some kind of unpleasant pact with a dark god so you don’t ever die if you have to, but please don’t stop.