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?