One of my patrons recently asked about the board game golden age we’re currently going through. Things certainly seem rosy at the moment. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of new games released every year, and perhaps even more importantly, the quality of games has gone up immensely since the days of Monopoly and The Game of Life.
But many questions remain. Why is a golden age occurring now? When did it start, and how long will it last?
Today I’m going to speculate on some of these questions, which I hope will offer some insights into the hobby and industry, and may even offer a glimpse into where we’re headed next.
Out of the Dark Ages
Saying board games are experiencing a “renaissance” is a little misleading–it’s hard to argue that they ever really had a classical age in the first place, so they haven’t really been reborn. Though board games have had a very long history, they were never produced in huge numbers, and wildly successful games only cropped up now and then, not in a short burst of creative energy. So even though there have been bastions of light, like 3M and Avalon Hill, we’ve been in the dark ages of roll-and-move for a long time.
Even if there hasn’t been a rebirth, there has certainly been a rapid increase in diversity and innovation since the turn of the century, and an ever growing audience to enjoy the new games. Why now?
I believe there really are a number of reasons for the increase in tabletop games, both from the demand and supply sides.
There was a time when people believed games were trivial distractions for kids. I’m happy to say that attitude is quickly dying out. People recognize that games can be enjoyed by everyone, and that they really do offer tangible benefits to players. And we have digital games to thank for that.
My generation grew up with ubiquitous digital games. Consoles had become mainstream and PCs were showing up in every home. Multiplayer games, either old friends sitting on a couch or new friends competing from across the planet, made gaming a social event. I can’t speak for everyone, but growing up games were extremely important to me, helping me connect with friends and shaping my world view. In this way, digital games helped pave the way for tabletop games in two ways.
Game Literacy. First, more people have become familiar with common game tropes, making it easier to pick up new games and allowing more subtle, novel mechanics to make an appearance. You can’t read a novel before you know your letters, and you can’t enjoy Twilight Struggle without having suffered through Candy Land. It took time for people to develop a common understanding of mechanics, symbology, and an appreciation for the sorts of joys games bring before games could be embraced widely.
Similarly, it took game designers time to understand how to communicate to players, and also to know what players actually enjoy. The first writing wasn’t poetry, it was financial records. Developing a language takes both a writer and a reader, and it takes time.
Games in the Key of Life. What happens when you raise a generation on games played on a screen, then sit them in front of screens all day for work? People still crave the joys of games, but want a break from electronics while spending time with their loved ones. Conveniently, tabletop games provide this exact experience. Those of us who grew up on games still enjoy them, but they fit into our lives differently than they used to.
Accessibility. Digital games aren’t all that got players ready for tabletop games. The internet has really helped people discover and acquire new games that are good matches for them. No longer do people have to wander into small game shops and roll the dice to see what they have in stock. The internet has really helped a lot of niche communities and enthusiasts, board gamers among them.
On the other hand, a lot has gone right to help game designers and publishers create better and better games. There is no one cause here, but instead a collection of factors all taking effect at the same time.
Breaking the Rules. One of the most important steps towards the tabletop golden age was the departure from what games were that took place in Europe, and especially Germany, twenty years ago or so. Don’t get me wrong: there were always people exploring what games could be, and rejecting the status quo. But it took a pretty major leap to get over what seemed obvious for the better part of a century, mechanics like roll-and-move and player elimination. Games like Settlers of Catan showed us what games could be, instead of what they had been, paving the way for the proliferation we’ve seen over the last twenty years.
Expertise. A generation growing up on games doesn’t just make gamers, it makes game designers. Many people are coming into the industry with much more knowledge, and that’s on top of the leaps in understanding of game design that have been made in recent decades. As if that wasn’t enough, universities are finally taking games seriously, giving those interested in making great games yet another avenue to develop their skills.
Funding for Everyone. You knew Kickstarter was going to show up here sooner or later! Crowdfunding has had a huge impact on many industries, but few more so than tabletop games. It’s standard practice for even established publishers to put their games on Kickstarter, and board gamers have become accustomed to crowdfunding remarkably fast. As if fueling a huge surge of new games wasn’t enough, Kickstarter has most importantly leveled the playing field. Though many inexperienced, and even experienced, creators have made mistakes with successfully funded projects (more on this later), Kickstarter has given a shot to those who never would have been able to break into the industry otherwise. And there’s no better way to ensure new, creative ideas get introduced within a community than to infuse it with new blood.
Ease of Creation. Kickstarter has had the biggest splash on the production side, but it’s worth noting that it’s building on decades of technical improvements in board game creation. These have continuously lowered costs and increased quality, and without these all of the crowd funding in the world wouldn’t allow for the impressive variety of creations we see today.
The Sky is Falling
If we’re in a golden age of tabletop gaming, when will it end? I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that question, but I will discuss a few of the problems that may slow down the incredible growth of the industry.
Competition from Digital Games. I’ve already discussed how digital games have helped tabletop games, but many people believe that digital games will ultimately be the downfall of tabletop games. How can some cardboard compete with fast paced gameplay and flashy graphics?
You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m not buying it. Digital games are not in direct competition with tabletop games, but actually create a stream of new tabletop players. As young people get older, they start looking for a more mellow, slow paced gaming experience they can enjoy with their less gamey loved ones. Rather than competition, digital games are actually complimentary to tabletop games, and tabletop enthusiasts should be excited by success in the digital game industry, not threatened by it.
The Kickstarter Bubble. Just as Kickstarter is one of the main heroes of our story, to many people it’s potentially the most dangerous villain. The worry goes that enthusiastic consumers will throw a bunch of money at inexperienced or even malicious creators who will deliver lousy games (if they ever deliver games at all), scaring gamers from ever backing projects again. It’s all over for the industry after that.
Those of us who’ve backed enough Kickstarters know the horror stories, and have probably even been burned ourselves. But the fact of the matter is that these stories are few and far between. And Kickstarter has given consumers a lot more power by increasing transparency. Consumers now have direct contact with creators, and even have some impact on the final game they’ll receive. Plus, to compete in the saturated environment that is crowdfunded board games, campaigns must have multiple reviews from third parties, how to play videos, and often free print and plays, giving consumers ample opportunity to research what they’re purchasing if they take the initiative.
No, Kickstarter isn’t going to take down the industry from the demand side. But it might slow things down from the supply side. Competition is a great thing, because it holds everyone to higher standards, but it also makes survival that much more difficult. Tabletop games already have extremely low margins, and enthusiastic amateurs more concerned with getting their names on a box than making money further drive profits down. This all makes things extremely difficult for burgeoning publishers, who can easily get knocked out of the industry with one game that isn’t a hit. At the same time, while crowdfunding has made fundraising easier, it has made other aspects like marketing and distribution more difficult than ever, potentially taking young creators by surprise. Again, none of this spells doom for the hobby, but it might shake the foundations a bit.
Stagnation. In my opinion, this is the real threat to the golden age of tabletop gaming. We’ve seen it happen with film and digital games: as budgets bloat, creators take fewer risks, leading to fields full of sequels, remakes, and generally derivative work that lacks imagination and innovation. Tabletop games are still a long way from reaching this point, but as expansions become more successful, they are stealing the wind from the sails of smaller game creators focusing on more innovative projects. Perhaps even more threatening, successful games tend to spawn “genres” of clones, which is what happened with Domnion and deck builders.
For tabletop games to continue to thrive, it’s important that the industry not be dominated by a handful of blockbusters, but for new ideas to constantly be introduced and given a chance. Obviously, stagnation doesn’t mean the end of an industry (just look at film or digital games). But it can mean the end of a golden age.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
Whether you’re making games or just enjoying them, it’s a great time to be involved in tabletop. I don’t see the current golden age ending any time soon, but just in case, let’s make the most of it while we can!
I would like to thank my generous patrons for providing the support and encouragement to make this article possible.