Exploring why, in the age of video games, board game sales are up year after year, "board game bars" are becoming increasingly popular, and hundreds of thousands of people subscribe to tabletop gaming YouTube channels.
Photo by Ashton Hertz
Gaming is so close to being fully immersive. Facial recognition software is almost at the point where you can scan your face and render 3D versions of yourself that don't look like disfigured Marvel villains. Virtual reality headsets—once they've sorted out the fact they currently make you feel a bit sick—are nearly able to drop players into the thick of it. Gesture control tech isn't far off when it comes to characters emulating the movements of players. Humans are almost one with the machine.
So, at first, it strikes me as odd that we're apparently in the midst of widespread board game revivalism. Why would people be so enthralled with stationary bits of plastic and card when they have all these expansive interactive worlds accessible to them?
"Without a doubt, we are in the middle of the golden age of board games," says Nick Meenachan, founder of the YouTube channel Board Game Brawl.
He would say that, of course, being a man who founded a YouTube channel about board games. But he's not lying. Sales of board games have been on the rise every year for the past decade; there are listicles of the best board game cafes and bars; Meenachan's is one of many successful YouTube channels focusing on board games, most of which have tens of thousands of followers.
"There's something to be said about being at a table with your friends, live and in-person," says Meenachan when I ask him for his thoughts on the popularity of board games. "These communities will always be connected."
The communities he's referring to aren't anything new. Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons have had strong cult followings since the 1970s and 80s, spawning all sorts of clubs, meet-ups, and conventions—and those continue today. What's surprising is that, even after classics like Magic: The Gathering and Monopoly have been digitized, physical sales continue to grow.
"[Board games have] increased in popularity and become more normal, as with other things that were once niche and geeky and that only nerds played," says Dave Mills, avid board gamer and co-founder of gaming site Dark Cleo Productions, as we walk around the London Gaming Market, an expo held every four months for people who want to buy and trade video games, board games, and all their associated merchandise. "The idea of board gamers was always big, burly guys with complicated battle maps sitting around in dark rooms, but things are different now."
Mills explains that there are "gateway games" he and the Dark Cleo team bring along to game fairs and expos to get people hooked. "Give people a simple game—a theme they can relate to—and then introduce them slowly to the mechanics of other games," he says. "That way, more people can get involved and see the appeal."
Hundreds of new games are being made every year to appeal to all those prospective new converts, many of which rely on crowdfunding to get off the ground. Matt Sloan, founder of Beer & Board Games, and a regular online game reviewer, says, "I think that the ability for board games to reach all the various corners of geek culture is what gets people excited about them, and the niches that they explore can be insanely specific. The possibilities are endless."
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He's right: There are plenty of bizarre and sometimes controversial titles appearing in the board game market, like Operation F.A.U.S.T., a game where you have to rescue art from Nazis, Machine of Death: The Creative Assassination Game, and FUCK—The Game.
Could this interest have anything to do with the rejection of video games? Is it like the vinyl revival? Do people want something tangible as a reaction to apps and clouds and expansion packs? Have all the dads in Chucks and vintage T-shirts migrated from Rough Trade to Games Workshop, ready to brag about the rare first pressing of Cluedo they picked up in a flea market?
"I do believe that many gamers have been missing the basic human necessity of human interaction," says Meenachan. "It's just not the same over a microphone while playing some shoot 'em up video game."
Sloan agrees, saying it's the "tactile appeal and face-to-face interaction" that sets board games apart from video games.
Thing is, there's a huge amount of crossover between the two, and many gamers play both. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) like World of Warcraft share many similarities with classics like Dungeons & Dragons, and among those I speak to there doesn't seem to be a pick-your-side mentality. However, this doesn't mean they're the same: They exist for different reasons, and each has its own appeal. Board games are books to video games movies: Your imagination drives the gameplay; you add meaning and excitement to the inanimate cards and figures that sit motionless in front of you.
Mills from Dark Cleo suggests that younger generations taking an interest in board games could help to set them up with valuable life skills. "You learn life strategies and principles—strategic thinking, social skills, learning to lose and win," he says. "In some games, you have to learn that when you're going down one path and it's not working out, you need to change paths and rethink things. The games often teach us these things without us realizing it: organization, resource management, preplanning, changing your moves."
In an in-depth "board versus video game" thread on Reddit, many argued that solo play is both a pro and con of video gaming. Some said that gathering friends together and setting up boards was a hassle, while others suggested the isolation of video gaming has driven people towards tabletop gaming. So it's a predictably mixed bag of opinions from a discussion between loads of strangers online. However, the isolation point was interesting, considering the growing market for marathon YouTube videos of people playing board games.
Why, for instance, if one the main appeals of board games is social interaction, has this eight-hour video of people playing Risk Legacy gotten over 4,000 views? "It's satisfying, even if only vicariously, to watch others enjoy games that [the viewers] might be interested in but can't get to the table [to play]," says Meenachan, suggesting that these videos are just a way for the disconnected to connect.
"Board games are timeless and ageless," says Mills from Dark Cleo. "We've had granddads bring their eight-year-old grandsons to conventions, and they've both sat down and played a game together. I've been involved in several groups and societies, and you get a lot of people who suffer from social anxieties or even autism and other disabilities, but they're welcomed in. You've all got something to focus on, and the social side of it comes naturally."
This open-armed ethos is certainly something to be lauded, and whether or not the skills you learn on the tabletop really do translate into life lessons, watching the groups of people playing "gateway games" at the London Games Market made me realize the simple of attraction of it all. As one Reddit user wrote: "I value board games more because playing a board game simply means I am with my friends."
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