Board games have come a long way since the family game night of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Instead of playing another reinvention of Monopoly, board games like Lords of Waterdeep catapult players into fantastical new worlds. Each player becomes a masked lord with a secret agenda to gain political control of Waterdeep city’s seedy underbelly. Players deploy agents to complete quests, gain wealth, and recruit followers to increase their influence. Every game piece adds to the world of Waterdeep: playing cards display gorgeous artwork and imagery, and the lore on each card lends itself to the immersive nature of the story. Even the pieces of gold are intricately designed to mimic real wealth. Modern board games have pushed design, art direction, and game mechanics to a new level.
Darren Bolton, owner of Strategies Games and Hobbies in Vancouver, BC, suggests the Euro classics have inspired innovation in the board game industry. Euro classics are European board games that broke into the North American market in the 1990s and early 2000s. Euro classics like Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, and Ticket to Ride are easy to master, have relatively short play times, and deep strategic elements; a combination that sets Euro classics apart from North American games. Bolton believes the success of European board games has been fuelled by industry awards like Germany’s Spiel des Jahres. Settlers of Catan, designed by Klaus Teuber, won the award in 1995. The simple, turn-based dice game revolves around resource acclimation, building settlements, and gaining victory points. While it may sound similar to Monopoly, Settlers of Catan plays quite differently. First, the board is a hexagon made of tiles each representing a type of terrain that yields a corresponding resource. Every game, the tile placements change, ensuring the game remains fresh and challenging. As well, the game ends when one player reaches 10 victory points, making it a race that promotes shorter gameplay. Settlers of Catan is a popular entry point for many board game enthusiasts, as the game perfectly represents the balance between simple mechanics and complex strategy that Euro games are known for.
The creative bar is set high. Game developers continue to produce unique and clever games, and, with the popularization of gaming culture, there is now a larger audience to appreciate them. Mobile phones have brought games to the fingertips of millions of people across the world, making gaming a mainstream form of entertainment. Newzoo, a market intelligence company, reports the mobile gaming global market generated $36.9 billion US in 2016 and, for the first time, surpassed PC and console gaming.
Instead of digital gaming overshadowing board games, it has opened people up to the idea of gaming in general. As Bolton points out, “At the end of the day it’s gaming, and it doesn’t matter if it’s digital gaming or board gaming, people now have it ingrained in them that they like to play games.”
Ziggy Byrne, former employee at Vancouver’s Drexoll Games and a Simon Fraser University Computer Sciences graduate, points out that one of the reasons tabletop games have stood up to digital gaming is the combination of accessibility, and that “sitting around a table and playing together is really important.” As video games become more social, Byrne emphasizes an important distinction between board and digital. “There are some video games that you can sit together and play together like Mario Kart, but there is a skill involved in playing those games, like manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Whereas, the rules to a board game are a lot easier. You sit down and someone teaches you the rules. You don’t have to be quick, you just have to know them.” The beauty of board games is that everyone can participate.
Growing interest in board games has caught the attention of several business owners. Vancouver is home to the successful self-proclaimed “nerd bars” Storm Crow Tavern and Storm Crow Alehouse. Both offer board games for customers to play while enjoying their food. Storm Crow is not the only business catering to the nerdy crowd. All across the world, there are cafés, bars, and pizzerias, among other establishments, catering to people who enjoy gathering and playing board games. From Brazil to Australia, the Philippines to the United States, board game culture is being re-embraced worldwide.
So what does all this mean? Perhaps that we still value time with one another and that face to face interaction can bring joy in a way that digital cannot. It means there will always be a unique connection with the things you can touch. Sliding a wooden game piece, decoding an expression, predicting behaviour, sharing laughter, and suspense. It is comforting to know that these moments will prevail and many are choosing to stay connected through play. We are living in an era where it can be difficult to unplug but, thankfully, today’s board game creators are making it incredibly fun to do so.