I grew up an only child. While I never minded not having a sibling and remember my adolescence with fondness, it came with a cost: I didn’t have a reliable board gaming group. Sure, my parents and group of friends humored me with a round of UNO or Monopoly as often as they could, but in the end my thirst for gaming went largely unquenched. I switched physical games for their digital equivalent and sparsely touched a party game until my late teens.
I fell back into the hobby a couple of years ago, only to find that it had completely changed in the years I strayed from it. I was aware of wargames like Warhammer 40k and role-playing classics like Dungeons & Dragons enjoying a cult status and following since the mid 70’s and 80’s, but along with collectible card games, these were in the domain of segregated, seemingly non-inclusive communities, with quite the negative stigma of being childish and nerdy, around them. Nothing surprising, seing as, on the other end of the spectrum, there were Ludo, Operation and The Game of Life. With their family-centred marketing campaigns, approachable design and simplistic rules, they, as some of the more successful titles, painted the picture of board games being child’s play.
This is in part why I was so surprised to learn that Board game cafes started popping up in larger cities over the world and Youtube channels featuring tabletop game gameplay had hundreds of thousands views per video. These were grown adults playing them, mind you, not children! When reading up about it, I learned that hobby games market has been growing at an annual rate of 20-30% (in comparison, the annual market growth for video games in the same timespan is around 5%) in the last few years, while the local toy store owner and board-game cafe personel told me their main clientele are adults between 25 and 34 years old. Three boardgames also make Kickstarter’s Top 10 most funded projects of all time. Questions arised: Are boardgames ‘cool’ now? Why? Why now, in the age of fast-evolving technology?
In the lab, we work a lot in the field of user and family centred design, trying to include input from potential clients and customers throughout the process of designing our products. With a lot of our work being in the digital domain, it is imperative to understand the reasons behind the sudden deviation from digital back to analog: after all, who knows what will follow this fad?
It could be argued that a resurgence of the physical medium in the face of their digital counterparts has been somewhat of a trend lately – Millenials have been opting for paperback books and vinyl records, even if subscription based music services, e-readers and audiobooks have been available. Experts in the field also emphasise the resurgence of the hobby is related to new trends in design and theme – with »Eurogames«, as some of the games that started the Board Game Reneissance are known, being notable for their relatively gentle themes, indirect player interaction, the fact that they reduce the element of luck and – most importantly – the way they ensure no player is eliminated before the end. Elsewhere, new designs also include cooperative and asymmetric games, while games have also got more inclusive.
The reasons stated above, however, may just have been ways of board game designers capitalizing on a completely different phenomenon: Today, screens are everywhere. These displays are often associated with tedious and mindless hard work spent staring at the screen – and video games may inherit this negative connotation. People may be returning to tabletop gaming because of the tactile feeling of moving pieces across the board and face-to-face interaction, even with online multiplayer undoubtably being a more hassle-free, albeit less personal way to interact with other players.
The game industry is talking a lot about smart games and toys when considering what the future will look like. While not being as social as tabletop ones, digital games trump physical ones in just about every other category. They feel reactive, with character responding to players and eachother. They are autonomous. They teach us their rules in a gradual, organic way and do the book keeping (one of the least fun aspects of boardgaming) themselves. These features could easily be coming to a tabletop near you in the future, with the power of new technologies like Cloud computing, IoT and Augmented Reality. Some games like Space Alert and XCOM: The Board Game already utilise multimedia content as part of their core mechanics, while still remaining as social as every other boardgame should be, while virtual tabletops have also been popping up in the recent years, enabling online play
It will certainly be interesting to see how the hobby evolves from here, as designers try to perfect the formula on how to fuse the tactile feeling and vis-a-vis interaction with what new technology has to offer. We in the lab, will certainly be observing.