Anyone remotely interested in geek culture would be hard pressed to ignore the fairly recent rise in board game popularity. In a similar vein to the video game indie market, the popularity of board games has seemingly spread from nowhere with more experimental and elaborate titles being released each and every year.
As with most originally niche cultures, board gaming owes a lot to the greater ease of use and accessibility of the internet. Where groups would have to physically meet up to test out experimental board games or arrange meet ups, now people have a huge amount of online board game content, message boards, and Facebook groups at their fingertips. It has never been easier to arrange a board game evening, and discovering whether a particular board game is something you might enjoy is as simple as a quick search on BoardGameGeek (an online database of all known board games) or YouTube.
Similar to video gamers, board gamers are slowly becoming more and more a part of mainstream culture. Where most people have heard of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, increasingly more complicated games are becoming popularized as well. Games like Ticket to Ride (a game of placing train-lines across America or elsewhere for victory points) or Small World (where you claim territory across a map for various races throughout the game) are growing in mass market appeal.
While video games are becoming more impressive, with VR headsets becoming affordable and graphics never looking better, it seems strange that board games are equally growing better as time goes on. Why would such an old medium of entertainment still exist when people could be playing video games?
Video games may be different from board gaming in quite a few ways, but the parallels in how one approaches the medium cannot be ignored. For the most part, people who know little of either will only know of a few titles: Call of Duty or Madden for video games, Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit for board gaming. It is distressing to see that so many have not been able to dig deeper and see the cream of the crop from either, disregarding amazing games without knowing any better.
Lately, in both board and video gaming, real innovation has not come from the traditional publishers of the biggest and best known titles. The indie market has built the momentum for the current drive for the best content, and it doesn’t look like it is going to be stopping any time soon. Triple-A development is marred by microtransactions and the asset-strips commonly known as DLC, and big time board game producers only seem to know how to make yet another edition of Minions or Game of Thrones Monopoly for a quick buck.
The advent of new titles in the board gaming market have made the medium more popular than ever, with huge conventions, board-game cafes, and pubs popping up all over the world to bring people together. The renaissance of board gaming that we are living through is very much the mirror of the experience that gaming had in the early 90’s (when Nintendo pretty much single-handedly saved the gaming industry), showing us what gaming could offer once again. Board gaming is now seen as a profitable market in its own right, which allows for more room for experimentation. Video gaming, likewise, has its fair share of homegrown heroes that do not rely on any other product to be recognizable. The Last of Us stands on its own merits as both a game and a story, just as Ticket to Ride is a board game that doesn’t need tie-ins to be popular or interesting.
Major publishers of board games have had to adapt in order to benefit from the current swell of interest. Hasbro has recently released Monopoly Gamer which incorporates Mario characters and some novel mechanics into the classic Monopoly formula. They similarly released a new Risk title for the Star Wars universe that simulates the “Battle of Endor,” tweaking the standard mechanics in three separate battle fields. Whilst the core game is similar to its predecessor, and they are still assuredly tie-in games, major publishers are having to push the boat out a little in order to attract people who might other wise disregard them entirely.
Video gaming is in a different position as its major swell of support is still primarily located with the most popular titles, with typical core gamers flitting between the Triple-A and indie developers at their leisure. Whilst board game publishers have had to adapt to the changing market, Triple-A publishers have continued to dominate the direction of gaming without really learning any lessons from indie developers. Sure, we do get a Rayman: Origins here and a Sonic Mania there, but, all in the all, the real mainstream titles continue to disappoint with a real lack of polish or completeness.
Board games do not have that luxury, and I for one am glad that they do not. Whilst games are often sold without crucial bug fixing or content, board games cannot be shipped with missing pieces or rules lest they be immediately returned as faulty goods. It has become an industry norm to sell unfinished games for the last decade or so and frankly it has allowed for major publishers to become more and more willing to carve up a solid experience into many pieces (each also carrying its own price tag). Board games on the other hand must be sold playable in the box, they simply can’t take essential cards or counters away to be sold later as the game would be broken without them. The fact that video game makers are given the okay to simply give gamers less content for the same amount of money (or more) is the chief reason as to why there is no drive to make innovative Triple-A experiences. Gamers are far too accepting of these shoddy business practices and so there’s no telling how far publishers will be willing to push it in the future. The comparison here is of course not concrete, a video game can be updated at any time via a solid internet connection, unlike that of a tabletop board game. This simple fact is what makes it possible to ship an incomplete product, as we have seen with many recent releases and at present doesn’t look like a trend that is going to be stopping anytime soon.
What many video games lack is a complexity that allows for players to excel in their mastery of the game mechanics. In the mainstream, it is becoming rarer and rarer for games to be released that allow a player to make a move or make a play that makes you step back and say “that was a good move.” Instead we either get the torrent of chaotic gunfire or a tide of online metas that rarely yield interesting viewing. So many games released are so dedicated to holding your hand until the end, as if it is trying to make sure you feel accomplished the entire way, rather than forcing you to adapt your skills to the game itself. Why play at all if there is no enjoyment in winning?
In short, video games can learn a lot from board games. We can learn that the small time, lesser known titles are often the most creative and interesting. We can learn that games should be complete experiences, not full-priced works in progress. Finally, we can learn that games should challenge us to master them, and not simply hold our hand until the credit sequence.