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Boardgaming: Ashes of the Phoenix?

KB Updated
There Will Be Games

Eyes up HERE, Scott.

When it comes to hobbies, I essentially have two loves--boardgaming and videogaming.  If you're a long-time videogamer, it's hard to ignore some of the signs of the boardgaming industry, and the eerie parallels of the dark days of 1983-1984.

My wife can always detect it.

I'll click "on" to one hobby or another.  It could be the changing of the wind, it could be seasonal, but for whatever reason, my brain will switch and I'll find myself driven toward the "other" hobby for awhile.  It used to be CCGs and videogaming, but thankfully I gave up that crack rock a few years ago.

In the early to mid 80s, if you'd told anyone that videogames were even still going to be around, they'd have probably laughed at you.  As many of you know, the videogame industry crashed...HARD...circa 1983-1984, taking a multi-million dollar industry and several companies along with it.  It was a fad, it was over, game systems were for dorks and arcades were where seedy men with a handful of candy and cigarettes hung out waiting to catch some prey.

I made it through those "dark days", fairly oblivious actually to what was really going down.  A lot of the kids had 'moved on' and it was pretty common to hate on the old Atari's clunky graphics, but I just kept at it, moving to a Commodore to carry me through for awhile.  Then of course the NES hit the market, changed history, re-wrote the future of the videogame industry, and now it's a pop culture staple that hasn't really looked back since.

That doesn't mean it didn't stay dorky for awhile.  It's also pretty funny to look at how advertisers saw video gamers back in the day...

Because masturbating is what geeks do
Yes, this is an undoctored advertisement

I mean, I'm sure that some ad wizard THOUGHT that having a photo of a gamer tearing off his own clothes in anticipation of jerking off would really lure the mass market in, but thank GOD we eventually moved beyond that.  I think.  Though that doesn't explain the big-breasted Dead or Alive chicks and their volleyball bounce-a-thon games.

Boardgamers of course ask this question all the time--no, not about wanking--but "when will boardgaming hit the 'big time'?"  Oh sure, games like Monopoly and Sorry! sit on households around the world even as we speak, but the code word here is HOBBY gaming.  When will hobby gaming--these "Games of Ours" as some so wretchedly put it--break on through?

There is a resentment too from some boardgamers in relation to their videogaming brethren.  Some of that resentment stems from how videogames managed to elevate themselves beyond their dank little nerd fiefdom of depictions of self-pleasure and eventually morphed into game systems like the Wii, which you can get Grandma to play.  Lara Croft was featured on big screens during one of U2's big tours.  Kids are born these days knowing who Mario is and can hum the theme song.  If you say you played Halo last night, you don't get strange looks from anyone.

In fact, the only group of videogamers it's okay to make fun of anymore is the WoW players, but we won't get into that.

The point of all of this is that it might be necessary for boardgaming as a hobby to go through the same "Trial by Fire" that nearly eradicated the videogaming industry.  A real purge, a culling of the whole ordeal.  And they show some spooky parallels.  So let's take a look at the early days of videogaming and eventually, the crash....and see if that may be where boardgaming is headed.

*  The Early Days of the Hardcore

Video games were not always the bastion of "open arms" hobbyist activity.  In the earliest of days, only the truly "hardcore" would even know of their existence.  These things would run on wires and vacuum tubes in a university lab somewhere, and stern looking spectacled gentlemen would use their clunky controllers to bounce a blip of light back and forth.  Pong became the killer app that sprang from this, but even then it was something that got a foothold in bars, and playing at home was not something that would be easily done for years--not for the layman, at least.

Dad to kid:  Forget this shit.


The early days of what the "modern" era of boardgaming were like is eerily similar.  In the mid-1990s, you couldn't just walk into a shop and buy the latest European games.  Hell, you didn't even *know* there were such things as European games unless you already had one foot in the hobby somehow.  And knowing wasn't enough...if you were an American or primarily an English speaker, these games were in German and there was no help for you unless you looked somewhere else.

Small, devoted subcommunities formed.  And believe it or not, I have a great deal of respect for those who were involved in this scene during those days.  It wasn't like today's noveau Eurosnoot, who has everything presented to them on a Rio Grande-wrapped platter...these were people who had to really work to enjoy the hobby.  They had to hunt down or do translations themselves.  They had to paste up hundreds of cards.  Whether or not you dig those games, you have to respect that amount of passion.

Still, that leads us to:

* The Killer App

When the Atari 2600 broke onto the scene, it was the perfect storm of a growing interest in gaming at home along with the rapid explosion of videogaming into popular culture.  You had video game characters with their own cartoon shows, lunchboxes, and ironically their own boardgames.  You had Buckner and Garcia crooning over "Pac-Man Fever".  Every Mom and Pop grocery store, laundromat, and restaraunt had at least a token arcade machine in a corner somewhere.

The "Killer App" is often cited to be Pong, but I'm not sure that this alone was enough to capture the attention of the public in quite this fashion.  Sure, it moved a lot of those little clunky Sears Pong machines, but it was probably the cocktail of Pac-Man and Space Invaders that really got things moving.

For boardgaming, undoubtedly the catalyst for the modern boardgaming hobbyist era was "Settlers of Catan".  You're hard-pressed to meet someone who's involved in the hobby who hasn't tried Settlers at least once.  Settlers was such a phenomenon that even regular American gaming magazines stopped to take notice.  InQuest in particular ran a review about it, and they were positively raving about it.  Yeah, a magazine whose staff was made up with cardflopping dorks who liked to make ass and boob jokes all the time stopped to take notice of Settlers storming onto our shores.

The killer app of course leads directly to....

* The Explosion of Interest

It certainly was more meteoric, but the videogame market completely and utterly exploded in a tizzy of activity as it stormed out of the gates.  Game systems flew off toy store shelves.  The popular culture was saturated.  Videogamers even made it on this old show called "That's Incredible" where people demonstrated their skills at different videogames.  More than one 'Nightly News Special Report' focused on the thriving arcade scene, where inevitably pimply faced teens would be standing around a Defender machine gawking at one another.

Some of it was purely cosmetic as even in those days, computing processing power was growing rapidly.  When videogames were new, you could put a different coat of paint on the same damn game and people would still eat it up.  Think of all the Space Invaders and Pac-Man clones that were ever made, and yet despite being "nothing new under the sun", they could still gobble up quarters.  (This is actually a criticism still levied against modern games, infested with sequalitis and "ME TOO!" efforts, with only graphical upgrades.)

Pong with a new coat of paint...okay, sometimes this works pretty well

Contrast that indeed with the hobbyist boardgaming scene.  The timeline is much more gradual, but the explosion was pretty much of the same nature.  The initial build-up was slow; it's easy to forget that while Settlers was made in 1995, Boardgamegeek didn't even exist until the year 2000.  And the early days of BGG saw a small, still hardcore Euro fanbase.  I'm sure that Aldie and Derk launched BGG in much the same fashion as we did F:AT--thought of it as a place where a smaller group of like-minded people would gather to shoot the shit about their favorite Euro titles.

That wouldn't last, however.  Rapidly, BGG's fanbase began to expand.  Soon, a few hundred became a thousand...then a few thousand....and so on and so forth.  Brewing during this time were minds like Christian Petersen, Glenn Drover, and Rob Daviau, who sought to update American-style games that could appeal to "modern" audiences.  And their designs roped in those who hadn't been taken in by the Euro Revolution, with everyone sort of tumbling into the hobby willy-nilly.  Former CCGers.  Former RPGers.  Wargamers who never really gave up the torch.  Gamers like me who played Axis & Allies and Risk and who used to stare at Space Hulk in wonder, and who found out that hey, they still make games like that!

There's a dark side to this, of course.  Gamers are, at heart, cheap bastards.  Always have been, always will be.  That doesn't combine well with...

* Everybody Disco Dancing~!   Or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dollar

Wherever there are gamers with money in their grubby little paws, there will be companies lined up to try and pry that money from their little fingers.

In the Atari days, this meant that every Tom, Dick, and Harry (no Dick jokes, please) wanted in on this business.  The first offerings came from companies that had the videogame know-how....Atari, their off-shoot Activision, companies like that.  Before long, you had companies like Purina making video games.

I wish I was making this up...

I mean, it's the "Me Too!" effect of Capitalism.  It's to be expected.  It's likewise to be expected then that as the boardgaming market expanded, people and companies would flock to making their own boardgames.  "It looks easy!" I'm sure they'd say.  So you'd get upstarts like Uberplay who strolled in, overprinted a bunch of Euro titles of varying degrees of quality, and then flopped.  You'd get companies like Wizkids who poked their nose into the boardgaming market.  You'd also get small publishers who just knew they had the breakthrough hit, and they knew it so much they named their companies after their first (and sadly, only) game.

There's inevitably a problem, though, and this was what eventually doomed Atari and its hitcher-ons in 1983.  A little thing called....


pacman.pngThe lethal mistake...the lethal dose of poison....came because video game companies became convinced they could sell their products to the same group of gamers who were already massively saturated.  Sound familiar?  So you had boneheaded decisions like Atari making more Pac-Man cartridges than were actually Ataris.  ("They'll want a copy for their ski lodge," one Atari exec is famously quoted as saying.)  You had a pile of game companies from the stalwarts to the Johnny-come-latelys trying to move a large amount of product to the same gamers, over and over again.  The thought was, if there were 1,000,000 buyers out there, then each company would produce based on selling to that 1,000,000.  If 10 companies do this, you get 10,000,000 games in the channel, seeking the dollars of that same 1,000,000 gamers.

Stop me if you've heard any of this before.

Oversupply is NASTY.  You get these companies who have a LOT of money tied up in inventory that just isn't moving the way they expected...or even moving at all.  You've got people who have taken out large loans to finance their gamemaking dreams, only to now find themselves with creditors at the door calling due those big loans they took out.  You've got downward pricing trends and deflating demand.  You add in the cheapskate nature of most gamers, you've got a perfect storm for disaster. 

*  The Titanic Fall

It all comes apart here, a nasty chain reaction.

Companies are desperate for cash, or just want out, and quickly.  Game companies in 1983 began slashing their prices to next to nothing.  Games that were selling for $30 months earlier could now be found at Revco Drug Store dump tables for $5 apiece, if that much.

Gamers of course lapped this up, initially.  I mean, who couldn't convince mom or dad to shell out a fiver so you could get a new game every time you went to the store?  I think at one point I had amassed 70-something games.  For Christmas 1983 I think I was given 7 or 8 new games as part of the larger Christmas booty, because they had become stocking stuffers.

It's that cheapness, that gluttony-inspiring binge that blinds you.  At first, you don't really care, you're hoarding tons of games that a year ago you never dreamed you'd have so many.  You could get a new videogame for the same price as some random action figure.  This is awesome!

Sadly, it's a party that can't last.  Companies like Atari were still plugging away with new games, but those titles found themselves sitting on store shelves with $30+ price tags, staring down the barrel of gamers who were clutching fistfuls of $5 carts.  It didn't matter--at least not at first--that these $5 games were shovelware made by random companies that had no business in the video game market to begin with.

Yeah...this all really does sound familiar.

The boardgaming hobby, much like the videogaming hobby, is populated with some pretty cheap screws, all in all.  And we're spoiled; we want free shipping, 35% off discounts on EVERYTHING, oh, and free customer service on whatever we feel like.  Hell, Tanga is the hideous evolutionary creature that spawned from this behavior.  "California!  $4.99 + shipping!"   Gamers feasted on this stuff for months, sometimes oblivious to the fact that behind the scenes Uberplay itself was bailing out, and this weren't no sign that "bidness was good."

Game stores become like those $30 copies of Pitfall II that few were smart enough to pick up on in those days.  Unable to meet that unrealistic demand for downard pricing pressure, FLGS have seen themselves crumble and fall over the years.  Part of it is due to the growth of the internet as a sales channel.  I can respect that.  But let's face it--if no one had ever started offering that 35% discount, would you walk into a store and expect it?  Would you see a game on the shelf for $49.95 and be "outraged" that there's no discount available?  Once the price pressure is initiated, there's no going back.  What was the exception becomes the expectation. 

Here's where our sad tale may be taking an upwards diversion, in this tale of gloom and doom, of death and rebirth.  And this might--*might*--be why boardgaming may be able to skirt a massive, crippling crash.

You see, game companies--perhaps emboldened by the lessons of the past--have started to push back.  It started with Mayfair, who in the face of hundreds of raging gamers, stated flatly that they were capping these massive discounts.  Then, Fantasy Flight did the same thing, as the discounts available on their newer titles decreased.  Of course, there have been a round of price increases mostly around the board for almost every company out there, as the realities of the costs of energy, shipping, and manufacturing have increased.

This will likely have the effect of shaking out a few more companies before it's all done.  Who has $55-60 to pay for some "Me Too" Euro?  Or, to be fair, for some lazy Risk clone?  Maybe the culling can take place while the industry overall remains healthy, and the companies who are shrewd enough to survive, and have product that is worth the survival will emerge stronger in the end.

Meanwhile, more and more games emerge that might help break boardgamers out of their niche shell.  Stuff like Cas$ 'n' Gun$, stuff that can get your non-gaming friends and family interested in that pile of games on your shelf.  Maybe it will be the licensed stuff that ropes in the larger audience, with stuff with crossover appeal like Battlestar Galactica.

It's too early to say that the boardgame industry will dodge the gloomiest of scenarios, and some of the indicators are certainly in place.  But maybe, just maybe, things will work out OK after all.  I'm hoping U2 manage to work in big plastic War Suns for their next big stage show.

There Will Be Games
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