Fact: Board games are becoming popular
Fact: It is not because of Kickstarter
Fact: It is because the games both in presentation and design are more suitable for the mass audience.
There was a thread here not too far back suggesting that the recent growth in the board game industry might be related to kick starter. What I want to do here is start of a conversation looking at the reasons for this growth in the industry by suggesting that it’s the product that matters. Board game design, and critically presentation has got the stage where it can be accepted as a mass entertainment medium. As with all my posts, this is pure opinion backed up by questionable half facts.
In my view, video gaming didn’t become acceptable adult entertainment for both sexes until fairly recently. I’d probably pick the play station 1 as the point where the tide started to change. Prior to this consoles were for teenage boys and man kids and PCs were for nerds. Girls generally speaking were not invited and proper adults had better things do with their time, like go the opera or play football or more realistically, watch football. Fast forward a decade and the Times or Guardian newspaper are as likely to have a section on video games as films in their reviews section and its fairly acceptable for someone below 40 to spend several hours an evening shooting dudes on the internet or managing a space empire. There is still some resistance, but those that think video games are infantile are generally over 40, have traditionalist mind sets and will be dead in the not too distant future. What changed? In short I think the advent of widely available 3d graphics and a reduction in the difficult of play brought games to the mainstream. Games prior to 1990, or even 2000 are generally hard as nails to play compared with those released today, both in terms of challenge to learn and challenge to beat. They are also often easier to buy and install.
I think board games have turned a similar corner. The product on the shelf in the local game store or in the warehouse at Amazon.com is a product that is far more attractive, easier to access, and easier play now than it was five or ten years ago. I am going to give 4 amazing reasons as to why this is.
1. Box art.
Most people look at something on a shelf, like the look of it and then buy it. In this season of the TV show The Apprentice, which in the UK involves a bunch all presentation no substance types competing to be Alan Sugars new shoe shiner, the contestants were set the business task of designing and selling a board game. The team that shipped most units at a fair at the end of the episode would win. I didn’t watch the whole episode, but the main thought I had was, why not just come up with a really good box cover, there’s no demos at this fair, so the box could be filled with wood chips and sell well if your pitch and cover look good.
Let’s look at some box covers
Puerto Rico 2002
Arkham Horror 2005
Lewis and Clark 2012
The Resistance 2012ed cover
Eldritch Horror 2013
Now this is just a selection and you could find plenty of older games with better covers and a few recent releases with bad covers but I think there are some general trends.
The colours get brighter. Splendor has a bright yellow boarder around its image, Resistance Red. In general the colour palette becomes more vibrant, it shouts at you.
Fonts, they get easier to read and they are closer to serifs (I am not an expert on this), they seem friendlier and more inviting.
There are womanizes on the covers! There is a nice young lady on each of the modern covers.
The people on the more modern covers have a facial expression. They look interested in something. Mr Vassal has been ranting about this to the point where it gets repetitive but it is a valid point.
In general I would say the cover design gets slicker and more appealing over time.
Arkham to Eldritch Horror makes a good comparison, text is clearer, image is lighter, female figure is more obvious (if only slightly).
2. Game length.
This is a bit old hat so I won’t say much. The German/euro designers of the 90s new a game had to be less than 2 hours for mass appeal, or ideally less than 90mins. This has spread over to the majority of game designs now. Even fantasy flight has caught on, gone are the days of 3 to 4 hour designs like Fury of Dracula, Eldritch is shorter than Arkham and I’m not sure X-com would be the 90 minute game it is if they had designed it 5 years ago.
Board games like video games have become simpler, with perhaps the exception of the 90s German designs. Games like Suburbia, 7 Wonders, Dominion, Small World, Imperial Settlers, Lewis and Clark, and Lords of Waterdeep really just use one two or three simplified mechanics, these are the hype and they are where the hobby is going. These days’ games like Puerto Rico and Caylus would be considered heavy euros rather than just euros. Games like Terra Mystica and Russian Rail Roads are now for a niche within the hobby rather than the general trend. In the more ‘AT’ side the main selling point of a game like Eclipse or Eldritch Horror is that it’s a lighter version of something else. We are now at a stage where someone who is not a dedicated hobbyist nerd can buy one of these games and possibly play it. An aside to this is, whilst rule books can still get better, they are significantly better as a whole in recent years than they were in the past. Some of FFGs rules from the early 00s were a real train wreck.
4. We want it all.
My experience of more casual board game players is that they want the whole cake inside 90s minutes. They want the game to tell a story they can relate too, and they want a mechanical system that provides accessible but sufficiently deep strategy. Whilst the German designs of the 90s might deliver the short play time and solid strategy they do not deliver story in the way the modern person wants it. Modern Art might be a clever play on the valuation of crap but it doesn’t immerse you in a narrative. Lewis and Clark on the other hand feeds you a story that you can tell yourself from the actions you take, the art and the frustrations of the game about travelling across the wilderness. On top of this it gives the player a fairly accessible and clear puzzle around taking worker spots and optimising their resources. More modern designs appear to have honed in on giving people one or two clear tactical puzzles with enough story hooks tied or crow barred onto it to feel like an experience.
Our own Matt Thrower has already Shill’d one article out to a major UK newspaper, it is just a matter of time before boardgames become a staple feature of the entertainment and culture monthly supplements.