An interesting article in the Guardian today about the revival of boardgames. There is however something a little amiss in this story, in that it seems to assume that the health of a hobby is based on how well Britain is doing at an international level, rather than how many people are simply playing.
It also has a preoccupation with ‘traditional’ boardgames. Although it recognises the Euro-game movement in general, and Settlers of Catan specifically, it seems to measure ‘success’ by the popularity of games that granny would have known.
Let’s be clear: a lot of ‘traditional’ games such as Monopoly or Cluedo are, compared to some of the new games that have been emerging, crap. They are largely luck-based and a few good throws of the dice at the start of the game can set you up for the remainder. In the case of Monopoly – at least in its original form the Landlord’s Game – that was the whole point. Diplomacy, very popular a generation ago, takes forever to play and has the added problem of working by excluding players, thereby limiting its appeal to people who are prepared to spend a weekend twiddling their thumbs. Classic games such as Chess and Go don’t have these flaws, but they are predominantly two-player games. By contrast, most Euro-games combine the skill element and ‘fairness’ of Chess with the accessibility of Monopoly. It’s no wonder that they are slowly increasing in popularity.
You also have to question if this indicates anything particularly new. Hobby games such as Warhammer or Bloodbowl had a big following in my youth and continued in popularity throughout the 90s, leading to stories in the financial pages about Games Workshop being a British success story (at least until a miscalculation about the continued success of Lords of the Rings brand caused them to take a tumble). They may not have had the respectability of Monopoly, and some of us might rather resent the business model works by effectively forcing you to buy expensive miniatures, but they encouraged awkward kids to socialise and combined it with the very British schoolboy pursuit of modeling (albeit painting orcs instead of spitfires). The collectable card game phenomenon continued throughout the 90s with Magic: The Gathering and later Pokemon being tremendous successes worldwide. These two combined traditional gameplay with mass-consumerism (there are 458 results when you Google ‘“kiddie crack” pokemon‘).
So it’s too simplistic to say that tabletop gameplay is making a comeback at the expense of computer games. What seems to be happening, rather, is that the nature of the boardgames industry itself is changing. Games Workshop, for example, have just announced the return of an old favourite Talisman and have already returned to roleplaying. The Euro-gaming boom has lead to a renewal in boardgaming across the Atlantic. Much of this success seems to be fueled by the internet, which is proving effective at both spreading the word about games themselves globally (BoardGameGeek being the exemplar of this) and putting players in touch with fellow gamers. Far from people eschewing technology in favour of ‘tradition’, technology itself appears to be fueling this revival. Indeed, technology was at least partly responsible for keeping Chess in the headlines 20-30 years ago as programmers worked to develop a computer that could beat the best Grand Masters.
Thus far, it has been a very behind the scenes revival in the UK (Germany, by all accounts, is a very different story), but I suspect that things like Catan are about to go very mainstream indeed. One of the biggest factors slowing down this trend is the failure of anyone to produce a Euro-game in the same price bracket as a standard set of Scrabble. Basic Catan is Â£10 more expensive in this country compared to Scrabble (Â£25 compared to Â£15), and you get a lot less in the box (this is particularly piss-taking when you consider the English language version is imported from the US which has a low exchange rate at the moment). There’s a killing to be made by a company willing to take a punt.