The Golden Era of board games hasn’t even started

For more than a decade now, tabletop games sales have seen steady, if not exponential, growth in many countries around the world. In the US and Canada alone collectible card and miniature games, modern board, card and dice games, tabletop RPGs and miniature games (a.k.a. “hobby games”) reached $1.44 billion in 2016, with a 21% growth rate compared to 2015.

More than two thousand new games are published each year and most of them, unlike movies, are based on original designs. There’s more: the expectation is for the market to keep growing in the years to come.

A hobby for everyone?

Board games should be everybody’s hobby; they have been around for centuries, everyone you know has already played at least one in their life, they bring people together, and you typically don’t need power nor expensive devices to have fun (a decent table is usually enough). What else could you ask for? And yet, board games are dwarfed by the video game industry. Why is that?

Reason #1

It’s easier to find the right time to play video games; most titles don’t require having friends in the room, and even when you need an online group that’s simpler to organize. Board games, on the other hand, require some planning to gather everyone up. Is that a sufficient excuse? We find plenty of occasions to do things as a group: going to the movies, concerts, hanging out for dinner and even for playing video games!

So what other reasons prevent most people from playing (and buying) board games?

Reason #2

Another reason could be that board games are still considered geeky or childish (or both) by many. Video games have been in the same situation until recently, and have been promoted to legitimacy for a couple of reasons: yesterday’s players are today’s game programmers and designers, and smartphones have made everyone a gamer, consciously or not.

This change has been beneficial for board games as well, leading a new generation to try other types of games they can enjoy with friends and families sharing the same space.

Reason #3

Board games are sometimes also seen as an expensive commodity, which is ironic when people have no issue spending $13 for two hours at the movie theater or $20 for an hour on a squash court. $50 for a game box can seem steep, but only if you don’t count the money to entertainment ratio. Playing a 1-hour game for just four times with three friends means an hour of fun would cost you about $3 per person.

Reason #4

Most people don’t know what’s on offer out there. Hundreds of fantastic new games were released in 2016 alone (here’s a list of the best ones), but very few of them, if any, managed to reach the mainstream — this is slowly changing with more and more coverage.

Reason #5

Board games are often seen as a complicated hobby. This perception comes from the fact that no matter what game you play, you need to learn the rules first. Rules are indeed essential to board games; they’re what creates the space and context for players to evolve, to think, to interact, to strategize, to laugh, and to win or to lose.

For most, learning the rules is not the fun part. It can feel lame when all you want is to have fun, and everything else is now just a click away: you want to watch a movie? Launch Netflix! Hungry? Order a pizza right from your phone. Want to learn more about a particular topic? Google it.

But if you feel like trying a new game with friends… you’re out of luck and need to spend a long time learning it before the fun can start.

This small detail makes board games a relatively demanding hobby. Learning new rules always challenges people (especially when they’re not familiar with the exercise), and some might say “thank you, but no thank you” out of fear of looking confused in front of their friends.

Besides, reading a rulebook might be the less efficient way to learn a game, because we learn better by doing and experiencing something rather than by reading how to do it.

Designer Eric Lang

A lesson from the video game market

Video games only became mainstream when they became more approachable, more abundant in content and graphically more attractive (arguably, you have more to do and see in Zelda: Breath of the Wild rather than in Pacman).

Back in the 80s, we were losing our minds trying to finish a single level of Mega Man or Ghosts ‘n Goblins; now it’s rare to replay the same level several times over, and it always boils down to a conscious decision from game designers rather than a necessity.

A few years ago all video games came with a booklet detailing basic controls and key plot events; they’re gone now. Contemporary games are designed to teach everything players need as they play, during introductory sections often carefully integrated into the overall gameplay experience.

Good times.

Over the years, board games have become more exciting and multifaceted too, with more variety, novel mechanics, and crazy-good components all meant to appeal to adults rather than just kids. However, they still have troubles getting more accessible.

Recent trends (from France and Asia, for example) brought more streamlined games into the market, but rulebooks remain the primary obstacle to bringing in new players.

Old issue, new solutions

We can’t pretend this is a new issue. Over time, many people have offered their solutions:

  • Having a regular rules-loving friend who likes reading rulebooks AND is good at teaching them is the best way to go. Those people can be the best ambassadors for our hobby, but they are not easy to find, and many aspiring players don’t know anyone who fits the description (walking-rulebooks have lives too, they can’t be available every time you want to play a new game). Board game cafés, store or events are great places to find game teachers, but that’s not really the same as playing at home with friends.
  • Publishers are trying to make rulebooks for their games easier and more fun to read. Good examples could be CGE games (who always have one of the game’s characters humorously comment on every other rule) or Jamaica, which comes with a folded poster graphically illustrating the game rules.
  • Some game designers are getting creative and integrate the learning experience into the gameplay, so the game teaches the rules during play. Menzel’s Andor, Friese’s Fabled Fruit, and most Legacy games only come with a basic set of rules, expanding as the campaign unfolds. Obviously, not all games are (or can be) designed for this, but several decided to isolate the hardest rules and components in the game box to be unsealed only after a few games.
  • Some publishers also created companion apps to teach the rules of their games, but it’s still pretty uncommon, and usually happens only when the game design required an app anyway (e.g.: XCOM The Board Game).

In the next blog posts, we’ll take a look at what Playmore Games did a year ago with Race to the North Pole, and at what we’re now doing for all your board games with Dized.

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