Why Board Games Are Now Becoming Popular

Why Board Games Are Now Becoming Popular Hot

DukeofChutneyDukeofChutney   March 09, 2015  

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

Puerto Rico 2002


Goa 2004

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror 2005


Dominion 2008

Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark 2012



The Resistance

The Resistance 2012ed cover

Eldrich Horror

Eldritch Horror 2013


Splendor 2004

Five Tribes

Five Tribes

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.


3. Complexity.

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. 

Posted: 10 Mar 2015 09:29 by Sagrilarus #199178
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I think you're largely correct, though I'll tell you this -- the two games pulled from the pile by non-gamers at my one group are Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, both old games and my copies have the old "less attractive" covers.

I think the effect you're seeing has taken the last 20 years to occur, largely because people enter hobbies such as this in their teens and early twenties and these people are now pushing towards fifty years old and bringing the hobby to their kids. A cultural shift takes time to mature. The effects you're describing such as box art, play length and complexity become starker still when you compare 1980 to 1995.

The thing that's most frustrating for me personally is that a huge part of this is style over substance, but in a world where Apple products are shipped in packages designed to present your new widget in a tah-dah fashion upon opening I shouldn't be surprised. Truth be told looking professional is more valuable that being professional from a sales perspective.

Posted: 10 Mar 2015 09:59 by Gregarius #199180
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I think I disagree with every single one of your points. I'm pretty sure I could come up with counter examples as well.

In my opinion, the main reason board games are becoming more popular is simply because the momentum grows every year. Older games like Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride continue to bring new people into the hobby every day. Most gamers have at least one part evangelist in them, just because they need to find more people to play with.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 10:21 by scrumpyjack #199181
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Gregarius wrote:
Most gamers have at least one part evangelist in them, just because they need to find more people to play with.

That's a fascinating point that I hadn't thought of before. I've certainly been the evangelist among my group of friends, and some of them were quite skeptical in the beginning. Now many of them are buying games of their own and introduce boardgames to other circles of friends. Also, I wonder when or if boardgame publishers will really start advertising on a broad array of media platforms besides the internet. Or do they already? I can't remember an ad from TV, magazines, or anywhere in the outside world. Has anyone seen anything like that?
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 10:23 by Egg Shen #199182
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I think the growth of the hobby goes hand in hand with it's visibility thanks to the internet.

When I was 10-12 years old I owned HeroQuest. I loved it so much. I knew all the rules and spent hours just going over the magic spells and creating scenarios in my head. My problem was that NONE of my friends had any desire to play this game. That sucked so bad for me and pretty much derailed me from getting into gaming back in my teenage years.

"Egg...what the fuck are you getting at?" I'm glad you asked. I think this sort of problem persisted for many people that didn't have boardgaming friends. Thanks to the internet, people can share in their love of hobbies AND meet people with similar interests. I think alot of that growth comes from the much easier entry point. Back in the day if you hit a wall and couldn't find anyone to play with, you were screwed. Now it's much easier to find a game store or a meetup with people to play games with. There is much less of a stigma about meeting up with strangers. Hell...the concept of meeting people online has now become a lucrative industry. That barrier of meeting people being smashed I believe has a big thing to do with gaming being on the rise.

On top of that boardgames are getting more mainstream coverage as well. You're starting to see more hobby-style games show up in places like Barnes and Noble and Target. Hell I think Gamestop even got in on the boardgame thing for a while. Websites like Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun feature boardgame articles. The guys that write Penny Arcade are very much into boardgames and write about them. Basically, boardgames are no longer hidden. They're more integrated with other hobbies like videogames, comics and movies.

So yes...while the packaging has gotten nicer and the games have gotten more newbie friendly I think the fact that it's not impossible to find people to experience the hobby with helps big time. Couple this with the massive growth of gaming and it's more likely that a person will hear from a friend about Catan or Ticket to Ride or Battlestar Galactica.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 10:44 by DukeofChutney #199185
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I agree that internet exposure and board game evangelists are factors, but i think these are driven by the ease of access of the product. If boardgames were still designed and packaged like they were in the 80s or 90s I don't think RPS or Penny Arcade with give them more than the occasional coverage, equally i don't think the evangelist would have that much success.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 12:37 by VonTush #199197
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What's funny is my thread that you reference asked if there was correlation. And with the links I provided in the article it was easy to answer that "No, there is no correlation" as every top five/ten list posted on icv2 there are only one or two games that started off as a KS game.

Basically what I found interesting in the reports and top game lists is that KS isn't a factor. It was to point out that KS is only a drop in the bucket of the market as a whole and that KS will not and cannot be the end of gaming and that only very involved gamers actually know what is going on with KS.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 12:48 by VonTush #199198
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As far as your article goes, I think 30 years ago when video games were on the rise it was because plugging in had a novelty factor associated with it.

Now, as we're constantly plugged in, sitting down with people and unplugging is a bit of a novelty.

Then there's also the fact that as attention spans shorten there's a desire to be doing something. So sitting around in a group, rather than just talking and socializing, a game gets pulled out as an activity.

And then there's also a bit of a hipster quality/appeal to board gaming. Much like pulling out a typewriter in the coffee shop.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 13:42 by Grudunza #199201
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There's also the element of word-of-mouth and popular culture feeding board games into the zeitgeist. We've now seen Settlers directly referenced on popular shows like Parks and Recreation and Big Bang Theory, and celebrities going on the Tonight Show and talking about playing it. It took 10-15 years, though, for that one title to really permeate to something more than the average geeky hobby gamer. And I also see Ticket to Ride a lot, and Cards Against Humanity, but beyond those and maybe Pandemic and Dominion, I think hobby board games are still pretty relegated to a certain type of "gamer" personality. But I think there was always that audience there, clamoring for better board games than the ones the culture knew about and regurgitated (Monopoly, et al). So now that's being fed a little better and wider, which is great.

In my field (children's music) I still get comments from parents referring to my CDs like "I'm so glad there's kids' music now that I don't mind listening to, myself." Well, the reality is that there have been dozens of people making that kind of kids' music for a long time. I'm definitely not unique. But there's still some perception in a wider sense that "kids/family music = Barney." It's not that those people are newly evangelized to like more contemporary kids' music, it's that they just didn't know it was there. I think that's the same thing for board games right now... some of the better modern ones are finally seeping into the public consciousness and catching up with the audience who wanted them.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 13:51 by Shellhead #199202
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Thanks to the internet, mainstream culture has become more geeky over the last 20 years. Kids are growing up less physically active and more inclined to sit down and play games.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 15:33 by Colorcrayons #199206
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scrumpyjack wrote:
Gregarius wrote:
Most gamers have at least one part evangelist in them, just because they need to find more people to play with.
Also, I wonder when or if boardgame publishers will really start advertising on a broad array of media platforms besides the internet. Or do they already? I can't remember an ad from TV, magazines, or anywhere in the outside world. Has anyone seen anything like that?

They used to advertise quite heavily until the mid nineties. Big companies did anyways.
But as Gregarius points out, it word of mouth through evangalists who've grown up seeing the commercials and playing big hit games like Survive. It backs up Sagrilus' remark that its taken a long time to get to this point, and the industry has reinforced this with better packaging and retail outlets.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 15:52 by Sagrilarus #199209
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I think this whole evangelist thing is going to change soon, because I think the entire industry is changing right now. Up until a couple of years ago you had game companies like Z-Man and Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight, privately owned LLCs making solid coin from a cottage industry perspective. That size company was the bulk of the business. That's changing very rapidly right now, with companies gobbling each other up, and it would not surprise me to see much of the current IP in the hobby game sector be in the hands of one or two mega-corporations a couple of years from now. It may be Hasbro that ends up with the lion's share. The genre is getting big enough to attract that kind of attention. If that happens you may see advertising via more traditional media come back into play because Hasbro can print 100,000 copies of something and make it sell.

What remains is the opposite end of the spectrum -- the onesies on Kickstarter. They'll continue to "advertise" via announcing their existence in forum threads, but the hope may be to get purchased instead of making it work on their own.

Posted: 10 Mar 2015 18:35 by Kailes #199212
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Sagrilarus wrote:
I think the effect you're seeing has taken the last 20 years to occur, largely because people enter hobbies such as this in their teens and early twenties and these people are now pushing towards fifty years old and bringing the hobby to their kids. A cultural shift takes time to mature. The effects you're describing such as box art, play length and complexity become starker still when you compare 1980 to 1995.

This is certainly the most important factor. You have a generation that grew up with boardgames and RPGs to a smaller extent, that introduced their kids to those and a generation that grew up with video games. With the latter's maturity "playing" became an acceptable pastime for adults and their disposable income available to this industry.
What I wonder is, whether the increase in boardgames and the increase in boardgame sales correspond. I suspect that they don't. While there certainly are more people playing boardgames now than, say twenty years ago, a large part of the industries' growth can probably be attributed to the hobbyists, who spend a "disproportionate" amount of their income on games. But at what point did boardgames switch from a pastime to a hobby in and of itself, at least for quite a few people? Maybe this is mostly an american phenomenon, because I don't really see this change in Germany, myself excluded obviously. However, I'm living in a rather rural area, so take that with a grain of salt.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 19:33 by SuperflyTNT #199213
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I think there's some easy explanations:

1. Pushback against video games. Parents don't want their kids sitting in front of a TV yelling expletives.
2. Family values. People want to spend more time with their kids and families.
3. Hipsters. These folks are changing culture, like it or not, and it's now "trendy" to be an analog gamer.
4. "NEW". People have played video games for decades and they've reached the point that not a lot new is going on there. They want to still play games, but not the same kinds of game. So, this is different.
5. "Dark Room Syndrome". Some people are sick of playing video games in a dark room. They want to play something new that involves other people, and not other INTERNET people.
6. Hubby/Wife. There's not many Couch Co-Op games out...the number of games that feature this are like 1 in 50 releases. So, this is a viable alternative for something to do after dinner.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 19:40 by JMcL63 #199214
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Shellhead wrote:
Thanks to the internet, mainstream culture has become more geeky over the last 20 years. Kids are growing up less physically active and more inclined to sit down and play games.
Don't forget the Star Wars effect. By the 80s this had made geek culture mainstream in a way quite unknown before.
Posted: 10 Mar 2015 20:50 by daveroswell #199216
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There's also a push towards tactile (Miniature) games. Something great about holding am army in your hand as opposed to pushing buttons. Miniature games really seem to be breaking out again.
Posted: 11 Mar 2015 14:06 by veemonroe #199247
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I think it's a pushback against online-only gaming.

Adult gaming is acceptable, and a lot of people don't want to live their lives entirely online. They want to play games face-to-face and video gaming doesn't allow that anymore. When I was a teenager, we played LAN space trading games on a local VAX network, all in the same room. That's shifted to logging in and playing against strangers - you need to be pretty introverted to want to spend your evenings alone in the dark, messaging someone in Morocco.

Some people are sick of the Sex and The City nightclubbing/bar culture too. As it's possible to find niche activities via Meetup, etc. then you can get 55 people every night of the week in a pub in central London, playing Coup, Carcassonne and Catan. It's fun, sociable, offline and playing games on your phone/laptop is acceptable - so why not offline gaming too.

*Geek* culture has also entered the mainstream. Half the blond American women in my gym (with two kids, in their forties, wearing $120 tennis skorts) have watched Game of Thrones. They were talking about it during body pump (cardio with weights). And that has dragons... In my teens, anything with dragons labelled you a smelly spotty friendless weirdo.
Posted: 11 Mar 2015 14:41 by Sagrilarus #199252
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veemonroe wrote:
blond American women in my gym (with two kids, in their forties, wearing $120 tennis skorts) . . . a smelly spotty friendless weirdo.

Not necessarily exclusive of each other, but point well made.
Posted: 11 Mar 2015 15:16 by randyo #199255
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I played all the typical Hasbro /Parker Bros/old-school games as a kid of the 80s-90s. (Monopoly, Trouble, backgammon) I played some 40k in high school. My friends were way more into it and willing to lay down their allowance, but I mostly spent my time staring through all the White Dwarf magazines our local library happened to have.

But I did not appreciate board games as a mature hobby until I was at my first real game company internship in 2008. I got introduced to Bang! and Robo Rally and Descent during Thursday lunch games. (Well, Descent was a Saturday venture.) I've been slowly deepening my knowledge only through other people's games or rare purchases or Barnes and Noble discounts.

With that perspective, of someone who does not spend money on games except maybe once or twice a year:
I feel like the internet allowed board gamers to find the games they knew they wanted. My friend found all the train games he wanted. The train designer could reach his audience. And as people started to find what they loved, it seems like they could also push ones on their friends they knew would hit. Most of the games I've played I don't need to play again, but it only took Cash 'N Guns for me to realize I would actually like to own a few games. I love Robo Rally but may not ever buy it unless I become wealthy.

$50 is a lot to spend on a thing (I know, I'm stressing about that for Scoundrels), and I personally need to reeaally want a game to lay that money down. The internet provides the 1000 people. And Kickstarter of course provides more opportunity for creators, which finds more opportunity for gamers looking for games, which feedback loops!

So, internet allows gamers to find creators to find gamers. And that filters outward little by little to families and friends and everyone becomes a little more appreciative of cool games. That's my belief.
Posted: 11 Mar 2015 19:02 by Erik Twice #199277
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I do agree that games now are more fit to a wider audience, they are shorter, easier to learn and require less investment than say, Battletech or whatever game was representative of the 80s.

But the audience is also far more open to playing games, reading rules and setting up a dedicated day to play them.

So it's a bit of both IMHO.
Posted: 11 Mar 2015 20:48 by Black Barney #199279
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