Who's Game for Something New?
Countless options exist for board game enthusiasts
By Stephen Harkleroad
It’s time to play a board game!
Your memories may suddenly bring you to endless games of Monopoly, while everyone else amasses pink and green stacks of cash as your thimble lands on Park Place yet again.
Or, the frustrating endeavor of playing Risk overnight until either the cat jumps on the board or that cousin you never liked flips the table. Or, that copy of Chinese Checkers that sat on the shelf and is neither Chinese nor Checkers. And, no one ever learned the rules for that game anyway.
But, board games have come a long way, and you may not realize that the modern board game industry has many offerings that appeal to a wide range of tastes.
Granted, many of the classic games you played as a kid are classics for a reason—even without the veneer of nostalgia, they are popular and sell well.
Board games have historically been marketed toward children and young teenagers, with the occasional party game for adults hitting the zeitgeist.
Concurrently, another niche emerged—the war game, which has a small but devoted audience, enough to sustain and develop a genre of its own, but not sizable enough to exist much outside of mail-order catalog sales and specialty stores.
Since the mid-1990s, however, “hobby games” have emerged as a viable source of entertainment for families and adults alike. Starting with Settlers of Catan in 1995, the next two decades have seen an explosion of board game innovation.
Catan is rightly considered a classic today, but at the time it was revolutionary. It had some features that, up to that point, had not been commonplace in board games.
Luck was relatively minimal in the game—while each player rolled dice every turn, the outcome affected all players, not just one. And, players could make decisions that would affect these results.
Contrast that to most other roll-and-move games, where you were at the mercy of the dice and there wasn’t anything you could do about it.
The game also had an established ending that topped off at around an hour. So, no more games lasting until three in the morning when everyone already knew who the winner was going to be at midnight.
Perhaps most importantly, the game featured no player elimination—everyone was in the game from start to finish. It was designed explicitly so most players had a reasonable shot at winning, right up to the end.
While there was definitely competition in the game, Catan was just as much about developing your own resources as it was depriving others of theirs. Its superficial similarities to Monopoly made it stand out—here was a trading game, condensed to a manageable time frame and with more things to do.
This concept—allowing players to make interesting choices—was the cornerstone of the modern board game industry.
While there’s nothing wrong with luck in games, they’re often designed to rob the player of the ability to make these interesting choices. And, for many, playing games felt a lot better when they got to make decisions on their own.
The Settlers of Catan was imported from Germany, along with many other titles, such as Carcassonne and Puerto Rico. They varied wildly in concept, but all had similarities:
No player elimination;
Minimal luck; and
Games wrapped up in about an hour or so.
The designers and producers in Germany made so many of these high-quality games that, for a time, they were labeled “German games” even if they were published in a different country.
However, many of these new, excited games had some drawbacks. One was theme—or rather, lack thereof.
Certainly, Carcassonne was about building a medieval estate in the south of France, but it just as easily could have been frontier America or the Russian foothills. Catan was a deliberately artificial island, but even then you didn’t get a grand sense of what you were developing.
Another drawback was the lack of competition.
Sure, players were trying to win, but many of these new games pulled back so hard on avoiding direct conflict that many of them fell into “multiplayer solitaire”—that is, there was so little interaction between players, they were effectively each simultaneously playing solo games and simply comparing scores at the end.
While certainly a valid way to design a game—some traditional card games do just that—it had limited appeal.
While the German game market was booming, the American companies, many of them former wargame publishers, weren’t simply sitting idle. A second strain of board games emerged, with one foot still firmly planted in the traditional mass-market games sold in the United States.
While the German games shied away from luck, theme, and direct competition, the new American games embraced them all with open arms, while adopting some of the new concepts.
Like “German” games, these games—derisively called “Ameritrash” games—established a foothold in the market for players turned off by the bland themes and lack of luck in German games.
Like any market, things settled out after a bit. “Ameritrash” games became “Thematic” games, when those games stopped being either trash or American.
“German” games became the more general “Eurogame,” even if the games were developed, published, and printed in the United States or Asia.
And a fusion of the two—usually called hybrid games, absorbing the best of both branches--emerged as a popular alternative, and arguably dominates the hobby today.
These days, more board games are released annually than ever before, and the number is growing. There are board game cafes, board game conventions, and probably a collection of board games at your local library.
There is still plenty of innovation going on in the industry. Every few years, a new twist or mechanism is introduced and becomes a big hit, followed by dozens of games trying to improve upon it.
And, there is a wide range of themes, integrated much more seamlessly in gameplay, from running a craft brewery to curing global diseases to conquering the Wild West.
If you miss the fun of board games but don’t miss the endless fights over Marvin Gardens, there’s probably a board game out there for you.
Stephen Harkleroad has been playing board games since before you were born, statistically speaking. He wrangles spreadsheets for a living. His favorite board game is Dune, and he has most recently spent time as a Human Cleric (Life Domain).