An unappreciated reason for the board game renaissance (with implications for its future)

Board game rennaisance

In recent years, the board game market has been roaring. In 2015 alone, the hobby games market grew 30%.

Why? Board games are growing faster than the games market generally, so it’s not a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats thing (video games have been growing at about 5%). Why are board games growing faster than other games?

The explanation I hear most is that the internet, BoardGameGeek especially, has created a new community of like-minded game lovers, which is sucking people into its growing vortex.

That’s part of the explanation, but I don’t think the only part. Maybe not even the main part. Online communities for video games have also exploded, but that hasn’t driven video game growth in the same way. More important:

Screens are everywhere

Thanks to smart phones, screens have become pervasive. The average American checks her phone 150 times a day, a major shift in the way we live.

And as screens have become dominant, our relationships with them have grown uneasy. This new feeling is reflected, for example, in Black Mirror, a popular TV show all about this uneasiness and whose title is a direct reference to modern screens:

Black Mirror masks

See too the ‘phone zombies’ images now peppering the web:

Phone zombies

Increasingly, many of us want to escape. We’ve come to associate screens with drudgery, mindlessness, and interruption. I spend my workday staring at a screen, looking away only when distracted by a ping from another screen. The last thing I want to do after work is stare at another one and keep feeling those associations. And if you’re a parent, you likely spend significant time worrying about, and regulating, your kids’ screen time.

Board games are an escape. They’re among the last screenless domestic entertainments, so we’re turning to them for reprieve.

That’s my theory. If true, it has implications for the future of board games.

The coming age of “smart” board games?

The industry is talking a lot about smart games and toys, fast-growing product-categories which many see as THE industry’s future. What if board games had components that could think and communicate? Theoretically, a smart board game could to a lot of stuff:

  • feel reactive and alive, with pieces responding to players and to each other, and behaving like living things

  • play against you

  • teach you its rules

  • do the book keeping for you

  • evolve in ways traditional board games can’t

Incidentally, these are among the main reasons video games are so much more popular than board games. Video games have it over on board games in pretty much every way except:

  • board games are more social, and relatedly:

  • board games don’t have screens

Screens might be an impediment to smart board games

So, due to dramatically expanded functionality, smart board games have at least the potential to be awesome. But how could you actually make one? I know of 5 published board games with significant digital integrations. Here they are:

Each is social in the way board games should be (you sit around a table, playing face-to-face), and each was created by competent people. As a group, their sales haven’t lit the world on fire. Alchemists has performed performed well, XCOM ok, Golem Arcana poorly, Sifteo failed, and World of Yo-Ho launched this year with a weak $55k Kickstarter campaign (caveat: sales figures aren’t public, so I’ve relied on inference and what others have told me - errors are possible). All rely on screens.

Given the profound potential advantages of digital integration, I’d have expected better performance from this group.

I wonder if their reliance on screens have hindered these games. I don’t have hard evidence, but I know I’m personally turned off by their screens, and I’ve spoken with many who express similar fondness for the “feel” of traditional games. If people like me are a big chunk of the market, it could be an issue.

A key challenge in creating smart board games, then, may be to ensure they retain the feel of a traditional games, and that will be harder to do that if they utilize screens.

To put rubber to road, Jonathan Bobrow, a designer who recently graduated from the MIT Media Lab, and I are exploring this hypothesis, designing screenless (or sometimes just less screeny) smart games and puzzles:


That’s a subject for another day. We’ll post regularly in this space about the stuff we’re making, the theory behind it, and our effort to make a business of it. If you’d like to follow our work (and be alerted when our games launch), sign up here.

Leave a comment

Name .
Message .

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published