By Connie McCool Duncan
The concept of gaming is almost as old as humanity itself. Board games were popular with the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt, while Backgammon was being played throughout the Roman Empire in 2000 BC. The oldest known dice were discovered in a 5,000-year-old burial mound in Turkey and their descendants have been the scourge or saviour of many a family Christmas ever since.
However, as modern reliance upon smartphones spirals ever closer to addiction, more and more industries are undergoing a digital transformation. Having thus far withstood the test of time, some doubt that the board game industry can resist a similar revolution.
While it took 15 years for half of the UK population to get a mobile phone and 14 years to get multi-channel TV, newer technologies such as online catch up TV and social networking websites reached this landmark in just four years. This rapid development has led to a correspondingly rapid change in the way that we entertain ourselves and interact with others.
Yet the evidence does not suggest that technology is soon to kill off the board game. While digital games are now part of the entertainment mainstream, the past decade has also seen unexpected growth in the industry that many assumed would become redundant in an era of screens. Sales of board games are still dwarfed by those of the latest PC and console blockbusters, but the past four years have seen board game purchases rise by between 25% and 40% annually. Thousands of new titles are released each year, and the top board games sell millions of copies.
The rise of smartphones and tablets has given players an inexpensive way to try digital versions of board games, and many go on to buy physical copies as well. Additionally, online retailers have made rarer games more easily available than they have been in the past, while the power of blogs and social networks has created word-of-mouth buzz for an industry that, until recently, has been largely ignored by mainstream, non-gaming media.
Classic board games are still popular at family gatherings but the pastime has now been seized upon by a more grownup market. Throughout Europe and the US, a new breed of board gaming now thrives. Adopting the complex strategy and imaginary worlds of games like World of Warcraft, there are now titles that allow you to play at building medieval settlements, re-enact pivotal battles, tackle political debating, or manage the spread of disease, and they sell in huge numbers. Gaming enthusiasts, used to interacting with fellow players online, have seemingly embraced the social aspect of playing a board game with friends.
In the UK, the popularity of board games has been further bolstered by the emergence of board game cafesand bars. Set in the heart of Hackney, London’s first board game café, Draughts, took the Internet by storm when it launched in 2014 and now working professionals queue outside, waiting for a table. The café has a range of over 500 games, from popular gems like Articulate and Monopoly to hundreds of lesser-known titles. For £5 per person, customers can play as many games as they want whilst indulging in an expectedly-hipster selection of local craft beers, ales, ciders, and wines.
Rather than disappearing, the board game industry is adapting; a good board game generates a group experience that is different to that which a screen-based game can offer. Interacting with other people, regardless of their location, has been made easier through mediums like Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp, and Snapchat, but nothing beats being in the same room as the person that you are talking to. It is the face-to-face sharing of chaos, scheming, anger, and laughter that will ensure the survival of the board game in an increasingly face-to-screen world.