Board games show us a path out of our addiction to the on-screen desert of gaming by making the real world a tactile oasis for entertainment. You’re playing against people, not code and you might even learn some history, biology, or economics while you're at it.
There’s been a renaissance in board games over the last decade or so in North America. Just a few years ago this seemed incredibly unlikely; after all, Microsoft and Sony were developing ever more sophisticated video game consoles, people were spending longer and longer hours in front of their black mirrors, and by the second decade of the twentieth-first century social life became dependent on Mark Zuckerberg’s brain child let loose on the nascent Net.
Yet it happened. People started huddling around tables in cafeterias, cafes, schoolrooms, and game stores instead of their smart phone screens, moving coloured wooden meeples across boards, fitting tiles together, or completing quests mandated by randomly drawn cards. Sure, some of them still checked their cell texts compulsively like nicotine addicts clutching a dying butt, but others turned off their tech and enjoyed both the game and the social experience.
French theorists like Jean Baudrillard have been prophesying the death of the real, and thus the death of the social, as early as the '80s. It's part of the postmodern condition, he would say, part of a society where all useful data, and thus all useful interaction, had to be uploaded to avoid its decaying into insignificance.
Yet according to the Newtonian formula, every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction. The bungee cord of screen addiction snapped back, at least a bit. Board games show us a path out of the desert of the real for several reasons. First, they take place in real times and places: there’s no lag in communication. Second, you’re interacting with real people, able to engage them directly in a form of play that doesn’t affect (or shouldn’t affect) their vital interests, which according to the Habermasian formula, distort real communication. Games are fun; they bring laughter and social interaction. Third, modern board games have physical and kinetic qualities, and in the best cases (e.g. Tikal, Descent, Tobago, Jamaica) considerable aesthetic appeal. They can be beautiful objects rendered in three dimensions, not just pixels on a screen.
Last, and perhaps most important, you’re not playing against computer code, as in a video game. The essence of a board game is that all the rules have to be known and understood by at least one player for the game to be played in the first place. The rules of the game have to be public and transparent for a board game to work. And you have to process these rules to understand the strategies you can use to win the game.
This idea of les regles de jeu being open to all is very much in contrast to the political mood in Western countries in the new century, as Julian Assange has found out as he hides in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The hidden code of the video game reflects in miniature form the hidden code of the American military-industrial-technology complex, with drones controlled with joysticks from a bunker in Colorado buzzing over the heads of dirt-poor Iraqis and Afghans suspected of opposing Pax Americana.
Why are the majority of best-selling video games either straight-up shooters or role-playing games with strong combat elements? Or in the worst cases, simple slug fests like Mortal Kombat or Tekken? These games are about dexterity, not thinking. Whether you’re playing another person or your PS3 doesn’t matter. It’s all about moving your fingers quickly. You can turn off the upper reaches of your brain and still slaughter all the zombies quite effectively. They are the perfect fit for a society of politically disengaged narcissistic consumers. They’re also pretty good at militarizing the youth of America.
Yet not all board games are created equal. To understand the renaissance, it’s best to see modern board gaming as arriving in four waves. Though there’s evidence of simple board games as far back as Egypt in the days of the pharaohs, the first wave of modern board games appeared between the '30s and '60s with the development of the family game. These games usually featured a board divided into spaces on which the players moved pieces, usually regulated by dice, a spinner, or some other randomization device. Games like Monopoly (1933), Clue (1949) and Life (1960) had clear basic themes and dollops of strategy, but were ruled in the end by the goddess Fortuna. Who doesn’t remember nervously rolling a pair of dice as one turned the corner to face a Boardwalk and a Park Place adorned with threatening red hotels? A seven and you’re still alive, an eight and it’s game over.
Every successful genre TV show from the '50s to at least the '70s put out one of these “roll and move” games, often from Milton Bradley, as part of their marketing strategies to recruit young viewers. True enough, there were a few transitional games like Stratego (1947) and Risk (1959) where strategy eclipsed luck. But they were the exception, not the rule. Family games still dominate the shelves of stores like Toys ‘R Us, but they have nothing to do with the board game renaissance I’m talking about here. In fact, the serious gamer geeks treat such games with contempt in their ratings--they are the Hannah Montanas or Justin Biebers of the gaming world, suitable for six-year-olds who have accidentally spilled juice on their Play Stations and XBoxes.
The polar opposite of the family game was the historical simulation, which almost always wound up being a war game. The first successful modern war game was put out in 1958 by Avalon Hill. It was called Tactics II, and featured a bland generic map divided into squares on which moved small square counters. Printed on these counters were standard military symbols for infantry and armoured units along with combat and movement factors. Their battles were regulated by a “combat results table” and dice. Within a couple of years war games replaced the squares with hexes, but retained the rest of the Tactics II fomula. Avalon Hill went on to publish dozens of simulations of actual battles and wars, such as D Day (1961), Afrika Korps (1964), Guadalcanal (1966) and Panzerblitz (1970), which dominated the war game business well into the '70s.
Avalon Hill’s main competition was Strategy & Tactics, which, in 1969, started to send out four (later six) new games each year to their magazine subscribers, mostly hardcore war gamers hungry for simulations of battles that Avalon Hill’s more mainstream approach neglected. They republished the more popular of their magazine games such as Winter War and Borodino (both 1972) in fairly flimsy plastic boxes under the Simulations Publications, Inc. banner. SPI followed Avalon Hill’s basic war game formula with a vengeance: bland maps overlaid with hexes with terrain features indicated; military units with attack, defense and movement factors printed on them; a combat results table and a die to resolve battles.
Other companies in the '70s and '80s like Yaquinto Publications varied this formula, echoing miniatures rules in offerings like The Ironclads (1979) and 88 (1980). But by then the Wildings had crossed the wall: tribes of Atari, Nintendo, and Sega players tossed their old board games into thrift shop bins so they could move pixels with joysticks and blast baddies with buttons. Somewhere around this time Baudrillard started talking about the desert of the real and the reign of Third Order Simulacra.
With the explosion of personal computing and video game consoles, the late '80s and early '90s were a dark age for board gaming in North America. Yet we shouldn’t lament the decline of the old-style war game: while they succeeded as historical simulations, they often failed as games. Strategy was definitely a key factor in them, but they rarely concerned themselves with fun, elegance, beauty or social engagement.
With the emergence of the third wave of modern board games we get the true beginnings of the renaissance praised here. This was the Eurogame invasion, emerging mostly from Germany, but also involving key designers and producers from France, Italy, Britain, and Finland. Even though by the early '90s the German board game industry was in full swing, giving out an award for the Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) from 1979 on, it was the arrival of Settlers of Catan in 1995 that started the board game revival throughout the Western world. Settlers, with its wooden pieces, modular board, and focus on resource management, was the classic Eurogame.
Though a somewhat nebulous category, “Eurogames” tend to share a number of features: a vague historical theme, often from the medieval or early modern period (they rarely simulate a specific historical conflict, and avoid the World Wars and Cold War as themes); high quality, three-dimensional components, including the now classic wooden “meeple”; a strong preference for economic competition over military conflict; and the rejection of dice, reducing luck to a few card draws. And unlike the two-player war games that preceded them, they almost always worked best with small groups, with four or five players being a typical sweet spot.
The rules of Eurogames are more streamlined than the war games put out by American companies after 1975, but double or triple the complexity of the traditional family game. They typically involve the placement of workers or resources on some sort of map or board to win victory points. The simplest version of this is Carcassonne (2001), in which players build medieval towns by placing tiles to form a matching grid. The critically adored Agricola (2007) ups the complexity by challenging players to manage resources on a generic early modern farm, while Spiel des Jahres' Tikal (1999) asks its players to move worker cubes on a modular map of a Central American jungle to seek out lost Mayan artifacts. One of the most popular Eurogame lines is Ticket to Ride (2004), where participants play rail travelers who place colour-coded plastic trains on maps of Europe, North America, Africa and other regions of the world to gain victory points. Anyone over a certain age with a bit of patience can play Euogames, as opposed to old-school war games, whose players tended to be overwhelmingly male, middle-class, educated, and willing to spend hours negotiating complex webs of rules.
Yet there was a chink in the armour of the Eurogame: their paper-thin themes. When you play a popular worker placement game like Lords of Waterdeep (2012), it really doesn’t matter if the orange, purple, white, and blacks cubes you place on the map are rogues, wizards, medieval farmers, or space marines: at the end of the day, they’re just ways of getting points. Though requiring planning and strategy to win, Eurogames can often be re-themed without damaging their basic mechanics. Not so with the last wave of modern board games, where theme returns with gusto.
The fourth wave had its origins in fantasy and scif-fi role-playing games (RPGs) of the '70s and '80s like Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (1982). Loosely called “Ameritrash”, these games take the Eurogame model and mash it with elements of RPGs, family games and war games. First and foremost, theme matters: these games are clearly about something, usually centered on a fictional fantasy, horror, or sci-fi worlds such as H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos or the Star Wars universe. Second, Ameritrash games bring back direct player conflict, though they rarely deal with the same battles and wars simulated in '70s war games. Third, controlled luck is back through a heavy use of cards and the rehabilitation of the use of dice for conflict resolution (though not movement, as in family games, and without the frustrating accountancy of combat results tables). Lastly, their themes are often enriched by having players play named characters with their own cards, art, and back stories, represented on the board by plastic miniatures. Most Ameritrash games oppose rich narratives and specific character conflicts to the generic resource management of Eurogames.
On the simplistic end of the continuum we find games like King of Tokyo (2011) and Bang! The Dice Game (2013), where players roll and re-roll specialized dice Yahtzee-style to score hits on opposing Japanese monsters or Old West gunfighters. Fantasy Flight’s Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2005 and 2013) is the spiritual descendent of Dungeons & Dragons, a “dungeon crawl” that pits a Dark Overlord and his beautifully crafted dragons, ogres, trolls, and furies against a diverse band of heroes each with their own unique characteristics. At the upper end of the complexity scale we find games like Arkham Horror (2nd edition 2005), in which players move around an ornate map of Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts using specialized powers and nine decks of cards to stave off the victory of the Great Old Ones over the human race.
On the edge of the world of Ameritrash games are those some critics have called “Amerithrash,” violent games like Zombicide (2012) where the players hack and slash their way through hordes of the Undead. Another variation within the loose symphony of Amerithrash games are cooperative games, a category in which Zombicide also fits. In some co-ops players team up to beat the game: in Pandemic (2007), to save the world from four dread diseases; in Forbidden Island (2010), to get off a sinking island with four valuable treasures. An interesting sub-variation on the co-op genre are games where one or more players is a hidden traitor. Battlestar Galactica (2008) recreates the paranoid atmosphere of the award-winning sci-fi TV series by casting at least one player as a secret Cylon whose goal is to undermine the crew’s struggle to survive on their epic voyage to Earth.
Whether you prefer growing indigo on your seventeenth-century plantation or slaughtering goblin archers in a dank and dusty dungeon, the best modern board games have nothing to do with dexterity or speed. Even if there’s an element of luck in them--as in Ameritrash games--what makes them so compelling isn’t this luck, but the fact that you’re thinking on two levels: How to work within the rules to beat the game and what the other players are doing to stop you. So not only do board games revive the social, they also revive strategic thinking as part of play. Whether it’s deciding which coloured cubes to collect in Lords of Waterdeep, which archaeological dig to do in Thebes (2007) or if a climbing trait will guarantee you victory in Evolution (2014), board games make you think strategically while judging the intentions of the other players. You’re playing against people, not code, and you might even learn some history, biology, or economics while you're at it.
As previously hinted, after the turn of the millennium both Euros and Ameritrash games started on a serious upward curve both in terms of design philosophies and physical components. On the cheap and simple end of the scale, we see games like Coup (2012) and The Resistance (2009) with their elegant bluffing mechanics and their variations on the prisoner’s dilemma contained in boxes that fit in the smaller pockets of your backpack. On the upper end are monsters like Cthulhu Wars (2015) a $200 ten-pound black monolith containing magnificently sculpted seven-inch figures of H. P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. Companies like Fantasy Flight and Cool Mini or Not emphasize production quality as much as playability; their games look great, and invite rookies in with beautiful art on their cards, maps, and beautiful sculpts on their miniature pieces. No more bland counters with a few numbers printed on them: in modern board games, the aesthetics of cards, boards, and pieces is as important as game mechanics.
And the themes of board games have multiplied like rabbits: fantasy role-playing, adventures in space, medieval resource management, Old West shoot-em-ups, futuristic political intrigue, saving the world from disease outbreaks, or the Darwinian struggle to survive of primitive creatures, to mention just a few. If you look at the top 50 or so games on www.boardgamegeek.com, you’ll see a much wider spread of themes and styles than on an equivalent list of the top 50 Playstation or XBox games. It’s only logical to conclude that board games appeal to a much wider demographic of players in terms of gender, age and levels of education.
Yet we shouldn’t be sanguine about all this: the desert of the real is still a very seductive place for average citizens of the West to live most of their lives in. But board games, in their attempt to revive a non-digital sociality, in their encouragement of knowledgeable play and strategy over mind-numbing dexterity, in their aesthetic richness and variety of themes, offer a healthy alternative to fingers bashing keys and buttons.
Doug Mann is a contract professor at Western University in media studies and sociology, the author of four books (including Great Power and Great Responsibility: The Philosophical Politics of Comics) and over 100 articles.