Across the Western world, tabletop games have been enjoying something of a renaissance since 2010 or so. You don’t have to look far to find facts, figures and insider comments that describe booming sales and a broadening appeal to the general public for tabletop games, especially for the more niche ‘hobby games' that many of us know and love.
What was it that sparked this revolution? If anything, board games seem to be at odds with the ‘tech first’ trends of the 21st century, yet they’re defying all expectations with their continuing growth. So what’s going on?
The state of the industry
It’s tricky to find figures for the tabletop gaming industry from 2017, but stats from the previous couple of years aren’t too hard to dig up. According to The Guardian, its estimates for growth in sales of tabletop games (including card, dice and war games) place it at around 20% between 2015 and ‘16 for the US, and possibly even as high as 35% for the UK industry. In the competitive entertainment space, those are some strong stats.
Even more astonishing is the mind-boggling statistic reported in Adweek by American market research group NPD. They estimate the US sales growth in adult games (basically, hobby games) to be around 183% between 2016 and ‘17. With the Dice Tower’s Tom Vassel estimating that there were around 4,000 brand new games released in 2017 alone, it looks like the industry isn’t slowing down any time soon.
This growth is undoubtedly fuelled by the droves of new players taking up tabletop gaming as a hobby every month. Speaking to The Guardian, distributor Esdevium Games’ marketing manager, Ben Hogg, commented on how their games’ audience was primarily focused on more niche, “geekier” (his word) titles like Warhammer games, whereas now they supply games for a much broader, “crossover” audience.
It’s clear that the whole industry is currently in a very healthy position - arguably the best it’s ever been in.
What draws people to these Tabletop Games?
There is no single type of tabletop gamer; every individual will have different reasons for why they love playing games. However, the growth in the industry that we know is happening is so big that it seems like there must be some factors beyond personal choice that are drawing large numbers of people in.
I’m sure if you ask 100 different gamers what they think is attracting new people to the hobby you’ll get 100 different answers, but I’ve attempted to tease out a couple of factors from within the games themselves and a couple of wider social factors that might go some way towards explaining the current renaissance.
Interesting mental engagement
Tabletop games offer a breadth and depth of mental engagement that’s unlike anything else in the entertainment industry. While there may be some overlap with video games, the unique visual and tactile nature of tabletop games mean that they lend themselves to a different kind of experience than their digital counterparts.
The mental engagement often involves strategy and planning, but could also involve creativity, communication, spatial awareness, dexterity and more. It could be mentally taxing or it could be much lighter. But, in practically every tabletop game, some form of mental engagement is paired with a somewhat achievable goal. Whether the goal is beating other players or the game itself, it rewards you for getting better at the skills required with a sense of achievement.
For this reason, playing board games can be an immensely satisfying experience, which naturally makes a lot of people want to feel that satisfaction again. Even when you lose and don’t necessarily have that same sense of achievement, the urge to try again and see if you can do better is often very strong. This seems to me like a very good reason for why new players often get hooked so fast, even after their very first tabletop game.
Engaging stories and themes
Games that contain these engaging mental elements have been coming out thick and fast since the late 20th century. The commitment of hard working designers to keep making these excellent new games is undoubtedly a factor in the boom the industry is now seeing; there are now so many good games, aimed at a wide range of audiences, for us to choose from. Many of these newer tabletop games pair strategy with engaging stories and themes that add to their appeal.
The story of a game could unfold through the way theme and mechanics are combined over the course of the game, such as the building of a city in 7 Wonders or the rise and decline of different races in Small World. A story can also emerge from the changing fortunes of the players themselves, which could even be the case in an abstract game that has no concrete narrative in and of itself.
Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic: The Gathering, sometimes talks about ‘story equity’. This refers to the potential a game has to keep players telling stories about it even after they’ve finished playing. Someone doing something unexpected, pulling off an obscure combo or achieving something difficult all lend themselves to this kind of thing. A game with good story equity encourages players to see and experience unfolding narratives and moments that make the game more exciting and memorable.
Having a good story or theme can also work in a game’s favour on a much more basic level. How many of us have bought games largely because we like the look of the theme? I know I have. There are games out there covering almost every creative theme imaginable, from sushi making, to robot racing, to sprawling epic fantasy wars. Whatever genre of entertainment someone likes, whether they’re a gamer or not, there’ll probably be hundreds of games that play into that theme.
This makes it very easy for people to get on board with a game and to keep finding new games that they want to try out, helping the industry to both attract and retain new players. Even if a theme has very little impact on how the game actually plays, simply the look of it can be enough to draw someone in.
Fitting the social moment
While factors within the games themselves are undoubtedly important, particularly for retaining new players, I don’t think they’re enough to fully explain the growth in the industry. There has to be other factors that are drawing people to tabletop games in the first place.
Meaningful social engagement
In the smartphone era, communication and social engagement have been changing at lightning speed. So much of what used to be done in person is now done over a screen. Increasingly, many people have been raising concerns over what that’s doing to our relationships and even our brains, suggesting that social media shouldn't be at the extent of our social interaction.
Without cutting out social media completely, many people have come to see that it’s maybe not as great as we once thought it was. There’s still a hole in our lives that needs to be filled by interpersonal engagement. Tabletop games offer exactly that.
More than almost any other activity, these games bring a group of people together over a common activity. They work great in situations where people already know each other really well and in situations where people are still getting to know each other, or maybe even starting out as complete strangers. The shared activity helps you to find common ground and provides shared experiences that can be the building blocks of genuine friendships.
A good game encourages everyone to be present in the group and encourages everybody to participate in the social interaction, which makes it much harder for someone to feel like they’re on the fringes of a group. They provide a way for people who find interpersonal interaction harder to enjoy a social activity with a clear goal, and an outlet for extreme extroverts to spend a few hours in company. How many other activities can make the same claim?
By their very nature, tabletop games bring groups of people together round a table. That is something that’s increasingly rare to see, and yet I can’t help but feel it’s something we all need a bit of in our lives. They offer a safe social space in a world of increasing isolation, which gives them a broader appeal now than they’ve ever had before.
Our digital age also makes everything so fast. With so many of our day to day activities there’s no time to stop, process and think through your actions. You make snap decision after snap decision, sometimes with nothing more than the flick of a finger.
Many tabletop games resist that way of acting. They ask us to sit down at a single activity for anything from 20 minutes to 12 hours and think through a series of actions that all lead towards an end goal. Players have space to evaluate their options, make mistakes, learn and see the results of their actions. When much of our free time is spent scrolling through news feeds and looking at notifications, we miss that more meaningful sense of working towards a satisfying goal in a single activity.
What’s more, board games offer a very cheap way to entertain yourself and a group of friends for an evening. You might easily spend £40 on a single meal out for two or three people, but the £40 copy of Catan that I bought when I started playing games has got me countless hours of entertainment with a wide variety of people. Economics won’t be a factor in entertainment for everyone, but it's a very real consideration for a lot of people and worth mentioning as a factor in board games’ widening appeal.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I know it’s been a long article, but there are a lot of reasons why board games have done so well in recent years. I’m sure I’ve missed the mark on some of these points and forgotten other things I could have mentioned, but the most important thing for all of us is that the industry’s looking really good right now, and the more we keep playing and supporting the companies involved, the better it’s going to keep getting.