Degeekification: Are board games the new rock ’n’ roll?

No, of course they’re not. But thanks to Apple and Nintendo they’re no longer social interaction’s red-headed stepchild either. In fact, I’d argue that it’s now conceivable that board and card games could in fact become cool, if not likely. Whether I’d even want them to be is another question entirely, but I’ll take heightened social acceptance for now.

So, Apple and Nintendo you say? Yes, the very same. I would argue that they started the degeekification process with the iPhone and the Wii and now very little is safe from the process. I think LARPers, MMOers and role players in general are kind of safe (if not totally), but board gamers are in serious danger of being outed as ‘normal’.

While I’m not overly keen on the Apple ethos, the associated fanbois, or many of its products (I own an iPod Touch, that’s it), I have a deep admiration for the way it has taken style – in both design and attempted functionality – and created some quite beautiful products. Better still, most of them have transcended those technologies from geekdom to social acceptance; in particular gaming, thanks to daftness such as Angry Birds. Everybody’s doing it. It’s just a shame many don’t really work very well, but hey ho; the coolness factor gets people past that.

At the other end of the scale was Nintendo. While still being most famous for Mario, and not cool at all, with the Wii console it introduced a level of interaction that broke through a barrier technology had been bouncing off for years: the couch. But getting people off their arses and bouncing round the room, the likes of exercise, music and interactivity were taken up those all important notches to where the whole family understood and accepted the concept.

So, with computer gaming degeekified everywhere from the front room to the bus to school to cool kids club (if you don’t know, you weren’t in it, so ner), where does that leave other forms of gaming? As I alluded to earlier, role-playing doesn’t really count here – there’s something about pretending to be someone else (whether you dress up or not) and killing goblins that I don’t think Apple has really tackled head-on yet (although looking at some of the massive nerds that work there, I wouldn’t put it past them).

Board and card games are another thing entirely and very closely connected to computer games in many ways. In fact, before technology was ungeeked – even made cool in many cases – it was easy to argue board games were less geeky than computer games. We’ve all grown up with them and most of us have enjoyed them at least to some extent: from Triv to Monopoly to poker, they’re a part of life that ‘normal’ folks enjoy from the cradle to the grave (even if only at Christmas!).

I see the biggest barrier to enjoying more board and card games as ignorance – and the fault for this lies mainly with high street retailers. For many, their knowledge of card and board games ends at the likes of chess (nerdy), Risk (nerdy), snakes and ladders (crap) etc. And until you enter a shop specialising in these games, why would you think any different? WH Smith, Toys R Us, Debenhams and the rest stock ‘safe’ and ultimately awful ranges of board games that fear to step outside two boundaries: traditional family (read ‘Hasbro’) and children’s.

There’s a website called Board Game Geek (I’m not entering the boring debate on the merits, or lack thereof, of the name…) that is a remarkable resource for card and board games. It lists pretty much every game ever made (I would think) and while there are things on their including unpublished prototypes and expansions, it lists more than 50,000 titles. Yup, 50,000 – and they’re not all Monopoly variants either. Many of these are amazingly good fun, across all age categories and tastes, but suffer from under-exposure to the public and a bit of an identity issue. But, hopefully, this is starting to change.

It has been refreshing to see a few steps in the right direction this Christmas. Cheapo UK chain The Works stocked a strong range of quality board game titles over Christmas, thanks to one of its buyers (Laura Lemmon) taking the time to become an active part of the Board Game Geek website’s community. I hope she got a tasty promotion, as it looked as if the games shifted well across most of its stores.

I also saw classic game Carcassonne at Waterstones and the really good new Discworld game, Ankh-Morpork (from Martin Wallace, one of the world’s most respected game designers), was the one glimmer of light at WH Smith and other rubbish retailers (who clearly only got it on the Pratchett name).

It’s also interesting to note that in Germany, this ‘geekiness’ barrier has never really existed for board and card game play. The best example is the annual Essen International Spiel Games Fair, where 44,000 square meters of conference halls are visited by 150,000 people over a weekend in October – many of them regular families, rather than it just being enthusiasts. I can really see this slowly moving that way in the UK over time, although a good annual games fair in London is needed (the Birmingham UK Games Expo deserves a mention here – I plan to go for the first time this year).

So, why board games?

Which all begs the question, what are you missing? Put simply, an awful lot of fun. While the likes of Risk and Monopoly hold some charm for some people, they are deeply flawed and boring for some. A big factor is that games can play very long and exclude quite a few players from winning from very early in the game: many games I’ll be talking about play in an hour or less and keep you guessing about the winner right to the end, even though they play in a very similar way (boards, counters, cards, dice etc).

As for theme, there’s everything from civilisations and history to sport and wine to pirates and sci-fi – there really is something for everyone. And its not as if kids games, quiz games and party games are forgotten either. There are loads more of those too, adding extra layers of fun than the likes of ludo or Triv or Operation; or if you like those, they simply add more variety. Games can last 15 minutes or 15 hours – it really is up to you.

Most of us aren’t as well off as we used to be, meaning reasons for cheap nights in are a welcome break from expensive nights out. But what do you do if you stay in with friends? Putting on a DVD is antisocial, but music is great if only marginally distracting.

Conversation is of course key, but without anything else to distract from can seem forced or become awkward, even leaving some out completely. What can really help is a focus and a board game works perfectly in this situation. Of course you need to choose the right one for the group or occasion, but with 50,000 to choose from that’s not an issue.

I first started getting back into board games in a big way about five years ago, but have only started spreading the love a little more actively since 2009. After introducing Zoe to the hobby, which thankfully she has keenly embraced (if not in an obsessive way as I have), I started playing with a couple of friends who I knew were gamers. Then I added another couple of old gamers to the list, which was pretty much half of our regular social group.

The rest started to show interest and now another six people have had a go – all with positive results. In fact, of these people (and it’s not all lads either) all but the most recently converted now own a few new games themselves.

Sessions range from a few of us meeting up for a boozy mid-week session, couples nights in, Sunday afternoon sessions or full on weekend drinkathons. The most we’ve had playing is eight (with two games running at a time), but that is sure to rise – we’re going to need a bigger table…

In my next board game blog I’ll talk about some of what are referred to as ‘gateway games’; those games considered perfect for re-introducing people to the pastime that I’ve used myself and seen great results from. If you can’t wait until then (unlikely I know), I would suggest taking a look at titles such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Thebes, all of which I’ll cover next time.

2 thoughts on “Degeekification: Are board games the new rock ’n’ roll?

  1. Are board games the next “rock and roll?” Sure, there’s a chance. Are board games as we know and enjoy the next rock and roll? Not on your life.

    Why did smart phones, tablets, etc., become popular?
    Fairly simple, Apple and friends were able to say, “look, we have something that looks sleek and can do 90% of what you do for fun on a computer with only 10% of the knowledge/know-how needed!” And what are the most popular things on those smart phones/tablets? Apps (mostly games) where there is basically 1-2 buttons/motions and that’s it. They take very little time to get into and very little time to successfully play. In other words, everything about them is a computer, only extremely dumbed down.

    (I’m not saying that in a bad way, there’s an amazing elegance to the way companies, especially Apple, have managed to simplify things so much with losing so relatively little)

    Why did the Wii become popular?
    Fairly simple, it took the video game, something which had spent 30 years getting more complex, adding more and more buttons to controllers, getting more hardcore, keeping a relatively steep price point as a barrier to entry, and appealing further and further to a male-dominated audience and said, “look, we have something here that’s cheap to get into and the big game to launch the system is actually FIVE games in 1 and you can play them with at most, 1 button!” (forget play WELL, at least play). And play-time is generally very short (maybe 30 mins for a longer game) compared to “hardcore” games (where a session of gaming can easily be a couple of hours). In other words, it said you can do 60% of video gaming on our system with 10% of the knowledge/ability and a much lower price point.

    Now why did the Wii fail?
    Well, after that push, there wasn’t a whole lot of games out there that fit the way they sold the system and further, many people didn’t care to get more games. They had bought their Wii Sports machine and that was that. To this day, when many people talk about “playing Wii,” they mean turning on the system with Wii Sports in it, playing it, then turning it off. The best-selling games for the system, after Wii Sports? Mario Kart (which was included with the system after a little while, probably skewing those numbers high), Wii Sports Resort (basically the Wii Motion Plus version of Wii Sports), Wii Play (more or less a sequel to Wii Sports, included for $10 with a controller, something everyone needed to buy since the system came with one controller), Wii Fit (not so much a game as a guided exercise machine), New Super Mario Wii (again, included in a system bundle after a while, so probably skewed the numbers high), and the sequel to Wii Fit. After that, things fall off a cliff (with generally less than 10% of owners of the system actually buying the game, and that’s with flagship Mario games next on the list).

    Now obviously the Wii didn’t “fail.” It’s one of the most popular systems ever. But I mean it failed on taking that initial selling point and continuing to run with it. Maybe it should have taken a page out of Apple’s playbook, had the simplified Wii to push for the simple stuff and their version of the Macbook Pro to push to the hardcore crowd. Regardless, seeing what the top-selling software was for the Wii really drives home the market that it was being successfully sold to.

    The obvious trend to take from this the masses are lazy, dumb, and a little bit cheap. They worked hard enough all day, they don’t want to “work” on anything after all that. They want their leisure-time activities to be simple, easy to learn, and tickle the pleasure-sensors in their brain. They also don’t want to invest too much money to get to that point, but if they’re told something is REEEEAAAAAALLY cool, they’re willing to fork over some dough.

    Now how does this all relate to board games?
    Well, simple:

    How to you classify our hobby? It takes a decent amount of learning to get into, in the first place. Even if we were to envision a world where there’s a board-gaming store similar to an Apple store where there’s brightly-lit, cool places to go with tons of knowledgeable staff to get you set up with what to buy, the games we play require either reading a rulebook or having someone who knows the game teach it to you. There’s not much of a chance of, “lets just start and we’ll figure it out along the way,” even with gateway games such as Carc or Settlers. So that’s one strike against people wanting something that’s very simple.

    I don’t think I need to write much about needing intelligence for this hobby, as after you get past entry-level games, they get complex, FAST. There’s a lot of strategies to learn. There’s tons of rules to remember. And there’s not an Angry Birds or Wii Sports that is THE BIG GAME that is the only game that everyone plays, so it generally means needing to learn a few different games to really interact well. So that’s a strike against people wanting something that isn’t over their heads.

    If you walk into a game store (or gods-help you, Barns and Noble), the prices of board games can be absolutely ridiculous. Easily, $50-60+ for most games which, funny enough, is the same price point for new video games in retail stores that tend to drive away more casual people from trying too many new things. So unless the “retail” prices for games were to come down to a level closer to what we see in OLGS, the price-barrier is a bit high to have the average person just walk into a store and on a whim, buy a new game. So there’s a strike against the price point.

    How long does it take for someone new to the hobby to play a game? I think the first 1-2 plays for anyone on even the simplest of games is going to be an hour or so. More complex ones obviously spikes up to 2, 3, or even 4+ hours. So obviously not the time-frame for the masses who want something “quick.”

    And really, there’s nothing about most games in this hobby I look at and think, “OK, if people really saw this, they’d realize how cool it is.” Too many of the good games have weird/abstract themes, are farming, economic, shipping, or some random historical period that we’re placed in. Most of the “cooler” themes would be more Ameritrashy, and if the idea is that board games are going to become popular and that means a small handful of ameritrash games which aren’t mainstream, now will be, I can’t call that a win.

    So where does that leave us?
    Well, if a company puts itself in the right spot like Apple/Nintendo did as being the ones to put out the “cool” games, pushes a very different type of game than most of what we’re seeing at a low price point, with a sleek design/theme/components/box (VERY important there), sure, we could see something similar to what happened in other industries. But just like those other industries, we’re not going to see that “cool” movement really drive people to the “non-cool” versions of these things. Likely, the only difference we’ll really see is when we tell people we play board games, instead of just saying, “Oh, like Monopoly?”, we’ll also hear, “Oh, like that Wii Sports/Angry Birds board game?” and maybe have another thing our families want to play/get us at Christmas.

  2. Interesting stuff.

    I certainly wouldn’t argue with most of what you wrote here, but would certainly draw some different conclusions. We agree on what Apple and Nintendo did. However, I think the demystification of gaming as nerdy is more significant as I give the good old general public a bit more intelligence and patience than you seem to.

    Ticket To Ride and Carcassonne have 4 and 6 sided rule books (with pictures). In comparison, Monopoly has 8 and Risk 16 (I’m checking the last two from online pdfs as I don’t own them, so could be wrong) – I’d conclude from this that rules would not be a barrier to play.

    I think that, sure, a certain amount of education is needed to convince people that a board game has financial value; but if people are happy to buy a Wii console and games, at similar prices, I don’t think that’s a great leap either.

    And I don’t think computer game pick-up tends to happen in a vacuum; people show others their games, or they see reviews, and they go buy them. In an evolving hobby (if board games began to get more media, for example), the exact same thing would naturally happen.

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