Board games are playing for keeps

March 26, 2018

With a new edition of Monopoly on the way and Dungeons and Dragons rekindling its fire, we roll the dice on the new golden age of the board game.

Nintendo’s new Switch has become the fastest selling home video game system to date, Playstation is shifting gears by introducing virtual reality headsets, and online multiplayer games such as Fortnite Battle Royale are available free of charge.

Yet the humble board game is trending. Yes, that’s right, board-game cafes and bars are popping up in cities around the world, sales figures are rising and record numbers of new games are attracting strong crowdfunding.

Why? Toy makers certainly know how to tap into a multigenerational market, regularly releasing updates and new editions of old favourites such as Monopoly (fans will be happy to hear a “cheaters’ version” of the game will be released later this year).


Social medium

But in this digital age, when people sometimes struggle to connect in person, there is a bigger picture at play. Martin Bartosiewicz, co-owner of Games Empire in Sydney, a retailer that specialises in board games, card games and collectable figures, says the market is growing because of the social nature of tabletop games.

“A lot of families see board games as a way of connecting and interacting with their children, especially teenage children, and getting them away from computer games and the internet,” Bartosiewicz says. “In the past year, we’ve seen a lot more titles aimed at families – and that makes sense.”

He goes on to name Ticket to Ride and Catan as his best-selling games, suggesting both would easily have sold millions of copies worldwide.

In fact, Catan (previously branded the Settlers of Catan) has sold more than 27 million copies in 39 languages since its 1995 release. The game, which requires players to collect natural resources to build settlements, is a firm favourite of avid gamer and entertainment journalist Yasmin Vought.

“For me, tabletop gaming is a kind of escapism from day-to-day life but it also forces me out of the house to connect with friends,” she says. “Board games also feel more inclusive than a lot of video games. Magic: The Gathering along with Dungeons and Dragons, for example, have female characters that are equally as strong as their male counterparts. I’m yet to see that level of inclusivity in a lot of the video games I’d like to play.”

The brand manager at retailer Good Games, Jaime Lawrence, doesn’t see digital gaming as a competitor, believing the mechanisms of most digital games are based on those of tabletop games.

“The only difference is the medium through which they express themselves,” Lawrence says. “Board games, role-playing games, wargames – these have been hobbies, passions and tools of humanity for thousands of years. They bring people together and give them something to socialise over as well as being engaging mechanisms for play.” 


Out of the dungeon
Lawrence agrees with Vought that one of the biggest recent success stories is the resurgence of Dungeons and Dragons. “Anecdotally, it’s become not only socially acceptable but cool to pretend to be a barbarian or wizard,” he says. “Sales figures suggest the same. Each release sells more than the previous one.”

Good Games sold about 5000 Dungeons and Dragons books in 2017, accounting for about $300,000 in takings, according to Lawrence. “That doesn’t include the dice, maps and miniatures used in the game,” he adds. Party games such as Codenames and Cards Against Humanity also sold well, each at about 1200-1500 copies, while the retailer’s biggest-selling traditional board game, Catan, has topped the sales list for many years.


Follow the crowd

One new release Vought is excited about is GKR: Heavy Hitters, the first board game by New Zealand special effects company Weta Workshop, which contributed the special effects to blockbuster movies The Lord of the Rings and Avatar.

GKR: Heavy Hitters, a robot-combat game, started life on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where to date it has raised more than $1 million. Another Kickstarter success story is Cards Against Humanity, a controversial party game that reached its funding goal in two weeks in late 2010 and has gone on to become a pop-culture phenomenon.

Board games aren’t going away any time soon – even if their future is beyond a board, Bartosiewicz says.

“I’ve seen tablets that are designed to play a board game on, so we may not see cardboard and plastic board games in 20 years but I would think we will see board games played in some way,” he says.

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