Modern Life

Playing offline: The new boom in board games

Beyond nostalgia, board games offer off-screen opportunities for connection, creativity, competition, and just plain fun.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — November 21, 2019

At the new board game cafe Tea + Victory in Houston, kids compete at the classic game Connect 4 while adults sip wine and play the popular bird-focused game Wingspan or the astronaut-themed game Bureaunauts.

In this era of video and digital gaming, sales of low-fi, tabletop games are on the rise as more people — especially millennials — crave time socializing with friends and family away from screens. HP’s recent Get Real survey found that 63% of people think their digital lives and real lives are out of balance. In the same survey, 61% of parents said they worry their kids aren’t developing the social skills they need because they’re spending too much time on a screen. 

“People are trying to find ways to get off of their screens and interact face to face,” says Vanessa Briceño, co-owner of Tea + Victory.

“People are trying to find ways to get off of their screens and interact face to face.”

—Vanessa Briceño, co-owner, Tea + Victory

New ways to play

Board games offer a tactile alternative to smartphones, computers, and game consoles, and their growing popularity has led to new ways for people to connect and play in their communities. By 2023, the global board games market is expected to reach $12 billion as classic games like Pictionary and Sorry! from big players such as Mattel and Hasbro continue to attract gamers, while independent designers and smaller companies release their own new titles each year. 

Briceño, who has a master’s degree in game design, opened Tea + Victory with her husband, Jason Bush, in 2018. In grad school, Briceño set out to study video games, but was drawn to board games and their ability to bring people together and create community. “When people play them, they’re laughing and interacting,” she says.

At Tea + Victory, customers pay a $5 cover to test drive the café’s over 600 games, or they can bring their own games for no fee. Game guides recommend games, coach customers, and look after the game library. Local game designers also often demo their prototypes at the café. 

“Our priority was to create a space where everyone feels welcome,” Briceño says.

Board-game focused bars and coffee shops like Tea + Victory have popped up across the country. Southern California’s first board game café, GameHäus, offers over 1,000 board game titles. In Bend, Oregon, people line up for the doors to open at Modern Games, the town’s only board game café. And The Uncommons, Manhattan’s first board game café, boasts one of the largest game libraries on the East Coast. 

Greg May, owner and founder of The Uncommons, says the café has drawn a following of loyal regulars — many customers come without fail once a week, and weekend wait times often stretch to three hours. 

“We consider ourselves a home for the community,” May says.

Fame fame fame

At The Uncommons, a board game café in Manhattan, it’s not uncommon for game enthusiasts to wait hours for their chance to play.

Cooperation over competition

Classic games like Monopoly continue to attract nostalgic game enthusiasts, as do their spin-offs or sequels like Mattel’s new card game DOS, which was recently released 40-odd years after its popular predecessor UNO. Yet, more and more of today’s board games emphasize collaboration, cooperation, and inclusiveness rather than conflict or luck.

Tea + Victory regular Tirza Block says she’s always on the lookout for new board games — especially collaborative ones like Betrayal at House on the Hill in which players explore a haunted house and work together to defeat one player that betrays the others. Block also hosts a regular game playing afternoon at her home every Saturday. “We’re a board game household,” she says. “Games are a great way to connect socially.”

The industry has seen rising interest in Eurogames, a genre based on strategy and cooperation that often focuses on economic themes. One such game, Catan (aka Settlers of Catan), a German board game published in the mid-1990s, has sold more than 27 million copies in 39 languages. Players win victory points when they build settlements and cities. The first player to score 10 points wins.

Also increasingly popular are legacy games, with rules and components that change based on each game’s outcome and the choices players make. For example, players might make physical changes to a game like adding stickers to the board or tearing up cards. Rob Daviau, a 20-year industry veteran and former game designer at Hasbro Games, is credited with coming up with the legacy concept.

“Ideas are plentiful; making games is hard,” says Daviau, who worked on over 80 published games including Risk Star Wars and Clue Harry Potter. He was editor of Trivial Pursuit and created legacy versions of Risk and Pandemic.

Daviau says the ideas for his games often spring from interesting life moments, like the mixed emotions of dropping off a child at college, which he’s thinking about for a future game. He envisions a two-player game in which one player is an engineer trying to perfect the rocket to colonize Mars and the other will be the first colonist. The two work together to prepare for the one-way trip, and if they win, they never see each other again.

Since 2016, Daviau has been chief restoration officer at Restoration Games, a publisher bringing unique out-of-print board games back to life. Daviau compares the gaming industry with the beer industry, where large companies coexist with smaller producers and hobbyists who add variety. Annual and even monthly lists of hot new games keep tabletop gamers informed on new games to try. 

“As board games and hobby games have grown over the last generation, more people are playing them and more people want to make them,” he says.

Fame fame fame

Tabletop gamers visit cafés like The Uncommons to play standards like Monopoly and Catan and also to discover new games from indie designers and publishers.

Making game production more accessible

In 2018, tabletop games were the biggest subcategory on Kickstarter. Funders pledged $172 million, or 28% of the total amount promised on the platform, to 3,700 tabletop games. 

With a 1,000 to 2,000-game minimum print run for a large printer and an average-weight game costing about $20 to make and ship, a designer could easily spend $40,000 on an initial run. Like many designers these days, game hobbyist Randy Hoyt — a web developer by day and game designer at night and on weekends — launched his first game with a Kickstarter campaign. Almost seven years ago, he designed jungle exploration game Relic Expedition with his brother Tyler Segel. The two set out to raise $24,000 and ended up with $40,000 to make 1,500 games. Now, they help other designers develop games through their company Foxtrot Games.

“Kickstarter has been a huge boost to the industry,” Hoyt says. “A lot of people like me wouldn’t have been able to break in without it.” Thus far in 2019, over 2,500 projects have been introduced to the platform. 

Even Daviau turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise funds when he brought back Fireball Island, a game from the 1980s, after requests for it flooded his website. As of August, 23,325 backers had pledged $2,810,297 towards bring the game back to life.

The rise of indie printers

Game designers who want to make even smaller print runs often work with indie printers like Print & Play, in Vancouver, Washington, which makes board games and card games. Game enthusiast Andrew Tullsen launched Print & Play in 2009 when he was in high school.

As a teen, Tullsen spent hours downloading and printing free online board games on his HP inkjet printer. When he posted pictures of his creations online, friends and family asked for copies. Soon after, he borrowed $500, bought a few used printers, and Print & Play Productions was born. Tullsen sold the company to AdMagic in 2016, and is now regional manager of AdMagic’s West Coast division.

“We get a lot of new designers,” says Tullsen, who also recently released his own game, Flick Wars. “Board games are definitely having a resurgence.”

To keep up with industry trends, Tullsen attends conventions like Gen Con in Indianapolis, the largest tabletop-game convention in North America, which recently reported a record 70,000 attendees. Conventions are a chance for designers to test their games with peers. Lucky ones might attract the attention of major publishers like French board game publisher Asmodee, Tullsen says.

Fame fame fame

In the beautifully illustrated game Wingspan, players play bird enthusiasts competing to attract birds to their aviaries.

The next frontier — virtual board games?

While designers continue to maintain the elements that define board games — tactile play and the social aspect of gaming — they’re also experimenting with new technologies. One area board game enthusiasts are currently eyeing is augmented reality (AR), a technology that could add a new element to the tabletop gaming experience.

AR inserts virtual objects into real life using an AR headset or smartphone camera and screen. It’s early days, but AR has been used in games like Pokémon Go, and Hasbro now sells an AR helmet that puts users inside Iron Man’s armor. Various startups have been working on AR tabletop game systems. With one system, the Live Game Board, players use their mobile devices to overlay 3D virtual content onto a game mat.

Hoyt says the challenge with AR is to not let it take over the experience. “A lot of discipline and restraint is needed to not use it all the time and turn it into a video game,” he says.

For Daviau, AR in the board game world is a lot like fads in the food world. New, unique products come and go, he says, “but people keep coming back to the classics.”