In Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy”, Uncle Toby spends much of his time recreating the Siege of Namur (1695), the battle at which he received a crippling but unspecified groin injury. Together with his faithful servant, Corporal Trim, he limps happily around the scale fortifications they have erected on Toby’s bowling green near Shandy Hall, measuring cannon trajectories and imagining cavalry charges. Soon, they decide to recreate all the various sieges of the 18th-century War of Spanish Succession, awaiting reports in the government’s Gazette so they can fish out the relevant map and set to work drawing up their battle lines.
Uncle Toby is close to the ideal stereotype of a board-gaming hobbyist: harmless, punctilious, eccentric. But that stereotype might need revisiting. The trendy twenty-somethings you find popping into Draughts in Hackney, London’s first gaming café, for a craft beer and a quick game of Runewars hardly seem to fit the bill.
Draughts is just the latest manifestation of a popular renaissance in board gaming. Hasbro, the company that produces Monopoly, reported that their board-game sales grew by 8% last year, while the most recent report by the US-based trade magazine ICv2 estimates a 25% growth in sales of board games for 2014, with the hobby-games market as a whole breaking $1 billion in 2015 after seven years of consecutive growth. As ICv2’s Milton Griepp observes, “You don’t see many trends that last as long as that.” He notes, too, the increasing availability of board games in non-specialist bars and cafés – and, from his own experience, at “grown-up dinner parties”.
There is a difference between the games that interest ICv2, a magazine for those “in the business of Geek Culture”, and the more mainstream games made by a company like Hasbro – which Dr Irving Finkel, who in 1990 set up the first Board Game Studies Colloquium, calls “the games you might play with your granny”. ICv2 are talking about games like Settlers of Catan, which is played by obsessives: people who compete in tournaments, discuss tactics in online gaming forums and meet up in gaming cafés. But the distinction can be overstated. Household staples like Monopoly have long proved attractive to serious gamers. September 2015 saw both the 14th Monopoly World Championships and the 13th Scrabble World Championships. Conversely, as ICv2’s research suggests, more specialist games have begun to acquire a mass-market appeal.
Why, with recent advances in video-gaming technology (and video-game sales still dwarf those of board games) would people choose to sit around a table pushing little plastic pieces round an illustrated cardboard rectangle? One answer would be the quantity of games. Since 2007, the website BoardGameGeek has reported year-on-year growth in the number of new board games recorded in its database. This is partly due to increasing demand, but it also seems to demonstrate an industry enjoying a creative purple patch.
Many observers attribute the vibrancy of modern board gaming to the influence of so-called “Eurogames”, of which Settlers of Catan is the most famous example. First released by the German company Kosmos in 1995, when it won the Game of the Year award at Germany’s board-gaming Oscars, the Spiel des Jahres, by 2015 it had sold more than 22m copies worldwide. The perceived sophistication of Eurogames made them great favourites among serious players. A Eurogame will typically suggest a more immersive fictional world than American-style board games like Monopoly, and place a greater emphasis on strategy and cooperation. Players in Catan, for instance, represent rival colonists competing to establish settlements on a fictional island, while also trading the resources they produce in those settlements with one another.
Catan became the first Eurogame to break into the mass market in America. Today it is very popular in Silicon Valley: Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg even posted a cutesy status update in 2010, referencing a game with his wife Priscilla Chan (they drew). It started a trend that has in recent years only accelerated with companies such as Mayfair and Rio Grande bringing Eurogame formats to the American market as well as designing their own. You and your friends can build castles for Ludwig II of Bavaria in Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2014) or colonise outer space in Roll for the Galaxy (2014).
Irving Finkel believes this variety is deceptive, and that the popularity of Eurogames, and of modern board games in general – “thousands of games of no intrinsic value beyond their packaging” – tells us something unflattering about our consumerist society. Even discounting the Star Wars commercial tie-ins, many recent board games are iterations of the same basic rules repackaged with a different setting. Scotland Yard, in which one player as the criminal “Mr X” attempts to evade capture by the other players working together as Scotland Yard detectives, and which won the Spiel des Jahres in 1983, was relaunched in 2009 as Mister X. Its gameplay has been imitated by other games such as Letters from Whitechapel (in which one player as Jack the Ripper attempts to evade capture by the other players working together as Scotland Yard detectives).
The recent vogue for board games could also be seen as a reaction to uncertain economic times. Unlike so many computer games, board games are relatively cheap and can be played again and again. Just as Monopoly grew in popularity during the Great Depression, in the climate that succeeded the 2007-08 crash Milton Griepp identifies a desire to “get value from a game”.
And it’s no coincidence that demand for board games has increased when many of us are plugged in to digital devices; that Silicon Valley tycoons who spend their working hours staring at screens might choose to unwind with something simpler and more old-fashioned. Like the craft beer they serve in Draughts, board games have a quality of homely nostalgia. In troubling or bewildering times this appetite makes sense. When so many of our social interactions are conducted at a distance, board games, like Toby and Trim’s sieges, are played in the company of friends.