When people think of board games they think of traumatic episodes from their youth: the game of RISK that led to your younger brother’s concussion or the Monopoly round that preceded your parent’s divorce. Just as these upsetting memories have been relegated to the deepest corners of one’s mind, so have the accompanying games been shoved away into closets to gather dust and be forgotten. Because why ever would they be remembered? Such table top games seem stale and archaic in comparison to our current age of visually stunning videogames. Yet, somehow, board games are making a comeback. They are being sold in large retailers like WHS Smith and Waterstones. They are appearing as post-modern ironic props in many trendy pubs and cafes; and in Hackney, a café called Draughts even specializes in board games. More than this, the entire industry is in the midst of a new Golden Age with overall board game purchases growing upwards of 40% annually. So what is it exactly about tabletop game-playing that is so appealing to the sensibilities of our generation?
Well, for starters, board games aren’t exactly a modern phenomenon. Dice rolling and tile hopping have been around since antiquity. One of the oldest known board games, Senet, was played in Ancient Egypt over five thousand years ago. In Victorian times, children played Little Dickey Birds with a board and spinning top. Oxford’s Bodleian library currently houses an original rule sheet for the game.
But in our current frame of mind, games have evolved beyond being just toys for children’s amusement. Most board games can’t even be bought in your typical toy store but rather are purchased at specific adult hobby shops (such as London’s iconic Orc’s Nest located near Shaftesbury Avenue). Furthermore, many games today are being made with beautiful designs, artwork and thematics. For example, the game Five Tribes has players maneuver a desert city straight out of Arabian Nights; or the card game Netrunner has people controlling mega-corporations and hackers; or King of Tokyo lets players assume the role of giant Godzilla-like monsters fighting for urban dominance; the list goes on and on. The rules to these games range from simple and elegant to complex and intricate. Some games require you to use strategy and cunning while others force you to laugh at the silliness of it all and simply enjoy the fun. Board games allow for all forms of human interaction—from forging friendships and alliances, to bluffing and lying—to be expressed in an organized, structured way.
It’s that very emphasis on the different ways people can interact with each other that is central to the rising board game phenomenon. They are an incredibly social activity. With so much of modern life becoming solitary (you chat with your friends on Facebook alone in your room, you play video games alone in your room, you search for a romantic partner alone in your room) board games bring us together and remind us what is means to be human again.
But perhaps there is another—more cynical—way to view the trend. Board games frequently tap into materialistic and capitalistic desires (think: Monopoly or any points-acquiring game like Settlers of Catan or Carcassone). This titillation of humanity’s desire to acquire things was well-noted in early American history with many protestants shunning games as a gratuitous waste of time that did nothing to enhance the virtue of one’s life. Yet the history of board games in America helps to illustrate the country’s shift from an agrarian society to a more capitalistic one. Early games included the Checkered Game of Life (1860), which had players go through daily life trying to get rich. Such a theme only continued in 1886 with The Game of the District Messenger Boy which propagated the myth that one could go from the very bottom of a company to the top. Games like this helped promote belief in the American Dream. Yet nowadays, we live in a world of greater financial instability; so how come similar games still exist and thrive? Perhaps these games no longer exist to inspire as the early American ones did, but to satisfy that materialistic urge that can’t be relieved in real life. One can get a house in Monopoly with much more ease than acquiring an actual one, especially in London!
Anyway you look at it, board games are clearly becoming a direct means for us to interact with both ourselves and the world around us. They allow for the chaos of the human condition to breathe and exercise itself within the confines of a cardboard box, dice, and a tiny rulebook. They actively challenge us to imagine worlds both fictional and historical and to do so collaboratively with friends and family. In a world where our very being is increasingly dehumanized into numbers and data, board games are at the centre of a new humanist renaissance. Until someone gets fed up and flips the board over in frustration, that is.