Board games have been absurdly popular for the last several years. In 1999, the possibility of the board game industry experiencing a massive renaissance like the one we’ve all been witness to was laughable. The business was shaky to its core. There were relatively few fans, the supply chain was rocky, and raising funds was hard. Then, serendipitously, one by one, the obstacles toward the modern board gaming landscape fell away. We now have Scythe, Gaia Project, Terraforming Mars, Gloomhaven, Root… The list goes on.
So what happened?
Why the Question “Why Board Games are So Popular” Matters to You, the Developer
First, let’s talk about why the question matters in the first place. Many of you know I’ve gotten really into the discipline of marketing. Marketing isn’t just about selling people random stuff they don’t need, unless you are, quite frankly, a hack. It’s about figuring out what people like, why they like it, and how to give it to them.
When something as seemingly random as board games becomes very popular, it makes a marketer’s Spidey sense tingle. Understanding the emotional origin behind people’s connection with board games is very important if you’re a publisher. You’re not just trying to make the greatest worker placement fantasy game…you’re trying to make a game that satisfies the emotional needs of your customers.
History provides context. That context can be used to explain why board games have become popular. That can, in turn, help us make great games or even predict whether or not board games as we know it will last.
1. The Internet and Social Media Made the Communities Possible
Board gaming is an obscure enough niche that it can’t justify the existence of a TV network, large magazine, or other traditional media outlet. Prior to the modern internet, especially social media, there wasn’t a particularly good way for people to connect over their love of board games. Social media allowed people from all over the world to connect around common interests. This, in turn, allowed people to express demand in ways that enterprising creators could take note of and act upon.
2. The Internet and Social Media Made Us Want to Log Off
Simultaneously, the very same tools that made board gaming as we know it possible – the internet and social media – came with a whole bevy of problems. Humans, biologically, are not programmed to talk to faces on screens. We need other people, physically, in our lives or else we suffer. We become lonely and isolated – one of the biggest problems of the modern age.
On top of that, the modern internet qualifies – in my opinion – as a social supernormal stimulus. A supernormal stimulus being anything that’s really attractive and not natural, such as junk food and it’s delicious calvacade of fats and sugars that our ancestors would never have been exposed to. Social media is a very normal part of socializing now, but some people are reacting – at least in my anecdotal evidence – with a sort of revulsion to that. They turn to more “wholesome” hobbies like board games. People want a form of escapism from the supernormal stimuli of modern life.
Now all that said – this is not why people prefer one particular game over another. This is not why people go out and buy Terraforming Mars or Azul. It is my opinion that this modern feeling of overwhelm creates a desire for a tangible social experience – which board gaming provides better than most forms of entertainment available today.
3. The Supply Chain Changed
People began to connect over their love of board games. At the same time, people felt a desire to play board games to get away from modern hyperstimulation. Completely unrelated to either of these occurences, something else was going on simultaneously.
Internet access and lax trade policies made it possible to manufacture games across the world. Board games are difficult to manufacture because there are a lot of parts. It used to be tough to find a printer for a reasonable price unless you were a really big company like Hasbro. Now, it’s very easy and takes a couple of days.
Revolutions in the print industry as well as the logistics industry made the supply chain for board games go from being very complex to sorta complex. There are still barriers to entry, mind you, but they are a lot lower. This allowed smaller print runs, which in turn allowed games to be made around niches. At the same time, you could identify profitable, in-demand niches by checking in with the growing board game community, which was by now both an online and offline entity.
4. Kickstarter Changed the Profit Model
You might find it remarkable, but we managed to make it this far into the article without mentioning Kickstarter. Created in 2009, I don’t remember seeing much of the site until 2012 or 2013, well after the widespread adoption of social media. With a simpler supply chain providing lower barriers to entry for pleasing a newly connected community, now all that was missing was a way to make the money to print the games.
Oh, hello, Kickstarter.
You probably know how this story ends. Board games have taken over Kickstarter, accounting for as much as 30% of the revenues they bring in. When Kickstarter entered the scene, the last barrier to entry – money for printing – fell away. This, in turn, opened the floodgates for a thriving culture of board game creators to create a steady stream of board games for board game fans. Regardless of Kickstarter’s future, their contribution to the board game industry is and always will be monumental.
5. A Culture of Creation Developed
Last but not least, there is one remaining element that helped make board games as popular as they are. That is board game designers themselves. A massive culture started to develop around board game design. If you don’t believe me, just type “board game design” into either the Twitter or Facebook search bar. You’ll see men and women from all over the globe who are passionate about making board games. There are entire cons dedicated to play-testing board games (Protospiels).
The culture of creation is yet another tributary into the mighty river of the modern board game industry. It may be the most important, too. The internet, social media, and the global supply chain are here to stay. Kickstarter may or may not keep their business model as it is today, but that’s not terribly important as long as the demand for board games continues to grow. The passion of creators is what keeps a steady supply of board games coming out today.
By thinking about why board games are so popular, we can better understand gamers and their ultimate desires. From there, we can continue to make games that are emotionally satisfying.
Why do you think board games are so popular today? Let me know in the comments below!
(Jamey Stegmaier has written an article recently called Top 10 Reasons for the Rise in Popularity of Tabletop Games. It’s another great take on this subject, and I encourage you to read it.)