Inside the board game renaissance
Can a cardboard box take over your mind? What the new generation of board game designers is doing to an old-fashioned pastime.
Kevin Spak and Sam Liberty are obsessed with fun. Fun is what keeps them up at night and what gets them out of bed in the morning. They think about fun the way a chef thinks about flavor, the way a symphony conductor thinks about sound. For the past nine years, starting when they were in college, Spak and Liberty have been trying to understand how fun works — to discover new forms of it, to figure out ways to conjure it and trap it in a box.
Spak and Liberty are board game designers. Together, they’ve dreamed up more than 50 games, filling countless notebooks with plans and sketches, and producing scores of paper prototypes that they’ve play-tested with friends and fellow gamers. Later this year, a local company called Cambridge Games Factory will publish Spak and Liberty’s debut: a lighthearted but structurally innovative board game called Cosmic Pizza.
The kind of games that Spak and Liberty design have little in common with classic titles like Monopoly and Risk, and even less with Candy Land and Mouse Trap. Instead, they take their cues from a much more recent, and less familiar tradition — one that has developed among American board game designers only over the last 15 years, after being imported from Germany. These “German-style” games — also known as Euro-games and designer games — are about more than rolling a die and moving from space to space: They require players to make tough choices and develop strategies within an intricately plotted fictional universe. Cosmic Pizza, for instance, rewards spatial reasoning more than luck, as players craft complex routes to deliver pies through outer space, zooming from planet to planet, collecting tips, and avoiding asteroids.
Spak and Liberty, who live in Cambridge and Salem, respectively, are part of a growing movement of gaming enthusiasts who have dedicated themselves to reinventing a decidedly old-fashioned form of entertainment. Pushing through a door first opened by the German strategy game Settlers of Catan in 1995, they have staked their creative lives on the idea that, at a time when advanced technology is seen as the primary driver of innovation in America, and video games are a multibillion dollar industry, there are still new ideas to be had about how a simple board game can work.
“It’s a really amazing time right now for board games,” said Eric Zimmerman, a professor at New York University, and the coauthor of the book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.” “There’s really kind of a renaissance going on.”
A lively subculture of game geeks has sprouted up around that renaissance. There are board game podcasts, board game message boards, and even an annual conference held in Germany that draws crowds of more than 150,000 gamers. In cities all over America, including Boston, there are “prototype circles” where board game designers play each other’s games and critique them. Earlier this winter, Boston filmmaker Lorien Green premiered her documentary about board gaming culture, “Going Cardboard.”
And while you won’t find evidence of all that activity at Toys “R” Us or Walmart, a visit to a specialty store like Eureka Puzzles in Coolidge Corner or The Games People Play in Harvard Square will reveal the dazzling range of games that have come out of it so far. There are pirate games, political games, public health games, farming games, world domination games, city-building games, and fishing games. Tulipmania 1637 is an auction-based game about the tulip craze that swept Holland nearly four centuries ago. Power Grid puts players in the shoes of a company building the electrical infrastructure for a network of cities. In Chicken Caesar, “players represent aristocratic ancient Roman chicken families trying to create a legacy for their family name.”
If a game about tulip price inflation sounds to you a little esoteric to be described as “fun,” you’re not alone. Much to the dismay of game designers like Spak and Liberty and publishers like Cambridge Games Factory, most members of the general public have yet to find a taste for the state of the art.
“The best-selling board game today is the board game that was the best-selling board game in 1936. That is Monopoly,” said Eric Hautemont, the chief executive of a respected game publisher called Days of Wonder. “Think of any other form of consumer entertainment. Would you expect an old film to win at the Oscars this year? The idea just sounds ridiculous, right? Or would we expect Cole Porter to be at the top of the radio charts?”
Game geeks lament this state of affairs. They implore the rest of us to stop accepting the mediocrity of Monopoly, and open our eyes to the fact there has been a total transformation in what a group of friends can do while sitting around a table together. Some of these evangelists believe it’s only a matter of time before their favorite games are embraced by the masses — but their success will depend on whether even the most beautifully engineered world in a box sounds like fun to anyone but them.
MANY REASONABLE ADULTS would say that board games are pointless. Children may get a kick out of the Rube Goldberg machine that goes off at the end of Mouse Trap. But if you’re a grown man or woman — with a job, with relationships, with things to do — it’s hard to say what exactly has been accomplished when you’ve defeated your friends at Risk, except that you’ve killed a few hours and perhaps enjoyed a short-lived ego boost. As the French philosopher Roger Caillois wrote in his 1958 essay “The Definition of Play,” “Nothing has been harvested or manufactured,” when a game ends, “no masterpiece has been created, no capital has accrued. Play is an occasion of pure waste.”
Board game enthusiasts wouldn’t entirely disagree with this. That’s because for them, board game design is an art — and like poetry, film, and literature, it exists for its own sake. As they see it, playing a finely tuned, conceptually imaginative board game is a mind-expanding experience that has the potential to make players feel emotions, respond to pressures, and think thoughts they never get to in real life. A board game may have no purpose, but by playing it — by subjecting ourselves to its rules — we can create a sense of purpose, if only for a little while. As local game designer Andrew Innes, creator of the game Anomia, put it, a board game “gives you a micro-reason to be where you are.”
And while that may be just as true about the latest Xbox game, said Liberty, playing a video game means “playing in someone else’s world,” whereas a board game allows you to create your own. Added Spak: “There’s something kind of primordial about it.”
If that’s not your experience of board games, that might be because of the games you remember playing as a child — roll-and-move frivolities like Sorry, Trouble, and Parcheesi, and luck-driven games like Monopoly and Risk, which are derisively known in the designer board gaming community as “Ameritrash.” Such games rely largely on chance, and offer players minimal control over what happens to them. They involve thumb-twiddling and finger-crossing: a lot of waiting around while other people take their turns, and a lot of hoping against hope that one’s plans aren’t shattered when an opponent gets lucky with the dice.
The origins of the designer board game movement in the United States can be traced back to Germany, where board games have historically occupied a more prominent place in the culture than in any other country in the world. Since 1979, an annual prize called the Spiel des Jahres has been awarded to the best game of the year, and the prize is taken so seriously that the winning game routinely goes on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
In the early 1980s, Boston became a central hub for Americans interested in German games, when Carol Monica, owner of The Games People Play in Cambridge, became the first US retailer to start importing them from Europe. Later, in 1990, the designer Alan Moon — who would go on to create the mega-selling Ticket to Ride in 2004 — organized the first annual “Gathering of Friends” at a Quality Inn in Chicopee, where he and several dozen of his fellow board game enthusiasts got together for three days of play. The Gathering, which continues to this day as an invitation-only event where designers show off their newest projects to publishers, was instrumental in spreading the word. But it was not until the mid-1990s, when a company called Mayfair Games produced an English translation of a popular new German strategy game called Die Siedler von Catan, that American board gaming really took off as a popular hobby. Seventeen years later, the Settlers of Catan series has sold over 15 million copies worldwide, popular far beyond the core group of hardcore gamers who initially fell in love with it.
The defining feature of the new wave of games that have come out since then is their emphasis on giving players meaningful choices. There are often multiple ways to win, and problems seldom have obvious solutions. Players must use real-world skills, like negotiation, resource management, and risk assessment; they defeat their opponents by outperforming them — by building a bigger palace complex, say, or delivering more pizzas — rather than by challenging them in direct conflict.
Above all, modern game designers are driven by the belief that it’s possible to systematically engineer things like tedium, unpleasant stress, and randomness out of games. That means setting up rules that make it difficult for a player to fall irreversibly behind too early in the game; it also means preventing players from ever having so many options that they get paralyzed, or start feeling like the decisions they’re making are arbitrary. The best games invite deep thought but still manage to move swiftly — they must be complex enough to accommodate a range of strategies and allow for some uncertainty, but not so “fiddly” or “crunchy” — to use the terms of art — that players buckle under the cognitive load. “It’s really easy to put more rules into the game,” said Moon. “Elegance in game design means getting it down to the smallest number of rules.”
Like many of the principles that guide game design, the imperative to elegance is related to something known as “flow,” which refers to the state of euphoric focus that takes over when the human mind is truly engrossed in what it is doing. The concept comes from the work of positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who defined it in his 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Games, Csíkszentmihályi said, are particularly likely to facilitate flow because they allow players to give themselves over to a logical system of rules and constraints, and to forget about all their other worldly concerns. “Afterwards you say, ‘Wow, that was really great,’” Csíkszentmihályi said. “’I wish I could have more of this type of feeling.’”
OF COURSE, THE REALITY is that what’s enjoyable for one person might quickly put another to sleep. And while many game designers try their best to create games that are broadly appealing in addition to being textured and challenging, they have had a difficult time producing anything remotely as popular as Monopoly, or as widely loved as Pictionary and Taboo. According to Cambridge Games Factory developer Rob Seater, most new American games in the European tradition sell 30,000 copies at the very most.
Some designers believe these games just haven’t been around long enough to penetrate the mass market. But others suspect there’s a ceiling on how popular they’re ever going to get, for the simple reason that most of them are just too hard to learn. Dominion, for instance, which gamers often recommend to beginners as a relatively easy lift, comes with an instruction manual that’s 16 pages long, and includes sentences like this: “The card you gain is put into your Discard pile. It has to be a card from the Supply. You cannot use coins from Treasures or previous Actions (like the Market) to increase the cost of the card you may gain.” If you’re not playing with someone who already knows the rules, understanding what exactly that means will require at least an hour of intensely focused concentration, not including the time you spend searching for instructional YouTube videos.
“There are only so many people I would expect to like this kind of mentally intense game,” said Seater, who works with designers to shape and polish new games. “Also, you’re getting together with a bunch of people and trying to beat them at something. Many people don’t really see that as a social occasion.” He added: “To a large extent it’s a lost cause to say, ‘I like this thing — why doesn’t everybody like it?’ Well, because other people like other things.”
Still, for a lot of designers, hope resides in the possibility that by engineering just the right kind of fun, they can create games that will grab something inside people and not let go. And they are emboldened by the belief that board games tap into something universal — that they appeal to some natural desire we all share to temporarily inhabit a world of imaginary rules, abstract goals, and perhaps most importantly, low stakes.
“Play lets you do things that life is too punishing to let you do,” said Gabe Warshauer-Baker, the organizer of a game-prototyping meet-up at the Cambridge Innovation Center. “Life gives you unreliable feedback, capricious environments, unfair starts. A game controls for all those things . . . .It gives you something life doesn’t, which is the ability to experiment and try things without terrible consequences.”
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.