Board games are back, and Boston’s a player
A Golden Age of tabletop games, from nerdy to mainstream, is afoot.
This article is featured in the Nov. 30 issue of the Magazine.
WHEN WE WERE KIDS, we played games.
I don’t mean games of make-believe or cops and robbers or video games, although we played those, too. I’m talking about games packed in boxes with cards, dice, and metal figurines — Candy Land, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Risk, Life, Clue, and hundreds more. Folded in the middle like a book, game boards were worlds we entered over and over, as if returning to a favorite story.
But we grew up, right? We put away those childish games and graduated to others on our devices and game consoles — “Call of Duty,” “Candy Crush,” “Angry Birds,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “Mario Bros.,” “Madden NFL,” “Minecraft.” Or did we?
It turns out plenty of people still play board games. Not only grade-schoolers and nerds, but average folk who partake at home, in game cafes, and at massive conventions. Feeding their appetite is a new wave of board, card, dice, and so-called Eurogames (also known as designer games, they originated in Europe and emphasize strategy, not luck). Quirky, challenging, and innovative, with themes ranging from pirates to pandemics to power brokers, their chunky boxes and metal tins are emblazoned with names like Small World, Eldritch Horror, Sushi Go!, Iota, and Cards Against Humanity.
“For several years now, we have been seeing a secular trend in gaming away from games played on a screen and toward tabletop games played in person with other players,” Milton Griepp, CEO and founder of ICv2, says by e-mail. ICv2 covers the business of pop-culture retail via a website and magazine. “There are no signs that this trend is abating.”
Non-digital games and puzzles racked up $1.9 billion in sales in the United States in 2013, according to the Toy Industry Association Inc., up 3 percent over 2012. The more focused “hobby game” market — which includes card games like 7 Wonders, dice games like King of Tokyo, and tabletop miniatures games like Warhammer 40,000 — has grown 15 percent a year on average for the past five years, and that segment was worth $700 million in 2013, according to ICv2. The toy and game giant Hasbro, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, saw sales rise 23 percent in 2013 for its Wizards of the Coast division, which publishes Magic: The Gathering and the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Mainstream board-game sales — of the Scrabble and Taboo variety — are also up. According to NPD Group Inc., a market research company, sales of family board and action games, such as Sorry and Life, grew 5 percent in 2012 and 14 percent in 2013. In short, you might say we’re in the middle of a Golden Age for board games.
Star Trek: The Next Generation alum Wil Wheaton has followed his passion for board games into a new gig, hosting his own Web series, TableTop, for three seasons now. Promoters describe the series as “Celebrity Poker for board games,” and fans are gobbling it up: Season 2 of TableTop pulled in some 8 million YouTube views, with an average of about 500,000 views per episode.
“I personally think that it’s wonderful that it’s becoming a mainstream hobby,” says Wheaton of analog games. “If you walk into Toys ‘R’ Us, on the shelves with Cootie and Monopoly and Ants in the Pants, you’ll see Settlers of Catan, and Munchkin, and Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. That divide isn’t really there anymore because people are just playing games.”
It may not truly be giving the multibillion-dollar digital game industry a run for its money, but the board-game subculture is thriving. And as it happens, plenty of this tabletop-game inventing, tinkering, and fervent playing is happening in Greater Boston.
“Boston has become increasingly important to the national board-games scene — from providing must-attend conventions for board gamers all along the East Coast to cultivating an active society of game creators across the spectrum of hobby gaming,” says Jonathan Bolding, senior tabletop editor for the gaming website The Escapist. Representatives from Illinois-based Mayfair Games, the English-language publishers of the blockbuster Settlers of Catan, “have said to my face they wouldn’t dare skip the Boston conventions,” Bolding continues. “I wouldn’t either.”
‘I’LL PLACE A TILE instead of eating.”
“I’m going to move the panda.”
“Did you roll ‘rain’?”
“You can do that? All right.”
“NOW it’s your turn.”
“Can the panda just eat? Wait, he can’t
On a Friday evening in Brookline, Micaela Rodriguez and Joshua Brinkmeyer, both 19-year-old college students, are playing Takenoko, a Euro-style game about a panda, a farmer, and growing bamboo. They’re not sitting at home or in a dorm room; they’re at Knight Moves Board Game Cafe, one of several such venues that have opened across the country from New York City to Seattle.
Devon Trevelyan, a gamer and former game-shop employee, opened Knight Moves in Coolidge Corner last December. For a $10 cover, you can park yourself in what’s akin to a living room decorated with card tables and mismatched chairs and a (nonworking) fireplace to play any of hundreds of games. His customers are folks who want to socialize but are interested in alternatives to bars and drinking, Trevelyan says. Knight Moves serves coffee, soft drinks, and snacks, but if you want to have a beer or glass of wine, you’ll have to bring your own. You don’t have to come with a partner, though; Trevelyan delights in matching strangers with games and each other and teaching them how to play. “I act as a test-drive facility,” he says. For his customers, it means a chance to try games like Last Night On Earth: The Zombie Game before plunking down $59.95 for it at the store. The cafe is a popular spot for dates, too: Knight Moves has become an OKCupid “hot spot,” Trevelyan says.
Board gamers looking for a night out have plenty of other options locally. Bars such as Good Life and the Highball Lounge, both in Boston, Brass Union in Somerville, and Tavern in the Square in Cambridge are among those that host game nights and/or have games on hand for customers to use.
“The pool of gamers in New England is quite concentrated,” says W. Eric Martin, the North Carolina-based news editor at BoardGameGeek, an online community with more than 780,000 registered users and content on some 70,000 board and card games. “You can find game groups almost every night of the week in the Greater Boston area that will be willing to play anything that you bring to the table.”
Boston has helped to propel the Eurogame revolution in the United States since the 1980s, when Carol Monica, owner of the longstanding Harvard Square shop Games People Play, became the first US importer of games like 1829 and Civilization. As Euro-style games developed as a genre, Monopoly’s monopoly began to weaken.
“Board games were moribund through the mid-nineties or so. Then you had this German board-game explosion with Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne,” says Tyler Stewart, who has run another local gaming destination, Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, since 1989. Many now recognize Settlers of Catan, a strategy game about colonizing an island, as the tip of the iceberg when it appeared in 1995. A worldwide 18 million-unit seller, Settlers’ English-language version flies off of shelves at a clip of some 750,000 copies a year and is carried by all the big-box stores.
“Board games have been steadily growing,” says Stewart, whose shop offers packed gaming events — for fans of everything from D&D to My Little Pony — every night of the week. “We don’t have enough space for everything we want to do.” Whenever the TableTop show plugs a new game, Stewart says, it routinely sells out not only at his store but also nationwide. “Wil Wheaton is there creating chronic shortages.” The 10-year-old horror-themed game Betrayal at House on the Hill, for example, just came back in stock for the first time since last Christmas, Stewart says.
The area’s board-game roots run way deeper than the Reagan years. In 1860, a Springfield lithographer named Milton Bradley invented The Checkered Game of Life. Decades later, Bradley’s namesake company went on to publish Candy Land, Twister, Battleship, Scrabble, and many others, including a modernized version of Bradley’s prototype called The Game of Life.
In 1883, just a couple of decades after Bradley got his start, a young entrepreneur from Salem named George S. Parker invested $40 of his $50 net worth to create a wealth-building game he called Banking. “George Parker was the rebel of his day,” says Phil E. Orbanes, former head of research and development for Parker Brothers and an expert on Monopoly. “When he was 16 years old, he decided he’d had enough of games that were moralistic, which almost every game was. Parker decided that ‘games should be fun,’ ” He went on to found Parker Brothers, which would churn out more than 2,000 games, including household favorites Clue, Risk, Boggle, and its all-time bestseller, Monopoly, now available in 111 countries in 43 languages.
Though classics from Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers live on, the companies are no more. Hasbro acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, and in 1991 it bought the Tonka Corp., which owned Parker Brothers. The company is now the second-
largest toy and game maker in the United States (right behind Mattel), having snapped up Wizards of the Coast along the way. With 1,700 employees locally, Hasbro has held onto Milton Bradley’s East Longmeadow location — which Orbanes calls “the premier game manufacturing facility in the country to this day” — where games such as Monopoly, Battleship, and Connect Four still roll off the assembly line.
Other area companies have exploited what Jason Schneider calls “cracks in the foundation” of Hasbro’s stronghold. Schneider is the director of product development and marketing for Newton-based Gamewright, maker of “no screens, no batteries” family games. “When I used to play games as a kid, I used to just roll some dice and move around a board and hopefully get to the end and maybe pass ‘Go’ and collect two hundred,” Schneider says. “Now I’m actually able to create a world or negotiate something interesting.” Since 1994, Gamewright has been expanding its catalog of games, most of them playable in 30 minutes or less, and winning awards. Its hits include Forbidden Island, which sold 100,000 units in 2013 and, according to Schneider, is on track to top that number this year, and Slamwich, which has sold more than a million units.
In his post-Parker Brothers life, Orbanes has himself become a game entrepreneur. His specialty? Nostalgia. With three other industry veterans, Orbanes in 1995 founded the Danvers-based Winning Moves Games, which releases “classic, retro, cool, and fun” versions of board games such as Sorry! and Risk.
From all this “fertilizer in the soil,” as Orbanes calls it, many a local game entrepreneur has blossomed. The Greater Boston/New England area is home to “easily over a hundred tabletop developers,” says Aerjen Tamminga, designer of Pleasant Dreams: A Card Game and former cochairman of the Boston Festival of Indie Games and Game Makers Guild, who now lives in the Netherlands.
There’s Cambridge Games Factory, founded in 2004, whose top seller is Glory to Rome, and Arlington-based Asmadi Games, which launched in 2006 and is known for Innovation and Red7. Brookline’s Your Move Games, founded in 2004, creates fantasy, sci-fi, and war games, including Battleground and Battle for Hill 218. Anomia Press, based in Roslindale, has sold 200,000 units of its Mensa Select award-winning free-association card game Anomia since launching in November 2009. Marlborough-based Greenbrier Games, founded in 2011, is best known for its zombie-themed hit Zpocalypse.
The biggest indie slam-dunk in the region might be Bananagrams, the tile-based word game invented in Narragansett, Rhode Island, that comes packaged in a banana-shaped fabric pouch. “I think we’ve given the big boys a run for their money — in the nicest possible sense,” says Bananagrams CEO Rena Nathanson, from her office in London. (The company also has a Providence office.) “Our goal is to get it into every classroom, every household, and be up there with Scrabble, with Boggle, with Monopoly.” With more than 6.5 million units sold since its launch in 2006, Bananagrams looks to be well on its way.
ON A TUESDAY NIGHT in October, in a basement not far from the baseball heroics of Fenway Park, about 25 game designers are trying to “break” two games.
This is an intensive play-testing session of the Game Makers Guild, a Boston-based community of more than 500 game developers, play testers, and would-be entrepreneurs. Tonight’s goal is to troubleshoot two games in development by guild members, so the testers are hunting for weaknesses or scenarios where the rules don’t work or are confusing. Maybe the player who goes first has an unintentional advantage. Maybe there are moments when the action drags or becomes rote.
One of the games on the testing block is Zarathustra, “a cooperative science-fiction game where everyone is a traitor,” according to its designer, Daryl Fougnie, at the time a Harvard postdoc in psychology. The other is Ursa Miner, a family-friendly strategy game where players take charge of teams of honey-mining bears and try to harvest enough royal jelly to be named the Ruler of Mount Honeycomb. Gamers hunch over tables, playing the games again and again.
“They played through the first game and they broke a piece of it,” says Eli Kosminsky, co-creator of Ursa Miner and chairman of the guild. “So we changed the rules on the fly.” Designer Jeff Johnston, from Wilmington, says the guild’s play-testing sessions improved his newest game, Flashlights and Fireflies, which is being released by Gamewright next spring. “It’s a very generous group for advice, feedback, and support,” he says.
Another guild member who’s found breakout success is Gene Mackles, a 66-year-old graphic designer/artist who spent 23 years with WGBH. His card game Iota, packaged in a tiny tin resembling a Band-Aid box, was published by Gamewright in 2012 after it won a Mensa award. It went on to sell more than 100,000 units in the United States, Russia, and the Netherlands. After his success with Gamewright, Mackles founded his own company, PDG Games, and recently published a trio of card games — BOP!, D!Git, and Q!nto — all of which he play-tested at guild meetings. “I’m almost always amazed that you work something out in your head and think, ‘This is perfect,’ and then you try it out and it’s not only not perfect, it’s awful,” Mackles says. “If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t play-test a game too much.”
Designers whose games don’t get picked up by companies like Gamewright have plenty of other paths to publication. Local annual gaming festivals like JiffyCon, TotalCon, and the Boston Festival of Indie Games celebrate “indie” game development; Kosminsky is a co-director of the last, which has become the largest such gaming event in the nation. PAX East, an annual gaming convention for both video and analog games, draws more than 50,000 game enthusiasts to Boston; like the Festival of Indie Games, PAX connects designers with audiences and hosts sessions on the business of tabletop games, among a bevy of other topics. The largest US convention of this type, Gen Con in Indianapolis, is an important venue for board games to find a national audience; attendance has grown by more than 10 percent for each of the past four years. Meanwhile, websites like BoardGameGeek, ShutUpandSitDown, and Lowell-based The Cardboard Republic offer candid reviews and forums. Emerson College’s Engagement Game Lab and the MIT Game Lab are additional gaming incubators. And digital tools like 3-D printers and online retailers allow game inventors to produce and sell their own designs.
Then there’s the boon of Kickstarter, probably the biggest seismic change in the game-making landscape. The crowdfunding site lets “people who may not have the intestinal fortitude to start a game company,” as Schneider puts it, “test the waters in a very low-risk environment.” Novice inventors can scrape together some graphics and a video and see if they can get people interested in it, Schneider says. “And, voila, it might turn into the next Cards Against Humanity” — the edgy party game that’s consistently a bestseller in Amazon’s Toys & Games category. In the crowdfunding realm, board games have seen success, even beating out video games: According to The New York Times, in 2013, Kickstarter raised $45.3 million for digital projects and $52.1 million for tabletop.
But even with outside funding, it’s tough to make a go of it in the board-game industry, says James Takenaka, chief sales officer of the Londonderry, New Hampshire-based company Game Salute. “The biggest problem after some of these companies go through Kickstarter is they don’t have the connections to sell [their game] into the hobby market.” Game Salute helps indie designers with sales, distribution, warehousing, and even Kickstarter consulting. Its business has grown from representing a dozen clients in 2008 to more than 100 active clients today, and now the company sells and distributes more than 250 products. “Every year, we’re just seeing huge growth,” says Takenaka. The company has also shepherded more than 165 successful Kickstarter campaigns, “the most of any one organization in the world,” according to Game Salute CEO and founder Dan Yarrington. Alongside California and Texas, the Northeast, he says, is an area that has “lots of activity.”
Which brings us back to the giants like Hasbro. Does the company see all this upstart action as a threat? Hasbro still has more than 60 board games on the market, and its mass-market chestnuts like Scrabble and Monopoly remain huge sellers. Cleverly, Hasbro has remade them for new generations of players. My Monopoly allows players to personalize property spaces and game tokens with customized stickers; Scrabble with “Electronic Scoring” speeds up play.
“Our focus is really how we can continue to make these brands relevant and exciting for consumers,” says Hasbro’s vice president of marketing for games, Jonathan Berkowitz. Two key trends, Berkowitz says, are strategy games and party games, which sit at “polar ends” of the market. “The party-gaming consumer is looking for something that’s easy to get into, with very few rules,” Berkowitz says. “They can pull it out of the box and play right away.” For example, Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples.
Then there’s the popularity of strategy-based Eurogames, which attract players looking for a longer, more complex experience. “Every year we’ll get a ‘Settlers: It’s the Monopoly Killer’ article coming out,” says Ben Rathbone, Hasbro’s vice president of gaming design and development. The company hopes to capture both the mainstream and hobby market next fall when it releases a game Rathbone and his team are working on tentatively called Magic: The Gathering Strategy Board Game, based on the hugely popular collectible card game.
Analog games have, of course, gone digital, too. For example, there are versions of Monopoly for smartphones and tablets, Rathbone points out. Hasbro and video game publisher Ubisoft this month launched the Hasbro Game Channel, where gamers can download Monopoly Plus, My Monopoly, and Monopoly Deal for game consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4, with games like Risk and Trivial Pursuit Live to roll out later.
“That’s the whole breadth of different gaming options you have around one brand,” Rathbone says, fiddling with an Elvish Planeswalker figurine on a conference room table at the company’s Pawtucket offices. “Rather than us worrying about gaming getting smaller, gaming is bigger than ever.”
The reason for that may go right back to those game boards, cards, tiles, and dice we learned to love as kids gathered around the kitchen table. People are craving “to engage as human beings, personally,” says Bananagrams’ Rena Nathanson, “one-to-one, face-to-face, or in a group.” That’s something worth rolling for.
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