The Sims never had shit on Settlers of Catan.
Tread carefully, O ye uninitiated, lest you incur the wrath of the tabletop geeks.
Researching this story got me privy to a culture of game enthusiasts who are happy to share their hobby but equally happy to eviscerate the filthy casuals who dare write about it without doing proper homework?—?in fact, referring to tabletop games as “board games” is a big no-no. “This article isn’t about Monopoly and Life,” wrote one disgruntled commenter on a Vice article that chronicled the rise of tabletop gaming but made the mistake of using the B-word. “Go into any game store and refer to them as board games and you will be getting some mad hard stares from the geeks!!”
So what’s the difference between board games and tabletop games, and why are tabletop games suddenly so popular? My theory is that screen saturation has made people hungry for structured, real-life interaction. There’s something unique about the alliances (or enmities) born of a tabletop night?—?something you simply can’t get from a group text or a night at the bar or six rounds of Battlefield.
Tabletop vs. board
The chief difference between what most hobbyists consider a board game (like Parcheesi or Clue) and a tabletop game (like Dominion or Settlers of Catan) is a point of debate. General consensus seems to say board games are made the American way and tabletops the European. What does that mean? Game designer Scott Nicholson believes it comes down to the style of play:
American games would typically have players engage with one another through aggression. European games tend to use more indirect conflict?—?so rather than just fighting one another, we might be competing for the same pool of resources, or trying to accomplish the same goal most effectively.
Spike in tabletop popularity
I’ll be the first to admit: This article is a decade late. Video and podcast network The Dice Tower has been around since 2005, promoting board- and tabletop gaming. “Watch It Played” is a YouTube series that began in 2011 which gives the rundown on different games to help viewers decide whether a particular game tickles their fancy. “Tabletop,” hosted by Wil Wheaton, has been airing online since 2012.
In addition to shows like these, there are also some pretty healthy numbers associated with the tabletop boom. Despite video games’ overall dominance of the market, physical games have seen steady growth.
A 2014 New York Times article dropped the following figures:
- At brick-and-mortar shops, board game sales rose 15–20% each year from 2011–2013.
- Amazon reported a double-digit percentile growth in board game sales from 2012–2013.
What’s more?—?according to the gaming site Polygon, in the first 6 months of last year board games raised six times more money on Kickstarter than video games did.
So why the explosion in popularity? It could be a few things:
Somewhat ironically, it might be the internet that deserves credit for getting people offline. Guardian writer Owen Duffy suggests three ways the web has contributed to the “Golden Age of Gaming”:
- Easier access to digital copies of games give players the chance to test them out before fully investing in the physical copy.
- Online retailers like Amazon make it possible to buy any game at any time. This wasn’t always the case?—?in days of yore, gamers had to find a specialized hobby shop (and even those didn’t guarantee the breadth of variety current online shoppers enjoy).
- The information-sharing power of the web allows people like Wil Wheaton and Rodney Smith (the host of “Watch It Played”) to review and promote games that would be otherwise ignored by the regular media.
Thanks to crowdfunding platforms (most notably Kickstarter), the market has been flooded with independent tabletop games. A happy side effect of this saturation is the consumer’s ability to choose from a huge sampling of games, which in turn motivates producers to up the ante on quality of game mechanics and artwork.
Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is sociability. Unlike video games, which rely primarily on headsets to interact with your fellow players, tabletop games require that their players be physically present and attentive. This might seem a no-brainer: Obviously you have to be there to play a board game. But European-style games, by nature of their play style, encourage cooperation and constant attention. Unlike games that are purely turn-based, many Euro-style games allow for trade and bargaining even when you’re not up to bat. This constant involvement engages all players and helps maintain a sense of freshness and urgency during play that’s lacking in more traditional (and now maligned-by-geeks) games like Monopoly.
Helping the cause even further is the advent of board game cafes. The global introduction of these establishments draws people in to play games and have coffee (or something stronger) with friends?—?it’s a refreshing reprieve from screen-riddled workdays and constant digital communication. The games provide an opportunity for conversation, laughter and working together toward a concrete goal.
It might seem weird that in a world that prizes the latest tech, people are “regressing” to these seemingly old-fashioned forms of entertainment. Seems there’s a limit to how much human interaction we’re willing to sacrifice before we start fighting to get it back.
How to get involved
If an evening of friendly competition ’round the tabletop sounds like a welcome alternative to your typical weekend, there are a few resources you should check out to get started.
- The/r/tabletop subreddit is a good place to for the burgeoning enthusiast to get suggestions.
- Searching by city can yield helpful lists of the best board game cafes in your area. (Example: New York and Los Angeles.)
- Geek and Sundry is a website that?—?among many other things?—?helps newbies tiptoe into the world of tabletop gaming. (They also host Wil Wheaton’s “Tabletop” show.)