Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Golden Age of Boardgaming? Maybe, maybe not

Quinns, of the Shut Up & Sit Down boardgaming blog and video reviews recently gave an entertaining if longish talk at the GameCity video gaming conference on the development of boardgames in the last 15 years. He contended that boardgames are now experiencing a Golden Age and argues this mostly on the basis of a marriage of 'German' style mechanisms with 'American' storytelling. This is a story often told in many different ways at Fortress Ameritrash?.

The presentation includes many of the most interesting boardgame designs of the period under review (although War of the Ring is incredibly left out, while City of Horror is included for no good reason). If your not familiar with boardgaming design developments, the whole video is well worth watching, otherwise some of it will feel familiar.

The thesis of a Golden Age of boardgaming only partly convinces. There are many signs of crisis in the boardgaming industry and it is doubtful whether more people are boardgaming these days than 15 years ago. So we should at least differentiate between boardgame design, the boardgaming industry and the hobby.  While I can mostly agree with Quinns on boardgame design going through a strong patch, I have strong doubts about the industry and the hobby.

What I will do today is go is explore Quinns argument on board game design, and then discuss the industry and the hobby on Sunday. Part of that discussion has already filtered into my discussion of brick & mortar game shops in the last couple of days.


Quinn uses the first part of the presentation to show the influence of German style boardgame designs from the 1990s. I’m fully agreed that these designs were more accessible than many older boardgames, and the design built on keeping the race tight until the end. But Quinn adds the dimension of the higher quality of components. On the other hand, theme in most of these games is thin.

By the start of the 21st century these design concepts started to be copied by ‘western’ designers, who mixed them with ‘American’ storytelling. Examples mentioned are Twilight Imperium, Game of Thrones and more recently X-Wing.

Dominion, the start of something beautiful?

To illustrate how quickly innovation is now taking place in design he went over the recent deckbuilding revolution, starting with Dominion in 2008. Thunderstone in 2009 added theme. Puzzle Strike then allowed playing the oppononent’s deck in 2010. And in 2011 A Few Acres of Snow integrated the deckbuilder into a boardgame, modelling the logistics of war.

Quinns actually leaves the two most exciting developments in game design to the end of the presentatio. The Boardgame Remix Kit allows you to combine elements from Monopoly, Scrabble, Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit to ´build the most dangerous things´. Risk Legacy lets players name continents, add new rules and extra information to the board as the result of events during the game. In this way each copy of the game becomes unique, with it´s own history. 

If it weren't for the Halifax Hammer...

While I agree with the general line of his argument I have two questions. On the one hand, we can also see how innovative designs like Dominion are copied and milked by less innovative designers and publishers.  While further developing the deckbuilding engine, are Thunderstone and other deckbuilder derivates actually good games who themselves will stand the test the time?  

You could also argue that most of this innovation is incremental but that these are not game changers. How many people outside, or even inside the hobby niche, will actually notice?  

Boardgames vs videogames

Later Quinns´ presentation becomes an attempt convert video gamers to board games. He argues that the boardgames revival happened because video games lately haven't reached into areas of social interaction, which leaves room for boardgames.

Videogames are versatile, he continues, but they cannot do everything, like talking, bluffing, joking and auctioning. It’s difficult to imagine a paranoid treason game like Battlestar Galactica or The Resistance working in a video environment.

One of the best games of the past decade. It made me watch the series
Boardgames also do stuff that videogames haven’t done yet: like the dungeoneering mega campaigns of Descent. That kind of 'maximalist' game design is not commercially viable in videogames but in some cases in boardgaming.

Most importantly, Quinns sees no real difference between board and videogames. To him they are two sides of the gaming hobby. Board game design principles can provide a solid foundation for video games with the example of  the recent X-Com being designed as a boardgame. The design tools of bardgames are much more accessible, require less investment and are easier to test. 

Paths of Glory, itself a legendary design, is one of the card driven games that can be enjoyed online using ACTS
But as far as I´m concerned the line between boardgames and videogames is already disappearing. Look at the online engines to play boardgames that have become available: ACTS for card driven games, Vassal for wargames, BrettSpielWelt for eurogames and there´s a host of online/browser games from Travian and Die2Nite to iPad versions of many popular boardgames. 

How will this affect boardgames in the future? Will this mean that physical boardgames will disappear and people will play them online with their friends? Not necessarily. The technology to digitalise boards in player mats is already available, which will allow you to play and easily store long playing games for later use.

It will also make it possible to hardwire the rules into the game components, preventing mistakes or cheating, and allowing limited information, hidden movement and administrative chores to be automated, while still retaining the feel of a boardgame


  1. I'm not as well versed in the world of board games as you, not by a long shot. I would argue, however, that board games are probably in a golden age. Some will make it and some won't but the sheer variety and the many mechanisms for a designer to get their ideas to market mean that great ideas should make it. It may be Darwinian but it seems that the state of the art should advance. I still love me some good old fashioned Axis and Allies though.

    (Please delete this part of the comment after reading. I put you in for a Liebster, on my blog; . I couldn't find another way to let you know. I hope it sends some more readers your way.)

    1. Hi Aaron,

      Thanks for the Liebster! Very cool and a pleasant surprise! I'm pondering hard how to limit my selection of follow ons to only five, so that will take some time. But fun to do.

      I am mostly in agreement that the level of innovation in board gaming at the moment can be seen as something like a Golden Age. My doubts are mostly with the state of the industry and the hobby, where I think we are in trouble. More on that tomorrow.

      ps I cannot edit your comment so your part about the Liebster remains. And since I think it's not something to be ashamed of, I'll leave it on rather than delete the whole post

  2. I'm sort of with AHunt on this one. Just because some games are derivative or only incremental improvements on other products that provided quantum leaps isn't an argument against the idea of a Golden Age in board gaming. In other industries you'll have pioneers that make the leap, change paradigms and then you have other trying to stand on their shoulders, offering only incremental improvements until the next paradigm shift. What's fascinating about boardgames right now, and gaming in general is that there are so many of these shifts happening and so many great products out there offering very many varied, different and unique experiences. Games design, components and many other facets of the hobby are going through a golden age. However, the question of popularity is an interesting one. I believe Sedition Wars and just under $1m's is the most popular Kickstarter boardgame product, yet you'll often find mediocre and off the wall computer games on Kickstart that regularly reach that total. I think the quality of our industries product is arguably better than it has ever been, but we're not translating that into increased success. We need to ask why? Interesting read as always.

    1. Thanks FG, you've spotted the $1,000,000 question: why doesn't this innovation in games not translate into a breakthrough to the mainstream.

      One qualification though. Boardgames are much more mainstream and popular now than 15 years ago. The 'German' revolution has really drawn lots of people into board gaming (here in the Netherlands, at least). So is the revolution already past and this surge in innovation an after effect?

      And also the German revolution in the 1990s was based on an already thriving market for family games in Germany. So what comes first?

      Come to think of it, the greatest innovations in board wargaming were made after it had reached its peak in popularity in the 1970s. As always, from one answer come more questions...

    2. Yeah, I think half the issue is one of communication. I spoke to somebody the other day who hasn't played a board game or a wargame in night on 12 years. I told him about the Gears of War board game. Never heard of it but loves the computer games. Ran him through a few games and within 10 minutes of getting home he'd ordered it from some store or other via Amazon. He also started reading my Blog and within two weeks has dropped nearly £600 on product. He's started showing his current group of mates, none of whom have gamed before. We're just shocking bad as a hobby at promoting ourselves and getting the word out there.


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