28 March 2019 | 55 Comments
If you’re in the game industry, you’ve probably been asked this question a few times over the last few years. I hear it the most from people outside of the game industry, to whom I feel a certain responsibility to include and inform in the most accurate way possible.
So over time I’ve accumulated a series of answers that I share, as I don’t think it’s just one answer. Even though this isn’t exactly what I normally write about on this blog, I thought I’d share it here for both me and you to reference (and add to) in the future.
Also, one thing I like to emphasize when someone asks me this question (particularly if they represent a form of media that doesn’t typically cover the tabletop game industry) is that it’s a matter of perspective. It’s possible that you just recently learned that tabletop games are popular, but if you talk to a lifelong gamer, they may feel like games have been popular for a long time.
So if you’re asking this question, I would suggest that you seek data to support the inferred hypothesis that board games were significantly less popular at any given time than they are now. While sales data I’ve seen from icv2 suggests that the hobby game market is continuing to expand, I think it’s actually been quite big worldwide for at least 5 years, and for at least 5-10 years before that in Europe.
What Is Behind the Rise in Popularity of Tabletop Games?
I’ll try to list these roughly in terms of chronological impact.
I think that Magic the Gathering, while being a tabletop game itself, has also had a positive impact on board games. It continues to be massively popular, and it’s been around for nearly 3 decades. Why Magic itself became and remains so popular is another topic in itself.
- There is multiplicative effect of generational/family gaming. That is, say there were 2 million gamers in the world 30 years ago. Many of them probably played games with their kids, so when their kids grow up, there are more likely to be gamers too (meanwhile, their parents may continue to play games too). Then they have kids…and so it goes.
- A few key games reached a critical mass around 10 years ago. I’m talking about games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, which have sold many millions of copies. That critical mass is multiplicative –perhaps you get invited to random game night featuring one of those games and you have a good time, so you buy the game and host some other people, then some of them do the same. Most people don’t just play only Catan forever–they eventually start to explore other modern games too.
- Kickstarter has proliferated the spread of board games. In 2018, tabletop games raised $165 million on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is built for exposing projects to as many people as possible, including people who are new to board games. From the creator perspective, Kickstarter and Chinese manufacturing has greatly decreased the barrier to entry to become a game publisher. As a result, there are many, many more games—great games—available today than yesterday (or last month, last year, last decade, etc), with each new game potentially bringing new gamers into the hobby.
- Gaming culture as a whole is more social acceptable and widespread than ever before. I would bet that an overwhelming percentage of people play some type of game on a regular basis, whether it’s a mobile game on their phone, a fantasy sport, a real sport, a video game on a PC or console, escape rooms, or a tabletop game. The world is full of games now, and I think each type of game is a gateway into the other types of games.
- Social media makes it easier than ever to talk about games. This applies to any topic, of course, but I think the impact of social media on hobbies specifically is quite large. Imagine 25 years ago if you wanted to connect with people who had a shared interest with you about anything. Compare that to how easy it is to do that now.
- We have so much screen time in our lives now, and tabletop games provide a refreshing refuge from them. As indicated in the previous two points, screens can provide access to great content. But more than ever, I think it’s nice to have an excuse to turn off the screens for a while, whether you’re playing games with other people or solo.
- Game stores and game cafes create, grow, and sustain gaming communities. While game stores have been around for a long time, and they might cater more to existing gamers than new gamers, I can’t overlook the community aspect many of them are so good at.
- It’s easier than ever before to not leave your home if you don’t want to. This is at least partially due to services that come to you instead of requiring you to go to them (Amazon, Postmates, Netflix, etc). That may not be a good thing culturally or socially, but it does mean that people are looking for more activities to do at home, and board games are one of them. Related to this, I think tabletop games provide an incredible platform for introverts like me to share structured, quality time with other people.
- The rise of nerd culture crossover media. There are many types of nerds across many categories, and sometimes the right person or media comes along to create crossovers. An example of this is Wil Wheaton’s now-defunct Tabletop series on YouTube, which was watched by millions of people (some gamers, but at least some non-gamers that then crossed over and gave games a try).
There are definitely some generalizations among these theories, but hopefully some truth too. In the end, they’re just my opinions, and I’d love to hear yours in the comments.
Here are a few things people added in the comments: quality solo modes in games, improvement in presentation (art, graphic design, etc), Amazon’s recommendation algorithm, proliferation of party games (e.g., Cards Against Humanity), and going deeper into an existing IP (e.g., Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Exploding Kittens, etc).
Also read this article from Brandon the Game Dev.
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