Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the End really nigh?

Every now and again I hear somebody saying that the end times of modern boardgaming are near. There are too many games, there are too few original ideas, people will turn away from Kickstarter any day now, and the board gaming market will crash just like the video game market in 1983. Live the dream while you still can, they are saying, because soon, very soon, the boardgaming hobby will be nothing more than a post nuclear wasteland of half burned cardboard and (somehow) rusty plastic.
Atari 2600 made many childhoods memorable. It was vastly popular before 1983. Image source: Wikipedia.
I think it’s safe to say that we are living in a golden age of tabletop gaming. Never before have there been so many games in so many genres available on the market. Never before has the quality of most individual products been so high, both in terms of pure components, as well as the sheer fun factor. Never before has contacting the publisher been so fast and easy, or reaching out to the designer to ask questions or support with your money directly (via crowdfunding) so effortless.

All of the above makes more and more people involved in gaming – as “just” gamers, as reviewers, podcasters, designers and publishers. Finding a game that will tickle your fancy is a matter of time. With that many party games, strategy games, war games, card games, adventure games and abstract games, you’ll easily find the one you probably most want to play. You’ll hear what other people have to say about it, you’ll order it online or drive down to a FLGS and have it on your own table in a matter of days (or even hours). 

So, why do we still think that it will all come to an end? Why do people gaze upon this abundance and start looking for signs of the coming end? Probably exactly because of how big and robust the boardgaming market has become. Some of us instinctively assume (basically taught by the history of mankind) that something as big has to finally fall flat on its backside. And many people are already drawing parallels between the booming boardgaming industry of today and the video game industry of the eighties – just before its fall. 

Now, I’m a little too young to remember the video game crash, and I certainly lack the tools to pick apart and properly analyze the events of 1983, but I think a little bit of research and some common sense are enough to see that the situation of board games today, and video games in the eighties are only superficially similar. Sure, it seems like there are so many board games today that the market is getting saturated, even completely flooded, but the growing numbers of games sold each year contradict this idea. 

Don’t get me wrong: there are too many games published every year for a single person to play the whole yearly haul. New publishers are appearing on the market almost every day, and the number of tabletop games struggling to get our attention on Kickstarter is growing every month, but so is the number of people willing to play board games. And although crowdfunding is partly responsible for cranking out more and more games (many of which are not up to par), it makes up for this by allowing the gamer to support the creator directly – and make it worthwhile for games that would otherwise never see the light of day to find their way to gaming tables.
Dominion - the innovation nobody was expecting prior to 2008. Image Source: Boardgamegeek.
It is also commonly said that games today are less and less creative, that it is hard to create something really new and that we’ve probably reached the limit of what board games can do. We reuse and re-implement mechanisms, recombine known elements to make “new” games, we rehash the themes – but it’s all we can do, and there is nothing never-before seen that can be added to the hobby. And a lot of it is true – as much true as it had been in 2007, when people were already seeing this unbreakable stagnation, the rigor of “nothing new” setting in, before Dominion conquered many a gamer heart, and spawned a new game sub-genre that has been going strong for the past eight years. 

So, it’s probably wise to remember, that most of us cannot see an innovation from a distance, and thus predicting that it will not come based on not being able to think of something innovative is… well, it’s simply wrong. The board gaming market today is both beautiful and tough, being highly competitive and surprisingly open at the same time.

Covers of just some of the deckbuilding games published within 3 years in the new genre Dominion had created.
Yes, many games are made, but the methods of communication and critique available today allow gamers to make informed choices, and to promote quality in game publishing. And that in turn makes the publishers up their game in terms of quality – because a single person with a smartphone is now able to inform two thousand people of the shabby work you may have tried to hide behind a glitzy cover – all within a few hours. 

So, for now at least, there is not much to fear. Board games are here to stay. Good publishers are not going anywhere. And we will have a lot of great games to play for years to come.
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  1. What you call a crash for the game console industry, was a big success for the home computer industry. I was a kid at this time and I did also the shift over from a ATARI 2600 to a Commodore C64. I would call games for both systems video games.
    But in my experience the boardgame industry went through this phases before too. I still remember that a lot of my beloved RPG shops in Frankfurt/Main in Germany went out of business when Magic: The Gathering came out. Probably these shop weren't fast enough to jump on the CCG train, so the kids spent their money elsewhere.
    I think a basic rule of business is always: If you make a inferior product or you don't make the products the consumer likes right now, you will go out of business on a longer term.

    1. Yes, the first C64 appeared in my home in an aftermath of the crash. And I definitely agree with the product quality - and it seems that (generally) this is not a problem these days.

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