For most Americans, the term “board game” likely conjures memories of frustrating evenings huddled with family members. These affairs often sadly include extensive games of Monopoly that devolve into shouting matches or grinding through hours of Risk enduring (or inflicting) a tediously slow demise.
Board games have a major public relations problem. On average, they seem to be received about as warmly as cold toast or shoes half a size too tight. As a board game fanatic, I find this to be a tremendous problem.
Most people don’t realize board gaming is a thrilling, booming industry.
Not only this, but the majority of growth is coming from entirely non-traditional sectors. In 2014, the hobby game market increased 15%, and it marked its sixth consecutive year of growth. Since 2008, that market has grown 225% and has a present estimated value of $880 million.
This past year, over 160,000 individuals visited Indianapolis’s Gen Con across four days for the largest (primarily) board gaming festival in the world, while tabletop games raised a collective $88.9 million on Kickstarter – nearly twice the total funds of video games.
These sales are not of classic (generally terrible) games like Monopoly, Sorry, Battleship, or even contemporary classics like Settlers of Catan or Cards Against Humanity. Instead, they are of brilliant, often incredibly inclusive, games that are pushing the boundaries of cleverness and game design in ways that video games are frankly lagging behind (and I say this still as an avid video game enthusiast).
For example, take the ingenious game, Hanabi. Essentially, it’s an easily accessible co-operative game of Uno, except everybody holds their cards facing outwards so they cannot see them. Everyone will know every card everyone is holding, except what’s actually in the player’s own hand. It’s a funny struggle of attempting to give hints and it gives everyone a feeling of merited tremendous accomplishment when they actually manage to win.
If that is not really your thing, what about Ladies & Gentlemen? In that game of spoofing Victorian gender roles, players split into teams of two with one being the lady and the other the gentlemen. Gameplay is broken into two mini-games. Ladies spend their day playing a surprisingly strategic game of finding outfits more glamorous than their rivals and spreading rumors. Conversely, the gentlemen spend their time frantically matching stocks to contracts. The couples are not allowed to talk to each other until the evening. At that time, husbands will often disappoint their wives with an inability to procure sufficient funds for the elegant garb their better half selected. For maximum fun, I strongly recommend everyone role plays like a proper Victorian, and for at least the first playthrough force couples to play as the opposite sex. Enjoy the ensuing laughs.
Alternatively, what about Alchemists, a game that is essentially an academia simulator, well, for alchemists. In it, players are on a quest for the greatest reputation and will publish and debunk each other’s (and sometimes their own) theories. It also includes swindling selling potions to adventurers, testing dubious concoctions on unsuspecting students, laughing as said students wise up and cynically demand payment for their scientific contributions, and laughing even more as Steve cannot afford to pay these students, so he drinks the potion himself and proceeds to become the joke of the town as he does naked cartwheels through the streets after evidently consuming a potion of insanity. Furthermore, the game includes its own sleek, free app for smartphones, which effortlessly game manages the different potion combinations for you, so a player doesn’t have too. It’s all just really, really nice.
Not to mention there are still aggressive thematic games of dominating opponents like Spartacus (where players control rival gladiatorial schools), dungeon crawling adventures across fantasy worlds like Descent and intense six hour spanning grand space operas like Twilight Imperium.
Needless to say, I could literally discuss board games and all the insanely cutting edge things they are doing all day, but there is a more serious purpose for me writing this article.
Board games and the board gaming community, much like its video counterpart (and to an unfortunate extent, society at large), still suffer from major problems of inclusivity and completely alienating many individuals.
I have hosted several board game nights with 12+ people. In them, I try to create an environment I hope everyone finds acceptable, so they can have a good time and have fun because, other than crushing your opponents, isn’t that the point?
I think across the United States, this is an area that has improved in recent years, but there is still such a long way to go.
One item worth keeping in mind is that although crushing opponents is quite enjoyable, for most people, getting crushed consistently is not so much fun. While deliberately throwing games are insulting in my view, try coaching even opposing players to refine their abilities. Besides the added fun for the formerly struggling player, it will make everyone involved better and more competitive in the long run. Furthermore, it’s worth noting many games include built-in handicap systems worth implementing for veteran players when playing newcomers – use them.
However, much of the problem surrounding tabletop gaming involves exclusion or deliberate abuse of people that are not a prototypical cisgendered, white, individual. Honestly, it can be surprisingly difficult to improve in this regard in certain environments. I recommend telling those who engage in such activity to knock it off and trying to be as inclusive as possible in one’s community, but this area has got to get better at large.
I’m all for being edgy comically and what not, but I try to make sure I know my group will accept. This takes time to know people and their quirks. Mistakes do happen, but if one ever sees somebody clearly bothered by the gaming environment, feel free to pull them aside, see what’s up and try to think of a way to help and remedy the situation. We’re all adults and most people will listen and adjust their behavior if they discover they caused offense. I know I am personally trying to work on this and it is way easier said than done.
Regardless, there are so many brilliant people in this world who don’t happen to be white, heterosexual American, English, French and German dudes. It is incredibly disappointing that is who disproportionately dominates many communities and the industry. It hurts to think of what all is lost and forgotten.
Speaking of forgotten, a recent industry event captures absolutely everything wrong about the inclusiveness of board games.
Hasbro created a new version of Star Wars Monopoly, which is fine. Except, for whatever reason, Hasbro decided to exclude every female Star Wars character from the game, including Rey, the *expletives I’ll leave to your imagination* female lead and hero of the story!
Instead, players are left to choose from Finn and Kylo Ren, which is fine; however, (minor “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” spoilers), the only other characters available are Return of the Jedi era Luke Skywalker and an entirely absent from the new film Darth Vader.
I am an incredibly difficult person to genuinely offend. However, this ticked me off to such a degree, I’ve decided I simply will not purchase any Hasbro goods likely forever and encourage everyone else to do the same.
At a time when so much of the board game community and industry is (albeit slowly) improving in its inclusivity and diversity, Hasbro, arguably the iconic game publisher to the mainstream, decided to retreat to the dark ages.
To Hasbro’s credit, I own their previous version of Star Wars Monopoly that includes many more characters, including women like Padme and Leia. The company also announced they will be reprinting the game with a Rey included. Hasbro also argued she was excluded to prevent spoilers, which The Force Awakens’ director J.J. Abrams called “preposterous and wrong.”
But in all seriousness, what kind of message does that send to the world and prospective gamers? Among other things, there will be many parents playing this game with their daughters and sons, and they will have to explain why the game excludes any women, including the main character (hint: the reason is because Hasbro is apparently ran by sexists and/or imbeciles).
Warning – this is about as bizarre as it sounds. I’ve begun kicking off each session for my gaming group with an immensely sarcastic, sacrilegious ceremony that includes a giant poster of one of my friends from when he was six. This is because everyone on this planet is an amazing, unique individual, and we are all in this together as equals (except perhaps Hasbro employees).
Board gaming is an ever-thriving hobby that never ceases to amaze me in our increasingly individualistic age. I hope to share its fun, intensity and hilariousness with more, and more people of all backgrounds. It is tragic Hasbro evidently does not want the same.
Editor’s Note: I strongly recommend taking a look at Different Play, a group of designers from non-traditional backgrounds explicitly attempting to promote diversity in tabletop gaming. Their work doesn’t exactly sound like my cup of tea, but I love everything about what they are doing.