Gaming is going digital, but board games are here to stay. Here are 5 reasons why.
Several years ago I helped clear out the old family study room. As we sifted through piles of crumbling pamphlets, old suitcases, and a web of dead wires, two items caught my interest: the first, an old board game, the second a Play Station 1. Both were yellowed with age and had a dusty texture, the result of years in a musty cupboard.
But here’s the thing: one was still playable while the other had long since been reduced to a hunk of plastic and circuitry.
You can guess which one I kept.
Once upon a time, when Atari ruled video games, the line between video and board games was clearly defined. The former was played mostly alone—an asocial activity. The latter was played with others—a social activity.
Today, the line between video game and board game has blurred. While one is still printed hardware and the other written software—the advent of team-based video games and online chat services like Discord that connect players has made the argument that video games are asocial ring increasingly hollow. And as modern games increasingly weave engaging and thoughtful content in their stories, the second classic argument that video games melt one’s brain has also begun to sound plucked from the nineties.
It seems inevitable, then, that as the rest of our lives move online, from socialising with Facebook and Twitter, to shopping with Amazon, movies with Netflix, travel with Grab or Gojek, that gaming, a pastime from time immemorial, would join the rest and migrate online, permanently.
Except it hasn’t. Instead, board games have experienced a resurgence in popularity, so much so that the global industry is expected to be worth 21.26 billion USD by 2025.
And though this is minor compared to the gargantuan video game industry, which generated a cool 119.6 billion USD in 2018, it shows something: that board games still offer something video games don’t.
Lewis Chessmen: if you play chess on a computer against a bot, is it a board game or a video game?
The first thing I mentioned is that:
1. Board games physically last longer.
There are chess pieces dating back to the twelfth century, and the original print run of Monopoly from 1935 is still playable. But you don’t need to go that far to make a case for the durability of physical games. You can play Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) with a grandparent and their worn set, and the games you buy now can also be played many years down the road. Some of the games I grew up with were sets my father played when he was a teenager.
Steve Jackson Games: Ever wonder what Stevie did with his time before designing Munchkin?
And while of course you can’t play a video game your grandparents owned because it didn’t exist then, you’d be hard-pressed to play a video game that came out even at the turn of the century. Anyone still own a Play Station 2?
This talk of the durability of technology brings up another point:
2. Board games come in a single package.
Unless you’re playing something like the Pokémon Card Game or Magic: the Gathering, 99% of board games come complete in a nicely shrink-wrapped cardboard box, no batteries required. Video games, by nature of the medium, can’t claim that. Most are only available on select platforms, some of which—consoles—require you to buy a dedicated processor before you can even play a game. And even for PC games bought off a digital store, just having a computer isn’t enough—you need high enough specs to run the game. (I would know—my computer fried itself last week trying to run Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.)
Tally up all those costs, and suddenly, $50 board game seems a bit more reasonable.
But if we only looked at cost and durability when picking games we might as well entertain ourselves with a game of ‘catching’ or hide-and-seek. What really makes board games pop is people. Which brings me to my next point:
3. Playing board games is a social activity.
Traditional video games of Super Mario or the Legend of Zelda tend to get old once you’ve beaten the boss. That doesn’t happen with board games. Just look at any group of elderly folks who’ve played Mahjong every week for decades and you begin to understand that board games are designed so people will have fun interacting with each other, not just with the mechanics.
Mahjong: Some might argue that the best part about Mahjong is winning your friend's life savings.
Video games have progressed past traditional stage-based games and puzzle games. To say it hasn’t, would be blind to esports, PUBG and Fortnite. But as multiplayer as they are, they’re still a profoundly different social experience compared to board games. People gather for a board game to bond with one another. People “gather” online for a video game to play the game. Why else is it that most board games are played with families and friends while many video games are played against complete strangers?
This is where video games and board games really split: while both are for enjoyment, the former—especially esports—are about doing epic deeds, and the latter is about seeing epic reactions. When you make a winning move in a video game, you’ll remember the move, but do the same in a board game and what you’ll remember is the reaction from those around the table. Some of these reactions have even made history.
Of course, I’m not saying that video games, played with friends, can’t be just as memorable. But the simple fact is people remember things better when more of their senses are engaged. Video games engage two, max three senses, and the sense of touch in a video game, where every game uses the same interface—controller, keyboard, or touchscreen, blurs experiences together. The look and feel of physical board game draws people in, but even if it doesn’t, the feel of throwing a card down with flair, or landing a piece with a satisfying clack, or fanning out a stack of paper bills to flex when you’ve won the game still resounds as clearly to some as the look of defeat on their friends’ faces.
Another unique trait board games have and video games can’t replicate is having to interpret rules.
4. Players can create their own house rules for their enjoyment.
No one I play with is a trained lawyer, and yet it certainly seems that when it comes to obscure loopholes and ambiguous rules in games, suddenly supreme court is in session, with endless debates about what the turn of phrase or the placing of a comma means to a rule. In a video game, you don’t have to face this frustration. If you can’t do something in a video game, it won’t let you.
Board games, however, run on whether or not the players are playing by the "right” rules. But the fact that rules can be changed in board games, means you can “adapt” a game to your preference—that is, create house rules. Again, this is where board games and video games, by nature of their medium, differ. In the former, the player can play however they want, in the latter, the rules are inflexible—you have to install a mod to change things. Is there a right or a wrong? Well, they’re games, and enjoyment is a matter of opinion, but I do think it’s a bit easier to modify a board game to your liking than a video game.
Another comparison worthy of making is that:
5. Board games have more extrinsic value.
Of course, some of it comes down the game's look and feel—I think three quarters of the excitement of playing Zombicide would die if it went digital. On the other hand, buying a game online doesn’t really mean you own anything—you really only have a perpetual license to operate the program. You can’t sell it for money. You can’t really give it away or will it away, and even if you did, most video games become outdated in less than a decade, and no one will want it anyways.
Zombicide: I mean, who doesn’t want their personal zombie horde?
But you can do all those with board games. Once you own it, you can play it long after the company has gone defunct (you can do that with some video games, too, of course, but not with the server based games that are all the rage nowadays), you can give it to your friends or children, you can use its bits to play other games, you can use it for kindling, but the fact is, it’s yours. You can even stick it under a desk and wait for a grandchild to find it years later.
In the end,
whether you enjoy board games or video games is really a matter of opinion. I certainly play both. But the thing is, even if your chess pieces are eight centuries old, you’re not going to keep them by your bedside into your old age, when your arthritis prevents you from using an Xbox controller properly. At that point, usually, what people treasure most are the relationships they’ve built with those around them. And in the final analysis, comparing board games and video games, one of them requires a group of people to goggle at a screen, while the other requires them to sit at a table and look at and talk to each other.
Which one does the job of bonding people better?
I’d have to say board games. That’s why they’re still here. That’s why, in this age of minimalism, decluttering, and online everything, these coloured cardboard constructs continue to survive and thrive.