Why board games are making a comeback

Before video games (bear with me here, kids) – and as impossibly archaic as it might sound – there were “board” games: things made with card and glue that required imagination and literal, rather than virtual, interaction to be played. Long since superseded by the Sturm und Drang of their console-based offspring and left to gather dust, you may recognise them when they emerge, generally in fractious, often desperate attempts to unite the family for a brief moment of shared jollity. It rarely ends well and of course, forced jollity is no jollity at all, but this year there has been a ‘Bank Error in Your Favour’ (ask the olds) and something altogether more intriguing is on offer.

Throughout mainland Europe and the US, a new breed of board-gaming now thrives. There are titles that allow you to play at building medieval settlements, re-enact pivotal battles from the second world war, tackle political debating or manage the spread of disease, and they sell in huge numbers. Mature themes as diverse as noir crime fiction and religious conflict offer tremendous variety, and unusual concepts such as “strategic storytelling” push the conventions of the form way beyond hands of cards and dice.

Now these games, led by titles such as Settlers of Catan andCarcassonne, are starting to penetrate the consciousness of the UK public. They’ve been described as “hardcore” or “strategy” (occasionally even as “German-style”, due to their popularity there). But at their heart they are still just board games, and the best are as suitable for a family reunion at Christmas as they are for a den of geeks.

Which may be a hard sell to button-mashing kids, but it’s worth noting that the modern video-games market actually owes much to these board games. Visit any video games development studio and you’re likely to spot shelves piled high with colourful boxes sporting unfamiliar names, used for inspiration and lessons in good game design.

But now they are also being sold in UK high street stores such as Waterstones and WH Smith. Most focus on strategy, combining game mechanics with bewildering names like commodity management and deck-building. But don’t be put of by the jargon. Many are easy to learn, tremendous fun and a great deal more rewarding than the likes of Hungry Hippos. They exercise the grey matter, pull families and friends away from laptops and TVs and, where Monopoly may present a familiar trudge around a pale green circuit, titles such as Ticket to Ride or Memoir ’44deliver nailbiting face-offs, beguiling depth and, most importantly, really can fill a room with cheers and jeers.

Carcassonne, for example, charges players to collectively build a landscape from a pile of randomly drawn tiles, each of which is printed with a section of map. On a given turn a player places their piece on the table, contributing to an expanding tableau of roads, fields and towns, while claiming territories with small wooden figures. It’s a deep strategic game, but equally it’s an exercise in collective creativity as the players communally craft a rural scene, each one different from the last. And hours of experience doesn’t mean your 10-year-old niece won’t trounce you on her first game. Carcassonne is as playful as it is deep, and as relaxing as it is competitive.

However there are so many more that there really is something out there for everyone. It’s just a matter of bringing the family together, giving them a try and leaving Cluedo on top of the wardrobe.



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