Hobbies are not often considered cool. For many people, the image that immediately comes to mind when they hear the word “hobby”, is that of someone doing something tedious in a garden shed.
It is difficult to imagine James Bond having a hobby, isn’t it? Try to picture him at home: he has just recently defeated SPECTRE for the eighth time, and he has just sent packing an unfeasibly attractive, and physically exhausted, female nuclear physicist half his age. What does he do now? Basket weaving? I don’t think so.
But what if there was a hobby in which you were a cowboy, driving cattle from Texas to Kansas City. What about a hobby where you were part of a global response team, travelling around the world fighting outbreaks of deadly diseases? What if there was a hobby where you were trapped on an island that was rapidly sinking into the sea, and only your wits and a few friends stood between you and a watery grave?
What if this hobby was something exciting, but not dangerous. Educational, but fun. What if it was something that gave you an opportunity to make new friends, yet also gave you a perfect excuse to stay in touch with old ones?
That would be cool, wouldn’t it?
Well, I have good news for you. There is indeed such a hobby. Have you guessed what it is yet?
That’s right, it’s amateur dramatics!
Only kidding. It’s board gaming.
Did I fool you for a second? I suspect not, given that you know what the title of this chapter is. I suppose there is an outside chance that someone could be reading this out loud to you, and you cannot see the screen they are reading from, but that does not seem very likely to me. Still, I think it was worth a try.
If you are not already familiar with the joys of modern board gaming, you might be surprised to hear it referred to as a hobby. If your only experience of board games is being forced to play them with your family, perhaps on rainy days on caravan holidays, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only people who play them are desperate parents who are prepared to put up with anything in the name of “quality family time”.
And also, didn’t video games kill off board games decades ago?
Well, I am pleased to tell you that the board game industry is, in fact, thriving, and there are millions of people, all over the world, who love playing games, and who consider board gaming their hobby. It is still, admittedly, a niche hobby in the USA, as well as in my home country of the UK, but it is getting bigger and bigger all the time.
Perhaps the most visible signs of the health of the industry, and the enthusiasm of its fans, are the massively popular and successful gaming conventions that take place every year – most notably Spiel and Gen Con. These are biggest gaming conventions in Europe and The USA, and take place in Essen (Germany) and Indianapolis (Indiana), respectively. Both are four day events, in huge indoor exhibition / convention centres, and both attract crowds that would rival most rock festivals. These events are where designers showcase their new games – thousands of them every year – family, adult, strategy, children’s – with more mechanics than an RAC Christmas party.
If you doubt my claim that the hobby is thriving, just try Googling “Spiel Essen” or “Gen Con” look at the images.
So what are the reasons behind this renaissance?
I believe that there are two.
The first of these reason dates all the way back to 1970’s Germany – 1978 in fact. Yes, it was in Germany that the board game hobby first took off (and it took the rest of the world a long time to catch on) with the creation of ‘The Spiel des Jahres’. Spiel des Jahres is German for ‘Game of the Year’, and it is an award given to recognize good game designs. It is still going today, and it is widely considered to be the Oscars of the board game industry.
The main Spiel award has traditionally been for family board games, though there has also been an occasional special prize. Since 2011 though, there has also been a regular ‘Connoisseur’ category, for more complex games (though sometimes the difference in complexity between games in the two categories is not as big as you might think). Since 2012 there has also been a category for children’s games.
Games designers were finally getting the recognition they deserved for all the hours of hard work they put into creating, and perfecting (through many hours of playtesting), these “designer games”. But it is not just the recognition that they get; a nomination always gives a nice boost to sales figures, because a customer is usually more likely to choose a game if it has that ‘Spiel des Jahres’ logo on it.
I know there are exceptions to this generalization though, because a friend of mine once told me that when he first got into board games he actively avoided everything in his local specialist shop that said ‘Spiel des Jahres’ on it, because he assumed that the game inside the box must be a foreign-language version.
My friend’s endearing foolishness aside, a nomination would typically give a game a tenfold sales increase, and if it won, several hundredfold. Many believe, therefore, that the very existence of the Spiel des Jahres award has inspired game designers over the past few decades to (ahem) raise their game.
And that is why I believe that the Spiel des Jahres is so important in the history of the hobby.
After the creation of the award, the quality of board games took off in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. New types of games were invented and then improved upon, interesting themes were developed, and production values went up, with beautiful artwork on the board and high quality components becoming the norm. People across the world started to talk about German board games the way they talked about French wine, Belgian chocolate, and Dutch pornography.
There was one German game in particular that really caught the imagination of board gamers outside of the fatherland, and that game was Settlers of Catan. This 1995 game has players representing settlers (yes, the clue was in the title) establishing colonies on the island of (you guessed it) Catan. Players gather resources (brick, lumber, wool, grain and ore) and use them to build settlements, cities, and roads, on hexagonal tiles representing different types of terrain. The game’s creator, Klaus Teuber, has said that he was inspired by stories of the Viking colonization of Iceland.
Settlers of Catan (rebranded as just Catan these days) is still wildly popular, more than two decades later. It has sold well over twenty million copies and been translated into more than thirty languages, which is more languages than I can actually name (that is, unless I am allowed to use computer programming languages, or languages from Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, but I don’t think I should be).
An article in The Washington Post once stated that in Silicon Valley being able to play Catan had become “a necessary social skill among entrepreneurs and venture capitalists,” and referred to it as “the new golf”.
In researching this book, I decided to find out for myself if this statement was true outside of California. I asked an old friend of mine, who happens to be a venture capitalist in the West Midlands, if Catan was the new golf in Birmingham. He laughed at me and said he had never heard of Catan, and that Monopoly was the best board game.
People, I am told, really do still play Monopoly in their millions. But why? That Hasbro buy-to-rent-themed classic was created in 1933. If Monopoly fans took the same approach with music and films, as they do with games, they would still be listening to Glen Miller, and streaming Charlie Chaplin films. Now, I have nothing against either of these two artists, but come on, surely it’s time to give something else a try?
Most board game enthusiasts don’t usually play Monopoly, any more. Personally, I don’t actively dislike it, it’s just that there are much better games available. A lot of modern board game players certainly do actively dislike it though. I get the feeling that some of them would rather play one of Jigsaw’s games from the Saw movies than play Monopoly.
Why do they hate it so much? Well, one common complaint is that it takes a long time to play, and that for the final hour or more it is pretty clear who is going to win; so everybody else is just going through the motions, dragging out their depressing imaginary career as a struggling landlord for as long as possible until their inevitable bankruptcy. It also does not help the game that most people do not actually play by the correct rules – missing out the auction step, and applying “house rules” to recycle money, so that it takes much longer to finish off opponents.
Another complaint is that there is a boring mechanic at the heart of Monopoly.
I should explain that when I say “mechanic” I mean game mechanic, or mechanism; that is, the thing that you actually do to play the game. If you were imagining the ‘boring mechanic’ in Monopoly as being an unseen character with oil-stained overalls and no sense of humour, who was perhaps there to keep the motor car piece in good working order, then I apologize for the confusion. No, I was actually referring to the ‘roll and move’ mechanic, which is very old-fashioned. Hardly any modern designer games use this mechanic any more, as it takes away what many regard as the most important part of any game, the players’ opportunity to make meaningful decisions.
I think that the main reason people still play Monopoly, is simply that it is familiar. My venture capitalist friend was, until I spoke to him, totally unaware so that so many great alternatives actually exist. The fact is, the hobby has not exactly gone mainstream yet. I was in my local supermarket yesterday, and in the board game section, alongside Guess Who, Hungry Hungry Hippos and Operation, Monopoly was just about the only game aimed at adults. In fact there were even two different versions of Monopoly, but no versions of anything resembling a hobby board game for the whole family.
If I did not know better I would suspect that supermarket owners had conspired and agreed that, as a joke, just for the irony value, they would allow the game called Monopoly to corner the family board game market and have a complete monopoly on it.
That’s enough about Monopoly. Let us never mention it again.
Where was I? Ah yes, Catan.
Catan’s popularity in America in the late 1990s paved the way for many other games to cross the Atlantic. Perhaps more significantly, it created a market which inspired game designers in the English-speaking world to come up with German style board games which took some of the ideas, added to them, and tailored them for their customers. These ‘Eurogames’ tended to have peaceful themes like farming, building or trading, and the conflict was indirect, with players competing for scarce resources rather than fighting or otherwise eliminating each other.
Before long, people were collecting board games and organising game nights with friends, and the hobby was born.
So, it was the Spiel des Jahres, and Essen, that kickstarted hobby board gaming at the end of the twentieth century. Without those, the games industry, and indeed most of the great games I have been talking about, simply would not exist.
But, I said earlier in the chapter that there were two main reasons for the renaissance. The second great invention – the one that has been the catalyst for the increase in its popularity, and the one that is the reason I discovered the hobby myself – is the internet.
Firstly, the internet has physically enabled the spread of the hobby, because internet mail order companies have actually allowed people who do not live near to specialist game stores (people like me) to buy decent games that are not available in their local supermarkets (i.e. all of them).
Equally importantly, for me and millions of others, the internet has hundreds of websites on gaming, as well as podcasts, and YouTube channels, all full of reviews and recommendations. Without these, I would not have known where to start.
The videos in particular, allow potential customers to see the games they might have read about actually being played, before they buy them. A lot of these games are quite expensive, and most people would hesitate to spend such a lot of money on something they had never seen, even if it had received good reviews. With the YouTube videos though, you can really get a sense of whether or not a particular game is one you would enjoy playing. That was my experience anyway.
I will come back to this subject, and cover it in more detail, in a later chapter of this book.
Before we go any further though, I think we need to address the awkward truth, that, as a hobby, board gaming is sometimes judged, unfairly, as being a bit … well … a bit nerdy. Now, I am not a nerd; far from it. Well … okay, perhaps not as far from it as I would like – I do after all have a maths degree, an encyclopaedic knowledge of pre-Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who, and an empathy with Leonard from The Big Bang Theory… Oh, who am I kidding? I am a nerd.
Never mind that though, the point I am failing to make is that board gaming is a cool hobby. It really is just about sitting down with friends, or family, of any age or gender, and having fun doing something together. That’s cooler than Fonzie in a fridge as far as I am concerned, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Actually, don’t ever let anyone tell you what is or is not cool at all – they are usually wrong. I am old enough to remember when smoking, flared trousers and Mel Gibson were all considered to be cool. Whatever it is that people think is cool now will be viewed with incomprehension and/or hilarity by future generations, so you might as well just do whatever you enjoy.
And I think you are going to enjoy board gaming.
I think it is going to be the best hobby you will ever have.