Board games in the modern age

Tabletop games are defying technology, and making a triumphant return to lounge rooms across the country.
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01.Get on board with tabletop gaming

Choice staff playing a board game

Board games are back and in a big way, with growing legions of new fans flocking to clubs and conventions to get in on the action. While computer-based games can be visually dazzling, game players are discovering that old-fashioned tabletop games can offer a superior social experience, while experts suggest they can also benefit your brain.

Most people will be familiar with family game stalwarts such as Monopoly and Scrabble. But it’s the more challenging titles such as Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride and even Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) that are seeing a mainstream resurgence in popularity. So why are people going back to the tabletop?

From cupboards to clubs & conventions

Board games are a part of many people's childhood. Odds are you have a few fond memories of playing Monopoly, Scrabble or Snakes and Ladders with your family, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a house that doesn’t have at least one favourite board game that’s occasionally fished out when the power goes out.

While these games can occupy a nostalgic place in our hearts, in the past decade they’ve been overshadowed by a world of PCs, smartphones, tablets and artificial intelligence (AI). For many, the physical dice and game board are seen as dusty relics of the past. But a new generation of game players is catching on to an older generation of more challenging multi-player tabletop games that prove it’s the human element that makes things fun.

We spoke to many industry experts and found that in the past couple of years, tabletop games have started to find a broader audience, with dedicated clubs booming across the country. Once an overseas phenomenon only, large games conventions such as the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) are now held in Australia, with dedicated tabletop games areas that are growing enormously.

Although there’s no one reason for the resurgence, exposure in mainstream media could be the catalyst. Some cite recognition in popular culture such as hit TV comedy The Big Bang Theory, and the growing interest in “geek culture” as the driving force that makes these once nerdy pastimes more socially acceptable. Others claim that crossover titles based on video games such as World of Warcraft are capturing the interest of video game fans, acting as a gateway to the hobby. 

Tabletop games have also been a surprisingly enormous hit on dedicated web channels such as Geek and Sundry, which has a dedicated web series called "Tabletop", hosted by actor, writer and all-round geek hero Wil Wheaton leading an ever-changing guest list of pop culture celebrities.

What's the attraction?monopoly-boxes

While the mainstream market tends to associate the term board games with classic family titles such as Monopoly, there’s another level of lesser-known board games that aren’t available in every retail store. They're often larger and more complex, relying on imagination and strategic thinking.

These are commonly referred to as tabletop games. They can be played using a traditional board and movable pieces, but usually involve more elements, including various types of cards and often a rather complex rulebook, sometimes called a codex.

Tabletop games fall into several different categories, from the easy-to-learn so-called “gateway” games including Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan, to miniature war games such as Warhammer and role-playing games such as D&D.

Games industry veteran Ian Houlihan, who’s responsible for many pop culture events including tabletop gaming convention Gen Con Aus and the tabletop section at the inaugural PAX Australia in 2013, says that at this level, the definition of a “classic” is completely different. 

"I attended a seminar at one stage where the lead marketing person from [game maker] Hasbro got up and said, 'if someone came to Hasbro with Monopoly today, we'd reject it'," Houlihan says. "That boils down to how the nature of tabletop gaming has changed. They're not just after games where you go around in a circle until somebody wins; they're after immersion. There needs to be a story behind what's going on. There needs to be tactics.” 

Games such as Settlers of Catan, which is based around trading resources to build a society, are combining this rich storytelling with a new approach to gaming that encourages players to interact and negotiate to complete a particular goal. Lounge room standards such as Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit still have their place, but they’re relatively simplistic by comparison. These narrative elements, combined with in-depth game play, are thought to offer a more rewarding experience.

Brain boosters

ticket-to-ride-playing Tabletop games demand constant attention. Even the simplest games are built on rules that require learning and regular thought processing. Whether this can actually make you “smarter” is up for debate, but experts claim that playing tabletop games at any age can boost certain portions of the brain, improve social skills and help stave off mental illness in seniors.

While simple so-called “brain-training” games such as crosswords and Sudoku have long been recognised as helpful in keeping mentally active, tabletop games can also hone specific mental capabilities (such as cognitive or mathematical). Even quick-to-learn gateway games such as Ticket to Ride may offer greater brain benefits a crossword puzzle, as tabletop titles include an interactive social element. 

In a nutshell, there are many benefits to multiple forms of play at any age, and tabletop games fit into this. Growing scientific evidence even points to the benefits of tabletop games in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s in seniors, while members of the tabletop community, including our experts, have even noticed social advantages. Shared interest in co-operative games can create a safe environment for people who may be shy or lacking in self-confidence, which can help them refine their social skills. 

Keith Done has been into tabletop games since the 1960s, thanks in part to developing asthma at a young age, at a time when drugs like Ventolin weren’t readily available. This meant long periods indoors, so he gravitated towards tabletop gaming. Now he’s heavily involved in the League of Extraordinary Gamers (LXG), which boasts one of the largest collection of games in the Brisbane area – more than 300. 

While running LXG, Done has found that players with mental or physical disabilities experience the benefits of playing board games. LXG has worked with care groups in and around Brisbane, including Youngcare, an organisation supporting people under 65 that require full-time care. Youngcare takes the position that these people deserve the same experiences as young people without disabilities, which prompted Done to get in touch about sharing LXG’s passion for tabletop. 

“We started running a night for people with multiple sclerosis [MS] with Youngcare, and the organisers love it,” he explains. “They said that if you've got MS or different disabilities, playing games is a great release for people’s minds. There are a couple of people who have different levels of brain damage but they can play games quite well. Some can't roll dice or hold cards, so we do that for them.” 

Some people may see these disabilities as potentially limiting, but they can actually give some special-needs gamers a wonderful competitive edge. “There's a guy there who has to hear a concept a few times before it sinks in, but then he comes out with these long-term memory things that blow other players away,” explains Done. “He likes those kinds of games and he's tapping into them, so wait until you see him play games that need long-term memory like trivia!”



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