On 31 May, a list of five board games was released quietly on a German website.
The site is the online home of Spiel des Jahres (German for Game of the Year), a prestigious annual award for board-game design that has grown in stature and importance since its inception in 1978. Nearly three million people from 250 countries watch the site closely, with Internet forums and blogs breaking out into furious speculation and intense debate before a high-profile ceremony in Hamburg on 28 June decides the winner.
The nominees for the latest edition also show the inherent eclecticism and variety in modern board-game design, a far cry from the “roll-dice-and-move” formula most Indians are familiar with. One of the nominees, Dixit, is a game where players make up a story based on the cards they draw randomly and are awarded for the strength of their storytelling. Another, called Fresco, calls upon players to compete to finish a fresco in a Renaissance-era church, deciding the pace and manner of their work. A la Carte sees players play the role of half-crazed chefs competing for a job in a restaurant.
Bored no more: A game of Ticket to Ride in progress. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Spiel des Jahres is the Oscar of the board-game world—high-profile and popular, but not indicative of the best the medium produces. “The award is for a very specific type of game: Typically, something that is very family-friendly, not too complicated, and plays relatively quickly,” says Matthew Monin of BoardGameGeek, a 300,000-strong online community of board gamers worldwide.
Games with more complex rules and eclectic themes are shoehorned into other awards and events, among them the Essen Feather and The Golden Geek (arguably, the Frankfurt and Sundance festivals of board games).
Board-game design is in the middle of a veritable renaissance, with a staggering spread of game mechanics and themes, from Victorian London to dystopian Mars. In the first six months of 2009, board-game sales in the US grew 10% year-on-year, a period where toy sales fell 2%, according to market research firm NPD. A lot of mainstream games carry the whiff of experimentation. Take Space Alert, a 2009 Spiel des Jahres winner. The game is set on a spaceship under attack, and shipped with two audio CDs that announce threats in real time for the players to respond to.
The roster of celebrity board-game designers also grows year-on-year, with new “talents” being discovered. Conventions, where new games are showcased, are sold out months in advance. “The big one is the Essen Toy Fair, held every November in Germany,” says Monin. “Publishers debut many new games at Essen and board-game fans from around the world converge there to be the first to try them out.” Most other conventions are focused on getting a lot of gamers together to play games all day long, with GenCon being the biggest in the US.
Meeple power: Following their debut in Carcassonne, the people-shaped wooden meeples have become a fixture in many contemporary games.
Board games have shaken off the “old fashioned” tag they were saddled with in the wake of mainstream video games, and their supposed obsolescence with the spread of mobile gaming devices such as the Nintendo DS. Since the early 2000s, they have captured a dedicated niche that likes social playing experiences. They are low-impact, intelligent, and not always ruthlessly competitive, allowing for both tense, frantic affairs and slow, strategic playthroughs.
Partly responsible for this resurgence is the export of “European style” board games outside of Europe, where the market was largely dominated by “roll-and-move” games such as Monopoly and Cluedo. The “Euros”, as they’re called, were radically different in the way they were played, and the success of a clever little 1997 title called The Settlers of Catan—which sold 600,000 copies in 2008—opened the floodgates. “These games distinguish themselves by being playable in 45-60 minutes, having a high degree of player interaction, being relatively straightforward to learn, and by attempting to keep all players in the game until the end of the game,” says game designer Matt Leacock, whose new title Roll through the Ages has been nominated for this year’s award. “Many American games, on the other hand, feature player elimination, can outlast their welcome in playtime, and often suffer from downtime when it’s not your turn.”
But the Euros may take a while to reach Indian shores. At Toy Biz 2010, a business convention for India’s toy industry held in April in Delhi, board-game ideas were few and far between, and dominated largely by Monopoly knock-offs.
“Branded games like Monopoly, Game of Life, Cluedoand Scotland Yard make up about 50% of the business,” says K.A. Shabir of Funskool India, which manufactures 65,000 board-game sets a month. While Funskool’s board-game business is growing by “about 20%” annually, Shabir says Indian gamers are “not quite ready for the deep strategy that Euros bring”. Funskool’s upcoming launches favour dexterity-based games such as Sorry! Slider, which involves knocking sliding pieces off each other. “But we are experimenting with strategy titles. We bought out a range of IIT-designed games that are very abstract strategy, but with a distinct Indian bent,” he says.