Humans are hardwired to play and, with a heritage that stretches back to distant civilisations, the popularity of board games shows no sign of diminishing – regardless of the digital distractions on offer. In this fascinating extract from his book Everybody Wins, author James Wallis explains why.
This article was first published in the March/April 2023 issue of IQ, the exclusive magazine for British Mensa members packed with engaging and stimulating stories and features.
You like games. I’m pretty certain about that, partly because you’re reading an article about games in a magazine for people who tend to like games, puzzles and intellectual diversions, but mostly because you’re human. Humans are hardwired to enjoy play, and sometimes we place a structure, constraints and goals on top of play and call it a game.
We’ve been doing it for a long time. Every major civilization has had its own tradition of games, sometimes creating them from scratch and sometimes adapting them from other, earlier cultures. The Egyptians didn’t invent board games but they were the first to build ones with boards sturdy enough to survive for archaeologists to find. The pharaoh Tutankhamun was buried with four different sets of senet – a two-player race game that plays a little like backgammon – from an ivory travel set to a deluxe version built into an ebony table. The oldest senet boards are more than 5,000 years old, centuries before humans learned how to make bronze. Your stone-age ancestors were gamers.
The Romans were crazy for games. They scratched boards for their favourites into paving stones, the seats of arenas and the bases of statues, and some Roman restaurants even made their bills of fare in the shape of game boards. Their armies and their merchants carried those games to the edges of their empire and beyond, carving new boards into the stonework and teaching the rules to the locals, who taught them to their children, who taught other children. If your parents showed you how to play nine men’s morris, you may be part of a lineage that stretches back to a Roman legionary or wine merchant using chalk to draw the squares and dots of the board on a stone to demonstrate the game to a stranger.
Travelling with the Vikings
Chess came from India or possibly Persia; backgammon came from Persia or possibly India. Go came from China, as did dominoes, playing cards and mahjong. Hnefatafl, the first asymmetric game, where players have different numbers of pieces with different abilities, travelled with the Vikings, while mancala became the game of Africa, where it has over 800 names and versions. Each game borrowed ideas from its predecessors and influences from its culture to create new designs and new ways to think about games, and when those cultures crossed paths this would often lead to new rules, new systems of play, and new ways of having fun.
Paper changed everything, and then printing changed everything. The cardboard box changed everything – the first product ever sold in a cardboard box was a German board game, The Game of Besieging, in 1817. Mass production and plastics changed everything again. And yet the act of playing a game was basically unchanged: sitting with other people round a table covered in dice and cards and tokens, having fun by following a set of rules. For millennia, nothing could beat it.
Forty years ago, something else brought the fun. Video games went quickly from being monochrome curios to immersive audio-visual spectaculars. The end of traditional games was widely prophesied: how could dice and counters compete against jumping plumbers and grim marines with machine guns? It seemed obvious to people who didn’t play games that the future was on screens, not on tabletops.
Have games survived? In 2022 Hasbro, best known as the makers of Monopoly and Cluedo, announced that Dungeons & Dragons had made over a billion dollars in the past year. The same year, the press announced that the board-game publisher and distributor Asmodee had changed hands for €2.75 billion (about $3 billion). Games Workshop, the company behind the Warhammer titles, is in the FTSE 250 list of the largest companies in the UK. In 2019, the Spiel games convention in Essen pulled more than 200,000 people through its doors. Tabletop games have never been more popular than they are now.
How did this happen? Pop culture pundits may say it’s down to digital fatigue or the recent pandemic, but the popularity of tabletop games (which from now on I’ll just call games) has been growing steadily for decades.
Assorted games historians point to a number of factors, including the clever and beautifully presented range of games produced by 3M in the 1960s, the influential British magazine Games & Puzzles of the 1970s, the invention of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games in 1974, the publication of the first collectible card game in 1993 and, more recently, the internet, BoardGameGeek.com, and crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter. All of these are definitely part of the story, but one thing stands above them all in terms of its importance and influence: German game design and along with it the German game-of-the-year award, the Spiel des Jahres. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve felt its influence, because without it the world of modern board games would be much smaller, much less interesting, and missing many of its biggest names.
Golden age of games design
The Spiel des Jahres is an annual award, presented by a panel of German games journalists and critics to the game that they consider to be the “Game of the Year”, the literal translation. It was first awarded in 1979 and in its 40-plus year history it’s crowned modern classics, championed new design trends and new designers, and introduced millions to the pleasure of playing good games. Most of all, it’s been a key force in shining a public spotlight on some of the most important and most popular games in this golden age of games design.
Some of the past winners have gone on to global success, with eight-figure sales, sequels and even TV deals (Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Codenames), others were well known before they won (Rummikub) and many have faded into obscurity. Not only has the style of games changed radically since it was first presented in 1979, but people’s tastes have evolved as well, and the winning title has swung from simple memory games for kids via family-friendly just-one-more-goers to brain-stretching strategy titles, and back again.
Whether they’re worthy winners, classics or flashes-in-the-pan, each is a chapter of the extraordinary story of the renaissance of modern board games, and when the red game-pawn of the Spiel des Jahres appears on the cover of a game, it’s a mark of genuine excellence.