The Table-Top Gaming Revolution: Just 40 Years in the Making

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by NYFA Instructor Andy Ashcraft

So, as some of you may have noticed, table-top games — board-games and card games — are really popular right now. You can find dozens of new games in the big box stores like Target, Walmart and Toys-R-Us, and even find well-stocked selections in the big bookstores. Local specialty retail shops are everywhere, and always have people inside playing a game or two. Board-game cafes are springing up in cities around the world, where you can enjoy a beverage and a snack and borrow a game to play from some pretty extensive libraries. In Glendale, my favorite local game café called GameHaus boasts a library with about 1500 games, and is packed full of people on a Friday and Saturday night. What is happening here? When did this start?

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Even though it seems to have sprung up overnight, our seemingly newfound love of table-top games has a history going back about 40 years.  In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll outline a timeline that shows how this hobby has grown to what it is now.

Pre-1974:  Wargames, Family Games and Abstract Strategy Games.

Prior to, say, 1976, the world of tabletop gaming could be split into these three reasonably distinct categories:

Family Games

Family games were those that you could easily find in a Toy-R-Us or in a small area near the toys in a department store. These are titles I’m sure you’ll recognize: Monopoly, Candyland, Stratego, Clue (or Cluedo), Trouble, and Scrabble. You would be hard-pressed to find any suburban home in the U.S. that didn’t include at least one of these games.  (My grandfather was a huge Scrabble fan, and taught me to play just as soon as I could read. Perhaps I come to my love of games through him!)

Abstract Strategy Games / Traditional Games

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Abstract strategy games are much older than many of the family games above, like many card games using a traditional deck of cards. They include games like chess, checkers, dominoes, backgammon, Pente, and Othello. Many of these games are old enough to not require a license, and therefore different manufacturers could make games for different market segments: kid’s versions, travel versions, or expensive, hand-crafted versions that are left out as objets d’art. Similarly, anyone can publish a standard deck of playing cards, with which literally hundreds of games can be played. You can buy decks of cards at dollar stores, or find very expensive and beautifully illustrated decks, depending on your taste and budget.  

Wargames

This last type of game is the lesser-known cousin of the other two, and in many ways, the predecessor of the gaming boom we’re experiencing today. Wargames were a niche hobby for adult men (generally white) who enjoyed strategy and history. Many of these games were set in a particular historical battle. Avalon Hill was a major publisher of many of these strategy games like Tactics, Blitzkrieg, Gettysburg, and a railroad game called Dispatcher. These games typically used tiny cardboard tokens on a map to illustrate the action.

Wargaming with these tokens led to using miniatures (usually cast in lead or pewter) as nicer-looking replacement game pieces. In 1970, medieval wargame enthusiasts Gary Gygax, Jeff Perrin and Don Lowry teamed up to create a medieval miniatures wargame called Chainmail. As “an afterthought,” Gygax added a section at the end dealing with fantastic and mythological creatures, notably elves, goblins, wizards and dragons. This turned out to be quite popular and lead to the first big breakout hit for this industry.   

1974-1994:  D&D, Hobby Games and Game Stores

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In 1974, Gygax (and some others) created a company called TSR and released Dungeons & Dragons, an expansion of Chainmail where each player played as just one hero character instead of as the commander of an army. It was the first role-playing game (RPG) and was enormously influential and innovative. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of table-top RPG’s published since then, and an equally vast number of computer RPGs. A great deal has been written about Dungeons & Dragons so I won’t get into too much detail, except to point to this moment as a big expansion in the hobby.

At this point, game conventions began to grow from small gatherings where groups of friends spent the weekend playing games together to the 90,000+ people that are expected to attend GenCon Indy this year, it’s 40th anniversary. Gen-Con, the “best five days in gaming,” brings more money into Indianapolis each year than any other event outside the Indianapolis 500. Los Angeles alone hosts three much smaller game conventions each year.

These game conventions became fertile fields for design-oriented players to start making and sharing their own games, and some cult classics first appeared in these venues, often as self-published packages sold in ziplock bags: Wiz-War, Talisman, Cosmic Encounters, Battle Stations, and Insecta are examples of these “early” hobby games.

Another direct spin-off of Dungeons & Dragons is the British company named Games Workshop. Early on, this company had the license to publish D&D (and other American games) in Europe. They were both a publisher and a brick-and-mortar retailer, with a rapid growth during these 20 years. Games Workshop also published their own games, like Fury of Dracula and, more importantly to them, Warhammer and Warhammer 40K.

Warhammer (and the 40k variant) are a return to miniatures-based war-gaming, with players commanding large armies of elves, orcs, and other fantasy creatures. They teamed up with a miniatures manufacturer named Citadel Miniatures to create a line of figures that were a requirement to play the game. These fantasy tabletop wargames became their core business.  

During this time, the hobby began to acknowledge the best games for their excellence. The Germans were the first to start awarding prizes in the field of game-design. The Spiel de Jahres was awarded in 1979, and two other awards started in 1989/1990: the Kinderspiel de Jahres (for children’s games) and the Deutscher Spiele Pries. That same year, the American Mensa organization would also begin awarding the Mensa Select to games that promote thinking and learning. In 1991, Games Magazine gave their first Game of the Year award.

1994-1999:  The Years of Magical Thinking

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In the mid-’90s, the industry saw two big shifts that would help swing this niche hobby into the mainstream — Magic: The Gathering, and a simultaneous surge in creativity from Europe.

Magic: The Gathering debuted at Gen-Con in 1994. At the heart of this game was a then-revolutionary idea: what if there was a game you could play with trading cards? Instead of buying the entire game at once, players would buy smaller packs of cards, trade individual cards with each other, and play with the cards that they had collected. Each “booster pack” of 15 cards included one rare card, three uncommon cards, and 11 common cards. It was a huge hit, selling out their first few print runs, and ultimately changing the business of tabletop gaming across the U.S.

The game’s setting was a fantasy world, much like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer. Each card had a beautiful illustration, and the game itself could be played in 15-30 minutes. It took the company, Wizards of the Coast, a year or so to come to grips with their nigh-instant popularity and get their production pipeline flowing. The game — colloquially called “Magic” or shortened even more to “MtG” — was inherently open-ended so that Wizards of the Coast could release new sets of cards that could be added to each player’s collection. The growing community of players created a rich secondary market for the most useful cards, and some of these cards would be instantly worth 10 times the cost of the booster pack they’d be found in.  

Within two years, most tabletop game retailers were making the lion’s share of their income selling only these card packs. I remember hearing stories of game shops that were burglarized during this time where the thieves took nothing except boxes of unopened Magic cards.   

The market for this game was typically young men, and Wizards of the Coast realized something important: they were bringing new people into the hobby. They followed this success in 1996 by publishing a similar trading card game, slightly simpler, and based on a video game series popular among both boys and girls: Pokémon. The game’s slogan told you exactly what they wanted you to do: “You gotta catch ‘em all.”  

There were many other collectible trading card games that followed these two, but none as popular.   Wizards of the Coast created a rich and stable platform for a brand new generation of gamers. By 1999, Wizards of Coast had purchased the flagging Dungeons & Dragons publisher, TSR, and released a new version of that game, too. Wizards of the Coast has since been purchased by Hasbro, and now you can purchase Magic and Pokémon cards in very mainstream retailers like Toys-R-Us and Target.

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Meanwhile, in Europe, an explosion of creativity was also happening around board games. The story I heard, which may be apocryphal, is that a German marketing company did a survey asking young adults what they liked to do best on a Friday night. They expected to get answers regarding drinking and night-life, and were surprised to find out that a very large number of people liked to stay home and play games with the friends and family. It’s not clear from the story whether this caused publishers to pour money into tabletop games, or was the result of publisher money spent. What I do know is that by the late 1990s, a tidal wave of European board and card games were showing up in my local game stores, and they were wildly different than anything we had seen before.  

Some of these early “euro-games” were Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Carcassonne, Bohnanza, and Tigris & Euphrates.  These games were richly detailed, beautifully made, and introduced us to entirely new game mechanics. These were games made for people who liked deep strategy but with brand new themes: you could play as a tribe of people settling an island, or a plantation owner, or a city planner, and have that same strategic experience that had been mostly relegated to war-games.

1999 – Present:  The Mainstreaming of Games

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And so we come to what I consider the current era of gaming, a golden age for sure! I think it is also important to make two small digressions:  

  1. Gaming has grown in prominence in parallel with the popularity of manga, science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural genres on TV and at the box office.  
  2. Globalism (and the internet) has made it much easier for a small game publisher to make a much more high-quality product than was possible even in the 1980s.  

But let’s talk about the games themselves, the kinds of fun they create, and the affect they have had on the hobby.

Cooperative games have had a resurgence in popularity. There were a few early games (Dungeon! and Arkham Horror) that fit this description; games in which players work together to win or lose the game collectively. The title that really broke this type of game out is Pandemic, where the players are CDC (Center of Disease Control) Agents racing around the world attempting to find cures for rapidly growing, and thankfully abstracted, diseases. One of my other favorites is Red November, where you play as the grog-drinking Gnomish crew on a sinking submarine.  The fun of these games is intensely social, and their steep challenge — the players frequently lose these games — creates their delicious tension.  

Werewolf (and the similar game called Mafia) originated as party games that you could play with a group of people and a few normal playing cards. These are called social deduction games, where the players attempt to figure out which one (or more) of them are secretly playing against the rest. In the case of Werewolf, most players play as villagers, but among them are also secretly werewolves. Each round, the entire group of villagers can eliminate one player in the hopes of getting rid of the werewolf, then, while everyone else’s eyes are closed, the secret werewolf eliminates one other player. The popularity of Werewolf spawned a multitude of other social deduction games in a wide variety of themes. These games are meant to be played as party games, and are fun as purely social events.

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Magic: The Gathering is still going strong, of course, and the publisher of that game has refined its approach to the community of players. They have defined a suite of tournament types to appeal to different types of players. The truly hard-core players can play in “Unlimited” tournaments, which allow almost every card ever published to be used in the game. This appeals to those collector/players who have spent years and/or fortunes collecting the rarest and best cards. The “Standard” format only allows cards published within the last two years, basically, which means that newer collector/players can compete. “Booster Draft” tournaments are the most casual; players do not need to own any cards at all to play because they will “draft” cards from a brand-new booster pack before passing the remainder to the next player. Afterwards, they use these cards create their decks and play. They also created a world-wide database of players and track their wins and losses, ultimately leading to world championship tournaments that only the best players are invited to.

A few other new genres of games spun out of the collectible card games, like MtG. 7 Wonders is an example of a “card-drafting” game, where the entire game is just “drafting” cards — players choose cards from sets being passed around. Another game, Dominion, was the first of many “deck-building” games, where you start with a small set of cards and acquire more cards to add to your deck as the game progresses. Both of these game mechanics are part of the larger Magic game, but as these clever game designers realized, could be fun experiences on their own.  

One of the most recent innovations in game design is the Legacy game. The first Legacy game was Risk Legacy, developed in-house at Hasbro by Rob Daviau and Chris Dupuis and published in 2011. Risk Legacy takes the classic Risk strategy game-play and adds elements that persist from one game to the next. For example, a faction might gain an ability, or a territory space on the board could be modified in the first game, and that change would persist through the games that followed. These games are meant to change and evolve as they are played, and generally have a limited number of plays in them before the game once again becomes static and unchanging. This idea of persistent changes is at the heart of most tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, but had never been applied to board games before.  

As a counterpoint to that, some tabletop games are role-playing games reimagined as board games, card games or dice games. These experiences have pre-made player characters, pre-written adventures, little (or no) persistence, and tons of interchangeable tiles and miniatures. Good examples are the traditional fantasy-themed Descent and Thunderstone, or the adorably anthropomorphic Mice & Mystics.  

All this innovation brought new players to the table and the hobby continued to grow. In 2000, a website called Board Game Geek was founded and hosts a vast, user-edited database of table-top games, reviews of games (and an important game-rating system), tutorials on how to play and/or make games, pictures of games, and discussion forums.  Gamers can share their game collections and their experiences with others around the world.   

Now: The State of the Union

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Finally, since we’re talking about the internet, we must include Kickstarter. Kickstarter, launched in 2009, is a popular crowdfunding site that, has really clicked for the hobby games community. The first tabletop game sold on Kickstarter (Alien Frontier, I think) funded in April of 2010 for about $15k. As of this writing, the largest amount of money raised for a complete game was $8,782,571 for a game called Exploding Kittens. There are, as of this writing, 245 different table-top game projects with active Kickstarter campaigns.

$8.7 million is an outlier of course, but it does show how big the market for a game can be. Typically, the budgets for games are much, much smaller. The average publishing deal, in which a game designer licenses a game to a publisher to publish, is for five years. That publisher will print maybe 3000 copies of the game, which is just enough to get a few copies into most specialty retail shops and sell a handful at conventions.

An average MSRP for a game is around $40, so math tells us that an average game is expected to earn about $120,000 over five years, which must cover the cost of goods (and shipping) and also pay the retailer, the distributor, the publisher and the inventor/designer. That is to say, no one is making a lot of money on these games. This is still a hobby market, even if the entire industry earned $1.2 billion in 2016 (according to this article), a 40 percent increase over 2015.

The biggest change over the last 30 years has been the cultural change: where games are played and who is playing.

I’ve already hinted at this, but to be more explicit, this hobby is now multi-generational. The kids who are playing games now have parents who still play those same games. My friend has a boy, who at 6 years old was a fanatic about trains. He couldn’t have cared any less about games until he saw us playing Ticket to Ride, and now at 14, he is a gamer. This also illustrates that there are games themed for everyone now, from war-games to gardening-themed games.

Because more kids are playing more games as they grow up, and because the parents of these kids are still playing games now, the biggest change has been in the gender-balance of the players. In short, more females are playing games now than ever before. Thirty years ago, games not for kids/families games were made for and by men. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. There has been an active push by the community to make the hobby more accepting of, and attractive to, women. As a result, the places we play have become more open, cleaner and friendlier spaces to be in. Gone are the dimly lit retail stores stacked to the ceiling with games. Gone are the dank basements where mom never wanted to go.

Further, because of the immense popularity of Magic, these retail stores have had to change their business models. A store that only sells games is not competitive anymore; your store must also have space to play games. On Friday nights, you need to have space for Friday Night Magic, the weekly MtG “booster draft” tournament. During the rest of the week, you want to have people in your store playing games, or painting miniatures. In short, retail spaces have become the gathering spaces for gamers.  

A recent game prototyping event I attended, called Protospiel, was held in a retail shop in Mountain View, CA. It was a little crowded, but the store had enough space to hold 50 tables, each with room for 6 players. The amount of space this store dedicated to play-space was much larger than the amount of space dedicated to selling games (and snacks).  

And in conclusion…

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I wanted to provide an overview of why this hobby has suddenly (over the last 35+ years) exploded in popularity. I’ve given you the long answer, but the shorter answer is this: The time was right for innovation along multiple fronts — creative, business and technological — to turn a very niche hobby into a much more mainstream hobby. New games are being made, and the best games (and designers) are praised for their excellence, which raises the challenge to the next game designers to make even better games, which then attract even more people to the hobby.  

This is also a good place to add that many of us spend much of our day slaving over a hot keyboard or staring deeply into the soul of a computer screen. Perhaps tabletop gaming provides exactly what we need right now: fun, safe, human interaction.

The Table-Top Gaming Revolution: Just 40 Years in the Making by