The rise of casual games – particularly on mobile – is killing the board games industry. But that industry is fighting back by drawing inspiration from the latest developments in our own, creating more complex and compelling experiences for players to enjoy.
Develop spoke to Dugald Keith, a veteran board games developer from Melbourne, about this strange conflict. With a long career of creating globally successful board games and puzzles – such as Murder Mystery Mansion, 3D Jigsaws, Quiz Jigsaws, Cryptic Classics and Likewise – Keith is co-founder of Baffles The Fox, a studio that is determined to bring the best of both worlds to smart devices.
Board games have risen in prominence over the past few years, even gaining coverage on traditionally video games-based websites. Why is there such a crossover between the two audiences?
Very broadly speaking there are two types of board games: mainstream casual games such as Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scrabble, Monopoly, Cluedo and so on, and the more thoughtful enthusiast games such as Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride. These are often called German-style games or Euro games.
When PC and video games first became popular, many people in the board game industry predicted doom and gloom, but strangely board game sales continued to rise every year roughly in line with population growth – until about six years ago. Then the advent of apps had a much more profound effect, absolutely devastating sales of casual board games but paradoxically increasing interest in German-style games.
It seems that if you just want a bit of casual fun, apps are pretty hard to beat in terms of value, convenience to buy and play anywhere, and fresh new types of gameplay. Consequently, mainstream casual board games are still reeling from the competition and will probably never recover. There is now almost no market for new casual board games, and even the classics sell only a fraction of their annual sales just a few years ago.
However, the advent of deeper strategic PC games, RPG video games and apps seems to have created a whole new generation of players who have become interested in similar German-style board games, and indeed many programmers are enthusiasts. Playing such board games is still an enjoyable social experience because you sit facing your friends chatting while you play rather than staring at a screen, so they are another expression of the same phenomenon.
But, as I mentioned apps devastated the casual board game market. Nobody in the board game industry saw it coming.
If you just want a bit of casual fun, apps are pretty hard to beat in terms of value, convenience to buy and play anywhere, and fresh new types of gameplay. Mainstream board games are still reeling from the competition and will probably never recover.
What can be done about this?
Personally, I think that mainstream casual board games have gone the way of vinyl records and CDs. There may be an ongoing enthusiast and nostalgic market but they will never again be anywhere near what they once were.
In retrospect, they probably peaked in the 1970s and ’80s when Trivial Pursuit was arguably a larger phenomenon than any movie or video game has ever been. In those days there were no home computers, no internet, no cable TV, no video cassette players, no social media, no smartphones, no video games. People had to either watch TV, put on some music, play a board game or talk to each other. These were primitive and desperate times.
So I think if you can’t beat them join them, and as I was always a huge video game fan, I am loving finally making similar games myself. Consoles, PCs, smartphones and tablets offer so many more creative possibilities then cardboard and tokens. It is great that German-style games are still doing well, and a bit sad that casual games have declined, and although there are challenges with the shift to apps, gaming as a whole has never been more popular or creative.
Have video games influenced board games in recent years?
The student has become the teacher, so to speak. Originally, many PC games, apps and even video games were based on board games. Now, in a somewhat desperate attempt to hook into the popularity of electronic games, many board game manufacturers have produced board games based on hit video games and apps. There have been board games based on Angry Birds – in which you fire actual plastic birds with a slingshot – as well as Mario Bros, Gears of War, World of Warcraft, Civilization, StarCraft, Doom and many others.
The trouble is it is impossible create the same ‘wow factor’ or immersion with cardboard and plastic tokens, so most of these efforts have failed commercially. It’s a bit like trying to recreate the physical appeal of a sport like football or golf in a board game – it does not really work. However, video games have had a positive influence on some new German-style games in terms of them having greater depth, more sophisticated tutorials, and introducing some specific new gameplay mechanisms.
How have video games drawn from the design and rules of board games?
Many RPGs especially skeuomorphically borrowed heavily from games like Dungeons and Dragons, even emulating the traditional dice roll mechanism and the use of cards. Many other strategy games and apps still use the traditional layout of a hexagonal ‘grid’ on a map for movement. Even games like Plants Vs Zombies or tower defence games like Fieldrunners use a chess-like grid for movement or placement. Minecraft is influenced by Lego. Everywhere you look video games, PC games and apps are influenced by memories of board games and toys.
How do you draw on your own experience with board games when designing video games?
Human psychology hasn’t changed so you still want bright colours, a very easy to communicate aim and premise, easy to learn rules, a certain theatricality, a sense of fun and a sense of achievement when you win. You also need to hit the ‘goldilocks’ point where the game is not so easy that it is boring, yet it is not so hard that it is frustrating. If you get the level of difficulty just right, games can be zen-like, relaxing and addictive. Being absorbed in a game is like time out from your real-life worries, and that escapist respite is part of the pleasure they bring.
Video games have had a positive influence on some new German-style games in terms of them having greater depth, more sophisticated tutorials, and introducing some specific new gameplay mechanisms.
Are there any other form of traditional games that video games developers can drawn inspiration from?
In addition to designing board games for twenty years, I created quite a lot of successful brainteasers and unusual puzzles, and I always loved puzzle books. To me, a big part of the charm of puzzle books was their variety.
It seems to me that for such a young industry, many apps have already settled into a somewhat clichéd formula in which you get maybe 50 or 100 levels all with the same gameplay mechanism. If it is a great mechanism that’s fine, but if it just okay you soon get bored and stop playing after surprisingly few levels.
By contrast, the greatest puzzle book ever written is generally thought to be 1914’s ‘The Cyclopedia of Puzzles’, which is a cornucopia of wonders. Every page has a richly illustrated variety of trivial and challenging brainteasers of all types. It never gets boring.
Consequently, Adrian and I decided to try to create apps that have that same sense of wondrous variety where every level is different and you always want to see what comes next. However, if every level is different you really need a host to explain the (simple) aim of each level – hence our humorous host, Baffles the Fox.
What can people expect from Baffles?
Our first Baffles app comes out on July 23rd on iOS and Android and is called Baffles Classic Puzzles. It features the 100 greatest puzzles ever invented with illustrated histories given for most of them. We humbly believe it is the best and most varied compendium of puzzles ever put out for mobile devices. If you want to know more, please do visit www.bafflesthefox.com . We are really proud and excited by our first Baffles app and we hope it is the start of something great.