Why Gamers are Rediscovering Classic Multiplayer Like Never Before
-by Brandon Bales
Almost ten years ago, I walked into Jeff Bryson’s Next Gen Video Games in Los Angeles to find a raindrop that would portend a flood. Before me, five small wire shelves of odd boxes had seemingly appeared from nowhere. The interlopers had elbowed their way in between the shop’s racks of new and used video games, cozying up right next to the front cabinets - which at that time were filled with the most valuable and rare video games in the shop.
Uh... what's going on here?
These new boxes in shrink-wrap were irksome, irregular - each one a different size and shape, each destroying the uniformity found when scanning the video game boxes on the shelf.
Wha- who did this to my favorite game store?!
My eyes adjusted slowly, and my confusion and distress slowly subsided. I was stunned to be confronted with a shelf of tabletop games. To my delight (as a burgeoning tabletop hobbyist), Jeff had decided to take a gamble on an ‘old’ hobby that is seemingly at odds with the massively-popular business of video gaming.
What would possibly lead someone with a game shop to do this? “Games” are something you access through a monitor; they’re made with pixels, scalers, engines, and 3D models; they’re handled with a controller; they involve endless hours of solo play or intense and violent skirmishes (via digital connections) that sometimes end with rage holes punched into dorm room walls. They’re not… a collection of cardboard tiles and small, plastic miniature toys… right?
For all of the possible confusion in the minds of Jim and Jane Gamer, it remains true that games have and will continue to be defined in all manner of ways - that’s something easily forgotten when the past twenty years have become synonymous with the evolution of digital entertainment. For anyone who’s even slightly interested in the hobby of tabletop (aka board games), however, they will surely have seen signs of change.
Tabletop gaming’s popularity has increased massively in the past decade, to a point where sales are growing ever and ever faster. 2016 saw the international games and puzzles market become a 9.6 billion-dollar industry. That’s up from 9.3 billion in 2015, and the best year of growth for the industry since 2002. ICv2 puts the tabletop industry in America at $1.4 billion in the U.S. alone. Compare that to an $800 million total in 2008 - that's nearly double the sales in only ten years' time.
Of course, while no one is predicting that the tabletop industry will overtake the digital games industry any time soon, its growth is remarkable. Consider the tech-dominated world we live in, where every Apple Keynote gets weeks of preliminary speculation. Looking at the ever-growing sales of this "quaint" old hobby, the assumption that digital entertainment is the Ultimate or the Only Way gets squarely turned on its head.
At the point when Jeff Bryson took that cardboard side-street into Tabletop Land, I was thrilled. I actually wasn’t sure at that time if I was “a board-gamer,” but I was currently obsessed with a zombie-themed board game known as Last Night on Earth. I enthusiastically encouraged Jeff to order it for his store.
What I didn’t know then was that Jeff’s store and my burgeoning hobby were on very similar paths. Games were about to take everything they’d learned from their digital lives of the the last three decades and pass back all of that goodness to their more tactile selves.
The classic, mainstream board game image is one of family nights in the den - one of shared activity completed in a half-hour’s time. The games of our youth - be they Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Scrabble, or countless classic card games - offered us simple experiences with themes that were palatable, direct. So many of these games have been relegated to these sanguine family scenes, that their memories - and even the medium itself - were almost all but put away in closets along with dusty photo albums.
See, as the late 1970s began to give rise to digital entertainment, game designers of the video variety were given invitations to dream a little bigger than the the average board game. Colorful vistas and strange creatures were served up in increasingly more varied and flashy ways. The next decade saw countless adventures pouring forth from tiny cartridges that could beguile and intrigue a gamer for hours on end. Compared to tabletop games of yore, the new digital games were shockingly eye-catching affairs. Additionally, they were easily played solo, many exclusively so; now gamers looking for more depth didn’t need another human around to be served rich gaming experiences. These single-player games could offer dozens of hours of entertainment, unlike a 15-minute session of Boggle. The average player could also uncover and discover complex narratives in fantasy realms that soared above the the mindless Sorry!.
These flashy new digital games did have some competition on the tabletop front: the fringes were beginning to roil majestically with the huge upsurge of war-gaming during the 1970's - and along with the beginnings of more complex ("Ameritrash") boardgames and pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, there were certainly contenders for more chunky experiences around the table. The mainstream tabletop connotation, however, remained firmly with the "family" board game experience. And though they both grew in their own ways in the next two decades, digital gaming all but dominated the discussion. The term "gamer," in fact, became synonymous almost exclusively with video gaming, and remains so today.
So, the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to the video-gaming industry - spawning empires, birthing mascots, and igniting "console wars." Video games' piece of the entertainment pie exploded. Aside from the die-hards, most saw board games as relics. Then came the Internet. Online gaming was going to reinvent what it meant to play with your friends. And it did. Ironically, however, the expansion of video gaming onto the World Wide Web (primarily with online multiplayer) is perhaps exactly where it gave room for tabletop games to pick up a certain slack.
While board games were steadily marching along in the background in the late 90s and early 2000s, PC gaming’s many multiplayer conventions began showing up in console-gaming hardware. Couch co-op suddenly became passé, "matchmaking" became de rigeur, and Stratego seemed like ancient history. Instead, Counterstrike, Quake, and eventually MMORPGs like World of Warcraft would connect people from all over the world like never before. It was a thrilling time, to be sure; I can personally attest to hundreds of hours and thousands of online matches of Halo 2 and it's many sequels. While it's true that fair numbers of players would challenge each other in epic, reasonably calm bouts of, say, Sid Meier's Civilization, online strategy games have never been quite as popular; the vast majority of online players were busy pumping lasers and metal into each other in all manner of first-person shooters.
Yet, with all the connection, the anonymous stranger scenario haunted these worlds like a dark, binary cloud. Yes, folks were gaming with their friends - yet they were also suddenly in the proximity of and at the whims of so many distant strangers. Pre-dating the nastiness of our current, curdled social media platforms, online abuse in early multiplayer gaming was as jarring as it was ubiquitous. Ask any gamer you know, and they'll have multiple stories of being bullied and demeaned in these arenas. There was truly nothing like being humiliated during a crushing game of Halo only to have a small child's voice on the other end add an expletive-laden tirade as a cherry on top of your icky defeat sundae. Embarrassingly, I was guilty of it, too; in the early days, I carelessly threw about awful insults over hot mics like an inter-dimensional plumber threw fireballs. I became part of the "angry gamer" trope: of a young man used to barking at his screen in frustration who was suddenly given actual, flesh-and-blood targets. The fantasy worlds were now filled with real people who had real feelings, and private rage quickly became a public problem.
Thus, the isolated online-gamer became a dichotomy like no other.
I see the rise of this issue as deeply correlated to the worldwide rise of board-gaming. Gaming needed a safe place again, one where great fun could be had in a mutual, face-to-face experience. One also devoid of the more onerous barriers like video gaming's high cost-of-entry or often glaring gender-bias.
While all of the digital, American-style murderin' was happening online, Europe was still quietly innovating and reinvigorating the board-gaming world. And thank the gods. Around 2005, in fact, my buddy Steve's uncle introduced him to an incredible game called The Settlers of Catan, which he promptly shared with our group. A seemingly brand-new experience from a German madman, we had no idea that it was already nearly ten years old - and it honestly didn't matter in the slightest. Put simply, The Settlers of Catan was a revelation. We were intrigued. A strategic game of simple rules (and dice!) that truly takes off once players realize that the interaction of their group will be the ultimate reason their game will be won or lost by a certain person. For the uninitiated, the jumble of tiles and numbers looks dry and homework-y. Soon, however, new players start trading themselves silly; expanding, blocking, and deal-making until someone ekes (or steamrolls) their way to a victory.
Catan (as it’s known today) seemed an anomaly at first: "Oh. Here is a new board game that I like! There are not many of these being made anymore. Haha." Over time, of course, the game would show itself to be a long-dormant seed rising from forgotten soil. What Catan offered for American gamers - and what the rise of “Euro” games offered to the world - is something that the average gamer couldn’t readily get from a video game then: a non-twitchy, strategic multiplayer experience richer than a simple “roll-to-move”-style game like Monopoly. (For the unaware, a Euro-style game is one that emphasizes strategic gameplay in favor of luck while downplaying direct player interaction.) Catan offered experiences in which players are challenged to make plenty of risk-vs.-reward decisions to maximize their actions, all the while forcing their opponents to continually change their strategies for success. There have been plenty of board games since to do this in a similar fashion, but nothing has had as much of an impact as Catan. The game has sold an estimated eighteen million copies in the past twenty years. It’s won awards and has become a staple of modern gaming; the grandfather of “gateway games.” The game has become nearly ubiquitous when board gaming is brought up in conversation among the masses. Let us not forget those bumper stickers included with some of the later versions of the game: “Catan, the Game of Our Generation!”
Ultimately, Catan’s impact for myself and my friends (and more broadly, the impact of Euro-games) on our ideas of gaming was its re-positioning of the idea of a board game - now it could be a strategy game similar to things some of us had only known in video form. The big difference, however? We weren’t all dozens or hundreds of miles apart. The interactions were real, up-close, and (sometimes very, very) personal. The highs and lows were front and center, and therefore much more sweet.
While I do miss LAN parties (for reasons both sentimental and nostalgic), here’s a simple point that bears repeating: many gamers probably never realized until recently that they could have these rich experiences with their friends at their own tables, in their own living rooms.
Flash forward two years later. It's about 2011, and Jeff Bryson has made more changes to his store. His front cabinets are filled with an already impressive Magic: The Gathering card collection. His tabletop gaming rack is now three times bigger. The new-release video games have been pushed farther down the wall. Two plastic tables are set up in the middle of the room. (Gone are the old Blockbuster Video-era Formica shelves that used to house the mountains of dusty 1990s not-so-classic video games.)
“What’s all this?” I demand of Mr. Bryson.
“We’re doing Magic tournaments now,” replies an enthusiastic Jeff.
Indeed, Bryson’s investment in tabletop games (led, of course, by the lucrative Magic business) was paying off. I was thrilled for him. And around this time my own appreciation of tabletop gaming was growing as well. Last Night on Earth’s stranglehold grip was slowly releasing and I was becoming more amenable to the abundant tabletop selection that was more and more visible to myself and the world.
Pandemic, for example, was another buzzed-about game that took my mind and many other gamers’ minds in an entirely new direction.
Short of tabletop RPGs, co-operative tabletop gaming was something somewhat unheard-of to the masses (and myself) until the release of Matt Leacock's Pandemic in 2008. Leacock’s ingenious co-ops (including his ‘Forbidden…’ series) have been undisputed touchstones for an exciting new gateway into the hobby: “Have no fear, Aunt Beth - we’re all in this together!” Here, hearkening back to a style of video game as old as the hobby itself, the rise of co-op board-gaming offers new and old gamers alike the chance to go-it-together and face off against the game itself. Co-ops (led by Pandemic and the inimitable Pandemic Legacy series) are extremely popular right now. Even gamers new to tabletop are are now getting into co-ops in fantasy worlds, in Lovecraft-inspired mysteries, and even adventures in the Star Wars universe.In fact, some of my favorite game experiences of all time are co-op experiences, and the long-time board-gaming fans do not disagree (see Gloomhaven's current #1 rank at Board Game Geek). Co-ops are so popular right now, that they're even giving co-op video games a massive run for their money. Whereas co-op video games (or game modes) have recently become second-tier and dependent on internet connectivity, co-op board gaming can offer the same thrills, epic stories, and camaraderie as their digital cousins with the added benefit of face-to-face socializing. Throw in the new "legacy" stylings of world permanence, as many co-ops are moving toward, and the draw of the video-gamer to tabletop is more and more powerful.
Ultimately, though, games is games is games. The two are not mutually exclusive. The real and biggest difference between video games and tabletop games is simply a matter of transmission. In fact, the iterative nature in anything that is "gaming” means that they will continue to change and nurture each other. Indeed, some of the most-loved video game tropes are unabashedly making their way into tabletop day after day (and vice versa! See Hearthstone, Gwent, and the classic Civilization!) Traditional board games featuring one single board are almost the exception now. Years of digital gaming featuring variable gaming rules, maps, and locales have influenced tabletop designers to add tiles, towers, and supplemental boards to make room for extra modes, maps, and immersion. Dungeon-crawls like Baldur’s Gate and Diablo have given rise to Descent, Arcadia Quest, and Shadows of Brimstone. Zombicide and many others have experience points for their characters to level-up mid-game. Companion apps (via phones and tablets) are now making their tabletop debut, further streamlining board game experiences by cutting out some of the associated bookkeeping (while also turning certain games into fully co-operative experiences!). And of course, the new “legacy” games taking the hobby by storm reinforce the correlation like never before: a legacy game will permanently change as players push through its (digital-like) campaign; they “unlock” modes and abilities (ala many, many video games), they morph as they are experienced, and they can offer evolving narratives over the course of their play-times.
It’s inevitable as we become a super-media-saturated world that the back and forth overflow from such similar media will happen again and again. All of this porting is what continues to grow the tabletop world bigger and bigger. The rise of digital gaming has benefited all games in this way, as good games systems are simply good games systems. And if the younger generations’ current growing distrust for social media proves anything, it’s that people are starting to reevaluate the (actual) face time they spend with their fellow humans, as well. Tabletop gaming’s explosive growth is evidence of that, in spades. While there’s no evidence that video gaming is declining, we can certainly attribute tabletop’s growth to all of the ways in which the two benefit each other. As one grows and changes, the other is sure to, as well.
It’s 2018, and Next Gen Video Games is no more. It died a noble death in 2015. Long live Next Gen Video Games.
To pay your respects, please visit Jeff Bryson at his new shop, Next Gen Games just down the street (or here: nextgenvideogames.com). There you’ll find a store three times as large, one with at least a dozen gaming tables. One with a gargantuan collection of board games and Magic cards. One with, yes, plenty of used video games, of course… but one that now harbors a community of gamers who come to not just buy games of all stripes, but also to stay and play and converse and laugh. (In fact, one such customer/gamer may have, in fact, just become Bryson’s wife! But perhaps that’s a story for another time…)
Jeff Bryson makes no bones about the choices he’s made regarding his shop’s changes over the years - it was an absolute business decision, especially with the decline of the physical video games market. He does love what it’s become, however. “We have people here every night of the week. It’s great for us, for the business, for the customers. We love doing it.”
I asked Jeff how he feels that tabletop games have changed his store. His response was simple. “Board game people I find, as a whole, are inclusive. They want more people to play with.They’re not striving to beat the board game. For the most part, they want to have fun."
At Flavor Text, we couldn’t agree more.