Over the past decade, the video game industry has undergone amazing growth. In fact, with a fast growing mobile games segment, the worldwide market is set to reach $111 billion this year, making it one of the fastest growing in the world! How does this affect the tabletop market though? Tabletop games (card, board, miniature, RPG) are often considered to be closely related to video games, but in our experience there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of crossover among players of either format. In this article, Amelia and I discuss opinions and predictions regarding the crossover of tabletop and video gaming
Amelia: So, Dave. Board Games. Or should I say BORED Games?! Why do people, particularly video gamers, think board games are stale? There are so many great games out there, of all genres, for all ages. Why do you think they are not as popular as video games?
Dave: I believe there are many different types of gamers, each of whom play for different reasons. For the sake of simplifying the discussion, let’s divide them into broad categories. First, you have the self-proclaimed hardcore gamer. In video gaming, these would be your COD or WOW players and, in tabletop, it’s more those who play Pathfinder or MTG. These people are the ones who spend a great deal of time with one particular game, playing competitively and working to become the best. They often have tight-knit groups and are usually not open to “noobs” or experiencing things outside their comfort zone. The next group I consider to be the average gamer. These are people who play a broad range of games and are usually more open to new experiences and/or social groups. The final group I’ll call “casual,” although I hate using that word almost as much as I hate saying “hardcore”. These are people who decide to play a game in the same manner you or I would choose apple juice over orange juice. It’s something enjoyable to do, but not necessarily something they will intentionally invest a lot of effort or time in.
Of course, not everyone falls into one of those broad groups and not all think board games are stale; however, I do believe they all have different reasons for not playing tabletop games as often as they do video games. If I were to put money on it, I’d bet that ease of access, social stigma, and cost would be key among them. Video games are small, easy to store, and quick to setup/play. It’s also considerably easier to find a group to play with, as there’s been a big shift towards online connectivity in place of split-screen local co-op. Most board, RPG, and miniature games require a group of people who are able and willing to meet in person and dedicate the time required. This restricts the viable demographic for board games in a way that doesn’t affect video game players. Interestingly, I think it’s because of this barrier that people who play tabletop are more likely to play video games than the other way around. Before I ramble any further let me throw the question back at you. With such versatility and differing experiences on offer, why do you think there’s not much crossover between groups?
Amelia: I understand why you have bothered to define ‘hardcore’, ‘average’, and ‘casual’ gamers, but I think that these terms are largely irrelevant in this conversation. Amongst the people I regularly play board games with, many do not fit those categories very neatly, but I think they all enjoy board games for similar reasons. I suppose my point is that one of the great things about board games is that they allow groups of very different people to put their differences aside and have fun together – regardless of how dedicated they are to their other gaming habits.
I think the main reason that people with any video gaming habits are unlikely to try board games is a lack of patience for the rules systems. Video games have a much easier time of introducing you to new sets of rules, as they are built into the game in such a way that you cannot ignore them. Board games, on the other hand, often require lots of patience and concentration during the first game instead of the instant reward and subsequent satisfaction that video games provide, and which many people – thanks to the flourishing mobile industry – are used to. The best way this problem can be remedied though, is by having friends teach you the rules. I was looking over the rules of Small World recently, and believe I would have had little chance of understanding them if my housemate had not taken the time to explain them to me in a ‘learn-by-doing’ kind of way.
Do you think it is possible for a non-tabletop gamer to just pick up a game like Risk or The Settlers of Catan and learn the rules smoothly?
Another big reason that video gamers are wary of board games could be what I term the ‘Social Element’ of board games. All board games require some degree of social interaction; a few even require social skill – in order to win you may have to be a keen negotiator (Catan), convincing (Superfight), or a good liar (The Resistance and Werewolf). While it is, of course, not true that all video gamers are awkward social pariahs, even the most social gamer sometimes retreats into the world of games for a little privacy and personal time. Board games do not fulfil this need.
Dave: They’re all very good points and, whilst I agree with you, I’m still not convinced video gamers are “wary” of board games. But before I venture down that path, I’ll answer your question. I believe the ability for someone to learn the rules to a board game is heavily dependent on the game being considered. Super Dungeon Explore is a great example of a game that is not explained very well by its ruleset and benefits from playing with friends. Luckily, there are YouTube channels like ‘Watch It Played’ or ‘Tabletop’ who offer this, but if someone were to grab Super Dungeon Explore and try to learn from the instructions contained, I can see the incoherence being a deterrent. I think board games are improving on this, though. Games like Ticket to Ride or Sushi Go are easy to understand, yet allow for hidden complexity. I recently purchased X-Com: The Board Game, which even provided a visual tutorial via a free smartphone app! Perhaps this is symptomatic of the increase in popularity of phone and tablet games. Ticket to Ride is an exceptional mobile version of a board game that explains itself better in the app than in the original, physical version.
One thing board and miniature games add to the “learning curve” is that they sometimes require assembly before play. I recently opened my Deadzone box only to find that it required around 5 hours assembly before I was going to be able to use it! Worse still, the pieces were poorly formed and required filing/shaping before gluing and, in many cases, didn’t have guides to assist where the piece should sit. This was incredibly frustrating and, for a game that is $150 AUD RRP, I felt something I shouldn’t have to do. Imagine if this was someone’s first venture into these types of board games? Admittedly this isn’t the norm, but I still feel it’s something that is not always clearly indicated before the gamer has made their investment.
Amelia: Wow, that sucks! I have had that experience a few times, but never on such a scale. The Game of Thrones Card Game and Talisman both came with paintable miniatures, but both games delivered them pre-assembled – painting and assembly was not necessary before play. Sounds like you really lucked out with Deadzone – and I think what they have done there could be particularly damaging to the potential market. As a board game version of a video game, it is likely a lot of people will buy it based on their existing interest, become frustrated, and ultimately disappointed. $150 is steep for any board game.
I certainly agree that the learning curve for game rules depends on the game itself. But I also think that people who already play board games have a certain familiarity and fluency when it comes to learning rules, so it is hard for me – as someone who does play board games – to say how hard it really is to learn a new game. Video tutorials certainly seem to be the way of the future – the success of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop speaks to that – and I agree that integrating apps and other innovative ways to teach rules is a great thing.
So tell me, why do you think that video gamers are not ‘wary’ of board games?
Dave: Aside from the reasons mentioned earlier, I think the main reason is a mix of the perception and attitudes of individuals in the categories defined previously.
I grew up in the 80s, and at that time gaming was the province of geeks. Be it tabletop or video games, both were viewed as nerdy and often a cause for ridicule. As time went on, video games evolved and the audience expanded. There were those who liked the sporty/shooter action games, and those who liked strategic or fantasy games. Somewhere in the middle, both groups met with a shared enjoyment of arcade hits like Mario Bros or Bubble Bobble. It was a great time for me, as I saw my favourite hobby expanding and becoming a more socially acceptable thing. Social acceptance wasn’t all that important to me – but having friends to talk and play games with was. In fact, a large part of the reason I started playing video games was because the only requirement was me and some hardware… no local, interested friends required.
Whilst we’ve come a long way since then, the same perceptions and groups still exist… it’s just that they’re all part of the “gamer” label now. A perfect example of this would be my experiences at PAX Australia last year. When approaching groups of video gamers, I had a 50% chance of success at finding someone interested in talking about our shared hobby. The other 50% were aloof or abrasive! Change to the tabletop corner of the building, and the place was packed with smiling faces, all enjoying games and more than happy to welcome or teach new players. Another example would be a conversation at work recently; I was telling some colleagues of my plan to attend a gaming competition that night. They were quite keen to come along until they learnt it was a Magic the Gathering competition and not a shooter. “Oh,” said one, “I didn’t realise you were into that geeky stuff. I thought you meant a real game.”
That is, of course, an extreme example, but one that’s pertinent to my point. Video gaming, for the most part, doesn’t require social interaction. When you do play with others, it’s often online, which helps harbour a “keyboard warrior” mentality. This can act as a barrier to social encounters… which is predominantly what tabletop gaming is about! I often feel this is a shame, as tabletop gaming is the perfect social experience in which to meet new people. You have a common interest and something to talk about right off the bat, and can learn a lot about the people you play with… but that’s a different topic altogether.
To summarise, I feel that tabletop games fit a specific cultural niche; definitely segregated from the larger video gaming community, but perceived as separate by non gamers as well. Tabletop games require a certain level of commitment from those willing to play. Be it learning how to play, having people to play with, or even just time or a venue, there are many barriers tabletop gaming has that others do not. This shouldn’t act as a deterrent for outgoing people or those with existing groups of gamer friends, but for those unsure or hesitant, it may prove too much.
Personally, I think this is a real shame as I find gaming to be the perfect social experience! Where else can you meet a new person and immediately have something in common to discuss?! I’m eternally grateful that we’re getting more events like PAX, as they increase exposure to gaming as a whole and provide an easy opportunity for people “on the fence” to give something new a shot without heavy investment.
Amelia: I cannot agree with you more about the unique social opportunity tabletop games present. Events like PAX provide plenty of opportunities for those new to tabletop to give it a go. I suppose people find the commitment required to learn and play a board game a little daunting. In some ways, board and video games are total opposites; one is a deeply social activity involving trust, patience, and a willingness to learn, while the other is a solitary, highly personalised experience, which the player has a lot of control over. I believe this lack of control may be the difference. Certainly, this may be why even those who freely play board games and video games may not be interested in tabletop role-playing games. They require, by far, the highest level of trust and patience out of these genres of games.
I think the quality of modern video games may also be a factor.
Some players feel that compared to the epic quality of modern video game visuals and gameplay, there is nothing a board or tabletop game could offer them. To these people I say that you probably haven’t had a good tabletop or board game experience. Once you do, you will know what it’s all about. The social experience of playing tabletop games is something all ‘gamers’ owe it to themselves to try.