Tabletop Games on Rise as Culture of Play Revives in Digital Age

By VICTORIA FORD | Mar 21, 2018

In homes throughout Southern Ocean County and beyond, after the dinner dishes have been cleared or with bowls of snacks still within arm’s reach, competitors – friends, families, couples, peers, self-identified “nerds” – gather around tables to match wits and flex muscles of strategy and luck over board games, dice towers and decks of cards.

Call it an extension of the nesting trend, or the sexier new buzzword, “hygge.” The tabletop game industry is enjoying a renaissance as more and more fun-seekers and intellectual types are opting to stay in, cook at home, and turn to analog options for IRL social and recreational stimulation.

The Haymarket has been Long Beach Island’s premier source for toys, games and hobbies for more than 40 years. While game sales have always been high, owner Susan Hay has observed the trend over time has really been tremendous diversification, with styles and genres having broadened dramatically. Hay says her business is “blessed” to be in a location characterized by carefree recreation, the bonds of family and friendship – “the magic of LBI.” All summer long she hears parents tell their kids, “Granddad used to shop here.”

Worldwide, board games comprise an almost $10 billion industry, and growing, as interest levels continue to rise across an ever more diversifying spectrum of genres and styles.

November’s PAX Unplugged convention in Philadelphia was a good indication of the market’s vitality. Enthusiasts came in droves – many, in costume – to celebrate classic games and check out new titles just released or still in development. The name PAX, for Penny Arcade Expo, refers to the convention series run since 2004 by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of the Penny Arcade web comic fame. Previous PAX events have focused on video games, but the Unplugged event in Philly, the first of its kind, was dedicated solely to tabletop games and gaming culture.

From 2016 to 2017, board game sales in the U.S. rose 28 percent, according to the market research company NPD group.

According to Businesswire, the top factors influencing the market are organized retailers; technological advancements ranging from 3D printing to online reviews and e-commerce, boosting manufacturing and sales; the games’ ability to evolve over time with updates to reflect parallel consumer trends; and crowdfunding. In 2015, more than $200 million was raised through crowdfunding platforms for board games, compared to $100 million raised for video games. A Kickstarter campaign for Exploding Kittens raised $8 million in a month.

Euro-style games, such as Settlers of Catan, “emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They tend to have economic themes rather than military and usually keep all players in the game until it ends. … Eurogames are usually less abstract than chess, but more abstract than war games. Likewise, they generally require more thought and planning than party games such as Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit, but less skill than classic strategy games like chess and Go.”

Hay has noticed today’s post-collegiate gamers seem to gravitate toward the Eurogames. “I cannot tell you how many of (Catan) we sell.”  The German game Catan was released in 1995 and by 2013 had become a mainstream hit.

Ticket to Ride is right up there with Catan in popularity, and Codename and Pandemic are two others with widespread appeal.

Those who enjoy newer, quick-thinking strategy games are also responding well to Sushi Go, a fast-paced deck-passing game where players build their sushi meals and score for various combinations.

But from Hay’s vantage point, the timeless classics – e.g., Monopoly, Scrabble, Sorry!, mah jongg, chess, backgammon, Othello – have a place in every beach house. Other great vacation games are Rummikub and Left Right Center, where multiple generations of family members can play as equals. “I have sold grosses of that game,” she noted. Uno is another one like that, where the youngest family member stands as good a chance of winning as anyone.

As a vacation destination, Hay said she thinks she sells more games than the average toy store, perhaps because people who aren’t normally gamers at home are more likely to play when they’re on vacation. Or they’re drawn to certain games that remind them of childhood vacations at the shore.

With people watching less network television nowadays, she added, the games’ reputations spread by word-of-mouth and on social media, especially silly visual games such as Pie Face, Wet Head, Mouth Guard – where the only point is for players to laugh and embarrass themselves and each other – are highly shareable. Further helping to cultivate an ever-richer gaming culture are online avenues for in-person endeavors, such as Meetup.com, where people with similar hobbies can find each other.

Cards Against Humanity, an adult-themed game, is a huge seller among the house party crowd, she said. Another must-have in the genre of drinking/ party games is Exploding Kittens, a Kickstarter product from the creator of the brilliant comic series The Oatmeal. Go to explodingkittens.com and watch a video that explains the game in 100 seconds.

A member of ASTRA, the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, Hay sees the short- and long-term patterns. Some games come on the market strong and then fade away after a time, when players grow tired of them. Apples to Apples was one that enjoyed about five years in the limelight. Some enjoy revivals, such as the dice game Bunco, an old pastime that lives on in Manahawkin with monthly tournament-style gatherings.

Still other games seem designed to relax players and stimulate them at the same time, like a brain massage. Bellz is a favorite of Hay’s, deceptively simple (the best games always are), involving colorful, metal bells players pick up with magnetic wands. A handy carrying pouch makes it perfect for travel and passing time at a restaurant or doctor’s office as an alternative to an electronic device.

Seikatsu, another simple and satisfying game that can be played in 20 to 30 minutes, is a beautifully illustrated board upon which players place birds and flowers in a garden.

It all just depends what scratches the itch, she said. Games get people laughing, thinking and connecting with each other, so it’s an enriching experience no matter what. And for little ones, games are valuable learning tools disguised as fun, e.g. Ravensburger 3-D puzzles and Colorama.

Adam Binder of Manahawkin said he and his son Miles play Scrabble and Monopoly all the time. “It’s great time spent together, and a great opportunity to help him advance his vocabulary and strategic planning skills.”

Stafford Township Councilwoman Sharon McKenna has a morning ritual with her son that involves breakfast and Jenga.

Dani Corso, part owner of the Union Market in Tuckerton, said the café has a big stack of board games and plans to start a weekly game night this spring.

Haymarket also sells a multitude of jigsaw puzzles – and now family puzzles are available, made up of small, medium and large pieces (in one puzzle) so everyone can join in on the fun.

“You can only be on your tablet for so long,” Hay remarked.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

 

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