Our Board-Game Renaissance

Monopoly Alexander Ewing in More Intelligent Life (for Jane Renaud):

After decades of decline, board games are back in vogue. In 2008 board-game sales reached $808m, an increase of 23% over the previous year. Industry insiders suggest that sales grew another 20% last year. The recession has helped many to reconsider the joys that can be found in cardboard and plastic pieces. And this has been an especially snowy winter, particularly in my hometown of Washington, DC, where we recently enjoyed our third blizzard of the season. Monopoly, the most popular board game in history, was introduced during the Great Depression, when the fun of play-acting as a vicious real-estate mogul perhaps was most plain. Players wielding pewter thimbles and doggies could malevolently corner a market and penalise hapless neighbours; getting out of prison involved paying a little fee.

The return of board games as a diversion is good news (and something we've written about before), but let’s set some parameters. I’m not keen on board games 2.0. Many of the new games on the market are insipid recreations of Charades or Pictionary, and are far too concerned with entertainment utility. What about the needs of the hyper-competitive and the overly-sensitive (ie, an important niche of board gamers)? Any game that requires a battery is sacrilegious. I’m also sceptical of anything “hands-on”. No Jenga or Cranium please. But Trivial Pursuit counts; it is just cards and a board, with ample room for humiliation.

Classics such as chess and checkers (draughts to the Brits) endure, but they are limited to two players and have been hijacked by the computer. If you play checkers, try the multi-player Chinese variety. Backgammon is my two-person exception; it is near and dear to my heart. As a boy I played regularly with my father. At university, recovering from a protracted and messy break-up, I started playing on the internet for money (usually losing it) and tried to improve by reading books like “Backgammon for Blood”, a 1970s strategy classic by Bruce Becker. It was a dark time.

Board games are more than recession-friendly recreation; they are rich in sociology. The Game of Life, invented by Milton Bradley, the godfather of board games, is America at its best and worst. The game features plastic mini-vans that you drive from birth to death, accumulating fellow passengers (a spouse and kids) and making loads of cash along the way, regardless of career (journalism was not one of the choices).