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Are We Bored of Board Games?

Philip Burrowes

Whatever happened to board games? Don’t you remember when every television show (four words: Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) and its thematic grandma had been licensed for reproduction into die-manipulated simulacra? Then there were the legions of explicitly child-oriented games which ironically tried to interject intellectual and manual dexterity into the mix more than any “adult” product. Ask yourself, which has a more complicated concept, Mouse Trap or Trivial Pursuit? Yet both branches of the board game world seem to have dried up. How can we explain this dearth in new, visible productions?

Yes, the old stalwarts produce “new” variants on themselves all the time, especially the all too aptly titled Monopoly. What is missing is true novelty, the branching off into un-boarded territory. Even counting non-digital role-playing games (which, at least now, have a distinct market), the best they could muster is essentially new figurines with the same old rules. Nothing now matches the innovation of Clue or Scrabble (no, not Boggle or Clue Jr.).

One reason may simply be that board games have run their course, and there is very little new to invent. After all, we can’t well expect much out of a field where originals like chess have yet to be matched, let alone surpassed. No offense to the Ecclesiast (“There is nothing new under the sun”), but that logic simply does not hold up given innovation in other, far more conformist fields like literature and music. For one, the old technique of adapting game themes from other media, such as movies, has been largely abandoned. Beyond such paradoxically derivative originality, modern technology allows for game components and strategies that would have been heretofore impossible; imagine a Guess Who? with game cards that actually talked.

Perhaps it is just this new capacity which has been the catalyst for the demise of board game innovation. It has unleashed the video game market, after all, and doesn’t that fulfill the same role as its physical counterpart? Economically, there is a degree of truth to that; money spent on video games is money not spent the next aisle over. Looking at the actual character of today’s video games, and considering how the market had evolved while the board game market was declining, that theory cannot fully explain the current situation.

Some people were obviously put out of business by the NES and Mega Drive (if not Colecovision). Yet it was during the 1980s, when new cartridges were coming out left and right, that the youth-targeted board games truly flourished. The fact of the matter was, the experience derived from playing, at most, against one other kid -- even on the hyper-competitive Powerpad -- was different from the four-player melee which ensued once someone pulled out Trouble. Video games were for when nobody else was around, and board games were for when there were other people (although both were for when you were too lazy to engage in physically activity, like Skip-It). While it might be going too far to say the two markets acted in synergy, they were largely out of each other’s way.

Next-generation systems did allow for more simultaneity but to the chagrin of many gamers that potential was consistently underutilized. Having four controller ports was not taken seriously until the Nintendo 64, but that advance was hampered by a notorious paucity of games. Even among the companies which could engender third-party support, the complexity (and expense) of creating console games drastically reduced the number of competitors board games would have had. Those games that did get produced, like Mario Party, were really targeting the “party game” genre occupied by such low-tech classics as Jenga and Twister. Computer games, especially first-person shooters, have lower production costs and well-exploited networking capabilities. Not to dismiss them from the equation too brashly, but the first kids running Quake over an intranet were not about to play Chutes and Ladders. Given the relatively steep learning curve, nor would the reverse be true.

Indeed, it seems board games had served a more diverse audience than either consoles or video games would care to. Namely, there were games for girls ... and by that I mean games produced by The Man to reinforce notions of what women should be in the minds of children that not only perpetuated submission on the part of females but indirectly taught boys to reject qualities which would enable them to interact an a respectful basis with everyone of the opposite sex. Where else could phone etiquette or fashion sense be reinforced but in hits of yesteryear like Girl Talk Date Line or Mystery Date?

Don’t misunderstand; those board games were horrible and the world would be a better place if people devoted their energies to slightly less asinine tasks. People don’t, however; just look at The Sims or any Japanese dating game (except Sentimental Graffiti, which is the best game ever). Furthermore, if you ever go shopping for a “relative” at a toy store, you’ll find that board game aisle remains ridiculously large. How can an industry sustain itself when the innovation seems to be sapped from it, and when it was full of horrible products in the first place? Oh well; back to television. (That’s a joke, son.)