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We are living in a board game renaissance

You may not realize it, but you are living in the middle of a board game renaissance.

In a recent video post on his website Shut Up & Sit Down, British game journalist Quintin Smith noted that we are living in a golden age for board gaming.

“For the last 10 years board game sales have been going up every single year between 10 and 20 percent, that's enormous,” Smith said. “There are two things that are amazing about this: first of all is the sort of phoenix-like return of board games. Why did that happen? And the other thing is that the sales are still going up.”

Smith answers his own question: “It's because games themselves are getting better.”

He also notes that traditional games like Monopoly have not benefited from this sales increase. “People are realizing there are better board games out there.”

These better games, Smith states, are the result of a coming together of different cultures — European and American. Not so long ago there were two kinds of board games: “Eurogames,” which boasted dynamic and inventive game mechanics, but had largely uninteresting themes; and so-called “Ameritrash” games, which had wonderful themes and beautiful components, but game play itself remained quite basic.

About 10 years ago, Smith says, American game designers started looking closer at Eurogames. At that time, Eurogames like Mayfair Games' Settlers of Catan were achieving popularity in the United States, and American designers began to incorporate some of their more dynamic mechanics into their own games.

Unlike many American games, which boasted concepts such as “roll-the-dice-and-move,” long player turns and player elimination, Eurogames found ways to keep all players invested from start to finish, actively engaged even when it was another player’s turn.

“German games embrace the physicality of the medium,” Smith said, “which is a big deal because Western games didn't even have color manuals 10 years ago.”

Smith offered a sign in his power-point presentation that read: “European Design Ethos + American Storytelling = Perfection.”

As an example of this marriage of European and American games, Smith presented the evolution of Fantasy Flight Games' best-selling product, Twilight Imperium. The first two iterations of Twilight Imperium, a sprawling galactic adventure with different species engaging in trade, politics, science and war, had fun components and a wonderful theme, but suffered from a problem typical of American strategy board games — players' turns took a very long time, causing other players to disengage and get bored.

According to Smith, for the third edition of Twilight Imperium, designer Christian T. Peterson introduced strategy cards, which could be played by one player during his or her turn, but required the involvement of other players to vote on political agendas, establish trade agreements or research technologies.

“You pay attention to the game because you don't know when you're going to have opportunities to do cool stuff,” Smith said.

Kalinda Patton, communications manager at Z-Man Games, offered her opinion on just why board games have really been taking off in the past 10 years.

“Families have started to play with more 'new-wave' games compared to more traditional games like Monopoly,” Patton said. “Games like Carcassonne, Agricola and Pandemic are very popular games for families that are getting introduced to a different kind of gaming. On the other side of things, the avid gamers are still an important part of the industry and are searching for a game with that little something that they have never seen before. That makes game companies like us always on the lookout for that new aspect that could make a game that much better.”

The European and American game integration has led to the current explosion of great games with no shortage of fun and engaging themes. In Courtier from Alderac Entertainment Group, gamers can try to influence the Queen in a royal court. In Twilight Struggle from GMT Games, players can experience firsthand the shadow world of the Cold War. There are also old-fashioned war games with a fantasy twist, like “Warparty” from Lock 'n Load Publishing.

In the past, film and TV tie-ins rarely made for original and interesting board games. Today, games like Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures from Fantasy Flight Games, as wells as WizKids' Star Trek: Fleet Captains are top-notch productions. Cryptozoic Entertainment's DC Comics Deck-Building Game has an immersive theme, as does Upper Deck's Marvel: Legendary Deck-Building Game.

Some people may be turned off by the competition of games and may enjoy a new trend out there: cooperative games. In games like Z-Man Games' Pandemic, players work together to stop a series of plagues and diseases from ravaging the planet. In Flash Point: Fire Rescue from Indie Boards and Cards, players are firefighters who must combine their skills to save people from a burning building. In Zombicide, players work together to defeat a number of undead ghouls in a variety of scenarios.

Jeremy Stomberg, operations manager for Fantasy Flight Games, said that the wide variety of games available attracts new board gamers.

“It used to be that most gamers were only interested in one or two different types of games,” Stomberg said. "But more recently, I've seen people going from a huge galaxy-spanning game with hundreds of miniatures to a small, 45-minute worker placement game, to a deckbuilder, and back again, all in one day of gaming. There are still holdouts, but we see a lot more people that are picking up different games from outside of their comfort zones, and that's awesome.”

“It's a great time to be a gamer,” said Scott Gaeta, chief operating officer for Cryptozoic Entertainment. “The general public has really caught on to the fact that games aren't just for kids.”

Geoff W. Dearing, owner of Game Haven, a chain of board game stores in Utah, said that board games are a great way for families to interact.

“We specialize in family games,” Dearing said, “so it's not surprising that those titles sell. I believe families love to game in Utah, hence why we decided to open in northern Utah and St. George.”

Smith cited a most basic reason to play board games: “We are hard-coded to sit down with our friends and just enjoy one another's company. And board games let us do that.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: