The Modern Tabletop Game Renaissance
I’ve been playing a lot of games lately, but it took a Ctrl+Alt+Del comic to get me thinking about the difference between tabletop games (board, card, dice…) and video games.
I was part of the first generation to play computer games. In high school in the ’70s, I played Moon Lander on a PDP-11, and a text-based Star Trek game on an HP 2000. In my first “real” job the summer before I started college, I worked on a chip for an early arcade game. Over the following years, I played Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork on a DEC-10, bought a Pong game for my home TV, and collected computers like the Apple ][ and Atari 800 to play games ranging from Breakout to Galaxian.
I grew up, however, on tabletop games. My family’s copies of Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue, and Probe were battered and taped together. I played chess, checkers, go, backgammon, and mah jongg, and always had card decks laying around for hearts or go fish. My senior year in high school is when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons (oh, how many hours I spent painting miniatures).
Video games and computer games never stopped me from playing tabletop games. With few exceptions, I played computer games and video games by myself, and tabletop games with friends. In fact, it wasn’t until World of Warcraft came along that I really got interested in a multiplayer video game, and I gave that one up years ago.
For a while there, it looked like tabletop gaming was dying off. Others didn’t share that mental distinction I had of multiuser games around a table with friends and single-user games in front of a TV or computer screen. But today, it’s a whole different world.
Every Thursday night is Game Night at my shop (the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern), and we play everything from the old classics like chess and go to new & different games like Splendor, Bärenpark, and Lanterns. Of course, the hot series like Catan and Pandemic are pulled out regularly, too.
Public places to play tabletop games are popping up everywhere. It’s not just your friendly local game store anymore. My old bookstore (and the disastrous co-op bookstore I managed) had game nights. There are coffee shops, bars, and hotel lobbies with stacks of demo games to play.
What brought back tabletop games with such a vengeance? I think it’s a collection of factors:
- Portability: You can play Munchkin around a campfire, Dixit in your hotel room, and Apples to Apples in the back seat of the car. A couple of Magic: the Gathering decks fit comfortably in a coat pocket. You can’t say that for a game console.
- Face-to-face social interaction: Sure you can chat with your guildies with a headset as you play Zelda or WoW, but when you’re playing a game of Mysterium with a group of friends, you’re all leaning over the same table, looking at each other, and searching the same clues. You’re chatting (unless you’re the ghost) and sharing real face time.
- A game for every situation: Some days, you’re in the mood to spend the entire afternoon setting up and playing Risk: Godstorm. Other days, a quick half-hour session of Fluxx (the Monty Python edition, perhaps?) may be more up your alley. There are tabletop games that take a few minutes to learn and others that take an hour of reading rulebooks.
- Control over the level of chance: Do you like a level playing field? Go fish. The game depends on the shuffle of the cards, and your eight-year-old just might kick your butt. Do you want pure, solid strategy? There are no dice in chess or go. You want to get wild and crazy? We’re back to Fluxx. Some make you think, and some just let you kick back and play.
- Easy breaks: There’s no pause button on an MMORPG. If you get up and walk away from the computer, your teammates might well be toast. But in tabletops games, bathroom breaks are easy (and the mandatory break to order pizza, of course).
I don’t really think it matters why they’re back. I just take joy in having them back. And in having such wonderful games coming in from all around the world.
If you have a favorite tabletop game I didn’t mention, leave a comment. And if you happen to be in Red Lodge, Montana on a Thursday night, pop into Phoenix Pearl Tea and join me for a game!