Anyone diving into any digital gaming storefront lately, and particularly PC services, has probably noticed the slow, steady increase in digital versions of board games or (even more common, surprisingly) the number of brand new board-game-like IPs popping up in massive numbers.
And beyond the games themselves, titles like #Armello or #BloodBowl2 or #TwilightStruggle, sandbox board game simulators like #TabletopSimulator are garnering huge followings, which in turn means a huge amount of fan made content (generally digital versions of physical games), which snowballs and draws more users.
So what accounts for this tremendous interest in digital board games, a genre that was once relegated to PC backwaters and reserved for trashy versions of Othello and backgammon? As with any popular phenomenon, there are a ton of factors at work, but I’ve isolated some of the most important and distilled them into three key catalysts.
The board game renaissance
There’s never been a better time to be a tabletop gamer. Even back in the golden age of board and card games, a period in my mind that existed between the ‘70s and ‘90s, there was nothing close to our current proliferation of tabletop RPGs and diverse board and card games.
And the driving force behind this deluge of games is a huge spike in popularity in tabletop experiences, a massive uptick in interest that leads to a broader market, which in turn draws more creators, more ideas, and acts as a natural force to separate the chaff from the wheat.
This popularity has happened in rhythm with the ubiquity of online resources for finding play groups or hooking up with other enthusiasts in your area to dig into all your nerdiest vices, something board gamers have benefited from tremendously.
And there’s a pretty obvious synergy between people looking for other players online, and joining forums and gaming communities with people all around the world, and looking for games that they can actually just play online without all the inconveniences and effort of playing in person.
The market was created, and continued to grow, before this rich loam of games existed to serve it; and if free market capitalism has taught us anything, if there’s a need that people are eager to pay to satisfy, entrepreneurs will flow hungrily into that void.
The convention phenomenon
Not to date myself, but when I was a kid there wasn’t a huge glut of conventions drawing nerds from around the world and validating our hobbies. If you wanted to attend a games convention, there was GenCon once a year a little else, outside of the occasional poorly attended local weekend affair at colleges or shady convention halls.
Now it seems like there’s a major convention happening practically every weekend, in every corner of the world, and they’re better attended than ever (both by fans and, symbiotically, by the companies that are hungry to sell those fans their products).
These conventions have become borderline mainstream, and they provide great visibility for, amongst so many other facets of a gaming lifestyle, digital board games, and provide their creators a venue to demo their games for huge throngs of people (and media outlets) and get immediate feedback for their work.
They’re also guaranteed at least a fairly sympathetic audience for their work, especially at conventions like PAX, which have a huge tabletop focus and presence (which will be expanded further with the upcoming PAX Unplugged which will focus purely on physical tabletop experiences).
Almost as much as the internet, conventions like this have pushed tabletop gaming into the zeitgeist, and afforded their digital counterparts broad coattails to ride aboard.
The relative ease of development
The final factor is important for independent developers especially, who are often resource starved or working with limited budgets of time and money.
Game development is never easy, of course, but creating simulacra of tabletop games is slightly less difficult than working in many other genres. What in many games would have to be represented with vast game worlds and fully rendered (often scripted, animated, and voiced) characters can be simplified in board game terms to figurines and game boards.
Animations can be minimalist, and much of the work fully three dimensional simulations of the real world do with their settings and models can be done with menus and raw numbers (or dice) in the digital board game space.
The barrier of entry is generally lower when working with digital board games than with many other genres, and this can apply to the consumer as well as the creator. Generally speaking, these sorts of digital board games are less expensive and easier to dive into than a lot of games even in the independent space, and they provide a streamlined alternative to physical board games.
They don’t require all the planning ahead to get a group together, the long setup and often massive number of game pieces, cards, and dice, or the often complex math and calculation that many physical games require. They’re sleeker, faster, and generally much less work than physical games, but provide a comparable experience.