It’s a well documented fact that boardgaming has undergone a renaissance in the past decade. Kickstarter has been a useful metric for recording this rise. The total $ pledged for tabletop games on kickstarter has increased from just over $20,000,000 in 2014 to over $50,000,000 in 2016, and board games share in that market relative to other hobby games has increased. As board games become a more established entertainment medium, creators are pushing the boundaries of what board games can be.
Before 2014, only Tales of the Arabian Nights, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases, Mage Knight Board Game, Gloom, and Battlestar Galactica could really lay claim to being widely-known and established immersive storytelling board games.
In the past 3 years, a dramatic shift towards this genre has occurred. Beginning with the re-release of Betrayal at House on the Hill in 2014, and continuing through the release of games like Above and Below (2015), and SeaFall (2016), the number of storytelling games in the gaming collective consciousness has increased dramatically. In particular, the dungeon-crawling sub-genre has broken new narrative ground. The wild success of the kickstarter campaign for Kingdom Death: Monster(2016) can be in part attributed to the awe-inspiringly beautiful world and gripping gameplay narrative created by Adam Poots. Hot on it’s heels, Gloomhaven (2017) was described by reviewers on BGG as ‘unadulterated discovery,’ ‘unique,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘refreshing’ and has met with commercial success proportional to this lofty praise.
There are several plausible explanations for why storytelling board games are gaining increasing prominence in the hobby. The first is that the rise of legacy games, spearheaded by Rob Daviau Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, and Seafall, has enabled designers to tell stories that span multiple gaming sessions, and consequently wetted the gaming appetite for narrative-driven experiences. After all, it’s much easier to get players to feel immersed if they know they can tell some of the story themselves. Furthermore, it’s much easier to reward this engagement if the thematic decisions players are presented with can have a mechanical effect on future games.
Another plausible explanation is that these new board games are filling design vacuum that no other entertainment medium has reached before. On the spectrum from word-and-mouth storytelling to eurogames , these new games fill in the gap between RPG’s and Ameritrash, providing more structure than the former, and more freedom than the later. Unlike app-based games, that have achieved only limited success because of competition with existing PC games, storytelling games have been able to scratch an itch nothing else can touch.
In turn, the storytelling revolution can be conceptualised as equivalent to introducing a new species to an environment without a natural predator and without much competition for food. Of course the number of such games are multiplying!
A third possible explanation is that there are simply more games around in general, and hence more games of this genre being produced. However, while this would account for an increased number of immersive narrative games, it does not account for their increasing prominence. The ‘collective gaming consciousness,’ by which I mean the group of games that most people in the hobby know, doesn’t increase proportionally to the total number of games out there.
In summary, It is my contention that the number of storytelling games in the gaming consciousness has increased at a faster rate than the total number of games in the gaming consciousness has increased. From this it would follow that the market share of such games in the hobby has increased. Furthermore, given the popularity of new releases like Gloomhaven and Time Stories, I suggest market forces will push publishers to make more and more of these types of games. In turn, as the ‘centre of gravity of the hobby’ shifts towards the immersive narrative end of the spectrum, by definition, games which rely solely on mechanical excellence will become less prominent. This prediction is already beginning to be borne out. Euro-ish games like a Feast for Odin, which Shut Up and Sit Down described as making Caverna: The Cave Farmers and Agricola obsolete, haven’t made as big a splash has cleverly themed (and perhaps less rigorously designed and balanced) games like Terraforming Mars. However Charterstone turns out, it will be an interesting test of this prediction. Jamey Stegmaier finger is right on the hobbies’ pulse, and where he chooses to place more emphasis- on telling a story or on mechanically excellence, should tell us a lot.
That’s all for this week. I appreciate I said a lot of things that I didn’t have time to fully explore or justify, and had to make a bunch of gross generalisations. But one kind of has to when discussing a hobby that’s so all-encompassing, and so rapidly evolving!
Anthony Howgego is ITB’s in-house Games Developer.
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