Four elderly ladies excitedly play a game of Rummikub together–regulars around these parts. A young couple on a date is enjoying a game of Splendor, while, in the back, I see someone setting up for what appears to be a stirring game of Star Wars: X-Wing. Although they’re not here yet, I suspect a large group will be arriving later to run through their next adventurous session of Dungeons and Dragons. Who knows who else will come in later?
Indeed, I’m sitting inside of a “board game café,” where people of all shapes, sizes, and ages come together to enjoy games together while sipping on drinks. I’ve become somewhat of a regular here because my normal job demands that I work remotely, and in my observation, something has become abundantly clear: modern board games are becoming more and more popular. As I look at the patrons that frequent the cafe, I don’t see the stereotyped vision of nerd culture that some people would expect to be found in an establishment like this. No, I see happy adults of all shapes, sizes, and ages enjoying their time together. I see a wide variety of audiences who have discovered a new way to have fun, and I see them partaking of this new hobby without shame.
The thing is, what’s happening here isn’t some kind of an uncommon phenomenon. Do a quick Google search, and it’s likely that there’s a board game café somewhere near your area. I can think of several that I’ve visited myself, and Enchanted Grounds, where I’m currently working, recently opened up a second location. There’s a reason for this–more and more adults are discovering that modern board games are a fantastic way to spend an evening. These games are becoming a new favorite pastime for many adults, and you might find that the board game sections at mass retail stores such as Target and Wal-Mart are filled with new, unfamiliar titles, not just the same old variants of Monopoly and Clue that are printed over and over again.
Thinking of my own experiences, and watching the customers come and go here, I gave some thought to this; what makes modern board games so appealing? Why do I play them, why do the customers at Enchanted Grounds play them, and why should YOU?
1 – Modern board games allow us to put our screens down and socialize
We live in an interesting phenomenon where technology is rapidly taking over nearly every facet of our lives. For many people, this is a dramatic and startling change from the way they’ve lived their lives for the last few decades. For others, it’s how the world has been since they were children. Regardless of who you are, I think most of us can agree on something–it’s easy to get lost in our devices, and it’s nice to be able to put those down and spend some quality time together with friends or family.
I’m not going to try to sound like a crotchety old man; I’m only 26 I embrace new technology as much as anyone else my age or younger. I don’t constantly point out how “everyone is on their phones” when there is a group of people huddled together looking at screens, and I find myself checking my own device for a multitude of reasons throughout the day. That being said, even I welcome the relief of just putting down technology and enjoying time together with a group of people that I’m close with. I was once enamored with all this technology, but as it’s become more and more ubiquitous, sometimes I just want a break.
Board games are an excellent remedy for a world where we’re constantly distracted by the screens around us. They allow a group of friends to get together, put something on a table, something real made of wood and cardboard and plastic, and enjoy a fun bonding experience. One could argue there are already plenty of “non-screen” bonding experiences, and it’s true! You can go hiking, you can play sports, whatever. And if you want to do that, by all means, go ahead! But board games are wonderfully versatile–you can take them anywhere and play, rain or shine, and they’re a wonderful replacement for plenty of activities you might otherwise find yourself doing indoors, such as droning away to network TV or, you know, just sitting around on your phones because everyone is playing the “what do you want to do?” game.
A board game is an excellent social experience for plenty of reasons. It gives everyone something to do, and creates plenty of opportunity for conversation, while also opening up opportunities for you to get to know your friends in ways you may have never imagined or expected. Who knew that my best friend was an opportunistic puppet-master until we played Risk every week? Games create fun moments where you can compete with your loved ones in engaging new ways, while also opening the door for the usual friendly conversation that you’d long for regardless of whatever you’re doing. I can say without a doubt that playing board games has strengthened my relationship with many friends and family, and I welcome the release from our tech-filled world whenever something comes to the table.
2. Modern board games are good for the brain
Playing board games aren’t just good for having social experiences, they’re a boon to your brain power as well! Indeed, research has continually shown that there are various cognitive benefits that are associated with playing board games. A study from the New England Journal of Medicine linked the playing of board games with a lesser likelihood of developing Alzheimers and dementia, while another indicated that playing Chess improved standardized test scores for students. Clue, and other deduction games help to train your brain in thinking logically. I could go on, but a quick Google search will yield plenty of evidence and other studies that show that playing games is productive in fostering a healthy brain.
This comes as no surprise to me, having played games myself for years. Many people, when they first start playing games, are surprised at the level of mental engagement that board games invite. Modern games are often highly strategic and tactical, requiring you to consistently make calculated choices, choices that most often have to be weighed against other enticing alternatives. While all board games are different and each one speaks to a different type of mental exercise, I would assert that, in general, board games are very effective at challenging your problem solving abilities, decision making skills, and tactical prowess.
I love board games because they help keep me on my toes. There are plenty of different challenges to be found. Some games, like Kemet, Risk, or X-Wing challenge your tactical skills and invite aggression, pitting you directly against other players. You have to make decisions on who to attack, why, and you have to know how to anticipate losses, as well as how to rebound from them. Other games, like Castles of Burgundy and Puerto Rico feel more like a puzzle. You don’t compete much with the other players, instead building up your own little area and trying to score points. These games challenge your ability to weigh decisions against each other and calculate opportunity cost. Other games still challenge your resource management skills and your ability to make decisions in the present that can yield exponential gain later. If you play the right board games, you might learn practical lessons about investment that you had never considered before. Planet Steam is a game that’s all about creating an economic engine; you buy low, sell high, and attempt to create an economic machine.
I could go on, but the point is that you’ll find all kinds of wonderful unique challenges in the board games that you play, and your brain will be a little smarter because of it.
3. Modern Board Games are Therapeutic
While this is somewhat similar to the first point, I felt like it deserved its own slot, because there’s definitely something to be said about the therapeutic value of board games. If you play the right board game, I’ve found that it’s an excellent experience that allows you to sit back, calm down, and just relax. There’s nothing that de-stresses me better than playing a nice game, and several other people in my circle tend to agree.
Board games require a certain level of focus that can distract us from the rigors of personal life without becoming too overwhelming. Furthermore, most board games generally aren’t very stressful, so they’re a great way to unwind. That, combined with the social benefits of playing with others, can make board games a lovely way to end your day in more ways than one.
It’s important to note that the right board games are therapeutic. If you’re looking to unwind and de-stress, it might not be a good idea to play a high-stakes campaign mission in Imperial Assault, try to build a thriving civilization in Through the Ages, or go mad over trying to feed all your workers in Agricola. While these games could potentially be good for certain people, you’ll probably want to look for a gentler game if you’re looking for the therapeutic benefits of board games. In The Castles of Mad King Ludwig, players are tasked with building castles, piecing rooms together one by one with cardboard pieces. Mad King Ludwig is a very calm game that doesn’t demand fierce competition, and players, even if they lose, can take satisfaction in the nice little castle they’ve built. It’s a lovely game that’s perfect for relaxing the brain and just taking things easy.
Board games can also be an excellent way to work on curing bad habits. A person whose social skills are impaired by a habit of excessive online gaming might find solace with board games; they offer the same competitive satisfaction while allowing you to enjoy the company of other players. I’ve seen firsthand how addictions can be helped through the playing of board games. I have a buddy who struggles with a gambling problem, and he’s noted how the risk/reward mechanism of a lot of games helps to satisfy the forces that might usually compel him to gamble. We love playing games together; it helps him, it’s enjoyable for us, and we’re both better off because of it.
I don’t want to get too anecdotal, because obviously there are exceptions, and obviously plenty of activities can function as stand-ins for addictions or whatnot. I am just trying to say that I have personally seen the therapeutic benefits of board games, and I’m sure that many others have too.
4 – Modern Board Games Offer Something for Everybody
Maybe you’re reading this, and maybe you don’t play games. Maybe you’ve never liked Monopoly or Risk, and maybe you wouldn’t be caught dead playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even so, I’m willing to bet that there’s something out there for you.
The beauty of modern board games is that there is incredible diversity and variety in every regard. Want to build an ancient civilization? You can do it in twenty minutes playing Seven Wonders, or you can spend the better half of a day doing it in Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization. Are you just miserable at tactics and strategy? There’s a whole cadre of fun, light party games that are plenty of fun without requiring heavy mental investment. Codenames is a party game that’s been met with unanimous approval in literally every circle I’ve ever tried it in, and doesn’t require any of the mental heavy-lifting that you might find in a more advanced game. Do you have twenty people who want to play something together? Why not play Cards Against Humanity and share some laughs? Are your usual pastimes with your wife and husband growing stale? Why not try a fun two player game, like Seven Wonders Duel?
There are so many different types of games to choose from. Some games like Catan have players managing resources, trading with fellow players, and expanding their territory on a board. Others like Tzolk’in are demanding mental exercises that punish you for going wrong, appealing to players who crave a healthy mental challenge. Some games are all-out bloodbaths like Risk, where the singular objective is to obliterate your opponent. And then there are games like Diplomacy, where you have to form alliances and perhaps orchestrate bitter betrayals to win. What about deduction games, where you have to find out secrets other players are hiding, like who the “hidden traitor” is in Dead of Winter, or trying to discover where in the galaxy your opponent has hidden their base in Star Wars: Rebellion.
Oh, and what about cooperative games? If you don’t like playing against other players, play with them! Some games pit four players against one, like Fury of Dracula where players have to team up to expose and defeat the player who controls Dracula, or Descent, where four adventurers combine forces against the devious player who controls hordes of monsters. Or maybe you want to play all together, like in Pandemic, where you and your friends team up to contain a host of deadly viruses all over the world? Oh, speaking of Pandemic, what about Pandemic Legacy? “Legacy games” are a new type of game where every single game session tells its own story, and your actions in one game carry over to the next, resulting in permanent consequences that could help you or haunt you in later sessions. Seafall is a new seafaring Legacy game that follows this model. So many hours to be had from just one Legacy game!
Okay, I’ve got to cut myself off, because when it comes down to it, I haven’t even scratched the surface. If you’re unfamiliar with modern board games, I can almost guarantee that there’s something out there for you. I’ve recruited many people into tabletop gaming who I never thought would join in, but they did because I found what was right for them. There’s something for everyone!
5 – Modern Board Games Create New Friendships
So yeah, of course you could take just about any hobby and say that is “creates friendships,” but I think this still deserves its own point, because board games are exceptionally effective at providing an easy way to meet new people and forge new relationships.
The reason board games are wonderful for making new friends is that they’re an easy way to get people to rally around a common interest, and they offer a relatively stress-free way to bond with other people. Furthermore, they’re fantastic for people are might be anxious or nervous around people, or who otherwise have social deficiencies. I’m not an expert and won’t claim to be, but I can think of a few possible reasons for this–first of all, board games allow us to organically remove our social barriers. If you’re playing a board game with someone new, you have an excuse to not engage in highly compelling conversation right when you start; you have a game to focus on. As you both play, you’ll get glimpses of each other’s personality, and if you can’t think of anything to talk about, you can talk about the game itself. I’ve found it’s an excellent way to organically become comfortable with someone without feeling like there’s pressure. In just about every game I’ve played with new people, I’m far more comfortable with them than I was when we started, and it’s easy to set up a new game session with them. Naturally, as this continues, valuable friendships can be formed.
The other reason I think it’s important to list this is because the world of modern board games generally has a very welcome and friendly community that you can enter into if you find you’re needing new friends. Let’s go back to that board game café I talked about in the beginning of this post. There are plenty of events here where gamers of all types get together and play, often with complete strangers. There are Magic nights, D&D nights, Star Wars nights, tournaments, “learn to play” nights, you name it. This isn’t specific to the café I’m in right now; most friendly local game stores (lovingly referred to as FLGS’s by the community) have a host of upcoming events in any given week that provide plenty of opportunities to meet new people.
If you’re looking for new friends, I encourage you to try playing games with someone. Try posting something on Facebook asking if anyone wants to play or check out your local game store! My wife and I have used board games as a pretense to meet new friends more than once, and I’ve seen many a lonely person find comfort and fellowship in the board gaming community. You could do a lot worse than board games when it comes to making friends.
There are plenty of reasons to love modern board games; I could list many more than what I’ve already written but I think this covers the bases. I’ve found that board gaming is moving away from becoming a niche interest, and I’m excited to see more and more people realize how lovely games can be. If you’re reading this, and are new or otherwise uninitiated with tabletop gaming, I urge you to jump in, because a world of fun is waiting for you. Don’t take my word for it, get a game and start playing!