It’s a bright Thursday morning in Oxford, and the Thirsty Meeples cafe on Gloucester Green market is thrumming with activity. As we sit at a sun-warmed window table, the maitre d’, Gareth, introduces himself and presents a list of recommendations.
First, he suggests Forbidden Desert. It is not a cocktail. “You have all crash-landed in a desert where you are searching for a lost civilisation,” explains Gareth, who sports a purple Thirsty Meeples “Game Guru” T-shirt. “A sandstorm hits, and you have to find all the pieces of a mythical flying ship to escape.” Next he offers up Escape: The Curse of the Temple, in which we’ll become “Indiana Jones-type people” who have to flee a crumbling ancient tomb. “Or,” Gareth says, “how about fighting fires?”. Last, he recommends Flash Point, in which I, my wife and two sons would rescue people from a burning building. Pull enough of them from the flames and we all win. But if a certain number are lost to the inferno, we lose. We choose Flash Point.
As we battle the conflagration, a 30-something couple next to us race against each other to construct railway routes in the Netherlands. Elsewhere, a young woman and two children play foxes raiding a farmyard. A pair of millennials create cartoon sushi meals depicted on playing cards. And a lone man from Bournemouth sits before an elaborate board, racing against the clock to defend a 1920s city from Lovecraftian horrors.
John and Zuzi Morgan, owners of Thirsty Meeples in Oxford
Owners John and Zuzi at Thirsty Meeples in Oxford: ‘Everybody’s busy and you want to bring people back together in a way that’s not just staring at screens.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda
It’s barely lunchtime and the place is close to full. Thirsty Meeples describes itself as “Oxford’s first and only board-game cafe,” and is one of a growing number of such establishments popping up all over the UK inspired by their growing popularity in the US. What has drawn these people here, from serious gamers to families? Eveline, a Dutch-born academic who is playing the railway game Ticket to Ride with her Belgian husband, Roger, thinks she has the answer. She looks around at her fellow patrons and the library of games that pack the shelves. “I would say it’s the original social network.”
We are seeing a much bigger crossover audience. The level of interest is much higher
We may now live in a world of Facebook, Pokémon Go, Netflix and iPads, but board-gaming is booming. Even the early 20th-century games explosion, which gave us such hardy perennials as Monopoly, Cluedo and Scrabble, has nothing on the current surge. Market research group NPD, which claims to measure around 70% of the UK toy trade, has recorded a 20% rise during the past year in the sales of tabletop games (including card and dice games, war games played with miniature figures and role-play titles such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which players imagine themselves as heroic warriors and wizards in imaginary, fantasy worlds).
Ben Hogg, marketing manager at UK distributor Esdevium Games (which imports the US-produced railway adventure Ticket to Ride, among many other titles) estimates that growth at closer to 35%. In 2012, he says, the full range of Ticket to Ride games (there are variants set in different countries) achieved 16,000 sales in the UK. This year, it has already sold 21,000. When he started at Esdevium, Hogg says the gamers they supplied were primarily interested in “geekier titles”, such as fantasy war game Warhammer. Today, he says, “we are seeing a much bigger crossover audience. The level of interest is much higher than ever before.”
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Few have been better positioned to witness this phenomenon first-hand than Peter Wooding. A former punk rocker – he played guitar in 70s band The Jerks (who broke into the Top 100 in 1977 with Get Your Woofing Dog Off Me) – he opened the gaming store Orc’s Nest in Covent Garden, London, in 1987. He and Jerks lead singer Simon Ellis were hooked on Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop war games. But specialist retailers were rare, so they put in an offer on a small, semi-constructed shop space. “There wasn’t even a floor,” Wooding says. “It was all just rubble.” They raided skips to decorate the shop’s interior in medieval dungeon style and scattered straw over the unfinished floor. They mostly stocked Dungeons & Dragons books and historical war games, but their best sellers were lead war-gaming miniatures, which dangled from boards lining the store’s ground-floor walls.
“The first few years we were absolutely skint,” says Wooding (Ellis has retired) as we chat behind the counter at Orc’s Nest. Wearing a straw hat and decorated with facial piercings, the garrulous, imperially bearded 50-something is proud of his punk heritage. “We got investigated by the tax office. They said, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re only making 50 quid a week!’ They thought we must have been embezzling the money or something…”
Today, almost 30 years on, the Orc’s Nest logo of a skinhead-ish orc poking its tongue up its left nostril hasn’t changed, but the floor straw and ye olde joinery have been replaced with brushed aluminium and black-and-yellow chevrons, giving it the look of a Peter Saville-designed 80s sci-fi space-station. And the stock and clientele are remarkably different.
Peter Wooding of Orc’s Nest game shop, Covent Garden.
Peter Wooding of Orc’s Nest game shop, Covent Garden: ‘You get a lot more couples now.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer
“About five years ago, I noticed we were selling fewer miniatures,” says Wooding, “so I started putting shelves of board games down here” – he gestures to rows of colourful game boxes with snappy titles, Small World, Agricola, Carcassonne, Pandemic – “and every time we did that the takings went up.” He also noted a decline in what he tactfully describes as the “stereotypical gamer” – dyed-in-the-wool hobbyists who would typically be lone, white men.
“You get a lot more couples now – young, professional, just bought somewhere. They still want to meet up with mates but they don’t want to go out and get pissed any more. They like the idea of getting a game out, having a few drinks, bit of fun for two or three hours around the table.”
Once, he admits, this more casual, “mainstream” gamer, certainly the women, would have blanched at walking into his establishment. He points out the cover of Pandemic, a key title in the board-gaming resurgence, whose players must collaborate to fight global disease outbreaks. Front and centre on the box art is its Scientist character, a woman. “Much more inclusive,” says Wooding. “Much wider appeal. More friendly.”
The awful thing about Monopoly is the first person to go bankrupt is left in a corner and everyone else plays on
Catherine Howell, curator of toys and games at the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London, describes Pandemic as “the game of the moment”. She chose it as one of four focus games, alongside chess, Game of the Goose and Monopoly, in her exhibition Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered. Howell describes herself as more of a traditional gamer, whose strongest memories of childhood are playing Scrabble and Cluedo with her family. She confesses that, until she began thinking about the exhibition around five years ago, she wasn’t familiar with the new wave of board games that populate the shelves of Orc’s Nest and Thirsty Meeples, part of what she calls a “designer-led resurgence” that originated in Germany, then spread across Europe and North America. But she was struck by advances in game design that made the experience of playing these games far less fractious (and more enjoyable) than those family Monopoly sessions.
“Eurogames”, as they are known, are notable for their relatively gentle themes (farming, landscape-building, dock-working), the fact that they reduce the element of luck and – most importantly – the way they ensure no player is eliminated before the end. The game zero for this revolution is The Settlers of Catan (now rebranded Catan), created by a German designer, Klaus Teuber. Since its publication in 1995, it’s sold more than 22m copies in 30 languages. Players competitively establish settlements on an island and trade resources with the other players, deeping participants fully engaged and sustaining the drama of the narrative right to the conclusion. “That’s very important,” says Howell, “because nobody feels left out. That’s the awful thing if you’re playing Monopoly: the first person to become bankrupt is left in the corner while everyone else plays on.”
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That crucial development finds its ultimate refinement in the most recent tabletop trend, the “co-operative game”, whereby every player wins or loses as a team member, whether fighting fires (Flash Point) or saving the world from infection (Pandemic). “It provokes a lot more social interaction,” says Howell.
Pandemic was created by a 43-year-old Californian, Matt Leacock, who is one of tabletop gaming’s most successful designers. He was inspired by Reiner Knizia’s 2000 Eurogame title Lord of the Rings, which requires players to cooperate as one of the four questing hobbits from Tolkien’s fantasy epic. “When I played that with friends we got scared,” recalls Leacock. “There was self-sacrifice. There were all sorts of highs and lows. At the end, everybody felt good, whether they won or lost. I wanted to see if I could do something like that.”
The Ticket to Ride board
The Ticket to Ride board.
Leacock’s passion for board games goes back to his experience of frustration with them as a child. “Games were my favourite birthday gift,” he says, “but I’d get very excited, open up the box, then we’d play and there would just be crushing disappointment. The games never seemed good enough to me.” So, with the help of a game-enthusiast uncle, young Leacock would flip over the boards and try to design something better using the same components.
Decades later, while leading the design team at a communications start-up, he concocted Pandemic, curious to see if he could create a game “where there was a lot of really frightening non-linear growth” – in other words, sudden surprises and twists. At the time, he recalls, pandemics were “in the news”, with outbreaks of bird flu and Sars, “so that was very much in the back of my mind”.
Pandemic has been a runaway success, and the latest version, Pandemic Legacy: Season One, represents another leap forward in game design. Co-created with rising board-game star Rob Daviau, it incoprorates, Leacock explains “a tremendous amount of storytelling. It’s similar to an electronic game in that you develop your characters, you get new rules and the state of the world changes. Irrevocably, in fact. It is an unveiling story. We named it Season One because it has an arc, so it’s akin to watching a season of one of your HBO favourites.”
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The growth of the video games industry has, perhaps counterintuitively, been one of the biggest factors in the proliferation of these modern, innovatively designed board games – largely because the presence of games consoles under so many millions of TVs and the rise of mobile gaming have normalised game-playing.
“[Video games and board games have] learned an awful lot from each other,” says Esdevium’s Ben Hogg. “Everyone’s a mobile gamer now. Speak to anyone who’s got a smartphone, they’ve got at least one game they like to play on it. Now there are more people who are open to the idea of playing a game than ever before.” (It’s also not uncommon to find app versions of board games, such as the popular map-building game Carcassonne, which works very well on a tablet.
At the same time, crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter have lowered the barrier to entry for people trying to break into the board-games industry. Tabletop games can raise more money on Kickstarter than their digital counterparts. The designers of the forthcoming video-to-board-game adaptation Dark Souls, for example, sought £50,000 on Kickstarter. They hit that in three minutes, and ended up with £4.2m.
The internet has also vastly accelerated the word-of-mouth on which the tabletop industry relies. Sites such as BoardGameGeek provide a valuable archive of reviews and YouTube shows such as Shut Up & Sit Down or TableTop – presented by American actor Wil Wheaton, star of Stand By Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation) – have flung open the window of interest. There is now something known as the TableTop effect: if Wheaton features a title on his show, in which he and other celebrities play a game while commentating on their decisions, its sales will spike. “The TableTop effect is massive,” says Peter Wooding. “If Wil features a game, it immediately becomes unavailable!”
You connect with people across the table. It’s a very human thing
Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic
Wheaton’s zeal for board games borders on the evangelical. “The mission of TableTop is to share the joy of gaming with the world,” he says. “I think we live in a time where our entire world is so divided, it’s almost balkanised. If we’re to emerge from the goddamn dumpster fire that is 2016 intact, we’re gonna need to see our shared humanity, and I [hope to] show by example that tabletop gaming can be about the journey you go on together when you’re playing a game. It can be about the friendships and relationships that form. So when I hear games are selling out all over the place, that thrills me. It means that people who are not already gamers, or maybe not as insane about it as I am, they’re going out and buying them. It’s like Muggles are buying tickets to Hogwarts.”
Back at Thirsty Meeples in Oxford, I talk to owners John and Zuzi Morgan. In 2012 they decided to sell tickets to Wheaton’s Muggles, quitting their jobs as social workers to try and turn their love for tabletop games into a full-time business.
They already had an extensive game collection, and John had heard about a cafe in Toronto named Snakes & Lattes – the menu listed games rather than meals – that had sparked the spread of board-game cafes across North America. After a visit to sample its appeal, the Morgans opened Thirsty Meeples (a “meeple” is a game component that represents the player, typically in Eurogames a plump, triangular wooden figure), and it’s certainly paid off. “The trend is upwards,” John tells me when I ask how business is doing.
Why does Zuzi think the love of tabletop games grew to such a point that she and John could turn their hobby into their livelihood? “There’s so much technology,” she says. “Everybody’s busy and you want to bring people back together in a way that’s not just staring at screens. It’s a natural thing in people. We are supposed to be together and communicating with each other.”
Fourteen-year-old friends Maddy Sawbridge, left, and Alex Foley, right, at Thirsty Meeples with their friends and family
Fourteen-year-old friends Maddy Sawbridge, left, and Alex Foley, right, at Thirsty Meeples with their friends and family. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
For a time, video-gaming offered a level of physical social interaction, at the arcade or through multi-player sofa games that friends or family members could play at the same time, in the same room. Then multi-player video games moved online, and fellow players became physically removed from one another, if not completely anonymous. In some digital gaming arenas, that anonymity brewed a poisonous atmosphere.
“Multi-player video-gaming was fun,” says Wil Wheaton. “And then dickheads ruined it. It just became this cesspool of toxic aggression and unpleasant behaviour. I wonder if people who had enjoyed all that at first started looking for another way to play games where you could see the person you were playing with.”
Direct interaction is important to Matt Leacock, too. “You connect with people across the table,” he says. “It’s a very human thing.” And it’s tactile: “You need to handle the physical components, to get the feel for the texture on the cards and see the wood grain on your components.”
Gaming has always had a social function. Fernand Gobet, Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool and co-author of Moves In Mind — The Psychology Of Board Games, says that in some countries “playing a board game is part of the culture — such as mancala games in some African countries — and can be seen as a soft kind of initiation ritual. But in most countries, the benefit of board games is to offer the opportunity for families to play. In a sense what matters is having such a common activity, and not the detail of the game being played.”
These points are echoed by Thirsty Meeples’ patrons. “It’s the more social thing to do these days,” says Mark, a 35-year-old information modeller from Portsmouth.
Roger and Eveline, the couple playing Ticket to Ride, explain that they are in the middle of packing up all their worldly possessions to return to the Netherlands because, says Roger, “we can no longer afford to live in Oxford.” As cafe regulars, they couldn’t depart without enjoying one final session. “We seem to be living in an age where we’ve become scared of our sophistication,” he says. “We crave things that feel authentic. Or which remind us of the simpler time of our childhood.” Board gaming is “innocence regained in a world that…” He looks at me with a small smile. “Who’d have thought David Bowie was indeed the mystical force holding us all together?”
For Roger and Eveline, as for Wil Wheaton, tabletop gaming has become more than entertainment. “A game is not a puzzle to be solved,” Wheaton believes, “but a narrative to be told.” And, in our increasingly online society, to be shared, too – directly and physically, in the real world.
Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered is at the V&A Museum of Childhood, London E2, from 8 October to 23 April
The gateway game: Ticket To Ride (2004)
Ticket to Ride
Designed by Southampton-born Alan R Moon and published by US company Days of Wonder, this hugely-popular railway-construction game for two-to-five players is a great starting point for anyone intrigued by the new wave of gentle “Euro”-inspired games, which offer a friendlier, less-fractious experience than traditional titles like Monopoly. With its numerous variants, you can play on your choice of country around the world.
See also: Carcassonne (2000), Catan (1995)
The warm-up game: Sushi Go! (2013)
A warm-up game is a quick, simple game – a kind of aperitif to the board-game main course. And Phil Walker-Harding’s card game Sushi Go! is one of the most popular, lasting no longer than 20 minutes and requiring its players to frantically construct sushi dishes in a restaurant.
See also: Citadels (2000), Love Letter (2012)
The cooperative game: Pandemic
Matt Leacock’s game-changing phenomenon, in which players team up to combat worldwide disease outbreaks before they spread beyond control. Intense and dramatic; if anybody pre-judges the idea of the cooperative gaming experience as easy, this will prove them wrong.
See also: Mysterium (2015), Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island (2012)
The party games: Codenames (2015)
This espionage-based word game designed by Czech designer Vlaada Chvátil is best played with six to eight people. It sets two teams against each other, as they use one-word clues to try and guess the identities of all their own secret agents before the other team. The winner of this year’s Spiel des Jahres award (gaming’s best picture Oscar).
See also: Camel Up (2014), One Night Ultimate Werewolf (2014)
The strategy game: Agricola (2007)
Top choice for strategy fiends. Players must build and run a 17th-century farm, maximising their crop and livestock yields and protecting their families from starvation.