Marc Daalder goes inside Wellycon, New Zealand’s largest board game convention to find out why the genre is having a renaissance.
Snakes and Ladders sucks.
At least, that’s according to BoardGameGeek.com, the near-definitive database for a hobby that has exploded in popularity in recent years. On BGG, as it’s known – or, affectionately/cringingly, “The Geek” – Snakes and Ladders ranks 17,181st among games with enough ratings to place.
The only game worse? The solved puzzle of Tic-Tac-Toe.
That might be a lot to process if you’re someone who hasn’t thought about board games since you played Monopoly as a kid. First off, who would have thought there are 17,000 games in the world? In actual fact, there are more than 100,000 games, with thousands more being released each year.
We’re in what game enthusiasts and industry experts alike have labelled a “golden age” of board gaming. Worldwide, tabletop gaming is a $7 billion industry, and it’s projected to nearly quadruple by 2025.
It’s almost a cliché in mainstream coverage of modern board gaming to reassure readers that the games topping BGG’s charts are nothing like Monopoly, but it still needs to be emphasised.
Amidst this renaissance of dice, cards, and little wooden people called “meeples”, hundreds of hobbyists gathered in the Kilbirnie suburb of Wellington last weekend to celebrate the twelfth annual Wellycon, New Zealand’s largest board game convention.
“I think a lot of people, when you mention board games, have negative connotations from their childhoods of games that take forever, aren’t much fun and end in hurt feelings”, says Ahmed Bulbulia, owner of Wellington’s Counter Culture board game café. “I think modern board gaming has taken the best of what used to be and evolved it. Games have evolved to the point where we don’t have player elimination as much as we used to, there are cooperative games – which is a whole genre – there are legacy games. There’s definitely something for everyone, even if you don’t consider yourself a gamer.”
Cooperative games pit a group of players against the game, which is controlled by a randomized deck of cards, a set of instructions about how pieces react to player actions, or through other ingenious methods. A few cooperative games actually use an app, but this is a point of a contention in a hobby that puts so much emphasis on analog play. Legacy games, meanwhile, change rules and mechanics over multiple plays and often have players permanently modify or destroy game components.
At one Wellycon table, players explored the newest bestseller, Wingspan. The game – which received a glowing profile in the New York Times of all places – tasks players with collecting different North American birds and placing them in three different habitats, then using them to score points through feeding, laying eggs, and flocking together. It’s called an engine-builder, where players start with nothing and slowly build up a system of interrelated cards and tokens that produce even more cards and tokens – and the ever-valuable victory points.
At another table, three attendees grappled with the popular and fairly mainstream Pandemic, a cooperative game themed around fighting off a global contagion. The players make their own independent decisions and a deck of cards controls the disease’s semi-random responses. If the four cures are found in time, all the players win together. If not, they all lose together.
Alongside other popular titles like Catan and Carcassonne, which have sold 27 million and 10 million copies, respectively, and are increasingly household names, Pandemic is the perfect example of a “gateway game”, something that can bring interested people into the hobby without scaring them away with complexity or a lengthy play-time. It stands in contrast to games like the BGG chart-topping Twilight Struggle, a two-to-three-hour card game that painstakingly simulates the Cold War from the creation of NATO to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gateway games and other light, family-focused games are the business of Julia Schiller. Schiller runs one of New Zealand’s few game publishing companies, Cheeky Parrot Games. Cheeky Parrot’s Hoard, designed by Weta Workshop’s Tim Kings-Lynne, sold 500 copies in New Zealand just last year.
“There’s such a diversity of games out there and some of them could be quite intimidating for a newcomer because they can take hours to play and have hundreds of bits. [Cheeky Parrot’s] Raid the Pantry and Hoard, on the other hand, are Rummy-style games. So many people have grown up playing some form of Rummy so it’s not hard for them to make the jump,” Schiller says at Wellycon, as a dad and daughter play through one of her games on the next table.
“I like to think my little company is starting to make a bit of a difference. Whitcoulls has been ordering more and more of our games and that’s a great place to be, alongside the mom-and-pop retailers I’m grateful for”, she added.
Other New Zealand designers have also found success. There is perhaps no better exam than Shem Phillips, whose company Garphill Games has raked in more than $3 million from Kickstarter alone.
“When I first started out, my first six years of making games, I was just making them as a hobby”, he says. “Then Kickstarter came to New Zealand. That’s when I thought, ‘I’ve got this card game about building Viking ships that would be quite fun to do’. I chucked it up on Kickstarter and was shocked by the response.”
That game, Shipwrights of the North Sea, brought in $75,000 from Kickstarter. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Shem’s turn to Kickstarter made sense, as the crowdfunding website has been a core part of the boardgame industry for several years.
“I didn’t realise that people go to Kickstarter to browse for games. I thought it was just a crowdfunding site that you send your friends and family to”, Phillips says. But of the $1.5 billion raised on Kickstarter for games of all kinds since 2009, 69 percent has gone towards tabletop games, with $19 million going to a single game, Kingdom Death: Monster.
After raising $150,000 as a sequel to Phillips’ first Kickstarter in 2015, his Raiders of the North Sea was nominated two years later for the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connoiseur’s Game of the Year), one of the most prestigious awards in board gaming. He’s helped put New Zealand on the map as a market for buying and producing games.
Weta Workshop has also hopped aboard the board game train. Staff from the Miramar-based production company had a heavy presence at Wellycon, advertising a new District 9-themed game and selling copies of Giant Killer Robots: Heavy Hitters, which raised $1.4 million on Kickstarter in 2017 and now retails for more than $100.
These aren’t necessarily the type of board game that first-timers should look at, however.
Schiller recommends newcomers to “look for a game whose theme appeals to you. Just look for one that maybe plays in 10 to 45 minutes, those are usually good starter games”. Cheeky Parrot’s line targets families and people who haven’t played a boardgame since they were children.
Despite the intimidating appearance of a lot of games, the hobby is actually becoming more diverse and more accessible, says Keith Labad. Labad manages Cerberus Games, a Wellington-based hobby shop that sells a wide range of board games alongside trading card games and roleplaying games.
“The diversity of the kinds of people coming in for boardgamers has increased as time has gone by. There’s been more families coming in and students coming in than families. It’s more socially acceptable I suppose”.
Bulbulia has also seen a more diverse crowd at Counter Culture. “We’ve got families that come in and just want to play the games that they know, young groups of people who want to play Cards Against Humanity and other party games, then the board game regulars that come in as well. We’re really pleased with the mix that we have and nobody feels out of place”, he says.
Alongside a wider range of people, Labad says he’s seen more people coming into Cerberus for board games.
“Since I’ve been there, in the last five years actually, there’s been an increase in the number of people asking about and buying games”, Labad says.
Schiller thinks buying board games is a no-brainer for Kiwis. “I think they’re pretty good value for money”, she argues. “A good game is reasonably replayable. If you compare that with taking the family to the movies, it’s pretty economical. Then there are all those benefits for children – reading, maths, strategic thinking and social skills.”
In addition to all that, games are a good fit for New Zealand. “Kiwi culture is big on get-togethers where you have family or friends come over to hang out”, Labad says. “I think board games are a good way to bring people in together.”
That was definitely visible at Wellycon, where over a thousand people gathered with both family and friends, dedicating their Saturday and Sunday to playing games in a community hall in Kilbirnie. And no, Snakes and Ladders wasn’t on offer.