The other day a friend, who I can't remember if I met through the academic study of robotics or pretending to be a space lizard, passed me this video. It feels like it's mostly aimed at people who aren't really immersed in board games, but who are interested to find out. The central claim is that board gaming is undergoing some sort of golden age, with stunning arrays of new games being produced, more people than ever buying them and the combination of Ameritrash and Eurogamer ideas driving a cultural revolution.
I found it hard not to get excited by the video and taken along for the ride, especially as portions of it read like a list of my favorite games. I've seen these claims surface before in various forms and nobody seems to contest that more games are being made and that more are being bought, but the ratio between these things is important. If the number of games being produced is rising more quickly than the number of people buying games then that creates a very competitive marketplace in which each producer is selling a smaller quantity of games on average. In the short term that's good news for consumers, since it means a lot of choice between games that are competing to be the cheapest and the best. Some people worry that is a very temporary situation and that it'll lead to a lot of smaller publishers going out of business, leading to a world with fewer choices governed by a few large companies. Hardly a golden age, but with industry wide figures hard to come by it's hard to assess if that scenario is likely.
There are parallels with the rise of indie computer game developers. The video talks about the low barrier to entry being a factor in a wide array of boardgames being developed, in that all a person needs to be a boardgame designer is a pen and a pile of paper. I'm not sure I'd agree with that assertion, one can design with just that, but actually bringing a game to market involves a great deal more steps. In some ways the computer game indies have a better time of it, as once a game is finished it can be easily distributed to however many people want to buy it. A person who wanted to independently produce a game needs to contend with manufacturing and shipping issues as well as finding a way to compete with products that can offer economy of scale savings that a new business couldn't hope to match. Of course an aspiring designer can focus on designing the best game they can and then try to get a publisher to pick it up, but competition there is fierce, pay is low and there's still a barrier to entry in making the right contacts and creating the right prototype. That aside many publishers face these same issues which prevents them from accepting too many designs, leaving many talented and productive game designers unable to reach an audience.
That being said you only need to compare the shelves of your FLGS (Friendly local gaming store) today to a few years ago to see that new designs are getting made. I think that the video is right about the explosion of ideas, but I don't think that the low barrier to entry has come from the simplicity of game design tools. I think it's coming from places like the game crafter making it easy to get prototypes to show to publishers or provide games in a print on demand way. It's coming from cheaper and more effective manufacturing techniques, putting quality components in the reach of hobby designers. It's coming from kickstarter, letting new designers share their dreams and get the money for the large print runs they require in advance.
Pulling everything together I think that the explosion of board games is going to mirror the explosion of computer games. Both are driven by a large base of designers with good ideas. Both are driven by a lowered barrier to entry in the marketplace. Both are showing as a wider variety of available games. There are some very significant differences in terms of the competition, the gulf between the resources used for a AAA computer game and an indie game is much greater than between a big publishers boardgame offering and an individual's kickstarter, but I think that we'll see a similar pattern. Lots of people can get into games, there'll be a huge amount of choice and we'll see interesting projects that would not have been made a decade ago and it'll be really really really hard.
I think that when looking at piles of awesome stuff it's easy to forget how much hard work it takes to get there. People developing small games for the comptuer game market have to work really hard, it's a tremendously tough job. A golden age doesn't mean that everyone gets to have an easy time of it, if anything the opposite is true. Lowered barriers to entry and a greater variety of games being made mean that everyone is competiting against the very best minds out there. If anything it's going to be harder work to be a success.
Which is awesome, I love a challenge.