Spread of board game bars rides industry boom and digital backlash

  1. 'It's part of a pushback on digital socializing' - bar manager
  2. Board game industry to grow by 9 percent in next four years
  3. 'Real' games flourishing despite online versions availability

Twice a month, on Tuesday nights, nearly 100 people walk down a quiet street in east London and through a door under a railway line. Inside is brightly lit, and bustling. Most are there for a drink; all are there to play Dungeons & DragonsBut not online.

Those nights are specialty evenings for people interested in the cult fantasy/strategy game. But the bar, called Draughts, is full nearly all the time. The bar was London’s first to ride the board game renaissance (USA Today) of the past decade, and remains at the front of a global phenomenon. People are looking at each other over a table, moving actual, not virtual, tokens, and gaming in the real world.

The bar now hosts over 900 games, according to Russell Chapman, one of the managers.

“We are part of a growing industry that mixes hospitality and entertainment,” he said, likening their popularity to bars and cafes that focus on ping pong or mini golf.

“It’s part of a pushback on digital socializing, a focus on analog get-togethers,” said Chapman. “I think board games epitomize that.”

Board games by lafilledevienne via Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/games-children-board-games-toys-650435/
Customers often come to play “classics” like Monopoly, and end up trying newer and more niche games. Image by lafilledevienne via Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/games-children-board-games-toys-650435/

‘Reports of my death…’

Board games were dying out, reported the Daily Telegraph in June 2015, based on findings from pollsters Opinium Research. Opinium found that parents were concerned about the effect of video games on their children’s development, and worried that few were playing chess and card games.

However, this was at odds with reports from retailers that they had seen real-world game purchases rise between 25 and 40 percent annually (Guardian). Research from Beige Market Intelligence last year found that Europe leads the industry, but is likely to be overtaken by North America by 2022; the industry as a whole is projected to grow 9 percent by then.

‘ … people are fed up with just tweeting people, or Facebook messaging’

In Britain, the UK Games Expo (UKGE) takes place in Birmingham every June. Now in its eleventh year,  it describes itself as the leading forum for “hobby games,” or tabletop gaming, as non-online gaming is called. In the U.S., the equivalent is GenCon (The Atlantic), this year taking place in Indianapolis in August.

“Computer games came along and they seemed shiny and interesting but over the past ten years there has been a considerable increase in the quality [of board games],” Richard Denning of UKGE told WikiTribune.

Denning said exposure to so-called “nerd culture” through TV shows such as the Big Bang Theory, in which characters play Settlers of Catan, and Stranger Things, featuring Dungeons & Dragons, has added to the mainstream appeal.

“Ultimately it also comes down to what people find they have access to,” said Denning, adding that the emergence of specialty bars and cafes has spurred popularity, as well as riding the wave.

Driven by digital

What Chapman referred to as the “pushback on digital” has been frequently cited (Wharton Institute) as a driving factor in the board game renaissance.

“I get the sense that people are fed up with just tweeting people, or Facebook messaging and not actually spending time with them,” said Chapman.

“It’s so easy to send a message, but I think you lose touch with that person eventually so I think there’s this pushing back towards actually socializing together. And this gives them something to engage in,” he went on.

Fernand Gobet, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Liverpool, told WikiTribune: “In a world where communications will be increasingly virtual, board games will offer opportunities for real social meetings that offer a lot of fun.”

A lot of the most popular board games have increased in popularity despite online versions being available, Gobet pointed out, suggesting, “fun is obviously important, but so is the social element.”

“The role of board games as counterbalancing technology will increase in the future,” said Gobet.

A lot of board games have online equivalents, but are still popular as they offer a chance to interact socially by Expect Best via Pexels
A lot of board games have online equivalents, but are still popular as they offer a chance to interact socially by Expect Best via Pexels

One of the attractions of board games is that you are with other people, not sitting by a screen in isolation. So there are implications for mental health, with research published in the Journal of American Geriatric Society finding face-to-face socializing is crucial to staving off depression. In contrast, excessive time spent online has been linked (NHS) in various studies to depression and isolation.

You don’t have to be an enthusiast, but it helps

Rob and Ros Ellis, in Draughts playing Pandemic, were recommended the bar by a cousin, who is a board games enthusiast.

“It’s something we grew up doing, and we still do when our family are together,” said Ros.

“It’s relaxed, it’s really quite cheap as board games themselves are expensive, and it’s a good day out,” said Ros.

As a bonus, “you can go to a bar in the day but you’re still doing something, so you don’t have to feel guilty,” joked Rob.

A group of students, playing Payday, said they would not describe themselves as board games hobbyists —  though they have had board game parties.

“It’s more than just meeting up, it’s something you can all do together,” said one.

These bars have been successful because “board games are great” said Chapman. “Whenever I go somewhere new, in the UK or Europe, I’ll always check out if there’s any board game bars.”

As well as visiting other dedicated bars and cafes together, including Oxford’s Thirsty Meeples, and Bristol’s Chance Encounters, the staff play the games. They just finished Charterstone, a “legacy game, where you campaign over 12 games, and make permanent changes to the game,” explained Chapman.

The team behind Draughts is preparing to open a new location, meeting the appetite for “analog get-togethers,” increasing game exposure, and offering more opportunity to turn people into enthusiasts. They are also running more themed nights, including competition nights for Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, and Settlers of Catan.

Myra and Andrew Robson, mother and son, are regulars at Draughts, and were coming toward the end of a four-hour board game session.

“I think deep down everyone really enjoys this sort of thing,” said Myra.

“It’s so easy to do things online and on your phones,” she said, “coming out makes it more of an event and it’s less easy to be distracted by all the other gadgets you have around you.”

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