CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Three years ago, Scott Hooker saw something he didn’t expect while visiting his girlfriend’s family.
Instead of talking to each other between distracted glances at their smartphones, her relatives sat down together to play board games. The tableau was both charmingly unexpected and envy-inspiring.
“I realized that my family never really did anything like that,” the 28-year-old says. “I was jealous, and I wanted to see if I could find the right games to get them interested.”
Soon after, Hooker bought his first couple of games online and quickly found himself tumbling, Alice-like, down a rabbit hole, suggesting that, far from anomalies, his girlfriend’s family had introduced him to what he calls a “board game renaissance.”
Considering the pace of technological advances, physical board games should exist, if at all, as little more than quaint relics of an analog age.
They are, for the most part, utterly lacking in technological bells and whistles, are often time-consuming to set up and feature rules that can be bafflingly convoluted.
As a direct competitor to increasingly sophisticated mobile and video games, conventional wisdom suggests board games should have long since packed up their myriad plastic and cardboard components and rattled off to join corded telephones and floppy disks in some forgotten corner of the attic.
Instead, similar to the phoenix-like resurgence of vinyl records, modern board gaming is experiencing a boom in popularity that’s as unexpected in the digital age as a double Yahtzee.
On Kickstarter, which is a hotbed of independent game development, a category dedicated to tabletop board gaming projects has more than 200 active campaigns. At conventions such as Gen Con and the London Gaming Market, publishers set up shop to sell hundreds of new titles every year.
According to a 2015 study by online geek-culture magazine ICv2, the hobby games market in Canada and the U.S. was worth $880 million in 2014, a 26 percent increase over 2013.
Most of these games, however, are a far cry from the luck-based titles of yore. Instead of decades-old standards such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Boggle, board game enthusiasts now flock to smaller independent and European publishers. Gamers say the titles produced by these companies feature interesting rules, compelling designs and offer more opportunities for them to think strategically.
The modern game market presents players with a broad range of gaming scenarios, whether that’s searching for treasure in a monster-infested cave, engaging in tense political gamesmanship during the Cold War, building a galaxy-spanning civilization or cementing control of a medieval French fiefdom.
Many new board games also capitalize on the popularity of trends in pop culture such as zombies and steampunk, or are directly derived from TV shows such as “Battlestar Galactica,” ”Spartacus” and “Game of Thrones.”
“I think the general trend (in board gaming) is that things have gotten so plentiful and broad that there really is no trend,” says 26-year-old Chattanoogan Meagan Frey. “It seems there’s a game or 10 out there for virtually anyone of any taste.”
Frey says she became interested in gaming at age 20 while spending time with a group of friends who were playing Wiz-War, a title published in 1983 and built around the premise of wizards competing to steal treasure from each other in a maze while utilizing a deck of cards to cast spells and speed up their progress.
She felt drawn to the game largely based on how it dominated her friends’ attention while still forcing them to interact socially.
Hooker, who organizes a weekly board gaming night at Infinity Flux on Hixson Pike, says the growing popularity of board games is also a byproduct of a general disillusionment with the increasingly impersonal nature of most other forms of entertainment.
“Board gaming is one of the few hobbies that you strip all of that away and sit down and are face to face with other human beings having a shared experience,” he said. “It’s nice. In a jet-set world, it slows things down, and I think that appeals to people a lot of ways.”
For fans of throwing dice, amassing wealth in the form of cardboard tokens and building armies comprised of hordes of miniature figurines, the 21st century has been described as a board gaming golden age.
According to many gaming fans, the current boom started with the release in 1995 of the competitive resource management game Settlers of Catan.
“My gateway was definitely Catan,” says Hooker, who estimates his current game library has swollen to between 150 and 200 titles.
A so-called German-style board game — or “Eurogame” — Catan is described by many enthusiasts as the title that best helps ease players of traditional American-style board games into the complexity and strategic depth favored by European game makers.
The year of its release, Catan was dubbed the Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year), a prestigious industry honor awarded by a consortium of German board-game critics. In a June 2015 feature, Paste magazine placed Catan at the top of its list of the best games “for converting non-gamers.”
Many of the games being produced in recent years could prove just as long-lived, fans say.
“In board gaming, we are probably seeing new classics come out,” says Eric Niemi, an assistant professor at Chattanooga State Community College who runs a gaming night every Wednesday at Epikos Comics, Cards & Games in Hixson. “We have games we’re playing now that will be talked about alongside games like Risk and Monopoly.”
At home, Niemi says he personally owns between 50 and 75 games and is particularly attracted to ones built around themes that resonate with his other pop culture interests, including comics and fantasy literature.
“If you put out any project associated with the Lord of the Rings, I’ll look at it heavily,” he says.
He and other fans hesitate to openly disparage the roll-of-the-dice, chance-based gameplay of classic board games, but when they compare them to newer titles, it’s often with a tone of forced politeness.
“To me, it’s like going back and watching the old movies from the ’40s and the ’50s,” Niemi says. “They’re good movies and enjoyable — they’re classics — but it’s not the same. There are other games out there that do what they do and more.”
And the cutting-edge technology of video and mobile games often falls similarly flat compared to the personal interaction of board games, enthusiasts say.
“Just that face-to-face element is part of it,” Hooker says. “I can hop on Xbox Live and play with high school buddies from around the world, but it’ll never be quite the same as sitting across the table and interacting with another person.
“There’s always a little element of ego (to board gaming) but, at the end of the day, you pack up the box and none of that carries forward. There’s nothing at stake but having a good time.”
Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com