The Invasion of the German Board Games
Their peaceful premises and intricate rule systems are changing the way Americans play—and helping shape an industry in the process.
In a development that would have been hard to imagine a generation ago, when video games were poised to take over living rooms, board games are thriving. Overall, the latest available data shows that U.S. sales grew by 28 percent between the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2017. Revenues are expected to rise at a similar rate into the early 2020s—largely, says one analyst, because the target audience “has changed from children to adults,” particularly younger ones.
Much of this success is traceable to the rise of games that, well, get those adults acting somewhat more like children. Clever, low-overhead card games such as Cards Against Humanity, Secret Hitler, and Exploding Kittens (“A card game for people who are into kittens and explosions”) have sold exceptionally well. Games like these have proliferated on Kickstarter, where anyone with a great idea and a contact at an industrial printing company can circumvent the usual toy-and-retail gatekeepers who green-light new concepts. (The largest project category on Kickstarter is “Games,” and board games make up about three-quarters of those projects.)
Growth has also been particularly swift in the category of “hobby” board games, which comprises more sophisticated titles that are oriented toward older players—think Settlers of Catan. These games, compared to ones like Monopoly and Cards Against Humanity, represent a niche segment, but that segment is becoming something more than a niche: According to ICv2, a trade publication that covers board games, comic books, and other hobbyist products, sales of hobby board games in the U.S. and Canada increased from an estimated $75 million to $305 million between 2013 and 2016, the latest year for which data is available.
Hobby-game fanaticism is still very much a subculture, to be sure, but it is a growing one. At the 2017 iteration of Gen Con—North America’s largest hobby-gaming convention, in Indianapolis—turnstile attendance topped 200,000. For the first time in the event’s history, all the attendee badges were purchased before the event began. Whether they knew it or not, the many thousands of people carpeting the field level of Lucas Oil Stadium wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for a small group of obsessives on the other side of the Atlantic.
The rise of hobbyist games is legible in the career arc of one of the genre’s most famous present-day designers, Phil Eklund. He was born and raised in the United States. But tellingly, he didn’t really hit his stride until moving to Germany. Eklund took to game design early in life. As a teenager growing up in Tucson in the 1970s, he became frustrated with the narrow, child-oriented fare on offer at his local toy shops—roll-and-move games like Sorry! and Monopoly. So he started creating his own games, making photocopied print runs of a few hundred or so and mailing them out to customers.
Within America’s then-tiny board-game subculture, Eklund was making a name for himself. But he felt like part of the lowest caste of nerds. “I’d go to a gaming convention, and everyone would be crowded around the computers,” he tells me. “My board-game setup would be off in the corner. The only people who’d wander over were the folks looking for a garbage can so they could throw out their gum.”
That’s in the past. Eklund now lives in Germany, where he’s attained the status of cult celebrity. He has no plans to move back to the United States. “One of the reasons I came to this country is because I knew it was the place where people take board games really seriously,” he told me. “The designers have status. They put their name on the box, and people will buy based on their reputation.”
Now a board-game star in Germany, Eklund’s friends include such masterminds as Friedemann Friese, the creator of the game Power Grid, and the legendary Uwe Rosenberg, who designed award-winning classics such as Agricola, Le Havre, and Patchwork. At Germany’s world-leading Internationale Spieltage (“International Game Day”) fair in Essen—which now attracts an audience from all over the world numbering almost 200,000—bookish introverts are mobbed by groupies looking for selfies. “It’s not like I destroy hotel rooms or go out with movie stars,” Eklund tells me. “But it’s sufficiently intense that when I get back home, it takes a week just to recover.”
Hobbyists around the world started paying serious attention to German-style board games (or “Eurogames,” as they’re now more commonly known) following the creation of Settlers of Catan in 1995. While it took more than a decade for that game to gain a cultural foothold, there seems to be no going back: Much in the way that Cold War–era American beer connoisseurs gravitated to the higher quality and vastly larger variety offered by European imports in the era before stateside microbrews took off, players who’d become bored with the likes of Monopoly and Scrabble started to note the inventive new titles coming out of Germany.
Catan, as Klaus Teuber’s hyper-profitable franchise is usually called, has many of the signature features associated with Eurogames: randomized board layouts, flexible scoring systems, an aesthetic that tends toward rustic themes and wooden pieces. But as Eklund and other Eurogame pioneers explained to me, these games’ philosophy of play is rooted in trends dating to the Second World War.
In North America, the complex board games created during the latter half of the 20th century typically took the form of simulated warfare. In Risk, Axis & Allies, Star Fleet Battles, and Victory in the Pacific, players take on the role of generals moving their units around tabletop maps. But for obvious reasons, this wasn’t a model that resonated positively with the generation of Germans who grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich. Which helps explain why all of the most popular Eurogames are based around building things—communities (Catan), civilizations (Terra Mystica), farms (Agricola)—rather than annihilating opponents. The result is a vastly more pacifist style of a game that can appeal to women as much as men, and to older adults as much as high-testosterone adolescents.
“When I was young, one of my first creations was a Star Trek–type game with humans fighting other races in space,” Eklund says. “I now realize it was more or less a racist concept. It’s been done many times. It’s just not that interesting.” In Germany, by contrast, he’s created games such as Pax Renaissance, in which players take on the role of bankers navigating the vicissitudes of war and religious upheaval in 15th- and 16th-century Europe.
But the gulf between the traditional American games of yore—“Ameritrash,” as the genre is dismissively referred to by the board-game cognoscenti—goes beyond the divide between militarism and pacifism. In Monopoly, that great bonfire of friendships, the conflict between players is direct, brutal, and zero-sum: You bankrupt me or I bankrupt you. Which is why so many rounds of Monopoly finish on a note of bitterness. The one game of Monopoly I ever played with my wife ended with her staring me down icily and declaring, without any hint of warmth or irony, “I have never seen this side of your personality.”
In Eurogames, by contrast, such naked metaphors for capitalism and predation are outré. The Spanish-themed El Grande, for instance, does not permit players to attack their opponents directly. Rather, players maneuver their caballeros around a map of medieval Spain in a bid to win the favor of local courtiers. Players don’t beat their opponents so much as thwart them. The same is invariably true in rail-themed Eurogames such as Ticket To Ride, in which players rush to claim choice routes. The action is always passive-aggressive—never just aggressive.
This mode of play is pleasant on multiple levels. There is an enormous amount of fussy micromanagerial satisfaction that comes from amassing A so you can invest in B, so you can trade for C, so you can build a D, which in turn pumps out more A. To outsiders, this churn of wood, brick, sheep, ore, and wheat always makes Eurogames seem overly complicated. (In Friedemann Friese’s masterpiece Power Grid, there is even a step called the “bureaucracy” phase.) But in practice, all the busywork keeps players immersed in their own projects, and less spiteful in regard to others’ success. Which makes for gentler competition, fewer arguments, and (in my experience) less in the way of intra-spousal recrimination.
Since the Eurogame genre came into being roughly four decades ago (the inception of Germany’s Spiel des Jahres award, celebrating the “game of the year,” would indicate 1978 as a rough date of momentum-gathering), the earliest creators understood something fundamental about the psychology of gaming: While people can tolerate losing, they despise the feeling of being eliminated from a game in progress. And so most Eurogames are designed such that scoring comes at the end of the game, after some defined milestone or turn limit, so that every player can enjoy the experience of being a contender until the final moments. If this sounds somewhat Euro-socialistic, that’s because it is. But such mechanisms acknowledge that no one wants to block off three hours for gaming, only to get knocked out early and bide their time by watching TV as everyone else finishes up.
Perhaps no game encompasses this egalitarian ethos more fully than the aforementioned Power Grid (or Funkenschlag, as it’s known in Germany), in which players take on the role of CEOs in a highly regulated, centrally administered energy market. While the first player who builds houses and hotels in Monopoly can easily leverage their initial advantage to build yet more houses and hotels and crush the competition, the exact opposite dynamic takes place in Power Grid: The more players expand their energy network, the lower their priority in acquiring the coal, oil, uranium, and recyclables they need to actually fuel their power plants. The feature acts as a natural damping mechanism on runaway leaders, so that players tend toward parity as the action progresses, and almost every game is fairly close until the last turn.
This way of playing caters to what most people actually want out of game nights: to unwind, to avoid boredom and humiliation, and to end the night as friends. One of my current favorites, for instance, is a game called Biblios, in which each player takes on the role of an abbot seeking to amass the greatest possible library of sacred books. Buying up Boardwalk and Park Place, seizing Asia, sinking an opponent’s battleship: These are all fine for children. But for adults, none of it compares to the white-hot joy of creating a well-functioning library.