“I grew up playing board games with my family, and we had the best conversations about life and learning around them, because they gave us turn-taking and rules and fairness,” says Mary Flanagan, a Professor of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College and also a founder of the Tiltfactor game research lab.
“Board games structure social interaction in a really safe and helpful way. Face to face conversation is getting weirder and weirder,” Flanagan says. “Board games help us get along and communicate.”
Board games themselves have changed a lot in the past decade. When we talk about board game sales and cafes, we’re not talking about a sudden interest in playing The Game of Life. The games that people tend to line up for at a board-game café are so-called European-style games that can be played quickly (no more five-day-marathon Risk sessions that take over the dining room table) and involve strategy and, in many games, cooperation. In Pandemic, one of the more popular cooperative games, players work together to stop the spread of four diseases; in Castle Panic, players unite to defend their castle against an invading monster horde. Players of strategic games get to try their hand at competitive farming (Agricola), building railroads to connect cities (Ticket to Ride) and developing a medieval French town (Carcassonne).
It’s worth noting that the pieces for some of these types of games are lovely to hold in your hand. The treasures in the game Forbidden Island, which players must work together to collect before the island they’re on sinks, feel weighty and sparkle like miniaturized versions of something Indiana Jones would have risked his life to save from the Nazis.
The cooperative aspect of many of the newer games also helps make them less traumatic for competitive types who hate to lose. Instead of rushing around a board trying to capture everyone else’s pieces while half-heartedly saying sorry, you’re all in it together as a pandemic threatens to wipe out civilization. You need to work with your fellow players and interact in a meaningful way in order to win the game. And when you do manage to win as a unit, it feels good, albeit in a slightly silly way, as though you’ve been caught crying at a Lifetime move. But for many, this is preferable to having your friends exhibit what Freeman refers to as the “game-smashing behavior” he’s occasionally witnessed at his café.
In addition to the cooperative aspect, many of today’s games require complex strategies that make them more compelling to play, and to return to.
“The games that existed when we were kids were not particularly interesting,” says Freeman. “Monopoly basically has one strategy and if you figure it out that’s how you play the game. There were some games that had a high degree of strategy, but these were primarily war games, which had these ultra thick rulebooks. You felt like you were reading a math text book.”