OUR BOARD-GAME RENAISSANCE

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The recession has encouraged many to reconsider the joys of playing with cardboard and plastic pieces. Alexander Ewing sets some ground rules ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

We tend to play board games under two circumstances: with relatives over holidays, to recreate some semblance of prelapsarian (ie, pre-laptop) familial harmony; and during blizzards, when the power is out and there is nothing better to do. These are propitious times to dust off these relics of simpler times—Clue, Monopoly, Risk and the like. Pieces and directions are often missing, but little is better than seeing the yellowing scorecards of games past. I grew wistful at the sight of a slip of paper that recalled an afternoon Yahtzee marathon many years ago in which I most certainly annihilated my sister.

After decades of decline, board games are back in vogue. In 2008 board-game sales reached $808m, an increase of 23% over the previous year. Industry insiders suggest that sales grew another 20% last year. The recession has helped many to reconsider the joys that can be found in cardboard and plastic pieces. And this has been an especially snowy winter, particularly in my hometown of Washington, DC, where we recently enjoyed our third blizzard of the season. Monopoly, the most popular board game in history, was introduced during the Great Depression, when the fun of play-acting as a vicious real-estate mogul perhaps was most plain. Players wielding pewter thimbles and doggies could malevolently corner a market and penalise hapless neighbours; getting out of prison involved paying a little fee.

The return of board games as a diversion is good news (and something we've written about before), but let’s set some parameters. I’m not keen on board games 2.0. Many of the new games on the market are insipid recreations of Charades or Pictionary, and are far too concerned with entertainment utility. What about the needs of the hyper-competitive and the overly-sensitive (ie, an important niche of board gamers)? Any game that requires a battery is sacrilegious. I’m also sceptical of anything “hands-on”. No Jenga or Cranium please. But Trivial Pursuit counts; it is just cards and a board, with ample room for humiliation.

Classics such as chess and checkers (draughts to the Brits) endure, but they are limited to two players and have been hijacked by the computer. If you play checkers, try the multi-player Chinese variety. Backgammon is my two-person exception; it is near and dear to my heart. As a boy I played regularly with my father. At university, recovering from a protracted and messy break-up, I started playing on the internet for money (usually losing it) and tried to improve by reading books like "Backgammon for Blood", a 1970s strategy classic by Bruce Becker. It was a dark time.

Board games are more than recession-friendly recreation; they are rich in sociology. The Game of Life, invented by Milton Bradley, the godfather of board games, is America at its best and worst. The game features plastic mini-vans that you drive from birth to death, accumulating fellow passengers (a spouse and kids) and making loads of cash along the way, regardless of career (journalism was not one of the choices). Risk is a favourite. It is Napoleonic world domination by means of endless dice rolls, and it is preferably played with a multinational crowd for the sake of historical banter. There is always a weak player, the poor recipient of endless “advice” from others. To win, one usually must control Africa or South America, then invade Europe—a nice twist on history.

This board-game renaissance aside, tried and true classics remain under threat. The industry is responding to demands for faster, more expensive and more contemporary concepts, complete with hi-tech gadgetry. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Monopoly, Hasbro recently unveiled a new version of the game that will hit stores later this year. Priced at $35, this board is circular, the banker is computerised and debit cards have replaced the colourful paper money. Luckily, I have no reason to boycott—I’m merciless and my family refused to play Monopoly with me years ago.

(Alexander Ewing is a writer based in Washington, DC.) Picture credit: D'Arcy Norman (via Flickr)