07 November 2019
In the same way that video was supposed to herald the death of cinema, the classic board game was at one time predicted to fall victim to the rise of the video game. Things haven’t turned out that way.
From Cluedo to Catan
Since the turn of the decade the board game industry has enjoyed impressive growth, with annual sales up by around 40% in some years. Why is this? We could debate that for ages – perhaps over an elongated and passive aggressive family Monopoly night. Certainly there are lots of factors. Internet availability is one, making it easier to both discover and purchase what would have once been niche oddities. The rise of blogging and online video, too, has made it easier for the sector to overcome the mainstream media’s apparent lack of interest.
The decline of local multiplayer video games has likely factored, as well. With the shift to online multiplayer, people are increasingly looking elsewhere for competitive face-to-face in the home experiences.
Perhaps the most significant factor, however, is simply that board games have gotten a whole lot better. The variety available in the modern market is astonishing, from hugely complex games that unfurl over the course of several sessions to quick-fire portable games that can fill a spare five minutes. There has never been as much choice, with more tastes catered to than ever before.
The release that is most commonly celebrated for bringing about the current board game renaissance is The Settlers of Catan, which has sold an estimated 18m+ units since its release in 1995. It sees players colonising islands, building settlements, developing transport and trade and ultimately competing to create the most powerful faction. It moved gaming away from simply shuffling pieces around a board or attempting to destroy enemies through might. It was different, and attracted a whole new audience to board gaming. It was also the catalyst for an age of varied and unique new designs.
The factors which determine a game’s value are just as you’d expect – condition and rarity. Complete games are a must, as no collector wants a game with missing pieces. In fact, there’s decent money to be made from selling the pieces of games, should you stumble across an incomplete set yourself. Unopened games are a bonus, too.
Being old isn’t necessarily a key to value, either. You may have an ancient Monopoly set in good condition, but as there are very likely many, many other examples of the exact same set still on the market, don’t presume you’ve landed on Mayfair. In general, Special Editions of games will be worth more, too.
The earliest board games
Board games actually predate written language. Dice have been found that are believed to have originated as long ago as 5,000 BC. The earliest board game, however, is believed to be Senet, which was popular in Ancient Egypt as far back as 3,100 BC. The game takes the form of a 30 square grid (arranged in three rows of ten) using two sets of five pawns. The rules, however, remain a subject of speculation.
A game called Mehen dates back to a similar period. It uses a board shaped like a circular coil and is understood to be related somehow to the Sun God Re.
The oldest enduring board game is The Royal Game of Ur, which dates back to 2650 BC. Amazingly, not only was a set found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, but the rules were also discovered carved into an Egyptian stone tablet. Furthermore, identical games have been found in other countries from the same period, including India.
Backgammon, which is often cited as the oldest board game, dates back to 2,000 BC, and was popular with the Romans.
Other examples of ancient board games include Ludas (Roman, 1,300 BC), Luibo (China, 400BC), Tafl (Northern Europe, 400 AD) and Mancala (Africa, Asia and North America, 700 AD)
Valuable classic board games
Like any collecting scene, there are a handful of classic and hard to find board games that are currently worth a decent amount on the modern market.
In the 1970s, Disney released a game based on its Disneyworld ride The Haunted Mansion. Despite enjoying two separate releases in 1972 and 1975, complete sets remain very hard to track down, and regularly fetch over $250 at auction.
In 1981 Milton Bradley tried to capitalise on the fantasy craze by releasing Dark Tower. They were successfully sued by two independent inventors, however, who accused the company of stealing their ideas. The result is that the cancelled game can fetch as much as $800 today.
A game that might be more familiar is Milton Bradley’s Fireball Island, which saw players hurling red marble ‘fireballs’ at their opponents. The set was typically handed very roughly, so examples that are complete and in good condition can nowadays sell up to $400.
Notorious 1978 release The Campaign for North Africa is widely regarded as the most complex board game in existence, taking some 1,500 hours to complete and requiring two teams of five to play. A complete example with all 1,800 pieces (!) will fetch around $500.
More modern is 2000 release Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit. The very complex title can be very hard to track down with all 155 playing pieces, 3D Theed Palace, 180 cards and 16 dice, and can as a result fetch as high as four figures.
Recent board game hits
Board gaming is nowadays about a lot more than Monopoly, Scrabble and Snakes & Ladders.
Pandemic, released in 2007, is regarded as one of the great modern classics. Players assume the role of medical experts, attempting to stop the spread of four potentially cataclysmic diseases around the world. A more recent version of the game called Pandemic Legacy ties individual play sessions into a larger campaign, with the events of one game playing into the next.
Carcassonne is broadly similar to Settlers of Catan, although its key feature is that the board is actually cooperatively constructed by participants as the game develops. With a play time of around 45 minutes and a multitude of available expansions, Carcassonne is an excellent introduction to modern games that can evolve alongside your interest.
Dead of Winter, released in 2014, is a cooperative board game set in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested colony. The focus is on survival, with players scavenging for food, medicine, fuel and survivors while also developing their bases to survive hostile attacks.
More recent popular hits include the crowdfunded mech battler Scythe, licensed space exploring title Star Trek: Ascendency, submarine battler Captain Sonar, asymmetrical area war outing Cry Havoc, ‘Scrabble but with pictures’ hit Quirkle, object balancer Junk Art and botanical simulator Cottage Garden.