Dice and digital - rehabilitating the board game geek

By Kevin Core
You and Yours, Radio 4

image captionModern games are democratic and sociable, with an emphasis on collaborative problem solving rather than the military strategy and battles of games past

Paul Lister describes life in corporate finance as "lucrative but boring".

So five years ago, after being told by a career consultant to "do what he loves", the former financier quit banking to set up a website selling board games.

It has worked well. In the last year alone, Boardgameguru's sales have risen about 50%, in line with similar growth reported by other specialists selling so-called "second generation" games.

The popularity of board games has risen thanks to the growing popularity of tablet computers, as playable taster apps on touch screens are increasingly taking board games "from tablet to table".

'Socially acceptable'

Outside his business, Mr Lister is also an organiser of London On Board, a series of games nights for devotees who like a dice roll with a drink.

Four nights a week and all weekend, some 50 players pack out the restaurant areas of pubs in Bank and St James's to play their favourite games, meet like-minded players and help out the newcomers.

The nights are free, but newcomers are warned not to expect a four-hour session of Monopoly or a tussle with a Scrabble expert who has memorised all the two-letter words in the dictionary.

Many turn up to the games nights to play so-called second generation games or Eurogames; collaborative, theme-based titles that are immensely popular in Germany and are being played increasingly in the UK.

"The reputation of people who did this kind of thing was that we were a bit sad, but it's socially acceptable now," says Mr Lister.

"Scrabble and Monopoly are examples of old designs, but Germany leads the way in what I call democratic games.

"Families there play them constantly rather than disappear off to bedrooms to play the computer alone.

"There's no player elimination, everyone gets to play right to the end, and a lot of German-style games minimise the amount of luck you need."

Dice and digital

In an attempt to reflect post-war German society, games have culturally moved away from the militarism and conquest that are the hallmarks of games such as Risk.

image captionGaming geeks are increasingly being seen as "cool"

Many of the German-style games can be played in less than 90 minutes, bypassing the age-old problem of exhausted younger players staying up past their bedtimes.

Examples include Settlers of Catan, in which players colonise a new land, and Pandemic, which sees the group battle a virulent disease.

A particular favourite of Mr Lister's is the 17th Century farming game Agricola, and there's also Carcassonne, which recreates the French medieval city.

New games are constantly emerging with the best receiving recognition in the German Spiel des Jahres, or game of the year, award. Winning titles are almost guaranteed to see sales rise by 200,000 or 250,000 that year.

At first glance, the traditional world of board games would seem to be incompatible with the computer games industry, which clocks up sales of some £2bn each year in the UK.

But Mr Lister believes modern board game fans are mixing dice and digital nicely.

"There are all kinds of apps which allow people to play a quick version of the board game," he says.

"Then you get the physical copy and play with friends."

Steve Buckmaster, sales director with the UK's biggest board games distributor Esdevium Games, agrees that smartphones and tablets have signposted gamers to the traditional end of the market.

"Sales seem to be growing because we're in a world of ratings and referrals," he says.

"It's extremely easy to look a game up on Amazon or a review site and it takes the risk away of trying something."

Niche to mainstream

Esdevium, which was named after the initials of its founders Samuel Duncan and Valerie May, has been around since the 1970s and has seen the market develop.

image captionEsdevium Games' Steve Buckmaster says modern games are well designed, quick and intelligent to play

Sales of the games at the company have doubled in two years, with Settlers of Catan, and Carcassonne rising from 8,000 in 2010 to 18,000 last year.

The railroad building game Ticket to Ride is another hit, its popularity mirrored on Google where it is in the top four hits - ahead of the Beatles song.

In two years, its sales at Esdevium have risen from 3,500 to 9,000 and worldwide they have doubled since a playable app was launched.

As a former employee of Hasbro, Mr Buckmaster says the distribution model has changed too.

"It used to be that you had to get a game into Woolworths, get the adverts on for Christmas and the public would decide based on what it had put in front of them," he says.

"That world has gone. [These days], great products can generate good reviews and the sales accumulate."

Luxury games

The market for board games is now so advanced that there is even an upmarket segment.

"We are a luxury games maker," says Joe Jaques from Jaques of London, which was founded in 1795 and went on to bring Ludo, snakes and ladders, ping pong and tiddly winks to the masses.

"There's a cheaper version of everything we do," says Mr Jaques, an eight generation games maker. "Despite this we're doing very well."

Success for Jaques came with the explosion in the popularity of parlour games in the UK in the 1860s. Now, a century and a half later, the company is seeing yet another boom in sales.

"Parents up to the age of 45 grew up around computer games," says Mr Jaques.

"This is our key demographic. They are the people doing the purchasing and you'd think they would tend towards computer games, but in our experience they're not."

Mr Buckmaster from Esdevium says the industry has benefited from a change in attitudes to a previously dirty word: Geek.

From men's clothing on the catwalk to secret agent James Bond's new gadget master Q, modern culture has embraced the nerd.

He says: "There's a hugely popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, and they play Settlers of Catan in that," says Mr Buckmaster.

"And if you watch Channel 4's The IT Crowd, you can see a set of Ticket to Ride in Moz's office.

"New games are passing into popular culture. They're brilliantly designed, they don't take forever to play and they're intelligent.

"You finish them and say, 'Wow, that was cool'."

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.