A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away families had a game night–once a week they’d pull out a stack of boxes from a closet and everyone would flex their knowledge of trivia (Trivial Pursuit), vocabulary (Scrabble), or even their real-estate management skills (Monopoly, natch). You can check the :30 second mark of this clip from The Royal Tenenbaums to remember what a game closet looked like.
With the rise of cable TV and video games in the ’80s, that tradition waned in the U.S. But in Europe, board games just evolved into complex worlds of strategy and resources. Eventually, such games gained a niche following in the U.S–games like Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, and Ticket to Ride. And now with this plethora of board games appearing on digital platforms, board games are making a comeback. “This is a renaissance of board gaming that you are seeing,” says Chip Lange, the general manager of Hasbro Studios for Electronic Arts, the division within EA that adapts Hasbro’s board games. “People love to sit around with their families and play board games. When they are on the go they take their passion for board games with them on their mobile devices.”
One of the most recognizable games from the past is Risk. For many, fond memories of long nights spent conquering continents and breaking alliances remain. Hasbro, the publishers of Risk tried ten years ago to bring Risk to video games. But it, and many other of their board game adaptations, did not find success. And so Hasbro sold off their digital business in 2001. Since then, Hasbro has reinvented the game of Risk. “Instead of you taking over the whole world, you’ve got to complete 3 objectives from a pool of objectives, and the first one to do that wins. So that was a sea change for us, and we said, ‘Great! We’re gonna do that,'” says Spencer Brooks, the producer of the digital versions of Risk for Electronic Arts.
In 2010, EA brought this quicker version to Xbox and PlayStation with an approachable cartoony art style as Risk: Factions. In mid-January, Risk: Factions debuted on Facebook, its armies of zombies and cats getting new functionality like special weapons, and bases where players create more troops and stronger weapons. Brooks said, “I think we nailed it with keeping true to the brand mechanics, keeping true to the feel of the fictional brand that we had built on the Xbox version, and also adding this sense of persistence that is so important to Facebook games.”
Risk is just one board game that has seen a surge in popularity under this Hasbro/EA partnership. Despite strong competitors in the digital realm–Words With Friends or any of the other thousands of word game apps–Monopoly, Scrabble, and the Game of Life have all taken off: all 3 games were in the top 20 for paid iPhone apps in 2011, and Monopoly and Scrabble made the top 20 paid iPad apps as well. Other classic games, like Sorry and Connect Four, have flourished as part of EA’s Family Game Night releases–a series so successful, Family Game Night 4 was recently released and a television game show of the same name was created. “When we were looking to make a major investment into the world of casual social gaming in 2007, as opposed to doing it in one-offs, we decided that there was no stronger library of family loved brands that had the kind of range and diversity that Hasbro did,” said Lange, who manages the relationship between Hasbro and Electronic Arts. With Hasbro and EA working together, these board game classics are now all over consoles, smartphones, and social networks.
One such European company who has capitalized on the board game renaissance is Days of Wonder. Their game of building train routes, Ticket to Ride, has sold 1.8 million copies since its release in 2006. “Unlike the music industry, where for the most part it has been transitioning to digital, for board games the two experiences are complimentary,” said Days of Wonder’s CEO Eric Hautemont. Where Hasbro has found success in the last few years with the EA partnership, Days went it alone. They built an online version themselves–over 27 million games have been played online, with a new game starting every 4 seconds. After a few years, they brought the game to Xbox. And last year they released it for iPad and then iPhone.
Hautemont says, “It’s because we have an install base of 1.8 million board-game players that got the iPad app off to such a good start.” Hautemont has discovered that success can be found, not by releasing a tide of products every year–some board game companies release 20 to 30 games a year–but by focusing your offerings to one new game a year that gets the company’s full attention. “We live and die by word of mouth. Our entire marketing budget is in the box when you buy it,” said Hautemon. “We spend more money than anyone with the game components. People are like, ‘How can you afford to do that?’ And I am like, ‘How can you afford not to do that?'”
Beyond European board games taking on the big boys with their games, the individual game designers are trying to make names for themselves in the digital arena. Reiner Knizia, one of Germany’s celebrated board-game designers, has taken success into his own hands. He creates board games for multiple game distributors: everything from Lord of the Rings, to Ingenious, to Tigris & Euphrates, to a Star Trek game tied to the last film. And he has embraced the digital age in the same way, releasing dozens of games on Facebook and on iOS through several publishers. “In order to be successful, you need to be relevant to our times,” said Knizia. “You need to go where the people are, and the people are certainly on smartphones and tablets. It was very challenging and exciting to go there too.” And while not every single one has had sales success, he has learned a lot from translating the games to mobile. “The app store has very easy access, so almost everybody can put something in there. But just putting something in there, just doesn’t do it. So how do you get seen? What you need is a good license or a strong name. That’s how you differentiate yourself,” says Knizia. “It was a big, exciting time to learn how these markets work. It was also very exciting to see how various game mechanics work.”
Whatever approach is used to adapt these games to digital spaces, once the app is thriving there, it creates a situation unique to board games. Mainstream game players try the app, then buy the board game so they bring back the tradition of Game Nights to their household. Or a group of diehard board gamers all grab the iPad app, so they can play tournaments from the comfort of their individual homes. The migration is not one way, but a back-and-forth that increases sales for both mediums. Lange said, “Nobody understands the game mechanics that customers love and the brand development like Hasbro does. Obviously there’s a number of great marketing type partnerships that we can do. You turn over any board game that Hasbro’s got and you see a big promotion for EA’s interactive site. We have done a lot of great collaboration.”
But such reciprocal marketing and sales can complicate things. “People that buy the iPad version of a game that did not know about it before are then purchasing the board game,” says Hautemont. “So when you have a relationship like you have with the Hasbro-EA relationship, how do you make sure that both parties are happy and satisfied with the terms? How do you divide who gets what?”
Beyond marketing and sales issues, bringing board games to digital platforms brings its own set of creative challenges. “With digital adaptations of board games, the little details make a very big difference,” said Hautemont. “You don’t see people face to face, but you see their score all the time, so you pay more attention to their scores than you do with the regular game where there is more body language.” According to one designer, the choice in game to adapt is the first detail to nail down. Knizia said, “The first challenge is to pick the right games that are convertible and makes sense on the new medium. And then it really depends on the initial discussion, if a 1 to 1 transfer makes sense, or if you need a campaign mode or a solitaire game mode.”
With the inevitable changes to digital versions of games, do new features ever make the jump from digital to physical games? Chip Lange was cagey over whether a cartoony version of Risk featuring cats and zombies would ever come to cardboard, but then he pointed to a past example. “Our Trivial Pursuit game on the console a couple of years ago had a really fun mechanic in it, in which not only did I have to answer the question but also, you guys had to bet on whether or not I would get it right,” says Lange. “Trivial pursuit came out in the packaged goods form called ‘Bet You Know It’ the year after and that used a very similar mechanic.”
Do companies take that to the next extreme and change physical games before they are even released, in preparation for a digital version? Knizia says, “Trying to do everything up front doesn’t work. I want to make a game perfect for the board gaming world, for its target market, and only if it is successful do I think about taking it somewhere else.”
And this board-game renaissance won’t stop here. As time has shown, as tech evolves, so will the games. Scrabble players are already flicking tiles from their iPhones to the board on the iPad. And what lies beyond tablets and online gaming? There is no doubt that augmented reality board games will emerge, voice-controlled games for smartphones and tablets aren’t far off, and entire replications of the board-game experience on touch-enabled tables are inevitable–prototypes for Microsoft’s Surface already exist.
“I think it’s exciting, all the changes in our world,” Knizia says. “You can see them as threats. I see them as fun, exciting, stimulating. It keeps the industry fresh. But you need to be willing to go with the times. For me it is a very natural step.”