Board game renaissance

The board game market is growing and growing, and there are some compelling reasons to play that go way beyond nostalgia.

Over the past decade, the board game market has grown at a rather surprising rate. Valued at US$7.2bn in 2013, its estimated value today is US$12bn, joining other ‘analogue’ platforms – think books, magazines and vinyl records – in creating something of a retro rebellion against the always-on, screen-focused lives many of us now lead.

There’s something intrinsically heartwarming about playing board games.

From fond childhood memories (excepting or perhaps including those occasional board-turning-over tantrums) to spending quality, engaged time with your own children and grandkids today, board games can be a genuine antithesis to modern living, providing a worthwhile alternative to screen time.

However, the reason for board games retaining their popularity goes far beyond nostalgia. They also teach some incredibly valuable skills.

For example, research has shown that playing board games can help youngsters develop hand-eye coordination, social skills and fine motor skills,1 as well as boost self-esteem, learn how to think flexibly and strategically, and improve attention span and focus – as well as getting accustomed to winning and losing, which is incredibly important as we travel through life.

Playing board games on a regular basis isn’t just beneficial for children. Research published in 2019 showed that playing board games can help protect against dementia and cognitive decline, as well as providing preventative and therapeutic intervention for ADHD, depression and anxiety disorders.2

All things considered, it’s no surprise that board games are still incredibly popular today.

And they’ve been part of life for more than 5,000 years.

Board games – they’ve been around for a while!

Today, of course, there are thousands upon thousands of board games to choose from (at the most recent count, more than 140,000), but they mainly fall into one or more of six categories: two-player games (think Connect Four), multiplayer elimination (for example, Monopoly), multiplayer non-elimination (Cluedo), economic strategy (Risk), physical skill (Operation), and word games (Scrabble).

Incredibly, many of today’s favourites are variations of games that were created a long, long time ago.

One of the oldest board games in the world is Senet,3 which archaeological evidence suggests was played in the latter days of Egypt’s First Dynasty, around 3100 BCE.

Played on a board with three rows of ten squares, two players had to move their counters (usually between five and seven) from one end of the board to the other, with opportunities to block, thwart and disrupt the other player’s progress.

Instead of dice, players threw casting sticks or bones to decide how many spaces to move, while the final five squares often featured hieroglyphics, which could – among other things – send players back on the board.

Dating back even further is Mancala, which evidence suggests was in existence in Ancient Egypt, while boards have been found in Jordan dating back to 5870 BCE. A two-player strategy game, Mancala is one of the oldest games still to be played today.

A slightly more modern game (dating back to just 2600 BCE) is The Royal Game of Ur. Played on a board of 20 squares, with a three-by-four area and a three-by-two area connected by two squares, Ur was a hugely popular game with people of all classes in the Middle East.

Interestingly, we know the full rules for this game, as a curator at the British Museum was able to decipher writing on a clay tablet dating back to 177-176 BCE, which detailed how the game should be played. The tablet was discovered in the late 1800s in Babylon and is another ‘race to the end’ game, with strategy and cunning involved too.

Many popular board games today are derived from those early games, while some still exist in their original form. Backgammon, for example, dates back to the 17th century, while Chess can be traced back to 15th century Europe and Checkers, the second-best-selling board game ever, dates back to 3000 BCE.

More recently, Cluedo was invented during World War II, as a way of helping people pass the time in air raid shelters.

Another, The Game of Life board game, explains financial concepts (for example, getting your first job, paying off student debt, growing a family and saving for retirement).

Board games are a pastime that has seemingly been in our psyche for eternity – evidently with good reason.

So, dust off the board games on the shelves in the spare bedroom, because, as well as providing some much-needed non-screen time, those physical and mental health benefits are a hugely compelling reason to get those counters on ‘start’, give the dice a roll, and re-establish board game night!

Top 5 best-selling board games of all time

Chess

(3 million sets sold annually in the US alone)

Checkers

(estimated 50 billion+ games have been sold)

Monopoly

(more than 275 million games sold)

Scrabble

(150 million units sold)

Cluedo

(150 million units sold)

1https://manhattanpsychologygroup.com/benefits-board-games/
2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6380050/
3https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/best-board-games-ancient-world-180974094/