“It is undeniable — they are gaining in popularity fast,” said Elan Lee, the creator of popular card game Exploding Kittens.
As he quarantined during the height of the pandemic with his wife at home in Frederick, Md., Jared Bryan would look longingly at one of the many shelves of card and table top games he has displayed in his home. But instead of finding joy as he admired the beautiful boxes, recalling memories from his many game nights, he found sorrow.
“In 2021, it was kind of really sad looking at these games that weren’t getting played,” said Bryan, 37, a software engineer who got into board games in college. “Now, I’m kind of having the opposite feeling. I’m really looking forward to being able to play them again.”
Bryan missed the shared experience and the ability to push aside everything going on in his life and just have fun with his friends — and he’s not alone. Those feelings of community and gaiety are among the many catalysts driving card and tabletop games into a golden age not seen since the 80s, industry experts say. Board games have unequivocally made a comeback. And they’re just in time for the holiday rush.
The global board game market has an estimated value between $11 billion and $13.4 billion and is projected to grow by about 7 to 11 percent within the next 5 years, according to market research companies Technavio and Imarc. Year-to-date board game sales last month compared to the same period in 2019 increased 28 percent, according to market research company NPD Group. Card games are up 29 percent and strategic card games — such as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering — are up 208 percent.
The crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has made it easier than ever for unknown designers to release games. Over 3,000 new games are released each year (excluding expansion packs), according to the website and online forum BoardGameGeek, which aims to log every game published. The industry now has more categories and themes, prettier boxes and higher quality game pieces. In many cases, the rules are simpler and there are more offerings that focus on cooperation rather than competition.
These developments have opened the doors for a broader audience to embrace the hobby. There are also board game YouTube channels, like Watch it Played, that aim to making it easier for people to become gamers.
“It’s about finding people’s interests, and drawing them in that way,” said Rodney Smith, who founded Watch It Played. “I mean, if you want to play a game about making a quilt, there’s a board game about making a quilt. There’s really any theme you can think of.”
Games started gaining popularity in the years leading up to the pandemic, said James Zahn, the editor in chief of trade publication the Toy Book. Board game bars and cafes had been popping up around the country and attendance at major games conventions was increasing.
Even as covid sent people home, many still bought card and tabletop games. Sales surged, the NPD data shows, suggesting that many families who found themselves forced to spend time together looked for ways to connect through games and puzzles.
The trend continued once restrictions eased, and people craved social interactions following years of seclusion, NPD data shows. Major retailers are also embracing the hobby — broadening past the classic board games produced by major toy companies.
“Barnes & Noble and Target now have the exact same kinds of games you would find in what used to be like a hobby niche kind of store,” Smith said.
Blasting off into space. Running a farm with your family. Hunting down a werewolf. Building railroads. A Viking competing for a place of honor during Ragnarok.
The themes and genres in the games industry are so vast and diverse that most people can find a point of entry.
“There’s been this uptick in people realizing that board games are so much more than Monopoly and [Clue] and Scrabble and [Settlers of] Catan,” said Tom Brewster, a writer and presenter for Shut Up & Sit Down, a United Kingdom-based game reviews website.
One of the best-selling games on Amazon this year was Wingspan, which is about birdwatching, from Stonemaier Games.
“It has gorgeous components and it has a very soothing flow to it,” Brewster said. “And it’s made people want to spend time doing these sort of vast games.”
While the classic games — such as UNO, Guess Who?, Trouble — are still very popular, games like Wingspan filled a hole in the industry, which had been stale for decades, Lee said. The Exploding Kittens creator said that void inspired him to create his own games at a time when the majority of the new options were dense German strategy games with a book’s worth of instructions.
“All the games that were on the market were trying very hard to be good games, instead of trying very hard to let me form new memories with my friends and family,” he said.
Now, there are more cooperative games such as Just One, Unfathomable and Codenames: Duet. Recent years have also seen an increase in silly games such as Unstable Unicorns and A Fake Artist Goes to New York that draw in people whose maybe only previous gaming experience was a long session of Monopoly.
Even older games — Ticket to Ride, Pandemic — have grown in popularity. A company called Restoration Games is revamping decades-old offerings by upgrading them to modern design, sensibility and production value.
“Now there’s so many games that are just pleasant and fun and sort of comforting and generate laughter and entertainment around the table, as opposed to just sort of brute competition,” Watch It Played’s Smith said.