This year has been full of a lot of together time at home, with the prospect of more months of sequestering away from the outside world to come.
It’s only natural that people hunkered down together have sought ways to pass the time together beyond another Netflix binge or video game.
Retailers who specialize in board games are reporting a sharp increase in demand for casual games, family games and jigsaw puzzles since the onset of the pandemic.
The renewed consumer interest comes at a time when board games are already experiencing something of a renaissance. With a steady stream of new titles hitting the shelves every year, today’s board games are more creative and sophisticated than ever.
While shoppers can still find venerable titles like Monopoly and Risk on the shelves, the universe of board games continues to expand and evolve, with games ranging from Unicorn Glitterluck (roll dice and gather crystals) to Blood Bowl (a parody of American football featuring orcs, goblins and other creatures from the world of J.R.R. Tolkien).
Another hot item, the popular Pandemic series, can be found among the cooperative games, which require players to work together to defeat a common foe.
In Wingspan, a hit since its debut last year, players compete to build elaborate bird sanctuaries that would be the envy of ornithologists everywhere. The game takes over an hour to play and just as long to learn.
People in the gaming industry credit Wingspan with attracting an untapped audience.
“Wingspan grabbed a whole bunch of people who never played board games before,” says Cooper Stapleton, a sales associate at Mox Boarding House, a specialty game shop with locations in Ballard and Bellevue that, in pre-pandemic times, offered tournament space for gamers and a restaurant.
Blue Highway Games, a boutique game shop in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, is also reporting a shift to different types of games.
“We’ve always carried European-style games that enthusiasts really like, but since COVID, I am seeing a shift toward more casual games, and games for families,” says Blue Highway owner Scott Cooper.
In Stapleton’s view, a watershed event in the gaming world took place in the 1990s, when the German game The Settlers of Catan became a sensation in the U.S. In Catan, players compete to settle and develop an island, trading and negotiating for resources.
“Catan was like the next step for people who wanted to expand their horizons past Monopoly. It’s the first step into a larger world,” Stapleton says.
Another big event in the evolution of gaming was the arrival of Cards Against Humanity in 2011, which ushered in a wave of easy-to-learn party games that continues today.
“There’s value in these games because you can sit down and play a game within 30 seconds of opening the box,” Stapleton said.
At Blue Highway, another impact of the pandemic has been a runaway demand for jigsaw puzzles. The shop specializes in puzzles as large as 3,000 pieces, coming from about 10 different distributors, including Portland-based Pomegranate.
“In early March, we were down to just a handful in stock” due to a lack of consumer interest, Cooper says. Now, “we can’t keep jigsaw puzzles on the shelf.”
Inspired in large part by the popular Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit,” consumers are also snapping up chess sets at a record pace — and wiping out inventory in some stores.
The miniseries tells the fictional story of an orphaned chess prodigy and her rise to becoming the world’s greatest chess player.
Stapleton has seen a surge in new interest in the classic, often-inscrutable strategy game. “I can’t keep chess sets in stock,” he says.
At Mox Boarding House, customer Mark Butler, of Seattle, was doing some holiday shopping for his family on a recent morning.
“A lot of the stuff we like is immersion-based, and takes you out of your world for a time,” says Butler, who estimates his family plays board games two or three times a week.
Stapleton believes there’s another reason why more people turn to board games these days: They offer a feeling of stability in uncertain times.
“A game is controllable,” he says. “There [are] rules within a board game that are predictable. Within those rules, the best board games allow the player a freedom of expression.”
No matter what happens in the world, Stapleton believes board games will always have a place at the table.
“I feel like every family has that closet or shelf or little place where they keep board games,” he says. “That’s where we’ll always be.”