Friday, November 16, 2012

What is the Next Great Innovation in Board Gaming?

Those of you who know me know that I enjoy board games. Though I haven't gotten to play as much as I used to, I still follow most of the news around the industry (yes, there is some). I'm particularly interested in how board game design evolves over time, since that is the one thing that will keep the hobby fresh and innovative--and make sure it doesn't end up in the pile of discarded industries as happens so often.

That said, it appears we are in a bit of a lull for new, entertaining innovations. The last major creative leap was the deck-building game, which started off with the much-vaunted Dominion. (It works as sort of a reverse collectible card game, where the actual customization of your deck is the game. It's strange but makes sense.) The success of Dominion has led to dozens of imitators, most of which are mediocre and many that simply use a license from an established property (like Resident Evil or Star Trek) much like what happened during the CCG boom. It's also creative many side variants, such as dice-collecting (such as Quarriors!)

There is an opening for something new that was announced with the release from a rather surprising place--Risk. Specifically, Risk: Legacy. In this variant of Risk, you actually change the game itself as you play...so, for instance, if you nuke Australia, you put a nuke sticker there and Australia no longer exists for any game you play with this set. All such changes are permanent for that copy of the game. There are also sealed envelopes that you open only under certain conditions that add new rules and pieces to the game.Each set lasts for approximately 15 games or so. You can still continue to play with that set (no more changes will occur, however) which also means that for every copy of Risk: Legacy that is sold, it will end up being a completely unique game.

Oddly, however, this has not produced any similar games. It may, perhaps, be a game that is too innovative--any new game will easily be seen as a copy, and due to its nature these sorts of games tend to be more expensive. And the concept appears to work best with light wargame, which while still popular doesn't lend itself to a whole lot of ideas that casual players would be interested in. I expect that aside from an existing property (like, say, Star Wars, or World of Warcraft) we won't see too many of these--despite the fact that it's an incredibly creative idea.

Another new innovation which has nearly created its own category is the cooperative game. While co-op games have always existed (namely the 2000 version of Lord of the Rings), it truly hit the mainstream with the critically popular Pandemic. Many new co-op games have emerged sense, many to similar critical acclaim (Flashpoint: Fire Rescue being one of the more popular ones). I suspect the next innovation from this is the blended co-op, where people cooperate yet there will still be a winner of sorts, or some sort of setup where two teams of players secretly co-op with each other but still compete with the other team. There are already some games out there like this, but few that don't eventually betray the whole co-op nature of the game.

Finally, there is a new style of CCG out there called the Living Card Game. Right now, Fantasy Flight games has done well with this concept, especially with their popular Game of Thrones LCG. The concept is similar to the old CCG format: you purchase cards, then you customize a deck based on those cards (where you then play the game). The new concept comes from the fact that the cards you purchase aren't random--they are in pre-packaged sets where you already know what is in them. This "innovation" has been out for a  while, though, and has only been modestly successful. However, plenty of old, popular CCGs could easily be adapted (and re-tuned) for the new market. Also, existing properties that weren't around in the 90's could jump in.

So where will the new innovations come from? I am not sure. I am of the mindset that party/social games are played out--we will see variations on mechanics but I don't see anything immediately clear as an opening. Wargames are often slow to develop; the last great new thing out of wargames, aside from some minor ideas, is the card-driven wargame, and that's over twenty years old. And yet when wargames do create something, it is often duplicated throughout the industry--the card-driven mechanic being adopted by nearly all categories at this point. Abstracts don't normally lend themselves to easy transfer to other game types, although they can often be innovative on their own. Pure card games tend to not have enough depth to truly be innovative, although this isn't always the case.

That mostly leaves Eurogames and American-style strategy games. Both of these genres tend to either be the drivers of innovation or easily adopt the mechanics from other genres in a more robust manner. (Also, combined they make up the vast majority of new released, sheer numbers would dictate that new ideas will come from here.) Reviewing the new releases for the holidays nothing really jumps out. These things happen every few years, though, so hopefully something new will emerge in the next year or so--or, most likely, there is some hidden game this season that just hasn't popped out yet.

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