Then & Now: The State Of The Hobby Games Industry

Traditional board and card games are cool.

It’s a simple statement but one that I couldn’t make a few years ago. People would have looked at me gone out, assuming I was a geek' when geeks weren’t cool either, and guessed that I dressed up and ran around in woods. Ok, I’m exaggerating a little but things have changed a lot in the last ten or so years.

 

 

I’ve been gaming for a long time and remember the early days of struggling to find a shop that sold a copy of Dungeons & Dragons. Low production quality was synonymous with games of that time and glossy books and cool figures were the thing of dreams. Hobby Gaming in the UK back then used to be a very niche past time with small gamer groups dotted across the country, meeting at the occasional convention.

Game stores used to be few and far between with a few large independents in major cities and the games workshop chain providing the access to games at that time. Finding one of these stores would require a look through a copy of White Dwarf or some other similar magazine and their oh so familiar adverts.

The number of games available at the time was pretty limited too with a small selection of role-playing games, several historic war games and a selection of board games that tended to be very complex and rules orientated. Of course there was no internet so whilst finding games was much more difficult, there was also a certain wonder to the experience. You could come across a game that no-one else had heard of and could be pleasantly surprised to find something you had only heard of by rumours. It was a great time to be a gamer.

 

 

The Technology Move

All seemed to be positive in the industry, with cartoons being made of your favourite role playing game and conventions growing in size when, in 1982, the first colour home computers showed their faces; the ZX Spectrum and Vic20 for those of you that remember them. Along with these came companies with money to support big advertising campaigns. This was a brand new experience, enabling people to play at home, what they had only been able to experience in their local arcade. Very soon very few children wanted a board or card game, they wanted computer games. They were new, cool and exciting and the hobby gaming industry simply couldn’t compete, even if they wanted to or more importantly, knew how.

Things at this stage, and indeed for the next decade or so, looked a little bleak but things were to change. With the release of Magic the Gathering in 1993 the industry discovered a type of product that was to change gaming as a hobby. It would take a while to truly establish itself but it would go on to change the industry forever. This game was staggeringly popular and due to this every company wanted their own collectible card game. The idea of a game in which you had to buy numerous packs containing rare cards deposited randomly was a marketing dream but one that was needed by the industry to revitalise it and change perceptions.

Cards Fight Back

This, as is to be expected, caused many variants to rise up, including famous titles such as Pokemon & Yu-Gi-Oh. Many of these were great games and deserving of the loyal fans they garnered. Many however were not, and they failed not only to grab the imagination, but to generate sales that could sustain them. They would falter and in turn fail, to the detriment of the companies who’d invested a great deal in to it. The industry became fixated on this market, particularly in the USA, and many other types of games suffered because of it, but this would in the long term prove extremely beneficial to the industry as a whole and would bring a whole new group of young gamers in to the hobby.

 

 

Across the pond in Europe a different sort of game reared its head. In 1995 Settlers of Catan made its first appearance. This wonderful board game was unlike other games that had come previously, having a board that is different each time and tasks players with managing resources whilst trading with opponents. This hugely popular game started the trend of Euro style games, with their resource management mechanics and challenging strategies.

In England, Games Workshop continued to do well and from its humble beginnings in 1975 and still continues as the world’s number one company in the sphere of war gaming.  Starting out as a chain of game stores it is difficult to imagine what the UK gaming scene would be like if it wasn’t for this inspirational company. I personally remember travelling to Sheffield each month to see what new offering they had and the new Dungeons & Dragons supplements they had available.

Occasionally controversial in their decisions, their core games of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K are still hugely popular across the world and have remained a constant presence in the industry throughout all of the ups and downs. Indeed the titles have produced several online games that have proved very popular with the computer audience. Although focusing on their own products they still remain the most popular of stores within the UK having a presence in most major towns and cities.

Game conventions back in the day were something that could only be described as ‘interesting’. Whilst there were a number of them on the calendar you would always see the same familiar faces and the events were not what you might describe as welcoming. There was certainly no thought given towards families or younger players. Larger players with substantial facial hair are the memories I have of them! They were great activities but looking back it’s no wonder that they went through a period of decline. They reflected an industry that appeared to be run by gamers, for gamers, and one that wasn’t looking to grow or learn. Things would change however.

 

Top 5 games from the day.

1 – Dungeons & Dragons. 

The first role-playing game and with such a rich history and backstory it’s a wonderful game for creative minds. The first and still considered by some as the best role-playing game it has numerous worlds for players to journey through and has a massive player base across the world.

2 – Magic: The Gathering. 

The first of the collectible card games and with millions of players across the world this is still the best of the card games out there. The game continues to innovate and push the gaming experience to new players and has a tournament scene that is more popular than ever..

3 – Tunnels & Trolls. 

A lighter and slightly tongue in cheek role-playing game this lighter and quicker variation of the genre is great fun. Retailing relatively cheaply this was sure to entertain you for an afternoon and with its lighter view of fantasy roleplay made for a great introduction to the hobby.

4 – Dungeonquest. 

A great exploration board game and more recent than the others shown here this was produced by Games Workshop. Controlling your own hero and pitted against all sorts of foes and traps this made for an exciting and challenging game.

5 – Talisman. 

The first fantasy boardgame I remember and still play to this day. Although incredibly simple this game has a great atmosphere to it. Recently reissued it can take a lifetime to play but its always fun, if a bit random! This kept me busy for many, many hours.

Did you play any of these or did you have your own favourites? What are your memories of gaming at that time and what was your gaming group like? If you have any thoughts or comments please let us know and get in touch. I've loads of fond memories and would like to hear yours as well. 

In next week’s part 2 of this blog we will look further at the current state of play, as well as where we might end up in a few years. We will look at how both companies and games have evolved and why they are suddenly becoming the 'in' thing! We will list some of our current favourites and what makes them so popular and look at how  conventions changed and how are stores adapting to the internet?