Bringing board games back: a cultural renaissance

What does the future hold for the Irish board game industry?

Gaming has always been a pastime that has engaged large audiences. Throughout history, the dreary world around us could be put to the side in favour of colourful maps and plastic pieces that would let us escape for an hour or so. But as people grow up and a Friday night game of Monopoly becomes less and less appealing, we drift away from board games. Video games tend to take over. They’re louder, they’re flashier, they’re sometimes rated over 18 which means they have to be super cool. But as a result, board games become the relics which are brought out every Christmas or Stephen’s Day to entertain the family as the food coma takes hold. Or that was how it used to be. Board games and other tabletop games are enjoying a renaissance at the moment, returning to prominence as one of the go-to forms of entertainment. Aided by cultural touchstones such as Stranger Things or Critical Role, the board games industry is not just becoming lucrative again, it’s becoming cool.

Nobody knows that better than Jack Murray, founder and CEO of Heel Turn Games. Heel Turn is an independent games company based in Cork and Murray has seen that recent years have done wonders for the industry. “It was an $8.5bn industry last year. It’s doubled in size in the last 5 years.” But Murray didn’t need to hear the figures to want to be involved in the games industry. Having played games since he was 11 or 12, Murray has always been a passionate gamer. More impressively, however, he has also been designing games since then. “I was 11 years old and it was in my maths copybook for school”, he explains as he recites the memory of the first game he ever designed. “I was in fourth class and my teacher discovered my Command & Conquer crossed with X-COM in the back of my maths copybook and said, ‘This isn’t the homework’, and confiscated the copybook and I never got it back.” He talks eagerly about how he would also design new spells or character subclasses for the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games he was playing, both as a child and presently. “I’ve been doing that for fun for forever but it was only after I had been working for a game designer for a few years that I went ‘Hey, wait a second – I’ve been doing this since I was a kid’. It never occurred to me, doing all that stuff on the way up, that I was moving in that direction, but in hindsight, I can look back and say I made my first game when I was 11 years old, so there’s a natural progression from where I was then to where I am now.”

“Aided by cultural touchstones such as Stranger Things or Critical Role, the board games industry is not just becoming lucrative again, it’s becoming cool.”

Despite never retrieving his first ever creation, Murray was not deterred from entering into the industry. He did his Masters thesis on video games before doing a PhD in game design. He went on to teach game design at University College Cork (UCC) before settling into his current role as a game designer and CEO. However, despite all of his academic expertise, Murray didn’t necessarily feel that it prepared him for the realities of the field. “I need to be clear though that there is very little cross-over between academic games study and game design…there is, in my experience, an over-emphasis on technical skills in games education and an under-emphasis on design skills, which for me are both the more important parts of the process and the more transferable skills.” The increased popularity of computer science courses has enveloped game design to some extent and as a result, most educational depictions of game design focus on creating virtual environments or coding, learning the technical skills needed to create the game. And while there are no universities in Ireland which offer an undergraduate degree solely in game design at the moment, Murray doesn’t think it will stay like that for long. “It is a type of programme that is very attractive to students, which is what universities want, and it’s one that I think we will see all the major universities offering.” 

After leaving the world of academia, Murray began spending more and more time in the technical side of game production. Initially, he was working on a couple of different ‘spec projects’, as he calls them, but in 2014, he had the brainwave that would turn into Radiant. Radiant: Offline Battle Arena, or ROBA, is the first game published by Heel Turn Games, designed by Murray. It is a two player card game that was inspired by video games such as League of Legends and DOTA 2.  Murray remembers with vivid clarity how the idea for ROBA came to him. “One weekend on the train home from Dublin, I had like an A4 notepad with me, and I said, ‘I wonder how you could make this video game genre into a tabletop game’ so I spent that train trip scribbling ideas and that was where the game came from.” From there the project grew legs, going through several prototypes and iterations. Over 100 people were involved in playtesting ROBA before it was deemed finished. After some issues with publishers, the game was launched in October 2019 and received much critical acclaim. Murray himself wasn’t quite sure what to make of all the praise he was receiving. “My stupid brain is the kind that, every time we get a milestone of success, [it] moves the goalposts out like ‘Yeah, that was good but it doesn’t mean anything until you get this next thing’. It’s taken a lot of seeing positive responses and seeing people in the wild who I’ve never met play the game and enjoy it, to grasp that it was something that people enjoyed, and this was something good.”

When people think of growing Irish industries, few would point straight to the board game industry, but it’s not as small as one might imagine. “There are a lot of people out there already”, exclaims Murray, as we talk about Irish developers like Backspindle Games in Northern Ireland or Woodland Games in Cork. “There’s a very cool scene in Dublin. Celtic Cardboard: a bunch of indie game developers meet up once a month and do playtesting. Sometimes they will club in for a booth together at big shows. Anyone can go to one of their meetups even if you don’t have your own game. You can go along and you can play a prototype, you can give your feedback and that’s so valuable to designers. I’d endorse those guys for sure.” It seems that Ireland will not be left behind in the global explosion of the board game industry. Alex Lolies, a video producer for YouTube channel Dicebreaker, thinks that this renaissance of the industry is familiar. “The trajectory of board games is very similar to records, in the facts that they’ve had a similar uprising in recent years. This is currently being referred to as the Golden Age of board games.” Even the concept behind Dicebreaker feels like something that wouldn’t have existed a couple of years ago. The channel makes videos about the board game and tabletop game industry, covering everything from reviews and recommendations to Let’s Plays and livestreams. 

Lolies also notes that the industry has been giving developers a lot more autonomy through the wonders of crowdfunding. “Platforms like Kickstarter are making it easier for individuals to publish their own games as well, which is getting all these people with ideas coming out of the woodwork. They can get funding without having to set up a meeting with someone like Hasbro.” ROBA was funded on Kickstarter and Murray points out that they are one of the first major projects in the Irish board game industry to receive that kind of success through crowdfunding. But not being beholden to big publishers means that game designers have full creative control of their projects, which is great for the industry and something Lolies is excited to see more of. “People are getting really creative with what they are making and even the design of board games has improved a lot. Even the visual elements like boxes and things. People are doing some really exciting things with board games these days which almost makes them more attractive to people as well.”

However, this spike in popularity did not happen instantaneously. Many people still view board games as toys for children, and tabletop role-playing games like D&D have fought hard to shake off the overtly nerdy stereotypes associated with it. TV shows like Stranger Things and Community have dealt a huge blow to those perceptions with their portrayal of the game, and Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D, have even released a Stranger Things themed beginner’s guide to the game. “It’s funny because, in Ireland in particular, it’s not as prominent as it is in the UK or the US. It’s still a growing thing, there aren’t as many board game cafés and things”, remarks Lolies. And while board game cafés may not have taken off yet, there is a significant spike in pubs that boast a small stock of board games. They may not have the latest game from Essen but it shows a shift in the mentality around board games.  It’s a timely reminder that if good ideas aren’t visible, people will dismiss them or forget about them. Lolies, who grew up in Cork but is currently based in the UK, has returned frequently and noticed that sometimes Irish games tend to stay on home soil. “[When in Ireland] I might have come across one or two games that I wouldn’t have recognised and maybe spoken to the shop owner for them to tell me, ‘Oh yeah, this is someone who self-published’, but that would be like the only shop I’d see that game in.”

“The trajectory of board games is very similar to records, in the facts that they’ve had a similar uprising in recent years. This is currently being referred to as the Golden Age of board games.”

One way that games can take root in Ireland as a mainstream form of entertainment is by building communities to try and capture those curious minds eager to try something new. Murray has been a massive proponent of this and has seen it first hand during his time as a developer. “The thing I would say about this industry at all levels…it is a phenomenally collaborative industry. I would have a really hard time transitioning back into a different industry now because the culture of cooperation and collaboration and friendliness in this industry — it is so unique. Maybe it’s because gamers are used to competing for fun — we can be relaxed about it.” But as a player, gaming has not necessarily always been the most welcoming community. The community built around video games has notorious levels of gatekeeping, and it appears to be seeping into board games as well. “When we publish Magic: The Gathering videos, there are loads of people saying, ‘You’re not playing the right rules!’ and that kind of thing”, recounts Lolies. “There’s definitely some gatekeeping for sure but I don’t necessarily think it’s as bad as some other industries.”

Board and other tabletop games are an amazing hobby to get into. They are immensely varied, challenging yet rewarding, and, more often than not, absolutely hilarious. Despite all the changes in the industry, they still serve to give people a temporary reprieve from the stress of everyday life. And as a country, board games feel like an appropriate industry for us to succeed in. We are a nation of storytellers and poets, living on an island steeped in history and culture. There is material abound for the creatives among us. And with a community of budding game developers already in place, like Jack Murray, the future looks positively Radiant. 

Conor Doyle

Conor Doyle is the current Sport Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.