Is there any real innovation in board games lately? I’ve heard opinions in both directions and the truth lies somewhere in the middle… or does it?
Let’s start with a bit of background and take a look at the truly innovative board games which were also commercially successful. First on the list is Settles of Catan, the father of modern German-style board gaming, still a best seller after more than a decade, a game with player interaction, light enough to entice casual players and strategic enough to attract a more demanding community. Carcassonne followed introducing tile-laying as a core mechanism, Ticket to Ride was another huge hit which still sells well today and the last two I can think of are Dominion, famous for establishing deck building as a genre of its own, and 7 Wonders for making card drafting a relevant and wide spread core mechanic and shortening the length of a complex game to 30 minutes.
Although this isn’t necessarily my personal opinion, most gamers I spoke to acknowledge these titles as innovative and trend making in the board games industry. But 7 Wonders was published in 2010 and we’re now at the end of 2015 and most people I asked failed to see any other big title as a candidate for trendsetting and eternal fame. More than this, every year upon returning from Spiel Essen, people I talk to are saying the same thing over and over again: this Essen was not as good as last year, we found some interesting titles but none I couldn’t live without. So, more often than not, frequent Essen attendees tend to come back rather disappointed.
So, what are the big hits of last years and why have they failed to become “the new Catan”?
The big hit I remember was Eclipse. The game is brilliant, it gathered a lot of fans and it revived the 4x genre, but as far as I know it did not come close to selling 100,000 copies, thus it cannot qualify as a great commercial success, although from the innovation stand point it is… something.
Terra Mystica is now on the second place on Board Game Geek with a (small) chance of gaining the crown. In my opinion it is one of the best games I’ve ever played and yet I fail to see how Terra Mystica is an innovative game. It contains no new mechanism, and all it does is bind together a bunch of existing ideas in an almost perfect way. Tzolk’in is only innovative in the way it displays its admittedly well known: worker placement and action selection.
Caverna made it highest in the BGG rankings and yet it is still the same old worker placement game (Agricola) made a bit better , Eldritch Horror is a new and better Arkham Horror and Russian Railroads is a solid yet in no way innovative title.
Imperial Assault sold very well but with a Star Wars license behind almost anything sells well, and it’s not different enough from Descent to call this game innovative. Dead of Winter is seen as quite innovative by many, yet I fail to see this as a trendsetting game, and Five Tribes or Istanbul are very solid designs without reaching that critical mass to make them huge. Alchemists had the innovation element with a successful introduction of a mobile app in a board game, but the game itself was simply not good enough to be placed in the same category as Dominion or 7 Wonders.
Is 2015 the same? Full of solid games which will be easily forgotten is 3-5 years? I hope not. Codenames has already impressed me through its simplicity which makes it a great game for casual players, yet attractive enough for my gaming group which is quite demanding. 7 Wonders: Duel is also a jewel, it makes a 2-player draft not only possible, but interesting and demanding, making it my option for this year’s top hit. But will they make the big step into history? I surely hope so, because back in my home country, Romania, the sales are still driven by Catan, Carcassone, Dominion or Ticket to Ride, and I would love to see people going to game stores for something new.