Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Top Ten Board Game News Items in 2007

Here are the top ten board game news events of 2007, as I see it.

It's been a great year for board games, in general. While newspapers have been touting the board games' come back since the late 1990s, many ran decent articles about games as the year came to an end.

As usual, Hasbro, the only major American player in actual board game sales, features highly in many of the year's top stories.

1. Cash or Charge?

I reported on the new electronic banking edition of Monopoly way back in mid-2006 (Israel had copies on the shelves back then already), but it was only in 2007 that credit-card versions of the game Monopoly, and then The Game of Life, gained worldwide attention. And the reaction: mostly negative.

The best news coverage was neutral: "Hey! Look! A credit card version of Monopoly! This will appeal to kids because, uh, kids like video games. And credit cards are kind of electronic, sort of." Or words to that effect.

Far more reactions were negative, especially towards the new Visa branded Life game, Twists and Turns. Some simply missed the iconic fake bills. But many bemoaned the foisting of realistic credit cards on young children. Why do they need to be more likely to go into credit card debt at an earlier age? Not to mention the inherent consumer culture values these items foster.

With cash, you have something to tangible to control, manage, and lose. With credit, it's just numbers flashing on a screen. And the new versions even explicitly allow you to go into debt during the game.

2. Games Express: Little and Late

Just as people were getting fed up with video game solitude and longing for more family time, Hasbro introduced the express versions of their classic board games Monopoly, Sorry, and Scrabble. The express games are essentially dice games and not much more. The justification: people don't spend enough time sitting down with their families, so we'll make board games that don't take more than 10 minutes to play.

I haven't seen many reactions from people who actually played the games, but those I heard are negative. Many columnists argue that these are a necessary step to compete for the attention that video games currently hold. In the meantime, a world-wide movement to reintroduce meaningful and longer family-time activities makes this argument moot.

3. No Lead Here

This year saw a huge story on lead-contaminated toy recalls and consumer fears about toy safety. One of the fallouts from this was an upsurge in board game purchases as presents at year's end. Just one of many factors contributing to this year's high game sales.

4. Checkers is Solved

It's been a common belief for more than twenty years that Checkers was solved. This has been a constant source of frustration for Jonathan Schaeffer, the top man actually working on the problem. He wrote a great book on the subject ten years ago, One Step Ahead. His computer program was able to beat any human player. But was Checkers solved? Unfortunately no. The only way forward seemed to be brute force.

And that's what he did. This year, after thousands and thousands of hours of computer processing time by project Chinook, Checkers has finally been solved for a computer. You can play Jon's program, but you'll never win.

Of course, just because a computer can solve the game with brute force search, doesn't mean that humans have a quick and easy step-by-step solution guide on how to win. Until they do, it will remain a classic favorite for all ages.

5. Board Games are the New Video Games

Among the hottest video games this year were board games. Essential modern board games such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne were released on the XBox to great reviews. Ingenious and Blokus also received electronic versions. Scrabulous, an unofficial Scrabble version on Facebook, is one of the platforms most popular applications.

The calls for more board games in video game format continues. End of the year articles reminded people that board games' popularity stems from ease of play and sociability, something that most complex video games lack. Mid-year, Electronic Arts, a major video game studio, bought the rights to electronic versions of Hasbro games.

6. And Next: Horses?

Who would have predicted that a trading card game around horses would be a phenomenon?

Bella Sara is not only a trading card game for girls but an online world and environment. It seems to have everything right: it's non-violent, friendly, educational, fun, natural, and international all at once. More than 30 million cards have been sold.

It's also a pin in the balloon of those who stereotype video games as male-targeted and violent, and another great marriage between the cardboard card game world and the online virtual one.

7. OK, Granny! Up Against the Wall!

Private poker games played for money has always been illegal in most states, but this year saw an upsurge in the pathetic and mindless interpretation and enforcement of these laws. In some cases, the laws were discovered to be too vague: playing any game with cards, even if not for money, could be construed as illegal.

Around the U.S., private residents playing for pennies, veterans associations playing cribbage, and even old-age homes playing cards for fun got raided by overeager enforcement agencies.

Clarifications and reworking the laws are now on the agenda of several states.

8. Who Invented Trivial Pursuit?

Speaking of lawsuits, the inventors of the game successfully defended themselves against another lawsuit by someone who claimed to have "invented" the game first.

As is usual, the so-called "inventor" didn't playtest, didn't create components or graphics, didn't put together any questions, didn't spend time and money on marketing, and didn't spend countless hours peddling the game into international success. All he claims to have done was told the actual inventors about the idea for the game and the shape of the pieces. After it became big and lucrative, which happens for maybe 1% of all great game ideas, he sued them for stealing his idea.

And as usual, the courts threw out the case.

9. Here and There and Now

Hasbro's campaign to revitalize the Monopoly brand by introducing new Here and Now versions of localized board began in 2006 (maybe earlier) and continued throughout the year. The UK, Scotland, and Australia all received new official Here and Now versions.

Unfortunately, the campaigns have not been unqualified successes, owing to either too much caring about the results, or not enough caring by the local residents. People were asked to vote for places in the new versions. In many places, wide-spread vote rigging occurred. In France, the top spot on the board was given to a town whose name translates into "my bum".

Meanwhile, in Australia, voter participation was minimal, as no one seemed to care. Sydney was so apathetic that it didn't end up on the board altogether.

But residents of cities left off the board were less unhappy than residents in cities occupying the "cheapest" spot on the board.

Guys? It's a board game. Get over it.

10. Next Up: Aliens vs Board Games

Hasbro's last major pitch this year for beating the dead Monopoly horse was to sign Ridley Scott to direct a movie about the game. Other Hasbro toys and games are also slated for the movie treatment. In the meantime, Trivial Pursuit is scheduled to become a new TV game show.

To quote what I wrote last June:

Hasbro is trying to turn more board games into movies. Meanwhile, Brash Entertainment is trying to turn more movies into video games. Meanwhile, Fantasy Flight Games is trying to turn more video games into board games.


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