Millennials around the country have been gathering in trendy beer bars and downtown lofts to bond over trading grain, ore and wool. No, we’re not in the middle of a 16th century lifestyle renaissance, but instead are seeing a rise in the popularity of board games, such as with the resource trading game Settlers of Catan.
How did these games go from being just the dreaded round of competitive Monopoly at the family vacation to a weekend event worthy of RSVPing on Facebook? Somewhat surprisingly, online games may have sparked the interest. As smartphones have become the new normal, most people have at least played a round of Candy Crush or, last year’s phenomenon, Pokemon Go. This introduction to games on a digital platform has opened the floodgates for physical board games as well, with board game purchases in the U.S. growing 28 percent.
While digital games may have kickstarted the interest in games overall, what has made the popularity of board games stick?
The Strategy of Communication
It’s the type of board games that are key to this new Millennial popularity. The current in-demand Euro Style games emphasize cooperation and strategy over the old school way of conflict and luck. But, even more so, the two biggest draws that have fueled the popularity of Euro Style games are connection and story.
As an example, let’s explore the popular game Settlers of Catan. In the game, players trade economic resources in efforts to build the most settlements. Guido Teuber, managing director of Catan, noted that a large aspect of Catan’s appeal is that all players participate in the entire game. Unlike more traditionally competitive games, no players are kicked out and then subject to just watch everyone else play. This leads to constant negotiation and communication throughout the game. This is a tremendous positive for a generation surrounded by a sometimes sterile, tech-driven world. Millennials desire activities that allow them to focus on people more than technology, and collaborative games allow them to do that.
That being said, it might be easy to assume that the main attraction in playing a game like Catan is to unplug, but watching any Millennial play a board game will dispel that assumption. Millennials are still scrolling their feeds and sharing photos online of the games as they’re happening, so what is the deeper attraction?
In a world that reinforces six-second attention spans, in-person communication is only getting harder. The structure of board games provides a natural flow to conversation and face-to-face interactions. As communication has evolved to move faster, it becomes harder to master the art of being fully present while sitting still with another person. With the flow of a game comes the flow of conversation, which reduces awkwardness and creates a clear goal to work towards as a team. In fact, in some games, there are no winners unless everyone works together. Millennials are drawn to a culture of collaboration, and infusing that in a game night feels natural to them and also relieves the social anxiety of small talk. Communication is important, but so is what players are communicating about. Collaboration is good. Collaborating to be swept into a story? That’s even better.
Justin Luk, senior strategist at Giant Spoon, explains that board games attract like-minded people who are focused (even if just for an hour) on the one goal in front of them. With Millennial life paths looking less like straight lines and more like complex (and sometimes headache-inducing) series’ of trial and error, it can feel like a sigh of relief to just focus on a simple goal for a while. Euro Style games are definitely less like puzzles, being more reminiscent of a narrative. They’re more inclusive and tend to have gentler themes, while requiring cooperation to complete goals. As a team, the players build their own stories with trades they make and cards they play. This escapism feels friendly and challenging.
This emphasis on group problem solving makes sense with Millennials in particular if you think about their values: intellectualism, entrepreneurialism, personal success and discovery. This generation’s heroes are the intellectual champions in a skills economy, and they exalt entrepreneurial successes like Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel. For a generation that puts creative problem solvers on a pedestal, the appeal of board games is in finding a challenging, yet fun, outlet to flex their brain muscles. Relaxing in front of Netflix may feel too “lazy” for them at times, but bonding with friends while solving problems reflects a cultural desire to always be striving.
The Final Play for Marketers
Brands can learn from the rising popularity of board games that Millennials value face-to-face connection just as much as their online networks, and that they also value activities that make in-person connection easier. A key insight to note is that Millennials enjoy working towards a common goal. They are seeking activities that play on their desires for conversation, strategic problem solving and storytelling. In a world increasingly more divided, any way marketers can enable Millennials to slow down and celebrate their similarities will be welcomed. For this generation, encouraging conversation and connection is key. If brands can achieve this, it’ll be a marketing checkmate.