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Catan, set up for play.

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Board games are the throwback we want to carry forward

In this hyper-digital age, there’s something nostalgic about returning to the classics

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Those two seconds felt like an eternity as I sat at the kitchen table hunched forward in suspense, my future waiting to take form.

I’d always dreamed of owning a sailboat so I could spend my days asea, enjoying an ice-cold Arnold Palmer with leaping dolphins in tow. On an accountant’s salary, the fantasy was within reach — even after splurging on a Victorian home to house my wife and twins. All I had to do was evade property damage during tornado season, cross my fingers that the stock market stayed afloat, and collect one final payday to pad my savings account.

As the wheel slowed to a halt, my breathing accelerated. I’d spun too hard and landed on an 8, forcing me to bypass the “Buy a sailboat” space and land on “Midlife crisis. Start new career.” The boat would have to wait.

The Game of Life prepared me for the hardships of growing up. Softened with bright colors and exaggerated scenarios, I learned how medical bills, taxes, and, yes, emotional crises could get in the way of my goals. I was discreetly taught the importance of education, voting, giving to charity, and being flexible — and I loved it. Every Sunday morning, my sister and I woke up before the family, lay on the carpet, and escaped into our fantasy land in a box, unaware that we were learning lessons beyond our years.

As I grew older and the bulk of gaming turned digital, I started to look back on those days with a gnawing nostalgia. My board game collection, though still intact, had become hardly visible beneath the dust, cast aside by a pile of expensive devices with buttons and screens and catchy theme music. I began to miss having to disguise my handwriting during Balderdash game nights and baselessly accusing my friends of peeking over my shoulder in Uno. I longed for the wholesome simplicity of it all.

Something beautiful happens when people gather to play an analog game. The playing field is leveled — requiring patience and attentiveness rather than fine motor skills and coordination — and more importantly, everyone has a moment to shine.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who woke up one morning and made a concerted effort to reprioritize board games. The hyper-digitalization of the past two decades has exhausted people of moving from one screen to the next all day. Ironically aligned with the rise of aesthetic-forward platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, vintage culture has seen a boom, creating a back-to-the-basics movement that inadvertently repopularized the leather Yahtzee! shaker and muted-tone Parcheesi board.

Early in the 21st century, goliath tabletop game manufacturers made cheap attempts to modernize the classics by shrinking game boards, swapping wooden pawns for plastic, eliminating equipment, and slapping suspiciously low price tags on products that hinted at their stripped-down quality. Put simply, they miscalculated their audience.

Hasbro’s beloved party game Taboo is a prime example. While it was once fashioned with sturdy equipment, later versions tried quietly eliminating the stand-alone card holder — a key component for efficient gameplay — and swapping the battery-operated buzzer with a rubber “squeaker” seemingly modeled after a dog toy. Suddenly, the game felt silly and disorganized. (Hasbro eventually revived the electronic version, unveiling a box that read, “The electronic buzzer is back!”)

Today we find ourselves in a golden age of gaming, as the masses finally catch on to the fact that rapidly advancing technology is neat, but no comparison to the bonding that comes with deciphering Dominion’s heavily themed instruction booklet and rallying your closest pals IRL to battle it out over a few rounds of Munchkin.

For many of us, the near future of gaming is tabletop, nostalgic, and moving back in the direction of quality over affordability. It’s the vintage version of Clue you found at an estate sale, the tangible version of Codenames that reminds you Zoom happy hours just aren’t it, and the original Carcassonne box you’ve clung to since it found success on the heels of other German-style games like Catan.

Sure, the future of gaming is also mobile-compatible (I admittedly have Wavelength and 5 Second Rule on my phone for desperate occasions when I leave the boxed games behind), but the mobile versions only remind us how much we appreciate an authentic “brick and mortar” setup. Hell, the Switch I bought right before the pandemic no longer makes it on my vacation packing list — instead I reserve suitcase space for a couple board games that help curate a vibe for the getaway. Even if I’m just headed to happy hour with friends, what better way to pass the time than packing Scattergories or Bananagrams to keep our minds alert?

The truth is: Tabletop games aren’t obsolete. In fact, indie game manufacturers are actively breathing new life into the industry each day. And until the day that I finish The Game of Life with a sailboat in my beautiful home’s garage, I’ll never allow the old faithfuls to collect dust again.