The board game classics are dying

In the news this week Grail Games, a company started with the mission to bring back old games of renown and give new players a chance to play them, announced a pivot away from doing pure reprints. Earlier this month ZMan games announced a similar move away from reprinting their Euro Classics line. Two companies in short order admitted that while reprinting old classics is very popular from a hearts and minds perspective, it doesn’t make a whole lot of good business sense. The news had me feeling melancholy, while simultaneously trying to track down some of these games now that they wouldn’t be reprinted, and coming up empty.

I’ve been in the hobby long enough to see that in general, if a game is good enough and popular enough, and there aren’t any strange IP rights issues, it will generally come back in print eventually. I have watched the dry spells where a game is very rare and selling for double its market value, to the inevitable announcement of the reprint or new edition several times over now. This makes a lot of sense in some ways, as reprinting a classic can be a more surefire bet for a small publisher. The name recognition and reputation part of marketing is already done for you. Even some supposedly impossible games that are tied up with intellectual properties have made their way back into print, like Dune, a long lost classic that the Herbert estate was fighting a decade ago, but all too eager to make happen with the upcoming movie. But something about the market seems to be changing, and some very solid games that have sterling reputations may linger out of print for a quite a while longer, unable to keep up with the new hotness and Kickstarter bling.

Tigris and Euphrates is mostly an abstract game. The components don’t inspire a lot of excitement.
Who doesn’t want to hang out with this guy?

First a little background on the games that got the axe. A lot of them were classics by Reiner Knizia from the late 90s and early 2000s. Tigris and Euphrates used to be a top ten game… 20 years ago. Samurai, Through the Desert, Ra. All of them were games with one mechanism and very few rules but extremely deep gameplay. None of them were ever lookers, even with the reprint treatment. A tile laying game about conquest in Mesopotamia, an Egyptian auction game, even the candy colored camels of Through the desert. These all looked nice and more modern than their 90s counterparts, but nothing that would turn heads. Ironically Grail Games was also deep in the old Knizia back catalog with games like Medici a Mediterranean auction game from 1995 and Stephenson’s Rocket an early train and stocks game. These were even more lavish productions but still were some pretty old and unexciting themes. Every one of these won great renown back in its day but those that were in the hobby back then likely already have them or have played them a lot, and it’s just hard to convince someone lured into the hobby by beautifully produced games to try out something that looks… old.

How can older games compete with the new hotness? Pictured here is Brew which as of this writing is number 1 on BGG’s hotness list.

I have always defended these more dry themes, like I did in my diatribe about every game needing a bored looking dude on the cover, but for my part I didn’t track down any of the games I’ve listed above. They certainly flowed into my circle of friends, so they’re around and I am relieved that they’re in the collective library. But they didn’t set the world on fire. The gaming market is increasingly crowded, and reprints of older games just don’t seem to make a splash anymore. People look at me like I’m crazy when I describe the theme of some of the games that are in my library. They would rather play the beautiful game about birds, or the adorable wargame about woodland animals. The hobby has grown tremendously since the mid to late 90s and sometimes these classic themes just don’t cut it anymore.

Through the Desert is a more colorful older game, but still not terribly exciting.

But this makes me sad. Even though I am part of the problem. Even though I didn’t spend a cent on these games. I held that copy of Samurai at least ten times at Zombie Planet, but something kept me from making the purchase. I still mourn the simplicity to depth ratio of these old games. As I mentioned above, all of these games did one thing, and did it well. They were not circuses of different mechanisms like so many modern games. They had more in common with a classic game like chess. Easy to learn the basics, and hard to master. Hopefully other companies will pick up the publishing rights to these games, or at least push forward new simple games, maybe with newer themes and more appealing art.

Reiner Knizia for his part is doing as well as ever. He is still publishing new games that get nominated for awards each year, and some of his more recent designs sit on my shelves like The Quest for El Dorado or My City which I wrote about the other month. And he is still designing games like it’s the 90s to a large degree. The recent title Babylonia seems to have some similarities to the now out of print Tigris and Euphrates. Maybe I am the crazy old man shouting at the clouds at this point, insisting that the kids play the boring looking tile games. But mostly I am just hopeful that the legacy of these games lives on. If any of these games do peak your interest I encourage you to seek them out before they become even harder to find. That or we can all wait till the cycle begins anew and maybe a reprint happens after all. With good games, life finds a way.

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