While video games have entered the mainstream and mobile games are bringing gaming to new audiences, boardgaming also continues to attract new enthusiasts.

PLAYING games, once seen as children’s pastime or a hobby for the adolescent, has silently become a mainstream activity. The launch of the latest Grand Theft Auto game was a cultural event comparable to a new James Bond film, while mobile games are popularising the concept of gaming to those who have no interest in actual game consoles. And when the majority of Supercell, the Finnish mobile game company behind Clash of Clans and Hay Day, was sold to two Japanese companies for a reported 1.1 billion euros, everyone should have got the message: there is nothing childish about this industry.

In the shadow of mobile and video games, also boardgaming is winning over new audiences in Finland, and more and more serious, high-quality games are being released. Everyone knows about Supercell’s hits, but what has received much less attention is that one of the best-received recent boardgames by the international boardgaming community, Eclipse, was designed and published in Finland.

Afrikan tähti: the classic among Finnish boardgames

Take a look at the selection of boardgames of any Finnish family, and you’ll be fairly certain to find African tähti (“the Star of Africa”) among them. Although mostly unknown abroad, Afrikan tähti is a genuine hit in Finland – since its release in 1951 almost 4 million copies have been sold, according to the publisher Peliko, over half of which in Finland (the game has also been released in other Nordic countries).

What’s remarkable about the game’s success is that Afrikan tähti is, to put it kindly, hardly a favourite among boardgame hobbyists. The game mechanics are very simple, and winning comes mostly down to chance: the players throw a dice to move around the map of Africa, racing against each other, and flipping over tiles they encounter to look for the eponymous “star”(a large diamond) and hoping not to discover a money-stealing robber.

A sequel to Afrikan tähti, called Inkan aarre (“the Treasure of the Inca”) was released in 2005. Set in South America, the game is mostly similar to its predecessor, but failed to reach comparable success.

“Looking back, the crucial year was 2004, which is when both Carcassonne and the Settlers of Catan were released in Finnish,” says Toni Niittymäki from Lautapelit.fi, a boardgame seller and publisher. These games, among other titles such as Ticket to Ride, have been key in introducing boardgames to adults, many of whom wouldn’t have thought of boardgaming as an activity for the grownups. Now, it is becoming increasingly likely that board and card games are brought out also during a get-together of adults.

One simple reason behind the continuing ascension of boardgames is that games have simply gotten better at engaging grown ups. Niittymäki says that in his experience, few people who try more modern games feel like returning to the games they remember from their childhoods.

“These games have a head start of 30 to 50 years, and they became known when there were fewer games in the boardgame market to choose from,” Niittymäki says. “I’ve often said that if Monopoly were released now for the first time, I doubt it would catch on. I don’t think it would be a competitive product without the reputation it has.”

Grand designs

While the heart of the global boardgaming industry is clearly in Germany, where most games are designed and published, Finland is by all accounts a rather active boardgame country. For example, the Finnish company Tactic is a significant publisher of mass-market games in the European market, while Lautapelit.fi, which focuses on games targeted at gaming hobbyists, has gone on to become an internationally known publisher, says Mikko Saari, who has written several books on board and card games and is the editor of Lautapeliopas.fi, a website dedicated to boardgames.

Lautapelit.fi was founded in 1996 and has retail shops in Helsinki and Tampere. In addition to localisations to the Nordic market, Lautapelit.fi has now also expanded to publishing its own games, among them Eclipse, which has made waves among the global boardgaming enthusiasts (see the adjacent story for more information).

There are few designers that have come out of Finland however, although the situation has started to change over the past few years, Saari says. Even fewer make a living out of it, as most designers are hobbyists and freelancers with day jobs. But trying game design is relatively easy: there is no single way of becoming a game designer, and neither are there any specific skills that one needs to acquire in order to dabble into it.

Niittymäki from Lautapelit.fi notes that his company is always looking for solid concepts that could be developed into games. “If the idea sounds like a clone of an old classic, we know pretty quickly that it’s not for us. But if there are new ideas or it brings a new vision into an established game type, we’re always interested in trying them out.”

In a recent interview, Touko Tahkokallio, the designer of Eclipse, said that the most important thing when crafting new games is that games are something more than just a way of paying the bills. “I can’t imagine a good game designer who isn’t first and foremost a passionate player,” Tahkokallio said to Yle. His view is that creating a game should start with deciding who the target audience is, and the rest should be designed from that starting point.

Social activity

As for more modern ways of playing games, Niittymäki doesn’t see video and mobile games as competing with boardgames. “They encourage people to play, and many people go on to try boardgames too. Many successful boardgames are also later released on the iPad. There are also mobile games that have been transformed into a card or boardgame, so there is some exchange between the two types of gaming.”

Boardgames have an obvious quality that differentiates them from virtual types of gaming, as it is a social activity, a reason for a group of people to get together. “Personally, it’s the sociality of boardgaming that appeals to me,” Niittymäki says. “Especially when you have a group who like playing similar types of games, the games can become a tool for a kind of an intellectual battle.”

The likeliest obstacle that a would-be boardgamer needs to overcome is finding the right group of people to play with. Niittymäki says that most people start by introducing a game or two to their friends, and hope that also some of them get bitten by the gaming bug. “Sometimes we receive two or three separate orders for a specific game from the same small town. Clearly it’s a situation where a group has been introduced to a game for the first time, and many of them end up buying it.”

It’s a slow process, but the word on boardgames is gradually spreading through the grapevine.

Teemu Henriksson