An industry “zAPPed”: the state of board games today


This post is part of a series on business board games. In the spring of 2012, the American Enterprise team partnered with a class at Brown University to study the history of business board games. Under the direction of Professor Steven Lubar, Brown students assembled a database of historic games, performed research at Hasbro’s archives, and led bi-weekly meetings with the Smithsonian’s curators. In these guest posts, students from the class discuss both how business board games have transformed over  time, and how board games reflect changing social values and attitudes toward business in the U.S.

Last spring, I was given the most unique assignment in my graduate school education:  visit the Hasbro board game factory in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  The factory, a maker of many beloved games, is a place of colorful aspiration. Gleaming red tiny houses, ready to mark your real estate, tumble out of sorting machines into plastic bags. Rolls of pink, green, blue and golden yellow paper wait to be cut into Monopoly money that will make your fortune. Bright glossy cards that will determine your career are methodically shaped by die-cutters. Game of Life boards are stacked up as high as my chest, a multi-color bonanza blazing a pathway of life’s possibilities. Yet amongst the color and glee, there is an unsettling feeling. It’s all too quiet in this factory– not a quiet due to low-noise machines, but a quiet that suggests this factory is not as busy as it once was, or even now, should be.

Brown graduate students pose with historic versions of The Game of Life at the Hasbro Archives. From left: Emily Bryant (author), Emily McCartan, and Anna Wada.


The past three years have marked a significant downward trend in the sales of board games. At Hasbro, the country’s biggest board game manufacturer, volume has declined considerably and the number of factory employees has decreased. The culprit (perhaps not hard to guess) is digital games, as people forgo folding cardboard games for foxy game apps on their phones, computers, and gaming systems. $15.9 billion of revenue in digital game software and content was generated in 2010, which includes downloads of full video games as well as social games. Compare this to the $1.17 billion in revenue for Hasbro’s Games & Puzzles category in 2011– a ten percent drop from their sales the year before. Yet board game companies adapt, and Hasbro is trying to stay relevant.  Hollywood is one way; did you see the movie Battleship?  Monopoly the movie is in script-writing phase.  Another way embraces the digital, and many board games now have “zAPPed” editions, an “app-enhanced” game that integrates the popularity of digital apps with traditional board game play.  Hasbro also has a new strategic partnership with Zynga, the maker of popular digital social games like Farmville and Words with Friends, and wants to create co-branded merchandise.

Hasbro’s new, “zAPPed” editions of Life and Monopoly integrate with Apple iOS devices like the iPad. Photo courtesy of Business Wire.


Board games and video games have a shared history. The Magnavox Odyssey Video Game Unit (1972), one of the first home video game systems, came pre-packaged with physical accessories such as dice, decks of cards, play money, and poker chips.


Still, the experience of a digital game is inherently at odds with one of a traditional board game. When given a choice, would you play an Angry Birds board game over the digital one? Board games require an amount of time set aside to play, and at least two people. They also take up physical space, and require that those two people be in the same space to play. On your phone or tablet however, the game is instantly accessible. It is portable and played independently, for as little or as long as you’d like. When you tire of it, there’s another multitude of games you can immediately switch to. For a modern age, the decision of board game or digital game seems like a no-brainer.

Before electronic devices, Americans found ways to play board games on the move. In this 1956 photo, two Bracero workers sit outside and play checkers at a camp in California.


But that’s what board game companies want to change. They want to remind us of the benefits of playing a bona-fide board game. It’s social interaction they are selling, not the plastic bits and pieces. Sprawled out on the rug or seated intently around a table, playing board games is where bonds are formed and a mutual experience is created. Hasbro in particular adheres to this message, and their website includes a section called “Host your Own Family Game Night,” where visitors can find game recommendations, tournament brackets, tips and recipes. “Laughter, family bonding, learning and life skills,” are gained from family gaming, the website states. In a project where we’ve been asked to look at board games that teach us about business, perhaps the game’s content is not the sole instructor. The critical learning comes from the interactions with those you are playing with.


Braden, Donna. “The Family that Plays Together Stays Together: Family Pastimes and Indoor Amusements, 1890-1930.” In American Home Life, 1880-1930. Foy, Jessica and Thomas Schlereth, ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Digital game sales statistics from marketing research company The NPD Group and The Entertainment Software Association

Hasbro Games and Puzzle sales statistics from Hasbro Corporate Information Financial Press Releases:

Family Game Night

zAPPEd editions


Partnership with Zynga


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    About the Author


    Emily BryantEmily is a second-year graduate student in Public Humanities at Brown University. Her focus is on place-based education for youth. This interest is the synthesis of her two jobs prior to graduate school: teaching high-school in Louisiana through Teach for America, and interpreting history as a park ranger for the National Park Service. Her work for American Enterprise is to research business board games and collaboratively design an interactive component for the exhibit. She hopes her work is not hindered by the fact that she has never completely finished a game of Monopoly in her life.View all posts by Emily Bryant