There was a time where board games were used almost strictly for promotional purposes. When a publisher put out a board game for, say, PAC-MAN, or the Legend of Zelda, or even something obscure like Zaxxon, the designers didn’t put a lot of time and effort into making sure the game was fun. Really, the game just had to be accessible and vaguely resemble the license it came from. The rest of the game was just a way to put an advertisement in front of someone, or just make a quick sale.
The advent of eurogames has really reshaped that. There are still some phoned-in roll-and-moves, like Cryptozooic’s The Walking Dead board game. But mostly, many licensed games are pretty decent, and often really fun. One of the recent Harry Potter board games is actually an excellent gateway game, and the venerable Battlestar Galactica still fetches three times its original retail value on the aftermarket due to its quality.
Stardew Valley board game is certainly not a cash grab. It seems to be crafted with care and thoughtfulness. pic.twitter.com/vKGKzjVAvL— Meeple Overboard! (@MeepleOverboard) March 6, 2021
The Indie Video Game Hit
And, very recently, fans have been abuzz about a new video-game-inspired board game. Stardew Valley has shot to the top of BoardGameGeek’s Hotness list almost instantly. The original incarnation of Stardew Valley doesn’t have a lot of marketing behind it, but it doesn’t need it. Fans have fallen in love with its charm and addictive gameplay, and over Stardew’s lifespan it’s developed a dedicated following. It’s an impressive feat for the one-person development "team."
The translation of Stardew Valley to a board game isn’t a huge stretch, either. Stardew is, at the most basic, a farming simulator where the player inherits their grandfather’s overgrown land. The economic development of the farm is the trunk that the game’s other branches hang off of, though. The player also has a direct effect on the nearby town and the land around the farm, as the player builds relationships with the townsfolk and embarks on a quest to preserve the land’s lifegiving spirit.
How does all of this relate to board games? Since Stardew, at its core, is a farming game, which is, also at its core, an economic engine-building game. Several influential eurogames also use farming as a thematic framework for an economic game, such as deep strategy games like Agricola and Viticulture, to lighter games with broader appeal like Bohnanza and Takenoko. The conceptual groundwork for Stardew Valley to become a well-designed euro-style game is already there.
The Faithful Reimagining
So the core ideas of a Stardew Valley board game work out. But a good adaptation also translates the original’s uniqueness to the new format. In this case, the Stardew board game emulates something important to the video game: the theme of interconnectedness. Both in the video game and board game versions, the players’ farms don’t exist in a vacuum-sealed simulation of farming mechanics. Both games feature the town and the wilderness around the players’ farm, and to succeed, players have to explore and build relationships with both. Both games are much deeper than the sow-harvest farming cycles that they appear to be.
And while the video game excellently tells a story of interconnectedness in a single-player format, the board game arguably goes a step further. The Stardew Valley board game is cooperative. This is a somewhat recent innovation in the grand scheme of games, and the Stardew Valley board game might not be as amazing without it. In cooperative games, like Pandemic, Marvel Champions, or Elder Sign, players are on the same team with the same goals. Players share victory or defeat together. Cooperative games, of course, require an additional skill of teamwork in addition to strategy. A traditional competitive game puts players at odds with each other and even some games that feature cooperative elements eventually pits the players against eachother to select a victor, which wouldn’t suit a game like Stardew Valley well. Hewing to its themes, the Stardew Valley board game has players connecting to each other in a positive way, with players never being at-odds to each other.
Finding Your Community
This all seems like a bit of a perfect storm - a popular indie video game with a large fan following, turned into a deep and interesting board game that emulates its predecessor superficially and spiritually. At the time of this writing, the board game, sold exclusively through the publisher’s web shop, is sold out. There’s little bit of irony here, borne out of necessity. Stardew Valley’s indie publisher Concerned Ape took matters into their own hands when it came to publishing and distributing their new board game, allowing the board game's creator, Cole Medeiros full control to make the game fit his vision.
Using the same small, everyman flow as featured in the video game, Stardew Valley had a small initial released, with the only availability being on its online store. This allowed far reaching, but limited availability to the fans of Stardew during the time of lockdown and uncertainty. However, as the Board game shops serve a larger role in the hobby than just a point of sale - they’re community hubs that give opportunities to experience the games we all love through events, demos, and the like.
Every board game store has a play area full of tables and a schedule to help people come together around the games they love, a community hub of sorts. It’s easy to miss how this benefits the hobby community, because the benefits are intangible. But, the experiences and the benefits are there. Without players, without a community, the board game hobby just turns into a hollow, soulless exercise of collecting colorful, expensive boxes and meeples.
However, do not fret, because Stardew Valley shines like a beacon of hope for the industry. They are sticking true to the grassroots approach, keeping current distribution and future distribution limited, and more particularly, intentional. Cole Medeiros plans to keep the board game truthful to its source material as he works to get copies of the game into the hands of the fans.
The Importance of Connecting
The year in which the Stardew Valley board game arrived has been difficult on everyone, marked with crisis and tribulations. In a time when people all over need to connect the most, they have the least ability to. When the world achieves a level of normalcy again, we have the hope that our old methods of connecting, even as simple as heading to your favorite hobby shop, checking out the new hotness (like Stardew Valley), and making new friends with it, will return to full force.