I haven't read it yet, but I just downloaded a book whose premise excites me. In The Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom suggests that the queen—which did not exist in the earliest versions of chess—became an integral part of the game in response to the rise of powerful female leaders in Europe from the year 1000 on. Although I haven't yet read her argument, she is touching on a concept that captivates the historian in me. What do the mechanics, themes, and symbols in our board games say about us?
This question is particularly difficult to answer right at this moment, because we are living in a very productive age for boardgames. There are new boardgames all the time, many of which are testing out new themes and new mechanics. What will future historians of recreation and pop culture see when they look back at us? How much are we able to take a step back and look at ourselves?
I don't yet have full answers to these questions, but I can think of some potentially productive directions:
1) Games with a traitor mechanic. I thought Mafia was a folk game until I did some research and learned that it was invented in 1986 in the USSR by Dmitry Davidoff. More recently, the game has been repackaged as Werewolf, and we have seen a proliferation of games with a "traitor" mechanic. From The Resistance to Dead of Winter to Shadows over Camelot to Spyfall, gamers have come to embrace games in which the enemy is among us. Is this mechanic as new as it feels? Or does it have deeper roots than I realize?
2) The rise of cooperative games. Cooperative games exist both in opposition to and in combination with the traitor mechanic. You could say that Dungeons & Dragons is one of the original cooperative games, but co-ops seem to have caught fire only recently in the world of board games. What does the proliferation of cooperative games within the hobby say about us and about what we want to get out of playing games together? Will cooperative gaming become more popular over time, or will it die down as gamers gravitate towards more competitive options?
3) How historical games reveal our understanding of history. If I were to look at, say, an array of games set in the Roman Empire, would I discover anything revealing about our approach to ancient history? Which aspects of Rome do we focus on? Do games that focus on Roman war or politics capture more about the realities of ancient Rome... or about us? What about other games that focus on Europe, the age of piracy, etc.?
There are not yet definitive answers to questions like this—especially because there do not seem to be many up-to-date histories of board games. The last edition of the Oxford History of Board Games was published in 1999. It is an understatement to say that a lot has happened in the world of board gaming since then.