The Potential Bubble of Board Games? – Long Form Version

Chaz Marler of Pair of Dice Paradise recently ran an interesting series on Board Game Breakfast (episodes 47-50) about the similarities in the comic book industry and the the board game industry and wheather or not the board game industry was facing a comic book style bubble. I will let you track down the details but I will provide a general summary of what Chaz was seeing in his town that made him think about the similarity of the 90’s comic book industry and the current growth in the board game industry.

Starting with the number of board game stores that have been cropping up in the area. Can the local market support that many stores in one town? What about the vast number of games that are being released onto the market? How can the number of gamers support the number of games that are being produced? What about the gimmicks used by the comic book industry that are now being employed by the board game industry? The examples being multiple covers for the same game, Crossover characters and recycled content e.g. anniversary editions. Are board games a cultural fad because they are being showcased on current TV shows like Jimmy Fallon or The Big Bang Theory? And a final summation with the potential of the number of title overwhelming the market and the domino effect down the line through stores, distributor and publishers reducing the number of available titles to the hobby gamer side of the industry. I will let you watch the shows to get the details of what Chaz was saying, and I highly recommend you watch them because it is a really good thought experiment to have.

Beyond the Board Game Breakfast series, Chaz also went on the Rolling Dice and Taking Names podcast where they brought up another really interesting aspect of the potential board game bubble. The secondary market where people are buying and selling comics or baseball cards as a potential investment for the future. The hosts talk about the baseball card industry and I remember well when baseball cards were the hot thing and going to the card store to pick up the pricing magazine every month I would go home and total up the value of my best cards. I remember then the Death of Superman comic was release. One of the students in my class brought in his copy and the comic was read in class.

As a disclaimer, Chaz never claims to be an expert, just in interested party who is making observations of what he is seeing in the board game industry compared to what he saw in the comic book industry of the 90’s. If you listen to the podcast (number 52) he will explain that in the 90’s he was a small time publisher of comic books so he does have a solid perspective when it comes to both the comic book world and the board game world. Let me use this disclaimer space to give my own disclaimer before I get to my thoughts on this matter. I am no expert myself, I work in the world of securities analysis and that basically means that I read about strong and weak industries for my day job. I lived through the housing bubble as an analyst and while that is nowhere near an Apples to Apples comparison, party game HEYO!!, I feel like I can recognize and industry that has a rocky road to travel with the possibility of survival or identify and industry that needs to go through a contraction of its content providers in order to survive some rough waters ahead. But mostly, I spend a lot of time thinking about the board game industry and think about the benefits of board games and what board games have to offer to the people who play them.

So without further ado, here are the results of my own thought experiments.

Connection to People

Board games have an advantage because they generally need more than one person to be played. Since we humans are a social being, we will always want to be part of a social crowd because games can bring fun to a gathering of friends and family that is difficult to achieve with

Social Interaction of Games

Board games are all about social interaction. There are some games that are meant to be played on your own, but for all intents and purposes, games are bought so they can be played with one or more of your friends or family. Comic books and baseball cards are a hobby that can be “done” completely on your own. Over the course of time, individuals could end up losing interest in comic books, maybe they grew up and out of the hobby. Maybe they found interest in a different hobby and they let comics fall off their radar. The point is that there is no connection to another person to say “Hey, lets read some old comics.” With board games, if one friend in a group of four losses interest for a few months, there will be one or two other friends in the group that might say, “Hey, lets play Pandemic.” How many times have we heard people say they were really into gaming when they were in Junior High and High School, only to lose track when going to college and finding the hobby again after they had settled down and found a group of friends to play games with again where ever they now lived.

Games Can Cover a Wide Age Range

Lets say that someone moves to an area where they don’t have a group of people to play their games with. Games cover a wide age range of play-ability. When gamers start families, they have a potential built in audience to play games. The children of gamers might want to play games with their friends and the parents might want to get together and play some heavier games while the kids play some lighter games. I don’t see comic books having that wide of an appeal. There was a definite time in my life where I felt like I had out grown comic books. I go to the comic/game store where I live and as much as I want to get back into comics, the draw to playing a game with others  and feeling “too old” for comics, the draw just isn’t there anymore.

Games Can Teach

Games have the ability to teach social skills, education skills and general knowledge. This may not fall strongly in the category of social interaction but games are a way to teach people how to be good winners and losers. Games can teach people about what really matters when playing a game. I know over time, I care very little for who wins the game. Sure in the moment of the final score being revealed and I missed the win by one point, I will drop some mild language, have a laugh and that is the end of it. Good game, that was fun and move on to the next game. There are some games the offer historical or cultural lessons regarding their theme. I have heard of games the teach languages. Games have a versatility that comics and baseball cards don’t have.

Secondary Market/Games as an Investment

Part of what created a bubble in the card and comic market was the frenzy created by the secondary market. As people see the value of certain pieces in the card and comic space, there are lot of people brought into the hobby that probably don’t belong there. People that are willing to leave the market just as quick as the market formed. The values of different pieces are not real because the pol of buyers dries up as more and more sellers are in the market looking to off-load their expensive pieces.

Games Replace Each Other Over Time

If there was a market out there that was collection games so they could hang onto them while their value increased, so they could sell them later on, that market would run into a problem. As the game industry progresses, there are new titles that “replace” older titles. New games improve upon old mechanics. Old themes with new mechanics applied could draw the interest of potential buyers, especially when sellers are trying to sell their games for a higher price on the secondary market. If a gamer is looking for a specific game and they see it offered for three times above retail, that gamer will probably look for another similar game before they will pull the trigger on the original, more expensive game. Comic books and baseball cards don’t really offer this “feature”. With comics and cards, there is a value to “do you have the 19xx version of issue number huzeva” or “do you have player Z’s rookie card?” There is a built in time feature that board games don’t really have because the themes and mechanics are present in all games are an ever changing puzzle of different tools and subjects.

Not Easy to Ship Between Buyers and Seller

Being that cards and comics, in my experience, were traded at school or at the card/comic shop; there was a fluidity to the card and comic secondary market that is not as easy to attain with board games. Board games are difficult to move, be it shipping a game or taking your games to conventions to trade with other people. Since shipping is expensive, any potential investors for future board game value will be turned away by the lost value of shipping product. If an investor wanted to take high value games to conventions and trade there, all those games would have to be shipped and there would have to be a buyer at the con willing to buy the game when there are tons of games in shiny new packaging to compete with. Cards and comics can be easily transported and traded in bulk. The makers of comics and cards will make pieces more rare in order to increase the value of said piece. This in turn will create a frenzied secondary market which lends itself to a bubble.

Games Need to be Learned to be Useful

I am going to pull from my finance experience and compare cards and comics to oil. In the oil market, anyone (including you or I) could buy a tanker full of oil sailing across the Atlantic ocean. Two days later, we could sell the tanker to someone who was willing to buy our oil and we make our profit or loss on the oil and that is the end of the transaction. Did we care about the oil? No. Did we have any intention of taking delivery of that oil? No. Cards and comics suffer from the same problem. Investors in the card and comic secondary market could very possible be buying pieces in order to hold them. Cards and comics are susceptible to being treated like a commodity. Board games on the other hand, need to be played to be useful. Games need to be learned and researched in order for people to buy them. Because of this, games do not lend very well to becoming a commodity and therefore have an antidote to this aspect of secondary markets.

Talking to the Game Store

We went to an UnPub event in San Diego and I asked the store owner if they were seeing an increase in foot traffic.

Games do Better in Recession

What really surprised me and really shouldn’t have been a shock, was that board games do better during a recession. He explained to me that people view board games as a one time cost for multiple times of entertainment. One of the common comparisons we gamers like to make regarding the cost of a game is the cost of a trip to the movies. Where a movie is a one time thing, games are a multiple play (hopefully) experience. Over the course of time the value of spending $40-60 on a board game increases with a families ability to spend some now and have numerous chances for entertainment later.

Games Have Access to Entertainment Budgets in Tough Times

What this also tells me is that board games have access to people entertainment budgets in the best and worst of times. I think cards and comics, while inexpensive, fall into the luxury purchase line item for peoples budget. But with board games doing well in the entertainment line of a family budget, board games will not be the first thing to fall off the monthly spending list when times are not as good.

The Internet and Other

When cards and comics were all the rage in the 90’s, the internet was still growing. Card and comics fans really only had the local friends and card shop hang outs to trade with and talk about their hobby. Board games have the internet on their side.

Games Have the Internet on Their Side

I have more board gaming friends on the internet than I do in my local gaming group. I play more Star Realms games (ChrisTGIK, selfish plug) online than I do at the game store. In fact, I have never played Star Realms with a physical copy. I talk about the games we are playing and the games we are designing. The ease with which information can be shared about the games we love, and find others who love them, makes lowering the barrier to entry for new players. Potential new players can come across conversations about the games they enjoy and engage in the conversation. Cards and comics may have had the early internet, they have a high barrier to entry. I think cards and comics fall into the love em or don’t care about em category. Games have such a diversity paired with the internet’s ability to find potential fans, this is a major advantage.

Celebrity Endorsements

Another tick to the positive for games are the celebrities that are playing hobby games. During the filming of The Hunger Games movies, some of the cast and crew played Settlers of Catan. Board games are featured on TV. Shows like the Big Bang Theory and Jimmy Fallon have board games featured in one way or another. Wil Wheaton and Table Top are a great showcase for games. Board games have some big names in their corner and in the celebrity obsessed culture we live in, the exposure gained by board games because of the famous people who play them gives board games a leg up in growing its market share.

Ease of Teaching Games

Thanks  to You Tube, there are easy ways for people to learn different games. Content producers like Rodney from Watch it Played take the time to walk a player through the rules of the game. This significantly lowers the barrier to getting into games. I can’t tell you the number of time I have heard family members walk up to a game and say “that looks complicated.” There are lots of people out there who don’t want to take the time to learn a rule book and get into a new game. And I get it, I hate rule books myself. I can learn a game faster in two rounds of play, rather than take the time to learn the rules on my own. But with people like Rodney out there making the learning of games easier, there are people that will now be more willing to try a game out if they can learn through a visual medium.

Challenges

While there are lots of positives going to the board game industry compared to the card and comic industries, there is a responsibility to the people within the industry, both gamers and producers, to do their part to expand the reach of our games. I love it when I watch a OneTar review and she talks about trying to get people in Target to try some of the “deeper” games that are on the shelves.

Can the Industry Market Itself to the General Public

The industry has a responsibility to market itself to the general market and not just the hobby gamer market. I have no idea what other companies do to reach out the the larger market. To be honest, we are trying to figure out how we are going to go about doing the same. What I know is true is that the game makers in our industry can not hope to survive long term if we only market to hobby gamers. Gamers also have a responsibility to try and spread their passion for the games we play. The more people we are able to bring into the hobby, the stronger our hobby will be so we can make interesting games for all kinds of players.

Will Big Stores Embrace Hobby Games

Every time I go into Barnes & Noble I swear the game section gets bigger. While this is awesome to see designer games in big box stores, how much will these stores embrace designer games. Books stores have author readings of their books, will these stores host demos for different games? It is great that the games we enjoy are in the shelves, but the same barriers exist for the random customer walking by the games section. They may not know what they are looking at and where do they go to get more information about these games? If stores hosted demos of games and people walked by a group of gamers having a great time laughing and talking to each other about the fun they are having, people will start asking questions. My favorite example of this at our game night, located in a local restaurant, is when we play Avalon. When we all close our eyes and we are showing thumbs up and looking around trying to find out who is who, I wonder what it must look like to the other people in the restaurant.

People want to engage with fun things and games are fun. There is a wide variety of games out there for whatever skill level and thematic interest. Board games could very well be forming a bubble, but there are a lot of think in the favor of board games and their continued growth. Are we going to sit by and just enjoy this time in the growth of our industry. or are we going to actively engage with the growth of our industry?

Thank you for stinking around to the end. I will break this into pieces and post them to make for quicker reading. If you want to add to the conversation or think I am wrong, let me know and we can keep talking about this. I love this topic because it is fascinating to me on many levels.

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If you have any comments or questions, leave a comment here or email Chris at c.renshall.tgik.games@gmail.com

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9 comments on “The Potential Bubble of Board Games? – Long Form Version
  1. […] I’m a big board game fan but is the board game industry heading for a crash? (TGIK Games Blog) […]

  2. Jesse says:

    I think comics appeal to just as wide an audience as board games if not bigger, especially with the purveyance of comic book movies – they’ve practically taken over Hollywood! As someone who plays board games and reads comics, and who lived through the comic crash, I can see the parallels rather clearly, specifically the following items:

    1) Sudden bump in popularity: Comics became huge in the 90’s because of two things – the emergence of the artist driven book (think Image), and the realization that comics could be worth a lot of money (specifically due to the very public sales of early issues of Spider-man and Superman). Board games are seeing a similar bump, though not as meteoric. Shows like Tabletop and board games being featured on popular television (BBT, South Park, etc..) are driving exposure to levels previously not heard of.

    2) Collectors Mentality: People used to read comics to read comics, and people used to play board games to play board games. But both are also susceptible to being viewed as collectibles. Comics have been considered “collectible” for far longer, but board games are getting their too – specifically with Kickstarter exclusives, promos, limited editions, small print runs, etc… When large amounts of people buy games just to catch them all, it leads to increases of product which can oftentimes outpace actual demand leading to a crash.

    I think that the board game space will indeed need to contract in order to survive, but I do not see a comic book crash sized disaster in its future. It simply isn’t big enough to implode on that level. You’ll likely see several publishers and local game shops go out of business, but you won’t see a huge collapse.

    • tgikgamescr says:

      Hi Jesse, thank you for the comment. I agree that the comic book industry currently has a much wider appeal than board games. I think board games have two major advantages over the comic book world. Wider potential audience and games have a stronger social appeal than comic books. As the popularity and exposure of board games grows, there is a good chance that non-gaming family and friends will be exposed to a game that they are willing to try. I can’t think of any comic book I could hand to my Wife, Sister or Mother that they would be willing to read. I can think of a game that all of them would be interested in. The same applies to most of my friends. Board games have a built in versatility to appeal to everyone in your sphere of influence. That is where the responsibility lies with gamers and producers in the industry to expose the right games to the right people on a large and grassroots level so the organic growth can continue in the industry.

      While I agree that games can become collectible, I don’t think it will have the same effect as what happened to comic books. I think, and I would love to hear from collectors on this, that collectors collect games so they can have everything associated with the game. I don’t think collectors are in the market to collect and then sell their games or pieces of their collection. There were people in the comic books days that were buying issues of comic books for the sole purpose of reselling. The margins on comic books was so large that a frenzy of buy and sell was created and that leads to a bubble. In the case of games, the justification of buying a game at $20-40 and then having to sell that game, the returns just aren’t there to get enough “traders” together to build a frenzied market to create a bubble. With comic books, the initial investment is really low and in the 90’s the perceived value of comics by non-comic investors was really high and I don’t think board games “suffer” from that. I do agree with the idea that current supply could very well outpace demand and because of that, there will be a contraction in the marketplace. However, I think that will be limited to the number of publishers in the industry, specifically the small publishers, and I doubt gamers will see much of the “carnage.” I also agree that there will be game shops that will go out of business, but I think they will go out of business because they try to survive on the pockets of gamers and not try to grow the number and type of people that come into the shop looking for a game.

      • Jesse says:

        I would disagree, at the moment, that board games have a broader appeal since the comic book industry largely dwarfs the board game industry. Comics have matured and there are niche titles that appeal to all sorts of folks and they are becoming more broad.

        I think it’s like this….the idea of a board game may be more appealing to a greater cross section, but the practice of reading a comic is simpler and therefore much more practiced. Board gaming requires much more of the participant that reading a comic book, especially with the dawn of digital comics.

        For your second part, I agree that comics are much, much, much, much more seen as collectibles than comics in terms of investments, but board games are still seen as collectible due to other elements – specifically when it comes to availability. There is pressure to buy a game as soon as possible, because if you don’t, you may have to pay exorbitant second hand prices for the game down the line. This wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t so many games starting to get released – a bubble bursts when growth outpaces demand. There is a current surge of purchasing within the hobby because of sudden exposure, but once a segment of that surge (not all, but some) moves on to another hobby/fad, the industry could see a contraction as supply of new games would be too much for the consumer base to keep up with.

        Slow, controlled growth is more desired because supply can better keep up with demand and ebb and flow as necessary. With a sudden and large increase of supply, there are big issues when the initial demand subsides. This was bigger with comics because comics were a larger cultural phenomenon at the time. Board games are getting bigger, but aren’t experiencing the shear amount of sudden growth that comics did in the 90’s. When interest in comics faded – mostly due to over supply – the industry crashed.

        Perhaps a better analogy to the growth of board games is the emergence of craft breweries. I myself am a home brewer and have been for almost a decade. In that short period of time, craft beers went from Sam Adams and a few others to a multitude of selections. This is a good thing, but we could see some contraction in the future as the amount of breweries popping up may outpace the demand for new and unique craft beers. As much as I love beer (and I loooooove beer) it’s hard not to see this change as a cultural fad that will eventually correct itself through contraction. Craft beer won’t go away, but it will “right size” itself to the appropriate space. The board game industry will do the same.

        Whew…sorry about that – kind of stream of thought there. Anyways, to reiterate my main point, I don’t think that we’re in for a crash, but we will see some contraction in this space. This growth is good, but too much too fast is always a bad thing.

      • tgikgamescr says:

        No Worries, I love it. I look at a bubble as potential buyers/investors suddenly see the value of the product(s) diminish en masse, and they leave the industry/hobby in a very short amount of time. I think the effect of what you are describing in the third and fourth paragraph is the retail cost of games will have to go down. That sort of market force will probably hit the small guys making larger games, then the small guys all start producing smaller games and the best of the best will survive. Totally shot from the hip there.

        Thanks again Jesse for taking the time to share your thoughts!

      • Jesse says:

        One last thing – I want to clarify that I think the main contraction will be in the number of new games produced rather than in the disappearance of any major publishing labels. I also agree with you on the game shop point. Shops that seek to grow the hobby will likely flourish, and those that have popped up to make a buck on the trend will close up.

  3. […] de bulle, et surtout lorsque certains commencent à essayer d’expliquer avec véhémence, ici ou là, qu’il n’y en a pas, c’est généralement le signe qu’il y en a une. Si l’on regarde les […]

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