Spielwarenmesse: Board games category on the up?

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Movers & shakers

Board games category on the up?

from Steve Reece

One of the clear trends we can see in the global toy industry today is the resurgence of the board games category. I love board games, always have and always will! I was an avid board games player as a child, with Diplomacy and Risk my favourite games, although like many people my age I remember playing games of Monopoly that went on for days as the game ebbed and flowed. While games never went away, there have been some tough years in recent times. Of course every market around the world is different, and my experience is at least partly biased towards my home country, the UK, but nevertheless, there are a number of factors which I believe are providing impetus to the games category. 

Firstly, we have an absolute plethora of games on the shelf, with many new products joining the old favourites. In some markets the sheer quantity of games is sometimes seen as a potential negative – in fact I often hear that in Germany there are almost too many new games launching meaning diminishing returns. However, I believe this abundance of games is a good thing eventually, as different people prefer different types of games, and more games = more opportunities to capture gamers. When I look at board games shelves around the world today, I see a broader mix of games/genres than at any time in the last decade or so.

Crowd funding phenomenon of board games

Which brings me to the second, and perhaps most important/most impactful factor driving the resurgent board games category: the crowdfunding phenomenon. If you take a look a few years back in time, originators of board games had effectively 2 options:

  1. Try and find someone else to sell your products to retailers so that retailers could sell to consumers.
  2. Try themselves to sell direct to retail in order for retailers to sell the products to consumers. Which effectively means that retailers, in conjunction with a comparatively few board games publishers/distributors) largely controlled what products were launched.

Now we have a situation whereby any one can gain access to sell direct to consumer on a platform developed to facilitate success for originators.

The implications of this are actually staggering in terms of changing the dynamics of the board games industry forever. Retailers as we know tend to be very risk averse/prefer formulaic product offerings based on their heavy stock risk/need to guarantee clean shelves. They are just not set up/motivated to take risks based on a potentially great game which is a bit ‘out there’. Crowd funding has given a powerful launch platform to those wanting to launch games which don’t necessarily fit in Toys R Us or Walmart, but for which nevertheless there is considerable demand.

Even established games companies can profit from crowd funding

Exploding Kittens and Cards Against Humanity would have been very unlikely to have got retail listings in traditional mass market games stores, yet via crowd funding they have become phenomenally successful. Just to put the success into context – a reasonably successful game listed in the mass market North American retailers would sell somewhere between 200,000 to 500,000 copies each year, equating to about $2m-5m in net sales for the games publisher. Exploding Kittens finished off its Kickstarter campaign with $8.8m in backing from c. 219,000 backers! Crowd funding is the new mass market level opportunity in that sense.

But before games publishers get too worried, crowd funding is great for established games companies also, because these games often end up needing traditional retail placement, which opens up distribution opportunities for games publishers. Furthermore, one of the major issues for board games companies is that they struggle to choose from all the new games they review.

To put this in context, a fairly average games company would launch between 3-10 new products each year, but even smaller companies can review up to 400 or 500 concepts each year. Picking the right ones is tricky, but with crowd funding, games companies have an opportunity to have that choice made for them by picking up successfully funded crowd funded games which need mainstream placement.

Entry points into board gaming and social events

A further factor driving the games industry is the comparative health of the kids skill and action category. For sure, in business terms, this category remains tough commercially in terms of pricing & margins, there is no doubt that serious sales volumes can be driven by a cute looking plastic animal with a gameplay wrapped around it! From elephants to snakes, monkeys to spiders, this category continues to drive significant sales, and act as an entry point into board gaming for younger children.

Another clear trend in some markets is under the radar growth of board game cafes, as today’s Facebook generation seeks an alternative to constant screen time. In the UK I have identified 11 board games cafes, whereas a few years ago you would struggle to find more than 1 or 2. Not huge in global terms, but definitely a reflection of a positive trend nevertheless. My research indicates a similar trend in numerous other markets including the USA, Canada, France & Asia.

What about licenses on board games?

Finally, one trend observation I would make about the global games category is that there appears to be significantly less reliance on licenses today versus 10 or 20 years ago. For sure the current hottest license will have some games iterations out there in toy & game retail, but there are seemingly less of them overall. It’s almost as if the crowd funding impact has been to support the need for original standalone gameplay where good games count most versus just another label slapped onto an existing formula.

So in short, I see these as exciting times for the board games industry. Business as ever is tough going, but there does appear to be at least a favourable headwind behind the games category for the first time in recent years, and long may that continue!


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