Spielwarenmesse: Best practice: successful marketing strategies for board & other tabletop games

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Best practice: successful marketing strategies for board & other tabletop games

from Peter Neugebauer

The success of a new game starts right from the development of an appealing game concept. The measures then taken to market the game are another big aspect of achieving bestseller status. Most games publishers have comparatively small budgets. Instead of big promotional campaigns, publishers like to find other ways of garnering attention for a new game. The use of modern media is one tool in their armoury, but not the only one.

Kosmos chanced an unusual approach four years ago, in autumn 2012. An alternate reality game was created for the new Legends of Andor fantasy game released in October of the same year. 50 prominent games journalists and bloggers received a little anonymous parcel containing some mysterious items. A piece of fur, some little wooden sticks, cryptic symbols and an ancient newspaper article had to be deciphered. The search for a solution quickly began.

The treasure hunters found the help they needed online. They connected on Facebook, exchanged information and searched for traces like geocachers. After all, besides the virtual world, very real information also had to be tracked down. Finally, the new game was unveiled at an exclusive media event. Curiosity had been piqued, the reporting by multipliers was more intensive than ever and the focus lay on Andor. No one paying any attention could have missed this new product in autumn 2012.

Sparking interest in an upcoming game highlight

Fortunately, the game designer and editorial team had developed a game worth playing. Thus was launched a product which would go on to be named the “Kennerspiel des Jahres” (German for “Expert Game of the Year”) the following year and achieve six-figure sales. Andor lives on, with part three having just been announced for the second half of the year.

And while the publisher no longer has to come up with ARG ideas, social media is still being used, with a teaser of the new cover now available on the relevant websites months before release. And garnering great attention once again.

Provoking online discussion

Of course, all publishers now have their own websites which they use to present new products and the facts about them. Rules are often published online in advance so that interested consumers can find out how a new game idea works. Casual players appreciate this as they can assess a new game in the comfort of their own homes. However, besides the publisher’s website, it is more important for perennially popular games to also have their own website or YouTube channel, Facebook account, etc.

Internet users will sometimes find information via the author's website as well. Carcassonne, Memory and Stratego are just three well-known examples of this. Online versions of adapted board games are also an option for games that consistently sell well over a long period, Monopoly being the main example. Of course, the publisher’s fundamental idea behind all of these measures is to keep its own bestsellers in the limelight and prevent them falling through the cracks.

Showcasing games in action

Catan Big Game
Catan Big Game

Catan GmbH enjoyed unbelievable success in cooperation with publisher Kosmos at the Spieltage game trade fair in 2015. Billed as the Catan Big Game, the organisers succeeded in getting almost 1000 players playing together and building settlements at the same time at one game table. Of course, the term “game table” does this little justice. The organisers hired out an entire exhibition hall and used a sophisticated system to accommodate hundreds of players engaged in harvesting, trade and construction at the same time. Through such initiatives, Catan still remains young and topical after 20 years. And is again the focus of reports.

There is also a noticeable preference for using attention-grabbing marketing activities for a publisher's core games rather than to push new ones. Publishers know that familiar ideas and ground rules are simply easier to sell than completely new game ideas. Consumers can be somewhat slow to mix things up and like to fall back on the old familiars, though perhaps in slightly amended forms.

For example, the Ravensburger classics Memory and 11er raus! (“Elevens Out!”) now have board game versions with the same titles. Whole families of games are centred around successful titles such as Catan, Carcassonne, Monopoly, Uno and Bohnanza. If a game is named the “Spiel des Jahres” (German for “Game of the Year”), thereby boosting sales by a factor of twenty or thirty, you do not have to wait long until a junior version, card game or travel version of the core game is unveiled.

New niches

tiptoi Ravensburger
©Ravensburger Spieleverlag GmbH

One important marketing strategy for games is to identify unexploited niches and target these forcefully. Industry leader Ravensburger is enjoying brilliant success with its tiptoi pen, bringing electronics to play. By using the electronic pen, a game, illustrated book or even toys can interact and communicate with the user, opening up completely new play worlds. This line has been extremely successful for years in the children’s sector in particular.

Games inspired by books and the series of two-player games from Kosmos are also closely linked with the publisher. Competitors have so far tried in vain to muscle their way into these niches. HCM Kinzel has captured the market with smart solitaire games, Amigo with diverse card games for all target groups, Haba, with its sunshine yellow boxes, the preschool game segment, etc. It is difficult to break new ground. However, it can be worth identifying niches and testing out new ideas.

TräxxFranz Jurthe, Managing Director of Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag, reports that when looking for just such a niche, the analysis showed that what people want is “low-priced cute and compact games”. The publisher chose to go in a completely opposite direction from the usual prevailing themes with the games it then launched. There are already far too many games revolving around knights, pirate islands and fantasy adventures.

“Abstract games with made-up names were needed”, said Jurthe. Titles such as Träx, Qwixx, The Game and the very recent Quinto are the essence. Many of these titles also have a tremendous fun factor and have been reaping praise from critics and scooping up awards. In this way, this marketing strategy paired with good game ideas has prevailed. A new niche has been occupied.

On-trend licences and themes

Publishers are consumed with looking for thematic trends, the “in” themes. Significant money is paid to acquire licensing rights. For example, if games with original images are released to coincide with cinema blockbusters, then these products have recognition value that is closely linked with the original. Almost all Disney characters have been turned into some kind of a game, over and over again. The original as a brand in and of itself can be very strong.

The licensing business has worked superbly around film highlights such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series. However, it has to be borne in mind that exclusive rights are acquired. What good is it if multiple games appear with the same theme and there is no USP? This was the case with Star Wars games last Christmas.

Kosmos: Halt mal kurz von Mark-Uwe Kling
Kosmos: "Halt mal kurz" by Mark-Uwe Kling

And every now and then you get the shooting stars. The very current card game “Halt mal kurz” (German for “Hold This a Sec”) from Marc-Uwe Kling, who along with his successful Kangeroo books is now also inviting people to the game table, is evidence of this. The game congenially captures the flair of the books. And a explanatory video provides a good overview. No wonder then that the publisher announced that more than 100,000 copies had already been sold within just four months. These are the success stories where licensing has really paid off for all involved.

Ultimately, it is not enough to come up with good games. It is just as important to direct the public's attention towards your products. A game without such investment will lose out.

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Author of this article:

Peter Neugebauer

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