Few people would argue that Modern Board Gaming is anything but a mostly niche hobby but I don’t think it is doomed to remain that way. I believe it can grow into the fantastic, modern, social gathering we all want it to be. You may be asking yourself “Why should I care if the industry experiences growth or not? Does growth and profit really matter much to me, the consumer?”
We know that barring a complete digital revolution including a Microsoft Surface in every single home (sorry I just had a happy Nerdvana mental image for a moment there) board games will not be replaced by digital media any time soon. While the tablet PC has shown us an alternate way to play board games, the recent Ticket To Ride application and news from Days of Wonder has shown that digital media if anything is creating positive advertisement for table top board gaming. If you missed the news, Days of Wonder reported that after the Ticket to Ride app was released on the market, they witnessed a surge in sales for the board game. Interestingly unlike books where a digital replacement has surfaced in the form of E-Readers, it seems digital media/tablets want to play nicely with their card board sibling.
What we have to realize is that a healthy, growing, and profitable industry can benefit all of us in a couple ways. For example, the prices of games would come down (it has been stated for quite a while now the reason Forbidden Island is such an inexpensive game is that it had a large print run), games would not be sold out (I am still waiting for that Eclipse reprint myself), and we wouldn’t have to stomach another version of Monopoly for Christmas from that aunt who means well and knows we love board games “Monopoly Hello Kitty Edition? You shouldn’t have, no really you shouldn’t have!”
Now before you award me with my very own Captain Obvious cape and secret decoder ring, put down the duct tape and the straight jacket I am going somewhere with this.
Modern Board Gaming for the most part caters to core gamers. People who are not afraid too look at a 35+ page rule book and spend an evening memorizing those rules inside and out. Core gamers will pre-order a game simply because the name “Vlaada Chvatil” appears on the box. They also know there is a fun factor difference between Klingon Monopoly (seriously someone made this game?) and Star Trek Fleet Captains. So how do we make modern board games more accessible to the mass market? What follows are some musings, observations, and ramblings of a hopefully (not so) mad man.
First let’s take a look at the new 800 pound gorilla, kickstarter.com. If you have been living in a monastery in Tibet for the past couple of years, kickstarter.com is a website designed to facilitate small business growth. Basically someone creates a project and advertises it on kickstarter.com in an effort to garner funds to help produce the project. Kickstarter.com has been used for various things from artwork, to music, and even boardgames. Kickstarter currently has people sitting on opposite sides of a fence. Some forecast it as a future full of doom and gloom, while others say it just might save the hobby I will avoid opening that can of worms though (but feel free to comment below). While as it is now kickstarter.com does work for the startup company it needs some heavy changes if established companies plan to keep using the service. If companies want to use it as a way to reduce their own risk of investment, then they need to pass the savings so to speak onto the customers. Right now companies are eyeing kickstarter as a way to estimate interest in a project without investing a large amount of money into it. The problem is that so far the companies are acting like the startups with projects that are literally months from even being finished. They are asking you the consumer to give them anywhere from $50-$75 for an idea that will not even be delivered for up to 6 months. This is all well and good for garage level startups but not really acceptable from established companies, unless, they want to pass the savings on to the consumer. After all they are cutting out the middle man/retailer (which is why I am sure AEG will never use the service, as a company they are adamant about supporting the Friendly Local Game Store). Companies need to make financially sound decisions this is understandable. I also understand that reducing the risk of producing a game that could fail commercially will help the companies succeed financially. I can get behind these concepts as long as I see the following changes.
They need to have the games finished, play tested and ready to be manufactured/shipped. As it stands now games from established companies take about 6 + months from closing of the kickstarter project before they are shipped to the consumer. This will only kill kickstarter interest for the average consumer. Why pay for a game that won’t be seen for half a year? Also if the consumer is going to be taking on some of the financial responsibility they need to have some kind of spiff passed on to them, either financially (a good discount) or exclusive game pieces that will cost extra at retail. I don’t think this is unreasonable as it is now I can order a released game online from many different sources for up to 40% below retail. Knowing this what is the consumer’s incentive to use kickstarter? There is potential here, it just needs some tweaking.
Brace yourself I am about to say a very, very bad phrase here “Licensed Properties”. Right now somewhere someone is slapping their forward screaming about another edition of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit. I am definitely not talking about that kind of drivel. I am talking about smart uses of licenses such as the recent releases of “The Walking Dead” and “Hunger Games” board games. While these games are not perfect they are definitely a solid step in the right direction. Smart developers have worked hard to take popular themes and do more then just paste them on another throwaway game. I think this is a fantastic idea if and only if it continues to provide good games. These properties will attract the average consumer who will be more prone to pick up a property they are familiar with. The consumer may not have a clue what “Rex: last days of an empire” is but they do know they enjoy watching the Walking Dead every week with family and friends.
Speaking of the consumer, right now when Joe and Jane Consumer walk into a Target they see a solid wall of games. Most of these games, take Monopoly for example (first marketed on a broad scale by Parker Brothers in 1935) have been around for ages, are well known to the consumer, simple to learn (I think the vast majority of people remember how to play Monopoly without even cracking open a rulebook), and have been so mass produced that they are extremely affordable to buy (Monopoly standard addition even with pawns, money, dice, and all its cardboard still retails at about $14.99).
When Mr. and Mrs. Consumer want to buy a board game for family game night do they grab Monopoly, or that weird looking Deadwood game sitting on the shelf next to it? Sure Deadwood has a cool cover and might have an Old West theme, but it comes at twice the cost ($32.99). Being a complete unknown, 9 times out of 10 Monopoly will be purchased before the consumer even bothers to read the back of Deadwood. Heck there is even Monopoly John Wayne edition to fill that Wild West theme (seriously is there a theme Parker Brothers has not used yet?).
Commercials on TV are prohibitively expensive and out of the question so is there another answer? Possibly, and the idea hit me like a terrible commercial for the newest Twilight movie being bombarded into my subconscious in the DVD aisle.
Fantasy Flight Games has been producing some very good advertisement videos on youtube.com for their games, with Rex: Final Days of an Empire and Wiz-War being the most recent additions I know of. These ads should playing in stores right now. Currently there are two major retailers selling Modern Board Games Target and Barnes and Noble. Target has a large electronics department with TV’s that are constantly playing ads for various video games and movies in a constant loop, how come Fantasy Flight Games hasn’t managed to wrangle some of that screen time? Couldn’t Fantasy Flight Games send Barnes and Noble a 24 inch flat screen TV (retails under $300 at Best Buy) and a DVD to run on a loop in the board games section? I am not picking on FFG; I merely chose them because as of now they are creating the highest quality videos I know of. Of course that shouldn’t stop other companies from doing the same. There is a ravenous fan club at boardgamegeek.com that would gladly make videos for a free game and a $100 bill if cost is a concern. Granted there would be costs involved in doing this but I cannot be the only person who has been inside a Target or a Barnes and Noble and tried to explain to a perfect stranger that the weird looking game in front of them *is* better than Monopoly and why. If there was an advertisement within view, how many other potential sales could be made this way?
Hobby stores could definitely use an idea like this. Your average hobby store can’t possibly staff enough employees who are knowledgeable in every single game or have them standing in the board game aisle ready to answer every single question. A well done video advertising Dungeons & Dragons: Conquest of Nerath as a wonderful Risk alternative just might make a sale. Even I have been in the board game aisle pulling out my smart phone just to get more information on a game I saw on the shelf but never heard of. Would the average consumer be willing to do the same or even know where to look for that matter?
We need more games that are easier to grasp. Games like Ticket to Ride, Survive: Escape from Atlantis, and Dominion, games that are challenging but at the same time easy to explain and easy to learn. Don’t get me wrong here I think Race for the Galaxy is the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread, but every time I try to explain the symbols to a new player I get the same “Deer in headlights” look and I can almost hear their brains screaming for them to runaway. Now to be fair not all games are this extremely challenging to learn and I’m not asking for games to be “Dumbed down” but there is a fine line between deep and obtuse. With the low cost of DVD’s I would like to see complex games ship with a short 15-20 minute “How to play” instructional video. Nothing too fancy, maybe just a quick rules overview followed by a sample round of play, something to help with the hurdle of learning the more challenging games. If not a DVD at least provide a link to your website with a youtube.com or similar style video showing the same thing. There is a fair amount of amateur stuff out there and some stuff that is just wrong I would prefer something made by the game developers that I know is correct. Not all games need this but I would have loved to see one when I first tried to learn Race for the Galaxy.
Please hire editors, some game rule books are pretty substandard (I am being kind here) and make you think only the designer and his 10 closest friends ever play tested the game and then edited the rule book. Sure they play tested the game for thousands of hours but when you know a game like the back of your hand a poorly designed rule book just won’t be as obvious to you. If cost of hiring an editor is an issue, again might I suggest you tap into your ravenous fan base who would gladly edit your rule book for the low cost of 1 free game? Even better, how about a nice DVD to pop into a DVD player 30 minutes before friends come over for game night to refresh your memory on how to play a game you haven’t pulled out in 6 months.
The final hurdle is really a chicken and egg thing sadly; you can’t have one without the other happening first. Board games can be extremely pricey but the prices won’t come down until they hit mass market sales levels. Even I avoid telling my wife that my Blood Bowl collection would cost about the same as a new car payment if I bought it in one lump sum and she knows I am a gaming geek! It’s hard to imagine games like Runewars with an MSRP of $99.95 ever hitting the mass market, so what can be done? I can’t say I really have any great suggestions here. Publishers could make a Mass Market version of their top selling games that removes all the cool “Deluxe” bits and offers the same game but just at a lower price. Replace plastic with cardboard, special dice with regular dice, etc. I just don’t know if that would cause more harm then good though. We board game geeks love our shiny bits but how important are they to a consumer who is used to the quality you see in Mass Market Games?
Awareness, ease of use, and price to me all seem like good ways to open up our hobby to more consumers. I am sure those are not the only ways to spread the joy of this fantastic hobby but it would be a great start! What are your suggestions for broadening our fine hobby, feel free to comment below.
~ Michael V K