Have Board Games Reached Their Peak? Part One: Comic Book Parallel Universe

More than any other thoughts that I posted to Steel Town Games, this essay cuts me the deepest. You see, in addition to playing games and analyzing them, I am also a (unpublished) game designer.  And lately I have been getting discouraged. In the over 15 years that I have been closely watching and learning about the board game industry, I’ve seen a simultaneous expansion and contraction of opportunities for creators, publishers, and retailers. It’s all very reminiscent of another industry in which I worked: comic books.

Back in the early to mid-nineties, I worked at a comic shop just north of Pittsburgh, PA called New Dimension Comics.  Allow me to set the stage. This was years before CGI was perfected, so aside from Batman movies and cartoons, the only place you could regularly get your super hero fix was in comic books.  The most popular comic book creators of the day had just left Marvel to start the Image Comics juggernaut. Comic shops were popping up everywhere, print runs were way up, and money was freely flowing into and out of the stores. Traditional publishers were doing whatever they could – good and bad – to capitalize on the comic book resurgence, so foil embossed die cut covers were everywhere and Superman was dead. It was an exciting wave to ride… while it lasted.

Looking back, the first clue that it was all starting to crash down was the industry’s over reliance on gimmicks.  Publishers sought to increase their circulation numbers not through better stories or finer artwork, but by foil accents and transparent plastic cover overlays.  Some comics came with coupons for highly sought after giveaways – but if you cut them out, the original comic’s value plummeted. So you were forced to buy two copies – one for the coupon and one to keep mint. And other comics came in plastic bags which, you guessed it, would again cause you to buy two copies – one to open and read and one to keep factory sealed.

One of the most egregious displays of contempt for their customers was Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1 from DC Comics. There were four different cardstock overlays that featured Batman’s stylized silhouette over a color background. One background was pink, one blue, one orange, and one yellow.  That’s it.  No special art, no interconnecting tableau, no differences whatsoever save for the different solid colored backgrounds.  They assumed that the fan boy completists would buy and save each one. And heaven help us, many did.

As dedicated as comic collectors are to their hobby, even they had limits. The gimmicks wore thin, the promise of skyrocketing value evaporated, and sales plummeted. The product glut had arrived and the comic book collector bubble of the 90s had burst.

To his credit, the owner of New Dimension Comics – my lifelong friend and then boss Todd McDevitt – didn’t cater to the collector market. Throughout this time he focused on the reader, not the investor.  He reasoned that readers would keep the hobby going whereas investors would cut and run once the money dried up.  He was right. Other comic dealers in the area weren’t so prophetic. I remember working at comic book conventions in the mid-90s and seeing foot-high stacks of new comics – some published that very same week – at or below wholesale cost.  Those dealers were there to get something – anything – out of their investment to erase their order miscalculations and in some cases, their greed.

I offer up this bit of comic book history as a warning echo for board game designers, publishers and retailers. Since the mid-90s, the hobby board game industry has been growing.  Such is our success that even folks outside of the hobby have taken notice. I’ve seen articles in newspapers and cable news websites discussing how popular board gaming has become. Most of the authors are amazed that in this era of hyper-realistic video game consoles that some people prefer to shuffle cards and roll dice. Even so, it’s making a media impact. The last time I saw media coverage like this was… right before the comic book bubble burst.

So what are the parallel warning signs that I’m seeing in the board game industry?

  1.  Too much product.  I have read several board game blogs over the last year concerned with the quantity of product coming out – often referring to this bounty as a “glut”.  When you have so many products already on the market, and more and more coming out, it puts a serious strain on the retailers. They only have so much money to invest in inventory, so much shelf space in which to display it, and so many customers to sell it to. Retailers have had to get hyper-selective. A game has to be great – not just good, not just fun – but phenomenal to be noticed above the din of competition and earn a space on the shelf.The comic book parallel to this was two-fold. First, the large publishers took fewer chances. Marvel knew mutants books sold well, so they made more X-Men related product. Lots more. This caused the second effect where small publishers got further marginalized. Retailers only had so much money to spend on product each month, so they ordered heavy on the new mutant books from Marvel, and ordered only one or two copies – if that many – of niche comics like Eightball, Strangers in Paradise, or Elfquest.
  2. Strained customer budgets. Like retailers, customers have only so much money, space, and time to indulge in their hobby. Unlike comic books which benefit from their periodical nature, you can’t milk your board game customers every month so they can continue reading a story.  With the exception of collectable card games, or the rare must-have expansion to existing games, board game publishers are reliant on base game sales. The problem is that when you sell those base games, people need time to play them, grow tired of them, and itch for something new. That means it can take weeks or months between trips to the game store.I game every Tuesday night and there are board games in our rotation that we love but don’t bring to the table more than three or four times a year.  That reality has a direct impact to my buying habits. If I learn about an interesting game, it has a lot of criteria to meet before I consider buying it. Would my Tuesday night game group be interested in playing it? Does it incorporate a unique theme, mechanic, or experience that isn’t already met by a game in our collective libraries? Am I really interested in this game – or am I just being influenced by the “cult of the new”? More often than not, I’ll pass on a game if it fails even one of these considerations.Of course, this goes hand in hand with…
  3. Games are very expensive – and its getting worse.  When James Ernest started Cheapass games in 1995, he did it as cheaply as possible (thus the name) since he thought games were already too expensive. Since then, games have steadily gone up and up in price.There is an understandable sticker shock when non-hobby gamers learn the price of our games.  Someone who is ok with dropping $15 dollars on Monopoly or Clue – games they’ve actually heard of – are repulsed when they see Catan’s $45 SRP.  We justify the expense since you could easily pay that much for a single X-Box One video game. But even that reasoning is getting strained by how many new games are coming out nearer to the $100 price tag. I don’t doubt that Terraforming Mars is worth that price – it’s a beautiful, well-reviewed game with an abundance of quality components – but the reason I passed on buying it was because I could get Clank, Race for the Galaxy, and  Race for the Galaxy: Gathering Storm for the same cash.  Even die hard board game hobbyists have to spend wisely every so often.
  4. Theme oversaturation.  I’ve played D&D since the early 80s. I proudly own and watch the DVD of the Rankin Bass Hobbit cartoon from the 70s. I have a Game of Thrones calendar hanging in my cubicle at work. I love sword and sorcery adventures but even I have limits. There are just so many fantasy-based games out today that it takes a game as well-reviewed as Clank or as exceptional as Defenders of the Realm to catch my attention.The comic book industry committed a similar sin and not just in the aforementioned overabundance of mutant books from Marvel. DC spun up new Superman and Batman titles and timed them so one was coming out every week. In addition to that, the stories often interlocked so consumers were forced to buy every week to continue the narrative.  Then the readers who weren’t driven away by this financial commitment were much less likely to purchase additional Superman or Batman product because they already had their fix and/or had already spent all of their money.

So what’s my solution?  That’s in Part Two.