Dice Age: The unstoppable momentum of the board games industry

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

September 26th 2017 at 4:02PM
UPDATED September 27th 2017 at 8:29AM
Dice Age: The unstoppable momentum of the board games industry

It’s a booming sector that accounted for $9.45bn in global sales last year and saw a 24 per cent growth in the UK market. Robert Hutchins explores boardgaming’s monopoly on the toy industry.

There is a wolf baying at the door of the global entertainment market, and for a change, it doesn’t require digital downloads or Wi-Fi connection.

This creature is of a far more modest construct; carving new milestones in a traditional market as old as the toy industry itself. This creature is board gaming. And, generating some big money across the market, it appears ready to blow down the foundations of the current technological zeitgeist.

Let’s put it into perspective. According to market analysts Euromonitor, the sector totalled $9.45 billion in sales in 2016. On a more localised scale, games and puzzles has just become the fastest growing category year-to-date ending June 2017. The NPD Group has also revealed that the sector is up 24 per cent versus the same period last year, indicative of the swell in its popularity.

Whether you paint this as a renaissance or a rebellion, the board games and puzzles sector has been seeing a global growth for quite some time now.

In 2011, it was worth $7.6bn. Over the course of five years that value has grown by 17 per cent, fuelled in large by 2015’s gaming revival. We all remember Pie Face, of course, and the home video that helped propel the game to global fame. It proved to be quite the pivotal moment not just for the brand but family gaming in general. 

Since then, not only has Hasbro rebranded its games portfolio under the Hasbro Gaming arm and launched numerous concepts within the field, including subscription boxes to deliver curated content to fans, but more and more, we have witnessed a widespread of toy companies express a growing interest in the sector.

This year alone, Character Options introduced its first slew of family games, Thames and Kosmos’ UK division detailed its renewed focus on the tabletop sector and all the while, smaller businesses – Big Potato, Bananagrams and Accentuate – have each reported enviable sales figures.

Of course it will come as no surprise that, according to 2016 results, Hasbro remains the dominant force in the family gaming sector with a 22.6 per cent share of the total global market. Behind it sits the likes of Mattel, Ravensburger, Asmodee and in the Eastern market, Shanghai Yaoji Playing Cards.

But between them, this leader board of the ‘big five’ totals only 40 per cent of the market. So who is taking the lion’s share of this global phenomenon? 

Indie rock and roll

Board gaming; whether it’s quick-fire family games or the more intense tabletop variety, is arguably one of the most accessible areas of the contemporary toy industry.

Increasingly, indie board game publishers are finding shelf space here in the UK, while smaller companies and distributors such as Coiledspring Games are recognising the potential gains to be made by introducing them and the plethora of titles to already dominate the European market into their offering.

According to the most recent ICO Partners analysis, the total amount generated by Kickstarter’s database of successfully funded board game projects exceeded $70m in the first half of this year. That’s seven times the amount generated by its former leading sector, video games.

It would seem then, that the independent board game publishing scene is awash with more talent than ever before. But more so than that, the sector is equally complemented with a global community of fans ready to invest both time and money into it. 

“The best bit is, the awareness of games is not yet saturated,” said Ben Hogg, marketing manager at Esdevium Games tells ToyNews. “We can see this in the growth of sales, the rising attendance at conventions and the emergence of Kickstarters and Board Game Cafes.”

If there’s one thing to highlight about the rise and rise of the board game market, it’s community; between players, publishers, investors and more.

It wasn’t just Hasbro that spotted this dynamic when it partnered with Indiegogo two years ago in a campaign to find its next board game designer. Big brands have been infiltrating the crowdfunding community for quite some time now, helping to bring popular licensed properties to the space while allowing indie publishers to maintain their individualism among a fan base that just loves an auteur.

IDW Games found success with its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles title while Space Goat Productions scored with Terminator, but perhaps the best example is Dark Souls: The Board Game. A physical spin-off of the hit video game franchise published by Bandai-Namco, it was the seemingly unknown games publisher Steamforged that launched the project to Kickstarter in April 2016. By the end of May, the board game had cleared £3 million in funding.

Did it ride the crest of a wave of recent successes within the tabletop gaming spectrum? Undeniably, yes. But more than that, it presented the perfect melee of licence to medium and medium to platform to its global fan community. 

Culture club

Pop culture and board gaming has gone hand in hand for a fair few years. Look at Winning Moves’ varied collection of licensed titles, from The Walking Dead Monopoly and Game of Thrones Risk to Big Bang Theory Cluedo and Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit.

It’s thanks to the likes of Waterstones and the few retailers that took the chance on the sector early on, that geek culture has been rehomed from the shadows and brought onto the High Street where mainstream audiences are not only privy to, but indulging in a market that for far too long had remained one of the continent’s best kept secrets.

“It seems as though the UK is catching up with Europe in realising that table top gaming is a great way for families and friends to have fun together,” says Roger Martin, owner of Coiledspring Games.

“With the noticeable rise in board game cafes, finding more and more titles in local pubs and libraries combined with ambassadors for titles across social media, it is not surprising that many of the mainstream retailers are reacting to the growing trend.”

Such is the rise in demand for international titles that Thames & Kosmos recently detailed that its renewed focus was on bringing its German owner Kosmos’ array of titles in to the UK market.

“Many board gamers have expressed their delight that they can finally buy the games in English and not have to translate from German,” explains Thames & Kosmos UK’s sales director, Jo Drage.

“But with so many good titles to choose from, our main problem is to decide which are the right ones to translate first.”

It’s not a solitary problem. Owing to the vast quantity of board game titles available, (the online directory Board Game Geek estimates this at around 89,000, not including the thousands of titles
from amateur publishers), the concept of purchasing for first time buyers is understandably a daunting one.

The multi-million pound ‘gateway gaming’ market – a breed of table top games designed to ease players into the hobby – does help, of course, and many popular titles from Coiledspring and Esdevium Games, (such as Talisman and Pandemic), offer the ideal launch pad
into the market. But, perhaps nothing has done more for geek culture-mainstream relations than the explosion of the licensed board gaming market.

Winning Moves is the UK distributor of a great number of popular and pop-culture licensed titles and has cited a stark rise in demand for licensed board games from both children and adults in the last couple of years.

In fact, Q4 2016 saw the firm’s unit sales numbers increase from four to five figures driven by the likes of Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Pokémon and helping the company to its 28 per cent overall growth last year. This year, it expects much of the same with new licenses on board, including Rick and Morty and Super Mario.

Interestingly, two of the five big hitters for Winning Moves are based on IP to have emerged from the video games market. Add to this the success it is seeing for its Skyrim licensed games via online gaming retailers, the flurry of video game licensed board games to have hit the market in recent years overall, and the success of the likes of Dark Souls: The Board Game, and you can start to see the beginnings of a new sub- culture forming.

Of course, the same could be said of comic book IP or movies making the transition to board games – the Batman-themed Rory’s Story Cubes, for instance. There are plenty out there. But how many can lay claim to setting the foundations of an entire sub-category of board gaming, one that quite wonderfully crosses into the live experiential market? 

The escape room phenomenon really took off in the UK towards the end of 2015. Following a flurry of new experiences popping up across the capital, the trend soon went nationwide, mirroring the success it had seen internationally.

The concept was simple, if somewhat maniacal: lock a group of friends or strangers (or strange friends) in a room for one hour and challenge them to break free by solving a network of intricate and convoluted puzzles.

Its popularity has not only been well- documented but successfully translated into the board gaming sphere, with titles such as Escape the Room, Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor among Paul Lamond’s raft of bestsellers in the last year.

However, the escape room phenomenon actually emerged from the video gaming culture; a direct translation from the vastly popular The Crimson Room, a Japanese title that gained vast success from an underground culture. Around it, an entire sub-culture of gaming now appears to have emerged, one that transports the game’s algorithms into the physical space.

The relationship between video games and board games doesn’t end there, and the potential for bringing in technology closely aligned with the video gaming market – augmented and virtual reality – is slowly being recognised.

“I think there is still considerably more to come from adding technology into games, such as companion apps that we have seen in a number of games,” continues Esdevium’s Hogg. “A great example of this being our own escape room style game, Unlock.”

While many traditionalists will rebuff this addition of tech in the sector, others argue that its inclusion only goes to heighten the experiential element of board gaming. This is, after all, a market that thrives on the collective experience of its players and community.

According to fan website, The Board Game Cupboard, the UK’s first official board game cafe? – The Games Hub in Edingburgh – opened its doors in 2012. Inspired by the Toronto-based outfit Snakes and Lattes, the cafe? kickstarted a new trend that has spread across the UK,

totalling 15 destinations from North to South, and counting.

Of course, that’s not taking into account the numerous pubs and libraries throughout the UK that have chosen to increase their board gaming offering, as well as the hobby and toy shops that offer their own unique board gaming events.

Such is the rise, it has infiltrated the manufacturer’s mindset and indie outfit, Big Potato has even hinted at a desire to open its very own cafe? for the community to enjoy.

As for the future of the market, the industry appears to be in unanimous agreement that it will only grow stronger as larger and wider spread audiences are exposed to its many benefits.

“We are certain that the board game trend will continue to grow globally,” says Rena Nathanson, CEO of Bananagrams.

“With this renewed interest in the sector come new initiatives and fan activities, Casual gamer conventions are growing in popularity, with exposure to new products renewing the return to grassroots marketing efforts,” she concludes.