There will be trends and culture shifts that stick with us once the fog of the pandemic has finally cleared, and there will be those that won’t. Fortunately, the Thursday evening clapping was one of the first to go. Others, like the weekly crush for the five remaining M&S food delivery slots available only at 3am on a Monday, are taking a fair bit longer to fade.
Then there’s the trend for board gaming and puzzling that has emerged from the lockdown mire that for retailers, hobbyists, and all-round absolute aficionados of the tabletop gaming space, like Becky Ottery, owner of Reading’s Eclectic Games, is one of those that is hopefully here to stay.
It was already a pastime on the incline, even before social distancing became the best excuse not to get fully dressed in the mornings, but one that hit such heights during the peak lockdown months across the UK, that sales for some of the leading names in the market, the likes of Asmodee, for example, hit Q4 levels of revenues. And that was in June.
According to Ottery, this wasn’t just sales from the already established board gaming audience, looking to laden their shelves with a supply of entertainment for when Netflix ran out of programmes to feed them, but a wider, new audience to the gaming scene “looking for anything to keep them from killing the family they’d be locked in their house with,” and opting for the likes of Villainous or Carcassonne. If it were possible for the Pandemic to fuel any kind of passion, it was for the casual gaming market, and it’s a movement that has stirred a hum of excitement for the potential that could be unleashed for the sector over the coming months.
“Games and puzzles are counter-cyclical every time there’s a recession,” explains Eclectic Games’ Ottery from her now re-opened games and hobby store in the centre of Reading’s shopping district.
“Games does better because there is much better value for people, so that’s within expected norms. In terms of when you lock people up with their families inside their houses, there is only so much Netflix you can watch, and having games gives you a nice structured way of interacting with each other, that doesn’t involve killing each other.”
Jigsaw puzzles, two player games, and co-operative games are topping the bill for Eclectic Games, being the choice for many both throughout the lockdown period, and now, on the other side of it; those seemingly to have gone through a gestation period of nurturing a new interest in board gaming.
“The people that have discovered this during the lockdown are now coming back and going, ‘We’ve played this one a lot, is there another one?’ So we are seeing people starting out on discovering board games because they have made a virtue of necessity,” Ottery continues.
“And what’s nice is that people are stopping off at the shop, and choosing to shop local; proving that it’s not all about Amazon. We have discovered a lot of new customers.”
That’s not to say that these are times of abundance for Ottery and the Eclectic Games team, and what with the ban on large or mixed gatherings, the store hasn’t been able to operate its usual weekly roster of game nights and competitions – a key money earner for the shop.
On top of that, the shop had to deal with the impact of a closed door for a long month at the height of the UK’s measures. But Ottery was quick to react to that one.
“Our website sales have picked up massively,” she explains. “Because I didn’t furlough quite all my staff; I had two people working from home while I came into the shop to do deliveries. They were making sure that everything was on the website. It used to be that our website was for selling tickets to events, but we’ve now moved to actually selling a whole load of stuff, so that has increased nicely for us.
“It was a lot of patient data entry. It was simple but a lot of it was new to the website simply because before, there wasn’t any need to have it on there,” says Ottery. “I’m talking about all the little pots and paints… and it turns out that during a lockdown, people really like painting miniatures.”
The proof of that is in the latest trading update from Games Workshop, who in the three months to August 30th this year saw sales rise to an estimated £90m up from £78m the year prior. The miniature wargaming manufacturer and retailer has credited its success over the lockdown period to the strength of its online operations and the healthy growth in sales it saw there. Ottery meanwhile, is with us when she says that a large thanks has to go to Superman and The Witcher actor, Henry Cavill who outed himself to the globe as a closet Warhammer nerd via a video of himself painting Games Workshop miniatures via Instagram.
“The Henry Cavill doing Games Workshop video was shared around quite a lot,” says Ottery. “I’m not surprised, it was definitely a good thing, but I am not surprised. There is a whole generation of people who were six or seven when this was a hot hobby, and they never felt the need to give it up because ‘geek’ is becoming more and more mainstream.
“It used to be that games were just for kids, then the kids that had computer games grew up and as they did so, realised that ‘there are still games being made for me’, and suddenly adults are playing games. Then all you need to do is translate that back into board games. The whole notion that only six year olds play games is as utterly ridiculous as it has always been.”
So yes, audiences are playing games more now. But not all are ready to commit to the price tags that come attached to some of the geek-heavy releases, the big box items, or even some of the miniatures kits themselves. There’s a whole middle tier of casual gaming just for them, and it’s what Ottery is currently refitting her own store with, in order to appeal to as much of the board gaming audience as possible.
“Consumers are certainly coming to appreciate extended use of things. People are going ‘well that’s expensive, that’s £50 worth of board game,’ she explains before divulging her sales secret to ToyNews readers.
“But, when you point out to them that: ‘you’re going to play that 10 times, that’s £5 per game, that’s four of you paying that £5 per game. It would be £50 to take four of you to the cinema without popcorn and drinks and that’s two hours, does this stack up?’
“So people are appreciating it, however I am seeing many more people going: ‘I don’t want to be spending £60 or £70 on the solid hobby board game titles’, anything with giant minis that was on a Kickstarter or so on, and I am adjusting my product to be looking more at the £25 to £40 range, because that is manageable for people and that represents solid value.”
The current situation dictates that the big box, big ticket items – the Gloomhavens of the world, for instance – are a hard sell. Consumers are reluctant to spend £150 plus on a board game that – for reasons of game nights being temporarily suspended – they can’t even try before they buy.
For Ottery, Disney’s Villanous continues to be one of her bestsellers, as well as (ironically or not) Pandemic Flashpoint, Ticket to Ride, Seven Wonders, Duel, Patchwork and Thames & Kosmos’ latest, Aqualin.
“As for the new audience that found gaming during lockdown, I think they can be here to stay,” muses the store owner. “The only reason they’d have not to from now on, is if they have negative experiences. They are not going, ‘I’m doing this because I am desperate and I will try anything,’ they are going ‘of the many things that I could do, I have done this.’ And so long as they don’t run into a ‘Oh my god, I’ve got into this horribly complicated game and I don’t understand it,’ or they pick something that is completely inappropriate for their play group, there is every chance that we will retain them.
“Long term, if we can all survive the oncoming pain, it’s going to feel great. Short term it is mostly about whether or not the people supplying their games do a good job of making sure they get the right games.
“That is where indies do really, really well, and usually where your giant onlines are less well equipped to do that personal