Becky Ottery of Eclectic Games has got Brexit on the brain. It’s only natural of course, because even as Reading’s number one retailer for all things board, tabletop and hobby gaming, Ottery is feeling the pinch of an economy ruled by uncertainty as much as any other.
On top of the issues surrounding consumer confidence when it comes to their in-store spend - she readily tells ToyNews that customers are looking at the £50 game ranges they have in store, yet bringing the £20 to £30 ranges to the till - Ottery is in a deeply interesting position.
That position is between a rock and a hard place, and to better understand that, we must first take a look at the world in which Ottery, and the many hundreds of retailers like her - specialists in the board- gaming scene - up and down the country, are operating.
Now, I am not about to knock your socks off by telling you that board gaming has seen a resurgence over the last four to five years, ToyNews, The NPD Group, Euromonitor, even the Kickstarter trackers ICO Partners have had that well and truly covered for a number of years.
Yet be that as it may, there are some pretty impressive figures I think you’d like to see.
It’s true that sales of hobby games in the US and Canada topped $1.5 billion for the first time in 2017, reaching $1.55 billion. According to the estimates compiled by the industry insights experts ICv2, that’s a growth rate of 8 per cent on the year prior.
However, this is actually the slowest the growth rate has been in the North American market for the last four years. Nevertheless, it still adds to four consecutive years of big growth, over which time hobby game sales have more than doubled.
The hobby games market itself is typically and historically formed of two separate movements from either side of the Atlantic Ocean; that of the Eurogames scene - a class of board games that place emphasis on strategy, with gentler gameplay such as building a city, sustaining a farm etc - and those of US descent that incorporate a more smash and grab style of gameplay.
Rather unfairly, games of this style are often dubbed ‘Ameritrash’ by the rather more elitist boardgamers.
Whatever your own beliefs, the co-existence of these two movements means that on a global scale, the board gaming market has become ignited with a wealth of innovation, design talent and an increasing number of in-demand titles from the US and South America as well as Europe, in particular Germany.
Given the geo-political climate the UK has found itself in, coupled with whichever whim The White House acts upon in its ongoing trade talks with China, it starts to become a lot clearer to ToyNews as to why our board game retailer in Reading has got Brexit on the brain.
“The hobby game market is dominated by German and East European gaming publishers,” Ottery tells ToyNews.
“It was the big movement that first became popularised and today, we are seeing a lot of companies emerge from Germany and Eastern Europe.
“Italy has a huge board game publishing scene, but they are struggling to get their product distributed because their economy is in a state. On the other side, we have the American thematic games from the US.
“And then there’s us stuck in the middle. On one side we have EU trade coming at a point when Brexit looms and the apocalyptic fall-out from that hangs over our head, while on the other side we have the US games that are largely manufactured in China where Trump continues to impose tariffs and counterfeiting remains an issue.”
Now Ottery sits somewhat outside of the channels that the more traditional retailers looking to take on the tabletop board game market do. While many of this increasing number of toy shops looking to bring in board games - and that is a significant number this year alone - will work through distributors such as Asmodee UK among others, Ottery’s reputation in the market and depth of knowledge affords her a more direct route to publishers.
“We have an almost exclusive deal with a number of the games that come directly from Germany,” says Ottery.
“The Mind, for example, we have almost exclusivity on, we are one of the only shops in the UK to have it because we took the multi-lingual version from Nurnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag, its publisher, while everyone else is waiting for Asmodee to bring it over.”
Where Ottery’s ability to take €600 punts on the kind of tabletop card building games in which players don’t talk but sync up their psyche in order to play, will stand in a Brexit bungled future is unknown. It will certainly make things trickier.
Isn’t it just as well then, that the UK is practically brimming with distributors working across both the European and American scenes at a time when board gaming is the go to hobby for UK audiences?
Thames & Kosmos, by the way, is one of them. From this point onwards, if you’re ever told that board games make up 30 per cent of the Thames & Kosmos UK business, you can rest assured that that is utter claptrap.
“That was then,” Emma Hanlon, key account manager at Thames & Kosmos tells ToyNews.
"That percentage is increasing all the time, it’s now a lot more than that.”
Thames & Kosmos is the UK outfit headed up by Kosmos, the renowned German board games publisher behind titles like the supremely popular Tally-Ho.
It was only recently that this same UK outfit struck upon the idea to divide its UK operations under two umbrellas, creating a Kosmos UK destination for its ever-growing portfolio of games.
“We are bringing new titles in from Kosmos in Germany all of the time, that includes new titles, successful German titles and even a number of titles that have been out of print and are now seeing a second run due to the level of demand we are seeing from fans in the UK,” says Hanlon.
In her role with Thames & Kosmos, Hanlon is extremely well-placed - point guard, if you will - to observe the UK retailing scene’s stark uptick in board gaming activity.
The sentiment - one echoed by Asmodee UK’s Ben Hogg - is just as expected.
“We have started to see more custom from traditional toy shops creep in. They tend to go for the lower age range games or the fun and fast titles. The big one for us is the level of business we are seeing from specialist and hobby retailers,” she says.
"We are very much a part of the board gaming boom here in the UK. We are known for our Eurogames titles, but let me tell you, we have our eyes on the party games market ,too. Whether it’s the right t for Thames & Kosmos, or Kosmos, or our sister company in the US, remains to be seen, so it might not happen, but it is certainly on the radar.”
But let’s face it, board gaming of all varieties is on the radar for the majority of those working in the toy industry, whether that’s manufacturing, distribution or retailing. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s a highly lucrative market at the moment.
Take the case of Austin Birney, owner of the traditional independent toy shop Mr Wolf as a prime example. Birney was half way through telling ToyNews about his plans to open a second shop in Newcastle owing to just how well business has been going for him this past year, when our conversation was interrupted by yet another customer purchasing yet another copy of the popular party game, Dobble (distributed by Asmodee UK).
“Games like that are just flying at the moment,” Birnley continues, having just rang another £10 through the till and returning to the phone.
“We are seeing a lot of success with board games currently. Mr Wolf is about to open its second store in Newcastle, a new area for us, and that has in part been driven by the success of Board Games over the last year. At the end of last year, we brought our board game number up to 100 titles in the store, across the age groups, from toddlers and infants to eight year olds and upwards, as well as across some of the more story driven titles like Pandemic from Z-Man Games.”
Such is the success of the range, Birney has even been in talks with a local businessman to host a gaming night each month at a local venue. He has also just taken another six titles from Asmodee UK, including one of the area’s best-sellers, Camel Up.
It’s the faster paced, less mentally taxing games that have been serving Birney and his local customer base well for the past year, and that’s a trend that Eclectic Games’ Ottery has seen mirrored in her local area of Reading.
“I really want to tell people to stop buying Exploding Kittens and Cards Against Humanity,” she jokes. “But they are selling so well at the moment, I really shouldn’t complain.”
It is notoriously games such as these, Exploding Kittens, Cards Against Humanity even a title called Secret Hitler, that often pave a path for turning casual players into enthusiasts of the tabletop genre.
It’s a phenomena that back at Mr Wolf, Birney has witnessed first hand. “It’s become an area I would love to spend all of my time in,” he tells me.
“We are looking ahead at things like Games Expo and at the moment deciding on whether to open a new shop as a dedicated games shop. We are in that stage where we will soon make a decision on whether to look at bringing those more specialist titles in as well...”
And his timing may just be right to be chasing this rabbit down the hole. Two months ago, Hasbro’s chairman and CEO, Brian Goldner revealed that its fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons is seeing its best year ever.
“People are into Dungeons and Dragons today more than ever before. People are re-engaged with that brand because it’s a face-to-face game, it’s immersive, it’s also seen double digit growth in new users,” Goldner told US media outlets.
Whether driven by the requisite for belt-tightening modes of entertainment or simply by its appearance in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, the genre’s growth has been echoed globally, including in Reading where Ottery tells ToyNews that “roleplaying is making a big comeback at the moment, and I believe it is because it is a cost-effective way to have fun.”
However, Peter Wooding, owner of London’s Orc’s Nest (and former guitarist for the 70s punk band, The Jerks) suggests that there’s a deeper truth to be discovered behind those rising numbers.
“Roleplaying does seem to be making a comeback when you look at the numbers,” he re-confirms.
“Now the reason here is that Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro have, in the past, launched a number of Dungeons & Dragons titles, The third edition sold phenomenally well. Then, with the fourth edition, Hasbro got scared it was going to lose its market to video games, so they simplified the game in order to make it appeal to the video gaming market.
“What happened instead though, was that the game’s biggest fans didn’t want that. Subsequently, it didn’t sell. Now they have stopped fiddling with it and brought out the fifth edition, it is the game that people want to play, so sales are picking up.”
What’s clear is that when it comes to board gaming, Wooding knows his chits. He has been operating his hobby gaming business outside of a small shop in London’s West End since 1987, so it only makes sense. He is actually quite the celebrity within the gaming circle and over the course of its 31 years of trading, Orc’s Nest - a store complete with its own Orc emblem - has become somewhat of a tourist destination.
However, with limited space for the experiential retail and demo areas that so many game shops offer today, and with rising overheads and ground rent, Wooding relies heavily on selling big ticket items.
“Thank god for the Brazilian and Russian tourists we get coming here regularly,” he laughs.
“We have a global fan base and an audience that helps us pay the increasing costs of being based in the West End.
“As well as that, online retailing has a affected our sales in as much as the board gaming boom has encouraged and enticed people to trade on Amazon. To counter this, we don’t stock those kind of party games - or gateway games - as much as we do the more in depth, long-play games. The kind that sell for more money, and we’re talking £50 to £60 titles.”
Would he stock the games that go for £150 a pop? The kind that the gaming community has seen a resurgence of via platforms such as Kickstarter over the last five years?
“No, they’re not for us. You wouldn’t have that level of value sitting on the shelf waiting to get dropped by a customer,” he says.
“Also, the issue that Kickstarter has to sort out is the model it works on. Yes, these games are building their audiences online and come with a ready-made distribution list. The problem is these people - people who would have been buying the game in store - have already done so, for cheaper, via the Kickstarter project.
A project would need to have distribution to retailers lined up for it to be worth picking up.”
Possibly the biggest title to emerge from the Kick- starter platform to date is Isaac Childres’ Gloomhaven, which closed at around $3.7 million. It was only looking for $100,000, and within 24 hours of going live on the platform it was surging towards a new record for the tabletop genre.
"This is the kind of game that, no matter how specialist we are, will never have a place within the store, just because of the cost. Imagine having to watch a customer drop that on the floor...” Wooding muses.
The truth is, however, there are those that will pay upwards of £150 for a tabletop game.
A recent Kickstarter project hosted by Renegade Game Studio saw pledges filing in upwards of $200, while its top end pledge reward system peaked at $300. The sting is that this is money readily being spent online, via crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, but not in-store.
"We will continue to sell our mid-priced games,” Eclectic Games’ Ottery chimes.
“Catan, Carcasonne, even Exploding Kittens, Haba games, Exit Games that are very hot right now, and we will do so with our expertise and shopping experience. That’s where we will keep on making our money.”
Not even Brexit can derail the enthusiasm surrounding this board game retailer.