If you follow me on the socials then you’ll have seen me fawning over my recently arrived copy of Oath. This was a great Kickstarter campaign run by Leder Games and it really is one of the nicest productions I’ve seen. Is it a good game? Don’t know yet, but I’ll be putting pen to paper at some point this year to give you my thoughts.
Oath is not what I want to write about today though, well sort of. A couple of days after I got it I was talking to a friend about a side of the hobby we don’t really talk about enough. Accessibility in games is becoming more and more important as the hobby grows, it should have been important before now but let’s not get into that. Colour blindness, representation, or any of the other myriad considerations that come under that umbrella are important but today I want to look at another aspect of accessibility. Availability.
Imagine that you introduce a friend to boardgames. Somewhere along the road you pull out a crowdfunded game. You finish up. They love it. They ask where they can buy it. Bad news friend, you can’t. It was Kickstarter exclusive, or it's coming back to crowdfunding for a second edition so if you drop £100 now and wait a year you can get a copy. That’s not really a great situation is it?
Our hobby is one that relies on physical products and the tactile experience of interacting with them. The roll of dice, the shuffle of cards, the weight of a piece; these are the things we connect with in a game. The downside of them being a physical product is that they need to be produced and distributed and that is a whole can of worms. Designed all over the world, mostly printed in China, shipped to the four corners of the globe. I made that sound simple, but the reality of global trade is that it's incredibly complicated and a bit of a miracle that products get to shelves with so few problems on a daily basis. The recent incidence in the Suez should be reminder enough at how fragile the global system is.
Apart from international trade considerations, we now have a good percentage of games that go exclusively through crowdfunding, or are only available for a very limited time after the campaign ends. In and of themselves limited availability and exclusives aren’t a problem. When a large proportion of the board game media are promoting said crowdfunded games, we have a problem.
If you are someone coming to boardgames, it might be easy to conclude that they are all £200 behemoths that you need to buy now and get much, much later. Of course there are great games that are nearly always available, but the hobby community is very much focused on the new.
Let’s look at this a step at a time. Games that are crowdfunding exclusive, only available through those platforms, never to be seen outside of a campaign, I see no real reason to play or promote. I play games to have shared experiences with people, and sometimes that means telling them where they can buy the great game they just played. If I have to answer ‘you can’t’ that’s just not what I want to be saying.
Imagine watching a film and then never being able to buy it to watch at home. Copyright and similar do sometimes prevent films being around, but in our digital age nearly everything can be found. It’s a similar situation for comics, books, and TV shows.
Companies also use crowdfunding to fund print runs, sometimes coming back to the well multiple times to fund new editions or print runs. Boardgames are hard to produce and for the economics to make any sense you need to do large print runs. It’s easy to understand why even companies that we see as successful, would use crowdfunding over and over as it is guaranteed sales before you’ve even printed the game, and when done correctly can fund a larger print run. The unfortunate knock-on effect is that supply can fluctuate wildly, demand gets pent up, games sell out quickly, and the company goes back to crowdfunding leaving a lot of people empty handed if they aren’t on the ball.
Why does this matter? Boardgaming is growing at a fantastic rate and the only way that can continue is if people have easy access to buying games. Much as some malign Asmodee, the company does a pretty good job of keeping evergreen titles like Catan, Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassone in both hobby stores, and more mainstream retail.
It’s the penetration of the wider market that will bring more people to the table. The razzle dazzle of crowdfunding is all good and well, but it’s the tiles you can get easily that will actually bring more people to the table.
Preserving the Form
There is another side to the supply and demand of the hobby. Let us compare boardgames to books again. The reason I have chosen books is that they are also a physical object with a certain amount of fetishisation associated with the product, just as with boardgames.
If you walked into a high street bookshop, like ‘Barnes & Noble’ or ‘Waterstones’, and wanted a copy of Dickens, or your classic author/book of choice here, you might be a little concerned if they didn’t have a copy. Try walking into a boardgame shop and asking for a copy of well regarded classic El Grande, or your classic game of choice here. A lot of the games regarded as classics on a critical level, are just not available to buy.
There are projects on the go to preserve the history of computer games and I think we should be doing the same with boardgames. What will this take? We kind of have the infrastructure in place already. Virtual Tabletops like Tabletop Simulator, Tabletopia, and Boardgame Arena provide ways to play games digitally even if they are physically out of print.
Now there are copyright issues with this, just as there are for books, but there are new and old publishers embracing these digital platforms every week. Asmodee’s recent acquisition of Boardgame Arena speaks to that company's belief in the digital future of boardgames. Kickstarter companies would also do well to use these platforms to show off their games and let people really embrace it before it even hits their tables.
Maybe, just maybe, we can go further. The rise of 3D printing, the improving quality of Print on Demand, could allow single copies of a game to be printed at a time. Gamecrafter in the states already provides this kind of service for small publishers, allowing them to eschew the traditional model of holding stock and distributing it. Could we see a Print on Demand board game company like Drivethrucards? I really think it is becoming a possibility.
Are any of these options like having the original? No. Is it better than not having them at all? Yes.
Reviews & Responsibility
Reviewers have a responsibility not only to our audience but also to the wider community. We hope to help people find their next favourite game. To keep relevant, we believe that we have to pursue the newest titles. I really believe that there is value in a critic looking back at classics, or even just games that have been around for a few years and are easily available. Not only does it help the critic understand where the hobby has been and educate us in the fundamentals our wonderful hobby is built on, but it provides context for these games in the modern landscape.
This could be as simple as continuing to promote older reviews, something I don’t do enough myself, or as in depth as revisiting Catan in light of more modern titles, like the wonderful No Pun Included did recently.
It’s also important to remember that Boardgamegeek(BGG) is not the be all and end all of the community. Put ‘best boardgames’ into Google and you’ll get a bunch of lists including the top rated games on BGG. It is quite a different list to the first few lists you will find, full of heavier games and not a Catan in sight. The board game buying populous and the population of BGG are not the same thing.
Supply issues affect access to the game reviewers promote, and in turn our ability to promote the hobby. We can all claim that it's not about the money, but of course it is. The hobby won’t exist without games to buy and companies to make new things. The evergreen titles that keep lots of shops open, keep boardgame companies in business and allow them to explore new avenues.
Crowdfunding has taken over the hobby boardgame scene in the last decade but it is not the only place to get your boardgames, and it is not where the majority of growth is going to happen. The hobby will grow through games being in supermarkets, mainstream bookshops, and on the shelves of your local toy store. If supply is good, we can recommend great games with all sorts of themes and mechanics to new people. Some of those will become taken with our hobby and really get into it, and that is great, The majority will just buy a few games, maybe even just one that they love. They’ll share that love with their friends and family. and that is even better.