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  • Essays
  • Barrier to Entry - Why Don't Board Games Sell Like Video Games?

Barrier to Entry - Why Don't Board Games Sell Like Video Games?

SR Updated
Board games vs video games
There Will Be Games

I often wonder “why don’t board games sell like video games?” I know that there have been a few tabletop games that have sold a million or more copies (many of which took decades to do so) but none of them sell with the speed that video games do. Why not?

After some observation and thought (and experience, as I have been playing and creating tabletop games and video games my whole life), I came to the following conclusion: Videogame players are the same audience as movie audiences, while board game players are the same audience as book readers.

You just have to look at the success of board games in retail spaces like Barnes and Noble – and the decline of their movie section – to see this in action. However, I think there is something else going on and it has to do with each medium’s respective audiences. In terms of attention span and temperament, the audiences for these media are very different. Each medium has several factors that appeal to or turn off an audience. I call these factors the barriers to entry. Movies and video games have a “low” barrier to entry while books and board games have a “higher” barrier to entry.

Let’s look at the barrier to entry to watch a movie. A movie viewer needs the time (roughly 90-120 min) and money (or access if we are including today’s streaming services) to watch the movie. If you want to be pedantic, you can include attention span to that. However, once the movie has started, the audience member’s gratification can be almost immediate. Remember back to the first time you saw Star Wars (Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope to those of you who didn’t watch it in 1977) and when that Star Destroyer came rumbling by? I don’t know about you but I was enthralled from that opening scene. Immediate gratification.

The barrier to entry to video games is higher than a movie’s but the time to gratification can be the same. Audience members require (if they are playing a console game) the money for the game system (several hundred dollars) and the software ($40-60), the ability/dexterity to play the game (which can often be a factor as in why someone doesn’t play or finish a game) and, of course, the time to play the game (the average is 6 – 20 hours). However, if you are playing a mobile game then the time commitment is much, much shorter - closer to minutes than hours. Players put up with these factors because, just like movie audiences, a video game player can get almost immediate gratification from playing a game.

The book reader’s barrier to entry is almost the opposite of a movie/video game. The product is far less expensive than video games (closer in the case of a movie) but the time commitment can be considerably longer (depending on the length of the book) and, more importantly, requires constant engagement from the reader. Unlike movies, which is a completely passive experience, if book readers stop reading, the experience stops. The same is true for many video games, but it is possible to “play” a video game absentmindedly. Another barrier to entry is that book readers have to make their decision to engage in the content based solely on faith. Movies and video games have trailers – it is easy for audiences to make a decision to engage in the content based solely on the trailer. With a book, there’s the cover and, if you are willing, you might read a few pages in the store or online. There’s a reason that the saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” exists!

Compared to viewing a movie or playing a video game, Gratification for book readers is much more delayed than a movie or a video game; sometimes substantially. Often a reader might have to finish a book before they know whether they liked it. Or in my own experience, it might require revisiting the book to form an opinion.

The barrier to entry for tabletop gaming typically requires more money than for book reading, but it requires the same level of trust. The maxim “You can’t judge a book by its cover” applies to board games as well. You can watch all of the “watch it played” videos you'd like, but, just like a video game, you just won’t know whether you like a tabletop game until you play it. The forums of BoardGameGeek.Com are littered with reviews stating, “I thought I’d like this more.”

As with video games, the time commitment for tabletop games varies – minutes to hours – but modern hobbyist games often trend towards hours. And don’t get me started on campaign games like Gloomhaven, Kingdom Death: Monster and Dungeons and Dragons. (I have a friend who has been playing the same D&D campaign for decades!)

Of all of the entertainment media, the game rules offer the highest barrier to entry. Designer Rob Daviau has noted that “the best moment of owning a game is when you open the box and the worst moment is when you read the rules.” I don’t know about you, but there have been many times where I have read the rules to a game, thought I understood how to play it and still “played it wrong.”

Finally, there is one last barrier to entry to tabletop gaming: Other people. While books, movies and most video games can all be enjoyed alone, most games require other players to even engage. It can be challenging to gather the players necessary to play a tabletop game. This is one of the reasons why I think “solo modes” have taken off in board gaming.

So, will “board games ever sell like video games?” My research points to “no”. The barriers to entry for board games is just too high for the mass market. But do they need to sell like video games? I think this starts the discussion for another question, “Why do board games need to be compared to video games or movies or books at all?”

There Will Be Games Board games vs video games
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hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #295132 08 Apr 2019 10:35
Another reason they will never sell like that is their physical nature. Publishers are unwilling (rightly) to invest the money / warehouse expense to produce enough copies of a game to compete. Most publishers are unwilling to even purchase advertising for a game.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #295134 08 Apr 2019 11:17
That Daviau quote is an interesting one, because I really enjoy reading rules, and I first read the rulebook to MtG (when that was still a thing) as an 8 or 9 year old all in one sitting. Much like reading a book, the imagination starts filling up the details about what the game might be like. I've not played Root yet, but I keep looking at the rulebook. I'm sure there are plenty of RPG book owners who've waxed about what they might create but never or rarely get to actually run a campaign. So I do think that attaching it to book reading is insightful... but I also think there are plenty of book readers who don't want to play games, so it's almost like we stand at the intersection of book readers and leisurely game players to be an even smaller group.

Teaching games is also an entirely different skill and barrier to entry for those who acquire games to get them actually played. I enjoy this more than learning new games from others. I don't know if that's just my enjoyment from teaching, having poorer listening skills, or other people enjoying the act of teaching less.

This reminds me of the MtG Arena discussion thread. It and hearthstone have effectively become video games, which allows you to mask or add complexity without the player needing to know all of the details initially. Something like DotA or Starcraft are more complex or deep than just about any board game, really. But making them electronic allows anyone to bumble through it initially.
Ska_baron's Avatar
Ska_baron replied the topic: #295136 08 Apr 2019 11:30
I think the comparison of board games to video games/books/movies because they are similar in that they are all consumable entertainment products. They all compete with your limited leisure time, sure. And other hobbies, like golf or fishing, compete for your time but I think there is enough of a difference between the equipment needed for those hobbies where you can invest your money in clubs, etc. and rods, etc. to enjoy. Sure you may incrementally "upgrade" and I'm sure you can spend all types of money on tricked out golf balls, special shoes and fishing lures (hell, even a boat!). But those aren't, in my eyes, as fundamental a shift as "spend more money and here's substantially different experience. "
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #295140 08 Apr 2019 12:30
Scott, please check your PMs.

I don't agree that the other media you listed are exclusively solitary endeavors. Movies and books, while directly experienced alone, can be and often are enjoyed in groups, which is why people go to see movies together and there are such things as book clubs. In fact, many directors create scenes to be forms of mass entertainment inside the theater. One of my favorite examples is how the final moment in the starship battle in Star Trek VI is staged and presented. It's presented to engender a cheer from a theater audience and did so the first time I saw it. Furthermore, video games, especially modern ones like Fortnite, are engineered to be enjoyed in groups; both allied and against opponents. Part of the reason I don't play many video games any longer is expressly because I get tired of playing alone.

I think you could have dug a little deeper on your primary thesis: the barrier TO entry of board games. 2/3 of this is suggesting that the barrier to entry of other media is low and then you wrap up your central argument in less than half that time/word count without really describing why you arrive at that conclusion. Personally, I find Daviau's quote to be preposterous. While it does take some time to read rules, I'm one of those people who likes to find out how this potentially wonderful machine actually works. Most competitive video games have some level of this same issue, since you can't really begin engaging the game until you know how it works, which can take some time. No one dives right into Hearthstone or Overwatch without figuring out how to do things and (often) failing, which can lead to the same kind of frustration as delving into a 20-page rulebook. Additionally, i enjoy teaching games because I like seeing the light go on in new players' eyes when they both realize how the game functions and strategies begin to form in their heads. I don't look at those things as barriers. I find them to be part of the engagement with other people. But, as you say, if you look on other people as part of the problem, then it's clear why they might be perceived as a barrier.
mads b.'s Avatar
mads b. replied the topic: #295154 08 Apr 2019 15:47
A lot of people hate to read rules. I think part of that is the way different people like to learn, but I also think part of it is the fear of doing something wrong. In a computer game you might still have to learn the rules, but you can't misplay the game. You can play poorly, but that is learning the ropes, so it's different. On the other hand you can easily do something wrong in board games and I think a lot of people are afraid of doing just that.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #295156 08 Apr 2019 16:34
You can do things wrong in video games too, obviously, but they're often structured to give you instant feedback. This varies by genre, where something like a grand strategy game that doesn't hold your hand will definitely let you "do it wrong" until you've discovered better ways to play.

When you get a board game wrong though, there's a special quality to the failure, at least for me. It feels like learning the wrong verb in a foreign language & not noticing until some conversation goes horribly off the rails. The shared quality of enacting the game properly & maintaining state correctly also adds some collaborative pressure that's usually taken off by the framework of a video game. If you use the "shoot" verb incorrectly in Overwatch, that rectifies itself pretty quickly. In a board game, that correction can take a painful amount of time & joint frustration to work itself out.
mads b.'s Avatar
mads b. replied the topic: #295157 08 Apr 2019 16:36
I don't mean making a bad move, I mean playing wrong. Using a wrong setup which can ruin the game, rolling too many or too few dice, playing with the wrong characters and so on. That doesn't happen when you play video games because the system enforces the rules.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #295158 08 Apr 2019 16:48
Is that your PAC-Man game? My son has been obsessed with that lately. I actually had to build him one with 3D walls, because he wasn’t satisfied with the 2D board game.

There is so much that can be learned from these older games....even this one informs things like Western Legends.
DarthJoJo's Avatar
DarthJoJo replied the topic: #295159 08 Apr 2019 18:49
I don’t have the numbers, but I’d be willing to bet Magic and Pokémon sell “like video games.” Maybe X-Wing and Keyforge, too, at least at some points in their history.

I think it’s worth noting, too, that we buy board games differently than video games. They have a much longer tail. You can keep buying and supporting the same board game for years through expansions. Ticket to Ride just recently announced its London maps, and Dominion last year released its twelth expansion (not including promos and second edition updates) ten years after its release. Video games may have DLC (quite possibly inspired by board game expansions), but those reliably stop in time for the sequel to be announced.

I think board game history is much more accessible, too, which may have an impact on their ability to sell “like video games.” Want a Cheapass classic? All you need to do is find it. Want to play a Dreamcast gem? Find the game, then find a working system, then possibly find an older TV to display it right. Or emulate it, but that’s not selling, is it? Because video game publishers are apparently allergic to backwards compatibility and sharing their decades of back catalogs, there is only the new for casual fans. Even a casual board game fan has access to a much broader library of games and don’t have to chase the hotness and hype, if they don’t want too.
Colorcrayons's Avatar
Colorcrayons replied the topic: #295211 09 Apr 2019 07:58
Lately I have been engaging in more Apples to Apples comparisons with the spawnling.

Space Hulk (analog) and Space Hulk Tactics (digital PS4).

We all are aware of the analog version which began in '89. Without going into too much detail, Space Hulk Tactics (released October 2018) is the most faithful digital version of the analog classic yet made, with only a bit of tweaking to the original mechanical game design.

He likes the board game. The tactile quality, the grand board spanning the table. The rolling of the dice. Its like participating in an event.

But the digital version takes care of all the necessary upkeep, and doesn't allow the same mistakes to be made as you would find in the analog. Such as dice rolling, keeping track of phases and action/command points, etc.

The digital version looks a hell of a lot better than the analog, offering animations, sounds effects, third person isometric and first person perspectives of the action.

The only drawback to the digital versus the analog is the interface and learning how to use it to manipulate your pieces during the game. Where as the analog you simply reach across the table and go from there.

Consequently, it takes a bit longer to resolve a mission on the digital game.

I've been playing analog Space Hulk since '91, and he has only started this winter. We both started playing the digital at the same time this christmas, and I think we both agree that despite enjoying the tactile toy nature of the analog, we seem to prefer the digital version equally.

Speaking only for myself, I never thought I'd make such a statement. Especially after considerable time and effort retheming Space Hulk to fit an Aliens theme a decade ago.

I'm certain the analog version has sold more copies over the past three decades, yet I can buy a brand new PS4 and a copy of Space Hulk Tactics for the prices currently being charged for the analog version.

If I were the spawnling just starting out on Space Hulk taking everything above into consideration, I'd likely forgo the analog in favor of the digital.
Virabhadra's Avatar
Virabhadra replied the topic: #295247 09 Apr 2019 19:56
Someone convince me that playing Neuroshima Hex is better in person than it is on the app.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #295248 09 Apr 2019 20:57
I prefer it in person, how else are you going to enjoy the look on your opponents' faces?
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #295250 09 Apr 2019 21:32

hotseatgames wrote: I prefer it in person, how else are you going to enjoy the look on your opponents' faces?

Imagination man. We, gamers, make the best of imagination.

I, for one, agree with the article.

One of the best things about board games is its reductionist nature. Board games are limited by components and that everything has to be done manually. That reduces a lot of unnecessary fat, and lead to "clever" stuff.

Computers, capable of handling a lot of stuff, tend to make designers at lots of stuff. Of course, you could make a reductionist game on computers, but that rarely happens.

Of course, I like both, depending on what I am looking for.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #295251 09 Apr 2019 21:33
Also, more factions available in the F2F version.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #295258 09 Apr 2019 22:39
Jaws 7 was a visual gag in the original Heavy Metal movie, way back in 1982. Today at the gym, I saw an un-ironic ad for Mortal Kombat 11. I don't see much potential in a conversation about video game players.
Colorcrayons's Avatar
Colorcrayons replied the topic: #295263 10 Apr 2019 00:03

hotseatgames wrote: I prefer it in person, how else are you going to enjoy the look on your opponents' faces?