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  • Essays
  • Less is More - The Environmental Impact of Board Games

Less is More - The Environmental Impact of Board Games

O Updated
(Photo by K8 on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

As we all know, plastics are the scourge of our planet and can now be found virtually everywhere - from the obvious places like landfill sites to the most unexpected such as in the Arctic. They have invaded the food chain and it is estimated that less than 10% of plastics is recycled each year globally. Some countries have introduced legislation banning certain types of plastics and we each can do our bit to help reduce the use of plastic and thereby reduce plastic waste - and we can try to influence the use of plastics in our hobby.

Plastics are very pervasive in board games these days. Everyone will have used acrylic cubes, plastic dice, plastic player tokens or miniatures at some point. Plastic card sleeves and baggies for component storage are also very popular. We will also be very aware of the plastic shrinkwrap that new games come in. It's pretty much impossible to avoid.

However, it really doesn't have to be like that. I've grown up with wooden components in board games. Germany's board game heritage always consisted of wooden player pegs, wooden dice and other wooden tokens and components. Wooden meeple are still very popular and custom wooden tokens have become very commonplace.

Yet, wood has its limitations. If you want something highly detailed, then plastics are the way forward. If you want translucent or clear components, plastics are virtually the only choice - even though glass can also stand in sometimes. The main advantage of plastics is cost though, not just from a pure raw material perspective, but also from a manufacturing perspective.

So it's no surprise that publishers haven chosen plastics over wood in the last few years - and we've added to this trend by demanding the cost of games to be lower and lower, while asking for more and more components of higher and higher quality.

Things are starting to change though. People have started to wake up to the problem of plastics globally and our hobby is part of that change. Publishers have started to use the idea of sustainability and responsibility to make their products stand apart from competitors'.

Haba's statement about sustainability and responsibility feels rather generic and really only talks about the company's impact on the environment in a couple of paragraphs, not mentioning plastics specifically anywhere, but then the company is more famous for its wooden toys.

However, Haba USA recently mentioned in a post on Twitter that they are working on replacing shrinkwrap with pull-off sticky tabs, which hold the box lid in place. They are also going to use paper bellybands to keep multiple sheets of punchboards together and paper bags instead of plastic for loose components in some of their games. That's a really good start.

In August of 2019, Hasbro released a statement where they promised to phase out plastics packaging for all of their new toys and games, starting this year, 2020. I don't know how much progress they have already made this year, but again it's great to see these very public announcements for a big company like Hasbro.

It's not just the big names that are trying to make positive changes. A number of smaller publishers are also doing their bit, even though they have a much smaller budget and face much less public pressure.

subQuark's Earth-friendly statement says that "having all materials being recyclable isn't the best that we can do" and the small publisher proves what they've achieved by listing all of their accreditations, including the PEFC, FSC and SFI standards pertaining to how forests are managed to ensure wood fibre products are produced sustainably.

Big Potato Games has also done a few things to replace plastic with better alternatives. Back in August 2019, they announced in a Twitter post that they replaced their plastic bubble bags with 100% recyclable versions when posting games and added a recycling reminder sticker made from recycled paper so people would know to put the mailing bag into their recycling.

Big Potato Games is now in the middle of removing all plastic packaging from all of their games. Their plan is to have no plastic trays and no plastic wrap on the boxes and cards. They're also testing sticker tabs to seal the boxes that are based on cellulose and their new game P For Pizza is already completely free of plastic.

It's not just up to publishers to reduce plastic though. We can also do our own bit. Instead of buying plastic storage containers, or using plastic baggies, maybe we can find cardboard containers that do the same job or find great paper bags - or shell out on a cardboard insert that allows you to store everything safely and neatly while at the same time speeding up setup and breakdown times. Sleeving cards will keep them pristine, but having a deck of cards that is well-loved is also very charming, so unless you intend to sell your cards, leave them unsleeved. We don't always need detailed miniatures or realistic resources, but cardboard standees or cardboard tokens will work just as well - or if you have to, get some metal coins to give you a feeling of luxury.

I wonder what you think about plastics in board games. Do you find it absolutely vital to the game experience to have gorgeous acrylic gems or highly detailed miniatures? Do you really need realistic oil barrels? Does everything have to go in its own baggy? What alternatives have you found and what can you do without? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear what others have done.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #312037 14 Jul 2020 15:54
Sleeving games keeps them in good condition, which is much more environmentally concious than letting them be damaged.

Most of my games were bought second-hand, which wouldn't have been possible without card sleeves. I have put 170 plays into Terraforming Mars and I can still sell it or donate it without loss.

Either way, I think the environmental impact of boardgames is completely minuscule in comparison to other activities. If we seek to be more environmentally concious in our gaming activities, taking public transportation and being more careful about what food you order is going to have a much larger impact than all these initiatves put together.

There's more plastic in ordering McDonalds than in a whole expansion of Twilight Imperium.

PD: I do agree on other areas, but I'm a sleeve fanboy.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #312039 14 Jul 2020 16:43
Cardboard storage inserts sound great, but can anyone point out a place to get them ? The Broken Token stuff is made out of pressed recycled wood I think, so its somewhat eco friendly. But let's face it, the BT stuff while extremely well done is fucking expensive. I suppose there is a way to reverse engineer the templates for the BT stuff and cut it out in cardboard then hot glue it together ? Plastic bags have the advantage of being easy to mold into weird shapes to maximize how to fit everything back into the box.

I sleeve a fair number of my games where cards see a lot of shuffling. For instance ,while reorganizing my BSG stuff I sleeved all the small Skill cards, as they get shuffled many times per game, same for the Human/Cylon cards. The Crisis cards - where you barely get thru a quarter deck per game ? Didn't bother. Worn cards may be seen as a badge of honor, but with the in print status of games being ephemeral, preservation is important. Even in print games can be problematic to source parts for.

I think you sort of glossed over the elephant in the room - plastic miniatures. We got by with cardboard standees for years; now people are conditioned to expect, nay DEMAND, minis. The minis themselves, as well as the plastic inserts usually included to house them, add cost to game. The resultant box size increase adds both wholesale cost to the game itself as well as freight cost due to added weight and bulk.

I got into it with the lead PHALANX douchebag when they announced minis for the reprints for both SUCCESSORS and HANNIBAL. I explained that not only did the minis add cost and bulk to the project, they were LESS FUNCTIONAL than the cardboard standees, which had 2-4 different pieces of info, dual sided, making leaders easier to distinguish. They added cardboard standees as a stretch goal. He justified it by saying the minis would make the game more accessible, which esp in the case of SUC is a crock of shit. I skipped buying both, even though the games are among my favorites, esp SUC.

The mini rant aside, I get why publishers do it in most cases - quantity has a quality all its down, esp in the case of KS campaigns.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #312057 15 Jul 2020 02:34
Thanks for addressing this Oliver. I must admit to being a bit of a hypocrite at times, bemoaning the sheer waste inherent in big box mini-heavy productions and alternately swooning over the likes of Awaken Realm's opulent offerings. I will say that in terms of global impact, the board games industry is probably way down the list in terms in terms of waste produced with most consumers tending to lovingly keep and curate their collections rather than disposing of them in the way they would a plastic shopping bag or coffee cup. But having said that i'd be delighted to see a surge of wooden, glass and ceramic components, alternate packaging and other solutions. I think the scene and market has the ability to initiate change in this area by voting with its wallet and supporting such initiatives when they're offered. Such is our neutered agency under capitalism.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #312059 15 Jul 2020 04:06

Msample wrote: He justified it by saying the minis would make the game more accessible, which esp in the case of SUC is a crock of shit.

Oh fuck that. I'm tired of "accessibility" being used as an excuse to justify style over substance. Expensive, questionable style, at that.

Msample wrote: Worn cards may be seen as a badge of honor, but with the in print status of games being ephemeral, preservation is important. Even in print games can be problematic to source parts for.

Most of my games were bought second (or third) hand. This wouldn't have been possible without sleeves and high-quality components.
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #312062 15 Jul 2020 04:55
I really like the use of minis in Gloomhaven as it means I can easily grok what is going on on the board it being extremely easy to distinguish between the heroes and the monsters.

FFG just announced the new edition of the Lord of the Rings board game and showed of the 'old' standees next to the 'new' minis and the old stuff looked much better.

I am planning to do a special edition of the cast on sustainability in the boardgame world as it is a really interesting topic I would like to see addressed more. I'd also love to dig into the margins of standees versus minis. Sure you can charge more for a big box full of mins, but the production costs of minis must be vastly greater than those of a standee.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #312067 15 Jul 2020 06:46
Thank you for everyone's comments. There are a lot of great thoughts there, so let me address some of them individually.

I like @Eric Twice's comment about sleeving and agree that it allows to keep a game in pristine condition and therefore allows you to sell it later as if it was virtually new, allowing you to get more of your money back. However, I'm not convince that sleeving is better than just playing a game and allowing the cards to show their age. In fact, I quite like the look of cards when they have been used a lot. I guess, we have to agree to disagree on this one, which is fine.

Plastic miniatures, as @Msample says, are also a big contributor to the plastics count. I was hoping I implied this when I spoke about growing up with wooden components, especially wooden meeples, and then went onto saying that wood doesn't always work, but that plastic allows for more detail. It's definitely worth pointing out though, that miniatures are large lumps of plastic.

Like @Andi Lennon, I'm also often swooning over detailed miniatures. I love Rising Sun and Scythe for example. Moving those chunky figurines around the board feels great and probably feels better than moving cardboard standees. However, maybe it's time for both of us to reconsider whether our enjoyment is worth the plastic cost.

Finally, thank you to @thegiantbrain for his point about standees. I often find in Rising Sun that I have no idea which dragon figure to get out of the box and it's still confusing when they're on the board. The same is true for some of the figures. That's partly down to the sculpts of course. They could be made more distinct, but cardboard standees would probably be even clearer.

So, yes, thank you so much for all your comments. I'm glad the article started a bit of a conversation and was food for thought.
2097's Avatar
2097 replied the topic: #340983 11 Nov 2023 05:55
If you do take a real look at a life-cycle analysis on the impact on sleeving a game you'll find that for most games and most situations, sleeving does much more harm than good. Sleeves introduce a lot of problems that there are still no good solutions for, like fossil extraction and microplastic pollution. The usable life of sleeves doesn't last forever yet their environmental impact pretty much does.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #340993 13 Nov 2023 11:57
I take some umbrage with this:

"Yet, wood has its limitations. If you want something highly detailed, then plastics are the way forward."

Glass can be injection molded just like plastic, and also, it appears that the entire world has forgotten about metals. Metal is always better than plastic. Always.

The problem is that people want to buy and play 100 games a year instead of buy 5 games and play them 20 times each.

The logical outcome of this all is that the only environmentally responsible way to make Boardgames is to not make them, and make video games instead.