Anyone trying to go to a bar or coffee shop over the weekend may have been forced to wait longer in lines or found it harder to find places to sit because tables were full of people were sitting around tables playing board games. That’s because last Saturday was ‘International Tabletop Day,’ and tons of people came out to bars, coffee shops and other places to play games with friends or meet new people who enjoy board games. This idea was the brain-child of Wil Wheaton, who hosts the youtube show, ‘Tabletop’ where biweekly he brings his celebrity friends to play a wide array of games. His show has risen in popularity with the tide of new board game players over the last three years, evidenced in that it was able to, using indiegogo, raise almost one and a half million dollars to fund the 3rd season’s production. While the show has contributed immensely to the growing interest in board games, this trend has been apparent for some time.
While almost everyone who plays board games agrees that we’re currently in the golden age of gaming, there is a fair bit of anxiety that this recent growth is only a temporary bubble. The recent growth is worriedly compared by gamers to what was seen in the mid 90’s with comic books, where a huge amount of demand for comic books caused the prices for these books to vastly inflate over time due to collectability, and eventually forced out much of the non-speculative market. This led to a crash in 1996 that bankrupted Marvel, and the industry still hasn’t totally recovered. The comic book industry was only one out of several examples of recent speculation-driven crashes. Beanie babies are hardly talked about and very few people collect Pokémon cards anymore, to name a few examples. Speculation can drown markets, so the concern that board games are being speculated over isn’t unwarranted. In addition, there are some similarities between the board game and comic book markets, such as collectible editions of games and an industry trend of small print-runs, enough similarities to make the comparison a reasonable one. Both of these similarities can lead to over-speculation and a boom/bust cycle, but there are two main differences between board games and comic books that make this new growth different, and prevent any speculation from dominating the market.
The first difference is what defines a successful game, versus a successful comic book in the eyes of the publisher. By far, the game with the most sales from year to year in the board game market is ‘Monopoly.’ Everyone has played it, or at the very least heard about it. This is fairly uncommon in most markets, since it was published in 1953, a fact which is actually fairly incredible if you think about it. Imagine if Doctor Zhivago had, since being put on the best-seller list in 1958, continued to sell more copies than any other book year after year. That means that having a successful game guarantees some continued demand for that game for quite a long time, since old games aren’t necessarily rendered obsolete by newer ones. There have been some new classics that have come out more recently as well such as Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride (though their sales numbers are dwarfed by Monopoly’s). Unfortunately for publishers, there has been no guaranteed way to predict which games will become popular in the long-term, so most publishers have taken to shot gunning as many high-quality releases out in a year that they can to hopefully cash in on ‘the Monopoly effect.’ This is different from comic books because this inherent difficulty of prediction makes it hard to speculate which will be valuable in the future. You could in the 90s, with reasonable certainty, predict that early prints of the new superman comic would be very valuable because the LAST superman comic was so valuable. Not every rare game is worth large quantities of money because the rarity doesn’t necessarily coincide with the quality. While there is still some speculation that occurs when games go out of print, this occurs later and doesn’t prevent the highest quality games from being reprinted for purchase.
The second reason why speculation isn’t efficient in the board game market is due to the prevalence of what are called ‘math-trades.’ This arose as a solution to a problem as the number of games being published every year began to inflate. People started ending up with huge collections of games, some of which they really didn’t like, but knew that someone else would probably enjoy. Some of these trades would happen naturally, but a large swathe of people were still left with games they either gave to goodwill or let collect dust on their shelf. The market needed a way to perform a massive game-swap where everyone would end up better off. This type of swapping problem is done in a number of places, namely hospitals that are looking to match willing organ donors with recipients. While such a problem would normally be done piecewise through a brute-force method, this method is extremely lengthy. When performed on a normal-sized trade group (about 150 people) using a standard computer this calculation would take over a century to compute, so a shortcut was required to get some approximation of optimal match for a trade in a reasonable period of time. This shortcut (which you can read the details of here if you really like math,) allowed gamers to get access to games that had gone out of print without having to pay a speculator some absurd premium for the privilege. This ease of access to games further undermines the risk of a bubble because the idea of exclusivity that underlies speculation in these types of markets isn’t nearly as strong.
While board games are growing in popularity and that popularity may eventually wane, I don’t think there will be nearly the up and down cycles of similar markets though they do share some characteristics because these two factors make speculation very difficult. So the takeaways are, we should expect to see a long, healthy market for games and, as Wil Wheaton says, ‘play more games.’