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Buyers versus players

It’s going to take a while to get to the point of buyers versus players: please bear with me.

In earlier posts I’ve wondered what the effect of free to play (F2P) video games would have on tabletop gaming. We already know that it’s a disruptive force in video gaming. F2P games have helped put pressure on AAA console games and have helped ruin the market for mid-level console games. They also put video game developers in a dilemma, because F2P requires the game to hold back some of the things that make it enjoyable in order to persuade the players to spend real money. It creates a divide between the players who don’t spend money, and consequently must spend time to equal the advantages of those who spend money, or who simply cannot attain the same advantages. This is why some people call free to play “free to die”, “free to lose”, or “pay to win”.

As for the effect on tabletop games, on the one hand we could hope that if players are buying fewer video games they’ll have more money to buy tabletop games. On the other hand, the perception that games are free might make people less likely to spend $40 or $60 and more on a tabletop game.

We certainly see that the market for individual tabletop games is decreasing rapidly, although it may be that the total number of tabletop games sold is steady or even increasing.

At the NC State Tabletop Game Club only one of the people who likes to play my strategic games actually buys tabletop games. But that can also be said for the people who like to play some of the other tabletop games that are common at the club. Most of the board and card games played at the club are either brought by a few individuals or are owned by the club. This is good for getting playtesters because I’m one of the individuals who brings games, it’s just that I bring prototypes rather than published games. There’s another gent who brings prototypes and usually finds players, though his games are very different from the ones I’ve been bringing this year. In fact we have only two persons who buy commercial games out of about 20 regular board and card game players.

In effect, the gaming club or informal group offers much of the convenience of free to play games without the accompanying annoyances. I cannot remember how often, 30+ years ago, more than one member of a game club owned the same game. I suspect it was much more common, as there were far fewer games to choose from.

In another contrast, the majority of the club members (we average 35 a meeting) are actually Magic players. And Magic players clearly have to spend a lot of money on their hobby as CCGs and TCGs are engines to persuade people to part with their money to buy the cards, complete with a new set of cards each year. (Full disclosure: I do not like these card games because they are fundamentally as unfair as free to play games; though I’m aware that there are competition methods that avoid the problem that the person with more money to spend can make a better deck, other things being equal.)

What strikes me today, however, is that in the tabletop market we’re dealing with two groups of people, one a subset of the other. The larger group is players of tabletop games. The much smaller group is buyers of tabletop games. For commercial success your game has to appeal to the buyers as well as to the gamers. For success in having lots of people play your game you don’t need to appeal to the buyers strongly but if people don’t buy your game then you’re going to have to give it away. And that’s not very practical because “giving away” usually means “print and play”/desktop publishing, and that kind of game lacks the visual and especially tactile appeal of a published boardgame or card game.

So, for example, wargaming persists partly because many of the wargame players are also buyers. (Part of this may be that wargames are often purchased to be played solitaire.) Wargames are too complicated for many gamers and too “violent” for many others to play, yet there’s still a small core of several thousand people who are willing to buy wargames.

But the wargames must feel and smell like wargames. GMT, who mainly publish wargames, can sell games that aren’t wargamy, but sometimes they cannot get them past their P500 system. They want 500 people to pre-order a game before they’ll risk publication, and because of an unfortunate experience the last time they broke that rule, they aren’t going to deviate again. So a game that’s “semi-historical” - a model rather than an abstract game but one that doesn’t appear to be a “simulation” - might not be viable for their method. In other words, the players (and buyers) may be out there, but GMT’s initial buyers - and what GMT thinks they can persuade them to buy - determine what is and is not published.

What Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites provide is a connection to buyers, not so much to players. KS supporters put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.

In the long run certain types of commercial tabletop gaming may not survive because even though there are many people willing to play there are not many willing to buy.

This is all exacerbated by the very large number of tabletop games that are published, which tends to make it hard for any individual game to sell really well. In game clubs I think what happens is that a “hot” game is bought by the club, or by the most active individual buyer, and then other games the club members are interested in are bought by other members who may buy only one or two games a year.

Keep in mind the 21st century Internet zeitgeist that “everything is free,” combine that with free to play video games, and you’re likely to find fewer and fewer people willing to buy tabletop games.

It would be interesting to conduct a survey to try to pin down some of the attitudes of people. The problem is that people often don’t do what they say they do, especially if they’re predicting future behavior, and a bigger problem is that many of the people who are just players cannot be reached by survey or are unlikely to reply even if they know the survey exists. I doubt that more than one or two of the NC State members looks at Boardgamegeek more than a few times a year, and none of us (including me) is a regular denizen.

I haven’t considered game collectors who may occasionally be buyers but not players. I figure most of the people who collect games also play games. But I’m reminded of when my brother collected vast quantities of comic books and hardcover compilations of comic books. I suspect he did not read anywhere near all of them.

This was posted a few days ago on the parent host of this blog. TC Petty III then sent me a reference ( to a report titled “Fourth Consecutive Growth Year For Hobby Games”. It appears to measure growth by the number of hobby game stores, which is open to confusion. As I have listened to GAMA’s presentations to game retailers at Origins, it appears that there are fewer stores that exclusively sell hobby games, and many other stores that sell comics, film, and other materials that attract related groups of fans.

While it says that “Board game sales were also strong in 2012, with perennials driving the biggest growth", the article doesn't give any specifics.

I'm not generalizing in this post to 'hobby games", because there are many popular games that are collectible, that require players to buy in order to play. That's their genius and their bane (for me, anyway). They make virtually every player a buyer. I've generalized above to board games, and card games that play more or less like board games rather than collectible card games.

I've seen store owners say that when Magic:the Gathering first came out, it bought their house because they could sell everything they could get. There are three hobby game stores in my area (230-something largest metro area in the country): a store that has been around for more than 20 years sells board and card games, RPG stuff, and lots of plastic models (by far its largest allocation of space). A relatively new store sells Magic cards and accessories, along with some comics and miscellanuous stuff. The third (also relatively new) is mostly about the CCGs as well.

CCGs are a big part of Wizards of the Coast business, along with D&D. In contrast, they don't get much joy out of boardgames (last I knew, WotC was the hobby boardgame arm of Hasbro).

Collectible games are almost as much a separate hobby as Games Workshop's War Hammer and associated games. Both are very big. Neither is what I'm talking about above.

Boardgamegeek and the "Tabletop" Youtube series don't reach most players, but may reach a large percentage of the big buyers. I'm afraid people on BGG, as with any community, come to think they're typical (they're not) and that they're highly influential (which is only partly true).

I also received this tweet: "@3CubedReview: Interesting post. I have found I am the 'buyer' in my group of friends. If I wasn't I'm not sure they would boardgame though."

And that last is the crux of the matter, really, a major point of the post.

Another tweet: "@Board_Crossing There are definitely a couple people who are more buyers versus players in our group too. People seem afraid to invest in games." Good point. Insofar as games are now expected to last only a few plays (with rare exceptions), I can see why people may be afraid of investing in new games. Tabletop games are excellent in hours of entertainment per dollar spent if the game is played many times, but not so good if the game is played only a few times. Most new hobby games are only played a few times by most people, I think. So most people are reluctant to spend money on them.

This is in contrast to 40 years ago, when there were far fewer titles, games were not self-published, games were more competitive than puzzle-like (puzzles have solutions, which ends interest), and so games usually could be played many times satisfactorily. There must be people who have played Puerto Rico or Carcassonne hundreds of times, I even know people who have played Britannia more than 500 times. They have a stupendously good cost per hour ratio.

This is why perennials drive the biggest growth. Collectibles are perennials, and the most well-known boardgames are the ones people play again and again, the ones that provide the best return on investment.

I have been involved with three college game clubs in recent years. Two were primarily video gamers, not buyers of tabletop games at all, but happy enough to play them. The third is a tabletop club, but when I did a survey a couple years ago, very few owned more than five tabletop games (this was before the influx of Magic players, by the way, so everyone who answered was there for tabletop games).


Dr. Pulsipher, I am both a

Dr. Pulsipher,

I am both a buyer and a player, but also new (<18 months) and passionate about tabletop games - my bank statements will sadly attest to that!

I am probably too attached to the hobby to refute your claims above, but do appreciate your comments about the state of the hobby. I am certainly encouraged by the success of board games on Kickstarter, yet I would concur that there will likely be fewer "astronomical successes" when the hobby is overflowing with new designs. Certainly the cream will rise to the top, but that top will not necessarily mean success that a "Ticket to Ride" or "Settlers of Catan" found a decade or more ago.

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