The board game market is seriously dysfunctional

Maybe this will just end up being a personal, petty venting post–I’ll be curious how the rest of you feel.

I find it incredibly frustrating to be a board game consumer in 2022.

I can handle the fact that there are bajillions of games, even if that makes it tricky to know which ones are worth my time and money–there’s at least a clear benefit to go along with that drawback. But when you add on top of that the kickstarter cycle, the shipping uncertainties, and the promotional ecosystem of content creators, I am less frustrated by the innumerable choices and more by the complete lack of clarity about what’s actually available and when.

I read threads here and listen to a board game podcast (So Very Wrong About Games) as my primary ways of hearing about new games. I browse my local game store occasionally too. If I catch wind of something interesting, I’ll try to look up reviews. Invariably the reviews online are videos (you can’t read about board games anymore, it seems) and I’ve learned that most of them are hyping the game more than reviewing it, because their livelihood depends upon getting fed review copies. And more often than not, they’re promoting the game well before it’s available to most of us, so even if it sounds good… can I find it? Will I remember it exists when it’s on store shelves nine months from now? If I wait too long, will it be sold out, with who-knows-what kind of chance of a reprint in who-knows-how-long?

(The once-reliable Boardgamegeek appears to be becoming a promotional platform in itself now, too. Remember when it was just a database?)

So I’ve kinda given up, frankly. I rely on games to surface to my attention multiple times before I bother to put them on my mental wishlist. Then if I’m lucky enough to stumble across them when I have money to spend on games, I might grab them. Or I’ll have lost my enthusiasm for them by that point and will pass on by.

Honestly, it’s making me appreciate what the classic retail/distributor cycle provides. Coming Fall 2023 – Cool New Board Game, by Dr. Game Designer! I wonder if @Vesper has any insights or his own feelings about the current ecosystem.

I got into board games in the late 90s, early 2000s. That was a time when I could own nearly all of the must-play games, and dozens of also-good ones. I could read about a game like, say, Caylus, and be ready to snag it when it hit shelves. Now it feels like stumbling around in a fog and hoping you’ll recognize a good game when you trip over it.

I got pretty overwhelmed with a lot of that stuff too, and basically gave up following. I think I’m too busy for a lot of boardgaming nowadays anyways.

You realize you also described the PC/video game market as well, right?

This is a constant struggle for me and a sort of black magic. I often have to put in pre-orders for board games when they have not a single thread on BGG yet, no reviews. All I get are box art (usually), know who designed it, and a basic description. I’ve actually changed my ordering mentality to order 2 maybe 3 copies of something that “might” be good. Gloomhaven 27? Sure I’ll buy a bunch. But I do a lot of test balloons on games - order 1 or 2 copies, reorder based on how fast they go. The problem for me is when we get a super hot game that no one saw coming. I have 2 come in from my order 6 months ago not knowing anything about, and now can’t service customers.

Kickstarter is a whole other ball of wax. I only back “sure things” these days. Been burned way too many times, and many publishers have become very non-retail friendly with their minimums.

Almost, but I think it’s substantially different in a lot of ways. The entire ecosystem is digital, so all the information I need is at my fingertips and I can wishlist something with a click. And I can read ten reviews of a game that I can rely on to be honest and critical.

And, critically: There are no supply issues.

Video games also don’t cost $150 plus shipping as a Kickstarter special price, and usually don’t rely on getting a bunch of people in one physical location to play them.

I guess I find most of the items listed as positive - that there are far more options available as a board gamer than there ever have been. Sure, there are far more games than I’ll ever be able to play, but I do find that to be the case with most of my entertainment options. I do enjoy reading people’s impressions of various games knowing I’ll probably never try them myself. I don’t know anyone who owns Gloomhaven or Nemesis and I’ll never buy them, so they’re just abstract interesting items to me. I do still jump into the occasional Kickstarter if something seems interesting and I think my family will play it, but I’ve definitely been less willing to roll the dice (ha) on those endeavors less and less over time.

My approach has involved two things:

  1. If I have the slightest doubt I’m interested in a game, I watch someone else play it for Youtube. I tend to prefer to go with One Stop Coop Shop (heck, I’m a patron) as they’re good at edited, mostly correct playthroughs and aren’t shy about sharing the full gamut of feelings about them, I’m most interested in coop (or in a pinch, solo) games and they do cover a lot of the big Kickstarter titles. Failing them, Rolling Solo, Gaming Rules! or Heavy Cardboard all work, and if none of the above have done anything with a game I occasionally cast a wider net still. I specifically do not watch reviews, unboxings, previews, or other coverage that is not a full playthrough of a game session so that I can see it in operation, as that stuff is vastly less useful to me in making up my own mind. (I do watch SU&SD reviews but mostly because they do jokes.) If I’m not 100% sold and I can’t watch it played, I don’t put money down.
  2. I buy games almost entirely through backing them on crowdfunding. I don’t have to worry about when or if they hit retail, I don’t have to worry about how much stock they’ll have, I don’t have to figure out where to buy it and who has the best prices, I don’t have to corral all the content together, etc. And I will for sure have a lot of information present in the pitch (not the pitch video, I never watch those) and project updates, where a store page will often have little more than the 1-2 paragraph back of box summary, if that. There are tradeoffs, obviously: often higher prices, the possibility the project will simply not deliver at all, and of course the inane focus on miniatures so many crowdfunded games have. But the sorts of games I like best are much more available through crowdfunding than retail (miniatures and all, sigh), and I think for the most part it’s pretty easy to avoid projects that are on a trajectory to fail - I’ve backed hundreds and had less than a dozen fail to pan out, almost none of them boardgames.

I realize that point 2 probably makes @Vesper sad, but…sorry! The struggle is real. I do occasionally buy retail still, mostly when stuff comes up that failed to cross my radar during crowdfunding but every now and then there’s a direct to retail product I want too, and I need to coordinate with you next time that happens…

Honestly at this point my problem is there are too many cool games for my space and time constraints.

Oh yeah, don’t get me started on the wasteful components in most of these games. Miniatures? FEH. They make Kickstarters more risky, prices higher, boxes (and shipping costs) bigger, and are just more plastic in the world.

I see the dysfunction, but I think it’s fun to pick through so many choices to find the game that best complements or augments my modest collection, at the right price. I’m always giving away or selling something, too, so the search is never quite retired.

Counterpoint: I never ever buy games through crowd funding and don’t watch game reviewers who review Kickstarter games (e. g. Rahdo, who I used to love.) There are written user reviews on BGG for most popular games that are as good as anything from a review site, but you have to wait until the game has retail availability for people to write those reviews. Even better is to play a game online: on TTS or BGA or @Dave_Perkins’s Discord or even a forum game here. That way you don’t find yourself ghettoized into owning a game no one else has heard of or is interested in. You find the games people are actually playing.

That seems weird to me, like I’d only end up playing games that everyone has already heard of. Frequently when I’m trying a new game with my friends I’m the one introducing it. Yeah, that doesn’t always go well but sometimes you find a gem that has just been overlooked and hasn’t been talked up much.

Board game hobby has to much of the cult of the new. It is hard to get good at a board game if you only play it a few times in an year with months between sessions sometimes, and then everyone jumps on the new game.

Getting games to table is only a problem if my friends try it and don’t like it, and that’s almost never happened. (Well, having a chance to play games is a problem, but if they’re there, they’ll try whatever.)

Space-biff has excellent written reviews.

If you like print, Senet is pretty great.

Honestly, it sounds like you’re reacting to something that gets pointed out in this forum (and other board gaming spaces, including BGG) – the boardgame industry/hobby is in a really awkward growth stage right now, and will be for a while. We’re likely to see some kind of Atari home console-like market correction in the boardgame biz in the next 18-24 months that may have some catastrophic short-term consequences for some developers out there. That kind of feels inevitable.

But it also feels like an end result of almost exponential interest and growth in demand in the hobby at a time where the boardgame industry is struggling to match it. Developers and publishers are still having to use game manufacturing channels and logistics infrastructure that feel horribly inadequate to the level of demand that exists within the hobby. And from what I can see, there’s not a quick fix for it.

And while all that’s going on, I cannot stress enough how poorly video game reviews analog to board game reviews and I would not remotely want to compare the two. Other than being reviews about leisure time activities, they’re really really different, especially when it comes to reviews from persons playing the game.

Professional videogame criticism has been through some of the same issues that board game criticism is going through now. I think and hope it will get better, as I’ve seen more and more sources of deeper, critical, unafraid to be very honest-seeming about calling out games where the emperor wears no clothes. But those are still in the great minority, for sure. A whole lot of “game reviewers” are more aptly termed “game promoters”. It is what it is. And plenty of videogame reviewers and sites still use the 7-9 scale too – there are just more alternatives to find dissent from that scale.

And player reviews for boardgames I think will never carry the same deeper honesty that videogame reviews carry. Spending $50, $100, $200 for a single game…that’s a serious cash outlay for most of us! And so whether we’d like to admit it or not, for a lot of us there’s a kind of investor’s bias that is almost certain to creep into our view of the games we buy. If I spend $75 on a game…man am I going to want it to not suck! And I might do some unconscious or conscious mental gymnastics to get myself to the point of liking a game that might otherwise have disappointed if I spent a bunch of cash on it. That’s just human nature.

I came to realize this a couple months ago when a friend of mine asked me about Dead Reckoning. I looked it up. I’ve played other games by the designer, which I like, and it looks like a really fun piratey adventure game!

Oh, except, you can’t buy it. If you wanted it, you should have pledged the Kickstarter in July 2020. Or, if you knew about it, you could have late pledged in August 2021. Now? No chance.

My local gaming store just has fewer and fewer things that I want. They mostly stock minis anyway. They have all the expansions for Nemesis… but they don’t have Nemesis (or Lockdown). I have store credit there that I just can’t seem to use.

So, yeah, the state of the board game industry is pretty messed up at the moment.

Or you could pledge to the Kickstarter next week.

And then wait a year for it to show up.

Sure. Just saying, you can buy it.