Business And Culture From the Board Game Industry


Across the world, when the end of the work week winds down, computers go dark and work goes on hiatus. Thousands of people trade in their digital devices for something new, fun, and trendy …

… Cardboard.

Since just before the turn of the millennium, we have been in a new era, that of a “Board Game Renaissance”. For those of you who have no clue as to what I’m alluding to, allow me to let my inner geek come out for a moment.

Long gone are the days of the traditional roll-and-move games such as Monopoly, Scrabble, and Parchisi. Starting 20 years ago, board games took a sharp turn to innovation and design with the advent of Settlers of Catan and the modern European and German style (called “Eurogame”) genre. The games minimized chance and placed more emphasis on design and mechanics while enhancing social interaction of the players. After finding an audience in the Western world, games have taken on deeper themes and more intricate design and mechanics, which have likewise found an audience in their European counterparts.

This next level of boardgaming has spread like wildfire throughout the international community, sparking a launch of an industry that pulled in over $880 million in North America alone – that’s not counting the strong European contingents impact on the industry. Last year Forbes posted an article on International Tabletop Day which celebrates the genre and it’s philanthropy, this year observed on April 30th.

While many of the traditional staples such as Monopoly still sell very well, this is an ever-growing industry that has been in hyper-growth (double-digit) mode year on year for quite some time.

So what does this “board game renaissance” have to do with leadership, culture, or building organizations? Here is what the trend of family and local game nights across the globe can teach us:

Industry can transcend and even enhance culture. Consider what positive impacts the iPhone and the subsequent smartphone market did for society. Or radio. Or television. Board games have permeated every facet of life: home, libraries, office break rooms, convention centers, shopping malls. Community game nights bring a wide range of people: senior citizens, parents, and children; students, teachers, and professionals; and people of all nationalities, cultures, and languages. Fun and socialization are universal languages in which board games are the new medium.

Connect and build a community with your customers. Only a handful of industries can claim to have a tight-knit community that supports it. Professional sports, local eateries, and artisan craftsmen are some examples of businesses that can have an avid support base. The board game community has a strong community presence as well, and perhaps stronger than most industries. Game stores have open game nights where families and friends can grab tables and play from a library of titles. Board game cafes are cropping up where people can grab lattes, snacks, wine, and even meals while playing the newest title. Aspiring designers meet at local gatherings and major game conventions to playtest their newest entries among people eager to try the newest design. And conventions have grown tremendously to support the base: GenCon, arguably the largest of these conventions, has grown out of the Indianapolis Convention Center from the past 13 years and this year will bring it’s 60,000-plus attendees to occupy the larger Lucas Oil Stadium nearby for additional events.

Connected online, but also unplugged. It may seem like a counter-cultural trend, but the board game industry, while eschewing games that require one to plug in, is very tech-savvy. Just because the core of the industry shies away from electronic entertainment, it does not neglect the impact the digital age has on it. Online presence through social media such as YouTube and Facebook connect local game groups, game stores, designers, and people of specific game tastes (such as wargames or worldwide Catan groups). The social site Meetup has many groups that connect and promote game nights throughout their communities. And one of the strongest supporters of the website Kickstarter is the gaming community who have pledged many a game that has come to be published. And the advent of 3-D printers has enabled many grassroots game designers to make and bring their prototypes to the testing table. We love our tech, just not at the game table.

Quality still matters. Gamers demand quality in their games, and those publishers that survive create well-made products. Gamers want to be able to play a game ad nauseum and have it last over a generation. This has created a huge market for accessories – card sleeves, storage compartments, dice bags, Kallax shelving. A game that peels and falls apart is as inferior as a poorly-designed unbalanced game. And for a game to have longevity the total package – design, mechanics, quality, replayability, and theme – must be present in abundance. Great service also is demanded – ask gamers when they contact a seller for tracking their purchase or a designer for replacement parts – if you feel neglected you won’t buy from them again. I’ve seen time and again people who asked for a small component to be replaced only to have a complete set of the components shipped instead; the publishers want people playing their titles. The best game companies make quality games and back that up with quality service to the community.

Social barriers are overcome. Europe, Korea, and North America are the biggest areas of this boom, but the industry transcends through all nationalities and cultures. Ancient games such as Africa’s “Mancala” and Egypt’s “Senat” have resurged and inspired new variations in modern games. The last convention I attended people were from Europe, India, the Middle East, and Asia. Varying incomes, careers, and socio-political stances melt away when people convene at a gaming event. Instant friends are made and connections on social media have resulted in lifelong friends from abroad. In addition, language and learning barriers have broken down through the playing of games. My 11-year old stepson has difficulty learning the basics in reading, writing, and arithmetic. But when his abstract mind engages in some of the subtler game mechanics, you can see his brain work in ways that traditional learning doesn’t bring out. His working of strategy, game mechanics, and abstract thinking has yielded some amazing wins around our family table, as well as inspired me to tell my wife (a non-gamer) the educational benefit he’s gaining from our Friday fun. The industry has far more reaching social and cultural benefits than meets the eye of the casual observer.

Passion and fun are cultures in themselves. At the end of the day, the industry accomplishes it primary goal – to invoke fun and social interaction. Many people who work for the game companies have a genuine passion and enjoy creating fun. But they work hard to test, design, travel, and promote their products and get them directly into the hands of the community. Board game designers generally do not make great margins, but the ROI for designing fun goes beyond the money to the thrill of providing a great experience every time their game gets to the table.

Leaders and organizations can gain a lot by studying this “Golden Age” of board games. Building culture, community, and memories through fun, quality, and connectivity are key components of any successful business or industry. The board game genre is strong, still growing, and is not afraid to test the waters to combine various methods to reach their base or chart a new trajectory in design. They very effectively cater to their base, which exists for the core reason these companies and their customers exist – to have fun!

blue meeple

Saturday April 30th is International Table Top Day, with a focus on board games and having fun with friends and community. Take some time this day to enjoy the fun and see for yourself how the “Board Game Renaissance” comes to life. Visit a game store near you, or just grab some friends and get a new title to the table. Enjoy!!

(board game cafe image: imgur; meeple image: polyhedroncollider)

About Paul LaRue

My goal - To encourage you to lead & influence others with positive impact.

Posted on April.26.2016, in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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