Is the Board Game Bubble Bursting in 2019? Rising Costs a Growing Concern

To say that board games is in a bubble needs to be qualified first: it isn't the act of playing games that's in a bubble. To some extent, it's not even the act of publishing games that's in a bubble. It is a specific type of publishing -- rapid, small print projects -- that is in a bubble, in addition to some of the culture that surrounds board games. Board game developers, publishers, and distributors are all feeling a crunch right now, as board games become more expensive to produce and yield a smaller piece of the pie to each one.

Board Games as a Hobby is Growing

It's inarguable that more people are board gaming now, though board gaming as a whole is still much smaller than, say, the video game industry. Board gaming has always been a niche interest, and though that niche interest has grown and expanded extraordinarily, it's still remained fairly small. Consider this: on reddit, the r/boardgames subreddit numbers 1 million strong. Meanwhile, the top gaming subreddit has 19.5 million, and people who just really like smoking marijuana number in 1.2 million.

There's no denying that boardgames are trending upward, but even the most rabid of fans has become fatigued by quick release cycles. With hundreds upon hundreds of new games constantly coming out, players aren't able to really enjoy one before switching to another. Casual game groups are sticking with mainstays like Munchkin and Cards Against Humanity not just because they enjoy them, but because it's exhausting to try to keep up with what has or hasn't been released, and -- perhaps more importantly -- because there are so many games out there, it's become impossible to find new games that everyone is familiar with and enjoys.

At this point, most have heard or played Secret Hitler, and if someone pulls out Secret Hitler, people know they will enjoy playing it. Comparatively, small box indie game #420920 is just a guessing game; maybe some players will love it, maybe some players will hate it, but people just don't know. This has trended players away from purchasing the onslaught of new games and towards the more recognizable names in the industry, and it's affecting how much money is really available in the pool for independent developers.

Board Games Are Becoming More Expensive

It in't just that people are becoming fatigue, it's also that board games are becoming more expensive. As they become more expensive, individuals are going to be more likely to pick up a few games they recognize rather than a multitude of games that they don't. 

Chinese tariffs are hitting the manufacturing process hard, in addition to the new Chinese initiatives to reduce pollution. While American paper companies could pick up the slack, they are also still dealing with the aftermath of several major weather events. This is something that is impacting many industries, not just board games -- but it's more noticeable in board games specifically because there are often such small batch prints. The smaller the batch, the larger the cost of each individual box.

This isn't just hurting developers and publishers; it's also hurting game stores. Game stores are finding that they need to spend more to purchase games, while the public is only willing to spend so much on a copy of Splendor. Thus, it's likely that board game stores are going to be some of the hardest hit, because they are the ones that are largely being asked to take on that deficit. Luckily, many board game stores are fairly well diversified into other areas. 

Indie developers are also going to find it very hard to profitably publish their games, unless they are willing to invest both more ine and more money into printing in larger batches. And that's very dangerous for developers who may not have previous experience in manufacturing and may not have brought a game to market before. Long-term, we are going to see less diversity in games, but this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Developers are going to be forced to be more thoughtful about the games that they release, as well as more economical about the design decisions that they make.

An Interesting Trend Emerges

As the market shifts, many are trying different things. Board games have started shifting into the corporate realm, where many businesses are far more likely to pay quite a bit more for team-building exercises. Board games are also moving into academia and therapy spheres, where they are being used as tools rather than just for entertainment. In essence, the board game industry itself is continuing to diversify. 

Pressure causes evolution, and evolution is neither bad nor good, but just different. However, it is interesting to note that many board game shops are now switching over to things like roleplaying, corporate event planning, or food service. These are options for brick-and-mortar event spaces that are now finding themselves in a crunch. 

An economic downturn is only just starting, and the board game industry is likely to suffer as a consequence. But that isn't likely to impact your weekly game group -- it's likely to impact everything on the periphery. Small run games will be hit the hardest because there just isn't the profit potential there. The market can only sustain so much. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the scope of what is available may be narrowing.