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People sit around a table playing a game at a conference with a dragon in the background.
Reuters/Ray Stubblebine
Can the hobbyist game industry move away from conferences?
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Covid-19 is making way for a tabletop game renaissance

Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

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At the end of March, Isaac Childres was leaning into the new stay-at-home order in his home state of Indiana. But he was also getting ready to launch one of the biggest projects of his career: On March 31, Childres’ one-person company, Cephalofair Games, launched a Kickstarter campaign for a tabletop game called Frosthaven. Within three hours, Childres had crowdfunded $3 million—600% of the $500,000 he initially sought.

But thousands of backers continued to pony up (including me). By the end of the campaign a month later, Frosthaven had become the most-funded board game and the third-most-funded project on Kickstarter ever, bringing in a whopping $12.9 million from over 83,000 backers (Cephalofair Games is donating some of those proceeds to the World Health Organization).

Frosthaven’s success is noteworthy in the history of crowdfunding, of course: The only two Kickstarter projects that have surpassed it are the Pebble smartwatch, which was bought and later abandoned by Fitbit, and the Coolest Cooler, which failed to deliver the final product to its thousands of backers. But it also illustrates the pivotal position the tabletop gaming industry finds itself in as a result of the pandemic.

Covid-19 lockdowns have created new interest in intricate games that require creativity and concentration—which would seem like good news for hobbyist game makers. But like so many workers in small, creative industries, they’ve been hit hard by the pandemic’s economic downturn.

“From the business side of things, it’s been disastrous,” says Geoff Englestein, a board game designer and professor at New York University. To survive, the industry will have to adapt to the digital new normal. And Frosthaven’s immense success could point a way forward. 

Not your parents’ Monopoly set

When most people hear “board games” they think games like Monopoly, Clue, and Guess Who?—household names that many of us played as children. The biggest companies like Hasbro, which makes Monopoly, would consider anything less than a million copies sold as a failure, says Englestein.

But hobbyist tabletop games are a different breed. Some of them, like Settlers of Catan or Pandemic, are fairly popular. But there are hundreds and thousands of smaller games that most people will never hear of. In this industry, selling 20,000 units is considered a success, says Englestein. While a single large mainstream gaming company may bring in $10 billion in annual revenue, the entire hobbyist industry could generate just $1.5 billion.

This means that most hobbyist game companies are too small to market their products widely. “Almost every single board game company operates on a shoe-string budget,” says Sydney Engelstein, an employee with Indie Boards and Cards (and Geoff Englestein’s daughter), based in Indianapolis.

Instead, companies rely on Kickstarter and large gaming conventions like Gen Con, held annually in Indiana, and Essen Spiel, held annually in Germany. “Kickstarters and conventions come as inherent marketing,” says Sydney. Word of mouth is key to reaching a small yet enthusiastic audience.

It’s also the primary way that independent game designers pitch game companies. The relationship is a bit like authors and publishing companies, Geoff explains. Most of the time, game designers aren’t employed by any particular company; they pitch an idea, and a company can help get the game polished and off the ground.

But that model was thrown into turmoil by Covid-19. In January and February, game manufacturing plants were closed for weeks, delaying production of games that were scheduled to be released and shipped to the US. Then, all of the conferences were cancelled, or at least postponed until next year. And brick and mortar stores closed their doors in areas where lockdowns were in place.

With unemployment levels skyrocketing and consumer confidence falling in turn, it wasn’t clear whether consumers would want or be able to spend money on games, either—which meant that the industry’s reliance on Kickstarter could be in jeopardy. To lower their risk, Sydney’s company, Indie Boards and Cards, delayed putting a few of their upcoming games on Kickstarter.

But Cephalofair Games had been planning to launch the Kickstarter for Frosthaven for months. Ultimately, the company only delayed its launch by a week. “The industry was holding its breath when that happened,” says Sydney.

In-demand industry

And then, of course, it was a massive success. In some ways, this was to be expected: Gloomhaven, Frosthaven’s predecessor, has consistently been rated number one on boardgamegeek.com, a site for hobbyist tabletop gamers. (Since the beginning of the pandemic, three friends and I have made a quarantine bubble specifically to play Gloomhaven obsessively.)

Cephalofair Games
The long-awaited game.

But it also showed that right now, while people are stuck inside together, many want to spend time playing complex games. Games are a form of entertainment, storytelling, and escapism. They provide a unique way to interact with people we’re used to seeing day in and day out. They allow us to use our imagination not to fuel our anxieties, but for play.

So even though the hobbyist gaming industry is facing a massive shift in the months ahead, there’s a chance it’ll survive and adapt to be even more resilient.

“As hard as things are, it’s an exciting time—we are moving online and digital,” says Emma Larkin, a full-time game designer based in Seattle. Instead of meeting people at conferences or testing out her games with people with in-person meetups, she’s had to put her games online using sites like Tabletopia, Tabletop Simulator, and Tabloro. It’s different from a video game because with these sites, you’re simulating rolling dice or drawing cards to play on an actual board.

And while it’s less familiar to pitch and play new games remotely, it also means that she can network with people even farther away than her usual group in Seattle. “It’s cool to be able to adapt our practice,” she says.

It’s still not a perfect ecosystem—but neither was the system before. Normally, when someone launches a new hobbyist game, they like to play with others at local game shops and answer questions in real time, kind of like a book tour. It’s been disheartening for Larkin, who recently launched a small game, to not be able to do that.  “On the flip side, my publisher has sent out more review copies, and I get to see more pictures of people playing. It’s more online promotion,” she says. People are still playing—they’re just finding new ways to do so.

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