The Dynamics of the Tabletop Game Industry

PAX East 2016, Boston

In 1935, the film Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, won the U.S. box office movie of the year, and Parker Brothers introduced Monopoly. In some alternate universe, where people embrace movies the way they embrace board games in our universe, Mutiny on the Bounty still dominates the box office but people play a wide variety of board games.

In our universe, however, Monopoly dominates. When asked what was the last board game that they had played, 33% of 599 U.S. consumers said it was Monopoly or a version of Monopoly. Old standbys dominate, in fact: the next most mentioned games were The Game of Life (first published in 1960; selected by 5.7% of players) and Scrabble (published in 1948; selected by 5.2%). The only new game of the past 25 years to make the top 10 was Catan (formerly known as Settlers of Catan): published in 1995 and selected by 3.3% of players).

While Monopoly has embraced hundreds of different themes, the most popular remains the classic game: 73% of 378 players (from a separate survey) had played the original edition last. The most popular themes were Star Wars (2.6%) and Disney (1.3%).

The mainstream player of board games does not want to learn new rules. They want familiarity and rules they know. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that most Monopoly players use house rules rather than the actual rules; in other words, they play Monopoly the way they were taught to play Monopoly. A quick poll of 115 consumers found that 32% of consumers preferred to play a boardgame that they had played before, while only 13% preferred to play one new to them (the rest had no preference).

While it is possible for a board game to break into the mainstream, it is exceedingly rare. Apples to Apples, first published in 1999, was the 11th most played game (1.5%), tied with its mechanically similar if thematically divergent cousin, Cards Against Humanity (1.5%). Since Cards Against Humanity was first published in 2010 after a Kickstarter campaign, it has inspired thousands of game designers to try to publish the next breakthrough title.

Boardgame enthusiasts are the most open to learning new games from the rules rather than from a friend, yet their openness to novelty in gaming limits the success of new titles. Boardgame enthusiasts are so open to playing new games that they rarely play any game for long.

To better understand this phenomenon, we looked at the play of new games on the tabletop website, where people play modern boardgames against human opponents through a web interface. We averaged the plays across 111 games, relative to when each game was first introduced to the community. A new game peaks in 3 months, then gradually declines to half its peak after 2 years, dropping only slightly after that for the next 3 to 5 years.

Can you set out to create the next breakthrough game, like Cards Against Humanity? No, but you can set out to design a game that will appeal to Kickstarter backers. These consumers are open to new games and are comfortable with the delayed delivery of games that use Kickstarter to fund initial printings.

Kickstarter backers tend to be younger and wealthier than the typical consumer, according to our survey of 622 consumers. Only 15% of online Americans have pledged support for a project on a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter: this peaks at 20% for those aged 25 to 34 and at 42% for those making over $100,000 in annual household income.

The best way to fund a successful Kickstarter is to partner with an established brand or leverage an online community. Barring that, we tested thousands of different configurations of tabletop games to determine which attributes increased or decreased the appeal of a new Kickstarter project.

The most popular configuration was an adult trivia deck-building game, which would be selected 61.6% of the time against the typical other Kickstarter project. In contrast, the least popular configuration was a 5-hour religious miniatures game that would be selected only 37.8% of the time in head-to-head competition against another Kickstarter project.

Given the wide diversity of boardgames, it is not surprising that even the most unusual set of characteristics will appeal to some boardgame enthusiasts.

Once a successful Kickstarter campaign is behind you, to expand it, you will need to have crafted a game that satisfies its players. We asked 328 Kickstarter backers to rate the last game that they had purchased and have already played, thereby eliminating from consideration games they have purchased but not yet received or had a chance to play. Overall, 80% of boardgame purchasers were very or completely satisfied with this game. The key driver of overall satisfaction is that the game is fun to play, which has the highest correlation to the overall rating (.549 correlation, 30% of shared variance). The next two key drivers are length of play (.396 correlation, 16%) and number of players (.364 correlation, 13%).

Kickstarter backers are driven by novelty: of those who had bought their game this year, 40% were completely satisfied with it vs. 28% of those whose purchase was last year or earlier.

Our new report includes the results of 6 different surveys and 12 different one-question polls of 12,264 U.S. online consumers in total conducted by Researchscape from 2013 to 2016. Our Kickstarter Simulator will enable you to estimate the relative appeal of the configurations of your different boardgame ideas. Download your copy of the free report, Boardgame Concepts to Crowdfund: The Dynamics of Tabletop Games.


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