Once upon a time, board games like Dungeons & Dragons and card games like Magic the Gathering were thought of as being the sole purview of imaginative nerds. To some extent, that stereotype still persists, but in recent years games inspired by these tabletop classics have seen a resurgence in popularity among hardcore fans and a degree of more mainstream success.
According to ICv2, the North American “hobby games market,” which includes board games, roleplaying games, card and dice games, and collectible figurines, saw $700 million worth of sales in 2013. By 2014 that figure swelled to $880 million, with RPGs accounting for the bulk of that growth.
Looking at some of the games responsible for the tabletop market’s growth (like D&D, M:TG, and Pokémon), you might think that, for the most part, these sales could be attributed to enthusiasts spending their cash on games developed by traditional publishers. Some of the other best selling games, according to ICv2's data, though, tell a different story. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are breathing new life into the tabletop gaming industry one project at a time.
Games like Risk and Magic have had a reputation for being dense and technically complex, something that can turn first time players off, but the way that this new wave of tabletop games are being crafted and presented are making them much more accessible and popular. It's one thing to have your nerdy friend explain how a planeswalker works (still don't get it) it's another to have an entire game explained to you in a cute, animated, three-minute video.
In the spring of 2015, Boss Monster was the best-selling tabletop card game in the U.S. The game, which is published by Brotherwise Games, began as a Kickstarter project borne out of two brothers’ nostalgic love for 8-bit Nintendo games and classic Dungeons & Dragons. After two decades of not regularly seeing each other, Chris and Johnny O’Neil found themselves living in the same state for the first time in a long time. The brothers spent their time playing tabletop games and in time, grew interested in creating a game of their own that could bring everybody to the table.
Boss Monster takes the ideas behind dungeon crawling games like The Legend of Zelda and flips them on their heads. Instead of playing as a hero trying to save a princess, you play as the evil monster waiting at the end of a dungeon trying to destroy the good guys. Throughout the game, players build horizontal dungeons filled with spells, traps, and treasure designed to lure unsuspecting heroes to their untimely dooms.
"If we're to be totally honest here, we didn't really know at first who our player audience would be,"the O'Neil brothers told Fusion. "We knew that we liked the game that Boss Monster was becoming, and we knew that our friends liked the game that Boss Monster was becoming, but despite playing a lot of games, we didn't really have a conception of our player base."
Though their own personal investment was enough to create Boss Monster’s core, the O’Neils turned to Kickstarter to raise $12,000 to put them over the top and bring the first version of the game to market. Their project launched on October 18, 2012. They hit their goal by the next day. One month and 4,689 backers later, the campaign raised more than $215,000.
"We don't want to create games with lots of barriers to entry," the O'Neils said. "We want games that you can pull out in front of a group of strangers and be playing well in five minutes."
Since shipping its first installment in the summer of 2013, Brotherwise has released an expansion pack and ported the physical game (which is based on classic video games) over to iOS and Android. Brotherwise’s success may seem like the exception to the rule, but other wildly successful games like Cards Against Humanity and Star Realms were also Kickstarted. The O'Neils were careful to point out that for all that Kickstarter did to bring Boss Monster into reality, the platform wasn't without its pitfalls.
"[B]oth retailers and distributors are nervous of a game that may have seen its best sales happen on Kickstarter," the O'Neils explained. "Our successful Kickstarter has translated into an even more successful life on game store shelves. Not every successful Kickstarter has been as lucky."
While the idea behind a project may be solid, big time success on Kickstarter doesn't always translate to distribution away from the platform. Many indie game publishers underestimate the kind of scaling up on production and advertising it can take to interest brick and mortar stores to carry a game. Even for big-name industry publishers with the technical know-how and financial resources, Kickstarting a project like this isn't a surefire way to skyrocket to gaming stardom.
Earlier this year, Mayfair Games, the company behind the wildly popular Settlers of Catan, set out to create one of the most highly-regarded (and least-played) games ever: Cones of Dunshire.
For the unfamiliar, Dunshire was based on the fictional board game created by Ben Wyatt, Adam Scott's character from NBC’s Parks & Recreation.
Mayfair took to Kickstarter with a highly-produced, in-character pitch video designed to capitalize on both the television show’s popularity and the public’s newfound interest in games like Dunshire.
Mayfair’s campaign was a resounding failure. Originally, the company only managed to raise $46,631 of its $300,000 funding goal by the two month deadline. Mayfair launched a second campaign with a lower goal of $125,000 that, similarly, only raised $48,696, albeit in under a month. There was no one specific reason why Mayfair’s version of Dunshire failed to take off. There were at least three.
In order to actually receive a copy of the game through Kickstarter, backers had to spend at least $400 for the most basic edition (the deluxe edition cost between $550–$700.) Mayfair said that they would consider bringing a cheaper version of the game to market at some point in the future, but people following the campaign expressed their doubts.
Adding insult to injury, Mayfair justified the game’s exorbitant price by insisting that it was really only for hardcore Parks & Rec fans who wanted to “respect” the show. And the company flat-out admitted that the campaign may or may not have have been an elaborate (and not all that funny) joke on their part.
The Cones of Dunshire may never make it to your local game shop, but the future of the tabletop industry is definitely looking good. As fivethirtyeight points out, 3,870 different tabletop games have successfully been funded in the six years that Kickstarter has been running. On average, nearly 100 games have met their funding goals each month, and the trend seems on track to continue.
Said the O'Neils:
"Ultimately, we think this is what crowd funding is about: being a part of something creative and promising, and that's not likely to disappear anytime soon."