Boardgames will never be a cultural phenomenon. Sorry, Ghost of George Parker…

boardgames at target

Boardgames at Target Big Box store, Black Friday

Note the picture above. What’s special about it?  Nothing much.  It’s a picture os the boardgames shelf I took in passing at a Target big-box store.  What’s unique about it is that I took this picture on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, at a major American retailer.  Their entire boardgames shelving was roughly 30 feet wide by about 6 feet high, with games of various stripes– mostly old stalwarts like Risk (though not the new 60 dollar Risk), Monopoly, Sorry, Life, Scrabble, and etc.  There are many other boardgames on a big-box store shelf, but they seemed to fit in the category of either something definitively tied to a finite topic, like a TV show or Movie themed game, or were children’s games, or were adult party style games, the latter of the Word or Trivia variety, mostly.  Now, I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of board games, far from it.  There are many people out there that eat, breathe and live this stuff far more than I do.  However, like a lot of my fellow gaming geeks I have a certain threshold of amusement that I think a boardgame needs to rise to, and almost everything I see in a big box store’s game section doesn’t rise to it.

To put this post into a frame of reference easier for a geek audience:  let’s start with with the current Boardgamegeek Top 100 Games . I don’t have a better stick to measure with.  There’s nothing magic about that list– just sufficient numbers of users from the boardgamegeek website voted a certain number of games highly enough over time and thus the top 100 list is born.   Of similar value is the recently released BGG 2011 Gift Giving Guide.   What these lists do provide is a certain cross section of the marketplace for a category that I will call, for lack of a better term, “designer games” or some people call “German” or “Euro” games, or family games.  What is immediately obvious is that there were only four titles on the shelves that had EVER been in the top 100 on BGG: Wits and Wagers (not seen in the picture above), Apples to Apples (ditto, different shelf), Settlers of Cataan and Ticket to Ride.

It’s ironic.  From BGG and other sites supporting gaming, it would seem that this in a golden age of boardgame publishing–

Apples to Apples

Image via Wikipedia

there are more games being published than ever before.  Yet, visit the primary moderate cost retail outlet for moderately priced boardgames, and you won’t find anything but the Parker Brothers classics from fifty years ago or more (Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble etc.), some movie and TV tie in games, distinctly children’s branded games (Candy land, etc.)  and some one-shot no-name party games.  It’s hardly anything exciting if you have any history with this stuff.  I just received a game tonight with tons of commercial appeal with the right promotion, Quarriors!  This is a game we will have fun with and I’ll be teaching to others as well.  Quarriors is bright, attractively package, family friendly and easy to pick up.  Will you ever see it in a big box toy department, or even standalone toy store?  The portents are not promising.

Of course, you might argue, the BoardgameGeek crowd are more of a niche market than they admit to; they are not representative of the hobby as a coherent whole, and the coherent whole has to include games like “Lord of the Rings Stratego” and “Fat Albert CLUE” to represent the entire gaming population out there.  Maybe that’s so, but I hope not– that would mean that boardgames are doomed as a hobby.

I am beginning to come to the conclusion that boardgames are losing traction in popular culture.  I know that the big calculus for game manufacturers is competition for shelf space.  For retailers, it’s rotating inventory as fast as humanly possible.  Certain games will just never be viable ENOUGH in high pressure niche markets, though I suspect they will make a profit.  Just not big enough of one.  I can and have seen Carcassone and Settlers in commercial retailers in the last ten years, but part of me says .. so what?  These are not exactly daring choices, where big corporations think they are taking a risk by stocking something like Blokus and Apples to Apples.

George Parker

George Parker, an original Parker Brother

Paper and Cardboard Games are just not as big of a part of our common lexicon as they once were. If he could see the 70 or 80 variants of Monopoly or Risk or Clue that he spawned, I’m sure, somewhere, George Parker would be  spinning in his grave.   Alas, times are changing and we only have ourselves to blame.  If one is to believe the Game Makers, the story of Parker Brothers, the golden heyday of American boardgaming was roughly in the middle of the Great Depression.  This is a time when the greatest competition for your attention was the radio set and.or maybe a book.  Our culture of distraction has grown to a fever pitch in the years since then.

So, sadly, I doubt I’ll ever see a decent Z-Man or Fantasy Flight game at a big box store at Christmas time, which seems like such a shame, as they both routinely publish games with production values far superior to the cheap retread reprints that get shipped to big box retailers by the pallet load every Christmas (he said, remembering seeing a palette load of CLUE early this evening at Wal*Mart).  And if the boardgaming industry can’t manage to sell some of its hottest titles in years at Target or Wal*Mart, then this ain’t no golden age, bub.  When was the last time you saw, say Small World at Target?  Where’s Dominion or Puerto Rico at Wal*Mart?

Really, we have to consign ourselves to the fact that there is no glory age of anything until product is distributed through channels available to everyone.  Until then, we rely on specialty vendors to help us get things at Christmas.  And oh yeah, the Internet.   Happy Holidays, everyone!

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4 responses to “Boardgames will never be a cultural phenomenon. Sorry, Ghost of George Parker…

  1. Walt, it is weird to read your comments because they make me feel that I have lived a bell shaped curve.
    My first wargame was something my dad brought back from England. It was called Dover Patrol, but was Stratego in the English Channel. The box insert listed a ton of other games, but none were availabe in downtown DC.
    The nearest we could find was something called Tactics, by some firm in Baltimore of all places!
    My dad thought it would be too complicated, so we passed on it. (DAD!!!)
    A few years later I got the bug again, and lo and behold that little firm from Balmer had a whole line of games, starting with Tactics II! This really impressed me.
    I found the games in a great hobby shop in downtown Washington, Corr’s, on Ninth Street, Northwest between H and I.
    They had at least six games from Avalon Hill on the shelf. I took all my lawn mowing savings and spent twenty dollars to get Tactics II, D-Day, and Gettysburg. My mother thought I was certifiable after that.
    Now, after all the highs of SPI and a wargaming industry, we’re back to teeny shelf space in niche stores. From start to this point, maybe fifty-three years.

  2. Hey dude. I live in a country where board games like Dominion don’t sell because the toy shops here don’t even know they exist… Its sad that i have to import by myself in order to get these amazing board games…
    I just met my 10 year old nephew and asked him if he wanted to play dominion with me. I was surprised that he knew about Dominion and went to his house to play it. The look of my face when he was actually referring to League Of Legends…

  3. The biggest barrier to board games is the instruction booklet. People that pickup a boxed game will look at the back, make a confused expression and put it back down. To overcome the barrier one of two things needs to happen:

    1) Somebody teaches them how to play. That can be either a friend, an online video or a retail salesman.

    2) They decide they are willing to endure the 30 page booklet. (a 30 min to hour task depending upon the game).

    A small local game store caters to the niche board game market. They have the staff to teach how to play these games. (try asking a Walmart associate how to play Catan). The game store also has the table space to actually play the game. (again, try to play Catan in a Walmart.). This takes the learning curve from 30 min to about 10 min.

    Big box store are stocking due to name recognition. I.e. “I’ve heard of settlers. My brother loves that game! I’ll impulse buy it and have him show me how to play.”

    If board games continue to grow, it’s because small game store continue to grow a gamer community. Mega hot games such as apples to apples will occasionally break out.

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