There is no denying that we have seen an explosive growth in the hobby over the last 5-10 years. The attendance at all the big conventions has grown alongside a massive rise in the number of games released each year. An article on ICV2 last year with the Asmodee North America CEO Christian Petersen, estimated that 3500 games would be released over the course of the year, an astonishing number of products.
Does this mean that we are seeing saturation or just the natural growth of the hobby? Lots of games does not mean necessarily more good games though does it? Let’s see if we can’t bring some analysis to this most tricky of subjects.
It was a very good year
It is difficult to get a proper snapshot of the industry that isn’t coming directly from a company. I’ve been looking around for information where I could find it and I found some numbers from 2017 vs 2018 about con attendance.
(EDIT 23/01/18: The excellent David Wright from Tabletop Scotland had noticed I was quoting uniques from Gencon and Origins and turnstile from Expo and Essen. I have updated my comment to reflect this, scoring through the previous and updated the numbers to be all turnstile counts.)
2018 = 223,326, up 9% on 2017
UK Games Expo
2018 = 39000
2017 = 21900
30% Rise in Attendance
2018 = 190000
2017 = 182000
4% Rise in Attendance
2018 = 71000, up 20% from 2017
There is a big rise in attendance at Origins but Gencon has kind of plateaued a bit. Essen saw a small rise and Expo grew massively in the last year. These numbers definitely show a rise in the gaming population with some growing faster than others. Dragonmeet and Airecon in the UK have and PAX unplugged in the US have also seen growth within the time frame above though I don’t have solid numbers for those. With more takeup of tabletop within the wider ‘nerdy’ community as well through groups like Critical Role and Adventure Zone, we are slowly seeing the hobby make its way into more mainstream media. I am really looking forward to what a larger exposure will bring to tabletop games in terms of design and critique.
We have our population growth. As to the number of games being released, I now turn to another source. Dinesh Vatvani has been looking at data from BoardGameGeek(BGG) for general boardgame trends up to and including 2017. I urge you to read part 1 , which is where the data I am interested in is, and part 2.
Couple of things to note about this data before we carry on.
- This data does not include expansions, and I am not going to really be covering expansions either as it doesn’t really get to the heart of what I want to talk about
- Complexity has also increased over time. Keep in mind that this is all from BGG data so further analysis may be necessary but it is a good site for data (even if that data is largely sourced from the community).
The main thing to take away from this data is that there are a lot more boardgames coming out year to year than their were even a decade ago. However the growth does not drift outside of the historical trend. Personally I think this is healthy growth though there are definitely trends to address within it: rise of Kickstarter, hyped games not coming to retail etc. I would like to look at those issues down the line, but feel they are outside the subject of this article. For now we just need to know that yes there are more games coming out, but best we can tell this is not some huge abnormality. There is no bubble waiting to burst in simple terms of number of releases.
Where did all the good games go?
I’ve seen a bit of chat over the last few months, especially around Essen 2018, that there are less games to be excited about this year. Is that really the case? For myself I’ve been excited about quite a few games to come out this year, but everyone’s mileage is going to vary. Does it really matter if there is a slow down in terms of innovation? Is it something we should be worried about for the future of the hobby?
Let’s start with the first question. We need to keep in mind when we see these kind of reports that this is pretty hardcore gamers talking to other pretty hardcore games. That’s not to do those people a disservice, but it is a fact that if you are a game critic, you are probably into games in a big way. Who knew?! I absolutely include myself, and many writers I have great respect for, in this group.
I think there is a fair amount of hand wringing going on lately amongst the critical community and I can understand that. We want to be advocates for the hobby, we want to be excited by the games we play and convey that joy to a wide audience to try and grow the hobby. If we don’t see innovation, if we just see the industry treading water then we begin to worry: we talk to other critics to confirm what we think we already know, we write posts about the dearth of good games and bemoan the lack of innovation.
You know what? It’s ok for a lot of the games that release each year to not be mind blowing, genre cracking spectacles. As the game buying population grows we need games that are going to introduce new people to the hobby with themes they find appealing. Sure that means we get 100s of different worker placement games each year or yet another deckbuilder, but that is no bad thing. This doesn’t matter as long as the consumer population is also growing, which it is.
Should we be worried about the lack of innovation? The other side of publishers playing it safe with established mechanics is that the first iteration of any innovation tends to not be that great. I mean it is exciting and interesting, but as other companies latch onto the idea the concept is refined and improved upon. In technology the people who pick up products first are known as early adopters, but very often these people are getting an inferior product: the OS doesn’t quite work yet, there are problems in the hardware. The second, third, fourth iteration are often much better, and frequently cheaper, products. As it is in tech, so it is in boardgames.
As the hobby expands it is harder to see the genuinely fascinating games, that is indisputable. As more and more games get released, publishers will stick to the tried and true in order to make a profit of an increasingly short product cycle. Does that mean there will be no innovation? No, of course not. Sure breaking through will be harder in a crowded field, but not impossible. Look at Gloomhaven, who would have thought that a £140 giant boxed game would be one of the best received games in the last couple of years, or that it would be such a small outfit to produce it?
Innovation will still come, truly interesting games will bubble to the surface, and we as critics need to make sure that happens. I consider our job to be to shine a light into the depths of the release schedule to find the true pearls and bring them to the surface (I think I’ve tortured that metaphor enough). We won’t get the next Legacy mechanic every year, but the new, truly innovative ideas will come and it is up to us to champion them. We might just have to work a little harder to find them.
The future’s bright, the future’s a sort of puce?
I don’t think that there is a need for concern in the number of games being produced or that we are not seeing innovation around every corner. Legacy games are the mechanic de jour but that doesn’t mean that designers aren’t beavering away on the next big thing behind closed doors.
Online retailers slashing prices that physical stores can’t compete with, hyped games only being available via KS and never coming to retail and increasingly short product cycle. These are things to be worried about. An increasing population of consumers, of increasing diversity, hungry for games of all shapes and sizes is not.
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