Tabletop: The Impact, the curse, and the future of board games

April 2, 2012 was a momentous day in board game history.  You can disagree but the proof is, as they say, in the pudding.  Tabletop, the web series featuring Wil Wheaton began this day and started a conversation among hobbyists and others alike.  I want you, the reader, to concede a fact to me, no matter your opinion.  That fact is that Tabletop has done more for the hobby than any other single occurrence in the recent history of board games.  I’m not going to do this lightly.  I am going to prove it and no matter how you feel about the web series, you are going to appreciate it.  And you are also going to fear it.  So let’s get to it.

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The premiere episode of tabletop covered the light war game Small World.  Wil Wheaton, of Star Trek and various other film and TV productions, gathered nerd-culture icons to play a board game in front of a studio of cameras.  There was no attempt to make this look like a game played at home.  It was staged, lit, and produced to resemble a mix of a game show and a reality show.  A “winner” circle with “prize” and it was even inter-spliced with talks to camera from the participants.  There hadn’t been a production like this for board games before and it has come rarely since.  This first episode, covering what some consider a classic game and others consider mediocre, had garnered, at time of writing, 2,352,336 views.  This game, Small World, has a board game geek rating of 7.4, ranked 128th, and it has nearly 45,000 BGG users claiming to own and 91,000 plays.  These numbers are incredible in their gulf.  There are nearly 26 times as many people who have viewed this video as are recorded plays on arguably the most popular board gaming site in the world.  That number doubles compared to number of owned games.  We need to stop.  We need to analyze.  We need to figure this thing out. So here we go.  What follows will be a breakdown of these 5 statistics with one added number for each and every video produced by Tabletop.  That 6th and to me, more crucial number, is the number of views the review Tom Vasel or the Dice Tower reviewers received for the same game.  I’ll explain more after the number dump as to why I chose this but for you hobbyists reading this it shouldn’t need a reason.  I have left out the RPG or games I felt weren’t representative of common board games played on Tabletop.  

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Game Views Rating Ranking Owned Plays Review Views
Small World 2.3 million 7.4 128 45k 91k 133k
Catan 1.4 million 7.3 197 80k 191k 141k
Tsuro 1.9 million 6.7 702 16k 57k 14k
Zombie Dice Same ep. as above 6.3 1458 18k 45k 43k
Get Bit! Same ep. as above 6.3 1530 6k 10k 9k
Ticket to Ride 1.4 million 7.5 99 49k 174k 37k (10th anniversary)
Munchkin 2.3 million 6.0 2638 39k 34k No review
Castle Panic 1.1 million 6.7 688 13k 23k 60k
Gloom 1.2 million 6.4 1195 14k 9k No review
Say Anything 904k 6.9 608 6k 10k No review
Elder Sign 1.6 million 7.0 411 19k 34k 48k
Dixit 943k 7.4 132 32k 72k 87k
Wits & Wagers 978k 7.0 406 12k 33k 20k
Pandemic 1.2 million 7.7 50 69k 205k 80k
Last Night on Earth 1.5 million 7.1 398 14k 26k 13k
Star Fluxx 986k 6.5 1421 6k 7k 14k
Alhambra 1.2 million 7.0 336 21k 56k 53k
Chez Geek 724k 5.7 4531 6k 4k No review
Formula D 838k 7.1 346 14k 22k 39k
The Resistance 2.4 million 7.5 108 31k 105k 57k
Once Upon a Time 822k 6.5 1031 10k 9k 2k
King of Tokyo 1.2 million 7.3 148 40k 142k 66k
Forbidden Island 845k 6.9 459 34k 54k 84k
Smash Up 917k 6.9 462 20k 34k 65k
Star Trek Catan 1 million 7.1 682 5k 2k 23k
Star Wars X-Wing 1.1 million 7.9 32 23k 60k 37k
Lords of Waterdeep 1.2 million 7.8 35 28k 72k 92k
Shadows Over Camelot 1 million 7.2 274 21k 35k 53k
Betrayal at House on the Hill 1.4 million 7.1 358 23k 34k 55k
Takenoko 933k 7.4 163 22k 41k 44k
Unspeakable Words 1.2 million 6.3 2105 2k 3k 4k
Qwirkle 755k 6.8 552 13k 33k 10k
12 Days Same as above 6.6 2048 1k 2k 4k
Carcassonne 885k 7.4 119 77k 252k 27k
Tsuro of the Seas 585k 6.7 1006 5k 7k 15k
Ticket to Ride Europe 674k 7.6 73 35k 91k 32k
Fortune and Glory 1 million 7.1 569 4k 5k 16k
Lords of Vegas 638k 7.3 330 5k 9k 19k
Tokaido 919k 7.1 409 10k 18k 39k
Forbidden Desert 1.1 million 7.4 175 18k 24k 53k
Catan Junior 511k 6.8 1241 2k 3k 12k
The Hare and the Tortoise 704k 7.2 637 3k 6k 8k
Council of Verona Same as above 6.5 1502 2k 4k 9k
Stone Age 1 million 7.6 59 27k 99k 31k
Geek Out 641k 5.9 4781 1k 2k 7k
Sheriff of Nottingham 946k 7.5 136 15k 20k 46k
Dead of Winter 1.5 million 8.0 23 21k 32k 74k
Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyr 932k 6.6 1116 4k 5k 17k
Cards Against Humanity 1.6 million 6.4 1306 17k 24k No review
Five Tribes 705k 7.8 39 15k 29k 39k
Concept 990k 7.0 438 8k 15k 20k
Libertalia 869k 7.3 224 9k 16k 53k
Love Letter 710k 7.4 138 48k 146k 57k
Coup Same as above 7.2 270 24k 106k 64k
Kingdom Builder 626k 7.0 368 12k 54k 39k
Marvel Legendary 1.2 million 7.6 105 14k 56k 82k
Roll For It! 635k 6.2 2394 2k 5k 6k
Sushi Go! Same as above 7.2 284 19k 52k 37k
Mice and Mystics 610k 7.5 129 16k 21k 92k
THIS SEASON
Lanterns 7.1 691 3k 6k 11k
Fury of Dracula 7.9 309 4k 2k 25k
Mysterium 7.6 139 8k 14k 34k
Codenames 8.0 18 21k 115k 28k
Dragon Farkle 6.4 7195 153 124 7k
Flash Point 7.3 194 17k 38k 34k
Harbour 6.6 1071 5k 6k 12k
Eldritch Horror 7.9 28 17k 27k 79k
Star Realms 7.7 66 20k 117k 47k
Monarch 7.1 6068 121 92 No review
Star Trek – Five Year Mission 6.5 2714 810 1k 10k
Champions of Midgard 7.7 415 2k 3k 33k
Steam Park 7.0 519 5k 6k 37k
Tiny Epic Galaxies 7.4 326 7k 10k 21k
Welcome to the Dungeon 6.8 772 5k 9k 37k

 

The highest viewed video review from the Dice Tower is for Dominion.  It has achieved 201k views.  So why did I choose that as a metric?  Why choose a Dice Tower?  Well, it is where I see the most following from hobbyist viewers and it is also where I see the biggest difference in what Tabletop is trying to do and what Dice Tower does.  Tabletop in many ways represents the next evolution in video board game play and the Dice Tower while being one of my main sources for news and reviews really is the older and lesser known to the wide public.  As a hobby we need to recognize how far our voice reaches and how far the voice of others can reach.  We also need to realize what the reach of Tabletop means for the industry.  The games covered by Tabletop are not the games I am most looking forward to.  They aren’t even the ones I in many cases care to go back and play.  But, they are going to be the ones the majority of people will recognize, ask about, and buy.  And for us heavy Euro gamers, cult of the new, and/or collectors, we are going to have a lot to come to terms with this reality.

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Many people know of the massive sales increase following an episode of TableTop.  This is leading to many companies being hopeful for their game being featured and in many cases taking an active effort to be chosen.  If I was a game producer and knew I could sell out of my overstock just by having a video be made about my game I would camp out on Wil’s front stoop begging for it to be featured.  I have absolutely no indication that this has happened but I can assume if it hasn’t it may at some point in the future.  Which is fine by me.  I just want the hobby to be successful.  But…And here is a huge but.  All game companies know what type of games can and will be featured and which won’t.  As you can see above the game selection is a majority of what most consider casual games.  They include a large number of social games as well.  Something missing from this list are games many consider heavy, mathy, or games many see as multiplayer solitaire.  I cannot tell you what games you should like but I know that many games I enjoy most will never be featured and more often than not I will skip an episode of games I don’t care for.  But there are millions of views on these things.  Literally millions.

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Wil Wheaton

As long as the popularity of this show continues, the gaming industry is going to take notice.  More games are and will be created that fall in line with the desired game type to be featured on the show and more and more of these games are being bought by more and more people.  I think it is going to become more appealing for companies to capture the new gamer market at the potential decline of the number of hardcore gamer games being produced.  It won’t be overnight.  But an already niche market will be even more focused when it comes to games I am looking forward to.  A recent kickstarter game, Dark Souls, has combined the popularity of a video game with today’s hot designer and netted over $2 million with a few weeks still remaining.  I recently was watching a video game youtube podcast and when this news was mentioned it was met with “oh, cool.  Not sure I care about board games but whatever.”  You would think these people would be the perfect target audience and yet they were barely familiar with the story at all.  Just imagine if these people were on board with board games.  The group I mention are from Rooster Teeth and currently their flagship youtube channel has 8.6 million subscribers.  Now if I was a board game producer, I would without question be sleeping on their porch every night.

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So what do all these numbers and thoughts lead to?  Well, they just lead me to this.  Board games are becoming more and more popular and will assuredly become more and more populous friendly.  The more people you can get to see and buy your game the better.  This is going to lead to big budget casual games and smaller more niche games.  We are going to mirror and follow the video game industry and it is our job to understand, capitalize on, and be braced for this.  Be a good steward for the industry but don’t believe your hobby is going to be the same tomorrow as it is today.  And just be ok with that.  We are already beginning to see the yearly big budget releases like Call of Duty in Pandemic Legacy Season One.  We also are seeing small print run niche games like Food Chain Magnate which is similar to Europa Universalis IV (a heavy niche strategy video game with a cult following).  You aren’t going to like everything that comes out and you aren’t supposed to.  But I hope you will find your flavor and get your fill of it.

Now, advice for your game publishers.  Get your games in the hands of big youtube personalities.  Wil is great but he is small fish compared to some of the heavier hitters.  A 20 minute video of some 10 million subscriber youtubers playing your latest social deduction game could net you a million seller overnight.  It could also flop but for the cost of a demo copy at least you tried.  Just know what games will work and what won’t and make your other games in your lineup accessible to these new buyers.  And by accessible I mean in their face and understandable as to why they should buy them.

And my advice for gamers who don’t want more casual and social games, support your favorites.  Buy the games you like and show them off far and wide to everyone who will listen.  You can do as much for the hobby as a million hit video if you are enthusiastic and passionate.  You might not reach worldwide but you can make your local game group excited to play and buy great games and this will spread like wildfire.

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Tom Vasel (above)

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Rodney Smith (above)

And to the board game personalities like Tom, keep it up.  I would advise you and even this very website to cross promote.  Every episode of TableTop should have an article coming out the same day about that game.  Tom should do a video review of the game.  Rodney should tell us how to play it.  And others should do their own video plays of the game.  In the age of the internet, more is better and more means clicks.  Don’t shy from a big fish but nibble off their leavings and capitalize on their reach.  And while those hits are on your video or review of the game you really didn’t care too much about, advertise and entice for your other stuff.  100 new viewers may only net 1 long term fan but that is 1 more than you had before and that will add up.  Oh and don’t forget they raised $1.5 million from 22k backers for season 3.  I know this is an anomaly but this does mean there is passion for content out there, you just have to deliver on what the people want and not just what you think is best sometimes.

 

And my advice for everyone, have fun and enjoy the hobby.

 

Other Opinions:

 

Greg S:  Most every time a celebrity is passionate about a hobby, it is bound to give that hobby a boost.  Everyone likes to think their hobby is “cool” and feel a sense of affirmation when it is endorsed by a popular celebrity.  Wil Wheaton gives board gaming an extra boost due to his relatively high visibility in the public eye (partly due to his recurring role on the popular “Big Bang” television series) and his connections within the film-making industry that allow high-quality production values to be employed.  I am grateful for his contributions and what he has done to increase the public visibility and perhaps perception of the boardgaming hobby.  We have a long way to go before the majority of adult Americans consider our hobby to be mainstream and “cool”, but we are certainly making progress.

 

Matt C.: Any thoughts lamenting things like Tabletop creating a push for “lighter” games from the industry reminds me of the annual rhetoric about Germany’s highly recognized SdJ.  SdJ winners tend toward lighter fare, but they sell extremely well.  Companies are often accused of releasing games that cater toward the award, but the state of Germany’s boardgaming hobby does not seem to be suffering as a result.  Companies may attempt to create games to fit into the Tabletop’s lighter style, but a small percentage of people who give boardgaming a try due to a mention on Tabletop (and other popular sites) will make the jump deeper into the boardgaming hobby.  It may not be a large percentage, but as the article states, even a small percentage of a huge viewing audience will add up.

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3 Responses to Tabletop: The Impact, the curse, and the future of board games

  1. Liu A-Yue says:

    Just as inspiring as usual.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Interesting post, Eric. I have to say that had this issue cropped up 15 years ago, I’d be much more worried. Actually, something very much like it DID happen 15 years ago. The enormous success of Carcassonne, combined with a world-wide economic downturn, led just about all of the major German publishers to move away from the heavier games I love to lighter and more accessible fare. There was real concern that the heavy boardgame would go the way of the dodo.

    But then a funny thing happened–smaller, independent publishers sprang up and filled the gap, releasing as many heavier games as had been published by the bigger guys. And soon enough, the meatier games were back in style, except now we had even more publishers releasing them.

    The thing is, there are many more types of games produced these days than there were when I first got into the hobby. In addition to the lighter stuff that is featured on Tabletop, there’s all the Kickstarter games, almost all of which I avoid like the plague (the vast majority seemed underdeveloped to me). I keep hearing that the popularity of these types of games will lead the heavier designs to go extinct. And yet, boardgaming doesn’t seem to be like other businesses, such as video gaming. It isn’t all that expensive to produce a good game (it’s certainly MUCH less than what’s required to make a good video game). As a result, because there’s a reasonable number of gamers like you and me, there are publishers willing to put in the effort to produce these kinds of games. Not everyone is trying to create the Next Big Thing; thankfully, many publishers are content to make good games that sell well, even if it means their chance at a big payday is almost zero.

    The remarkable thing I’ve found over the years is that just because there’s a ton of gamers who like games that I don’t care for, it doesn’t reduce the likelihood that there will be enough games I DO like to satisfy me. The hobby is much more robust than we originally thought and there seems to be sufficient room in it for gamers of every stripe. I know that Tabletop has changed the demographics of the game industry and even greater changes may yet occur. But based on past history, I have every confidence that it will NOT be the deathknell of any other kind of gaming. Maybe it will mean there are only 30 games I want to try out each year instead of 40, but there’s already more games that interest me than I can realistically get to play. So I do applaud and appreciate Tabletop as being good for the hobby, while I also see little to fear from it. There’s plenty of money to be made in gaming and there’s plenty of publishers who are happy to take it from me.

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