Winning across the board

Traditional board games are back in action—but there’s a whole other piece to the puzzle this time around. Welcome to the age of AI-powered escape rooms, killer Kickstarter campaigns and temperature-raising gaming rewards.
May 25, 2018

Passing Go. Snaking up that ladder. Winning the Game of Life. There are plenty of ways to describe the renaissance currently being enjoyed by traditional, face-to-face board games, which have been soaring much higher than the rest of the toy industry. According to market research firm The NPD Group, while the US toy market at large posted a modest 1.5% increase between March 2017 and February 2018, the board games category rose by 8%. While this increase may have been slower than in 2016 (when the category enjoyed a whopping 16% jump), its overall health is undeniable—and worth understanding. Factors like gameplay innovation, online platform diversification, new distribution opportunities and shorter production timelines are in play like never before, and experts and game-makers alike believe things aren’t slowing down any time soon.

Gadget fatigue

“There are underlying aspects behind games and puzzles growth, and that is why we absolutely expect things to continue,” says Tristan Donovan, author of It’s All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan. “It’s a real revival, because we have come into an age of rebalancing our digital lives. It has been a decade since smartphones were really new, and people are starting to become aware of the time they spend staring at screens. Parents, in particular, are looking at their kids and trying to curtail screen time.”

The strategy of bringing families together in real time is behind a recent sales surge at Hasbro. “Face-to-face games connect people,” says Jonathan Berkowitz, SVP of marketing at Hasbro Gaming. The Rhode Island-based company has been in the games business since 1923, with a stable that includes iconic properties like Candyland and Monopoly.

In Q3 2017, Hasbro’s Gaming segment saw a 22% increase in net revenue to the tune of US$280.1 million, thanks in part to new social games including Speak Out and Fantastic Gymnastics.

Ironically, the digital space has propelled Hasbro’s traditional board game sales. Pie Face, for example, caught the attention of a Hasbro exec in 2015 after a video of the title manufactured by Rocket Games went viral. Hasbro licensed it, and by 2016 it had became the single best-selling item in the overall gaming category. The straightforward concept (pie, meet face) continues to be a viral sensation with millions of YouTube views to date, and has spurred the creation of other simple games with social media shareability baked into their design.

Two new 2018 entries from Hasbro are simple concepts designed to produce a singular, snack-sized nugget of digital content. Heading to retail this fall is Chow Crown, which lets a player wear headgear with pieces of food dangling from it. As the food moves around the player’s head, he or she attempts to eat it in two seconds before it moves on—looking suitably silly no matter the outcome.

Then there’s Don’t Lose Your Cool, also hitting shelves this fall, featuring a wacky wearable thermometer. The object is for one player to literally increase the other’s body temperature through annoying behavior like making animal noises, close-talking or singing off-key.

“You can explain these games in three seconds,” says Berkowitz. “They are quick, easy and visual. They’re also incredibly fun.” And, one might observe, perfectly suited for the online world, where fan forums, ratings sites and wikis have led to the creation of enthusiastic communities that create momentum in the retail world by simply making it easier to share and compare. While the games may be non-digital, social media can amplify the gameplay experience and, in some cases, help launch titles into the sales stratosphere.

From Pie Face to big mouths

“I believe word-of-mouth is very important, particularly for this category,” says Francesco Lercari, VP of global marketing at Spin Master. The Toronto-based toyco recently invested in the board games and puzzles category with the 2017 acquisitions of the Perplexus and Marbles toy brands.

The shopping spree was a natural move after Spin Master’s Activities, Games & Puzzles division reported a sales increase of 46% just two years ago. Also last year, the company bolstered its gaming innovation team by hiring ex-Hasbro exec Ben Rathbone (VP of games design), former GameBrotherZ exec Peter Kristoffy (business development, games), and Scott Brown (VP of Marbles).

For Lercari and fellow game-makers, Kickstarter has also been a real accelerator for innovation. The world’s largest crowdfunding platform has become a central player in the board game market by letting toycos access passionate inventors while growing an organic base of fans who respond to each other at break-neck speeds. In fact, the combined total value in the board game category far outstripped its digital counterparts on the platform, further evidence of its power in the sector.

As Ravensburger North America CEO Filip Francke points out, “It’s easier than ever to sit at home and make a game—and to get it out there. This means more games will find their appropriate audience, and that in turn leads to more sales.”

In fact, Kickstarter has been recognized as such a valuable incubator for game ideas that two major toycos have recently partnered with inventors who were discovered on the platform. Spin Master used Kickstarter to launch strategy-based game Santorini and to co-launch card game 5-Minute Dungeon. Mattel, too, has dipped its toes into Kickstarter waters, having discovered both Escape Room in a Box and Funemployed on the platform.

Hasbro’s Berkowitz says that for games in particular, it’s necessary to tap into the passionate DIY community to foster innovation. “It takes a lot to really create a new game from scratch,” he says. Once a winner is identified, manufacturers like Hasbro can harvest the idea and leverage their marketing and distribution expertise to bring it to market.

Go directly to retail

One of the upshots of tapping into social media platforms is the premium it places on speed to market, which is further enhanced by advances in manufacturing technology (such as 3D printing).

“We have developed the ability to react really quickly and deliver products to market, which allows us to stay very current,” says Berkowitz. For example, Hasbro’s new Speak Out game took only 11 weeks to go from concept to store shelf. “That is pretty outstanding for an industry where historically it takes more like 12 to 18 months. It requires a lot of focus and coordination, but it’s necessary because our goal is to be on the pulse.

Mattel has a similar approach. “Trends come and go so quickly that if we are not in the position to capitalize on them, we’ll miss out,” says Ray Adler, senior director of global games at Mattel. “We have to be very aggressive in shortening our timelines.”

Mattel typically works on a 12-week cycle for on-trend games, delivering new game concepts to retail once a season. Mattel’s most recent example was the release of UNO ColorADD last fall. Billed as the world’s first colorblind-friendly card game, the new pack fast-tracked from napkin sketch to retail shelf in just 60 days.

“It is akin, in a way, to the publishing market,” says Spin Master’s Lercari. “You have to work with accelerated timelines. You have to plan in advance. Internally, we have developed a quick development schedule to make sure we can hit the dates we want to hit.”

Of course, while the rush to market makes sense for big toycos, some smaller players with fewer manufacturing capabilities are resisting the trend. Criz Jamers, head of sales at UK-based game design company River Horse, which produces licensed titles for The Jim Henson Company, says that properly serving the company’s customers requires a reasonable gestation period. “We don’t really speed up our timelines to cash in on trends or hype,” he says. “Our philosophy is that we want to work on products that we’re interested in, and that takes time. We believe the care will shine through in the products.”

In River Horse’s case, this slower-moving strategy has been successful. And for Jamers, the category’s relationship with nascent technology has created a slight dilemma. “One of the reasons why people enjoy the games is that they are not digital,” he says. “It can be tricky. You want to be very careful that your digital elements don’t distract from the face-to-face component of the game itself.”

Another drawback to overnight digital sensations are their potential impact on brand longevity. “I don’t think we are going to see something quite as big as Monopoly or Clue again,” he says. “You can use Monopoly references in everyday conversation and be pretty sure that everyone will know what you’re talking about. You still have big games like Ticket to Ride or Pandemonium, but it’s so much more fragmented now.”

Indie game-makers like River Horse are bringing innovation to license titles

Indie game-makers like River Horse are bringing innovation to license titles

Game-changing innovation

Still, overall gameplay improvement is a factor that Donovan points to in explaining the continued health of the category. “Games themselves have really evolved quite a bit,” he says, referring specifically to player experience. “Games are now better at obscuring who’s leading, and from keeping players from being eliminated too soon. It keeps interest up and makes games in general more replayable.”

As consumers become more sophisticated—and more accustomed to novelty—game-makers are constantly tweaking their titles with special editions, collaborations and one-offs. This can be seen in the spate of updated concepts hitting the market, including Mattel’s long-awaited follow-up earlier this year to its classic card game Uno, called (aptly enough) Dos.

In March, Hasbro teamed up with Nintendo to release a Mario Kart edition of Monopoly with a completely revamped set of rules. And through its Marble acquisition, Spin Master has released Otrio, a strategic and complex take on tic-tac-toe that’s already at retail.

Another factor that’s spurring on the games category is the diversification of retail outlets. For example, global game cafés have sprung up at an exponential rate over the past decade. Every major city now boasts board game cafés, with Beijing alone home to more than 200. The cafés are an increasingly important part of both the marketing and distribution of games—and come at a time when traditional big-box toy outlets, as evidenced by the bankruptcy of Toys “R” Us, are shrinking.

“Cafés are definitely part of our strategy,” says Mattel’s Adler. “We have been aggressively expanding into new channels for the last couple of years.” Adler adds that the category lends itself to non-traditional retail distribution. “We have established great relationships with drug stores, grocery, dollar channel and specialty,” he says. “It’s a big part of the category’s expansion.”

The changing retail landscape, which has grown to include game cafes, is breathing new life into classics like Mattel's Uno

The changing retail landscape, which has grown to include game cafes, is breathing new life into classics like Mattel’s Uno

Technology two-step

While retail influences and outlets are undoubtedly in vogue, the same can be said for the digital living room. For example, Mattel’s Escape Room in a Box leverages Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence tech to enhance gameplay. “Alexa acts as a host for the experience,” says Adler. “It’s able to play music, give hints, keep track of time and generally make play time more immersive.”

Hasbro has also partnered with Amazon to augment its gaming experiences. “We are always looking at new technologies,” says Berkowitz, adding that digital features should be complementary, rather than overbearing. “There are a lot of things we’ve looked at in terms of integrating digital components—some we felt didn’t necessarily bring people together,” he says.

From a historical point of view, Donovan sees the use of digital personal assistants and even blockchain technology in new games as just the latest page in a moderately successful playbook. “In the ’60s, they brought electricity to gameplay with Operation, and later there were electronic versions of Battleship and, if you remember, some games that used VHS tapes,” he says. “It’s a long history. I think you can have short-term success with it, but you have to be aware that there’s a built-in obsolescence.”

Spin Master’s Lercari is philosophical about the use of new tech in the category. “We ask ourselves all the time what technology adds to board games,” he contends. “I’m not saying we don’t leverage technology as part as our incubator projects. We’re working on very interesting ideas. But, simplicity is the key for us—even with technology.”

Ravensburger’s Francke agrees that a measured approach is best when it comes to making use of the tech world’s latest bells and whistles. “I think you will see better integration in the future,” he says. “It has to extend the play—not distract from it.”

Francke says the kind of gameplay associated with physical puzzles and board games gives parents and kids an opportunity to communicate in more intimate ways than any digital avenue allows—but without the potential awkwardness of a deliberate family meeting.

“You can sit down and have a discussion with your teenager without having to look each other in the eye,” he says. “And that’s pretty amazing.”

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at


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