Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Gamer fatigue and the growth of the hobby

In a recent episode of Breaking Into Board Games, we discussed our predictions about 2017. One of my predictions was that we would start seeing a cap on attendance at larger conventions. I wanted to continue on that subject with a wider lens, looking at a possible scenario we may be facing in the coming years.

The board game industry is growing at an explosive rate (revenue from hobby board games grew 56% from 2014 to 2015; I’d expect similar numbers when the numbers come in for 2016), and I’ve heard a few pundits indicate that there’s no end in sight. As an independent board game designer/publisher, I certainly hope that’s the case.

But I always try to plan for contingencies, and part of that is planning for the possibility that this explosive growth slows, stops, or even reverses.

To be honest, I would expect the hobby to continue to grow in 2017, and perhaps in 2018. But I think we’re going to see signs of strain and constraint. And I think gamer fatigue is going to play into that significantly.

Gamer fatigue

Every so often, a thread like this appears on BGG. Or this. Both are examples of “gamer fatigue,” a phenomenon that seems to set in after a few years in the hobby.

When people first enter the hobby, they buy games aggressively. If they like something, they’ll purchase it right away.

This “honeymoon” period lasts for about 1-3 years. But at some point, a gamer realizes that they can’t sustain that pace. They run out of space to store their collection. They realize, via a life event or other need for frugality, that they can’t spend so much money on games. They realize that half their collection is still unplayed. Many times, they even start to find new games bland. They pine for a time when games were “better,” which tends to align with the exact moment they entered the hobby.

W. Eric Martin of BGG has written eloquently about this topic. While new games may seem uninspiring after a few years in the hobby, it’s important to remember that new games are for new gamers, and what seemed fresh and exciting to you when you were entering the hobby was not all that innovative to someone who had already been in the hobby for 10 years.

Back to the new gamers: it’s a lot like meeting in front of a restaurant. Most people will linger for some time there, deciding whether to go in or continue down the street. But at some point, you either go in or not.

Same with this position of “I like it, I buy it.” It’s unsustainable. At some point, gamers slow their purchasing. Some of them drop out of the hobby altogether. Most others remain in, but acquire their games through trades or secondhand sales, making sure they sell games they don’t fit.

New gamers and the growth of the industry

The business has been booming lately because we’ve had so many new gamers rush in and buy games. As they “age,” even more new gamers enter the hobby, and the industry appears to grow.

I should mention at this point that this process of aging is necessary; I’ve been through it myself! And I should emphasize that veteran gamers are no less valuable citizens of the community. Indeed, gamers who have been around for a long time should be celebrated and appreciated. And many veteran gamers who slow their buying habits down contribute to the community in other ways, like through podcasting or running events.

But in terms of pure buying power, it’s the people new to the hobby who are driving the industry’s growth. As long as we have more people entering this “honeymoon” period than leaving it, we will see industry revenue grow.

If, for some reason, the flow of new gamers slows, we’ll see it in the bottom line. We’ll see convention attendance level out and revenue flatten out. It could be for a number of reasons, like the global economy suddenly tanking. Or the hobby hitting a point where board games get so mainstream that the only people discovering it are teenagers who are getting their first disposable income. Or the number of new games per year growing so huge that discovery becomes impossible for all but the biggest game companies and brands.

Look at the current market and ask yourself: is this sustainable? I can think of four companies that manufacture gaming tables. I can think of at least three companies that make custom inserts for board game boxes. Right now, they seem to be doing well, but will all those companies be able to survive a contraction? (I have friends at most of those companies, and I want them all to succeed, so I certainly hope so! But sometimes we have to look at things from a cold, clinical perspective.)

A lot of people talk about a bubble bursting, but it needn’t be so dramatic. If this happens, it’s just as likely that we see a flattening and a contraction. And the first place we’d see it is with new gamers failing to enter the business just as the honeymoon is ending for more seasoned gamers.

A market correction isn’t inherently a bad thing in the long run, although it would certainly make a lot of dreamers and small businessmen miserable. If our current growth is not sustainable, a correction may be what it takes to make our industry realistic and survivable over the course of decades.

Of course, as a small publisher, I’m rooting for the business to grow. But to me, the influx of new gamers is the canary in the coal mine. If we see a flattening, that’s going to be the first place it happens.

In the meantime, keep playing games, keep buying them, and keep telling your friends about them! That’s the best way to keep our hobby growing.

Formal Ferret 2017 convention schedule

Last year, I published a really ambitious convention schedule. I wound up missing a few of those events (I never made it to PAX AUS, unsurprisingly), but I kept to the schedule pretty closely. I remember going into UK Games Expo thinking I’d over-extended myself, and leaving with the certainty that I’d return in 2017.

Here’s the schedule, with analysis and thoughts below. I’m only listing public events and trade shows; I’m not listing invite-only conventions like the Gathering of Friends.

Dreamation
(No booth, but will be running events for The Networks and Wordsy)
February 17-19
Morristown, NJ

New York Toy Fair
(No booth, but I will be at large on the floor. Contact me if you want to schedule a meeting!)
February 20-21
New York, NY

Geekway to the West
May 17-21
St. Louis, MO

UK Games Expo
June 2-4
Birmingham, United Kingdom

Origins
June 14-18
Columbus, OH

Dice Tower Con
July 5-9
Orlando, FL

Gen Con
August 17-20
Indianapolis, IN

SPIEL ’17
October 26-29
Essen, Germany

Metatopia
(No booth, but I will be running playtests for upcoming games and holding seminars)
November 2-5
Morristown, NJ

BGG.CON
November 15-19
Dallas, TX

 

Gen Con remains a must-attend, and Origins built up enough amazing buzz for The Networks that I feel I need to return this year. It’ll be my 3rd year at BGG.CON with a booth and my 11th overall. Essen SPIEL and UKGE are also crucial for me, as they let me reach an overseas audience that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.

I’ve decided to avoid small shows that focus on video games, and only have board games as a sidebar. They’re just not worth my time anymore; I need to spend that time at shows that better target my audience. Trying to sell my games to someone who isn’t disposed to buy board games in the first place is a struggle I may be able to take in a few years, but for now, I have to focus on more winnable battles.

I’ve also dropped out of the PAX circuit for 2017. PAX South 2016 was absolutely wonderful, but it’s just too far away for me, and I didn’t have any stock when it was held this year. PAX East is extremely expensive, it’s impossible for a publisher of my size to get any booth space in the tabletop area, and my performance there last year outside the tabletop area was lackluster. PAX AUS and PAX Prime are too far away for me to attend in 2017, and the newly-announced PAX Unplugged is the same weekend as BGG.CON, which I’ve already committed to. I’ve heard that PAX Unplugged will not overlap BGG.CON in the future, so I will likely exhibit there in 2018.

I had wanted to attend UnPub, but had to pull out. I wouldn’t have any prototypes there in time, it wouldn’t be a selling convention for me, and it conflicts with a new part-time job I have at a local escape room. It’s a shame, because I love UnPub, and I really want to attend next year.

I considered attending BGG.Spring, but the timing just wasn’t right. I would have gone from Geekway to BGG.Spring to UKGE in three consecutive weekends, and that would have been too exhausting.

I’ve been at Dexcon, a local convention in Morristown, NJ, for at least 10 straight years (at least, it feels like that), but it overlaps with Dice Tower Con this year, so I will sadly have to miss it. But I will be attending their other two shows, Dreamation and Metatopia.

I had wanted to attend the Granite Games Summit, and I hope to someday! But it conflicts with the Gathering of Friends (not listed above as it’s invite-only).

I hope to see you at some of these shows soon!

A 4P Testimonial from Chip Beauvais

January is rapidly approaching, and with that comes my annual game design challenge, 4P. Instead of other game design challenge that have some sort of conceit of “finishing” your game at the end of the challenge, 4P challenges you to test your game 4 times in a month, making tweaks between each test.

Chip Beauvais is the designer of Chroma Cubes, Smoke and Mirrors, and now Universal Rule (currently on Kickstarter). Here he is with some words about how 4P has helped him…

For the last two years, I’ve participated in the 4P program by subjecting one of my game designs to four playtests during the month of January. One of the rules of 4P is that, between playtests, the designer needs to elicit feedback from players, and incorporate that feedback into the prototype. The goal of 4P, unlike many month-long challenges, is not to finalize a design, but instead to make significant progress with it.

After a successful campaign with Smoke and Mirrors in 2015, I proposed a few ideas for additional games with Jason Tagmire of Button Shy Games. He countered with the idea of creating something meatier, maybe a 4X game. My immediate reaction was, “With only 18 cards?, That’s impossible.”  But, a few weeks later, I realized that January was just around the corner, and this would make a perfect 4P experiment.

That’s one of the things about 4P. It’s not a large time commitment, and it’s contained within a single month. If, as I initially thought, creating a 4X game using only 18 cards was actually impossible, I would find out quickly. In any event, I would learn a lot.

In the first playtest (January 7, 2016), I saw which elements of the game engaged players. They enjoyed the banter, negotiation, and threats they could make while playing. I also learned to make every card exciting. With only 18 cards, there wasn’t room for boring planet powers.

Another advantage of 4P is the requirement of iterating quickly. It’s easy to theory-craft a game in your head and spend a lot of time fine-tuning a game that might not even work. This drives designers to make significant changes (doubling, or halving values on cards) rather than small tweaks which may not be noticeable. As a result, your questions are answered more quickly.

During the second playtest (January 15th, 2016), I learned that the non-planet elements of cards (e.g. “Discard this card for an effect”) were mostly ignored by players. On the one hand, I was a little disappointed, because I thought that there was a lot of design space to explore in this area. On the other hand, the playtester’s preference was too clear to ignore. Without playtesting, I might have spent weeks tinkering with this aspect of the game, but thanks to 4P, I could see that the best way forward was to drop this part of the game entirely.

One of the neat things about Universal Rule is the opportunity to participate in everyone’s turn. Whenever an opponent selects an action, you can “follow” that player by paying an additional cost. Sometimes, however, you either can’t follow (perhaps you can’t afford it), or you don’t want to follow. In this case, you get a consolation prize of 1 credit. While the concept of following was in the game from the very beginning, this single credit for not following was added during the third playtest on January 22nd.

Finally, it’s easier to get playtesters when I explain what 4P is, and what I’m trying to accomplish. Saying to my friends, “I’d like to work on a game that maybe, in a few months, I’ll be able to pitch to a publisher who maybe, a few months later, will want to publish, and which will finally, a year later, become a physical game” doesn’t have the same urgency as, “I’m striving towards four playtests before February begins.” As game designers, we understand the importance of sub-goals for driving player engagement, and 4P is a great subgoal in the game of designing games.

I hope you can join Chip and me for 4P 2017! No signup is required, no reporting is necessary. Just get those four playtests done!

Metatopia 2016

Metatopia is a game designer convention in Morristown, NJ. The only games on offer are prototypes. Because of that, it’s one of my favorite events of the year. Every year, more big-name designers attend, and it’s becoming a must-attend show for designers and publishers around the country.

I’ll be testing the forthcoming expansion to The Networks. Look for event B261 on Friday at 4 pm, B371 on Friday at 10 pm.

I’ll also be running a blind test of Wordsy, which means I hand you the rulebook and watch you try to figure out the game. That is event B813 on Sunday at 3 pm, although we’re going to try for an impromptu event on Sunday at 5 pm as well.

Here’s the full board game schedule. There are also schedules for RPGs and LARPs.

Finally, if you’re an aspiring game designer, I suggest checking out the incredible schedule of panels and seminars. These are always illuminating, informative, and very honest. I usually make a point to present several panels, so here are my offerings for this year.

D015: “Life After Kickstarter” presented by Gil Hova, Nick Sauer, Diane Sauer. Your Kickstarter funded; hooray! You shipped all your product, hooray! Now what? If you’re like a lot of board game self-publishers, you’ve got some stock left over. What channels can you use to sell it off? How can you market it? How do you get a distributor’s attention? If you can’t get ahold of any distributors, what are the alternatives? And when should you press that reprint button? Friday, 12:00PM – 1:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D059: “Theme: What is it Good For?” presented by Gil Hova, Tim Rodriguez, Geoffrey Engelstein, Sarah Judd. Most board games have a theme, but we’ve all played those games whose theme didn’t work for the game. Maybe the theme was really boring. Or it was really exciting, but the mechanisms didn’t match up. Or it left everyone confused and angry. It’s a subject worth studying. Why is theme so important to some board games? Why is it so unimportant to others? What can we as board game designers do to make sure our themes are working as well as possible? This panel will dive into the subject, exploring it from as many perspectives as possible. Saturday, 1:00PM – 2:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D063: “Con Booth Survival Guide” presented by Gil Hova, Stephen Buonocore, Curt Covert. Getting a booth at a large convention is intimidating for a new publisher. It’s expensive, and requires many hours of labor from many volunteers. There’s also cash to handle, signage to bring, and inventory to sell. Join publishers Stephen Buonocore (Stronghold Games), Curt Covert (Smirk & Dagger Games), and Gil Hova (Formal Ferret Games) as they discuss best practices for keeping your convention customers and volunteers happy. Saturday, 2:00PM – 3:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

D072: “Ten Mistakes New Board Game Designers Make” presented by Gil Hova. Do you have a new board game? Or even just an idea for a new board game? Board game designer Gil Hova has played a lot of board game prototypes, and knows the kinds of traps new designers are likely to fall into (and has fallen into most of them himself). Join him as he discusses ways around the most common pitfalls in board game design! Saturday, 5:00PM – 6:00PM; Serious, All Ages.

See you there!

My newest game Wordsy is live on Kickstarter now!

wordsy-main-graphic

My newest game Wordsy is now live on Kickstarter! Check out the campaign, back the game, and watch the video where I bicker with a stuffed chicken.

Wordsy is the spiritual successor to my first published game Prolix. I’m very excited about the opportunity to revise this game, and I can’t wait to get it into your hands!