Cardboard empires: How digital is supporting, not killing board games

Board games, as a medium, are no stranger to the digitization of physical products that just about every form of media is undergoing.

Mobile app stores have seen countless digital board game adaptations sail to the top of the charts, and cling to those spots with unswerving determination. It's not just the major publishers that are finding that success, either; companies much smaller than Hasbro and Mattel are selling huge numbers of their digital games. And It's not really that hard to figure out why: tablets and mobile devices seem tailored for emulating board game experiences. They're sharable. They're interconnected. They sit flat on a table.

That's just the first step in the digitization process, though. The second is the complete cannibalization and annihilation of the adapted physical product.

Again, it's not hard to figure out why that second step is so obligatory. The proliferation of powerful, relatively inexpensive, internet-powered devices has filled consumers with an avarice for the fastest, most inexpensive, internet-powered means of consuming content. It's why print media has declined. It's why entertainment media producers are expanding their digital distribution platforms.

Only, board games don't seem to be having any trouble at all.

Take Days of Wonder, whose two biggest cardboard properties — Ticket to Ride and Small World — have found success both in physical and digital formats. Those physical versions run at a standard price of $49.99 a pop, while their digital adaptations are much, much cheaper; Ticket to Ride is $6 99 on iPad and $1.99 on iPhone, while Small World 2 (an updated version of the original board game) costs $9.99. You would think that gulf would cause the expensive, physical game sales to come to a complete halt.

Only, board games don't seem to be having any trouble at all

But when Small World hit iPad in 2010, sales of the physical game tripled for three months. By the time that spike leveled out, sales were steadily double the game's previous numbers.

"What's interesting is because we control both the digital and cardboard versions, we can see and track sales trends, and we have seen repeatedly that when we launch a new version of the game, either Small World or Ticket to Ride, or we do a special promotion with Ticket to Ride Pocket ... I can then track very accurately what happens in the next three to seven weeks in terms of sales, and I see big bumps in cardboard sales," Mark Kaufmann, vice president of sales and marketing for Days of Wonder told Polygon in a recent interview.

"Anecdotally, we get lots of emails from people who say, 'I had never heard of this as a board game, and my friend turned me onto it on my iPad, or iPhone or Android device, and then I was shocked to find out there was a board game.' They've lost that resistance to playing the board game, because they know the rules, and they know they had fun playing it."

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Days of Wonder's founders all came from various tech start-ups, which either got bought out or "fell on their asses and failed, because that's what start-ups do." The team always wanted to do digital versions of their games, before they even started making them — not because of how potentially lucrative those digital games would be, but because of their potential for brand expansion.

"The purpose originally was never to commercialize them from a sense of, selling them and making money," Kaufmann explained. "It was to help teach the game. We really felt, and we still feel, that one of the key ways to sell more cardboard games is to have more people know the rules to those games.

"There's this hesitance with new games ... the vast majority of the population has really good memories of playing games, but they're kind of afraid to learn new ones, because they might be too complex, to try to figure out the rules. One of the reasons we think Monopoly sells so well is people think they know the rules, so it's an instant, 'Oh, well I know how to play Monopoly. It may not be that exciting, but hey, we know the rules so we can play it.' There's that barrier to overcome with new games."

"One of the reasons we think Monopoly sells so well is people think they know the rules..."

The reason their physical sales aren't cannibalized, Kaufmann explained, is because the experiences offered by the two versions are completely different. The digital game is quick, accessible, cheap and portable, perfect for pick-up-and-play sessions or asynchronous matches with distant opponents. The board game is something you plan your night around; it's more personal and communal than its digital counterpart.

"You play board games around a table with people for the social camaraderie, giving people grief about the stupid move they made or that you beat them, or that they beat you. It's an excuse to socialize. When you play on a tablet or phone, it's actually often quite different; you like the game, you like the experience of playing it, but you're on the subway, you've got 20 minutes and you want to play the game.

"We wanted to make sure when we created those versions for tablets and phones, that we took into consideration how people would be playing it. Yes, some people play on the tablet face-to-face ... but a significant number, and a much larger percentage actually, play either solo against the bots on the computer, or they play online with one of the hundreds of thousands of players who might be playing on the network."

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But there's something to be said about the convenience offered by that digital experience. A question I, a fairly late Dungeons & Dragons bloomer, have always asked is: Why is there no properly licensed digital version of the game's 4th Edition — a version characterized by its fairly codified (and therefore easily digitized) game mechanics? There is certainly no shortage of digital games based on the D&D license, some of which come closer to emulating the tabletop game's core mechanics than others; but why isn't there a D&D 4th Edition iPad game?

According to Wizards of the Coast's Nathan Stewart, brand director for Dungeons & Dragons, it's because of that same separation of digital and physical experiences.

"On the digital front, we look at what the fans are wanting ... through what they're playing and buying and whatnot, and also what the mediums will help deliver," Stewart said. "What you've just described, this digital version of the paper game — it kind of exists through virtual tabletops, it's just not very popular. That's actually probably missing some of the point of why people like getting together at the table and playing. The shared storytelling, the go anywhere, do anything element, the social aspect of it, it's really the core reason and it's something only D&D delivers."

The company's approach to digital interpretations of its franchises seems to differ from brand to brand. For Magic: The Gathering, the digitization has been fairly straightforward; in 2009, the company launched Magic: The Gathering — Duels of the Planeswalkers, a console game that mirrored the mechanics of the physical trading card game, which would come to mobile platforms in later iterations. It served as a (comparatively) inexpensive entry point into the game, and has managed to boost sales of physical cards threefold since it first launched, a Wizards of the Coast representative told Polygon.

"...if you're a D&D fan, when you sit down to talk D&D with people, you should all be able to have the same stories."

Dungeons & Dragons has a different digital strategy altogether; one that focuses less on digital monetization and more about cross-platform narrative experiences. Before deciding how a project will manifest — whether through a mobile game, MMORPG, tabletop game, novel, or so on — Wizards of the Coast examines how that project will help broaden the storytelling going on in the franchise's other iterations.

It's a somewhat convoluted goal, but it can be boiled down to a single, ideal end user experience, Stewart explained.

"In the future my ideal world is you and me, more of our friends are sitting around a table talking about the D&D experience we had, talking about Bhaal coming back, and 'I can't believe the god of murder is resurrected, and how much havoc this is going to wreak on Baldur's Gate,' and, 'This is insane, I don't know if I can even survive this,' and as we start talking, we all realize that none of us are playing the same game.

"But we all experienced the same thing, we knew what everyone else is talking about. The storyline was pervasive across all our experiences, even if you were playing a standalone board game, and I was playing the Neverwinter MMO, and someone else was playing the tabletop RPG, someone else was playing Baldur's Gate 3 on Xbox. That cohesive storytelling, if you're a D&D fan, when you sit down to talk D&D with people, you should all be able to have the same stories. That's what drives our strategy."

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That strategy is also how Wizards avoids cannibalizing its own sales across D&D games; because you can get more of the story by indulging in more titles, invested fans are less likely to stick to just one.

"By delivering these great storytelling experiences then optimizing them for the right delivery vehicle, you can have them coexist and be complimentary to each other," Stewart said. "If you just experience one of them, awesome, that's great ... if you delivered all of them, they're all unique and different so you feel like you got a really big piece of the puzzle."

Of course, Wizards of the Coast hasn't completely ignored the convenience of direct digital ports of their physical items. Just last week, Lords of Waterdeep, a Dungeons & Dragons strategy board game that launched last year, was released on the iOS App Store in a digital adaptation from Playdek.

Perhaps the most notable digitization Wizards experimented with was D&D Insider, a suite of digital tools that encapsulated all the data D&D 4th Edition had to offer. By paying a subscription fee, users could create characters — traditionally a fairly complex equation — using a simple application, then print out the parameters of their different powers and abilities on discrete cards. Almost all the math and rule-checking was done for the player; a kindness that stretched across other applications, including a Monster Creator.

"It's completely successful, and it still remains successful..."

"It's completely successful, and it still remains successful, it's a very widely used tool for the tabletop audience," Stewart said. "I think a majority of the 4th Edition players that are actually playing are using that on a regular basis. I love the tools, I think they're awesome — the only thing that I would say is, the only thing the tools don't do that I wish they would have, is they don't work great at the tabletop. Not from a design standpoint or a portability standpoint. They're great for prep, but you really wouldn't use them at play very much. I think people try, but sometimes it takes away from the experience."

Wizards of the Coast is looking at how they'll improve those tools for D&D Next, the upcoming relaunch of the game's ruleset. Moving the Insider apps over to mobile devices and tablets seems likely, as it would fold those tools into a play session more ergonomically. Other third-party apps are already spreading across tabletops, performing similar functions, and Wizards of the Coast isn't ignoring them.

"They have some ineloquent solutions, but people are still really eager to use that at the table," Stewart said. "We see a lot of it, so we know that's what the consumer wants. We're absolutely looking at how to deliver that, because it's just blatantly clear that that's what the gamers want. You see it, we see it and we're definitely looking at how to best do that."

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It's more difficult to track the impact that digital D&D games have on the physical franchise, given the lack of direct adaptations, but the core brand clearly isn't suffering. That's because Wizards of the Coast has a legacy in D&D — the kind of gold mine upon which the physical board games industry is built, according to Days of Wonder's Mark Kaufmann.

"One of the interesting things about board games, the analogy that our CEO likes to use is: In what other business category is the product that was number one 70 years ago still the number one product, which is Monopoly — and arguably, Scrabble's getting really close now," Kaufmann explained. "There's nothing like that in the business market today, where the same product is still successful. The length and scale of the lifetime for board games is very long, which makes it an interesting business in that once you get an evergreen title, or a product that will continue to sell, and continue to be successful over time, you then get economies of scale.

"Ticket to Ride sells not because I'm a great marketer, it sells because people like the game, and play with their friends, who then like the game, who play with their friends and so forth," he added. "All we really do is try to build the network of players. That makes the cardboard side, at least in our case, because we have two games that are quite successful ... it makes it more profitable as we move along."

"Nobody throws board games away, even if they haven't played it in five years."

It's incredibly difficult to secure such an empire, but developers who can thread that needle can set themselves up for long-term success. Solid franchises can serves as a sturdy bedrock for cardboard game makers; it's a stark contrast to the far more volatile mobile game market, Kaufmann said.

"The long tail [of mobile games] — yeah, it's really long, but it's really skinny for most of it," Kaufmann said. "We know where we are in the rankings, and we're profitable with our digital side, but we don't think of it as being an awesome business to be in. If I were a company that only sold digital games on iOS or Android devices, I'd be concerned. If you get outside the top 10, nobody's making a significant amount of money."

Of course, there's something to be said about the physical presence of board games. Exposure on the App Store is problematic, and the low price point of most software doesn't engender much commitment from users. A $50 board game taking up a square foot of shelf space is much, much harder to ignore.

"You throw apps off of your devices probably all the time," Kaufmann said. "Nobody throws board games away, even if they haven't played it in five years."

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