President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is causing a panic inside the board game industry. A list of tariffs on Chinese imports proposed by the United States trade representative would raise the cost of virtually everything needed to produce modern tabletop games. John Stacy, executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA), says that tariffs could dramatically reduce the number of new games in production in the United States. Even worse, they could cost workers and business owners their livelihoods.
GAMA is a non-profit organization that represents more than 1,000 companies in the hobby games industry. That industry includes board games, card games, dice, role-playing games, and miniatures games. It’s a sector that has seen remarkable growth over the last decade thanks to a number of factors. Among them is the birth of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, but also a modern renaissance in board game design. Meanwhile the tabletop RPG sector, lead by Dungeons & Dragons and made viral by actual-play experiences, is more popular than ever before.
In total, Stacy says that hobby games now produce as much as $5 billion annually for the U.S. economy. But that number is now at risk thanks to Trump’s proposed tariffs.
“We’re very concerned about it,” Stacy told Polygon. “There’s been a lot of conversation among our members in the last two days about the impact of this and how it’s going. It’s potentially a 25 percent increase on the costs of importing products from China. We’d pass those increases on to the retailers, who would pass them on to consumers. And so there’s definitely this ripple effect in the economy.”
Polygon reached out to half a dozen of the most successful companies in the hobby games space, both new and old. Those who responded declined to go on the record for this story. Privately, several expressed that they were terrified at the prospects of Trump’s tariffs being put in place.
Stacy said his experience communicating with GAMA members has been much the same.
“The conversations I’m having are, ‘How am I going to keep my doors open and pay my employees? If my costs go up 25 percent, if I can’t pass that on to my customers, I can’t stay in business.’”
The goal of Trump’s trade war is to bring back American jobs and boost our economy while punishing China for what he calls unfair trade practices. Trouble is that, unlike the steel industry, there are painfully few alternative sources right now for manufacturing hobby games here in our country. Making matters worse, those manufacturers that do remain can’t produce games of the same quality as their Chinese competitors.
“The [hobby games] manufacturing infrastructure in the United States has basically collapsed in the last 20 years,” Stacy said. “The expertise and the specialization is simply not there. Obviously, we still have some big manufacturers in this country, but they can’t do smaller products in the volumes that we’re buying them in — 2,000 copies or whatever — because it’s cost prohibitive to buy that small of a quantity from a U.S. company. So our members have to go overseas to buy them. That’s what allows them to actually keep their doors open, because the margins are so thin in our industry.”
Because of that, Stacy says that the proposed 25 percent tariffs feel more like a 25 percent tax on the hobby of tabletop gaming. It’s a tax that could be instituted virtually overnight, and one that GAMA’s membership cannot easily sustain. Given the short production cycle of hobby games, the impact of these tariffs would be felt immediately. An overnight cost increase would mean fewer games on the shelves at local independent retailers, and higher costs overall for U.S. consumers.
It seems that part of what makes the hobby games space so interesting right now also makes it extremely fragile. Ultimately, many of the smallest companies and the most daring new game designers could be put out of business.
“With Kickstarter there’s a low barrier to entry to get into this industry,” Stacey said. “There are more games on the market today than there were in any previous year. Every year the number gets larger and larger. So it gets harder and harder to reach the market and get your product out there to sell your product.
“The competition is very tough, so you have to be very price conscious to keep your part of the market share that you currently have. So there’s this cycle that makes it hard to raise prices because the market is so competitive. If you keep the prices low it’s easier to get into the marketplace. This cycle just continues and continues. So it’s very hard to make money in this industry.”
For his part, Stacy says that he and other members of GAMA’s leadership are doing what they can. He’s already spent time in Washington D.C. lobbying on behalf of the industry. He says that consumers should also make time to call their representatives and voice their concerns.
“Yes, the President is unilaterally making these decisions,” Stacy said, “but Congress has a role in this and it’s important that [consumers] voice to their elected representative that they’re not happy with this, that this is not good for us, and that this is not good for America.”