One of the reasons that tabletop games have become so popular over the last two decades is that they bring people together. The ongoing pandemic made in-person gatherings nearly impossible throughout 2020, and this time apart from our friends and neighbors will have repercussions for the board game and role-playing game industries for years to come.
But the coronavirus wasn’t the only hurdle that the industry encountered last year. Labor issues and the Black Lives Matter movement forced many to confront the racism and inequities in a hobby they love. The resulting cultural reckoning put some of the industry’s biggest names in the hot seat.
To round out the year, Polygon reached out to voices from throughout the tabletop industry to talk about their experience. Our story also serves as a guide to trends that will have an impact in 2021 and beyond.
Independent retailers in crisis
When social distancing and lockdowns began early last year, the already-fragile retail sector of the U.S. economy went into free fall. Store closings meant an immediate loss of income for independent retailers. Some took decisive action to continue serving their communities by opening online storefronts, digitizing their available inventory, and putting it up for sale at curbside or by delivery.
The Game Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA) is the national trade body for the hobby games industry. Executive director John Stacy told Polygon that online sales — and online events, including mainstays like Friday Night Magic — were key to keeping businesses afloat throughout the year. Stores were able to open back up for a short period of time, but even now, spikes in coronavirus cases brought on by holiday gatherings are forcing some to close their doors again.
“You plan to open up if you’re a retail store, and then your city goes back down into a lockdown,” Stacy told Polygon in an interview in late December. “And so all those plannings — sort of having a safe and social shopping experience — goes out the window.”
Of the 3,000 to 4,000 independent game stores in the U.S. at the beginning of 2020, GAMA estimates that 20% or more already have or soon will go out of business.
“They’re taking it basically month by month,” Stacy said. “We won’t know [the final numbers] until we come out the other side of this.”
Modiphius Entertainment co-founder Chris Birch, whose company is headquartered in the U.K., said that international retailers are beginning to order stock in quantity again. Brexit — which formally separates the U.K. from the European Union — brings new complications, such as the potential of additional costs for those living in the E.U. and elsewhere. That’s one reason why he’s exploring new options to get his products out into the world.
Even though the sales of miniatures games are up — Games Workshop had another record-breaking year, for instance — Modiphius is leaning into the growing market for at-home 3D printing. Birch is now providing officially licensed files for consumers to print at home, including scenery for its popular Fallout and Elder Scrolls games.
“I think the future of the miniatures industry is in 3D printing,” Birch said.
His company has also gone to great lengths to strengthen its relationship with independent retailers, providing incentives for referring customers who prefer to order products online to Modiphius’ storefront.
“If a retailer signs up to our affiliate scheme, we give them 40% of the online sale,” Birch told Polygon. “The customer that buys through them — as long as they didn’t buy from us before — is permanently connected to that retailer. So, if in five years that person buys from us, that retailer still gets that 40%, and the customer gets 10% off to help offset.”
“Life is going to be difficult for everyone, I think for another year or two,” Birch added. “I want a reseller to think, I could sell all the Modiphius products and I don’t have to buy any of the stock from the distributor, which is mental if you think about it.”
R. Talsorian Games is likewise working with retailers to provide additional value for consumers who choose to shop in person. Like Modiphius, they’re signed on to the new Bits and Mortar Program, an alliance of 124 tabletop developers — including Bully Pulpit Games, Evil Hat Productions, and Free League Publishing — that promises to include a free PDF copy of any physical book purchased through a participating friendly local game store.
“We’ve decided to kind of dip our toe into it with Cyberpunk Red,” Cody Pondsmith told Polygon, referring to his company’s new tabletop RPG, a prequel to Cyberpunk 2077. “We had some shipping issues due to COVID. We were able to say, ‘OK, depending on where you are in the world, your store may not get physical copies of Red for a little bit longer. But, if you go to them, you can pre-buy the book and they will give you access to the PDF. Then you can come pick up the book when it gets to your store.’ It’s given a lot of freedom to make the barrier to entry quite a bit smaller for a lot of people.”
Tabletop goes digital
Just like video games, board games can take a while to produce. The games you’ll be enjoying in 2021, 2022, and beyond were all being designed and prototyped in 2020. One way or another, they had to be playtested during the pandemic. For those following Centers for Disease Control guidelines, that required more creative solutions.
“Playtesting digitally is really just like any other playtesting that we might want to do with physical prototypes,” said Restoration Games’ Suzanne Sheldon, “except it all is executed in a digital platform — primarily Tabletop Simulator.”
Whereas tabletop fans spent lots of time in 2020 with established titles on platforms like Board Game Arena, designers instead relied on the physics-based Steam game and its capacity to ingest new content. Tabletop Simulator is designed from the ground up to allow for rapid prototyping in 3D, and that helped designers get a feel for how a group would interact with the final components once they’re manufactured.
“Having that kind of digital tool available,” Sheldon told Polygon, “is quite empowering and quite powerful. It’s a bit of a challenge to learn Tabletop Simulator and get comfortable with it, but once you do that — it’s been an incredible tool for us.”
While other designers that we talked to also used teleconferencing tools like Zoom with great success, some in the industry had a harder time adapting an iterative creative process to an online environment.
“I’ve heard other designers say that Tabletop Simulator has been a godsend,” said Elizabeth Hargrave, designer of the award-winning Wingspan and Mariposas. “It feels like all of a sudden, there’s all these people out there that are willing to play their games any day of the week! I really realized that a lot of the feedback that I value from playtests is watching people play, and their facial expressions, and how they’re physically interacting with the game, and their body language and all of that. You just don’t get that in Tabletop Simulator.”
Hargrave said she’s looking forward to a point in 2021 when she can resume her weekly, in-person meetings with a small group of skilled players and designers in her area.
Crowdfunding during a pandemic
Over the last decade, crowdfunding has become the engine that drives the world of tabletop gaming. As the pandemic set in over the spring, many were concerned that platforms like Kickstarter would take a hit. Instead, it had a record year. Funding for tabletop games continued to lead all categories, with more than $233 million raised — an increase of 32% over 2019.
When Polygon spoke with designer Isaac Childres in March, he seemed reticent to take the leap to Kickstarter with Frosthaven. The sequel to his popular RPG-in-a-box Gloomhaven had been on the drawing board for years, and now was his chance to secure the funding he needed to bring it to market. In the end, Frosthaven pulled in nearly $13 million, becoming the most-funded tabletop game in Kickstarter history.
Most-funded Tabletop Kickstarters, 2020
|Wyrmwood Modular Table||Wyrmwood Gaming||$8,808,136||7,713|
|Nemesis Lockdown||Awaken Realms||£5,174,153 (approx. $6.9 million)||41,907|
|Darkest Dungeon the Board Game||Mythic Games||$5,657,479||28,842|
|Return to Dark Tower||Restoration Games||$4,054,744||23,661|
|Wildlands by Dwarven Forge||Dwarven Forge||$4,005,183||3,526|
|The 7th Citadel||Serious Poulp||€3,289,904 (approx. $4 million)||33,353|
|Massive Darkness 2: Hellscape||CMON||$3,813,274||21,763|
|Ankh: Gods of Egypt||CMON||$3,320,196||23,386|
|Full Color Custom Miniatures with Hero Forge 2.0||Hero Forge||$3,106,660||39,167|
Childres said that his foray into big-box retail — a slimmed-down version of his most famous game titled Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion — was also surprisingly successful. It went up for sale as a Target exclusive this summer.
“It went great,” Childres told Polygon. “We definitely exceeded their expectations. [...] They very quickly started ordering more than their projections.”
Childres said the initial surge in sales came from established fans rushing out to buy the new game, which also serves as an expansion to the original. From there, the growth was more organic.
While established brands like Dungeons & Dragons had a fantastic 2020 — representatives tell Polygon that the original role-playing game beat all expectations — smaller publishers had a more difficult time. When Gen Con, the nation’s largest tabletop gaming convention, was canceled in May, many companies braced for a huge hit to their revenue for the year.
Others, like Paizo Publishing — makers of Pathfinder and Starfinder — were at risk of losing a major point of contact with their communities. These companies thrive on in-person events to power their sales throughout the year. Tabletop RPGs were likewise buoyed by the adoption of digital alternatives.
“The real story here for our whole industry,” said Paizo’s publisher, Erik Mona, “is that the shift to online play has been accelerated, I think, by years from where we were at the beginning of this.”
Mona said that tools like Roll20 and Discord played a huge role in keeping the Pathfinder and Starfinder communities together. They helped the annual PaizoCon, originally scheduled as an in-person event in Seattle, go fully digital in 2020. Regardless of the system players were using, virtual tabletops (VTTs) helped to grow the hobby throughout the year. Even D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast got in on the act, moving its own organized play initiative fully online through its partnership with Baldman Games.
“The numbers are obvious,” Mona told Polygon. “A significant portion of the hobby has jumped on to that format to play. We’re seeing numbers on all the VTTs going through the roof.”
Labor steps forward
Unionization in the games industry has been a hot topic for years now. While many have been waiting for major video game developers to take the first step, 2020 saw those in the tabletop industry come forward instead.
The first movement came in February, when Kickstarter employees formally voted to form a union. Later on, the workers at Cards Against Humanity would also organize behind demands for changes in working conditions and leadership.
In the closing weeks of 2020, workers at Wyrmwood Gaming — makers of luxury furnishings and gaming accessories — would also make demands for better working conditions. Their efforts led to the resignation of CEO Doug Costello, which was captured in real time by the company’s own YouTube channel.
Major brands come under fire
Over the course of 2020, brands and companies throughout the tabletop industry confronted racism and toxicity in their communities. Many publishers made statements in support of the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. following the death of George Floyd. The messaging was clear: The future of hobby gaming will be more diverse than its past.
Those statements did not prevent some major brands from coming under fire from fans for being slow to confront their own demons.
Following pressure from their community, the developers of Magic: The Gathering opted to remove seven cards from the official database, some dating back as far as 1994, because of racist words and images.
“The events of the past weeks and the ongoing conversation about how we can better support people of color have caused us to examine ourselves, our actions, and our inactions,” Wizards of the Coast said in a July statement. “We appreciate everyone helping us to recognize when we fall short. We should have been better, we can be better, and we will be better.”
Representatives from Wizards of the Coast told Polygon that no one lost their jobs over the controversy.
“Those cards are so far in Magic’s past,” said Blake Rasmussen, senior communications manager at Wizards of the Coast, in an interview with Polygon last month. “There are only a handful of people who have worked [here] that long, and it’s very easy to say that now they had nothing to do with that.”
Rasmussen said that his team was in the process of adding a diversity and inclusivity director, and also working with outside consultants to take “a broader look at the game’s past.”
Wizards’ other keystone brand, Dungeons & Dragons, also came under fire for its content. In addition to insensitive portrayals of some fictional cultures, fans called out how the game handles the concept of race on a structural level. Alternative methods of character generation were introduced late in the year with a supplement titled Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, but many players feel that it did not go far enough.
Following that book’s publication, Greg Tito — senior communications manager at Wizards of the Coast — told Polygon that the D&D team is not yet done dealing with issues of race in the original role-playing game.
“You’re looking at a property that has 47 years of history, that extends back even to the civil rights movement [of the late 1960s and early 1970s],” Tito said in an interview with Polygon last month. “We have that philosophy, we have that tenet, that we’re [always] listening to our fans.”
“We’re still in that process here where we are listening and hearing everything,” Tito continued, “and absorbing as much of that feedback as we possibly can. We are going to be taking that feedback and turning it into published material.”
Building something better
As the movement for social justice swept the nation, Eric Lang, a prolific tabletop game designer and a Black man, spoke out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and worked as an advocate for inclusivity at the table. He even spent time with high-profile board game personality Tom Vasel to discuss the issue in detail.
For his efforts, he was serially harassed on social media for a good portion of the year. At one point, his Twitter account was even suspended (due to mass reporting of his account) by those hoping to silence him. Polygon asked Lang if the wider tabletop community has done enough to deal with issues related to racism.
“Fuck no,” he said during an interview with Polygon last month. “And I say that as part of the problem.”
“I’ve been in the industry for 25 years,” Lang continued. “I’ve been vocal-ish, right? But vocal in the easy way. I code-switched for a decade, to basically just fit in with everybody else. I’m culturally white. [...] I’m every white guy’s best friend.”
That sort of behavior, Lang said, speaks to his complicity in reinforcing racism within the hobby games industry. Throughout 2020, he listened to the stories of other Black people, taking them to heart, and working to share what he learned with his followers on social media. He’s also been mentoring developers well outside of the established gaming channels — and reaching out to capital to bring their work to life.
“I’m spending a lot of time making contacts with sort of moneyed interests that come into this industry without any preconceptions, without any dogma, and they are very malleable,” Lang said. “So I can say, ‘Hey, you don’t need to make that 75th worker placement game. Why don’t we go out and make a game for this huge market that we haven’t catered to [before]?’”
The result, he hopes, will be the further broadening of an already massive and vigorous tabletop gaming industry.