If we asked every one of our readers to name five board games, there are a few names which will always come up.
From Monopoly to Jenga and Cluedo to Scrabble, there are some all-time classics which feature in most family homes – even if they only come out at Christmas time.
Those games – as well as licenced spin-offs like Marvel Monopoly or Game of Thrones Risk – are produced by a handful of large companies like Hasbro, Mattel and Asmodee.
But there is a lesser-known group of independent board game publishers based in the UK who are producing some exciting, and genuinely unique, games.
While some of these indies started out up to a decade ago, there’s been a big boom in both the number of publishers and the number of board games they’re making.
Research by Businesscoot suggests the UK board game market will grow by more than 10% between 2020 and 2026, while 6Wresearch predicts a ‘tremendous growth rate’ between 2023-2029.
Plus, Statista reckons the UK market made £88.7 million ($113.3 million USD) in 2022, a sum they predict will grow to £148.9 million ($189.6 million USD) by 2027.
So, there’s money to be made in board games – but how much of that cash is going to the indies, and how much is being swallowed up by the big players?
Metro.co.uk spoke to three UK-based independent board game publishers to find out.
Big Potato Games
Big Potato were established in 2014 and produce a range of party games, suitable for adults and children.
They say board games saw a spike in interest during the coronavirus lockdowns because people had to spend more time at home, and needed different forms of entertainment.
Becky McKinlay, head of global marketing, explained: ‘Board games were a break from screen time, and when you’re having to work from home of if you’ve got kids doing school from home using a screen, it was just something different to do.
‘It’s a bit of a break and something to bring the family together – or whoever people were spending lockdown with whether that’s a partner, friends, or family.
‘What we have noticed is the market has slightly declined since Covid, but only ever so slightly, so we think it’s just gone stagnant, probably because life has gone back to normal.
‘What we have found, is because of Covid there’s interest from people who previously wouldn’t have played games except over Christmas, so I think because of Covid it opened people up to board games again.’
Becky reckons it’s the release of hugely popular card game, Cards Against Humanity, which helped Big Potato succeed and revolutionised the board game industry.
She added: ‘There are some types of games that will always be popular, like Jenga, Scrabble and Monopoly, but when Cards Against Humanity came out it opened up a whole genre of adult party games.
‘There’s so much more choice in the market for games that are made for adults, not just family or kids games, they can take to a dinner party or while drinking with friends.
‘Games like What Do You Meme? and Exploding Kittens are really popular for this.
‘There are more indie publishers making games in the adult party game genre, which just goes to show the demand is there.’
One of Big Potato’s main focuses is to ensure their games are easy to learn and quick to play.
Becky explained: ‘At the time we started it felt like a lot of board games had a bit of a barrier to entry, they just took a long time to play or learn.
‘When you’re playing Monopoly you often know who’s winning towards the beginning, and you have to play the game out knowing someone’s sweeping the board.
‘We make how to play videos for our games so you don’t even have to read the rules, and we put QR codes on our boxes which take you to a quick summary of how to play, which is useful if you’re browsing in a shop and want a summary.
‘We wanted to make sure everybody is doing something and there’s not a lot of waiting your turn, as that can be where people switch off and start looking at their phones – but if everyone’s doing something at the same time it’s more engaging.’
Becky also thinks board games can be a more cost-effective way to entertain – especially during the current cost of living crisis, as prices are rising across the board (pun intended).
She said: ‘In the next year, especially in winter, people will want to spend more time entertaining at home in more cost effective ways.
‘I think people will be doing more at-home entertaining, cooking dinner rather than going out, so games will probably have a bit of a role in that as well, especially more light hearted party games a lot of people can get involved with.’
Blue Donut Games
Blue Donut was set up in 2021 and has created some great family board and card games. The fourth edition of their flagship family horror game, Horror in the Library, is due out in October.
Managing director Marcus Pullen says the UK board game industry is in a growth phase at the moment, with lots of independent publishers popping up in recent years.
But while the coronavirus lockdown did help the industry in some ways, it hindered in others.
Marcus explained: ‘The technologies that are available now mean board games are more accessible as an industry. Of course the downside of that is that it’s hyper saturated, board game makers are 10 a penny.
‘There’s lots of new genres coming out, and some of them are really imaginative.
‘When you’re indie, the thing everyone struggles with is the capital investment you have to put into a board game. Unfortunately even though you might have a really good idea, it’s really expensive to develop it.
‘In recent years that’s been very difficult because of costs, Covid has increased costs and then you had supply chain issues, like when the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal. That had a massive knock-on effect.
‘Of course you’ve got other things to meet that challenge, like Kickstarter, but again it’s hyper-saturated. There are a lot of challenges, but it’s still very much a growth industry.’
Marcus says some of the bigger board game companies have consolidated in recent years – and he worries this could lead to a ‘consolidation of ideas’ and less choice for consumers.
Rather than trying to go up against the giants of the board game world, he says, instead indie publishers like Blue Donut hope to capture the imagination of board game enthusiasts and keep them coming back and singing their praises.
He explained: ‘We’re so reliant on our customers, we can’t do it without them, there are very dedicated board gamers and they’re very discerning.
‘You’ll get those customers where if they like your games they’ll come back and will also be your champions.
‘If you’re a product manager for Hasbro, you’re looking at data, asking what’s sold in the past and therefore that’s gonna sell in the future.
‘We can’t go up against somebody like Hasbro, we won’t make games like theirs. We can take a gamble, we can be much more creative, make a small batch and see if it plays.’
Dranda Games was set up in 2017 and they currently have four board games in their repertoire, with themes from repairing a crashing space ship to avoid certain doom, to expanding railroads in the wild west.
Their board games were funded through Kickstarter, an online platform where people pledge cash to fund the project, and receive the finished product if the goal is met.
Co-founder Ayden Lowther reckons the increasing interest in indie board games started before Covid, as early as 2012, but saw another peak during the lockdowns.
However, those lockdowns brought their own challenges. Ayden explained: ‘From 2018 until Covid the market peaked some more.
‘It was already increasing – the amount of games launched on Kickstarter every day now, the competition is crazy compared to what there was even four years ago when we launched our first campaign.
‘I think Covid helped a lot – we were lucky our first game fulfilled to backers about three months into the first lockdown.
‘It had a solo mode and it is quite accessible for anybody playing by themselves or with family.
‘The market was on the increase before but I do think the pandemic helped the industry boost to a new level.
‘The cost of wood and card went up during lockdown. We’re lucky those costs have dropped back down because it’s much more manageable now.’
Dranda also focus their attentions on board game enthusiasts rather than newcomers to the hobby – and they say marketing is everything when it comes to success.
Ayden said: ‘In 2012 Kickstarters didn’t need as much money as they do now. If we went to distributors now with a £10,000 campaign it wouldn’t be enough for them.
‘People come into the hobby initially on the “gateway games” like Pandemic and Ticket to Ride, and if something resonates then people start wanting something a bit more complex.
‘We know we can’t go up against Hasbro and the other big publishers, we don’t have the people power or the finance for it.
‘What we’ve done is join board game Facebook groups and engaged as part of the community, not just pushing our games but speaking to people so they get to know you as a person – then when we do say we have a board game people are more likely to support it.
‘We don’t need to sell 100,000 copies of a board game, as nice as that would be, 2-5,000 is a success for us. Our aim is people who are already in the board game hobby because it’s an easier market to tap.’
Ayden also believes the market – and industry – will keep growing, and is doubtful that the bubble might burst even if some costs are still higher than they were before the pandemic.
He explained: ‘I’m not sure how that would happen as people won’t all of a sudden stop enjoying board games.
‘What might become more difficult is there are more people wanting to publish and design, so it will be harder for people to enter the industry because it’s going to be saturated.
‘We already see that now, there are a lot of designers who are putting out good games on Kickstarter, and if it had come out four years ago it would have had more backers, there are so many options now.
‘I think anyone who managed to survive 2020-2022 should be able to continue to survive now.
‘Shipping is still expensive and publishers are expected to just eat it.
‘In 2019 a game cost £4 to post and now it costs £7, that will put customers off because the cost of living is going up, so do we eat that ourselves or do we lose customers?
‘That’s a difficult situation to be in at the moment.’
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