If you thought video games were about passion, you’ve never made a tabletop game. This is a lesson I recently learned while creating a 2-player card game about sword fighting. But I’m not here to write about the game design process, I’m here to talk about the business side of tabletop.
When I first started playing games there was only retail, shelves upon shelves of boxes and cartridges. The distinction between video games and tabletop games was a banner over which aisle to walk down. A few years later id Software popularized shareware for my generation, but it was still very much a transitional time. The Internet was mostly a process of dialing into servers – literally – we would place our phones onto weird cradle devices or plug our PCs into the wall using 9.6 Kbits/s modems. The entire experience was kind of ridiculous but we endured.
The World Wide Web of today has made it possible for regular Joe’s to be like the id Software of that time. And as much as this has been the reason for Internet hostility, it has also helped circumvent the biggest issue with selling certain products like video games.
Printing and shipping costs are the death of small business and creators using print-on-demand. This is the reason why Target and Walmart can survive, because it gets a lot cheaper to ship 1000 towels or body sprays than it is to make and ship just 1. In the world of video games we’ve cut out the middle men by developing the games ourselves and selling direct to the consumer; no print, no shipping. But what about tabletop? What do you do when you want to build a game around the tactile feel of a card in your hand or the sensation of game chips sifting through your fingers? You do what everyone else has been doing, you make it for, “the love of the game”.
Video games have their own unique set of problems, but they are relatively known problems. You have piracy, the race to the bottom pricing schemes, and a markets that are flooded with poorly thought out ideas that are more about content than substance. But the reason there is a race to the bottom and a glut of fluff games is because the barrier to tossing a couple dollars at a game you may not even play is just as easy. You feel like you are supporting a developer and getting something; anything in return. The game might be terrible, but it’s not even about enjoying the game, it’s about wish fulfillment.
In tabletop games you have many of the same problems, but different. You have piracy; foreign print shops who’s job it is to rip assets and sell for 50% of the retail price, and cutting the international shipping rates (seriously $50 to send a poker deck to UK!?). You have market saturation; large brands like Hasbro practically have a monopoly on the market (pun intended), and there is no shortage of indie creators trying their hand at making board games. The barrier to making a physical game is even lower than making a video game, so you can imagine what that looks like. The tools required are a notepad and a #2 pencil. You have a race to the bottom price, but in a different way. The cost of printing and shipping is a fixed cost outside of your control. If the only 3 factors of a game’s price is printing, shipping, and profits, guess which one gets zeroed out.
It’s a tough market all around. I wake up everyday wondering how anyone makes money without working for someone else. I want to directly support creators and be directly supported as a tactile game’s designer but I’m realizing quickly that an indie creators’ job is not to profit, but to keep postal companies in business. When a $70 card game costs $20 at-cost to print and $50 to ship it feels dirty; I did nothing to support that person and I can’t ask others to do the same of me. I don’t have the answers, I can’t think of a way to give physical goods to a patron without asking them to pay magnitudes above the production cost. I know it sounds defeatist but I sit on a bed of game designs because I’d rather not sell them out of remorse that someone is paying far too much for something I created…
So yeah… If you thought making video games was about passion, you haven’t tried making money from a tabletop game.