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Old-School Games Get New Life

This story appears in the December 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Think the rise of consoles and mobile devices means it’s game over for old-school tabletop gaming? Think again. 

The digital revolution hasn’t killed board games, role-playing games and other offline diversions. Instead, new technologies are rewriting the rules of hobby-game publishing and production—and raking in some serious cash. 

We’re not talking Monopoly money here, either. ICv2, a site dedicated to hobby gaming (defined as titles sold primarily via the hobby channel of game and card specialty stores), reports that shoppers in the U.S. and Canada spent $700 million on hobby games in 2013, up 20 percent year-over-year and almost double the totals of 2008. The collectible-games category (properties like Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh!) leads the charge, with 2013 retail sales of $450 million; miniatures (including Warhammer 40,000 and Hordes) are nextat $125 million, followed by board games at $75 million, card and dice games at $35 million and role-playing games at $15 million.

“I wouldn’t call anything ‘recession-proof,’ but the hobby-gaming market tends to hold its own during difficult financial times,” says Adrian Swartout, CEO of Gen Con, North America’s largest annual tabletop gaming convention. “When you don’t have a lot of money, taking the family out to a movie is not possible. It’s way too expensive. But playing a board game around the family table is a low-cost way to interact.”

Swartout has a front-row seat for the hobby-gaming renaissance. Gen Con 2014, held in August at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, encompassed more than 14,000 individually ticketed events, including around-the-clock gaming tournaments at nearby hotels. Weekend attendance fell just shy of 185,000, outpacing Gen Con 2013 by 14 percent and signaling the event’s fourth consecutive year of more than 10 percent growth. 

Swartout credits hobby gaming’s evolution to the increasing diversification of its core audience. “It’s changed a lot over the last four or five years,” she says. “It’s still heavily male, but it used to be about 90 percent male—now it’s less than 70 percent. We’re seeing more young females, and we’re also seeing older people getting married, having kids and bringing their families to the show.”

Tabletop gaming offers a welcome respite from the demands of the digital world, says Robert T. Carty Jr., vice president of sales and marketing at Mayfair Games, a Skokie, Ill.-based publisher with more than 100 titles in print, including the long-running Settlers of Catan multiplayer board game series. 

“Technology is around us all the time. We’re always dealing with e-mail or cell phones or computers,” Carty says. “With board games, it’s an hour or two hours when you’re not plugged in, and you don’t have to answer e-mail. There’s a lot of allure there.” 

That doesn’t mean the hobby-gaming business is failing to embrace technological innovation, however. Many independent publishers are turning to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter to launch new titles, or partnering with e-commerce sites like Amazon to simplify shipping and distribution. Publishers also are keeping a close eye on emerging solutions like 3-D printing, which promises to dramatically reduce the costs of creating figurines, dice and other game pieces—for better or for worse. (“3-D printers create the problem of bootleg products,” Carty grumbles. “A lot of people don’t respect intellectual property.”)

Some hobby-game publishers are even translating their titles to the digital realm, enabling gamers to get their fix on the go. One example is the recently introduced Catan Anytime, a free-to-play web version touting asynchronous gameplay and automated features designed to simplify access across connected devices. But Carty maintains there’s nothing like the real thing. 

“The digital experience is really cool, but mostly, it’s solitary—and even if you’re playing with other people online, you can’t see them,” Carty says. “Maybe you’re talking to them over a headset or IMing with them, but it’s not the same experience as sitting around with other people and watching their body language. There’s a certain poker element to it that your mind processes. I think we need those social interactions as a people. And other people must feel the same way, because we’re selling a lot more games.” 

Jason Ankeny

Written By

Chicago-based writer Jason Ankeny is the executive editor of Fiercemobile content, a daily electronic newsletter dedicated to mobile media, applications and marketing.