Board Game Stores Thrive in 21st Century, Provide Customers With 'Anti-Tech' Activities

It may be hard to believe, in a world of photorealistic video games and constant entertainment via tablets and smartphones, that the old standard of games printed on paper and cardboard can be successful.

But it is — and increasingly so.

John Ward, executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association, said board game sales have been rising by about 20 percent each year during the past few.

“When you look at things like Kickstarter, in 2013, [board] games people invested in accounted for over $120 million,” he said. “The next category down was $80 million, and that was film and video. The industry as a whole has had a really good surge the last couple of years.”

Why the surge?

Ward said, “There’s no magic bullet. There’s a combination of factors.”

One, for example, would be the economy adjusting to recent downturns.

“When you buy a board game, it’s about a price point of $40 to $45, and you can play it all winter long,” Ward said. “If you take your whole family to a movie, you’ll spend $100 to $125, almost.”

He also mentioned that for people approaching middle age, there’s a nostalgia associated with sitting around a table with a social game.

Finally, there’s the assimilation of “geek” culture, which has been the traditional market for niche board games, into the mainstream.

These trends are reflected in the success of local game shops.

Imagine! Hobbies & Games, for example, started in 2002 in a 900-SF spot in downtown Clinton. Co-owners Jay Morgan and Gretchen Butler had a 1-inch binder of Magic: The Gathering cards and some eBay sales to their names. In 2005, they moved to Sherwood with $3,000, enough money to stay open for perhaps a month.

But the Sherwood store has stayed open for nearly a decade and has expanded and upgraded its 3,100-SF space.

Game Goblins, which opened in west Little Rock in April 2012, made a $48,000 profit on sales of $570,000 in 2013, according to co-owner Josh Wilhelmi. Profit, he said, quadrupled in the first full year, and he’s looking to grow it further.

In Conway, sales at Mizewell Games, which has been open for less than a year, have grown within its first year to provide a “decent profit,” said owner Neil Reeves, and the store is expanding and adding more products all the time.

Central Arkansas supports a handful more of these businesses: Game Zone Alpha in Jacksonville and Bat Cave Cards & Comics and Table Play Games, both in Conway, among others.

‘Third Places’

A popular feature of the stores is their function as a “third place,” or a social space distinct from home or work. Most game stores have tables set up for gaming, and usually a library of sample board games is provided. Groups of visitors can be found in the stores at all hours, and many of the stores are open long past 9 p.m.

These areas are sometimes used for organized play and tournaments, which do make money, but other times they’re just to provide a meeting place, which doesn’t necessarily make money at all.

“Board games aren’t necessarily how we’re trying to make money,” said Reeves at Mizewell. “Board games are how we get people in here.”

He said his store has a library of around 60 games that customers can play for free.

“We have, on average on Saturday nights, about 70 people in here,” said Reeves. “We don’t sell a bunch of stuff on those nights. But this is a hangout for people who don’t want to go and deal with drunk frat idiots — or they’re college students who can’t afford to go to the bar and spend 50 or 60 bucks.”

“We kind of went in with the idea that we weren’t going to charge for open play,” said Wilhelmi at Game Goblins. “The longer people are in the store — we think of it like casinos: The longer we’ve got them here, the more likely they’re going to spend money. We provide an environment with the hopes that while surrounded by product, they might be enticed to pick something up.”

The space is paid for by organized play, he said, and beyond that, it’s “a community service.”

“Organized play is definitely something that any business in this industry has to focus on,” said Morgan at Imagine. “You have to have walk-in customers that are sort of regulars, like the ‘Cheers’ crowd. It’s very important to run events like that.”

“As far as guys coming in and hanging out, if somebody wants to grab a game of [Settlers of] Catan and sit and play it, they’re going to remember it,” Butler added. “And when they are ready to purchase the game, they remember they played the game at Imagine. Generally, it’ll trickle down to us.”

Profit and Pancake Parties

So how do these stores make money?

Traditionally, it’s been through collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. Reeves said that the popular game accounts for about 60 percent of his sales.

On Friday nights, a Magic tournament might draw 20 to 30 people to Imagine’s play area. When new Magic sets are released, there might be close to 100 people in the store.

“What’s a really fun experience are the midnight releases,” Morgan said. “We turned those into pancake parties — we start at midnight and around 4 a.m., Gretchen cooks pancakes. We fed 92 people for the Return of Ravnica pre-release.”

But others, such as Wilhelmi at Game Goblins, are reluctant to rely on the old standard too much. He said Magic, including both product and events, accounted for 34 percent of his revenue in 2013, and he said he’s actually hoping to reduce that number.

“I think it’s too high,” he said. “A lot of people I talk with in the gaming industry feel there’s a bubble associated with collectible card games.”

“We’re trying to get to a point where Magic is still an important part of our business, but not one where if it were to suddenly go away, it would sink our business,” he said.

Otherwise, game shops profit by competing for discretionary dollars and making sure they aren’t competing too much against big online retailers.

The stores deal with this issue in different ways.

Imagine followed the old idiom of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The store sells product through Amazon and

Reeves at Mizewell said the store emphasizes customer loyalty.

“People have a place to play,” he said. “It’s somewhere where you can come and ask, ‘I want to find a two-player game to play with my wife,’ or ‘I’m looking for a five-player game to play with two kids.’ I think, hopefully, customer service has something to do with it, plus the large playing area.”

“It comes down to how people spend their discretionary income,” said Wilhelmi at Game Goblins. “Some people don’t mind waiting a few days, but we provide immediacy.”

Wilhelmi said that his concerns about Amazon and other big retailers have calmed since he opened.

“It’s amazing, the number of customers we have come in that have never played a board game,” Wilhelmi said. “When we started I was worried about … Amazon, and was saying ‘Is this something that can actually succeed?’ And now I think it can.”