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The Tabletop Retailer’s View of 2017

by on February 6, 2018
 

In the world of tabletop journalism, it’s easy to focus too much on the games themselves and the designers. Something I’ve been wondering about lately has been the retailers. They tend not to grasp a massive amount of the headlines unless it’s something like Tom Vasel’s massive rant against bricks and mortar retailers, which was walked back a bit later.

I used to be in comic retail from the mid-nineties to the mid-oughts, which included developing the tabletop and RPG sections of the shop I worked in. I liked to keep aware of how things were going for the local game stores, but I realised that in 2017, I wasn’t actually in the loop anymore. I had no idea how retailers were doing and started wondering how I’d find out. New factors like Kickstarter must be effecting the retail space, along with massive online retailers like Amazon.

I contacted a few tabletop game shops and asked them a few questions about how 2017 was for them. Here are their answers:

Fan Boy Three

Fan Boy Three may sound like the name of a geekdom-based boy band, but they’re actually a board game shop and cafe in Manchester. I was told to speak to them by a friend who’s a customer of theirs. Apparently they have undergone a phoenix-like transformation in recent times which really made me want to hear how they’d been doing.

Fan Boy Three are found at 25 Hilton Street, Manchester, M1 1EL and online here.

Dave Salisbury answered my questions.

As a game store, how was your 2017?

Brilliant. We moved premises finally to a much bigger site a minute up the road, with two floors and a cafe concession area. And that meant we got a big bump in trade, visibility and customer satisfaction. We’re now the most lauded store in the UK, and it has shown in our sales uptick. Our December was 48% up on last year, which is almost unheard of. Although sadly as the UK’s original dedicated Organised Play store our event numbers are actually down.

As someone who plays tabletop games, how was your 2017?

I found it really strong. I mean sure, there probably weren’t very many games released that will stand the test of time and be around a decade from now. But D&D 5E performed great, Gloomhaven was released, Charterstone, Azul, Meeple Circus, Dice Forge, Century Spice Road and about a hundred other good titles meant there was a lot of variety rather than one ‘must play’ game. And that’s arguably better.

Are there any trends which you noticed in the past year?

Kickstarter continues to be a strong force, obviously. But for me its no longer quite so dominant. A number of games that launched strong on KS actually flopped in store, because all the energy had been sucked out of them by the time they hit retail. This is bad news when many KS projects now are more expensive than retail and launch with a $10,000 up front promotional campaign. Sure, Gloomhaven did fantastic in this category – even bigger than we expected – and it really is the sort of game KS was designed for. But too many titles are limping out like First Martians. That’s less good if you are thinking of using KS to springboard your company into being an industry player.

Also, the Amazon counterfeiting trend continues. Whoa boy, the floodgates opened there when they made that Faustian pact with Alibaba.

What are the top sellers in your store?

Do deckboxes count? Honestly, this varies by volume and price. Outside of traditional TCG’s like Magic and Cardfight, our number one game this last year was almost certainly Terraforming Mars, followed by Azul, Photosynthesis, Time Stories, Scythe, Rebellion and Blanks – which is a really great fun party game from the team behind Rory’s story Cubes.

Is the presence of Kickstarter impacting the game industry from your perspective, either positively or negatively? Has this evolved notably in 2017 compared to previous years?

Kickstarter is a bubble, and we are coming to the other side of it now. A number of high expectation KS projects had to be pulled and retooled this year, because they aren’t hitting the same highs as they would have once reached on day one. That’s what KS has become now – a rush to get as many day one or week one sales as possible, because if you don’t fund then you probably won’t. So our industry, in which traditionally the ‘long tail’ of having products in retail for months, years and decades works in customers favour, has become in thrall to a cult of the new in which if something doesn’t fund in a day its a failure. That really doesn’t bode well.

How do you draw customers to your store? (social media, classical methods of advertising, etc)

Does having the largest display windows of any store in the country count? Seriously though, even targeted Facebook ads aren’t targeted enough. I wish they were, but they are not.

Has the audience in your shop changed or evolved in the last year? Has is changed in the last five?

Definitely in the last five. The boardgaming renaissance has brought a lot more people into the hobby who want a clean, fresh, welcoming store. A lot of stores had difficulty shedding their old image – before Fan Boy Three was the most lauded store in the country we were actually the most complained about, despite winning global industry awards. The expectation of those new customers is much higher than ‘having a place to play’. But sadly the industry doesn’t really do the level of turnover to have a Fan Boy Three in every town or city. My refit cost around £100,000 and some boardgame cafe loadouts are £200,000+ It’s not really sustainable for everybody.

How easy is it to take risks as far as the ordering and stocking of more niche products?

Hard, because its a lot harder to find them in distribution. But that’s what makes it fun. I didn’t get into the games industry to shift boxes for pennies on the internet. I opened a store because I love games, but more than that i love gamers. I like hanging around, playing, watching, chatting, and that gives me the energy to seek out new and obscure titles to bring in. I Kickstart a lot. I am an evangelist in all the KS support groups for retail tier pledges. Sometimes sure, I lose money on them. But like every KS backer, there is fun in discovering and nurturing a new talent. But in retail, you can do much much more than that, because you can help them break into distribution, help them see their products in store, on shelves, and ultimately that’s something that will energise them a lot more than all those forums complaining about late package delivery. Boardgame designers want to design boardgames. They don’t want to be logistics people. I still remember posting Conor McGoey a picture of our window display for Summit all piled up like a mountain. He was stoked.

What can games companies, distributors and customers be doing to support their Friendly Local Game Store?

Not give us a hard time. Seriously, I don’t know anyone who didn’t get into the games industry who didn’t love games just as much as our customers do. We simply can’t match internet pricing, for a whole load of reasons. We don’t deserve abuse because of it.

In the unlikely-but-inevitable zombie apocalypse, how easily protected is your store?

I now have huge windows instead of security grill protected ones, so I have to say less protected than we sued to be. But I have stairs now, so at least I’m covered for Daleks.

 

Leisure Games

My experience of Leisure Games has been their constant presence at conventions like UK Games Expo and Dragonmeet. I’ve bought god knows how many indie RPGs from them. When I ordered some Fate Dice, I asked that they draw me a picture of a shark. I was called by them, explaining that they had the dice in stock, but not the artistic staff member. I pointed out that I didn’t ask for a good picture of a shark and they were fine with that. I think they delivered pretty well:

Leisure Games is found at 100 Ballards Lane, London, N3 2DN and their site is here.

The interviewee here was James Graham.

As a game store, how was your 2017?

Pretty plain sailing.

As someone who plays tabletop games, how was your 2017?

Good. Personally, I did more roleplaying than in 2016. Overall I think I played fewer games however. Over the years I’ve been switching away from the habit of buying a board game a week and towards investing more in a handful of games (X-Wing and Star Wars Destiny being my greatest weaknesses right now).

Are there any trends which you noticed in the past year?

The escape room trend was both a critical and commercial success, most notably in the case of the EXIT games and Unlock. Overall, roleplaying sales seemed to be up and a lot of smaller companies have been building very strong reputations for themselves. LCGs continued to decline, with the notable exception of Arkham Horror – I think co-operative games lend themselves better to this format than competitive ones.

What are the top sellers in your store?

Our big hit of the year was, remarkably, an indie RPG: Blades in the Dark – keeping that game in stock has been a constant challenge. Our board and card game sellers in terms of numbers were Codenames (with Duet being a hit), the EXIT series, Rhino Hero and Exploding Kittens. Arkham Horror was our biggest hit in terms of more expensive games. Our top new games in 2017, aside from EXIT, were Century: Spice Road, Kingdomino and Magic Maze. Ticket to Ride and Pandemic continue to be strong evergreen games.

Is the presence of Kickstarter impacting the game industry from your perspective, either positively or negatively? Has this evolved notably in 2017 compared to previous years?

It’s been mixed. With roleplaying it has been broadly positive. In terms of board and miniatures games, we’ve seen the market flooded with a glut of new product of variable quality – although that isn’t just on Kickstarter’s head – and even the good stuff doesn’t necessarily sell if the Kickstarter campaign hoovered up all the customers. I think we’re pretty wise to the vagaries of the market these days, but even then we’ve been caught out a couple of times.

How do you draw customers to your store? (social media, classical methods of advertising, etc)

We use a mixture of everything, really. After 32 years we have pretty strong word of mouth. We’re a fairly well established presence at a number of conventions, and a lot of customers continue to order from us throughout the year. I’m always surprised by the number of people who are unaware that we’re a bricks and mortar store as well!

Has the audience in your shop changed or evolved in the last year? Has is changed in the last five?

Our customers have become more diverse, across most demographics, as tabletop gaming has become increasingly mainstream, although you’d be surprised at how many people come through our doors completely unaware that any games other than Monopoly and Game of Life exist. Since we increased the amount of space for in store play, our regular clientele has generally got younger.

How easy is it to take risks as far as the ordering and stocking of more niche products?

We’re quite keen on filling niches, which is why we try to have as broad a range as possible. But it is much easier to stock obscure products with an identified market. For that reason we will continue to stock games with small but keen fans such as the RIFTS RPG, but tend to be wary of stocking up excessively on the onslaught of new releases that get announced every week.

What can games companies, distributors and customers be doing to support their Friendly Local Game Store?

In store exclusives such as the Xanathar’s Guide LE cover and the Twilight Imperium 4th edition promo items were a big hit this year. Bundling the PDF with the physical product (through signing up to the Bits and Mortar [LINK>>>http://www.bits-and-mortar.com/] scheme) makes a huge difference in terms of sales. OP [Organised Play – Charlie] kits are great and we enjoy having events in store, but not all shops are huge warehouses that can hold multiple big events at the same time. Multiple, less competitive formats and support for smaller events would also be appreciated. There’s a reason why Magic continues to be such a big seller; it allows players to find the format that suits them.

In terms of customers, we’ve never worked on the assumption that we deserve to exist. I do however think that bricks and mortar stores provide a service and a community hub which can never be wholly replaced by online services. The only thing I’d urge people to do is give feedback regarding what they want, and to pre-order where possible (and ask local shops to open up pre-orders on items if they aren’t for whatever reason). With so much new product coming out every week, it’s a challenge to identify which items are the ones which will sink like a stone and which ones have legs. The more feedback you give us, the better we’ll be at stocking what you want. That assumes we pay attention!

In the unlikely-but-inevitable zombie apocalypse, how easily protected is your store?

Well, we have a pretty secure basement, so I think we’ll be fine. And we’ll have plenty to play while down there at least.

 

Dave’s Comics

As a point of disclosure, the comic shop I used to work for was Dave’s Comics. I still buy most of my games from Dave’s and torment my ex-colleagues regularly. They’re split into Dave’s Comics (current comics, graphic novels & merchandise) and Dave’s Books (board games, RPGs, back issues, toys).

Dave’s are found at 3 & 5 Sydney Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 4EN and you can reach their site here.

The interviewee here was Dan, who takes endless joy in bringing up how much I spend in front of my girlfriend. Dan is a cruel man.

As a game store, how was your 2017?

I think we managed to build on previous years in terms of the range we stock and what we sell.

As someone who plays tabletop games, how was your 2017?

Not too bad I don’t get time to play that much so it’s usually the same games I’ve been playing for the last few years.

Are there any trends which you noticed in the past year?

People really want 2-player games.

What are the top sellers in your store?

Pandemic, Carcassonne, Catan, Ticket to Ride, Dixit, Forbidden Island, Exploding Kittens, Fluxx, Mysterium, Munchkin.

Is the presence of Kickstarter impacting the game industry from your perspective, either positively or negatively? Has this evolved notably in 2017 compared to previous years?

More people seem to be talking about Kickstarter. Normally it crops up when people have missed out on a kickstarter game and expect it to be sold in stores.

How do you draw customers to your store? (social media, classical methods of advertising, etc)

To be honest we are not that great at social media etc hopefully we will improve on this in the future.

Has the audience in your shop changed or evolved in the last year? Has is changed in the last five?

You notice a few new people (mainly tourists) Most of our customers have been coming in for years.

How easy is it to take risks as far as the ordering and stocking of more niche products?

Very risky. Luckily we have never been stuck with anything we could not sell.

What can games companies, distributors and customers be doing to support their Friendly Local Game Store?

Difficult really. I think companies and distributors do their best. As for customers it’s up to them to decide if they want to support us or shop online.

In the unlikely-but- inevitable zombie apocalypse, how easily protected is your store?

We have Huw. He’ll fight to the death for us. [this is true, Huw is amazing, obscene and not a man to cross – Charlie]

There are no photos of Huw online or in my personal possession, so Dan and I agreed this was the closest approximation of him.

Dice Saloon

Another slight disclosure notice; Dice Saloon are where I roleplay each week and I ran some games for them during Free RPG Day. On that day they foolishly offered me free coffee in return for me running games and may not have been aware how much of it I was going to consume.

The Dice Saloon is found at Vantage Point, Brighton, BN1 4GW and their website is here

The interviewee here was Axel Abbott.

As a game store, how was your 2017?

Fairly good, growth in board gaming is good and we are having a lot of non traditional customers joining the hobby.

As someone who plays tabletop games, how was your 2017?

Slight saturation in the market has negatively effected the competitive side of the games I enjoy but the quality and variety of miniatures is lovely.

Are there any trends which you noticed in the past year?

With more games being produced people are treating games as experiences and this is opening up the market to more big box legacy style games.

What are the top sellers in your store?

Dungeons and Dragons, Rhino Hero, Splendour though the top sellers are largely dictated by stock levels. The variety of games is meaning games stay out of print for much longer and the new releases will often be hot and then vanish.

Is the presence of Kickstarter impacting the game industry from your perspective, either positively or negatively? Has this evolved notably in 2017 compared to previous years?

Negatively effecting stores like ours, Kickstarter essentially sells wholesale to customers and most don’t offer any retail pledges, when they do they usually lock your money up for large periods of time. Kickstarters are incredibly hard to gauge the popularity of, we have gone big on upcoming games only to find the majority of our customers have backed them or we have gone small making the assumption they where backed only to have dozens of requests.

How do you draw customers to your store? (social media, classical methods of advertising, etc)

We built the best shop possible and really on word of mouth.

Has the audience in your shop changed or evolved in the last year? Has is changed in the last five?

More once every few month customers, the last year has seen more people visit us for once every few months. They can come from much further away and have a much higher average spend.

How easy is it to take risks as far as the ordering and stocking of more niche products?

Its very hard, we have little passing trade and a very weak online presence so we have to pick the correct product, lots of our customers rely on reviews to buy games and this means they will most of the time miss print runs as reviews will regularly happen 2 or 3 weeks post release. The turnover in our store is high as we have much higher overheads than most, we don’t have any storage other than our shelves. This means we have to order big on the hot releases or miss them. It means we need to predict the trends before they happen.

Print cycles and out of print product are having a huge negative effect on the industry in my opinion, this is my biggest concern going forward.

What can games companies, distributors and customers be doing to support their Friendly Local Game Store?

Better print cycle management, better prices for those that run physical premises rather than online sales, more promos for stores and a more advanced preorder system. There have been some hugely positive changes in the last year so I hope we keep going in that direction. I think in the past they have used the fear of missing out as a sales tactic and this is negative for the customer, I believe focusing on lower quantity of releases that are better produced and kept in stock will help games stores manage stock and disappoint fewer customers.

In the unlikely-but-inevitable zombie apocalypse, how easily protected is your store?

Only two doors in, plenty of booths to barricade those doors. Id give us a 7/10, we are in a high population area and while we would hold well, eventually the hordes would win.

 

As depressing as the idea of hordes of zombies overwhelming even the most defensible of game stores is, that’s where we’re drawing these interviews to a close. Hopefully we’ll be able to check in with these retailers and more about games in the future.

I’ve found it interesting seeing how little crossover there was between the games being named as top sellers between these shops and wonder if that’s just a fluke or whether game stores have almost some games which do better specifically in their area. Kickstarter was also a curious element, with game stores willing to try and participate, but not necessarily getting the best returns or availability for.

As a consumer, I know I definitely feel the sting of small print cycles which Axel mentioned. It seems like games are announced, pushed out in allocated numbers from the distributor and gone before you get a chance to even see them on the shelves. With the overheads tabletop games have to print, it’s understandable that companies may be pragmatic, but it can cause frustration on the customer and retailer side.

I’m really pleased to see Dungeons & Dragons and even Blades in the Dark get mentions in these interviews as massive sellers, as I’d not even brought up RPGs.

It’s been an interesting exercise, interviewing these retailers. So far it’s only been a handful and only in the UK. If you’re a retailer and want to answer any of these questions in the comments to help give me and the readers some insight, that’d be greatly appreciated. Hopefully we’ll do some more things later in the year, so if you’re willing to be part of future surveys, please contact the Editor Mike@whodaresrolls.com.

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