Defining Value in Boardgames


Just about a month ago, Mark Johnson and Greg Pettit released an episode (#128) of Boardgames to Go about "The Value of a Boardgame", which sort of disappointed me.  Nothing about the actual episode and what it covered disappointed me, per say, but it was more that I assumed one thing when the title mentioned "value", while they took their conversation in a slightly different direction.  So, I suppose, I should say that I was actually disappointed by what the show wasn't rather than what it was.

But anyway, while they delved into ideas such as whether we truly value games by the money we spend on them versus the time we invest into them, the discussion I wanted to hear was more about the actual monetary value of games.  Not in relation to dinner and a movie or anything like that, but more concerning topics like inflation of prices, the influence of online game retailers, and what (if any) impact iOS and other digital versions of games might have. 

In that vein, let's start with something that seems pretty obvious if you've been around the hobby for a while, game price inflation.  Now, since this is a blog and I'm like contractually obligated to do no actual research, I'm completely talking out of my butt here, but it certainly seems like over the 7 or so years I've been in the hobby in a serious way, MSRP for games has increased notably.  The "top of the line" huge box games used to run something like $80, but now it's not unusual to see $100 or more for some of those type games.  And while $45-$50 used to sort of be the standard "big box" (Ticket to Ride sized) game, now most of those are more along the $60-$70 range. 

Assuming that my perception is correct and games do cost more than they did a few years ago, I suppose that the big question would be, "Why?"  And to that, I have no real answer.  I suppose that prices always go up over time, but the point is that this level of inflation is in some way artificial, and that there's probably some secret society or cabal of game illuminati cultists that are pulling strings in dark rooms somewhere to get rich by bleeding all of our hobby game budgets dry.  But real or not, the question I want to ask about game inflation is more, "Does it matter?"  And more than anything else, my answer is, "No!"

Okay, do I want to pay more for games?  Of course not.  But you know what, this is just a hobby, and if I either can't afford to buy a game, or more likely, I just can't afford to buy as many games as I used to, who really cares?  Especially if paying a little more means that more money goes into the hands of the companies who make all these cool games and that makes them able to make even more awesome games, then I'm pretty happy to pay a little more.

The thing that concerns me a lot more, though, is this idea I seem to encounter from time to time that, essentially, no game is worth the price that's being asked for it.  And if "inflation" has any real danger in my mind, this might be it.  That perhaps, rising prices have exceeded the perceived value of games in the average gamer's mind, and that no game is "worth it" unless you can get it for some deep discount somewhere.  

But before I get into that a little more, I want to take a little tangent on a related subject. 

So, when you buy a game, what are you actually paying for?  Are you just paying for a box of cardboard and wood (or plastic, even)?  Or are you paying for a "box full o' fun", regardless of what it's made of?  Is your money going mostly for the design of the game itself, or for the pieces that are used to represent the design on your table?  

Some companies have built their entire business model on making games with poor components.  Historically, Cheapass Games essentially sold games that made you use bits from other games, while more recently, Victory Point Games have sold bagged games with desktop-published components that were definitely subpar on an industry level.  VPG's slogan, "the gameplay's the thing," sort of sums up this whole philosophy, though.  That when you buy a game, you're paying for a fun experience and great gameplay, rather than great components.  Your monetary investment is therefore mostly for design, development, and delivery of the game itself, not for the pieces and appearance of it on the table.

The thing is, however, that boardgaming is a physical hobby.  For a lot of us, what sets it apart from digital gaming is the fact that you have a real board between you and your friends, and that part of the experience is that you can interact tactically with the game.  And the aesthetics and tactilics of a game, how it looks and feels, definitely makes a difference in what we think and experience of it.  So in judging the value of a game, it's totally reasonable that the components, appearance, and overall physical production should play a pretty big part.

That's why, despite the fact that games can be found either for free or very inexpensively on them, I don't think that online or iOS versions of boardgames really do anything to devalue the actual games themselves.  If anything, being able to play games cheaply on Board Game Arena, Yucata, or my iPod (and soon to be iPad!) probably serves more as an advertisement for the real game than anything else.  Do I buy the physical copy of every game I play there?  No.  But I probably still buy more games after trying them out there than I would have done otherwise.  And certainly, companies like Days of Wonder have seen a bump in real-world sales after their digital versions have helped introduce new people to the game.

But while I don't think that actually playing games digitally devalues them, there is another digital phenomenon that is probably the main culprit that I see for reducing the perceived value of games.  And, of course, that's the online retailers.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not in any way saying that there's anything wrong with the retailers themselves or with selling games online.  I'm just saying that I don't think their practices are very good for the hobby.  I mean, when they regularly sell games for 30, 35, or even 40% below MSRP, how could you not damage their value?  And the thing is, at this point, it's probably not even something that they could change, because in order to stay competitive, everyone has to meet this expectation, since their business is driven by volume, and the biggest volumes are going to go to the site with the lowest prices.  

But I guess, the next question to ask is, "Should I care about boardgames being devalued?"  Or really, maybe it should have been the first question, but I had some things I wanted to say leading up to it, so let's get to it now.

The advantage to devaluing boardgames is pretty obvious; you can buy games really cheap online.  So if you like games a lot and want to try a bunch of them, you can use the "same" amount of money to buy and play more games.  And, for the most part, this is a good thing for comsumers.  And since I'm primarily a consumer (since I don't publish, manufacture, or sell boardgames right now), you'd think I'd be all for it, right?

Not necessarily. 

Economically, I fear that there also some hidden dangers in devaluing games as well as the obvious benefits.  Between actually contributing to the aforementioned price inflation, harming the ability of brick-and-mortar stores to be competitive, encouraging the ever-shorter lifespan of games, and reducing the ability of publishers to sell their product directly, I think that there are some real issues and threats to the hobby that the benefits of short-sighted bargain-hunting won't be able to account for.  But there are a lot of people far better informed about all that sort of thing that can make a better financial case for this than I can.

My biggest issue with this whole shebang, though, isn't actually economc at all.  You see, I really love this hobby.  I really love games.  And when something is going on that makes a typical gamer look at a gorgeous game that has top-notch components and fantastic gameplay sitting on a store shelf, but they say, "it's not worth it," when they see the pricetag, it just hurts me a little inside.  Because when people who love games won't even consider paying the "real" price to get a game, it seems like something is broken somewhere.

So, am I advocating that we all boycot online retailers until they agree to charge more for games?  No, that'd be silly.  More than anything, I just wanted to sort of put these ideas out there, and maybe get some of you to question your perception about the value of boardgames a little.  Look past your full online shopping carts and free-shipping levels just for a minute to remember why you love games so much, and what value they truly have in your life.  And maybe, sometimes, that's just a little bit more than the lowest possible price you can find for them.

 
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Comments

  • 12/17/2012 9:37 PM Darrel wrote:
    I think what you really want to listen to is the podcast On Board Games. Their most recent one ( http://onboardgames.libsyn.com/obg-96-we-salute-games ) talks about this topic...and makes it clear that you're not wrong--there is an artificial increase in price--because of online retailers artificially deflating price. Keep in mind, it is stated by someone trying to advocate for price control on the internet (through only allowing for one online retailer--themselves--for their sponsored games), so they do have a stake in that position...but it definitely seems to make a lot of sense.
    Reply to this
    1. 12/17/2012 10:30 PM Chris Norwood wrote:
      Yep, I've listened to that as well.  It was a great interview, and it definitely sort of fueled the fire for me to write this.  Thanks!
      Reply to this
  • 12/18/2012 2:14 PM Jason wrote:
    Lots of personal details to consider in this question. But when I see that I can get this 1 "box of fun" for $100 versus these 4 "boxes of fun" for $100, I'm taking the 4. If there is a game I absolutely cannot live without, then the value is worth it no matter what the cost. But, to be frank, there are no games I can't live without. It's just a hobby.

    Consider as an example a recent $100 "box of fun" in X-Wing minatures. That game looks like a veritable nerd candy store. I know I would enjoy it and have tons of fun. But, two things. One, I'll have just as much fun with cheaper games. And, two, that $100 box is just for the very basic set - if you want deeper and extended fun, you have to shell out more money for the expansions - and they never seem to stop as long as they can milk the cow. That irks me.

    Personally, I have no budget for gaming. I am a grown man with a family and very rarely buy games outside of using birthday and Christmas money. So I am going to stretch those purchases as best as possible.

    To me the problem of value lies in the glut of games out there. This is something the publishers ironically both contribute to and have no control over at the same time. But why would I spend a huge chunk of money on one game when there are hundres, just-as-fun, cheaper alternatives in which you can get more "bang for your buck?"

    Bottom line is the bottom line. If you really gotta have it, it's worth whatever you pay for it. If you're just as happy with more of the countless number of other games out there flooding the market in Noahic proportions, why would you pick up that $100 box? Even $75-80.

    Last minor point in my case - I don't have a good FLGS option, so I have to buy online. Not saying I wouldn't even if I did have an FLGS (at least exclusively), though I do support a very good one in Green Bay with my patronage and wallet when I visit my bro-in-law up there once a year.
    Reply to this
    1. 12/19/2012 4:40 PM Chris Norwood wrote:
      Okay, I think you're making a slightly different point here.  You seem to be judging the "value" to you of getting just one big, expensive game versus 3 or 4 smaller, cheaper ones.  But to me (sort of like you said with your "gotta have it" games), I just want to get games that I think I'll really like, almost regardless of price (within reason, of course).  Now, the big difference is that I'm probably willing to take more of a chance on a cheaper game that I'd never played before, since there's less financial investment to try it.  But if I genuinely think that I'll like a more expensive game more than a cheaper one (hopefully from reading about it or whatever), I'll buy the spendy one.  So this is sort of a related but tangential idea to my main concern over game value.

      Now, there are definitely hundreds of new games out there being released (or put on Kickstarter) all the time.  And like you said, Publishers are sort of in a trap of their own making, where they release so many games that the inherent "value", and therefore the shelf-life/lifespan of those games, is being diminished.  But then, since the shelf life of a game is so low, Publishers have to keep putting new products (or expansions) out so that they always have something new to bring in the money.

      This devaluing and short lifespan of new games also seems to me to be the biggest issue in the difference of opinion that I have with other game reviewers who think that one play (or even just part of one play) is enough to make an educated opinion of it.  Since boardgames are becoming almost "disposable", where you play then once or twice and then discard them, then of course you should be able to write a review of it after the same amount of time.  But to me, boardgames should inherently be designed to support repeated play.  

      Reply to this
  • 12/18/2012 5:42 PM Scott Duncan wrote:
    I also buy mailorder because there are no game stores anywhere near where I live that are not all about miniatures, CCGs, RPGs, etc. I have only seen real boardgame stores in the largest US cities. This has been true for a few decades, so it is not an internet/price phenomenon.
    Reply to this
  • 12/24/2012 10:19 AM tomg wrote:
    This is an interesting post. I hadn't really considered that prices were being artificially inflated. But I can see that. In all my discussions with game publishers, they are turning to China for production because it is in most cases less expensive. So it would seem that games should be a bit cheaper because of that. But I suspect that 1)Darrel is correct and 2)general overhead is more expensive.
    I'm right there with Jason. "Personally, I have no budget for gaming. I am a grown man with a family and very rarely buy games outside of using birthday and Christmas money. So I am going to stretch those purchases as best as possible". This is one aspect of me. But I'm also Chris in that I will pay A BIT more for a game I am pretty sure I will like and play a lot. It's fun density needs to be high for me to spend my hard earned $$ on it. And there aren't many of those out there right now. Example: Rialto, the new game from Stefan Feld. I like every Feld game I've played. I'm preordering Rialto because I am very confident that I will like it. We had a conversation at game night last week about this topic related to Kickstarter. Many of us have supported numerous Kickstartered games. I've supported about 12 at various levels and amounts. But I'm probably not going to drop any more $ into Kickstarter games because they are getting too expensive. I'll jump in for $20-30 on a game I either know the publisher or the designer. But I really can't afford to risk my $ on a game I may not like. And this isn't limited to KS. I don't have a lot of games so I can buy some classics off BGG for half what a new game costs and get a known rather than an unknown.
    This might make a good Question of the Month for Go Forth And Game.
    Reply to this
  • 12/31/2012 9:18 PM Jim wrote:
    Great post, as always, Chris.

    I don't have a lot to add, but I did listen to the One Board Games interview with Game Salute's CEO, Dan Yarrington. I thought he had many good points about the general need of many gamer/collectors to acquire more and not necessarily get all the "value" out of those games by actually playing them. Those ideas sit well with me. While I like acquiring games, ultimately I want to play the games that I own. To that end I run a couple of gaming groups to get those games to the table as regularly as possible (in addition to playing with family and friends). If I wasn't playing those games, I think I would need to look at culling my collection so that I would get the best value out of them through play.

    Thanks for another great article.
    Reply to this
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