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?
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.