Growing Pains

We both work at a FLGS. Among the many hats I wear, I help the owner sift through the pre-orders that our distributors post up on a weekly basis. I add every one of them to a spreadsheet that we use to keep track of what we’ve pre-ordered from whom: how many copies, what date it was ordered, what the wholesale cost from the distributor is. Sometimes they’re duplicates; one distributor had this game listed up last week, or two of them both listed them this week, or a game went up, disappeared from the pre-order list, and then suddenly gets relisted, this time with a whole shiny launch kit and a bunch of promos. It’s enough to make my head spin, but I can’t deny it’s fun. I love being at the leading edge, knowing what’s coming down the pipe, getting hyped up and excited and starting to do my research so that I know as much about this industry as I can possibly retain.

But this week…I added 61 new lines to that spreadsheet.

Every time I feel like this bubble cannot possibly get any larger without popping, it inflates again, to mind-boggling degrees. In 2018 alone, over 5000 new titles were added to BoardGameGeek. Now, that’s including expansions, and self-published games, and a fair few of those were early additions to the database in anticipation of Kickstarters launching in early 2019, but even still–that’s a LOT of game. How can anyone keep up?

I also find myself wondering about the patterns I’m starting to see in those releases. Cards Against Humanity first broke onto the scene, a few years ago, and suddenly, everywhere you looked there was some crass, adult-focused take on the Apples to Apples formula. Dungeons & Dragons has never been bigger, and so every week this year has brought a handful of new tabletop RPG releases. A couple of roll-and-write/flip-and-write games became critical darlings, and suddenly I have–let me see–a dozen different iterations of that same formula either recently in store or yet to come down the pipe.

It’s like, if someone decides apple pie is going to be the next big thing, and suddenly, sandwich boards are popping up all down the street proclaiming, “Try our new apple pie!” “Apple pie now here!” “We’ve got apple pie!” And instead of playing with the flavours–offering apple-strawberry, or apple-rhubarb–or the crust–putting the pie in a graham cracker crust, or a nut crust, or making mini tartlettes instead of a full pie–or even, heaven forbid, reinventing the very concept of apple-based desserts with an apple cake, or apple-pie-n-a-stick, or “deconstructed” apple pie…everyone’s just shoving apple pie into the cooler and hoping that people will pick up theirs first.

Because no one is going to stroll down the street and go into every single cafe, and restaurant, and bakery, and sample each and every single apple pie and then decide which one they like the best. They might try two or three; but after that, even the biggest apple pie aficionados will get sick of it. Instead, they’ll just find one that is “good enough”, and stick with it until a new kind of pie comes along.

So, to bring the metaphor back around to real life: instead of rolling out unique titles, aiming for ground-breaking new mechanics or innovative gameplay, it feels like everyone is just trying to make sure they can block off a piece of “the pie” for themselves. They need to have some kind of apple pie, some kind of roll-and-write, some kind of RPG, some kind of arguably-tasteless party game available, or else people hunting for a taste of the next big thing will just walk on by.

Now, are there still folks out there innovating and inventing? Absolutely! You don’t get 61 new items in a week without there being at least a spark of something new and exciting. And our popular culture, our media–it’s always been, not defined, but at the very least punctuated by trends and movements. There’s no reason board games should be any different, and it’s not inherently a bad thing. On the other side of the fence, we are starting to see publishing companies like AEG take a stance that is firmly against this exponential rate of growth, pledging in a recent news post to “Make Fewer, Better Games”: pushing for quality over quantity, and for innovation over following trends.

For Bri and I, board games are a creative outlet. They spark our brains the way very few things manage to do, between work, physical and mental health problems, and the endless shortage of Enough Time. I would hate to see an industry that is so closely tied to creativity lose its own spark under a tidal wave of sameness. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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