Good Board Games Are Hitting Target, But Are They Missing the Point?

Geek Culture

An image from the Star Trek Catan boxAn image from the Star Trek Catan box

The box cover image from Star Trek: Catan. Image: Mayfair Games, CBS

All right, board game enthusiasts, this is your warning: For the next couple of minutes I am about to go all Chicken Little on you. Recently, a couple of chunks of something hit my head, and at the time I swore it was the sky.

Last month Mayfair Games announced that they would be introducing Star Trek: Catan at Gen Con to be sold exclusively at Target. Then, as Dave Banks told you on this site last week, Geek & Sundry announced that they had signed a marketing deal that will put little green “As seen on Geek & Sundry” stickers on all the games which have been featured on TableTop and sell them at … Target. My instant response to these two announcements was to put on my best Skywalker twisted pouty face and scream “Noooooooooo!”

So do these two announcements mean the sky is falling for quality board games and in particular for local game stores? Maybe. Let’s look at each announcement separately and see whether or not it is time to run for the bunker.

Boldly Going Where No Brick and Sheep Have Gone Before

Is it just me or is Settlers of Catan beginning to resemble that athlete which just doesn’t know when to retire? The game itself hasn’t been substantially updated since Cities and Knights, and that was years ago. Honestly, Mayfair, do we really need themed versions of Settlers? I know that Settlers has been compared to Monopoly, but that was because Settlers is arguably the most influential game in American table-top gaming culture since Monopoly. This was not because any of your legions of fans wanted you to start behaving like Hasbro and creating theme versions of the greatest board game of all time. It’s like watching a formerly great star finish their career by failing on Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice.

I mean if you were a kind of middle-of-the-road card game that was originally intended simply to mock RPGs, and you unexpectedly became an outrageously popular hit (which I enjoy) largely because of your humor and not as a result of your somewhat broken game play, then maybe I could understand producing a pirate version, a zombie version, and a space version. But you’re not that game. You are arguably the single greatest game to come along in a generation. Have some dignity, please!

And how is it that Mayfair, of all game companies, signs a deal to cut out the little guy? An exclusive deal with Target? Seriously? After everything that the local game store has contributed to your success? Don’t get me wrong, I love Mayfair games, and I will continue to support them if for no other reason than that Settlers of Catan taught me to love board games again. I understand they are a for-profit company, but cutting out the small business owners who made them everything they are today seems a bit uncool.

A picture of Wil Wheaton from Table TopA picture of Wil Wheaton from Table Top

Wil Wheaton, host of Tabletop. Image: Geek & Sundry

Geek & Sundry and Target

So the question arises: What do we make of Geek & Sundry’s exclusive marketing deal with Target? There is a distinct difference between what Felicia Day and Geek & Sundry have done and what Mayfair did. The marketing deal which Geek & Sundry has with Target does not stop the little guy from selling the games featured on TableTop. I really doubt that many people who were already customers of their local game store are going to transfer their business to Target simply because some round green stickers got added to certain games there. Frankly, I kind of think that any serious gamer walking down the game aisle in Target tarnishes a bit of their geek cred, unless they go as a tourist and take pictures by the Catan box. It’s like a kind of pilgrimage to see that band which you once saw in a dive bar back in the ’90s and is now playing stadiums.

Rather than a loss of business for the local game store, a different scenario seems much more likely to develop through this partnership between Day and producer Wil Wheaton on one side and Target on the other. Picture the casual gamer wandering down the aisles at Target, looking for Lego sets. They have seen an episode or two of TableTop but are still stuck playing Sorry. Suddenly they come across a familiar green logo, and, rather than buying the Lego set, they purchase a game instead and fall in love with great games. These new gamers are then much more likely to go and explore games not available at Target, at their local game store.

(Before I move on, I cannot resist a quick mention of how Felicia Day has done so much to help geek culture become more widely appreciated. Geek &Sundry is wonderful. What great business moxie to pull off a Target marketing deal only four months after launch. It seems important to say after the recent misogyny thrown her way by some willfully ill-informed folks.)

Time for the Local Game Store to Level Up

None of this is to say that the local game store doesn’t face a real threat, at least in the short term. Let me put this in terms most gamers understand. The game store owners’ level one party of a thief, an elf, and a bard just ran into the Goblin King, a dragon, and a cave troll. It isn’t fair, but that is the fight local game store owners face. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Target now want a piece of the board game pie, and it is not in the nature of giant corporations to be forgiving. If they can work out volume-based wholesale pricing and undercut the local stores, they will. If they can get exclusive agreements like they signed with Mayfair, they will. If they can get Geek & Sundry to put stickers on the games in their store, they will. In the short term, the threat to local game stores is real.

But I think there is reason to believe this is Episode VI for game store owners and not Episode III. Quality game stores have always been about more than price. Good game stores are all about building community among gamers. No matter what else Target does, they won’t be throwing down a table in the middle of the Barbies and letting customers try Star Trek Catan before they buy it. Nor will they host a game tournament on a Saturday. I doubt that quality games will ever displace the mass market crap like Chutes and Ladders and Monopoly on their shelves. Real games will always be a hobby to Target and thus remain a very small part of their shelf space.

I live near Portland, Oregon and there was a time 25 years ago in which Portland had an indie coffee scene separate but equal to the corporate-driven coffee scene in Seattle. Then Starbucks figured out how to imitate McDonalds and many Portlanders rightly worried that it was the end of the local neighborhood coffee shop. Their fears were confirmed when our very own Coffee People, Jim and Patty, sold out their local chain to Starbucks. It felt like there was no stopping the Borg of coffee assimilation. “You will like your coffee beans astringent and burnt! Resistance is futile!”

But somewhere along the way to Starbucks world domination, something happened. Starbucks changed America and, in doing so, unwittingly did more to create a vibrant coffee culture in the United State than any other force before or since. Today, Portland has far more independent and local coffee shops and small regional chains than it did before Starbucks taught Americans the value of the coffee shop as a meeting place and social hub. Where are Jim and Patty today? They own a single location in North. (Try the coffee cake.)

To me, this is the most likely scenario in the confrontation between corporations and local game stores. Target and other corporations have the potential to radically expand the pool of game buyers available to all venues. For a while, their clout may truly threaten game stores as the casual gamer drifts away. But while places like Target might dabble in quality games, and they may throw their weight around, they will never be committed to game culture like the local store. However, the exposure gained through their participation might just help cardboard games catch on as a mainstream American pastime, and when this happens, it will create a tremendous opportunity for savvy game store owners at the local level.

No, it wasn’t the sky that was falling. In the end, I’m pretty sure it was just acorns.

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