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Purchasing a board game is like any other purchase you make, right? Regardless of where you’re buying a board game or who you’re buying it from, it’s the same product. Finding the lowest price for a game just makes sense. If you can buy the same game for $25 or for $19, why would you choose to pay more?

I’m here to tell you that where you buy your board games does matter, and not just a little. I know in our current era of capitalism, it seems like there’s no way to avoid hurling your hard earned dollars into a vast corporate void. That isn’t true with board games though. In fact, how you buy your board games has a direct impact that can be traced all the way back to the very people who designed and produced that game. More than any other non-local industry I can think of, your money has enormous power – for better or worse.

If you love board games, you need to put as much thought into your spending on games as you do sorting your recycling, choosing how to adopt a new pet, or whether or not to buy that fashionable new pair of shoes made in Burma. I’m hopefully going to leave you with some new information, and maybe even a new perspective, on how powerful your dollar is, as well as how much influence you actually have on the board game industry. This is going to be a bit long, so this post will be part 1 of 2.

Before I dive in, I want to make a couple of things clear. One, this blog is not going to be a diatribe about brick and mortar stores (sometimes referred to as a FLGS or Friendly Local Game Store, but I’ll get into that some other time) versus online retailers. Nor is it going to be about the “Evils of Amazon”. Two, on a personal note, I work in the board game industry. You’re going to have to take me at my word that what I’m writing here isn’t a propaganda piece intended to further the interests of my employer or any one company. While my job has certainly given me insights and information, it hasn’t changed my personal view. In fact, it’s my unique insider perspective that I want to share with you board gamers today.

Starting at the Start

When a person buys a board game, there are a host of factors that have pre-informed them. Who will they play it with? How often? How much of their disposable income does the purchase represent? Was it an impulse buy? Was it a gift? Of course, one of the big factors in the modern world of instant gratification is, can a person purchase it online and have it delivered to their doorstep? It’s become a fairly common practice among most modern consumers to immediately search Amazon, look for the lowest price (often combined with free Prime shipping), click purchase and be done with it. That’s usually the end of their thought on it. In fact, many folks aren’t even aware of the actual seller they’ve purchased their game from. Check your own history with Amazon and see how many of the sellers you’ve dealt with are third party sellers or FBAs. Do you know the difference?

I’m not trying to shame anyone here. The point I’m trying to make is that many of us aren’t trained to think of board games any differently than a carton of cotton balls or a six pack of laundry detergent or the latest big release console video game. But there is a difference. A vast difference that is lying just below the surface.

As an example of what I’m talking about, I’m going to throw my lovely, understanding, and wonderful girlfriend under the bus. She’s a big Carcassonne fan. Owns the game; plays the app version regularly. The other day I asked her if she knew who published it. At first she couldn’t remember. Finally she said, “Rio Grande?” Keep in mind, she’s a fan of the game and she lives with someone who works in the industry. But beyond the name, she wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about the company – its size, location, how many people work there. Again, there’s no reason for most people to know those kinds of things about most companies.

Rational Self-Interest

Board games are different. You can look at a game with well-polished art on the box and an articulate rule book, gorgeous pieces, an intricate board, dazzling card art and incredible mechanics and you could easily be looking at the results of the very hard work of a single person. That logo in the corner of the box might represent a company of one. In the hobby board game market especially, publishers are often small teams of people. Sometimes couples. Sometimes people working from their garages. These are people whose business may live and die with the success or failure of their next release.

I’m not suggesting that you, as a consumer, owe anyone or any company your hard earned dollars just because they are a small business. In fact, what I’d like to propose here is for you to not worry at all about who the publisher is or which pockets your dollars end up in. That’s a complicated maze that you’re probably never going to entirely figure out.

Instead, I’d like to propose something a little simpler and something we probably already do to some degree: rational self-interest. Getting a game at the cheapest price is not the same as rational self-interest. Instead, you have to consider the larger ecosystem you’re in and which you wish to perpetuate. For some people, especially those living in large cities, your ecosystem may involve board game cafes. Others may be in a rural area with no physical access to board game stores. Some folks may like games that can be picked up at large retail chains like Target or Wal-Mart. Others may enjoy games that have very small print runs or do most of their business direct from a publisher’s website.

If you’re reading, I’m going to assume that you care about board games as a whole. That you enjoy the fact that we are living in a golden age of board games, with brilliant designers, incredible artists, and a growing community of players. That you want this golden age to last. If people’s only criteria for when, where and how to buy a board game is the lowest price, that age will come to an end rapidly.

Good games and the communities necessary to support them don’t just happen. They are built. They are sustained and they are nurtured, like a garden. If your only contribution to the garden is to pick its fruit, it won’t be long before that garden is bare. When a person does a Google search for a game, clicks through the lowest price and hits that order button, that’s exactly what they are doing – picking fruit and walking away. So, rational self-interest when purchasing board games means making purchases that allow you to make equal or better purchases in the future and to allow others, perhaps your own fellow players, to be able to make the same choices.

The Business of Board Games

I’m going to get slightly esoteric here for a moment, but bear with me, because this is important and relates to both my garden analogy and my point about rational self-interest. Let’s take a hypothetical game designer. We’ll call them SL3 Games. Let’s say they’ve made a game or two you like and you look forward to their releases. Sometimes it’s hard to find them because they tend to do small print runs. A small print run might just be a few thousand copies of a game.

To continue this story you need to understand a few basics of how the game industry works. I’m going to generalize a lot here (folks in the industry, hush). The publisher designs the game, pays to have it manufactured (often in China or Germany), then the copies of the game are shipped to the publisher. Hopefully, the publisher has hyped their game to you, the game player, game stores, and to distributors. Based on a lot of non-exact science estimates, distributors buy a certain number of copies of the game and then sell them. Who do they sell them to? That varies, but the common buyers are online board game retailers like Cool Stuff Inc, Miniature Market, Fun Again Games or Card Haus. Some are sold to individual brick and mortar hobby stores, like your local hobby game shop. Some are sold to Amazon itself, who takes the games and sells them directly to you. Many are sold to sellers who sell strictly on Amazon in Amazon’s marketplace. These are sellers like Grizzly Games, Gamerz Guild, Boardgames4Us and others. If you have purchased a game through Amazon, you may have purchased through these companies without even realizing it since the main listing for an item on Amazon will default to the lowest price offered. Those are the usual ways games are going to get into your hands.

In the second half of this article, I’ll get into the how this whole chain works financially and how your purchases can directly affect a publisher. I’ll also lay out the basic framework of the ethics for buying board games that I think most people can apply to their own choices.  You can find Part 2 HERE

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