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Board game sales growth faces pandemic challenges

Sergio Matalucci
February 1, 2021

The board games market registered 20% growth in 2020, riding the desire for "digital detox" and a break from tumultuous times. Despite the positive trend, new problems have emerged during the pandemic.

Corona board game
Sales of board games have soared in Germany during the pandemicImage: Annkathrin Weiss/REUTERS

A booming demand for their wares has board game companies stepping up investments to increase production capacity. Current trends show an uptick in interest among adults, with a global board game segment worth around $15 billion (€12.4 billion) growing more than the toy market as a whole.

"Puzzles for adults increased by around 50%; one-person games went up by more than 20%," Hermann Hutter, the president of the German game publishers association Spieleverlage, told DW.

With board games proving a popular distraction for households looking for "digital detox," lockdowns sped up the solid growth registered over the last years in traditional markets like North America, northern Europe, and the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. Board games are also increasingly popular in relatively marginal markets like southern Europe.

"We grew in all regions over the last year. We grew the fastest in the US and in the UK," Clemens Maier, CEO of German board game maker Ravensburger, told DW. He added that last year, the German company increased its revenues by 20% and its board game sales by 22%.

People are lining up in front of a Berlin games store
People are lining up in front of a Berlin games store, Brettspielgeschäft.BerlinImage: Sergio Matalucci /DW

Heterogenous picture

Figures suggest that, with the exception of the educational segment, games for children did not perform particularly well in 2020. For instance, the toy market in Italy shrank by 8%. Similarly, board games for multiple players did not keep up with the positive trends. The gamers' demographics are contributing to this change.

"In the past, it was mainly complex strategy games, also in English, that were in high demand. Today, it is more family games and games for two. We are now seeing clients who normally would not play," Josef Anders, owner of Brettspielgeschäft.Berlin, a store selling board games, told DW.

In particular, puzzles and classic board games grew the fastest, suggesting that many older people went back to their childhood's adventures to find some distraction in challenging times.

"Games in highest demand were what we would call evergreens — games that have an existing familiarity and history," Samuel Susz, director of Global Marketing at Toronto-based Spin Master, told DW. The Canadian toy and entertainment company had "an incredibly productive year," with retail sales in the US registering 25% growth year on year.

The 2020 results are intertwined with long-term trends. For instance, digitalization has changed the way young adults approach gaming.

"Previously, children played board games till the age of 12; now more of them are going digital when they're about 8 years old. They come back to board games, though, at around 15. It is something sexy and cool at that age, as it is cool and sexy for older people," said Hutter.

Demand and supply

The unexpected boom affected supply chains on several occasions, especially concerning toys, up to 80% of which are produced in China. In spring 2020, companies with production facilities abroad had to wait longer than usual for deliveries.

According to Hutter, shipments from China have remained problematic into the new year, as prices for containers quadrupled compared with the same period in 2020.

Board games make a comeback

EU dependence on imports is not so heavy for simple board games and puzzles, which are mostly produced in Europe.

According to Hutter, Germany-based Ravensburger and Austria's Piatnik, which produce in factories in the EU, reacted faster than competitors with long supply chains. But booming demand for specific categories increased supply chain complexities in Europe, too.

"We have factories mainly in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. But here, too, we are running into logistic problems."

German game producer Ludo Fact normally has delivery times of around six to eight weeks, but now it's between 12 and 16 weeks. Ludo Fact produces for 120 companies, but has reached its capacity limits. "Production cannot increase and double within a year," said Hutter.

Throughout the winter months, many board games, including the family-made game "Corona," have been largely out of stock. US blockbuster "Cards against Humanity" was almost impossible to find in Berlin stores before the winter holidays.

According to Ravensburger's Maier, lockdowns did not significantly affect the availability of machines needed to produce games coming mostly from Italy and Germany. In other words, the supply side is adjusting, but boosting capacity obviously requires some time.

Logistics issues

The pandemic has also changed the way games are sold. Arizton Advisory & Intelligence, a market research firm, told DW that "online sales contributed a significant chunk of the overall market revenue."

Retailers point out that lockdowns often coincided with periods of high demand.

"Our sales, like the sales of the industry as a whole, grew by double digits," said Josef Anders of Brettspielgeschäft.Berlin. " However, that was too little to compensate for nearly six weeks of closure, especially over the Christmas period. On top of that, costs have risen drastically. In our case, by more than 40% due to a bigger sales area and higher personnel costs," Anders added, recalling the long lines in front of his store before the lockdowns were imposed.