Re-Imagining Retail – Where Games Can Take Us


Rob Bartel is a veteran designer and producer of video games with Electronic Arts’ BioWare studio. He joins us as a board game correspondent, however, having recently expanded into board game design with Two by Two, 2012 runner up for Best Family Game in Games Magazine's annual "Games 100" Awards. A passionate advocate for the board game industry, Rob helped found two national initiatives – the Game Artisans of Canada and the Canadian Heritage Collection. His newest endeavor is the Famous Games Company, an innovative provider of promotional card games for the sports marketing industry.

TikalOver the past five years, bookstore chains like Chapters here in Canada or Barnes & Noble in the United States have faced growing competition from online retailers such as When Borders filed for bankruptcy this past February, many assumed the brick-and-mortar bookstore might be following in the same footsteps as movie rentals (i.e. Blockbuster's fall to Netflix) and music CDs (i.e. HMV in the wake of iTunes). But Chapters and Barnes & Noble have both fought back. On the one hand, both have successfully embraced technology and the eBook movement with their Nook and Kobo eReaders. Less discussed, however, is their decision to carry an ever-broader range of carefully curated tangible products that invite shoppers to pick them up, touch and feel them in a way that's impossible online.

For book stores, toys and games have proven to be a big part of that second strategy. In an economic environment that finds Toys R Us delaying its IPO, debates over whether or not Walmart is slashing its toy department, and Hasbro's games category in a downward spiral of double-digit losses, Barnes & Noble recently declared its toys and games category to be up 53% year-over-year (on top of last year's 48% increase). In fact, they're rolling out thousand-square-foot Toys & Games sections in over 500 of its stores for the holiday season, paralleling a strategy Chapters started pursuing here in Canada earlier this spring.
So how are bookstores achieving such a remarkable success in the board game market? What implications does it have for the board game tipping point? What does the future of retail look like and what roles can board games play? Read on to find out…


Why Bookstores Are Successful Game Retailers

  1. Magic_the_gatheringLooking Beyond the Teenage Audience – As discussed in my When Games Explode series, board games have passed through a series of stages where they've attempted to target specific demographics. In the most recent stage, that's meant teenage audiences, best exemplified by Magic: The Gathering, Hasbro's top-selling game product. These days you'll easily find Magic: The Gathering cards at Toys R Us and Walmart but the game built its initial audience through networks of independent comic book and role-playing game retailers that catered directly to that teenage audience. The stereotypical retail outlet for the game was dark and dingy, chaotically organized, and generally hostile to outsiders. It's interesting to note that Barnes & Noble doesn't sell Magic cards, even in its online store which they claim is stocked with over 30 million products. Instead, they choose to position themselves as "the world’s best educational toy and game destination. Moms can go into Barnes & Noble and feel good the way they always have when they pick up a birthday present, something good and nurturing for the child." But it's not just for kids, either. Both instore and online, they break out their games into two distinct categories: Games for Kids and Games for Grown-Ups. In short, unlike Walmart and Toys R Us, they're succeeding by catering to the broader tipping point audience rather than limiting their audience to the increasingly outdated teenage market.
  2. Risk Onyx EditionQuality You Can Feel – Unlike Walmart and Toys R Us, bookstores choose to compete on quality instead of price. Their primary market is in the under $30 segment (and preferably under $20). When you hold a Walmart or Toys R Us game in your hand you can literally feel the difference between it and and a game you'll find at a bookstore. The cheaper mass market box is often flimsy with a glossy finish and the product feels light and insubstantial in your hand. Due to their emphasis on tangible products that feel good in the hand, bookstores have typically sought out games with sturdy boxes, matte and linen-textured finishes, and a reassuring heft. When they carry mass market games instore, it's often in a vintage, deluxe, or more rugged travel edition. In many cases, they'll happily pay extra to have that version as an exclusive. Personally, I think bookstores can still do more on this front – a display case showing the unpackaged product or deliberately leaving the occasional game open and set up in one of their casual seating areas could go a long way toward increasing that sense of tangibility.
  3. Pillars of the EarthWell-Curated Content – One has to give credit to the game buyers at these bookstores. Rather than just taking a salesman's word or ordering based on the publisher's advertising spend, they've really taken the time to assess the underlying gameplay of the games and understand the industry from the customer's perspective. As a result, they've carried some wonderful but lesser-known games instore that are unlikely to ever grace the shelves of Walmart or Toys R Us: games like Pandemic, Dominion, 7 Wonders, Puerto Rico, Lost Cities, Ticket to Ride, Through the Desert, Ingenious, Agricola, Survive, Dixit, Hive, and even excellent indie-published gems such as Castle Panic. And then there's a growing range of excellent literary-inspired games such as Pillars of the Earth and A Game of Thrones. While these games often won't be among their top-selling titles in the category, they show a level of respect for a customer base that has consistently proven willing to challenge themselves with a difficult or nuanced book and may find equal satisfaction in a nuanced and challenging game experience.

The wonderful thing about good games is that they evoke an experience, they tell a story, they engage the imagination. As such, I feel they're remarkably flexible and aspirational product category that, with a little creativity, can fit well into a wide range of retail contexts. Here are some simple examples:



Many games evoke a particular place. I visited Niagara Falls a few years ago and, amidst the neverending cascade of tourist tchotchkes, I was surprised by the complete absence of the wonderful, award-winning family game, Niagara.





Likewise, when I visit a travel agent, why don't I find a shelf full of colorful and evocative games like Jamaica, China, Tikal, or Hotel Samoa? Or what about games focused on modes of travel like planes, trains, and automobiles?





Every aquarium in the world should have a game like Octopus' Garden in their gift shop, every zoo should have Zooloretto, and every camping store should carry some nice little card games like Hike or Habitat. Historical themes are extremely common in the boardgame world and and a wide selection of suitable games is available for pretty much every museum exhibit imaginable.




CivilizationAnd with video game retailers such as GameStop and EB Games facing the exact same digital pressures as bookstores, why is their only tangible game product a Magic: the Gathering-style collectible card game? What about the broad range of video-game-licensed board games like Gears of War, Civilization, Doom, World of WarCraft, Age of Mythology, Age of Empires, Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, Resident Evil, The Witcher, or EVE? Or what about the many board games that have drawn their inspiration from the world of video games such as Undermining, Jab, Blokus, and Fits?


What-Business-Are-You-InUltimately, there are two main reasons why we're not seeing games in the retail environments I describe. First, these retailers are generally unaware of the demand and don't think of themselves as being in the toys and games industry. Again, kudos to the market strategists in the bookstore industry who realized that they can be (and need to be) more than just booksellers – they've successfully re-imagined themselves as a destination and a lifestyle and, in doing so, they've transcended the limitations of their traditional product offering. Like all great innovators, they've dodged the classic "What Business Are You In?" trap and defined themselves at a higher level. Hopefully their success will cause other businesses to follow in their footsteps.

Question diceSecondly, most retailers (and their buyers) just aren't familiar with the boardgame industry, the wide range of products it offers, and how those products can fit into and accentuate their existing business. In short, they need curators. Hopefully this post has provided some ideas of where to start. If you're interested in integrating boardgames into your retail environment and are looking for some assistance with that curation, respond in the comments or send me an email. Now let's go make that tipping point happen.

One thought

  1. Good point about people not thinking that they’re in “the games business”. Everyone sells T-shirts – are they afraid of being in “the clothing business”?
    I’m working on an open source project that would make it easier (possible) to demonstrate board games to potential retailers online, which could save quite a bit of money versus taking a prototype around to small retailers. The project description is here:, and I’d invite you to come check it out!

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