Collins English Dictionary has named ‘lockdown’ as the word of the year, which may come as no surprise to Britons who have swapped the Red Lion pub for Red Dead Redemption.
Video games have soared in popularity in 2020 due to people spending more time staying at home, sometimes under ‘quarantine’ – the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year.
Families and flatmates have also beguiled themselves with more real-world forms of recreation, such as the board game Articulate!, where players have to describe as many words as possible written on cards in 30 seconds to their teammates.
Tabletop games have risen in popularity this year as families spend more time at home
For every word they answer correctly, their team moves one place around a board, and the winner is the team that manages to get the whole way round.
A virtual version also exists and has been accessed half a million times according to Claire McCool, whose firm Drumond Park designed the game. She nonetheless believes its the game’s face-to-face aspects that make it so popular.
‘What is so great about playing the likes of Articulate is you’re actually chatting with people, you’re communicating with them, you’re looking them in the eye, you’re not looking at the screen,’ McCool remarks.
Drumond Park also makes Rapidough, a sort of playdough mixed with charades, and The Logo Game, whose second edition launched in August and which is expected by them to sell more than 120,000 units in 2020.
Words sell: Board game Articulate! has been one of the big-sellers this year for Drumond Park
This booming business has been reflected across the wider industry, where there have been substantial sales of old-time favourites such as Monopoly, Scrabble and UNO.
Games and puzzles orders are up 31 per cent year-on-year, according to Frederique Tutt, an analyst at market research agency NPD Group. In particular, the weeks both immediately before and after the lockdown began saw exceptionally high trade.
It’s not all Covid-19’s fault though; Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit sent sales of chess sets escalating as viewers became enthralled by the tale of an orphaned prodigy conquering the chess world while wrestling with the demons of addiction.
But like their electronic counterparts, tabletop pastimes have inevitably benefited from the pandemic, whether they involve cards, boards, dice, pen and paper, or action figurines.
Sales of chess sets soared this year after the release of Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit which starred Anna Taylor-Joy (above) as orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon
Role-playing games specialist Pelgrane Press, who make the GUMSHOE System of games, has noticed a marked increase in purchases of its two-player investigative mystery-solving games.
Even companies that don’t make games but cater (literally) to gamers have done well. Honeybadger Games, which crafts game-themed confectionery like dice or meeples has seen sales of its edible health potions rocket.
The British tabletop games industry was on a boom before the pandemic. Games publisher Asmodee estimates its worth rose by £100million to £350million between 2014 and 2018.
Honeybadger Games does not make tabletop games, but it crafts game-themed confectionery like dice or meeples has seen sales of its edible health potions rocket
No retailer in the sector has done better than Games Workshop, whose share price has climbed by over 26 times in value during the 2010s, the second-highest increase of any FTSE 250 enterprise.
That dominance has continued into this year despite the impact by store closures, and in its latest six-month trading update, sales and pre-tax profits were estimated at £185million and at least £90million respectively, all significant rises on the same time in 2019.
Its recent prosperity took off after Kevin Rountree arrived as chief executive in 2015. Under his tenure, games like Warhammer 40,000 were simplified, and relationships with fans, which had become fractured over copyright issues, were repaired.
That supporter base is critical to any gaming company – electronic or tabletop – maintaining its popularity and bottom line. In modern times, conventions and exhibitions can be a crucial factor in reinforcing that rapport.
Sadly the annual UK Games Expo – the country’s premier hobby games convention – had to go online in a much-reduced format this year with 15,000 tuning in. Three times that amount attended last year’s gathering at Birmingham’s NEC.
Around 45,000 attended the UK Games Expo – the country’s top hobby games convention – in 2019. The online exhibition this year saw just 15,000 tune in over three days
Kate Evans, the Expo’s marketing manager, said although 2020’s event was somewhat of a triumph, digital tabletop conventions ‘do not make money and are not sustainable as businesses in their current format.’
All shows and events have struggled this year. Being unable to have people gather in any large numbers at exhibitions has been detrimental to both the venue owners and the businesses that would have attended them.
Board game cafe owner Thirsty Meeples has experienced this harm on a smaller, but nevertheless dramatic scale. In standard times, it would expect their establishments to be thronged with geeks playing Risk while quaffing pints of vegan craft beer.
Games Gurus – ‘think sommeliers for board games’ as owner John Morgan describes them – would assist patrons in welcoming them to the cafe, recommending games and then teaching them the rules.
In standard times, Thirsty Meeples cafes would expect their establishments to be thronged with geeks playing Risk while quaffing pints of vegan craft beer and assisted by ‘Games Gurus’
Turnover was growing, it has just opened a second site in Bath, and they were due to move to a larger location in Oxford in late March. Then lockdown arrived, and it was forced to cancel the plan.
‘We were then in the difficult position of being responsible for two premises in Oxford without the ability to earn income from either,’ Morgan declares.
He says that even after initially reopening in July, the Rule of Six and other social distancing hurt trade. Visitor numbers are currently at a ‘small fraction of what we would have otherwise seen,’ and it has been forced to make job cuts.
Office workers form a critical customer base for the cafes, and Morgan says the firm’s recovery will depend a lot on how much they come back post-pandemic.
Their tale of 2020 is very different to comic book retailer Geek Retreat who are ploughing ahead with plans to open up another 100 stores – which also double as a hospitality venue – on British high streets in the next two years.
Geek Retreat announced plans last month to open 100 shops over the next two years
Chief executive Chris Dobson said the second national English lockdown did not affect them much and they’re still on track to open four to five shops per month in 2021, though they have cut back their hospitality and events sides of the business.
And while the retail space/hospitality venue combination has hurt Thirsty Meeples, Dobson asserted that his Edinburgh-based group had become ‘more resilient’ as it could ‘fall back on different parts of our business.’
But whether tabletop gaming firms are doing a strong trade or not, the market has never been bigger than it has in this remarkable year for both the industry and the wider global economy.
There exists a bounding optimism throughout the industry that the future will be one of splendid times. Consumer data firm Statista estimates the worldwide tabletop games sector will be worth $12billion by 2023, up from $7.2billion in 2017.
This expected growth is proof that like music, games are universal and evoke joy and memories that constantly entice people back to playing them. ‘For a lot of people,’ stated Claire McCool, ‘they’ve always played board games. But there’s an awful lot of people out there who have been reminded of what good fun they are.’
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