Once upon a time not so very long ago, any board games beyond the household staples like Monopoly and Scrabble were the exclusive property of, well, nerds. And during this not so very long time ago nerds dwelled on the sidelines, wallflower-like: by near definition they were the opposite of popular.
Today, however, we’re living in what Marc Gascoigne, publisher at Aconyte Books (the fiction imprint of the games publisher and distributor Asmodee Entertainment), calls “the great nerdification.” Thanks to hit TV shows like Stranger Things, which reintroduced the public to the seminal role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, all types of tabletop games have become more mainstream—and they’re exploding in growth, and raking in big bucks.
According to the research report “Board Games Market by Product, Distribution Channel, and Geography-Forecast and Analysis 2021–2025” by Technavio Research, the market (which spans tabletop, card and dice, and RPGs) will see a year-over-year growth of 7.1% in 2021 alone, and grow at a compound annual growth rate of roughly 13% between 2020 and 2026. Additionally, the research firm Arizton Advisory & Intelligence estimates that tabletop games will rake in more than $4 billion in incremental revenues during this time frame.
This growth spurt in the board game category is partly due to the pandemic, which forced the world indoors and impelled people to find new (or old) ways to entertain themselves and socialize at home.
“The pandemic has only strengthened people’s fun and enjoyment playing board games,” Gascoigne says. “And you can now play many of them online if you can’t play in person.”
Though the board games industry is still small (if not miniature) potatoes in comparison to the video games market, which is forecast to be $300 billion by 2025, according to the Unity Gaming Report 2022, it’s expanding enough to catch the eye of video game companies, such as Swedish gaming developer the Embracer Group. Embracer acquired Dark Horse Comics, a major independent comics and graphic novel publisher (along with Dark Horse Entertainment, it’s movie production unit) in late 2021. It followed that deal by scooping up Asmodee in a multi-billion-dollar acquisition back in January. Aconyte Books was also acquired by Embracer in that mega-deal.
This is actually pretty big news for books, comics, and games publishers, as it points to a widening (and quite lucrative) overlap between the publishing and gaming markets.
A novel approach to games
Aconyte is itself proof positive of a blossoming relationship between board games and books. The imprint’s raison d’être is to create and publish novels based on Asmodee’s game IPs. Since forming in 2019, Aconyte has published dozens of titles that offer players of intensive board games such as Arkham Horror and Twilight Imperium a new, distinctly bookish way to dive into the respective worlds of their favorite games.
Gascoigne suggests that the creation of Aconyte was somewhat overdue for both Asmodee and consumers. “We realized we didn’t have any book publishing, even though these worlds are living, thriving fantasy worlds that were being explored through the games,” he says of the inspiration behind the launch of Aconyte. But not every game warrants a novel—far from it.
“We’re not trying to make novels out of party games or trivia games or games where the main fun is in the gameplay,” Gascoigne explains. “We’re looking for the games that people can’t stop telling stories about—games where there is already fan fiction happening. Fan fiction is a great growth area, particularly in YA, which inspires what we do as well.”
Also important is the ferocity of a game’s fan base. For Aconyte, a game has to be a pretty impressive hit to trigger its own line of books.
“There has to be enough people there for us to justify a print run of 10,000-plus,” Gascoigne says, adding that, at hobbyist shops especially, the books sell right next to the games that inspired them, resulting in a kind of cross-marketing fever: the game sells the book and vice versa. “It helps having bookstores realize that they can sell board games. They’ve seen the connection between anything that has a wordy or imaginative bent. Everywhere—from indie stores to Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and Target—stores are putting them on their shelves.”
IDW Publishing is another player enjoying the tabletop-gaming-meets-literature gold rush. The San Diego, Calif.–based publisher of comic books, graphic novels, and trade paperbacks can hardly keep up with reader demand for new comics set in the rich and complex D&D world. “There’s been such a huge resurgence in the popularity of D&D, with more people playing it than ever before,” says Jonathan Manning, the IDW editor responsible for the house’s D&D titles.
Nachie Marsham, publisher of IDW Publishing, says that on average IDW publishes about eight to nine unique D&D comics titles per year (not counting book collections), but it plans to ramp up that number between 2023 and 2024.
Marvel looks to role-play
It’s one thing to hear Aconyte and IDW gush about how mainstream brainy tabletop games—and the books based on them—are becoming; it’s another to hear it from an IP powerhouse such as Marvel, which is making a calculated splash in the RPG space with its Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game.
“RPGs are at their strongest period in history now,” says Matt Forbeck, Marvel’s RPG designer. “Marvel has been interested in this space for a while, but RPGs are difficult for a company as large as Marvel to dive into. A lot of RPG publishers are small, nimble, and hungry.”
Rather than diving in headfirst with a fully realized game, Marvel is easing into the RPG market by first releasing a playtest playbook for the game. Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game: Playtest Rulebook is a 120-page trade paperback comic that gives players a breakdown of the rules and adventures of the game. Those who purchase the $9.99 playbook are invited to give feedback to Marvel.
“With the playbook, we’re asking players, ‘Is the game too complex? Too easy?’ ” Forbeck says. “We want the feedback, but we also want people to feel like they have a little skin in the game.”
Once Marvel has a grasp on what prospective Marvel Multiverse RPG players think, the comics giant will make finishing touches to the actual game (or at least, the first version thereof), which is slated for a full release in summer 2023. The game is targeted at readers ages 13 and up who, ideally, already have some familiarity with RPGs. Marvel won’t stop there, however. As it captures more hardcore gamers, the publisher plans to broaden its strokes with more mainstream games to capture a wider swath of players.
“Once we prove ourselves to avid gamers, we will reach out to the rest of the market,” Forbeck says. “Marvel is uniquely situated to bring in new players because so many people know about Marvel comics—and as big as D&D is, Marvel outpaces that. So the idea is: let’s establish our credentials with RPG players, get our feet firmly grounded on a stone foundation with traditional gamers and then move out from there.”
Sales of the Playtest Rulebook, which dropped in April, have been strong, Forbeck says, thanks in part to a colossal, multipronged marketing campaign. “We’ve marketed all over the place,” including in trade magazines, on podcasts, via social media, and more. “We were already going ahead with the game, but now we are really excited to do it. We’re planning out a full line beyond this. Players will have more and more things to pick up and play with for years to come.”
There’s a lot riding on Marvel with this move, with gaming insiders like John Power, the publisher and editor of Wyrd Science, a magazine covering role-playing and board games, paying close attention to how the mega brand wields its power and popularity in the bustling but still relatively niche RPG space. “What will be really interesting will be seeing how Marvel can leverage their distribution networks and get the game on sale in places that most RPG publishers just do not have access to,” Power says.
Cue the small, nimble, and hungry publishers that Forbeck mentioned. Surely they don’t have the level of resources that Marvel has, but a win for Marvel could also be a win for them. In the end, what matters is intensifying that fertile feedback loop between gaming and comics, as well as revving up interest in RPGs and other tabletop games in general.
Solace in solitude
Amid all this cross-marketing fervor, one may wonder: how is playing a tabletop game like reading a comic or graphic novel? From the perspective of pure activity, it’s difficult to fathom clear commonalities. One is inherently social and communicative; the other more lone and introverted. It turns out that new parallels are emerging between these two pastimes as increasingly more tabletop publishers are giving consumers the option to play their games solo—much like video games. Journaling games are designed to be played by a single player with a set of dice, pen, and paper (often by writing letters), or they can be digitized.
“Solo play modes have been gaining in popularity over the past few years, and I can’t see that stopping any time soon,” Power says. “Part of that, certainly on the RPG side of things, has been helped along by the rise of journaling games in recent years but we’re seeing it with more traditional RPGs and board games too.”
The pandemic has certainly escalated the solo mode trend—but it’s also sometimes just easier to play a game on one’s own. “Even in the best of times it can be hard to arrange game nights, and there’s a lot of newer games out now that actually play really well as solo experiences,” Power explains.
The option for solo play has become a high priority for players, such that tabletop publishers don’t have much of a choice but to cave to the demand—even if it means much more work.
“There’s a whole lot of people who really want your game to have solo rules,” says Steve Ellis, cofounder of Oni Games, the gaming imprint of indie comics and graphic novel publisher Oni-Lion Forge. “And that crowd is incredibly vocal.”
To observe the passion and, at times, volatility of this crowd, look no further than Kickstarter—the crowdfunding platform that indie presses like Oni often tap to fund and market a new gaming product. “If you have good solo roles, fans get super excited,” Ellis says. “And they tell everybody, because it’s something they are very passionate about. If you don’t have solo rules, the community can rebel against you.”
Winning and losing on Kickstarter
Oni often turns to Kickstarter to raise money and build awareness around new titles, with its most recent campaign—for the game Birdwatcher, a tabletop game about photographers on the hunt for photos of rare birds—raising $51,977 from 1,284 backers.
“The best thing about Kickstarter is that you’ve got this kind of built-in presentation for your product right there from the Kickstarter campaign that you ran,” Ellis says, noting that in addition to helping launch a product, a crowdfunding campaign can attract attention from potential international partners. “The Kickstarter can often pique the interest of foreign publishers, and then they want to dive in and see if it’s something that will work for their market, because different games sell or don’t sell in different regions for a variety of reasons.”
Kickstarter is a special place for game publishers—probably the only space where the success of board games wildly outpaces that of video games. In 2021, Kickstarter saw $270 million raised in the tabletop sector, versus $21.8 million in funding for video game campaigns.
“Kickstarter remains the number one go-to for most publishers,” Power says. “It’s still the place you will probably raise the most money.”
But Kickstarter campaigns take an absurd amount of work and time to run. It’s a full-time job or two, Ellis stresses. Also making Kickstarter less desirable right now is the ongoing supply chain disruptions sparked by Covid shutdowns in China; shipping delays are likely.
“We’re definitely ahead of our announced schedule with Birdwatcher,” Ellis says. “But we keep slipping further and further behind what our internal schedule was.”
Kickstarter might be thought of as a necessary evil for many indie gaming and indie comics projects that a publisher can avoid if the product it’s crafting already sports a sprawling fan base. For instance, Oni doesn’t leverage Kickstarter when working on its projects with Sanrio, the Japanese apparel and merchandising company that created the wildly popular Hello Kitty character, among others. (“It was pretty obvious that we didn’t need a Kickstarter for that, because Sanrio’s IPs are so strong,” Ellis says.)
Supply chain chaos
Despite the recent wave of layoffs (which saw the displacement of several executives, including v-p of creative and business development Charlie Chu), Oni is confident it will meet its deadline to ship out Birdwatcher this fall, but all that stress around shipping delays has prompted the publisher to be wary when it comes to rolling out new Kickstarter campaigns.
“We’re being very cognizant of not starting some things until some other things have fully wrapped,” says Ellis (who was interviewed before the layoffs were announced). He added that Oni is scaling back on the number of games it puts out per year partly because of the desire to deliver on quality over quantity, but also because of the global shipping crisis that has taken a brutal toll on the board game industry at large.
“We’re often dealing with such thin margins that even a small change in shipping costs can sink a project, and sadly the changes we’re seeing at the moment aren’t small,” Power says.
Covid chaos and related costs plague players on the book side, too, and extend beyond Kickstarter. Though keen on upping the ante on its production next year and beyond, IDW—which to date foregoes using Kickstarter to support its products—has been feeling the shipping and supply chain squeeze.
“It’s all made it even more important for us to have a solid infrastructure,” Marsham says of the supply chain disruptions. “The days of being able to fake it ’til you make it, or operate on a wing and a prayer, are over. Everything is harder and more expensive, and it’s more important than ever to have conversations across all teams to ensure that our publishing plans make sense. Costs change every week.”
Marsham expects that 2023 will be just as complicated and costly as 2022 is shaping up to be, but is confident that IDW is “well situated to navigate it all.”
Aconyte, too, has been feeling the pains of Covid chaos, with Gascoigne admitting that the imprint launched at “a terrible time.” “We’re doing much, much better now and we have a full program scheduled for the next year and the year after,” he says. He points to the fact that the press is branching out into the realm of nonfiction with Play to Win, a new series of books on the winners of the prestigious Spiel des Jahre Game of the Year Award, with the first two titles scheduled to hit shelves this coming fall. “We are planning two more expansions through the next two to three years, as well. The plan is to grow into a multistranded publishing house.”
If Hollywood comes knocking, then great, Aconyte’s Gascoigne says. That’s part of the point of the books, too—to make the games more accessible and reach people who aren’t die-hard gamers.
“If you give someone in Hollywood the board game Twilight Imperium, they’ll say, ‘Well that’s very nice, looks amazing! I’m never going to play it. What’s the story?’ ” Gascoigne says. “But give them a couple of novels or comic books and they’ve got a ready-made storyboard for a TV show or movie based on the game.”
As Aconyte sees it, the options are endless.
“We’re living in a game and nerd culture, and everyone is just ridiculously excited about the possibilities,” Gascoigne says.
As for when a game is best turned into a graphic novel, or vice versa, and when either endeavor is worth the effort, the time, and the money, these are questions that publishers need to spend time with in order to answer. However, this much is clear: if a publisher has got an IP that tells a heck of a story and boasts a strange, beautiful world, it’s probably got what it takes to make both a great game and a great book.
Nicole Audrey Spector is a freelance writer and book editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.