Board games date back to ancient civilizations, and millennia later, they’re still going strong. According to market research firm ReportLinker, the board game category—which encompasses tabletop games, card and dice games, collectible card games, miniature games, and role-playing games (RPGs)—is anticipated to reach sales of more than $12 billion by 2023, with compound annual growth of over 9% starting in 2017. However, those sales pale in comparison to the size of the video game market. A recent report from Global Data found that video games generated $131 billion in 2017 and could reach $300 billion by 2025.
It’s a gross disparity that gets bigger when comparing board games based on comics and graphic novels to video games based on comics and graphic novels. Even major players such as Titan Comics have been wary to make a move into board games.
Titan sales and circulation manager Steve Tothill says, “Some of our biggest successes have been video game licensed titles, which have either benefited from launching around the same time as a new game property or latest entry in a series, or from tapping into the hardcore fandom of a beloved franchise.” He adds, “We’ve published comics and graphic novels for a number of hit titles, such as Assassin’s Creed, Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Dishonored, the Evil Within, Quake, Tekken, and Wolfenstein.”
Titan works closely with its licensors and has also had characters from its comics featured in games, such as a pirate character in Rare’s multiplayer game Sea of Thieves. But the company has yet to partner with a board game publisher to license its titles. “We’re keeping a very close eye on the relatively recent rise of tabletop gaming into the mainstream, but we have yet to see the right opportunity present itself,” Tothill says.
This attitude of “we’re watching the space but not diving in at this time” is hardly exclusive to Titan. From a big-picture perspective, comics-oriented publishers just aren’t making sweeping strides into the board game space. There’s momentum, sure, and some recent successes; overall, however, board games based on comics and graphic novels is an ultra-niche subcategory. The reasons for this are manifold, with one being that the board game space, though robust, is broken up into so many parts—not just in terms of medium (a simple card game is naturally very different from a complex role-playing game) but also in terms of audience.
“The culture of board games has become very fractured,” says Noah Nelson, founder of No Proscenium Press. “People are in their niches, and we don’t have many hard metrics on who is buying what available. But it’s still early, and this area might be ready to bear fruit soon.”
Oni Press, an indie comics publisher based in Portland, Ore., launched its tabletop imprint, Oni Games, in 2017—in part because it recognized that games could build on the branding of its comics and graphic novels. “I began working on Oni Games in 2015, which was focused on adapting comics and graphic novels into board games,” says Charlie Chu, v-p of creative and business development at Oni Press. “We did a Scott Pilgrim game [based on the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley and the film that it was adapted into] with Renegade Studios, as well as an RPG with Pinnacle Group based on The Sixth Gun, among others. We jumped into the tabletop space not too dissimilarly from how we run the comics side of things, but the push into tabletop was to enrich our ability to profit from doing comics and graphics. It was a different lane of exploitation and another way to make revenue.”
Oni’s biggest recent success is the Tea Dragon Society Card Game, now in its third print run. Based on Katie O’Neill’s Eisner Award–winning webcomic/graphic novel for kids, the game won the 2019 Origins Award in the family game category. It has done so well that Oni Games returned to Renegade to release the Aquicorn Cove Board Game, based on the graphic novel from Katie O’Neill.
When asked whether the games stimulate sales of the comics and vice versa, Chu says that “a delicious feedback loop is created,” but he suggests that ultimately this is also about “making cool things”—and making smart plays in new business sectors. “Doing a board game IP license comic is not something most people would consider, but beyond sales potential, we wanted further conversations with folks in gaming. In a weird way, the creative opportunity leads to business developments.”
Less weird is the practical approach that Oni Press has when sussing out whether a comic or graphic novel can be successfully adapted into a board game. Tea Dragon Society Card Game has done so well not so much because people love the comic but because it holds its own in the board game retail space.
“It’s evocative, accessible, kid friendly, and priced at $20—not $75, which is what many publishers will go after,” Chu says. He adds that the Tea Dragon Society Card Game is also poppy and mainstream, with source material that appeals to both middle grade and young adult players—not unlike the webcomic that inspired it.
“I’m constantly reminded that a lot of decision making that has been fruitful for us is not dissimilar to how we make decisions on the comics publishing side,” Chu says. “We’re not just targeting people who are knee-deep in gaming. It’s more aesthetic, and if your source material is a middle grade graphic novel, that marries perfectly.”
Oni recognized that the Tea Dragon Society was flourishing as an intellectual property and seized the opportunity to build on it by taking it into the gaming world—as it did with more established IPs, such as the Scott Pilgrim series and Rick and Morty, which, in addition to being an animated series, is a series of comics. Having great IP is half the battle when it comes to publishing games, because these series have massive fan bases.
IDW has published board games based on such major franchises as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman—titles that, though tied to comics, are perhaps more famously affiliated with blockbuster movies and TV series. “The audience is very large, and the game supports the audience as a media whole,” says Jerry Bennington, IDW v-p, new product development. “We’ve seen increased print runs of Turtles comics due to people who are fans of the films, and maybe lapsed publishing fans come in through the game, because they recognize it from when they were kids and then learn more about different graphic novels we’ve published. But ultimately, I don’t think we’ll see a place where the sale of games will drive substantial people into that network.”
Games based on such landmark IPs exist more as ancillary ways to interact with the brand and not necessarily with the comic. “If you’re a Star Wars fan, you can choose so many ways to interact with the franchise, but that’s only because the IP is so massive,” Nelson says. “At the end of the day, it’s all an IP play—and often, that’s the only reason to do a jump over into board games.”
But even the most prodigious IP has its limitations. The board game space is not only fractured but its flooded with products, an observation that paces Oni and other publishers: Chu says Oni is mindful to release no more than a few games per year.
Even Hasbro, one of the biggest board game manufacturers in the world, treads lightly when it comes to rendering games based on mega comic franchises. A spokesperson for the company told PW that this year so far, just two games have been released based on superstar IPs: Star Wars: Escape from Death Star and Monopoly: Marvel Avengers edition.
Few would debate that the biggest IP in the RPG space is Dungeons and Dragons, which Chu asserts “is having the biggest success of its existence right now.”
Ashley Warren, an author in the tabletop gaming industry, notes that the game is gaining steam in part because of the rise of streaming platforms where people can watch the complex game being played, such as Twitch. The resurgent success of D&D has certainly stimulated interest in other RPGs, but it’s not as though every D&D devotee is open to other RPGs, which can require substantial time investment.
“From the RPG angle, you’ve got two significant barriers to entry,” says Paizo chief creative officer Erik Mona. “One is the rule book. We’ve just published our new edition of Pathfinder [Paizo’s popular RPG franchise], the first in 10 years, and it’s 640 pages long. That’s intimidating in itself. Then you need the friend group, which can also be intimidating.”
If it’s so intimidating for game players, imagine how intimidating it is for publishers considering a move into RPG. That said, RPGs are popping up around legacy IPs (including an A Song of Ice and Fire RPG by Green Ronin, based on the series of novels by George R.R. Martin that inspired HBO’s Game of Thrones series). Oni Games had success with an RPG based on its Sixth Gun graphic novel series, though, Chu admits, “that comic was more a critical hit than a bestseller.” One could say that the RPG adaptation was also more of a critical hit than a bestseller; a kickstarter campaign for the Sixth Gun RPG raised more than $65,000—well past its $6,000 goal but not exactly a blowout payday.
Chu reemphasized that the point of making these games isn’t to make loads of cash on the games themselves: “The big angle is less about looking to make a ton of money on the gaming side and more about creating brand extensions and providing marketing for the books themselves. It’s meant to drive awareness and sales on the comics publishing side.”
If an IP isn’t a massively popular franchise (or looking like it will be one), then the game of making games gets tougher, bringing publishers to a crucial question: how many fans does a series need before it becomes viable as a game? For IDW Games, which publishes both creator-owned and licensed tabletop games, the answer is at least 5,000 prospective buyers.
“We’re shooting for a minimum of 5,000 units that we need to move into the marketplace,” says IDW’s Bennington. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small- or big-box game—though in the case of big games, which can be pretty expensive, you need to sell at least 5,000 units just to recoup costs.”
Bennington estimates that IDW Games, which launched in 2014, issues an average of 12 titles per year. One of its recent hits in the space, Masques of the Red Death, isn’t based on a comic; it’s based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The literature is public domain—an important point, because this meant that IDW didn’t have to deal with the complexities or expense of licensing rights.
“Masques did quite well,” Bennington says. “We were approached by a high-quality game designer named Adam Wyse, who built out this entire game based on Poe’s story. At that point, it was just mechanics. We partnered with the artist Gris Grimley, who did all the painted artwork for the cards. It was really a great adaptation.”
How did IDW know that this game would stimulate the fan base needed to justify that initial 5,000-unit run? It went where so many board game creators go: Kickstarter, where it blew past its $15,000 goal, raising over $100,000.
Still, it was hardly free money.
“IDW’s investment in Kickstarter was fairly substantial,” Bennington says. “We put a lot of money into the front end of the campaign.”
Investing in Kickstarter was a smart, if not necessarily required, move, as ultimately the campaign allowed IDW Games to raise funds to make the game and take the pulse of this select corner of the board game market. “A lot of times we use Kickstarter as a way to talk directly to the community, and particularly the early adopters who then give their reviews on social media, so that when we bring the product to the rest of the channels, the game has already been reviewed,” Bennington explains. “A lot of times a campaign like that attracts fans who can dissect your product and find any inconsistencies, too.”
IDW’s strategy with crowdfunding—and crowd reading, as it were—is not unique. Virtually all serious game makers, from lone creators to established publishers, use Kickstarter to raise funds and survey fan interest.
“Games is the biggest category on Kickstarter by dollars pledged,” says Kickstarter head of games Luke Crane. “Games have continued to grow year on year since 2014. We divide games into subcategories, and of all the segments, tabletop takes the crown and last year eclipsed product design as the biggest subcategory on Kickstarter.”
Kickstarter campaigns to fund tabletop games as a whole have generated total pledges of more than $751 million and have a 59% success rate. Those odds of success may not sound promising, but bear in mind that Kickstarter doesn’t discriminate between campaign makers. The success rate reflects the performance of all campaigns—from those large publishers to those of solo game designers.
Established publishers stand to do well on Kickstarter, provided they’re willing to put in the resources to make an impeccable campaign. But more importantly, what publishers need is the understanding that a great comic doesn’t always translate into a great game, and that they’re going to have to work rigorously to capture and convince what might ultimately be a relatively small group of hardcore fans.
Is it worth it? That’s for the publisher to say. But if it’s got a well-known property or, at the very least, a series with a cult following, it might be the move to make.
Nicole Audrey Spector is freelance writer and book editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.
All print unit sales per NPD BookScan except where noted.