Grail Tales: The biggest game changer in 10 years

If someone asked me, “What has been the biggest game changer in the last 10 years?” there would be many ways to attack the question.

One could say, “The answer is Gloomhaven,” as it totally changed what could be sold on a game store shelf (cost and size-wise) and shot to the number 1 ranking on BGG. But then, each of the top 12 ranked games on the site were released since 2015, so perhaps what we are seeing with Gloomhaven is an impressive game riding high on a wave given impetus from an influx of newer gamers and the Cult of the New. I mean, 80 of BGG’s top 100 were released in the past 10 years (2011-2021)! This is totally not how the list looked just a few years ago. (And that’s fine.)

The No.1 Game!

So, if I was to answer the question with “Gloomhaven,” would I have to add the caveat that really, it’s the poster child for how the entire “scene” has possibly changed…? Or is that unfair?

There’s also another possible answer: Pandemic: Legacy Season 1, which was such a revolutionary game when it released (and also shot to number 1 on BGG in a style never seen before). And while it wasn’t the first “legacy” game, it certainly was the game that cemented what a legacy game was, and has remained the high water-mark for that style of design. But… there haven’t exactly been an influx of legacy games in the way that the original Pandemic (co-op games), Dominion (deck-building) and 7 Wonders (card drafting) were the flagships for new major trends in game releases just before our 10-year cut-off for this question. So while Pandemic Legacy changed gaming, it may not be a massive game-changer… Or is that a merely a difference in semantics?

Was the No.1 Game!

Still other possible answers could include Azul which showed that an abstract game can be cool (and a MAJOR seller), and games like Terraforming Mars, Spirit Island, Great Western Trail and Brass: Birmingham which continue to wave the euro flag, all the while trying to do something different in their zone.

There’s been mega-successful “hybrid” games like Scythe and Blood Rage, and games with broadly popular settings like Wingspan and Everdell. And then there’s The Crew which is the only small card game in BGG’s top 120… Oh! And don’t forget Love Letter – the game that ushered in a micro-game craze and rained overseas game publishers upon Tokyo’s Game market for a number of years, introducing an influx of Asian game design sensitivities to the rest of the world.

Yes, any of these games (and probably countless others) could be held up as a “game changer” – the apex of board games over the last decade, making others stop and take notice, and even try to follow in its footsteps.

But I choose something different to name as my game changer. And really, this whole preamble has been a tease because I don’t actually want to talk about a game at all!

The biggest game changer of the last ten years has undoubtedly been Kickstarter.

Kickstarter has been spoken about at length by everyone in the hobby at some point so I won’t go on and on here, but thinking on this recently, I believe it really must be stated again – love it or hate it, Kickstarter has changed the industry – how games are made, how games are bought, what games are made, what games are bought, and how gamers connect with publishers and designers. There are stats everywhere showing the Tabletop Games are the most important category on Kickstarter – the revenue collected has been immense. Kickstarter has literally blown the doors off the board gaming world. (Yet Kickstarter still doesn’t provide tools for campaign creators beyond what something like Notepad could do on Windows 95, but I digress.)

It’s changed what games are made, not just because “the little guy” or the “niche” design may find an audience, but because now, publishers have a ready-made marketing tool that can tell them that yes, actually, a deep 2-hour game about rescuing sea-horses DOES have an audience.

It’s changed how games are made, not just because stretch goals and receiving money upfront allows publishers to be more audacious and cost-effective in making a game, but because having such games in the gaming harbour causes all boats to float higher – the standard of what is expected out of components and quality has risen across the board.

It’s changed how games are bought, not just because customers may now easily buy a game direct from a publisher, but they now (generally) have few qualms about handing money over early for a game they haven’t seen. Live demos and in-store displays and promotions are still beneficial but not as much as they used to be. By the time most games show up at a Gen Con or Essen or FLGS, many customers will have heard of it, know what it is, or even own it. This has meant that many distributors and stores have lost a lot of their revenue and sway. Kickstarter has also given customers a direct communication tool with those who are making the games they have bought!

It’s changed how success is measured, not just because one can compare like board game campaigns for like, nor simply because a campaign with 1000 backers has obviously done better than a game with 200, but, because these numbers are now public, success and sales are more easily seen, predicted and analysed. (This is still not a science, nor does it always equate that success at Kickstarter equals success at retail, or vice versa, but it is clearer than it used to be.)

It’s changed the “feel” of the entire industry, not just for all the above reasons, but because Kickstarter – a crowdfunding/pre-ordering system/social media hybrid – has made some older forms of communication between gamers feel flat and outdated. Kickstarter is where it’s at – the hip place to be (for many), and this means that browsing for new projects on Kickstarter has become the most important and exciting online habit for many gamers since it’s popularity skyrocketed.

Up and up and up!

I do not know what the future holds and have no predictions. Will Kickstarter remain at the forefront of our hobby, dragging the players and customers along with it (usually happily and with twinkles in their eyes, but sometimes kicking and screaming)? I assume so, but it’s hard to say in this ever-evolving and always-changing 21st century world. But one thing is for certain – the digital space is no longer simply where a gamer goes to look up rules questions or to post a review. The digital and analogue worlds are now intertwined in such a way that it is difficult to find a new board game that has not been touched in some way by the changes in our industry brought about by the crowdfunding juggernaut that is Kickstarter. Kickstarter has taken games to a new level in regards to production design (metal coins, anyone?), variety (Brass, Blood Rage, Parks and Exploding Kittens are all Kickstarter games) and accessibility (a content creator in Hawaii may have their game bought by someone in Rio, Sydney and Hong Kong).

And I, for one, am so glad that Kickstarter is here and cannot wait to see what the future holds!

– David (Grail Games)