Numlock Sunday: Charlie Hall on the board game renaissance
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Charlie Hall, who wrote “Tabletop funding was down on Kickstarter in 2022, but more campaigns succeeded overall” for Polygon. Here's what I wrote about it:
Tabletop gaming projects have coalesced around Kickstarter as a primary means of generating startup capital for the projects. It makes sense; it gives promising games a chance to pitch their wares to a dedicated fanbase and the deliverables are fairly well-understood. Dollars pledged to successful tabletop gaming Kickstarters came in at $236.4 million in 2022, which was down slightly from a peak of $270 million in 2021 but on par with the $236.6 million hauled in during 2020. Despite the 12.4 percent decline — considered to be the result of broader macroeconomic issues — the market’s pretty healthy, with 4,042 successfully funded tabletop crowdfunding rounds, up from 3,520 in 2021. The overall success rate hit 76.3 percent.
Charlie’s coverage is always a great read, the tabletop and board game scene is growing out of a niche and thoroughly into the mainstream and he’s been on it for years.
We spoke about what’s behind this explosive growth in board game variety, the recent kerfuffle in Dungeons & Dragons, and what it means for the immediate future of games.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
All right, Charlie, thank you so much for coming on.
Hey, I'm happy to be here, Walt.
The thing that I really wanted to talk to you about to kick us off is you have this excellent report that comes out every year looking at Kickstarter as a funding platform. Before we dive into the numbers here, what does Kickstarter mean for the world of tabletop? How has it changed things?
I think that Kickstarter is, I wouldn't be alone saying this, among the top two or three driving forces behind the Renaissance in board games in the last decade. More projects and more significant projects have been brought to life through crowdfunding and specifically through Kickstarter than really anything else in a long, long time. It's not leveled the playing field, it's created a playing field for independent creators and small publishers and just individuals to go out there and make something new and make a board game that didn't exist and otherwise might not have found a market or the ability to be published.
It's really been interesting, and I guess it just seems like such a really good market fit for specifically what board games require as inputs. I'll put it to you, there have been histories of Kickstarter fails and whatnot for films and for all sorts of different projects, but how would you say that board games are right sized for Kickstarter?
I think that folks would be surprised at how few of the very best board games are out there in the world. A first print run of a great award-winning board game that is going to light up all the YouTube channels and be plastered all over the usual places? It's 2,500 units, 5,000 units, 10,000 units would be a big first print run for something like a board game. Now, they're also incredibly extensive though, when you get beyond just cardboard chips, the tooling involved in making a miniature is extraordinarily expensive, and miniatures in particular seem to be what bring all the boys to the yard, as it were.
If there are great-looking miniatures in the game, it's going to sell. That's part of the success behind CoolMiniOrNot, CMON, for instance. They arguably have put out games that are very similar to one another, and yet they are beyond their 50th Kickstarter since 2014 or something, and have brought in tens of millions of dollars just because their minis are cool.
By bringing in $100,000, even $50,000, you're able to handle the expense of that initial print run, and that gets the game out there. It gets the game in front of people, it gets in front of the influencer class and in front of critics like myself and our freelancers. Then it's at that point that something can really begin to consider going mainstream. It's enabled the creators to handle the startup cost, which is pretty big when it comes down to it, but is small in the grand scheme of things. When you're looking at a movie or a video game, it's not a lot, but for an individual it is a lot.
I want to actually just go back to what you said there. You just alluded to a company that has done 50 Kickstarters. Now, typically in a lot of the entertainment industry beyond this, Disney's not doing a Kickstarter every time they want to do a movie, but this has become a reliable wave almost banking presales, it seems.
I think that just about everybody in the industry that you would talk to would agree in that statement. Many years ago, I pooh-poohed the idea. Why aren't we putting this on our website? Why aren't we putting this out there in the world and just selling it on a storefront? It's because there really isn't a storefront for this. As much as Kickstarter has filled a vacuum that didn't really exist before, this vacuum of crowdfunding necessity that it created a need for, it's also filled a vacuum in a way to become that storefront, that Steam Store in a way, for board games.
But the timelines are so extended, though, that it's easy to get lost in that hype cycle. Your average board game shows up a year, a year and a half before consumers had any hope of getting that game on the table. When these games show up, people are often like, "Oh yeah, I spent $200, now I have five boxes that just showed up, and I have nowhere to put them." It's extended the hype cycle for these things. I don't know, we could get into the speed bumps and disclosure issues with the various folks that are profiting from that hype cycle, but I don't want to get into that today. I'm having a good Friday.
What do you say we dive into the numbers, because it's been just a remarkable explosive growth over the past several years.
Kickstarter's been very kind to me here at Polygon, they've been kind enough to share their raw data in December and January of every year.
If you look at the charts here, in 2012 Kickstarter raised $74 million for successful tabletop projects. And other than 2014 where it dipped down to $76.1 million, that's just been a straight angle upwards to the upper and to the right of the chart. It topped out in 2021 during the pandemic with $270 million earned for tabletop projects.
I was talking to some economists earlier this year, one of which was looking more closely even than I was at Kickstarter in like 2010, 2011, 2012. He confirms something that is true today, and that is that at least one-third of Kickstarter's revenue really across its history as a crowdfunding platform has come from tabletop games. As soon as those developers realize they can use Kickstarter, it has been about a third of Kickstarter's total revenue since that time.
That's something else. It really has made it more possible for a vibrancy to happen.
It's also got a momentum of its own though. There is the hobby board game space that exists on Kickstarter and boutique places like CMON and Cephalofair Games and stuff like this. Then there's really everything else.
When you go to Target, when you go to Walmart and you look at the shelves, that's not the stuff that's showing up on Kickstarter, and yet there is a lot of crossover between the two. There are games like Cephalofair Games, the folks behind Gloomhaven. Target wanted a Gloomhaven that it could fit on its shelves. So there is one now, it's Jaws of the Lions. So you've got this bite-sized version of a $150, 16-pound box of cardboard and plastic that fits and makes sense in a Target. So there's crossover, but still they're very different communities of players and consumers.
I suppose perhaps we'll back out a little bit and talk about one of the bigger controversies that have been going on in this world, or more the tabletop world I should say, has been around Wizard and their licensing.
I know that this can be a bit of a legal muck, but do you want to talk a little bit about what's been going on on that front and how this January was a fairly consequential one for a lot of the future of Wizards IP?
You're talking about the open gaming license?
So, totally different subject.
Basically once upon a time ago, the game of Dungeons and Dragons was failing. It depends on who is asked and who's telling the story, but people were playing D&D in the early 2000s, but maybe they weren't spending a lot on D&D. So the powers that be at Wizards of the Coast at the time did this radical thing where they said, "All right, here's a subset of all the rules that make up Dungeons and Dragons. We're going to place it partially in the public domain, essentially, and under these terms as enshrined in the OGL, the Open Gaming License, you stranger out there in the world may create content using these rules that is compatible and that effectively builds upon a subset of D&D's rules. Go nuts, have fun."
That status quo was maintained for about 20 years, which is a long time in the world of anything, really. A number of different companies grew up on this ability to use the rules of D&D to make their own, or to make their own compatible content. Those companies include names like Pathfinder, like Kobold Press, like Green Ronin. Third edition, fourth edition, fifth edition compatible content has been a mainstay of these third-party organizations for a long time. I imagine, I claim no special knowledge, but I can see a situation arising when corporate owner Hasbro goes poring through the body of work that it owns at Wizards of the Coast and pulls out of the filing cabinet this OGL document and holds it up to the light and goes, "Oh, dear God, what have we done? What is this? Why? Who? What?" And someone in a corner office somewhere vows to strike this document from the face of God's green earth.
And that's, I think, maybe, how we got to what happened in January, and that is where a new version, a draft version, Wizards of the Coast says, of the OGL 1.1, the new version leaks out there. Linda Codega over at io9 takes a wild stab and puts it out there for all the world to see, and people go crazy. Really, the torches and the pitchforks came out and it got very ugly there, especially on YouTube, especially on Twitter for a time as fans just screamed bullshit, with foam-flecked lips for weeks.
Sadly at that time, Wizards made no response and the situation kept going and kept building. Before long, I'm driving home from FedEx and there's a 10-minute segment on All Things Considered on NPR talking about this. I'm like, "What on earth is happening?" CNBC picks up the story and it's everywhere, and Wizards in the course of about two weeks did a complete 180-degree, like a 270-degree turn and said, "Fuck it, we give up. We're sorry."
They actually took even more content that was previously in the OGL and they took more content and they put it into a more distant and more restrictive type of licensing called creative commons licensing, where basically once they sign on the dotted line, they are no longer in control of the core rules that make up Dungeons and Dragons. They have given it to the public. Like, I don't know. Like Winnie the Pooh. It is part of the public domain effectively now, and that just wasn't going to happen even a month and a half ago. Hasbro, Wizards had other plans and this leak and the public outcry completely flipped the table on that.
It was really fascinating to watch just because, again, in no small part, it was a product of their own success. The community around D&D has really blossomed in the past couple years, including several major media properties and streaming shows and whatnot that exist without it outside of Hasbro. It just seemed like that that's kind of one key reason that it kind of blew up in their face.
2015, I roll into Gen Con in Indianapolis, and it's a place that I've been going to, I think it'll be my 18th Gen Con this year. It's the single largest tabletop gaming convention in the Western Hemisphere. It's a big deal. And I'm looking around, I got my little notebook and my recorder, I'm like, "Where's the Wizards of the Coast booth?"
Wizards of the Coast is derived from the company that founded Gen Con. It's called Gen Con because it used to be the Geneva Convention, because it was Gary Gygax's party in Geneva, Wisconsin, where everybody showed up to play D&D. That's why it's called Gen Con, and D&D wasn't there.
So literally, I'm on the floor of Gen Con, I'm calling their PR, like, "Where's the booth?" And their PR is like, "We don't have a booth this year." I'm like, "What the shit?" And so two days after Gen Con, I get back to my place and I'm on the phone with Mike Mearls. He is like, "Well, we don't need it. We don't need to go to Gen Con. It's an expense that we don't need because streaming."
And I'm like, "What?"
"We are getting enough uplift. We are getting enough attention from just people sharing their games online that Gen Con is not useful for us any longer."
And that blew my mind. That was 2015. Right now, fast forward to today, Critical Role's animated series' finale is I think this weekend, a three-episode finale, the second season of this multimillion-dollar animated series, targeted at adults, mind you, with sex jokes and bad words. A cartoon about D&D that makes no mention of D&D except maybe in the credits.
To some extent, those same properties that help to popularize the fifth edition of D&D have now outgrown D&D. You've got folks like Worlds Beyond Number, which is a project by Brennan Lee Mulligan, Aabria Iyengar, who is a prolific DM across multiple shows and multiple formats, and they are going their own way to make their own thing, and they're one of the largest Patreon campaigns ever.
They've, to my knowledge, made no mention of the system they're going to use. They're going to do role-playing, but not necessarily D&D role-playing. This institution that is the actual play movement is now, in my opinion, a little bigger than D&D. It's fans of those types of experiences that were most hurt when D&D, when Wizards and Hasbro did what they did with the OGL, because they felt that their fandoms were being threatened. They weren't necessarily, but the tone had shifted from the OG creator of the OGL and people took note and they're not going to forget anytime soon.
It was just a fascinating moment, because I think it spoke to how broad, and again, similar to the tabletop scene on Kickstarter, just how much there now is and how it's kind of gotten out of control of any one body.
But I suppose I'll just throw it to you. What are you looking forward to now? What's got your eye these days?
It is the year of the non-D&D RPG. There is more churn and more interest and more appetite, I think, than ever before. The best thing that Wizards of the Coast could have done to spur on interest in things that they don't make is exactly what they did. Their loss is going to be the rest of the RPG industry's gain.
I think that you're going to see a lot of new experiences, new actual plays, new communities get loud, get excited, and just bring the love for new systems that folks haven't heard about before, at a wide level. Are tabletop role-playing games going to be called D&D, just like facial tissues called Kleenex? Yes. But there will be more room and more interest and more churn in non-D&D systems forever, because of what happened in January 2023.
That's fascinating. I get it. Like, I just started a Blades in the Dark game two months ago.
Nice. And that's one of the systems that my group here was talking about. One of our players had a baby. We lost some steam with our Icewind Dale around with the Frostmaiden campaign. When we get back to the table, I think it's going to be doing something other than D&D.
And honestly, I think that's good, and I think that's healthy. Video games are not just World of Warcraft, and that's a good thing. I don't know. I'm looking forward to seeing people tell stories in spaces and using rules and systems that they haven't before. It's really exciting to me. Gives me more to write about.
There you go. All right, Charlie, where can folks find you?
As always on polygon.com, you can Google tabletop games and Polygon, and you'll come up with our section there. For the time at least, I'll be on Twitter, @Charlie_L_Hall. We'll see how long that hellscape lasts.
And you can always shoot me an email email@example.com. But yeah, thanks Walt. I appreciate it.
Oh, of course. It's always a real pleasure to have you on. You're doing really exciting stuff at Polygon, and it's always a treat.
All right, man. I'll talk to you soon.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.