Numlock Sunday: Charlie Hall talks the future of tabletop
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Charlie Hall, who wrote “The high price of Disney Lorcana cards is a good sign for fans of collectible card games” for Polygon. Here's what I wrote about it:
Next year Disney’s releasing a new card game called Lorcana, the first seven cards of which were released at the D23 convention two weeks ago. To be clear, the game does not yet have a released rule set and nobody has any idea how to play it, but the trading cards are doing incredible business on secondary markets, with some bids already north of $2,000. It’s a sign that the red-hot market for trading cards isn’t showing any signs of abating; a year after The Pokémon Company released a record 9 billion cards, Wizards of the Coast made more sets of cards than ever, and Hasbro revealed Magic: The Gathering made the bulk of the $1 billion it makes from Wizards of the Coast.
I love the coverage of tabletop games and trading card games at Polygon; they do really phenomenal work in the space and are so full of big ideas about a type of gaming that has often flown under the radar. A lot of that ambition derives from Hall, the tabletop editor at the site, and I wanted to have him on to chat about what’s been a remarkable couple of years in the niche.
Hall can be found at Polygon and on Twitter.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a really excellent story just this past week all about a, I almost want to say a new card game, but it's actually not even out yet, and yet it's still managed to find a way to blow up the secondary market. What is Lorcana?
Well, Lorcana is a joint project between Disney and Ravensburger. Ravensburger is a 130-plus-year-old board game manufacturer. Their first board game came out almost 140 years ago. Ravensburger, of course, has a big business of puzzles and children's products over in Europe. But they're best known here in the United States for their board games, for things like Disney Villainous. Ravensburger hasn't done, to my knowledge, collectible card games in the past, but that's what this is: It is a Disney-themed trading card game, but it's very much a collectible card game. Collectability is a huge aspect of it, and it's effectively a direct competitor with Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering.
You mentioned it's a direct competitor, but there are only seven cards out and it still managed to cause a bit of a stir. What struck you that you thought this was indicative of something far bigger when it comes to card games and tabletops?
Well, really it's the caliber of the intellectual property that's involved. That's what originally stood out to me. This is effectively Disney opening the door and saying, "You, outside company, come in, root around in our intellectual property and just make cool stuff." That's what Ravensburger is doing with this first line of cards. Included in this first line of cards are traditional Disney animated characters; we don't have any Pixar characters in here, there's no Star Wars there, there's no Marvel. Clearly there are some guardrails on the IP they're allowed to play with in this first batch. You've got Stitch and Elsa, Cruella De Vil, Maleficent, Robin Hood, Captain Hook, and of course Mickey Mouse as the Brave Little Tailor. These are all as iconic characters as can be. Honestly, they're on everything from lunch boxes to I'm sure toilet seat covers somewhere in the corner of the world, like these characters are on everything.
My thought was when guests — essentially fan club members — went to the D23 convention, they were offered this introductory set of six cards plus a special, even more collectible card with a special foil treatment and a special emblem in the corner. And it's 50 bucks for this! A nominal price, right, for what it is, which is an unplayable stack of seven cards. The rules aren't even out for this right now, of course. I stepped back and said, "All right, there are all these rabid Disney fans who are going to buy this thing. Well, what are they going to do with it?" If you look at Disney collectibles, there's strata, right, within the Disney collectibles line?
One of them that folks know about are pins. Pins, in my experience, don't seem to have a real hugely inflated value online. You can go to eBay and get a pin for pretty much the same as you can get it in the park. The community is the trading of the pins. That's the schtick, right?
You're supposed to hand over one pin and get another one back. All the employees at Disney Parks have a pin. So one of my most important questions that I asked the team at Ravensburger when they brought me this opportunity to write this story was, “Well, am I going to be able to go and trade cards with the people that work at Disney? Am I going to be able to trade cards with cast members just like I do pins?” And they're like, “No, it's not going to have an in-park feature.” So that told me that it wasn't going to be like pins, right? This isn't going to be a “we're all friends here” kind of trading experience. They're going for the jugular here. This is an elite, sought after, limited number, limited edition collectible, and bang zoom right out of the gate. That's what these seven cards are. You will not be able to find these seven cards for sale again.
Now, what does that mean in gameplay terms? They've said indicatively that you're going to be able to get the same or similar playing cards that will do the same or similar things in the game once the game has rules and is released. But these particular collectibles, you will not, and they're going for thousands of dollars for a complete set online; an individual Brave Little Tailor Mickey Mouse card, I want to say it was like $220 to $250 for a buy-it-now price, which is a lot for one brand new, and I can't stress this enough, literally unplayable card.
Yeah, I mean, the Mouse is a lot of things and dumb is not one of them.
It seems like they have picked up on a story that you in particular have been reporting on over the past three to four years, which is just that the card game collectible scene as well as the tabletop role-playing scene has just exploded. I mean, every quarter I read your post about just how much money Hasbro's Wizards of the Coast has hauled in for the company. Hasbro is a large toy company that makes all of its profits from Magic: The Gathering at this point.
It seems like they're attempting to get in on a market that you've really been covering as blowing up rather quickly.
It's been so wild to cover Pokémon cards in particular. It seems like the pandemic started and everybody was locked in their house and people get laid off, losing jobs. They're looking for more room in the house, they're looking for more money in their life. So let's get rid of some old stuff and let's get some money and get some more room because we're hanging out indoors.
You started seeing these wild stories of Logan Paul doing this with this Pokémon card collection, or there's Pokémon card fraud and a third of a million dollars and a quarter of a million dollars here and just cards going for astronomical prices. Of course that's been happening in the world of Magic: The Gathering for decades. I think the recent highest-documented at-auction price for the legendary Black Lotus card was a purchase made at an auction house in 2021 and it was $511,000.
These cards have value and they are investments to some people, but to folks like Post Malone, he’s a big Magic fan. He just gets these cards because he wants to recreate this portion of his childhood. Just he can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it. But at the same time, both Pokémon and Magic are living games. You can go to the corner store and get a pack of cards for six, seven bucks just like anybody else. Those new cards will have their own life and their own secondary and tertiary lifespan on the auction market in the decades to come.
You mentioned the auctions and the top end of the scene is obviously seeing these astronomical figures, but even just the bread and butter of it, Pokémon made more cards last year than they'd ever made before. It's also not just the top, the tippy-top, it's also just the bread and butter of the gameplay.
Yeah. More people are sitting down to play cards, it seems, than ever before. You go to your friendly local game store and it is still bumping there on a Friday night for Friday Night Magic.
You edited a package called “The Future of Tabletop.” That was outstanding. I would love to just hear where that idea came from and where you arrived at when it came to what exactly is the future of tabletop? Because it seems like it's changed a lot.
We had the opportunity to put together this week of content; the goal was to just get a theme that folks could pitch against. There are so many different tiny little rabbit holes within the world of tabletop. We could have talked about specifically social issues. We could have talked specifically just about role-playing game stuff. But so much of the narrative of tabletop games in the last 10 years has been this renaissance, and so, what I wanted to do was invite authors and critics and academics and scholars to think about what the next 10 years will be if we continue on this trajectory or if that trajectory changes. What does the multibillion-dollar tabletop space look like over the next 10 years? I want to say we got over a hundred different pitches.
I really had a lot of great ideas and great articles to choose from. What I did is I curated that and then I handed the relationships that I built with these writers off to our special projects team, which is Matt Leone and Russ Frushtick over here on the Polygon side. They've just been jamming on it for months and months and months on doing the editing and doing the work. I also got to work and to choose some artists and to purchase some art from them, which is not a luxury that I get all that too often. It was more an active curation. Then a couple of weeks before the package was ready to go, Matt and Russ said, “Okay, here are the articles that we've got. Why don't you read through them?” And I got to give them the final blessing and send them out into the world. It's really a real pleasure.
That was a really great feature series. Polygon has also been particularly good about not just covering the games themselves, but also the culture around them.
I know you've written a bunch of stories about that, whether it's like the concept albums around Dungeons and Dragons and Dwarf Fortress, or even The Adventure Zone and how there's an entire niche podcast industry just riffing on and basing content off of these stories. What interests you about that space?
What interests me about that space is just how big it really is. You mentioned Wizards of the Coast earlier and how Hasbro is making so much of their money from Wizards of the Coast's work. That revelation wasn't something that we were allowed until I think 2020 or 2021 when Hasbro changed how they report their earnings on a quarterly basis. They never broke out specifically how much the Wizards of the Coast business unit is producing revenue-wise for their company ever before.
They still hide it to some extent, right? Because that business unit contains their movie-making company, their video games, multiple studios, licensing and the Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons. All of that is effectively a billion-dollar annual line of revenue for them. It's their largest source of profit as a company.
So Hasbro is no longer a toy company. They are a gaming company. That's where their money comes from. That, I think, opened a lot of people's eyes to potentially how large this addressable market for these kinds of games could be. You lift up a rock and here are millions of people that love to follow Critical Role. Here's just as many people that love to follow The Adventure Zone. These are creators and relationships that have been building an appetite for the better part of a decade, but no one's really paid attention to it because they couldn't assign a value to it, right? Really, until Wizards revealed how much they were making off of this stuff.
Now you've got so many other interesting questions: What do these creators owe to the "platforms" that they're producing on, by which I mean Dungeons and Dragons, or Blades in the Dark, or some other kind of role-playing system. What does Matt Mercer owe to Wizards of the Coast? Right now, nothing. Is that going to change in the next decade? Are these relationships going to dramatically alter in where the money is going? Who's paying who? That's another part of the industry that I'm really interested to try and follow over the next five to 10 years.
That's so fascinating. I remember when I got interested in esports, it was interesting because literally people were trying to get the intellectual property for whatever the next version of basketball was going to be.
This really has become just a way to not only do a game, but also build an entire social infrastructure around a game.
That's one of the stories. Chase Carter, who also writes for Dicebreaker and a few other outlets in addition to Polygon, he put up a story of a fork in the road facing third-party tabletop RPGs. It's specifically talking about, do we make our system open? Do we require licensing? How do we let people build on top of this thing that we've made, and what do we allow people to build with this thing that we've made? In many ways, depending on which fork you take, will change the quality and the style and the type of the joy involved in what comes after a game is published.
That's really cool. Where can folks find you and where can folks find your work?
My work is on polygon.com/tabletop-games. So that's the most direct way to get to us, Polygon Tabletop Games. I live on Twitter. That's where you can reach me if you've got to, @Charlie_L_Hall; I've got all the links to Polygon’s Tabletop within my bio. You can send me an email at email@example.com.
Incredible. And if I may, while I have you, what are you playing these days?
Oh man, I have, I've been playing painting stuff right now. So I rebuilt my office. I used to have a cockpit in my office that I built out of the passenger seat of my old Ford Taurus.
I spent a lot of time doing flight simulator stuff and space flight simulator stuff. I got rid of all of that. That's in the basement. I rebuilt the office. I got a lot of, god, a hundred different bottles of paint here, couple dozen brushes, and I'm just zening out at night and on lunch breaks, just painting miniatures. I'm learning the craft and working with my hands. I've got BattleTech stuff. I've got Hero's Quest stuff. I've got the Witcher role-playing game stuff. I've got Warhammer 40K, Warhammer 30K. All of these are different projects that I'm working on this weekend. And then I'm hoping to get some buddies together for a game of BattleTech. I haven't actually rolled dice in anger in a couple of years here, so we’ve got to fix that problem.
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.
Thank you so much for becoming a paid subscriber!
Send links to me on Twitter at @WaltHickey or email me with numbers, tips or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.