The State of Tabletop at GAMA 2019

If you’re unfamiliar, GAMA is a trade organization focused on improving the health of the tabletop gaming industry. They are best known for their annual industry events: the GAMA Trade Show and Origins Game Fair. The GAMA Trade Show, which happens in March, is unique because unlike most tabletop events focused on players, this one is focused on the industry itself.

Since we discuss our perspectives on the tabletop industry every week on The Covenant Cast, covering GAMA as media this year was an incredible opportunity to expand our perspective. We were most excited to ask other retailers, publishers, and distributors the questions that we had been batting around for the last couple of years on the podcast – so we did!

Jonathon at GAMA

At GAMA 2019, we captured over five hours of footage with industry insiders. This included conversations and interviews with everyone from publishers and distributors to retailers and manufacturers. These videos provide an inside look at the tabletop gaming industry, from top to bottom.

To kick things off, we sit down with John Stacy (the recently appointed Executive Director of GAMA) to learn more about what GAMA is and how they are helping push the tabletop industry forward.

As John pointed out in the video, a big issue in our industry is availability of data. This problem is created because companies have no reason to share private data with the rest of the industry, including their competitors. There are exceptions, like the founder of Stonemaier Games, Jamey Stegmaier, who goes so far as to provide his annual stakeholder report publicly.

While no exhaustive data for the tabletop industry exists, there are data points we can use to get a general understanding of what is happening. For example, at our first Gen Con in 2007 there were roughly 27,000 people in attendance. In 2018, attendance was estimated at over 60,000!

Another metric we hear at industry events like GAMA is the total number of U.S. retail stores. In years past, we kept hearing figures of roughly 4,000. This year, we even started hearing that the number was now over 6,000!

If you’ve been around tabletop a few years, it is clear the industry is growing. Still, it is difficult to know just how fast the industry is growing. Understanding that growth is critical, because growth almost always creates new challenges and issues for every part of the chain.

So, we sat down with a few local game store veterans to discuss the state of tabletop in 2019 and what they see as the biggest challenges moving forward. We were excited to be joined by three long-time industry leaders, including (from left to right) Steve of Rainy Day Games in Portland, Paul of Games and Stuff in Maryland, and Travis of Millennium Games in Rochester.

While everyone had different perspectives on the challenges facing the industry, one thing was clear… the industry is growing rapidly and a number of challenges (and especially opportunities!) have been created thanks to this growth.

After recording this video, we found ourselves talking with another veteran store owner, Patrick of Uncle’s Games in Washington state, which led to an additional podcast episode. He had met new store owner and first-time attendee Paige, of Just Games in Lexington, that morning, so she joined in to offer the perspective of someone just starting out!

After this video, we found ourselves enthralled in an ongoing conversation with Patrick. After about fifteen minutes of discussing the realities behind publishing and distribution, we decided to roll the cameras. The conversation that followed is below!

To round out our discussions with retailers at GAMA, we sat down with the winner of the 2019 GAMA Retailer Power Award for Outstanding Store, Brenda of Knight Watch Games in San Antonio, Texas!

Brenda and her husband started Knight Watch Games a few years ago and have already achieved pretty remarkable success! It was refreshing hearing about a newcomer’s take on retail, including a focus on creating a high-quality, unique experiences for local players.

Having a full range of perspectives from retailers, we thought it only made since to try to get other industry perspectives directly. Distribution isn’t often a tier we hear from, so we were excited to be joined by Scott Morris of GTS Distribution to discuss the state of distribution of tabletop games in 2019.

As a retailer, it’s easy to identify the challenges we face everyday. The more we talked with industry members at GAMA, though, the more it became clear that one of the biggest issues seems to be a lack of communication (including data sharing) within the industry. Along with a lack of communication, a conflicting set of priorities among the tiers also seems to lead to its fair share of problems.

It makes sense that each tier is focused on their own challenges and struggles, which also includes competing with the other members of their tier. Often times, this shifts their focus away from solving industry-wide problems to instead looking at ways of creating unique, competitive advantages. For example, we gather that GTS has been focused on making exclusive distribution deals to create a clear competitive advantage as a distributor.

Next, we looked to add a mix of publisher perspectives. First up, we sat down with Frank West to talk about self publishing. He is the creator, designer, and publisher of City of Kings, a game that successfully funded on Kickstarter back in 2017.

As we mentioned, a common sentiment among retailers at GAMA was the concern that platforms like Kickstarter might cut them out of the chain. When games like City of Kings are available first to customers with exclusives and discounts, it can be hard for local retailers to move that product when it releases at retail.

There were a number of retailers who were supportive of Kickstarter. The general idea was that they might lose 10%-20% of their sales of a game through Kickstarter, but the other 80-90% are sales that probably would never had happened without the platform. Kickstarter has definitely allowed publishers, including Frank, to make games that otherwise might not have ever seen the light of day.

We sat down with another publisher who got started on Kickstarter, but has since stopped relying on the platform. Ben Harkins, the owner of Floodgate Games, first showed up on our radar back at Gen Con 2016. Back then, we got an early look at Sagrada, a game initially funded on Kickstarter that went on to become a big success through the standard three tier system.

Having heard from retailers, distributors, and publishers, we were excited to also sit down with Patrick and Cedrick from Ultimate Guard to get the perspective of an accessories producer on the design and manufacturing landscape!

Most notable from this discussion was how the perception of one tier, distribution, affected that of another, manufacturing. Distribution didn’t think customers would pay for a premium product, like Ultimate Guard’s Ammonite Anti-Theft Backpack. As it turns out though, distribution was completely wrong! This seems to reinforce the idea that data and communication among the tiers needs work.

While the industry has a number of challenges to overcome, it was encouraging to talk with so many intelligent, passionate people working at the various tiers of the industry. As long as we continue having conversations with others, solving problems, and pushing forward, I am confident that the tabletop gaming industry has a bright future ahead.

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