The board game industry is larger than many people realize, with a great deal more variety than just the classic board games such as Monopoly or Snakes and Ladders. The global board game market is worth several billion dollars and is projected to grow by 17% between 2019 and 2023. There are tens of thousands of different board games available, ranging widely in genre and complexity. And while we still tend to think of board games as physical, analogue products, an increasing number of board game developers are incorporating technology into their products to enhance players’ experiences.
While combining technology with board games is becoming more common, it isn’t actually new. Games have been incorporating video and other electronics for decades. For example, the Atmosfear series of games began in 1991, and involved players navigating a board on a time limit while a character on a video tape shouted instructions to hinder and (occasionally) help them. These days, however, things have become a little more sophisticated.
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Enhancing the experience with apps
Apps are one of the most obvious ways technology is being integrated into the board game industry. With the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, it’s easy for players to download an app to use while playing the game. Sometimes these apps are an optional way to enhance the experience: playing background music and sound effects, providing a timer, tracking scores, and sometimes even helping players set up and learn the game.
But apps can also be much more integral to the experience. They can keep information hidden from players until a crucial moment, or provide randomization and replayability that is harder to implement in physical games without releasing new expansions. The game Mansions of Madness relies heavily on its app, having players input details such as character choices and dice rolls, and spawning monsters and random events. Much of the movement and activity – of both the players and the monsters – is still done on the board itself, but the app allows for complex and replayable experiences that would be harder and more tedious to execute without it.
Stop Thief uses technology in a different but integral way. The original 1979 version of the game came with an electronic “crime scanner” that would make sounds at the start of every turn to indicate the location of an unseen thief that players were trying to catch. Players needed to use these sounds to find the criminal and arrest them before they escaped. The new edition does away with the bulky scanner and uses an app to provide the same function, saving on manufacturing costs and allowing for a smaller package.
Even when an app isn’t required to play the game, it can still add significant value to both the players and the manufacturer. Some board games are complex to set up and run, and may have a steep learning curve. Having an app that guides the user through setup and teaches them how to play can make these games less intimidating to new players and encourage more people to try them. Meanwhile, streamlining things such as tracking scores and calculating combat results can make the game go faster and be more enjoyable. Apps can even act as additional players, facilitating solo play in games that otherwise aren’t made for it. While there is a cost to developing an app alongside the game, the benefits of increasing the game’s accessibility and drawing in new players can more than make up for it.
Apps can bring a lot to the table, but they’re not the only way that board game developers are taking advantage of technology. NFC and Bluetooth technology, along with AR, are all being integrated into the physical board game experience. Harmonix, developer of the popular video game Rock Band, created a game called DropMix that uses cards with NFC codes. These cards are played on a special board – in conjunction with an app – to allow players to mix and match music samples to create their own songs. Other games may use NFC to provide extra features in a companion app, or AR to enhance what the players are seeing on the table.
The draw of digital board games
There’s something to be said for simply creating video game versions of board games. While they might lose the tactile enjoyment of the physical game, they also make the experience accessible to more people. They can provide tutorials for the players, and also allow users to play alone, or play with friends remotely when otherwise they wouldn’t be able to gather a group to play in person. Another advantage is the ability to save a long game and come back later – something that’s much harder to do with a physical setup. Digital versions of board games can also bring more customers to the physical product – people who try the digital game because of its lower entry barriers may decide they enjoy it enough to buy the physical version and share it with friends and family.
Board game developers get technical
There’s another way that technology has benefited the board game industry – one that isn’t always visible from the consumer side of things. Technology is making it easier than ever to develop, fund, and sell board games, meaning a larger number of small companies and individuals can enter the market and bring greater diversity to it. Sites like Kickstarter allows companies to crowdfund their project rather than rely on loans or getting buy-in from a big publisher. 3D printing, either by a service or by the developer themselves, allows companies to more quickly and affordably create prototypes or even finished game pieces. And print-on-demand services mean that small companies can sell their games without needing to store inventory or predict demand. All of this makes for a more competitive market and more choices for consumers.
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The costs of board game technology
As with any product, however, relying on technology as an important component of a board game has its drawbacks. Regular board games might show wear and tear or lose pieces, but that isn’t too hard to ignore or work around. When an app or electronic component is involved, however, it can be harder to fix or replace. It can also raise the cost of the game, both for the manufacturer and consumer. Even if an accompanying app is free or included with the game, the cost to make it is likely factored into the board game’s price, making it more expensive that it otherwise might have been. The user also needs to own a device that can run the app – if they don’t have a compatible device, the game is inaccessible to them. And when the app stops being supported by the developer, it may become unusable.
Even if the technology involved isn’t an app, it’s still likely to die sooner than the rest of the components. Board games can last decades, but software and hardware these days often fail much more quickly than that. On the other hand, this can be considered an opportunity for manufactures in the board game industry – one that comes at the customer’s expense – as players who wish to keep using the game will need to buy a new copy or an updated edition, creating more sales opportunities for the vendors. Apps can also be a way of limiting or preventing used game sales: if access to the app comes from a one-use code in the game, someone who gets the game second-hand will need to buy a new copy in order to access the app. Alternatively, the app could come free with the game but also be available separately for a price, allowing for future app sales if the game changes hands.
Technology and the future of the board game industry
The swift progression of technology brings benefits as well as drawbacks. The technology that’s already making game design and production more accessible to individuals and small companies is constantly becoming more sophisticated and affordable. 3D printing continues to improve, and advances in technology will allow for more people to produce better prototypes and finished products with it. Some people will still prefer purely physical versions of board games as a way to take a break from all the screens and electronics in their lives, but there’s no doubt that technology is bringing value to both board game developers and players.
Learn more about the global board game industry with Technavio’s market research report:
- Detailed information on factors that will accelerate the growth of the board games market during the next five years
- Precise estimation of the global board games market size and its contribution to the parent market
- Accurate predictions on upcoming trends and changes in consumer behavior
- The growth of the board game industry across various geographies such as APAC, Europe, MEA, North America, and South America
- A thorough analysis of the market’s competitive landscape and detailed information on several vendors
- Comprehensive details on factors that will challenge the growth of board games companies