I received the nicest e-mail from a publisher yesterday thanking me for taking the time to write these, and wanting to talk about how to get his games on these best sellers lists. It was nice to have someone both say they were learning from my little project here, and to ask how he can do things better with his company.
As this person has made one of my favorite games ever I was happy to offer my thoughts on why some things are harder to sell than others. So, I went back to those Top 20 lists from the last two years and tried to figure out how games ended up on the list.
Best-Selling Board Games by Dollars - 2016
1. Settlers of Catan
4. Star Wars Imperial Assault Base Game
5. Lords of Waterdeep
6. Star Wars Rebellion
7. Colt Express
8. Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow's Walk
9. Ticket to Ride
10. 7 Wonders
11. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulu
13. Power Grid
14. Ticket to Ride: Europe
15. Ticket to Ride: Rails & Sails
16. King of Tokyo
17. Jim Henson's Labyrinth
18. Carcassonne Base Game
20. The Legend of Drizzt
This list is the product of a simple, and poor, philosophy, on board gaming.
"Buy everything, do no work, see what happens."
Two games on this list saw demo table time last year; Splendor and Lords of Waterdeep. Lords of Waterdeep is a favorite around here, so we stuck it on the demo table a few times last year. Splendor still gets some demo table on a "regular" basis, in that if I'm out of something on my demo table chances are good I drop Splendor in that space with no thought whatsoever. We have a demo, and Splendor is in stock.
It is worth discussing those demo tables last year as well. You see, at the time I was buying too much crap and using tables to store things. Last year I had a new release table, it was the first thing you saw when you walked in one of the two doors. Now, those new releases are on a fixture, you still see them pretty much instantly, but the two tables that used to be covered with boxes are now two more tables that I put demos on.
During 2016 I think we typically had two demo tables up.
Look at what changed in 2017.
Best-Selling Board Games by Dollars - 2017 1. Dark Souls: The Board Game 2. Settlers of Catan 3. Bunny Kingdom 4. Used Board Games 5. Ethnos 6. Betrayal at House on the Hill 7. Star Wars Imperial Assault Base Game 8. Mountains of Madness 9. Star Wars Rebellion 10. Colt Express 11. Splendor 12. 7 Wonders 13. Element 14. Pandemic Legacy S2: Yellow 15. Lords of Waterdeep 16. Small World 17. King of Tokyo 18. Kingdomino 19. CLANK! 20. Castle Panic
A lot of these saw time on my expanded demo tables this year. Right now I'm looking out at a store that as six demo tables (it was five, but I added the Renegade table to the store last week), and you can see Ex Libris, Bunny Kingdom, Clans of Caledonia, Mountains of Madness, QueenDomino, and Onitama on my demo tables right now.
Of these top 20, eight of them saw some time on my demo tables during 2017. In 2017 my board game focus became less of a shotgun approach to buying some of every new release, and more a laser tight focus on buying things I was confident in. This change in ordering techniques allowed me to do something that I look at now as an absolute gift from the heavens.
When you're buying everything, and don't have tons and tons of money laying around, you end up being wide and shallow. This shallowness means you might sell the one or two copies of the hot game you bought, but if it was really hot, you're not restocking it at all. Some other retailer, either because they properly identified the hit, or because they have deep enough pockets to be both wide and deep, has already beaten you to the rest of them.
I used to, incorrectly in my opinion, believe that width added legitimacy. It's the book store approach to retail. You wander into a Barnes & Noble and you see thousands of book titles that move one or two copies a year, and a New York Times Bestseller list that sells a hundred copies a week. Barnes & Noble carries all that random chaff so that you think of them when you need some obscure classic, hoping that while you're there you'll buy the newest title in whatever the hit YA series is as well.
This approach to board games leaves you with dozens, if not hundreds, of dead titles that you'll be trying to get out from under at the end of the year so you don't have to pay taxes on them being in your inventory on January 1st. This approach might snag you some random one-of sales, but it will cost you sales of other things.
Every time you buy one copy of six different $50 board games that you hope sell, you miss out on the chance to buy six copies of one $50 board game that you know will sell. You also reward people for making a game that maybe they shouldn't have made at all.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, tighten up those ordering practices. That's not true just in board games, but it's true with Magic these days as well. We no longer need to purchase a 90 day supply of Magic, tying up crucial cash flow, when most products are readily available to restock the following week, and the following week, and all the way out to that 90 days you thought you needed to buy.
So, for those of you have asked since yesterday, the strength of board gaming is on your demo tables. Demo tables are the type of space that you take something with a little buzz that you might have bought six of, and you turn it in 24 copies of sales. A well-curated demo selection means that you can make any customer feel comfortable with something that is on a demo table.
In Onitama I have an abstract strategy game. If someone liked Element, or heck, chess, I show them Onitama.
In Mountains of Madness I have a co-op board game with some cool RPG elements. This past weekend I sold copies to two distinctly different gamers off that table. One customer bought it purely because he thought the madness cards would be awesome to see role-played in his gaming group, and one customer purchased it because her husband will only play coop games with their group of friends. They both looked at the same demo table, and the game filled a different need for each of them.
QueenDomino is lightweight and quick, and an easy demo. It's also a brain-dead easy sale to players of KingDomino, which is on my list up above.
Ex Libris is a set collection game that I recommend to people who tell me they like Ticket to Ride, or Jaipur. It shares enough in common with other set collection games that they feel comfortable, and is different enough that I get to show them a new mechanic, like 'Banned Books', which add a wrinkle to the set collection game, the set you don't want to collect.
Bunny Kingdom is where I've been taking people who enjoy 7 Wonders, or Sushi Go, or any number of other drafting games. At it's core Bunny Kingdom is a card drafting and area control game, so if people enjoy those types of games it's easy to sell them the beautiful components in Bunny Kingdom.
Much like I try to set aside one table for something abstract, and one table for something light weight, I also try to set aside one table for a big heavyweight game that might be more difficult to actually demo. Those games have met with mixed results. Being able to show off The Godfather didn't result in me moving the units I expected to move, but so far I've been very happy with Clans of Caledonia on the demo table. Sometimes you really need to see all the components that make a game like that a wonder to behold. That space is where I show off the in depth concepts of financial play and worker placement games, because a majority of the worker placement games we've succeeded with are heavier.
I try to find a table for each of those things these days, and it's been a serious driver in our tremendous board game growth.
Buy fewer new things, and more of the new things that you're sure will succeed.
Curate your demo tables. This is the space that takes a game that's good and makes it great in your store. Have enough of them that you can make a large variety of customers happy, and keep them from being too similar, because it's harder to sell a customer a game when they can't choose between demo table A and demo table B and can't afford two fifty dollar games.
Also make sure to vary the price selections on your demo tables. My demo tables currently go from $30 to $75, with various price points in between. This helps gift-givers stay in their budget.
If you're looking for future demo table ideas I'm happy to share some of mine. In the coming days we will be putting Favelas (WizKids) on a demo table. As soon as it arrives we'll be putting Cursed Court (Atlas) on a demo table. Next week I'll be putting Charterstone (Stonemaier Games) on a table, the first time I've been able to get one of their games, at release, in a quantity that makes me want to demo it.
I expect it'll be tough to demo, but I've been told I can lead people through a first turn without ruining anything, which is nice because it'll be my personal copy on the table.
We have to, in order to pay our bills and succeed, be better at this than mass. It's easy to say that Barnes & Noble or Target are hurting us, but if you pick the right games, and know how to sell them, you can have a ton of success in this segment of the hobby gaming market. What works on your demo tables could very well be different than what works for me, because the primary drivers of sales off your demo tables are two things; product knowledge, and product excitement.
Pick things you love, and things you know, and watch your demo tables succeed.