The Thriving Business of German Board Games

In the digital era where videogames are a multibillion dollar industry board games have surprisingly kept pace. Between Spring 2016 and Spring 2017, U.S. sales of board games grew by 28% and revenues are expected to rise at a similar rate into the early 2020s.

Much of this growth is attributed to the change of targeted audiences by board game makers from children to adults, specifically young adults. Low-overhead, social, card games such as “Cards Against Humanity,” “Secret Hitler,” and “Exploding Kittens” have sold exceptionally well. Kickstarter has become one of the catalytic platforms for the expansion of board games where anyone with a great idea and a contact at an industrial printing company can circumvent the usual toy-and-retail gatekeepers who decide which games live and those which remain mere concepts. The largest project category on Kickstarter is “Games” of which board games make up around 75%.

Growth has been particularly swift for a subgenre of “hobby” board games, e.g., “Settlers of Catan,” which are aimed at more serious gamers.  Settlers of Catan, a multiplayer board game, was initially designed by Klaus Teuber and first published by Franckh-Kosmos Verlag as Die Siedler von Catan in 1995. While it took more than a decade to achieve notoriety, the board game has become one of the first German-style board games to achieve popularity outside of Europe.

By 2015, the game had sold more than 22 million copies in 30 different languages. Games like Settlers of Catan, when compared with games like Monopoly and Cards Against Humanity, represent a niche market, but a market which is becoming more than a niche. According the hobby and collectibles trade publication ICv2, sales of hobby board games in the U.S. and Canada increased from an estimated $75 million to $305 million between 2013 and 2016.

One of the striking differences between North American and German board games becomes apparent when looking at the latter half of the 20th century. Successful American board games such as Risk, Axis & Allies, Star Fleet Battles and Victory in the Pacific typically paid homage to the World Wars, which for obvious reasons, wasn’t a realistic model for Germans who grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich.

So what makes Germany so attractive to board game designers and enthusiasts? One of the genre’s most famous present-day designers, Phil Ecklund, tells how he had not really hit his stride until he migrated from the US to Germany. In the 1970s he became frustrated with the narrow, child-oriented state of board games in the US. In an interview Ecklund stated: “One of the reasons I came to this country [Germany] is because I knew it was the place where people take board games really seriously. The designers have status. They put their name on the box, and people will buy based on their reputation.”