Australia’s tabletop game industry is thriving, with local developers and publishers putting out new board, card, and role-playing games all the time. Many developers and publishers converge on conventions such as PAX to connect directly with potential consumers and retailers alike.
Jake Nelson explores the benefits for Australian retailers in stocking locally-developed games.
Held every year in Melbourne, PAX Australia is one of the biggest pop culture events in the country, with people flying in from around the world to visit its array of panels and its expo hall, which features displays from big companies selling video games and accessories.
Off in its own hall though, is what I’ve come to see: the tabletop gaming section.
Here, away from the big screens, dark lighting and thumping music of the main hall, are stalls selling all kinds of board games; card games; role-playing games; and accessories like dice and playmats.
Here, games enjoying their first turn in the public eye – the developers manning their own booths in order to sell direct to the public or catch the eye of companies such as Good Games, one of the largest hobby game retailers and distributors in Australia, which has its own stand at the show.
A big drawcard for these independent developers is the PAX Collaboratory: a space where designers can bring and playtest prototypes of their games with the public.
Ben Harnwell, secretary of industry association Tabletop Game Designers Australia (TGDA), which has a stand right next to the Collaboratory, estimates that a total of 45 games are being playtested here across the weekend.
"Some of them here are almost ready – if they could ramp up production, they could be for sale tomorrow," Harnwell says.
"It’s all about getting that early feedback, or late feedback, from real live gamers; it’s a bit of a promo, too, for games that are about to go to Kickstarter."
Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have been a real boon for independent game developers – and retailers are taking notice as developers add special retailer-exclusive pledge levels to their campaigns, Harnwell says.
"It’s hard to get noticed by the larger retailers, because they’re about shifting large numbers, so they want huge amounts of stock to be able to do it. But there are some great smaller independent retailers who are happy to back retail levels on Kickstarter.
"We actually have a developer con which we held on Thursday just before PAX, and we heard directly from retailers who were telling us, ‘give us a level on Kickstarter that we can back and that we can get a number of items from’," he says.
Steve Dee, owner of local game design company Tin Star Games, is testing his new reflex-based word game Snatchphrase in the Collaboratory.
His all-ages card game Baby Dragon Bedtime is on sale at the TGDA’s stand, while Relics: A Game of Angels, his tabletop roleplaying game which raised just over $26,400 on Kickstarter in May, is set to release around the end of the year and is being showcased as part of the role-playing section of the tabletop hall.
Dee tells me that he has used PAX this year to reach out to distributors about getting his games into their systems to be sold on into stores. The Australian industry is still growing, he says, with Good Games’ publishing wing being the only major tabletop publisher in the country.
"They’re always looking for good Australian games to invest in, but there’s only so much they can do – they usually only make one or two games a year.
"The industry is quite small, even globally, and it’s smaller in Australia. But there are increasing opportunities now, and we’re looking at ways to try and attract people to the idea that these games are Australian made.
"We think there is a market in that, where people will go, 'oh, these games were made in Australia,' just like they do with video games," he says.
Over at the Good Games stand, managing director Paul VanDerWerk tells me he’s seen plenty of interest in Australian-made games.
"Australia for a long time really didn’t have too many games published in the board game arena. In the last five or so years, it’s grown significantly, and our customers really appreciate that.
"It’s becoming easier to sell locally-made games – there’s several distributors who will back them. Retailers should get behind them, and market them as Australian made. The customers will love it, and they’ll get better sales," he says.
Harnwell agrees, saying that Australian game designers and Australian toy and hobby retailers can enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
"A rising tide lifts all boats, so if retailers support Australian-made games, we can support their industry and offer more diversity of products – it’ll increase their stock and their turnover as well.
"Shelf space is at a premium, and they don’t want to be stocking games that won’t move – but if you’re backing an Australian designer, then they’ll have an Australian component of fans and followers who’ll be after their game. If you can make it easier for their fans to buy from your business, you’ll make more money.
"Plus they’re just simply better," he laughs.