September 18, 2021

Global Shipping’s Impact on Tabletop Gaming

Brant Guillory, 23 August 2021

Global freight has become a major logistical issue for many companies. Where large conglomerates are better able to absorb market uncertainties in that global freight market, tabletop game publishers, especially the smaller ones, are facing a significant crisis. Some are even threatened with the potential closure of their companies if the cost increases stretch too much further into the next year.

As an example of how freight is impacting games, our Car Wars Sixth Edition project required five containers (all on the water, and slowly making their way to our primary warehouse) that each cost over 3x more than they would have if the game had shipped in 2020. – SJGames.com

For the past 2-3 months, there have been discussions and examples in website posts from people like Stonemeier Games and Steve Jackson Games as well as Twitter threads from a variety of people in the game industry.  These all paint a challenging picture of the current freight environment and the logistical hurdles the companies are now having to clear in order to provide the promised products to their customers.

The default refrain for people discussing overseas freight for tabletop game printing is that production in China is cheaper, and therefore the combination of overseas printing plus freight ends up being less than the cost of stateside production. Rather than build on those assumptions with our investigation into freight on the hobby, we went straight to the publishers to ask about how the current freight crisis is affecting them for both production scheduling and cost.

Armchair Dragoons created an anonymous survey and sent it to a variety of manufacturers in the tabletop gaming space. In return for their candor, we promised them anonymity in their responses. This added to the challenge of attempting to investigate the impact of global freight on non-US game publishers because asking for a location for the publisher might have potentially compromised their anonymity. There are only so many tabletop wargame publishers in Germany, for instance.  Cardboard Edison did a similar survey earlier this summer, but ours focused more on the wargaming companies, as many of them are smaller, and mostly part-time, companies.

The survey asked for their primary types of products, with a limit of the two most common in their responses. That was the only required question we asked of the survey participants. Everything else was completely optional.

Of our respondents, just over half were tabletop board wargaming publishers, and two others were tabletop minis wargaming companies.

There were a total of 9 questions about production schedule, cost, and customers, and 4 open-ended questions for them to provide some depth and nuance around their previous responses.

What we found, quite frankly, changed some of the more common thinking people have about tabletop game production.

Freight1-severity

First of all, virtually every company mentioned that the current freight crisis was going to affect delivery time or cost, or both, over the course of the next 12 to 18 months. That timeline was chosen because those games are likely already printed, in production, or camera-ready at the printers. Those are Kickstarter campaigns that are already completed, where the money is in the publisher’s hands, or p500 projects that have already completed their funding goal, or, quite frankly, completed products sitting on pallets waiting for a boat.

Freight2-NearTerm

Looking beyond 18 months though, companies were a little more optimistic that they may only need to change either cost or budget, and in some cases neither. This is due to the fact that those games are still in development, but have not undergone an actual cost analysis as a part of the preparation for either crowdsourcing or funding for printing. In some cases, companies were able to go ahead and bake in the cost increases in freight prices for games they have not yet announced.

Freight3-MediumTerm

There are, quite frankly, some companies that are legitimately facing an existential crisis with the cost of freight. Something that 2 years ago could be estimated around $2,000 is now upwards of $20,000 or more. That magnitude of increase is not something that a one product company can easily absorb given that the crowdsourcing of those products was likely all of the available capital the company had.

Freight6-FutureProduction

Companies are now torn between losing money on a product, delaying the delivery of the product well past the promised crowdfunding delivery timeline in the hopes that freight costs go down, or simply closing their doors. At least one successfully-Kickstarted RPG product queried the backers’ tolerance for a price increase in the shipping costs (note, that company is not represented in this survey).

In some cases, customers have been tolerant of the delays and the resulting cost challenges. On a conceptual level, many customers understand that the global freight backlog as a result of the pandemic is affecting everyone, not just tabletop games.  With so many companies across the entire spectrum of industry competing for a finite amount of space on a limited number of ships, whose transit times are necessarily affected by the enhanced scrutiny of pandemic related travel, it’s no wonder the law of supply and demand has caused prices to skyrocket. At a certain point, customers’ tolerance and patience are going to be fully expended.

click images to enlarge

The responses, both multiple choice and open-ended, bear out all of these statements.

How well, if at all, do you think customers are aware of the current crisis in the global shipping markets?
Direct impact on them, high awareness, impact on the broader market and manufacturers, low awareness.
We produce for the mass market. Our end customers are oblivious. Our retailers are somewhat aware of it. Our distributors are very worried.
Somewhat. However, many don’t care. They want their toys NOW…and they won’t pay more
I don’t think people really realize that it cuts across all markets. For example, I see it the most at the grocery store. However, I’m not sure all people realize it.
Not at all. Want game! Want game now! You suck not making game now! Waaah!

 

What we were not expecting however, or some of the open-ended responses around overseas manufacturing. The comments about the disparity in production capability between offshore versus onshore printing presses and manufacturing companies showed that even if companies wanted to bring production back to the US to avoid another global freight disruption, domestic manufacturing may not be capable of handling the needs of these companies.

Moreover, moving overseas production to the US would have a limited effect on European-based manufacturers, who would need to ramp up their own domestic production and subsequently deal with a variety of customs, freight, and tariff rules of their own given the fractured nature of the European market.

Domestic production times for the product we had already been producing in the US increased 4x in the last 12 months. The lack of industry infrastructure often makes US production a painful choice, despite this the cost and reliability of global shipping is making it necessary.

What is laid bare by the responses to our survey is that the global freight crisis is unlikely to abate before the end of 2022. How much tolerance the customers will have for these disruptions remains to be seen.

Additionally, it is clear that companies with multi-year production timelines are more well positioned to adjust future production plans to match the current shipping realities in the event that they do not subside anytime soon.

 

How much tolerance, if any, do you think customers have for price changes as a result of changes in global freight?
Which stores are doing well? – Walmart and Dollar Stores – so price is everything
Medium tolerance. They will have to live with it, since inflation will be a fact of life in every economic aspect of life.
I’m not 100% sure customers see price rises unless they are made aware of it purposefully. Most consumers only check price at the point they are looking to buy. This is especially true of shipping charges.
How much tolerance, if any, do you think customers have for schedule changes as a result of changes in global freight?
Some understand, some feel entitled to instant gratification
Most are very tolerant if openly communicated
So far most customers have been very patient. I can’t see that being the case if this continues into 2022.

 

This intuitively makes sense, given that newly-launched companies who crowdsourced an initial product or two are still trying to get those products out to the public and are not looking 4 years into the future at subsequent products, when their current ones aren’t yet off the boat.

The bigger surprise in the survey responses was not that the current global freight reality would level the economic playing field for US-based manufacturers. It was that the US-based manufacturers lack the production capability to compete with overseas manufacturers. The inability to produce comparable products, regardless of cost, was a revelation that most members of the public had likely never considered.

If there’s one giant misconception about overseas production of your games, what do you think it is, and how might you address it?
The difficulty of producing in the US is the barrier: production options are fewer, pricing is higher, production times are longer, quality is equal or lower. Our preference is to produce everything domestically, but that needs to be a practical option and beneficial to our customers.
American made = quality. American producers have refused to invest in new technology. It’s not some Chinese plot: they’re kicking the asses of American printers by making better stuff. Address it? There’s no profit in telling the truth about jingo.
The main misconception is that there are US companies that could do the same production, we just choose overseas. This is simply not true, and although some aspects of a game can be produced in North America, even domestic manufacturers source components overseas.
Many think we produce overseas to save money. Incorrect. We produce overseas to have higher quality games, since the American game market can only produce up to Monopoly quality level games. We actually have to pay more to print overseas.
“Why can’t you produce your games here?” Because the factories simply don’t exist.

 

What happens over the next 3 years? We did not ask our survey respondents to weigh in on global freight challenges beyond just how their individual companies are addressing them. It’s clear that some companies will find a way to weather the storm. It’s also clear that industry Insiders are noting that this crisis could be an extinction level event on par with the ccg crash of the mid-90s, and take several promising new companies off the map alongside a variety of companies that were riding the crowdsourcing hysteria but perhaps were never well positioned to survive any sort of disruption, never mind one this severe.


Brant & Gary discuss this issue on the regular Monday night counter-clipping stream


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

One thought on “Global Shipping’s Impact on Tabletop Gaming

  1. Not disputing your survey – but you can make wargames in the US. We know this because because this is what we do for a bunch of small wargame publishers. Since the components are sourced and made in the US, turnaround time can be very quick. The last Kickstarter we shipped went out a couple of weeks after it closed and we are still waiting for shipping info from some of those backers.

    Now it is true that certain components really are not made in the USA – this is especially true of wooden bits and most plastic components. For those we need to source overseas and shipping times and costs are a concern. But for “traditional” wargames – where you have a box, rules, map, references and countersheets – everything can be (and is) made in the USA. It is also true that there is real inflation in paper products in the last few months, and that is beginning to show up in the prices we pay for our raw materials – paper has not gone up 400% like overseas shipping.

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