Last week we looked at some of the recent trends seen at Gen Con 50. If you didn’t see the full post you can check it out here.

Gen Con, and similar events, offer industry insiders and amateur hobbyists the chance to see where the hobby of tabletop is headed. It’s a singular place where creators and companies can show their latest innovations and designs, and a great chance to measure our progress across the previous year. The opportunity to look at how far we’ve come is amazing – but even more important than this can be the chance to look ahead at the possibilities that could emerge in the future.

On the blog today we look ahead to the near and distant future of our hobby, considering some of the potential changes that current trends indicate might be pointing to.

Digital integration

A handful of games already show the potential for digital integration within the tabletop industry. Beasts Of Balance, the family-oriented animal stacking game, uses an ipad app to turn a tactile game of balance into a lateral-thinking animal crossbreeding puzzle. Mansions Of Madness (second addition), by Fantasy Flight Games, brings its Lovecraftian world alive with an excellent integrated companion app. XCom, based on the hugely popular alien-blasting video game series, uses an app to act out the games mechanics (not perfectly but certainly in an admirable way).

Beast of Balance

Apps and other digital elements already exist in tabletop, but are often limited by developer’s willingness to sink money into their development. As it stands many developers simply can’t justify the cost of apps, which can be expensive, and often could be emulated just as well by a physical component instead.

However, as more and more developers look to stand out above the crowd, and as access to digital creation tools becomes easier the entry level for companion apps and similar elements becomes easier and easier. As it becomes easier and more appealing to create supplementary or integrated apps, it’s likely we’ll see digital integration coming not just from larger companies but from smaller independents too.

3D printing

We wrote already about the transformative effect 3D printing could have on the industry in a blog post last month (read the full thing here). The technology is an amazing and fascinating look at how people across the world could be interacting with products and objects of all kinds. The implications of 3D printing are huge, and bound to be absolutely world changing, but it’s rare that experts on the subject look at the leisure possibilities too.

3D printing is likely to have a huge impact on the production of board games, and especially on the production of miniatures and components that are traditionally mass manufactured rather than created in small batches. Games that are heavy on miniatures, like Warhammer, Scythe, Zombicide or Mechs Vs. Minions are something only large scale companies are able to produce. But with lowered costs brought about by a home printing revolution the future could mean dozens of independent miniatures games giving new meaning to the term ‘print & play’.

Diversity on all fronts

A quick glance at the Gen Con program shows a host of events fronted largely (though not entire) by a typical collection of people. Diversity in the board games industry is a well-known issue rarely talked about – as again and again events and the community is largely dominated by a certain group of people.

But recent years have shown a trend away from the ‘stale male & pale’ as the industry and the hobby opens up to new creators, designers and enthusiasts. Board game meet ups are no longer entirely dominated by middle aged men in pubs, and the growing diversity is being seen in all areas of the hobby. The industry too is also expanding (although somewhat slower) to include people of all backgrounds.

This year saw the second annual Kenyan Board Games Con, the largest West African board games gathering ever. And 2017 also saw a notable shift in the diversity of designers and makers – as well as marked efforts from within the board game community to address issues of racial or gender biases and form meaningful solutions. In recent years board games have lagged behind other medias in our diversity and approach to inclusion. But this is quickly changing, with a wave of progressive efforts helping shift the hobby into something open and inclusive to all.

A global industry  

As already mentioned, board game events have broken out in recent years beyond the cluster of European and North American events that they existed in for decades. Now, there are events and gatherings dedicated to tabletop in almost every continent (you’re next, Antarctica) in countries across the world.

Kickstarter campaigns proudly advertise their readiness to ship to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and China where they once only focused on Australia, Canada or the US. And as international companies begin expanding into recently untouched markets board games as a whole are becoming an international industry, rather than several insular self-contained systems. And with the actual shipping and production becoming international so too does the design and creation of games.

Already we are seeing small and independent companies with productions that span the globe. Our own upcoming project, for example, is a creative collaboration with input from the UK, China, Iceland and the US.

As more and more companies move from small and national scales to international this trend will continue to grow and grow. The future of board games is likely to be one in which leading games don’t just make a splash in a handful of countries, but across the world. A future in which designers and creators of all backgrounds and nationalities are able to bring their games to players across the world.

Like videogames, films and other forms of media board games are set to evolve into an industry where the biggest and most successful names are available to the entire world, and not just their country of origin. Unlike most other forms of media however, board games have the possibility to achieve this while remaining small and independent projects.

A shift in the markets

But the evolution into a globalised market isn’t the only market shift that looks set for the tabletop industry. As it stands the industry is stratified into two main tiers, namely the huge international companies like Hasbro, Fantasy Flight Games and IELLO, and hundreds of small independent companies like ITB. These small companies are often as small as a single person, but thanks to platforms like Kickstart are able to create games that compete with massive corporations in terms of appeal and sales.

As independents grow in their reach and ambition the market share of giant corporations is slowly shrinking over time. This shrinking is leading companies to adapt their business models, and make huge changes in order to stay competitive. Look for example to Games Workshop, the once-leading giant of miniature wargaming who in 2015 completely overhauled their Warhammer franchise with the Age Of Sigmar system in an attempt to appeal to new players and remain competitive.

Big companies like these have the financial security to try new ideas in small ways – but are often cautious about taking innovative approaches to their games. The freedom to fail doesn’t always extend to the freedom to experiment – and it’s in these experimental approaches that small independent companies really succeed.

Without knowing the long-term plans of the massive companies that wield the biggest influence in the industry it’s hard to give a fully comprehensive prediction of the future of tabletop. What we can say for certain though, is that many companies that are on top currently won’t be forever. As small companies grow we may see an industry divided by many more medium-sized companies. Or we may see an industry structured much the same as it is now. We may even see the ‘Kickstarter crash’ that some industry insiders have predicted, spending the likely end of the independent renaissance.

As interested and fun to think about as the actual games that may emerge in the future the way in which we receive these games is a far bigger factor in the future of our hobby. Not just what we’re playing, but the way in which we buy these products is the most important trend to watch. As market shares and company successes shift and evolve we will begin also to see new approaches to design, marketing, distribution and retail changing the way we play games forever.

Tom Ana is an art history student at SOAS, University of London and the Communications Intern for ITB Board Games.