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12 Jun

Why is everyone into board games all of a sudden?

I've wanted to play Shasn since the board game was released. But buying the game without being sure how often I would play it to justify the expense has made me rethink the decision every time the thought of buying it has crossed my mind.

You could be a board game aficionado who regularly hosts game nights and finds value in buying board games. And then, the expense would be a worthwhile investment.

But even then, you may often find yourself unable to host game nights as frequently as you would like to. Because board games are fun only when four or more people show up. And it is bloody difficult to match schedules with a group of adult working professionals.

But imagine you turned this into a business and now had a board game parlour.

At some point during the week, the board games you bought would get used by a group of friends from college, two people on a date, or a stray bunch of work colleagues. You would have to take care of a few things:

  • Keep the board game in good condition
  • Facilitate the gameplay and the environment
  • Build a good curation of board games

Oh, and if your cafe is a newly opened parlour in the city, you'd have to figure out how to spread awareness. But that might not be such a big hiccup either. Well, for one, you could do the first few game sessions at a rented open space. Turning it into a business solves three things:

  • You can now amortize the cost of the board game across many people to who you rent it out to
  • Hosting board game sessions is easier if you cater to groups of people other than those you personally know
  • The parlour can afford to have a wider collection board games, as compared to one person

It is an investment that promises recurring returns. Every use of the game means part of the money is recovered, and even after breaking even, you keep making money on the investment. The last time I went to a board game parlour, I paid ₹80 per person per hour in total. The game parlour also had the option to buy a personal full-day pass. I learned that this pricing strategy more or less applies across most board game parlours.

Additionally, there are some emergent upselling opportunities created when you start a parlour, like a cafe or bar for drinks and snacks. If you are enjoying the game, you continue playing. If not, you can replace it at no extra cost. And most game plays last between 40 minutes to an hour. But because group outings are usually a rare occurrence, you're likely to stay at the venue for 3 hours, sometimes even more. After all, everyone in the group has made the effort to commute, match schedules, and try out something new or get back to an activity they enjoy.

And the longer you stay, the more of value-added services you buy, generating more income for the host.So, in my view, this resurgence makes total economic sense.

But of course, supply in any industry is driven by demand, and the demand for board games has a few interesting cultural factors driving it.

Getting together for an evening of playing a board game is now considered an experience and a fun social activity. Now, playing board games with friends might sound pretty mainstream and not like an “experience” at all to someone in the 90s, but consider that things are always evaluated in terms of contrast. Board games, today, are a special experience because they stand out against the backdrop of ubiquitous and dull social media engagement that has stopped being novel.

Offline experiences, then, stand in stark contrast to this incessant background buzz of online chatter that hardly inspires any dopaminergic release.

Additionally, board games can create opportunities to make new friends. A friend wants to bring along another one of his friends and soon enough, you have a new friend. It's always easier to make friends within the context of an engaging activity. Sparing each other the small talk and getting right down to the brass tacks inspires richer engagement and discovery. Add food, drink, gossip, and lighthearted fighting and banter to the mix and you have a potent combo for developing new friendships.

Another cultural factor driving this resurgence is that when you climb up the economic ladder and have more expendable income, you want to indulge in experiences that help you both signal and leverage your economic status.

Naturally, you will find that your interests and consumption widen once you start earning over and above a certain threshold. You find yourself investing in experiences not necessarily because you want to but because you can.

And today, social media, news listicles, influencers, curators, and city groups are flush with cultural signals that promote newer experiences, not just products.

Ever so often, I notice a Sip and Paint event, a vinyl record listening session, a house gig, and a Catan night being promoted on a city group for newcomers. Entry for all of these sessions is usually upwards of ₹300 per person.

And I think the reason why such experiential events are suddenly all around us is based on the fact that it signals a unique set of aspirations.

When you were a child, for the longest time you were happy going to birthday parties hosted at someone’s house serving chips, cake, and cola. But as you grew older, you noticed how some people now hosted their birthday parties at a McDonald’s or a Pizza Hut. You now wished to host your friends at a McDonald’s for your next birthday bash. Likewise, this aspiration to experience something new and better is consistent across every generation and age group.

In the past decade, we've witnessed a craze around traveling as a way to signal freedom and project being cool and hip. With offline socializing, we are witnessing a similar transition. A certain class of people is moving further from experiences revolving around just food and alcohol. There is an aspiration to socialize within activities that help one differentiate oneself from the convention of the times.

In Mumbai, Doolally Taproom promoted the idea of board games over drinks. Soon, more restaurants, and bars saw why that made sense and started hosting game events or sessions that wouldn’t just be limited to food and drinks.

In fact, it made sense for them to host events that had nothing to do with their prime offering because it meant larger groups of people spending more time at their outlet, and not just viewing the restaurant as a place to just come and have a few drinks. It increased the touch points a consumer had with the venue. And it brought in additional revenue via the rent the organizers paid Doolally for hosting these events. More customers wanted food and drinks but within the context of new experiences, and that is what more venues started offering.

You see, once you can create an aspiration around doing a certain activity, it lends itself to a generation of new business offerings.

So, should we all quit our jobs and open up a board game parlour?

Well, I am no one to stop you, but the point to note here is that culture and signalling drive a lot of economics, especially in the recreational goods and services segment. As more and more citizens ascend the economic ladder, the shift will also bring along a new set of businesses that we may not have heard of but will come to exist.

As for me, I look forward to studying cultural trends, predicting what businesses might pop up based on those, and documenting how these businesses and subsequent industries shape up in the years to come.

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