Our initial survey of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers in the hobby games business found most experiencing growth in 2017, with some big shifts in where the growth was coming from when compared with previous years.  We estimate based on those interviews that sales in the hobby channel was up about 5% in 2017, with the caveat that our initial estimates can end up with some adjustment after our full market size analysis later in the year.

While the overall trend was positive, there were some big shifts in the business, with the collectible games category slumping toward the end of the year and board games and RPGs growing rapidly.

With some hobby game categories moving in different directions, increasing competition, and the impact of counterfeiting, the range of what industry players were reporting was wide, depending on their viewpoints and situations.

"It was good," Paul Butler of Games and Stuff in Glen Burnie, MD, said, "better than the previous year, although business has shifted.  There’s some shuffling as far as where those dollars are coming from."  He mentioned, as did most of our respondents, a decline in sales of Magic: The Gathering, especially in the second half of the year.

On the downside were retailers like Mike Banks of Samurai Comics, with three stores in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area, who noted increased competition from big box stores, from Amazon, and from the growing number of game stores in 2017.  "You’re always running up against the big box retailers," he said, also noting the perennial problem of online price competition.  "People come in, ‘Wow, this is really a great game. It's $60. I'm going to pull my phone out.  Hey, I can order that right now on Amazon for 40 bucks and have it delivered to my house tomorrow.’"

Banks’ experience reflects a macro trend:  the places where consumers can buy hobby games is increasing rapidly, and that’s happening across multiple fronts.  The number of stores devoted to hobby games increased substantially last year, with stores focused on card games the fastest-growing format.  Stores from other product categories are also adding hobby games, from independent retailers and small chains to big box stores like Best Buy, which now stocks a selection of hobby games in its stores.  And with more storefronts carrying games, there are also more places online to buy hobby games, on store sites, through Amazon resellers, on eBay, or on sites like Massdrop.

Compounding the problems associated with deep discounts online has been the rapid increase in the number of counterfeit games being sold online to North American customers; as the demand has increased, so has the amount of counterfeit merchandise.  Games with cardboard components are the first targets, but increasingly games with plastic miniatures are also being counterfeited.

Predicting what will happen in 2018 was a difficult exercise for the industry players we interviewed, with the collectible games market choppy, and unprecedented numbers of releases in board and miniature games.

The board game category is where the greatest levels of uncertainty lie.  Although we’ve been hearing concerns about the number of board game releases for years, there’s now a widespread view that a shakeout is at hand.

Multiple distributors expressed the idea that there would be fewer board game releases this year, which would help the market.  And all of that leads to a slower growth rate.  "The growth rate’s going to be more realistic this year than the crazy growth we’ve had the last five years," Southern Hobby Supply VP-Sales Brad Wagoner predicted.

RPGs are widely seen to still be on a big up-curve, although the small size of the market limits the impact on the overall market.

The net of all this brings us back to considerable uncertainty on the hobby games market in 2018; regardless, the momentum of a nine-year run is remarkable, and is likely changing the profile of the business for a long time to come.

For the full-length version of this article for Pro subscribers, click here.

Here are links to ICv2's charts of the Top Hobby Games across five categories for Fall (September-December 2017), which first appeared in Internal Correspondence #93:
Top Collectible Games--Fall 2017
Top 10 Hobby Channel Board Games--Fall 2017
Top 10 Hobby Channel Card and Dice Games--Fall 2017
Top 5 Non-Collectible Miniature Games--Fall 2017
Top 5 Roleplaying Games--Fall 2017

For info on how to get your copy of ICv2’s Internal Correspondence #93, with the full market reports, Pick Hits of the best upcoming releases, and features, see "ICv2 Releases ‘Internal Correspondence’ #93."