Board Game Supply Chain Basics

28 August 2017

I tried to think of a sexier name for this post, but I didn’t want to mislead anyone into thinking this is more exciting than it actually is.

A few days ago, someone wrote to me with a question about the basics of the board game supply chain. As it turns out, even though I discuss these different elements on various blog posts, I never link them all together in one place. Until today.

Here’s the supply chain list, roughly in order of operations. This system may vary depending on the publisher.

  1. Publisher (the person/company who coordinates the creation of the product, along with project management, marketing/advertising, and customer service; e.g., Stonemaier Games): The publisher is the lynchpin for the entire process, as most of what they do is outsourced.
  2. Manufacturer (the company that coordinates, prints, creates, and assembles the product; e.g., Panda Game Manufacturing): Most manufacturers do some amount of printing in house, but they often outsource the creation of specific components to a variety of different factories. This results in a key parts of their job being the vetting of those different factories and the final quality check and assembly.
  3. Freight Shipper (the company that coordinates the shipment of the product using boats and trucks; e.g., OTX Logistics): Freight shipping companies typically don’t own the boats or trucks; they just coordinate that process.
  4. Distribution Broker (the company that coordinates the storage, sale, and shipping of games to distributors; e.g., Greater Than Games): This step varies quite a bit depending on the company. Larger companies have their own warehouses and sell directly to distributors. Kickstarter-driven and direct-to-consumer companies will often have most of their inventory shipped to fulfillment centers that package and ship their rewards to backers. A distribution broker acts on behalf of a publisher to handle transactions with distributors, especially if the publisher wants to sell to many distributors around the world.
  5. Distributor (the company that sells and ships games to retail stores; e.g., Peachstate Hobby): Distributors buy games in bulk, usually at a 60% discount. They have specialized inventory systems to deal with an array of orders from hundreds or thousands of retailers each week, as well as sales and warehousing staff.
  6. Retailer (the company that sells games to consumers; e.g., Game Nite): Other than the publisher itself, retailers are the only entity in the supply chain that sell games directly to consumers. Retailers can be online, local, or both. Unlike some other industries, if a retailer stocks a game that doesn’t sell, they’re stuck with it–they can’t return it to the distributor or publisher.
  7. Consumer (the person who buys the product): Even though the consumer is at the very end of the supply chain, they actually have the most power. If a consumer wants a product, all they have to do is tell their preferred retailer. A good retailer will try to buy the product from a distributor. If the distributor doesn’t have it, they’ll often tell the distribution broker or publisher that there’s a demand for the product, which can be the catalyst for a new print run.

One observation as I wrote this: The entire supply chain relies heavily on trucks. Trucks are the connection between each of steps 2-7. Fortunately, truck drivers are decentralized, meaning that the system still works even if some truckers stop working. But if anything causes ALL truckers to stop working for even a short amount of time, the entire system grinds to a halt. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Is there anything you’d like to add to or clarify in these descriptions?

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12 Comments on “Board Game Supply Chain Basics

    1. There are MANY other elements to what creates a board game (see the list on the “hidden job” post linked at the bottom of the article), one of which is the game designer. They’re not part of the supply chain, though.

  1. Sorry, that was my poor attempt at humor. I agree that the designer isn’t really part of the supply chain. It just can feel like it sometimes when, like you said in the “hidden job” post, that the game designer title is really “Project Manager”.

  2. Great post, it was an easy to read breakdown of the system. Even though they were mentioned, fulfillment centers may have been a good idea to throw in there. Also, what if you are a self-publisher, new, through kickstarter and you may not be working with a distributor or retailer in this traditional sense? One way that I saw it was either selling it yourself through your store, Amazon, etc. Obviously you will not reach the same variety of places, (I guess Amazon is a leading retailer, but you know what I mean). Would the steps then be from Publisher to Manufacturer to fulfillment or own retail system to Consumer? Just looking at a common alternate from a traditional method. I digress- good post :)

    -Austin

    1. Austin: Definitely, I agree that fulfillment centers play a huge role in any company that accepts pre-orders or runs a Kickstarter campaign. Amazon can serve that role through multi-channel fulfillment (though you can also list products on Amazon and ship them from other fulfillment centers). I explored that method early on but moved away from it.

  3. The role of the distributor broker would be an interesting segment of the supply chain to learn more about. I’m not sure I’ve seen much about it online and as a self publisher about to launch a campaign I’m definitely interested in learning more about how independent publishers get their games into distribution, especially if there are partners who help expedite or simplify that process!

    Thanks Jamey!

    1. Looks like I just got ninja’d! Or I took way too long to write my one paragraph post. Either way, I fully agree with the above curiosity.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of comments lately (maybe because I’ve been listening to a lot of varying views) about newer publishers using Kickstarter not actually being able to make relationships with distributors for their product(s) to set up a supply chain after running a Kickstarter. Basically steps 4-7 break down. Maybe it would belong with a completely different blog post but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the struggle that some new publishers seem to have there and how to bridge that gap.

  5. Rob and Alex: Those are good questions about distributor relationships. The simplest answer is the one I mention above: If you can get on board with a distribution broker like Impressions or PSI, they will handle those distributor relationships, transactions, etc. That’s what I do.

    However, a broker needs to be confident that they can sell your game. They look at factors like the success of the Kickstarter project, the BGG rating, and your post-KS sales. They might even look at early reviews. So I think the key is to get people playing and rating your game a early as possible, even if it’s just the PnP. Then use your advance copies to send to reviewers and then to distribution brokers. Oh, and make enough games to enter distribution! If you make 1200 games for Kickstarter and only 300 for distribution, it’s not really worth the time or effort of the broker and the distributors to invest in it.

  6. You’re missing the shipping companies and the ports – it is very easy for the supply chain to be disrupted there since there are so few major shipping routes all operated by a few companies or controlled by unions. Two events directly affected us, the LA port strike that delayed containers almost 6 months and affected everyone from Walmart to Apple, and the Hanjin bankruptcy which also had economy wide effects.

    1. Sure, they’re noted under Step 3 in the post. I consider freight shipping to be everything that happens from when the games leave the factory in China to when they show up at your warehouse (trucking from the factory to port, getting on the boat, shipping across the ocean, getting off the boat, getting through customs), getting on a truck, then being driven to the warehouse).

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