Boring Box Games

Sustainability in the board game industry

Researching sustainability in the board game industry, it is clear that while a lot of games have been produced to educate or highlight modern day environmental issues (from global warming, water scarcity, the tragedy of the commons, anthropological impacts on our natural world, and so on), few conversations are being had on developing sustainable practices in the manufacturing of board games. Or at least, few conversations that end in genuinely looking for commercially viable solutions.

Examination of a substantial number of online tabletop game design forums, across Board Game Geek, Reddit, Discord, and more, shows a number of key areas of debate as to the impact of board games on the environment, and whether there is an onus on publishers and consumer to address unsustainable manufacturing practices.

Largely, these arguments are one or a combination of:

  • Board games are more environmentally friendly comparative to any number of other pastimes, so it is not worth the effort
  • Even if we have sustainable materials in manufacturing games, we still have to ship them around the world and that is fossil fuel-reliant
  • The impact is a drop in the ocean of larger ecological issues/board games require no or very little ongoing consumables – they are “one and done”
  • Even wood and paper materials are resource-intensive materials (or on the flipside – “wood is a renewable resource, so it isn’t a problem”)
  • The playable life of a board game is very long, so the use of resources (papers, plastics, metals) is somewhat offset by the prolonged use of the product

It is certainly not helpful to minimise or disregard any of these arguments, from either side. There are genuine concerns and very valid arguments from publishers and consumers to the difficulties involved with swapping out materials used in game manufacturing.

However, improving sustainability practice is not an all-or-nothing game and even incremental improvements are step in a positive direction.

Where to begin? An audit of common materials

Tabletop games contain any number of environmentally unfriendly materials, usually starting with the plastic shrink wrap around the box. But beyond this, there are a wide number of game components (and non-components) that warrant a closer look.

Neoprene mats are becoming popular amongst tabletop gamers. Printed mats are readily available to add to the thematic feel of a game, supplement a game board, or to be used as surface to protect tables from dice rolls and allow cards to slide easily. Neoprene is a synthetic rubber derived from vast amounts of oil drilling and transport, or from mining limestone at great depths. There is currently no way to responsibly dispose of neoprene beyond landfill.

UV coating is extensively used on paper and cardboard components, including game cards, rule books, game boards, and game boxes to protect the surface from stains and marks, give the cards a gloss finish, and allow them to slide over each other more easily. While UV coating is often sold as environmentally friendly when cured, the coating chemicals often include polyethylene, which cannot be easily degraded with microorganisms (for example, when disposed of into soil). Newer water-based/aqueous coatings are commonplace, but those marketing them use terms like “more environmentally friendly”, “the most environmentally friendly”, or “a more eco-friendly option” to traditional varnishes or UV coatings, (see below for biodegradable vs compostable).

Moulded plastic inserts are either the best part of a game, or the bane of a gamer’s existence, depending on how well the components go back in at the end of the game. Some games will make use of boxes or cardstock dividers as an alternative.

Soft plastics in the form ofcomponent bags(or zip-lock bags) are a favourite for many games, particularly where players have colour-coded sets of pieces, making for very efficient setup and pack down. Additionally, non-functional shrink wrap around the outer box, and internal parts such as card decks and even around punch-out cards are near-universal. Soft plastic card sleeves are also very popular among deck builders and other card-driven games, to protect cards from wear and tear.

Hard plastic miniatures, dice, egg timers, and standees are ubiquitous across tabletop gaming, with few viable alternatives. “Eco” resins are available for 3D printing, but are often only environmentally friendly when cured and disregard end-of-life or waste product disposal.

Paint products are commonly used for meeples and other wooden components. Paint manufacture and disposal are both sources of soil and ground-water contaminants, in both solvent and water-based forms. Eco-friendly paints are more readily available, but these need to be carefully selected to strip away marketing jargon and come at a higher cost than traditional paints. Where manufacture of games is not happening locally to the publisher, it would be difficult to determine what products are being used.

Functionally identical components across games such as dice or generic meeples duplicate the use of resources, while being useable across multiple games.

In a single game of Monopoly, there are 32 houses and 12 hotels. Multiplied by the 250 million copies sold, this is more than 11 billion pieces of plastic manufactured. While the game may be replayable or passed on to others to enjoy, each house and hotel will take more than 500 years to break down (into harder-to-deal-with microplastics)

So, do we just get rid of board games?

NO! Absolutely not. The purpose of auditing current practice is to find places where publishers and consumers can do better, while still delivering the value and entertainment of tabletop games. Undoubtedly, there are compromises to be made, in both publishing and consumption, but the gameplay experience should always be a central part of sustainable game design. 

The publisher standpoint

Among game developers, the production cost to use only sustainable materials is either too great (particularly for small, independent, or Kickstarter publishers), is not practical for the required game pieces, is not financially viable for the success of a game or publisher, or is not considered enough of an issue to warrant additional resources devoted to switching from old methods.

Even for those making concerted efforts to minimise or eliminate materials – plastics, neoprene, rubber, token trays, custom-moulded inserts, shrink wrap, and so on – while possible in prototyping and playtest editions, the costs often do not scale well with an increased print run or are not within retailer expectations. Along with added costs, working with sustainable materials such as wood or cardboard in place of plastic, presents durability issues, presenting end-user issues. Low-cost manufacturing and/or extremely cheap components (especially plastics), often out of South East Asia, can be the difference between publishing and not.

Further, materials like wood can present import/export issues for shipping that do not present for plastics.

It truly is a wicked problem.

There are some companies doing fantastic work in the sustainability space, such as Blue Orange Games, who use wood, tin, and recycled/recyclable materials in manufacturing, as well as having a tree planting campaign to offset other business activities, like travel. These are still, unfortunately, in the minority of publishers.

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are a huge growth area for new and indie publishers. The low barriers to entry, high patron engagement on the site, flexible tier options, and features like stretch goals, make these platforms highly attractive for publishers and consumers alike. But thin profit margins and the all-or-nothing funding model mean publishers must deliver high value for money, particularly for large, expensive games. The perception of a cheap or flimsy product, (even where the game is functionally identical to a ‘fancier’ version) can have ramifications for further sales post-campaign. The stakes are high for new publishers trying to make a name in a very crowded space.

In 2019, more than 7000 game projects ran on Kickstarter, with just over 52 per cent of these successfully funding. Costs like artwork, marketing, and third-party manufacturing are often non-negotiable costs, so skimming money from the top of a campaign for more expensive materials must be a careful business decision – it can be a make-or-break budgetary decision which must be made during the design phase.

The consumer standpoint

Among the many reasons people love playing thematic tabletop games is the tactility of the physical game, and how this tactility drives immersion into the theme. Fjællingsdal & Klöckner observe that tabletop games “have the ability to distort and exaggerate reality and generate meaningful experiences for their audience. They also allow players to experiment with a variety of roles in a coherent narrative”. They highlight the relationship between the necessary simplification of reality for a game and the role these physical parts play in narrating that engagement with the theme.

In a game of Monopoly, players can be a ruthless landlord, in Viticulture, become Tuscan winery owners, Risk players become powerful diplomats – much of the immersion is driven by the tactile nature of the (often plastic) pieces. This is particularly the case in TTRPGs with a large number of miniatures.

What would Monopoly be without the hotels towering over those unfortunate enough to land within their territorial confines? What would Ticket to Ride be without locomotives sprawling across maps of the United States, Europe, Germany, the Nordic Countries, and more?

While these pieces could easily be substituted with cubes, matchsticks, cardboard tokens or generic wooden meeples, doing so would ask players to temper their expectations of what comes within the box (while still paying the price needed to cover both manufacture and development).

While publishers have the final decision in what is manufactured, consumers also play a major role in reflecting on what they considered ‘acceptable’ as players seeking the experience tabletop games provide, and doing so within the broader context of being a good global citizen.

Boring Box Games – Sustainability Principles

As a starting point, my sustainability mission with Boring Box Games is shaped by a number of guiding principles, which will undoubtedly evolve and develop over time. These include:

  • Gameplay experience first: sustainability is an embedded practice but is not a core mechanic of the game. Games are entertainment, first and foremost.
  • Sustainable-first ideation: sustainability becomes part of the game design process, rather than retrofitted at the manufacturing stage
  • Continuous auditing: constant iteration of games in development, with consideration for sustainability of finished products from design to end-of-life planning, reflection on the play/er experience, durability of parts, game storage over time, suppliers, and manufacturing costs
  • Offsetting ‘unavoidables’: for the elements of game publishing that are unavoidable, such as transport and logistics impact, I aim to have clear and transparent offset processes, with constant evaluation of fitness for purpose and ecological impact
  • Minimise duplication: examination of how functionally identical pieces are used across multiple games, while creating thematically and narratively unique games
  • Compostable or reclaimed materials: compostable materials are those which can be placed into a home composting system to be returned to soil as nutrient-rich organic material. This is contrasted to degradable or biodegradable materials which will eventually break down, but leave behind toxic residues, microplastics, and other chemicals which are harmful to soil and water. Where compostable materials cannot be used (such as metal components), reclaimed materials will be used.

Here’s to looking ahead to improving practice in manufacturing and sustainability in the board game industry.

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