Playing Through Puzzling Times

puzzle pieces

The rapid spread of COVID-19 in early spring and the way it transformed the world so suddenly has come as a shock to many. Initially unsure how long we would have to stay at home to protect ourselves and others, we started canceling or postponing plans. We put vacations, restaurant reservations, concerts, musicals, movies, sports games and special events on hold; our spending habits reflected that, and several industries took a hit as a result.

However, other industries became stronger as spending shifted to products that make staying at home and indoors easier, more comfortable and more entertaining. One such industry is the toy and games industry.

“It was a tough adjustment —and still is, months later — for families to adapt to staying at home, working at home, schooling at home and playing at home. Ultimately, families found a way to stay connected and having fun through, toys, games and other play experiences,” says Eric Nyman, Chief Consumer Officer at Hasbro.

According to the NPD Group, toy and game sales in the first half of 2020, from January to June, were up 9% across 12 global markets. The United States saw the most growth in this category, with toy and game sales going up 16%.

Within the toy industry, games and puzzles specifically performed the strongest, experiencing a 37% increase in sales in the 12 markets, NPD reports.

TFE asked several game and puzzle manufacturers which of their products have resonated the most with consumers during this time, and why. Read on to find out what they had to say.

Finding comfort amid chaos

Once all the shows on streaming platforms were binge-watched and all the loaves of bread were baked, Americans sought more and more creative ways to keep themselves occupied at home —by turning (and for some, returning) to board games and puzzles.

Not only do games help pass the time, manufacturers say that the nostalgia factor of a classic board game has been a comfort to consumers during an unpredictable time. Adults are reconnecting with old favorites from childhood and parents are introducing these brands to the next generation.

At Goliath Games, classics like Rummikub and Sequence “have been selling out on a weekly basis,” says Director of Marketing Mary Higbe.

“Ninety percent of the time when I mention Rummikub, people say ‘Oh my gosh, I used to play that with my grandparents!” says Higbe. “I think during these uncertain times, people are craving the opportunity to find some normalcy, and hearkening back to happy memories is a great way to do that.”

In the coming months, manufacturers of several classic game brands are planning to indroduce updates and expansions. Higbe says Goliath will roll out updates to Sequence and Rummikub in August. Meanwhile, Hasbro plans to launch new twists on Hungry Hungry Hippos, Operation, and Monopoly, as well as re-launch the Mall Madness board game this coming fall.

While board games are a source of connection for families and roommates sharing a living space, friends and relatives who don’t live together but are connecting virtually have found a new way to play party games.

Brian Turtle, National Sales Manager at Endless Games, says the company’s new Camera Roll game, which just started shipping in June, is ideal for gatherings on videochatting platforms.

“It’s a perfect game to play over Zoom or other virtual (not-in-the-same-room) platforms, in that the idea is you draw a card and then everyone has to find a photo on their phone that corresponds to what is on the card,” Turtle says.

Likewise, Carma Games’ dice-rolling TENZI game is well-suited to virtual parties, says co-creator Kevin Carroll.

“We had some folks tell us that our dice game TENZI was perfect for playing over Zoom,” Carroll says. “My brothers and sisters live all over the world so I gave it a try with them and it worked great. Some people even posted their TENZI/Zoom videos on YouTube.”

Puzzles in particular have experienced a boom, with many consumers picking up the hobby for the first time.

“Puzzles have been on fire and we believe that this includes not only consistent puzzlers but new people that have started to puzzle during quarantine,” says Elizabeth LoVecchio, VP of Marketing for Games at Spin Master.

In December, Spin Master will underscore the stress relief effects of puzzling with Calm Puzzles, a collection in partnership with the sleep and meditation app, Calm.

Thomas Kaeppler, President of Ravensburger North America, similarly emphasizes the calming effects of puzzles.

“I think there’s something satisfying right now for people to be able to have control over a task and complete it,” he says. “We’ve heard from consumers that seeing a puzzle go from a jumble of pieces on a coffee table to a finished product fills them with peace and a sense of accomplishment.”

Ravensburger saw a sales surge in March, during which puzzle sales were up 370% year-over-year.

“To put that in perspective, Ravensburger sold about seven puzzles per minute in 2019 and so far in 2020, we are looking closer to selling 20 puzzles per minute,” he says.

Learning while playing

When schools across the country closed in March and remained closed through the end of the school year, children had to adapt to learning at home.

In some cases, board games with educational aspects helped enhance their at-home schooling.

Adventerra’s Sue Mundell says the company’s WaterGame, which teaches children about water conservation, has been a top-seller “because it is easy for elementary school kids to play by themselves while parents work at home —and it’s a fun way to practice math, reading and science skills.”

Kaeppler notes that STEM-oriented products, such as Ravensburger’s Gravitrax line, has been a popular category with kids.

“They provide an interactive and fun learning experience which has become all the more important with schools being closed,” he says.

No in-person shopping? No problem

According to the NPD, strong online shopping channels helped boost toy and game sales in the wake of store closures.

“People have been taking advantage of online shopping and curbside pickup and we’re fortunate that our retail partners can offer those options,” Higbe says.

Meanwhile Carroll notes that TENZI was highly sought-after by online shoppers.

“One of our online retailers called us in April and said, ‘There are two things selling online right now…toilet paper and TENZI!’ So it’s nice to know that we rank up there with toilet paper,” he quips.

The warmer weather in recent months has allowed for more outdoor playtime — and brought some much-needed relief from the routine of the early months of the pandemic. In fact, the NPD recorded that the outdoor and sports toys category showed the second-highest growth after games and puzzles, recording a 27% increase in sales.

But fall and its cooler temperatures are just around the corner, ushering in the holiday shopping season. It’s hard to say what the future holds, but families could be looking for ways to beat the boredom while indoors once again.

See Play-at-Home on pages 28-29, to discover recent best-sellers as well as highly anticipated upcoming product launches from game and puzzle manufacturers.