Board-game price-fixing

A board-game publisher has begun engaging in price fixing, a practice newly liberalized in the US in the wake of a June Supreme Court decision. Yehuda sez,
In June, 2007, the U.S. Supreme court struck down a major 97 year old law on price fixing, which prohibits manufacturers from coercing retailers on how to set their prices.

The new ruling essentially wrote that the old law was too rigid, and each instance of price fixing would now be evaluated on a case by case basis to determine if it harmed or helped the consumer.

This went relatively un-noticed for a while.

But last week, Mayfair Games, US publisher of the popular board game Settlers of Catan as well as other games, sent letters to all of its retailers demanding that they limit any discounts on their games to 20% off the suggested retail price.

This is purportedly to boost struggling brick-and-mortar stores against the spread of deep-discounting online stores which have been stealing their business.

Lots of discussion on Board Game Geek about this, split about evenly down the middle. Half the people say that deep discounters are good for the consumer, because people can buy more games and people without access to local stores can buy games. Half the people say that deep discounting is bad for the consumer, because local game stores server many more people than online stores do, and discounting games leads to their undervaluing.

Link (Thanks, Yehuda!)


  1. This is actually not a new phenomenon in the world of genre gaming. Games Workshop, the manufacturer of (among others) the Warhammer series of tabletop miniatures games, has been limiting retailers to a 20% discount for years, even since before the Spreme Court ruling. At about the same time, GW also prohibited online stores from using GW intellectual property (such as logos, catalogue photos, and trademarks, etc.) in online catalogues. This restriction has even included a prohibition against listing the names of products in an online catalogue, most of which are trademarked (ex. “Eldar” or “Skaven” or “Necron”). Meanwhile, GW owns its own chain of branded retail stores and operates its own mailorder operations.

    The upshot of this has been that consumers who want discounted GW products have to go to independent retailers online, ordering without being able to use a shopping cart system, and with a maximum discount of 20%. If you want to order from a catalogue online, you have to go through GW directly. With no discount.

    This is, of course, nuts, but GW has deep pockets and no online retailer has the bucks to fight it. It’d be like PepsiCo refusing to allow an online grocery store from having an online catalogue that listed “2L bottle Diet Pepsi”, “2L bottle Pepsi Max”, etc. And then setting a minimum price for any orders received by e-mail. And then opening their own stores.

    Canadian online retailers have had fewer restrictions because the Competition Act prevents GW Canada from such shenanigans. So there exist a couple of Canadian outfits which discount at up to 35%, with full listings of GW products. But none of them have picture catalogues using GW catalogue photos.

  2. That’s interesting, Mr. Cowling, but only knowing Tolkien thru personal exp and GW by reputation, how does the latter get the Eldar TM when it was in so many of good John Ronald Reuel’s books?

  3. This changes much more than the price of games. Imagine Amazon being forced to sell all books at full jacket price. At the same time, retailers like Walmart have the clout to force trinket manufacturers dependent on the store’s shelf space to “reconsider” their MSRPs.

  4. Jim@1, it may be that GW claims that their trademarks allow them to enjoin retailers from naming their products in catalogues, and it may be that retailers believe this, but it isn’t actually true.

    Trademark holders’ causes of action are mostly limited to instances in which their marks are being used to deceive the public in a commercial transaction: IOW: if Amazon lists a Necron product for sale, they need no permission and there’s no trademark violation, provided that what they’re selling is actually Necron.

    I can list my used iPod on eBay and call it an iPod, even if Apple doesn’t approve — so long as it’s really an iPod and not a knockoff.

    Now, as with copyright, there are lots of rightsholders who make very broad claims about what their rights entail. Music publishers often claim that quoting a short snatch of lyrics in a piece of fiction requires a license, but that’s not true.

    Likewise, the Men in Black franchise collects trademark licensing fees from filmmakers who use shots that contain any use of the MiB logo — for example, a comic book on a coffee table in a shot. But trademark doesn’t actually entitle them to prohibit or authorise such a use.

    And there are plenty of people who will pay these license fees, for a couple of broad reasons:

    1. They don’t know any better

    2. They are required to, by a publisher or insurer. For example, most cinemas will not exhibit a film unless they are indemnified from trademark and copyright claims. The insurers who provide this indemnification require filmmakers to license all these uses, even when they’re fair use or otherwise permissible. That’s because it costs the insurer nothing to require licenses for all uses, and it costs them legal fees to investigate any use for which the filmmaker claims he needs no license.

    3. They’re all part of the same racket together: many studios and publishers pay license fees to their “competitors” because they know that if they continue to do so, these competitors will pay fees to them.

    None of this is what is legal — merely what is customary. It’s not trademark that stops retailers from listing GW products by name, it’s custom.

  5. I was going to buy into the new version of Settlers. As long as this is Mayfair’s policy, I will neither buy nor play one of their games.

  6. “But last week, Mayfair Games, creators of the popular board game Settlers of Catan as well as other games…”

    I think it’s better to say “US publisher” not “creator”, since the original designer was Klaus Teuber and the original publisher was Kosmos in Germany.

  7. Half the people say that deep discounters are good for the consumer, because people can buy more games and people without access to local stores can buy games.

    People without access to local stores could also buy games directly from the manufacturer/publisher [who generally don’t discount on their online stores, because hobby game stores generally frown on that], or from online gaming stores that don’t discount. The choice isn’t black and white “no games” vs. “discounted games.”

  8. I tried to start up a small business supplying discount games to my local gaming community. The two major Australia games wholesalers I cared about (the two wholesalers for Looney Labs) simply refused to sell to me because I didn’t have one of their acceptable business models. It wasn’t about minimum order size or annual turnover, it was purely about propping up brick and mortar shops.

    One of them at least told me this up front. The other strung me along for two months before finally telling me they wouldn’t be shipping my initial order.

  9. Can we get a correction on the FP post on Boing Boing? They’re limiting the size of the discount, not putting a minimum on it. As of right now the post here says “demanding that they charge no less than 20% off retail price” which is somewhere between extremely confusing and flat-out wrong. Mayfair is demanding that retailers cap their discounts at 20%, or charge no less than 80% of MSRP. The way it is written here makes it sound as though Mayfair is enforcing a minimum discount.

  10. adamjury,

    I come from a country where my salary is low and shipping games is expensive. So, without deep discounting and online stores, no, I would never have bought games. The one local store that started in a nearby city has games priced beyond my means.

    So yes, deep discounters are good for some consumers, because some people can buy more games and people without access to local stores can buy games. For me, the choice was between discounted games or no games.


  11. Support your FLGS. I understand and support Mayfair’s actions. The deep discounters are killing the FLGS, and without them in business, a majority of the people on would never have been exposed to the games they currently play.

    Browsing descriptions on is a poor substitute to interacting with a knowledgeable store owner and the ‘regulars’ who frequent the stores. I know that there are several games I’ve purchased from a FLGS that, had I only read on online site’s description, and some random anonymous internet posts about I never would have bought.

    No online retailer has ever sponsored an in-store demo of a board game, nor have they ever provided a place to meet other gamers to actually play these games with.

    Mayfair is doing the right thing.

    Love to chat more, but I’ve gotta run. Meeting friends at my FLGS to play some Settlers.

  12. Doesn’t this tie in directly with the recent discussion on book price fixing?

    I think in the case of book prices there is absolutely no question that it benefits readers, as it forces competition between bookstores in quality rather then price and therefore keeps the quality one can get without major personal time investment up.

    The ability to compensate for the hit driven nature of the buisness in house also enables publishers to focus more on off beat titles therefore increasing the diversity of products offered.

    In the context of the “culture industry” I can’t see a good reason not to give the publishers this power. It puts control one step closer to those who create as opposed to those who market.

  13. This is good for everyone because it will make us want to buy less stuff. It’s the ‘Buy Nothing Day’ mentality shared year-round. It will also make the market for used merchandise skyrocket, which is also good.

  14. The whole whining and gnashing of teeth on the BGG site is an embarassment to the whole hobby.
    First of all it’s not price fixing (semantics).
    Secondly, these whiners aren’t interested in the growth of the hobby, they just want their 5% or they’ll “never buy a game from Mayfair again.”
    Wah, Wah.
    (Boycott’s rarely work, even when they are for “noble” reasons…)
    Mayfair is not worried about losing their business. Ultimately, Mayfair believes that this practice will sell more games. That is good for the Hobby, good for FLGS, and good for Mayfair.

  15. Cory@4, I didn’t imply that GW legally had the power to enjoin retailers from doing so. What they can do, however, is choose to stop selling product to distributors and retailers who don’t kowtow to their demands, since there is (essentially) no retailer in the US with pockets deep enough to fight them.

  16. The argument that brick-and-mortar stores need to be saved because they serve more customers just doesn’t hold water. If they still serve so many more customers, how is the online competition hurting them? Competition hurts them only by taking away their customers, so if their customers aren’t disappearing, they aren’t being hurt.

    If they’re having trouble competing, that’s just because people are getting better deals. It’s just more efficient, hence better for everyone in the long run, to sell games online than to pay for store staffing.

  17. #17

    First, we’re talking about more than 5% here (semantics).

    Second, how exactly does giving an extra 5% (or whatever) to some store contribute to the growth of the hobby? Maybe the stores contribute some special ambiance to the gaming hobby that we would be loathe to lose….fine. You’re welcome to keep paying extra for that, and to encourage others to do the same. But those who don’t want to pay for it ought not have to.

  18. Yehuda: Obviously, for some individuals, financial concerns make it a choice is “no games” vs. “discount games” — but as a market, that is not the only choice.

    Nathan: The prime argument is that online sales are skewed towards people who are “alpha” gamers. Those that buy a lot of games and spend time reading BGG and other forums don’t have as much of a “need” for a local gaming store, because they take the time to get relatively well educated. Those that can be helped by a local gaming store are new gamers, non-gamers buying games for someone else, and, of course, people looking for a place to play and network. If the loss of the alpha gamers’ money causes local stores to go out of business, then it becomes harder for new gamers to get introduced to the hobby and exposed to a wide variety of games.

  19. This is actually called “retail price maintenance” and I don’t think constitutes “price fixing” in the sense that we usually refer to it (like with OPEC for example).

    Poster #12 really said what economists view as the benefit and potential gain to consumers from such a policy. It *is* in the interest of the consumer to pay more for a product if that means it also comes with added benefits that exceed the added costs.

    The problem with online discounters is that the online store can free-ride off of the services the brick-and-mortar places provide. I do that all the time when purchasing major electronics. I go to my local electronics store with decent sales help, get information on the best product and then go buy it online from the cheapest store I can find. This is also why manufactures who sell the products on a website (or if you’ve ever been to a Nike Store) do so at MSRP, no discounts.

    This isn’t an issue with all products and sometimes better sales help is available for free online.

    I am not a big board game person, but I would guess that there is a lot to gain for the consumer by having a store to try out or even get advice on these games.

  20. Mayfair has an uphill battle.
    This sounds nearly identical to the “Minimum Advertised Price” scheme that the record companies supported in the ’90s until Best Buy and others took them to court and won.

    The logic in trying to protect the mom and pop outlets is admirable, but unfortunately (or fortunately) the tactic (price fixing) is illegal.

    Also, if Mayfair is so concerned about the “little guys”, maybe they shouldn’t be doing business with Amazon.

  21. @BUTTERMAKER: Not doing business with Amazon is what Mayfair is proposing to do assuming Amazon won’t change their pricing. Whether the tactic is legal is unclear.

    It’s worth noting that if Amazon sells a copy of Settlers for a deep discount, or a little guy sells it for full price, Mayfair gets the same money either way. Whatever their motivation here, it is not short-term greed.

    Mayfair thinks their business would be in very bad shape without the local game stores, which do basically all the marketing and promotion in their industry. So they want to make sure it is possible to run a successful local game store selling their games.

    Frankly, it strikes me as a somewhat bizarre idea that Mayfair can’t decide who to do business with based on what price their games will sell for…

  22. I live in a particularly rural area not part of the continental US. As such, we don’t have a FLGS. Hell, the 20 or so of us that make up our extended gaming group pretty much are the only hardcore gamers in the area. So for a person like me, who generally has to pay egregious shipping costs (as the vast majority of online stores refuse to ship via anything less than FedEx or UPS 2-day with exorbitant markups) already for his gaming materials, this just makes things that much more expensive for me, and will cause me to point my limited funds in other directions.

    There’s a reason why we play Warmachine and not Warhammer.

  23. “It’s worth noting that if Amazon sells a copy of Settlers for a deep discount, or a little guy sells it for full price, Mayfair gets the same money either way. Whatever their motivation here, it is not short-term greed.

    Mayfair thinks their business would be in very bad shape without the local game stores, which do basically all the marketing and promotion in their industry. So they want to make sure it is possible to run a successful local game store selling their games.”

    But is this really true? I’ve played Settlers and its a fairly enjoyable game. My local comic book/games shop has it at $38. Amazon has it for $29.

    Now, the thing is, I don’t remember my local game shop ever demo-ing or otherwise promoting Settlers, though they certainly have shelf space devoted to it. I found out about the game a) primarily on the Internet, and b) from a co-worker who lived in Germany and started playing it there.

    What my local game shops tends to really promote are CCGs and collectible miniatures games (HeroClix, Axies & Allies, etc). There’s almost nothing in the way of boardgame support or promotion.

    I understand why Mayfair wants to help protect its brick-and-mortar retailers, but is there really that much boardgame support out there from such retailers?

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