The board game industry, like other industries to which it is vaguely related, such as toys, comics, video games, sports, puzzles, and so on, sells entertainment.
Players in the board game industry want you to part with your money for the promise of minutes, hours, weeks, or years of entertainment. Anyone in the industry who thinks that, for instance, board games are created to sell game play, is in the art business, not the entertainment business, and, like others in the art business, must prepare to starve while they pursue an uphill, self-righteous battle.
The value of an entertainment product is how much it entertains, for how long, how many times, and for how much cost (in time and money, at the expense of some other entertainment), as well as a few other variables (such as if it can be shared, transferred, returned, or resold). A board game's value can be measured using the same criteria as any other entertainment product. A board game doesn't have to deliver a good play experience to be successful entertainment; it simply has to entertain (or make promises that it will entertain).
Thus, a board game that functions as a toy is entertaining. One that evokes conversation, nostalgia, or laughter is entertaining. Game play may be a significant sales point for board games - and may generally be pushed as the primary sales point of board games - but is actually secondary, a means to an end, at least as far as entertainment is concerned.
Worthwhile and original game play is tricky, complicated, and highly subjective, which makes it costly and difficult to get right. Licensing marries one successful entertainment product (a theme) with another successful entertainment product (proven game play). Original games require game play development, art, production, marketing, fulfillment, and distribution. Licensed games dispense with the game play costs and much of the art costs. So they're not only more likely to be entertaining, contain elements that are already familiar to potential consumers, and appeal to a built-in fan base, they're also cheaper and quicker to produce.
Will a licensed game entertain for a minute? A few hours? Weeks? Years? That depends on how long the theme is in fashion (or if it will come back into fashion), and whether it is bought for the game play or for some other entertainment purpose, such as "collecting" or "playing with" it. Does a licensed game give a consumer a reason to buy? This depends on the amount of disposable income the purchaser possesses and what he or she expects from the entertainment he or she purchases.
It is not much of a surprise to see that industry insiders talk more about licenses and trends than they do about game play. For game play to make an impact, it has to be a breakthrough (or marketed brilliantly). Unfortunately for the purists, this type of breakthrough happens rarely. While they celebrate and pontificate over the thousands of great and wonderful original game play designs introduced each year, the industry continues to sell safe and tried entertainment to the happy meal consuming, on the go, summer blockbuster watching public.
Take heart, purists. First of all, stop whining about poor sales and an inability to penetrate to the mainstream market when you're not making products that the mainstream market wants. Second of all, armed with the knowledge of what they want, use this information to marry the simplicity and accessibility of what the mainstream wants with your currently idling game play ideas. License. Copy. Brand. Market. Appeal.
Save the good games for game night with the geeks.