DULUTH -- Shipping delays and skyrocketing prices for cargo have been affecting the world all year, from ports to manufacturers to consumers. Locally, those impacts are no different. One sector feeling the effects of the global phenomenon is the game industry.
John Nephew, president and founder of Atlas Games in Proctor, Minnesota, said delays and increased prices due to the COVID-19 pandemic have made the future availability of many games uncertain. Many of Atlas' games are manufactured abroad, where both production and assembly can be done together. The company’s new game, Dice Miner, was manufactured in China, where plastic molding, die-cut cardboard and packaging could all be done at once.
Orders of Dice Miner took six months to arrive instead of the expected six weeks, and cost 50% more than Nephew expected. The delay, in turn, caused a lag in selling the game and having more manufactured for a restock.
“I've seen volatility up and down in shipping rates over the years, but I’ve certainly never encountered anything like this,” Nephew said. “I’m not aware of shipping prices ever in the past having the kind of meteoric rise we’ve seen this year, and it’s obviously not just for games. Shipping is shipping. Whatever’s inside the box, they don’t care — but some industries can absorb the cost better than others.”
Most orders Atlas makes are received at ports on the West Coast, and then transported by rail to Duluth.
Atlas Games has other popular games that need to be reprinted to restock, like Once Upon a Time and Gloom, but prices have increased 70% because of the cost to transport materials. The company also needs to restock its new game, Magical Kitties Save the Day, which was received just before the shipping crisis began, but Nephew said he has no idea how long it will take to get or how much it will cost him.
“They’re facing materials costs and transportation costs to get materials to their factory,” Nephew said. “Even without international shipping of the finished goods, the effects on the whole supply chain are still going to have an impact on that.”
Nephew, a Duluth native and 1987 Cathedral (Marshall) High School graduate, created Atlas Games in 1990. The company, which moved to Proctor from the Twin Cities in 2019, helps draft and prototype games created by freelancers, then has them manufactured and sold to customers and retailers.
One local retailer is Dungeon’s End game store in West Duluth. Owner Mason Froberg said he’s faced many similar problems with stocking his shop.
“There are some products we have not seen for six, eight months because the supply chain has made it so hard to get the product and there’s been higher demand for them with people staying at home,” Froberg said.
Collectible cards have been nearly impossible to get, he said, as have binders and plastic sleeves where collectors store their cards. Keeping popular games in stock, like Descent and Settlers of Catan, has been difficult as well.
Product orders’ arrival dates continue to get pushed back, making it hard to tell customers when their preorders should be expected. Releases have been delayed by gaming companies as well, including a release from Magic the Gathering last fall, which was practically unheard of before the pandemic, Froberg said.
Some game companies are increasing their prices, but most of those changes just end up decreasing the store’s discount rate to prevent the suggested retail price from changing.
“On some of those, we have to make a decision,” Froberg said. “Do we absorb the cost ourselves, which is hard considering coming out of the pandemic has been really difficult on us, or do we pass that price on to our customers?”
Both Froberg and Nephew are already apprehensive about the upcoming holiday season. Games are popular gifts and are difficult to stock in a normal year in advance of the high demand. Nephew said on the distribution side, he especially worries about games that are popular year after year. Many of those games come in larger boxes to fit miscellaneous pieces, which are more expensive to buy in bulk because they take up more space in shipping containers.
On the bright side, Nephew said role-playing games have translated well to an online format, which has been able to avoid most of the problems related to shipping. He has also kept business steady at Atlas Games by doing game fulfillment for other companies at the warehouse in Proctor.
“In the current state of international shipping, we’ve just got to do whatever we can to try to get stuff to our door, however we manage to do it,” Nephew said.
The shipping crisis has been brought on by several factors, including the closure of Chinese ports because of the coronavirus, increased demand in consumer goods, and backlog from the blockage of the Suez Canal. Experts do not expect the situation to improve in the near future.