Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Good Night of Games: Four Thumbnail Reviews

As I write this, we still haven't had the first official Wednesday Game Night at the house, but we had a small impromptu Game Night.

We kicked off with KaosBall, which is an Eric Lang design. Eric is one of those really nice guys that you hate because he's so talented.  The only thing that all of his games seem to have in common is that they are Good, Fun, or Both (and they're usually Both).  I need to write more about KaosBall at some future time, but it is Both. I just wish there wasn't so much cheesecake in the game. I'll be writing more about this game sometime soon.

We followed that with a three-player game of Scythe.  If you haven't played this one, it's another one that I need to spill some digital ink on.  Fantastic game. The only real complaint I have with it is the minimal amount of player interaction - especially with fewer players. It also seems to end pretty abruptly. But neither of those is even close to being a deal-breaker for me.

We followed Scythe with a game of Machi Koro.  I won't play this game unless the expansions are in play, because the base game is ... not great.  Boring and Predictable, for one. And there are a handful of broken strategies that can almost guarantee a win. The expansions fix these problems, and keep the game fresh. If you can track down the Deluxe Edition, it's worth it.

And then we wrapped up with Quadropolis.  It was only my second play, and the first time using the "expert" rules. I like this game, but it's not a ten for me.  Probably a six-and-a-half or a seven. I'll play it, and occasionally I'll seek it out. But I don't think it's going to become a favorite any time soon.  Although I've been wrong about that before. It's another game without a ton of player interaction, and the strategies are not readily apparent. Give me another three or four plays in the near future, and the strategy will almost certainly be clearer - but I expect I'll have trouble getting this to the table regularly.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Requiem for a Game Store

Two weeks ago, we had the Game Night Anniversary Potluck. It was the last Game Night held at Phoenix.

This is a post that has been very hard for me to write. I've started and re-started several times, now. I've given up on editing it, so this is going to be a poorly-edited splat, and it'll probably run long.  You Have Been Warned.

The first experience I had with Phoenix was when I was stepping into a Waldenbooks.  Across the way, there was this bright yellow store - but it contained games.

I went in, bought some D&D stuff, chatted with the staff for a few, and headed out.

I had no idea at the time that Phoenix was going to be my game store of choice for more than a decade.

No idea at all.

Brian was a fantastic store owner. He didn't ignore the business end, but he clearly had a passion for games. And, further, he worked hard to make sure that the store was clean and organized - down to pushing the chairs back in and straightening tables at the end of the night.

Brian worked hard to make sure the store was a safe place - and that no-one was excluded. When it looked like cliques were starting to form at Game Night, he (subtly) broke them up and mixed the folk up again.

The shop was both kid-friendly and kid-safe, and Brian was not shy about asking troublemakers to leave. Usually just for the night, but sometimes for longer.

We weren't customers at Phoenix - we were family.  All of us.

Brian closed the store to move to California to be with his wife. None of us blame him (or her) for this. We all knew it was eventually coming.

I'm pretty sure everyone who was a regular at the store has at least a few Brian Stories.  Here are a few of mine:

Within the first year or so of his being open, I was briefly unemployed. Brian hired me to run the shop for a few weekends here and there so he could go to weddings and the like.

That Christmas, he handed me four sealed envelopes. "Choose two," he told me. And he shredded the other two right in front of me. "You are not allowed to open these until you're going to use them," he said.  I don't know what was in the two destroyed envelopes, but one of them was a 30% discount. The other was a 100% discount.

He hosted my bachelor party. As bachelor parties go, it was ridiculously tame - but he didn't know that going into it (although given how tame I am, he probably suspected as much).

The last game I bought at Phoenix was Quadropolis. The last game I played at Phoenix was Black Fleet.

I met Stephan Brissaud (now with Iello, then with both Days of Wonder and Asmodee) through Brian, and that led to my Demo Team work with Asmodee that lasted for a decade.

So some of the best memories (and best friends) that I have either happened at Phoenix or because of Phoenix.

Thank you, Brian, for a dozen of the best years of my life.

I hope your future endeavors are as successful. You've set a high bar for yourself (and for the other local game stores) to meet.

Thank you.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Game Night: A Return To Roots

So Phoenix is gone.

That's ... that's hard for me to deal with.  The place had been a second home for me for more than a decade.

Thank you, Brian, for making it such. Your store was always welcoming and safe.  I hope all of your future endeavors achieve as much success as Phoenix did.

Some folks at the last Game Night Anniversary Potluck were a bit confused, however.

"Eric," I was asked, "How can this be the 14th Anniversary of Game Night when the store hasn't even been open 13 years, yet?"

And the answer is simple:  Game Night started in my apartment, before Phoenix Games existed. Back when Brian was still the regional manager for the Wizards of the Coast stores.

And now that Phoenix is gone, Game Night is moving to my house. Well, other than those folks up North who have found other Game Nights ('Round the Table in Lynnwood and Zulu in Bothell are both about to experience an influx of really great people).

I don't expect it to be huge. I'll honestly be surprised if we have more than just Steph and I for the first few weeks (at least), but I'm going to do exactly what I did 14 years ago:

Wednesday Evenings, my home is open to people I know who want to come play some board games. And people that my friends trust enough to invite.

I have games. I have tables. I have chairs.

I'm home by 7:30 - which, I realize, is a late start time on a weeknight. But Game Night has always been a late thing.

Need an address?  Let me know.  I hope to see you here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On the Role of the FLGS Part 3: What's Being Done To Preserve the FLGS

So two weeks ago, I talked about one reason why game stores were struggling.  Last week, I posted about why I feel they are a necessary thing.  This week, I want to talk a bit about what publishers and manufacturers are doing to help game stores.

Ironically, this post is going live just as the FLGS which I have supported for more than a dozen years is about to close its doors. And not because of financial problems, either. But I'll post a requiem for Phoenix another time.

This is also going to be the shortest post in the series, because ... well ... you'll see.

The Online vs. Brick-And-Mortar debate has been going on for a long time, and it's not limited just to boardgaming.  My day job is at a wholesaler, and we carry several brands for which you need to be an "approved" retailer in order to buy the product from us. The manufacturers offer less warranty coverage if an item is purchased from a retailer who isn't on their list. Very few online retailers are on these lists. When I worked in car audio, the company for which I worked was very proud to be the only online authorized retailer for a couple of brands. To make that list, we needed to have knowledgeable staff (which was accomplished via in-house training) and had to be available certain hours (which is just a scheduling thing). We also needed to make certain pricing constraints.  When you sell a product that you want to have perceived as being high-end, it does you no good to have it selling for bargain-basement prices.

The first major tabletop game publisher to start working towards preserving the FLGS was Mayfair. A few years ago, they adjusted their retail pricing policy to cap discounts. Game stores who didn't meet the requirements of the policy would be cut off from buying Mayfair product. Distributors who kept selling to retailers on the "no sell" list would be at risk of being cut off, too.

That was 2007. It caused a huge hue and cry from gamers, who suddenly saw their low-price resources suddenly drying up. There were cries of "price-fixing" and dozens of folks declared an intent to boycott Mayfair over it.

But it meant that online game stores couldn't compete with the FLGS solely on price anymore.

Earlier this year, Asmodee North America announced a similar plan and - again - it caused a huge hue and cry. Boycotts were declared (and I'll wager that many if not most of those boycotts have been broken by now).  Privateer Press announced a "free rider" policy that they've put into place, too.

Realistically, not much has changed. Deep discounters online continue to be deep discounters.  There are fewer of them, as their sources slowly dry up, but you can still find cheap games all over the internet.

Many publishers are also proving "organized play" kits. The Asmoplay kits, for example, include promos and goodies for a number of their games. Wizards of the Coast produces promo bundles for Friday Night Magic. Sometimes these bundles are free for supporting stores, sometimes they cost a bit.

Tournaments are another form of organized play - and some publishers are now supporting tournaments for their games as well.

On the RPG end, there's the Bits and Mortar program that many RPG publishers are driving. The summary of the program is simple: If you buy your RPG material from a local game store instead of via the internet, you can get free PDF versions of what you bought. I've taken crazy-advantage of this, because I buy a ton of RPG materials (and publishers who support this program are given priority for my purchases).

Unfortunately, there's not much else that manufacturers can do to support the health of the FLGS model beyond that - mind you, they're always trying to come up with new methods.

Realistically, the health of the FLGS model isn't in the hands of the manufacturers. They are doing what they can. The people who decide the future of the industry are the market.

And by "the market," I mean, of course, "customers."

You know: You and me.

Where you spend your money now directly impacts where you will be able to spend it in the future.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

On the Role of the FLGS Part 2: What Separates a Good Game Store from an Online Game Store

I mentioned last week that there was a difference between a good game store and just another game store, and here is the key to that difference:

A good game store works hard to be part of the local gaming community.

If your local game store just sells you games and that's the end of it, then they're probably not a good game store. They're just a game store, and you (honestly) might as well just buy online.

I'd rather buy online than support a bad game store.

You can usually tell a game store is good by looking for one key component:  Tables.

Game stores that don't have tables for demos (and other events) are very rarely good game stores.

You see, tables are used for demos and events (including both open play and tournaments). And a game store that wants to be part of the community needs to host events.

Phoenix Games has a schedule of events.
Fantasium has a schedule of events.
Card Kingdom has a schedule of events.
Uncle's Games has a schedule of events.
Gamma Ray Games has a schedule of events.
Blue Highway Games has a schedule of events.
The Game Matrix has a schedule of events.

These, by the way, are all game stores where I have spent money in the last year. And they are all good game stores that are surprisingly close.

So why are events and tournaments important?

Magic: the Gathering (just to choose one common example) is still (to a large extent) driven by the tournament scene. The vast majority of those tournaments are hosted at local game stores. Because "I'm going to have a tournament in my basement, please send me prize support" doesn't really fly with most publishers. Or parents.

If there was no tournament scene, then Magic: the Gathering would be a much smaller game than it is. Organized play (which includes tournaments) also increases the visibility of a successful game and encourages consumers to spend more money so they can get better at it. This helps manufacturers. Because if you happen to see people enjoying a game in public, you're more likely to pick that game up.

I love Amazon. I love Funagain, but neither of them have ever hosted a tournament that I've been a part of.

(It is worth noting that Funagain is an FLGS. They just also have a significant online presence.)

I suspect that organized play and tournaments (with the bonuses mentioned above) are the primary reason for manufacturers to love game stores.

So a good FLGS hosts tournaments and events.  What else sets an FLGS apart from an internet retailer?

Knowledgeable staff. When I go to a good game store, I know that I can ask someone, "Is this game any good?" or "Can you tell me a bit about this one?" - and usually, I can get an answer.  There are exceptions. The Game Matrix, for example, doesn't have a ton of board game-knowledgeable staff on hand, but their miniatures knowledge is fantastic.

The best game stores have demo copies of many of their games, too. So when I ask, "Is this any good?" I can get an answer of "Let me show you!" This benefits manufacturers who make good games (and can punish manufacturers who make bad ones ... ). And it makes me more likely to return to that particular store.

I love Amazon, but they've never taught me to play a game. I can ask Funagain a question, but I'm unlikely to get an instant answer.

Instant gratification. When I see that game on the shelf that I want, I can take it home right now. I don't have to wait two days (or three days or a week) for the UPS truck to decide it's time to deliver my package to me.

Local money. Some people pay close attention to where their money goes. "Buy local!" is a rallying cry for a lot of people. For me, Amazon is local, but I appreciate the sentiment. When you spend your money locally, it improves your local economy. When I spend money at Funagain, it boosts Oregon's economy.

For the record: I have nothing against Oregon, but it's not Washington.

Game stores are also the best way to find local gamers.  Every time I have moved, the very first thing I did was scout the local game stores and check out their schedules. Because I want to be part of the local gaming community, too. I love my wife, but there are games that aren't very good with two players. And I'm not a solitaire gamer.

These days, I can use BoardGameGeek or RPG.net or any number of other hobby sites (or social media sites) to find local gamers. But people online are often quite different than they are in person, and a good game store is a safe neutral place to meet (and sometimes get to know) people.

Which reminds me: A good game store is a safe public place.  If I had a child, I wouldn't want them going to game events in a stranger's home. Game stores as safe places expand the potential audience for a game - even if publishers were comfortable with events like Magic Tournament In Someone's Basement, parents (rightly) wouldn't be. By being a public place, game stores expand the possible audience for their tournaments.

This is, by the way, not an exhaustive list of things that your FLGS does better than the online retailers. I'm sure there are others - but I don't want to force you to read a novel.

... and, here we are, a week and a half before you'll see this post (three weeks after I wrote it), and Phoenix Games has just announced that they're closing. Not because of competition from other game store (or the internet), but because Brian (rightfully) wants to be with his wife in California and can't find someone to take the store over.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

On the Role of the FLGS Part 1: Why the FLGS is Struggling

This is one of those posts that I've written and deleted and then written and deleted over and over and over again. And it's not an easy one, because there are good points to be made by all sides.

And I'm probably going to wind up breaking it into multiple parts, because it's getting long and I'm nowhere near done saying what I want to say.

You see, a few months ago someone stirred up the "The FLGS is an outdated model that has no place in modern gaming" argument again. It was probably in response to Asmodee North America's restrictive internet sales policy, which was designed (in part) to try to protect the FLGS distribution model.

So what is the FLGS model? Why do people have such strong opinions about it?

First of all, let me state that I am not unbiased here. I am a proponent of the FLGS model - and I live in a region where I'm blessed with a number of them to choose from.

Let me also state that I am not an economist. I've done a ton of reading and research over the years, and I currently work for a distributor (one not in the gaming industry). And I'm also going to be speaking in generalities. There are always going to be stores and wholesalers who are exceptions to what I'm saying (Docking Bay 93, for example, is more-or-less built out of a warehouse).

Let's start at the very basic level, here:  FLGS stands for "Friendly Local Game Store."  This is a specialty retailer who sells hobby games. Sometimes it's a dedicated game store, sometimes it's a comic or hobby craft shop that happens to also sell games.

There are lots of things that differentiates a good game store from just another game store, and I'm going to go over that in a few posts.

In the pre-internet days, retail - for almost anything - worked like this:

The manufacturer would make the product and then sell it to a distributor.

Distributors would then mark the price up a bit and sell it to a retailer.

That retailer would then mark the price up a bit and sell it to customers.

Very few manufacturers went direct with retailers - and, when they did, it was often some sort of exclusive deal. Like (for example) Craftsman Tools, which were only available at Sears.

This model worked very well in the pre-computer days. Manufacturers liked it because they only had to keep track of a small handful of addresses to ship to and bill. Retailers liked it because they only needed to keep track of a small handful of distributors to get all of their stuff.  Distributors liked it because they made money.

Retailers didn't go direct because manufacturers didn't like the additional paperwork (and neither did many retailers).

Let's put the use of distributors more-or-less in perspective.  Would you rather:
  1. Go to one store for Asmodee products, another store for Hasbro products, another store for your Cool Mini or Not games, another for your Playdek games, another for your Czech Games Editions, and another for Pelgrane Press, and yet another for Cubicle 7?
  2. Go to one store to buy all of the above in one place, but pay a bit more per product?
In example 1, you're going to be spending more because of the gas and time (and/or shipping costs). Not only that, but you'll need to keep track of a dozen different stores and their invoicing and billing cycles and the like.

In example 2, you pay more per product, but you don't waste time driving around (or paying shipping) for every little thing. And - in business - time is money. Overall, the second example above does save money.

Example 2 is one way in which distributors work - and why they work. Small business owners already put up with a ton of paperwork and - sadly - not all of them are well-organized enough to actually make it work. And they need to keep track more carefully for tax purposes than you do when buying games to play.  Some distributors give discounts based on volume, too. So if you buy a ton of stuff from them, you pay less per item.

It's also representative of how retail works - and explains the appeal of "superstores" like Target and Wal*Mart. They're descendants of the old-fashioned General Store model.

Now fast forward to now.  Computers have made things easier, so it's less work for manufacturers to have more and more and more accounts. It's easier for retailers to also have more accounts at more places for a wider diversity of products.  Some manufacturers even sell to the general public, now.

This is not a bad thing. I want to make that very clear.

But suddenly the internet appeared.

Physical stores have overhead.  The costs of doing business. Rent. Taxes. Licenses and permits. Utilities. Maintaining their computers and software. Paying their staff. Black Diamond Games in California has a fantastic breakdown of where money spent in their store goes. I recommend their blog in general, too.

Internet retailers also have overhead, but several categories are much lower (and a few can be higher). The notably lower categories for internet retailers include the biggest bit of overhead that stores face - rent. Especially when calculated per square foot.

Internet retailers can run out of warehouses in the middle of nowhere. They don't rely on foot traffic to keep them afloat. Because of this, their rent per square foot is significantly lower than the rent paid by a game store. But internet retailers also tend to have a lot more square footage.

Internet retailers also buy in larger quantities than small storefronts do. They can afford to store it (they have the room), so why not? It means that they can buy from distributors at a greater discount. So where a brick-and-mortar guy pays $55 for the game, the internet guy pays $50 (or less).

The internet retailer is already making $5 more profit for the same game. If he's someone "known," he can expect to sell more games than the brick-and-mortar guy (with some exceptions), so the stuff turns over more quickly. Internet retailers also aren't limited in their audience.

I don't spend a lot of money at Canton Games in Baltimore, MD. Don't get me wrong - it's a fantastic game store, and I very much enjoyed visiting a few years ago. But I can't spend money there because I'm in Seattle, Washington. I'm three thousand miles away.

But I can buy from Funagain. I can buy from Amazon.

And both of them are regularly cheaper than my FLGS, even when I factor shipping into the picture.

Suddenly, I can pay my FLGS $100 for Hyperborea, or I can pay considerably less than that online.

That means that the FLGS is suddenly selling less product with higher overhead. Some game stores are offering discounts to regular customers or coming up with loyalty plans or otherwise working to reduce the impact of selling less product - but they still can't really reach the low prices you'll find online.

From a strictly monetary perspective, the FLGS model is obsolete. But then so is most retail. There's a reason that shopping malls are slowly dying off in many areas.

So why are manufacturers working to support the FLGS model? Why is it important? What's worthwhile about it?

I'll go over that next time.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Character Generation Project: Burning Wheel Gold

It's been a while, so if you don't know what this "Character Generation Project" thing is, follow this link. Steph wrote about her usual process here. If you want to see past posts in the project, there is a link in the sidebar to the right.

The questions are in bold text, Steph's answers are in plain text. My comments are italicized.

It's worth noting that there are two versions of the character sheet - one version is for short campaigns of a dozen or fewer sessions, the other is for longer games. We used the shorter version (in part because it's fewer pages and is, therefore, less intimidating for people new to the system).

Which game is this for?
This is one of those games that I really like. On paper. It's a game I desperately want to try to play sometime, however. I'll write more about it further in.
IMG_0001
Note the empty "second" page, here?
Those blank sections are mostly used
for character advancement. Theoretically,
she should have 1 Fate and 1 Persona.

How long did it take you to generate the character?
2 hours

What was your character concept going into generation?
Cherie Littlebottom from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series  
When Steph told me this, I figured she was trying to make a character similar to Cheery Littlebottom. I hadn't realized that her goal was to exactly recreate Cheery.
A note on spelling, here: Sometimes it's Cheery, sometimes it's Cheri, and sometimes it's Cherie in Pratchett's writing. So the fact that Steph spells it one way and I spell it another is not an error on either of our parts. She was initially Cheery, but once she decided that presenting as female was not shameful, it changed. It may also bear noting that even Female Dwarves on the Disc are bearded, so the "Bearded" trait isn't even a little unusual for Dwarves.

Did you feel like character generation captured the flavor of the setting?
The setting seemed pretty divorced from the system, except for the life paths.
 This is a game that is very much like Dungeons & Dragons in that respect - while it doesn't include a setting, it is built around a set of specific setting conceits about how (for example) Elves and Dwarves behave (and interact with one another).
IMG_0002
This is the second page of the sheet. It's where the
mechanical stuff appears - stats, skills, etc.
An interesting decision.

How much control did you feel like you had during character generation?  
A fair amount
Any time a character generation system is diceless, the player has more control over the outcome. This game has no random elements during character generation, and so Steph had complete control over her outcome - barring her wanting something crazy like having her Dwarf character take an Elf lifepath or something similar. As a GM, I might have allowed her to take the (human) City Guard path, had she asked - but she found paths that did what she needed without needing to ask for GM intervention.

Did the game help you make the character you wanted, or did it feel like you were fighting the game?
I felt like I had enough control to make the character happen.
This is both a strength and a weakness of lifepath-based character generation systems - sometimes, the path you want to take is supported by the system. Sometimes, you need to "jump the tracks" to get to the path you want. Burning Wheel has a way to "jump the tracks," but Steph didn't need to use it - her desired lifepaths flowed from one to the next seamlessly, and seem to have done what she needed them to do.


Do you like the character you ended up with?  
Yes

Do you think your character fits your concept?  
Yes

Do you feel like your character would be effective and/or useful in a game?  
Yes

Was there anything in particular that you struggled with mechanically?  
The layout of the book and the helpful worksheet didn’t match up, which led to a lot of flipping back and forth. The traits and skills weren’t spelled out particularly well, and took more time than I expected to figure out how to spend my points appropriately.
The "helpful worksheet" is the character burning worksheet from burningwheel.org's wiki. Its steps six through eight are different from the steps six through eight in the book. They do the same thing, but in a different order.

Did anything run more smoothly than you had expected?  
Not really
But there weren't any huge obstacles, either, which is good. Especially as this is the crunchiest system we've done so far.


What changes would you have made to the character generation process?  
Having the worksheet line up with the sections of the book; having a clear explanation of what needs to be spent for each skill.
It doesn't help that the Burning Wheel guys use the most pretentious language throughout the book. It's - honestly - a bit off-putting.


Did anything leap out at you as obviously broken or unbalanced?  .
No

What led you to choose this game as the next one to make a character for?  
It’s a more character-driven game, as I understand it, and I am always looking for something of that nature.
Beliefs and Goals and Instincts having actual mechanical effect goes a long way towards pushing this game in that "character-driven" direction. In theory, any game can be character-driven, but very few games actually push character mechanically.

Looking at Steph's Beliefs, I think that "Presenting as Female should not be shameful" is one belief. "I will become a great Watch officer" is another. If I were running this as a game, I might ask her to split this into two separate Beliefs.

How would you compare your experience with this game to your experience with other games?
This took longer than I expected, and seemed more complex that I had anticipated.
This is the "crunchiest" game we've made a character for so far. In general, I tend to prefer games with "lighter" character generation - but a bit of crunch never did harm to anyone.


Is this a character you would be willing to play in a campaign?  
Yes
Worth noting: If I were to run a Burning Wheel campaign, I'd force her to make a new character, because I want to see her character, not Terry Pratchett's character. Although she could probably change the relationships and make this work.

Does this character make you want to play this game?  
Yes
I don't know if I've said this before, but I consider this to be the most important question that Steph answers on the questionnaire. Character Generation should always be one more hook into a game - if CharGen turns you off of a game, then it doesn't matter how good the game is or how smooth it is in play, you'll have lost a player before you even start. And this game requires a fair amount of player buy-in right off the bat.

Do you have any other questions, comments, etc.?  
I think the life path mechanics is a great way to open up the character generation process, and the beliefs and instincts are a solid bit of character development in-game as well.

Have you given any thought to what game you'd like to do next?  
Probably Star Trek
By Star Trek, she means FASA's old eighties version of the game, not Last Unicorn's or Decipher's versions - or even Prime Directive - although we do own all of the above (and I may ask her to attempt to re-create the same character in one or more, just to see what happens).