Friday, October 31, 2008

Avoiding Marginal

I blame the media for much of our economic troubles. The economy runs on consumer confidence, and the media has done a stellar job of absolutely destroying confidence in the run up to the election. Every anecdotal micro problem with the economy is magnified and reinforced by a legion of reporters and bloggers who can tell you how the presidential candidate they don't support is likely to make it worse. Forget making things better, this is all about despair. Those of us on the retail front line are hoping this subsides after the election next week. Oh yeah, and if you're a reporter, take a closer look at the retail front lines; this might be your next job with all the newspaper layoffs.

The truth is that many retailers won't be around next year, with some of the larger ones closing before Christmas, rather than taking their big profits in December and bowing out in January. This is a big company phenomena related mostly to credit. These companies were already in trouble and were probably unable to acquire the credit they needed to build up their inventories for the holidays. Small retailers like us don't have this problem, as we're a year round retail destination. We rely on the holiday season, which for us is about five weeks, to make a tidy profit for the year and to get us through a long, cold Winter. I expect this Winter to be especially cold, so I know any profits we make in December will be hoarded rather than used to pay off debt or expanding. That's just my little contribution towards screwing up the economy.

Despite talk of game stores being counter-cyclical, some are likely to go out of business. There is a culling taking place of the marginal game stores. Marginal tends to refer to those with poor planning and even poorer execution. However, with such retail pressure out there, who knows if there's marginal creep. What if the bar has been raised? What if my store is now marginal? What if these desperate retail times call for desperate measures? I think a lot of game store owners need to get off their well cushioned butts and promote themselves better this season. For some, this means promoting themselves for the first time. The key for me is to budget this. When I was a new, inexperienced store owner, it was easy to throw money at problems without any idea if the results were plausible. Advertising is the biggest black hole in business, if you aren't careful.

Having a budget is the first step. I reduced my advertising media budget for the holidays to fund my guerrilla marketing efforts. The second step is focusing on the short term. A lot of marketing is about building your customer base over time. You spend $50 to snag a new customer who might only spend $25 this month, but might spend $500 over his lifetime as your customer. This is a good, long term investment. In temporary downturns like these, we need short term investments. Marketing to existing customers should come first, especially if you haven't been doing it lately. They say you need about 9 impressions on a new prospect before they become your customer. Why not go with the guy whose already with you?

After marketing to the base, work on snagging the muggles, those holiday customers who wouldn't normally visit your store. Spending might be down for the holidays, but they will spend money. The goal is to capture as many of them as possible, even if it's a one-shot just to boost your December sales. It will be especially difficult this holiday season because they're looking for bargains, and there will be many and starting now. Those companies going out of business are not doing it quietly, they're having sales now, and although you're not competing directly with Mervyn's or Shoe Pavilion, dollars spent there are dollars that won't be spent with you.

To get muggles in the door without breaking the bank, you need cheap, inexpensive, guerrilla marketing, none of this $50 to get $25 crap, banking on the long term. Find cheap ways to snag easy dollars and stay on budget. Focus on something quick and easy they can understand. Emphasize the value your games provide over other forms of entertainment. If you've got a section of you store that you want to get rid of, bargain hunting is the new retail pastime; let them know and hit that discount as deeply as you can; you won't get a second chance. Finally, don't go nuts. Make a plan, stick with it, adjust as you go, work hard. Accept the plan. The plan is good. If it works, it works. If not, at least you tried. At least you avoided marginal.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Decline of Metal Minis

We're having a Reaper miniatures clearance sale for select models at 50% off. This is stuff that hasn't sold in a year or more; some in several years. I've also decided to stop carrying monsters. Monsters are a large part of the inventory but a tiny part of our sales. We're more than happy to special order models you want, usually with next day turnaround.

People just don't paint fantasy minis like they used to. We've seen a steady decline of around 20% each year since we opened, with sales less than half of where they were in 2005. Then again, our inventory has shrunk along the way, as I gave up on carrying the full line. I've been a little slow in reducing our Reaper inventory, mostly because as a fan, I couldn't imagine not having them. Other game stores made this move years ago and it wasn't like having the full line was giving us a competive advantage.

I think the decline is partly due to the decline of role-playing games (and the rise of WoW), which saw a similar decline over those years. With D&D 4 on the horizon, we held off on a larger Reaper reduction, in hopes of a mini painting revival that never came. The other reason for the decline of miniatures is the increased quality of pre-painted miniatures from Wizards of the Coast. With non-random packs coming out in future sets, this should accelerate that process. I know as my budget has shrunk and my time reduced, I'm always looking for the right pre-painted monster for my next game. I used to insist that every monster in my D&D campaign be a painted version of the exact creature. Not helping metal minis has been steady price increases over the years that make customers question the value of miniatures, especially monsters, which will ultimately be less useful and almost always cost more. The new Reaper line of lead based miniatures is due out soon, which should tackle some of the price issues.

Where metal miniatures do make sense is for characters. You're going to get a lot of hours of use out of a painted character model (unless you have a sadistic DM), but you'll need to be a dedicated long-time gamer to re-use that basilisk or medusa you spent hours painting. We'll continue to carry character models and bring in new ones as they're released (about once a month). We'll also continue to bring in other lines of character models for our "indie" miniature section. These tend to be more expensive, but if you're looking for something unusual for a RPG character, I think it's worth it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spray Gun: Stirred Not Shaken

I decided to start painting the Baneblade with the spray gun this evening. I figured it would be a snap, or a total nightmare, so it was my sole project. It went surprisingly well. I read the GW instructions on their website a few days before, so I knew to get two cans of propellant. The instructions that come with the spray gun are incomplete, so I advise watching the video or reading the instructions online.

As discussed online, the propellant gets cold as you use it, with a corresponding drop in pressure. You need to have a second bottle handy while the other one warms up. Sure enough, I was just finishing up the Baneblade when the second bottle began losing pressure. The first coat took about 15 minutes from beginning to end, compared to the 2-3 hours it would have taken with a brush. Clean up was simple with water. I used nearly a whole bottle of paint, so there wasn't much to pour back in the bottle.

Also, one minor issue: Be careful when attempting to mix the paint in the glass bottle. I recommend you stir it rather than shake it, as the bottle is not completely sealed when the cap is screwed on. I ended up getting paint on my shirt.

Primed and ready to go.

Our tools for today. Adeptus Battlegray will be my first coat, followed by camo masking, a coat of Mechrite Red and then Blood Red over that. Once the masking is removed, I'll go over the camo edges freehand with Codex Gray.

Unpacking the parts. I was glad I had read the online instructions, as the included ones don't even cover all the steps to assemble it.

Test painting on some cardboard. Although you can adjust the spray in a couple ways, I left it stock without any problems. My big question is how to use standard Citadel paints with this. The instructions online specify foundation paints. I'll probably try it straight out of the bottle first and then cut it with water, if necessary.

Ready to go.

This took no time at all. In fact, it was easier than priming the model with spray primer, as the spray gun went on more evenly. If you can use spray primer, you can use the spray gun. Another evening I'll work on the masking and the second coat.

Black List Red Parasites (politics)

I've been thinking about parasite states and politics. Parasite states are the ones that receive more federal funds than their citizens put up. For example, for every dollar that California puts in, we get $.81 back, which is a rip-off. Feeding at the trough, a state like North Dakota gets $2.03 back for the one dollar they put in. When will this conservative welfare end? Don't they have any self respect? Go get jobs (state taxes)!

Parasite states are mostly small states that have those pesky electoral votes that misrepresent them in the election. All but one of the top ten are "red" states, the "real" America according to Palin. Yet blue states feed them with federal dollars. I've been wondering if it makes sense to support these welfare Republicans with my money, usually in the form of making sales online. Cross referencing the current electoral map (slightly more generous than in past elections) with parasite states, we have the top 5:

  • North Dakota (vehicle parts, tractors, wheat)
  • Mississippi (vehicles, chemicals, electrical machinery)
  • Alaska (oil, seafood, minerals) (no sales tax)
  • West Virginia (plastics, coal, machinery)
  • Montana (chemicals, machinery, ore) (no sales tax)
Of course, this won't change elections until the last person in each state leaves and turns off the lights. Even a population of 1 gets the full electoral vote count. I'm kidding about all this, by the way.

Toys for Tots

The marine corps has been a little busy over the last few years, which is why we're only now getting a Toys for Tots bin at the store. In some respects, we're continuing the area tradition that Games Unlimited started. If you want to donate, place a new, unwrapped toy (or kids game) in the bin. To show I'm not a completely shameless opportunist, if you buy said toy at our store, let us know it's for the bin and we'll give you 40% off.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Down is Up, Up is Down

Remember this graph I posted from August? The reason for all the miniature price increases? The prediction that much more of this will drive miniature companies out of business?

Tin is now trading at around $11,000/ton, a 21 month low. And you know what happened to that other key ingredient of miniature manufacturing, oil. See, there is a silver lining to all this. Just don't expect miniature prices to go down.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Paint Gun

I had one of those unproductive weekends coming off a couple weeks without my two days off in a row. I was binging on episodes of Jericho via my Netflix account, much to my wife's annoyance. As it was getting dark last night, I pulled out the Baneblade and primed it for later. I'm planning to try out the new Games Workshop paint gun. I spend many hours painting each tank with just base coats. I need at least three coats with my camo scheme, and that usually takes 3-4 hours with a brush.

The weekend wasn't entirely unproductive as I started workng on holiday marketing for the store. Most of my efforts were to stop being invisible. I usually let people come to me during the holidays, relying on the Yellow Pages and TV advertising. Now I need to reach out and grab them. I bought a replacement outdoor swinging sign to bring in more traffic. I contracted with a window painter to paint a festive holiday theme, kind of like The Hobbit does Christmas. Target and Sears had inexpensive lighted holiday displays which should draw the eye. I'm also planning a devious campaign of papering the parking lot with flyers on Black Friday and subsequent weekends (and subsequent parking lots). I'm looking for a bunch of people to work this project (it pays product or money), as it needs to be done mob style. I know some people hate window flyers, but they're very effective. It's not a time to be squeamish. I'm especially looking for a ring leader that can help organize and recruit.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Mirror

Businesses are a reflection of their communities. A game store is especially so, with many microcosms of the gaming hobby under one roof. There is occasional cross-over, say from role-playing to miniature gaming, but for the most part, hobbyists keep to themselves. We've gone from trying to figure out this "demographic" so it can best be served, to accepting it, something that's turning out harder than I expected. If you're running your game store properly, you're serving the community, selling and promoting what they want, not necessarily what you want. The disconnect can be a little frustrating.

All I have to do is look through the looking glass, which in my case is the right hand bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. Over in the urban part of the Inner East Bay there is richer variety. There is heightened competition between game stores in the inner regions, such as Oakland and Berkeley. It's a level of competition that has divided up stores into their specialties. They have price wars on commodity games like Magic. They each seek a unique identity to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Their large population bases support this. One's a card shop, another is known as a miniatures store, while most good ones have a growing community in multiple areas. You can specialize, but you can't ignore too many other areas of interest. Most interesting though, customers seem to have a much wider range of tastes in these urban centers than my suburban comrades.

Over the hills and farther away from the Bay Area cities, we have the suburban Outer East Bay, where our store resides. We've got about half the population density, if you compare the four major cities around our store to the the population of Berkeley and Oakland. However, that smaller population base has trouble supporting more than a store or two. My feeling is that the burb dwellers have gamer characteristics different from the urbanites. My guess is that:
  • There are far fewer of them to begin with. Urban areas promote cultural diversity while suburban areas are more up with trends. That diversity is why many of us live in urbanized areas. I grew up in the prototypical suburb, Irvine California, an early suburb that received an ideal planned community award from the then Soviet Union. I certainly felt the push towards conformity more there than I do in urban areas (although sometimes there's a tyranny of uniqueness in cities).
  • They don't value independent stores. I get the impression that suburbanites spend a lot of their money buying online, far more than urbanites. Urban dwellers value local stores. They add flavor and support diversity of interests. They keep money in the local community, a crunchy granola value that suburbanites don't respond well to. It's survival of the fittest chain store in the suburbs. Why buy the new D&D book from you and your strange shop with walls of lead and odd customers when I can get my book with a Latte at Barnes & Noble? The holy grail in the suburbs is a big house in the best school district. The urban holy grail is an awesome bakery within walking distance. Suburbanites prefer convenience and consistency of experience over quirky independent businesses.
  • Their tastes are more conventional. We sell a variety of games, but we have difficulty selling games out of the mainstream. There's less interest in the cutting edge, both in miniature gaming, board games, and role-playing. This isn't to say we don't have those customers, but we have a hard time selling things like war games and indie role-playing. On the other hand, we do really well with the Big Three: Magic, D&D and 40K. One of the interesting problems we've had is that many game designers live in urban areas, so it's natural for them to support urban stores with events and promotion. It's hard to get them to come to our special events.
These are broad generalization for sure, and I'm not complaining or criticizing. The last thing I want to do is bite the hand that literally feeds me. We do very well with what we do, hawking our big threes, and other conventional games, but what we do seems so limited sometimes. Anyway, if you're reading this and you're one of my customers, I would bet money that this doesn't describe you. Thoughts?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wheat and Chaff

I was talking with industry people this week to get a better view of the game trade and the conflicting economic information I'm receiving. There was some good news and bad news. For one, the distribution tier seems as strong as ever, with several of them expanding, opening new warehouses around the country. ACD and GTS Distribution are ones I use regularly, and although ACD is expanding towards the East Coast, GTS is opening additional West Coast warehouses that will help us. This is a threat to Alliance, which is the 500 pound gorilla of game distribution. Heck, their logo is the freakin' Death Star. Some distributors are not doing well, usually due to missteps of some sort, so the news isn't all good.

So do distributors expect a strong holiday season? Yes and no. Although the game trade is counter-cyclical, meaning it should do well in a troubled economy, many stores across the country, and especially in the Northeast, are hurting badly. Consumers in those regions are losing jobs quickly and competition for gaming in poor weather regions is stiffer. There's a separation going on between the strong, well managed stores, and the stores that never really organized themselves as a proper business. That second class of stores is failing, like most poorly run stores in a troubled economy. So talking about "counter-cyclical" assumes you're doing everything right. Most people think the winnowing down of stores 's a good thing for the industry, but these stores add as much disruption in their closing as they did in their existence. They've always needed to make room better run businesses, a problem based on the low barrier of entry into the business. With these stores on the ropes, distributors are being cautious.

Most distributors are going very light on their inventories, even now. Yes, they believe it will be a very good holiday season for games. Yes, they believe the game industry is counter-cyclical. Yet, they're scared and cautious, even more so than usual. Nobody really knows for sure what will happen with the economy. I envision middle managers in distributors preaching counter-cyclical, while owners are looking at the macro picture of the economy and telling them to pull back. Those chaff stores that are likely to fail will also play a role in distribution stocking. Nobody knows if these stores will survive and exactly what impact that will have on the creaky system.

Game store owners are also being cautious. I'm still planning to order less and use "just in time" inventory more than usual. However, that's problematic considering distributors are hedging also. This will be a holiday season in which I'll be doing my best to monitor inventory levels of key products at the distributors. I've got about 50 items identified that I don't want to run out of. Still, it will be one of the other 5,000 products I carry that I'll be howling about by mid-December. A well funded retailer would be wise to order deep for the holidays for no other reason than to be well stocked for what will likely be sparse distributor inventories for first quarter of 2009.


One final observation: Have you noticed how ruthless people talk about businesses? The wheat and chaff analogy I use is an example, but there's a Darwinian language used to describe the failure of businesses during tough times, as if it's a necessary business imperative, a clearing of the brush, or whatever you want to call it. As a business owner, this lack of empathy is sobering. On any given day I may self identify as wheat or chaff, so it's a little scary to hear people talk about the necessity that I clear out of the way if I make a mistake. It's the last form of "blaming the victim" that's still acceptable in American culture. It's taboo to blame someone for being the victim of a crime, even if they made foolish choices that led to their victimization. It's common to call laid off workers victims, while money people quietly refer to them as "dead wood". Owning a business is a virtue, but there's absolutely no sympathy afforded to business owners.

It's fine to openly talk about the demise of a business as a necessity. Sometimes business failure is just bad timing or a result of larger events that are out of the owners control. 9-11 killed a lot of new businesses. Small business owners understand this and sympathize with each other. Small business owners share a kind of fraternal bond, an understanding of how their world works, how it's different from that of "employee." They're working hard, with their money and for their money, without a net, without sympathy from outsiders. There's no unemployment insurance, no sick days or paid vacations, and everything is financed on your personal credit. Everybody wants to put their hand in your pocket and a letter from the government is never good news. People will shrug and move on when your business, the life blood of your existence, closes and disappears. Employees (meaning everyone else) don't understand this. That fraternity is one reason why I enjoy trade shows and talking with other business owners.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Building the baneblade took about 11 hours, including a lot of modifications to get it to fit properly. I'm not a good enough modeler to figure out bad instructions on the fly, but I am good enough to fix my mistakes. The biggest problem was the first step, where the instructions tell you to glue the front wheel assembly to the frame. This is a mistake that will prevent the two sides from seating properly against the center section. This tank has issues, but I've put so much time into it and fixed so many problems that I now have a personal investment, enough to keep it rather than sell it off.

Credit. I had a strange conversation today with a Chase rep. I had applied for a third card from them for business use to replace the crappy Advanta card. Three cards seems like a lot, but it's not really. The first card is a personal card with a giant credit limit. I've had it for seven years and use it for the majority of my purchases. The second card is a new Amazon Chase card I got for the purpose of buying a book for free on Amazon one day. It has a low interest rate and a nice credit line, so I parked my medium term Advanta debt onto that one. The role of the third card I was applying for was for business use, so I could stop using my personal card.

The conversation had the Chase rep asking me several questions about my finances and income, usually unusual things, then talking frankly about how much credit overall they were willing to give me. That total amount included all three cards, and the rep allowed me to transfer credit limits between the three cards, including moving part of my personal credit line over to one of my business cards. It was refreshing and honest, a departure from the arcane nature of most banks, who either accept or deny you and then give you what seems an arbitrary amount of credit. This "credit crunch" has been an eye opener for me and I'll be avoiding using my personal credit in the future and work towards establishing more mature financing, like business lines of credit rather than credit cards.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Less than Special Edition

It's not common for a product to get a deep discount on release day, but that's what we did with the special edition versions of the D&D 4 Player's Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual. Like the 3.5 special edition versions, this one was supposed to be "pleather" bound, with gilded pages and, most importantly, the errata (rules corrections). 4th Edition has a lot more errata than 3.5, so that's significant. For this you will pay the premium price of $75. Some laugh and scoff at this price, but the 3.5 versions were steady sellers.

Unfortunately, someone at WOTC didn't get the memo. According to my sources, they planned to to do the full 3.5 special edition treatment to the 4.0 version, but management decided at the last minute that the fancy fake leather cover was too expensive. However, they retained the $75 price tag, much to everyone's consternation. At $75 for errata and gilded edges, the book is horribly overpriced. We knocked it down to $50 in the store (close to the Amazon price), and offered a $10 trade in for bringing us a regular 4.0 version of the SE book. We did this in hopes of not getting stuck with them, but guess what, they're almost gone.

The dilemma that I have now is that the books are selling too well. When I restock them today, I'll be deciding if I want to keep one of each on the shelf at $75, or if it's worth it to sell a bunch at $50 or so with our trade-in promotion. People do want the book (I'm getting one), but the price is the sticking point. I still make $12.50 a book at the $50 discounted price, but I'm not sure it's worth it.

Holiday Stocking: My big dilemma right now is what to do for the holidays. I've got a list of pros and cons about stocking up. Pros include the "counter-cyclical" nature of the game trade, closings of our various competitors, the possibility that distributors understock, and the proof that things aren't all that bad: healthy October sales. Cons include an erratic economy with horrendous consumer confidence, problems with the credit crisis that might smack me (and my customers) around some more, the failure of recent in-store sales for toys, and the recent change in customer buying habits. Right now I'm leaning towards hedging: bringing in only stock I know I can sell later, and only about half the usual amount. Items that sell only during the holidays will end up as "just-in-time" inventory. The advice I have for shoppers is to shop earlier than normal. The same advice as last year.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New New Top Ten

A year ago I posted our top 10 games, noting how things changed from the old store. How have things changed from a year ago? Not so much.

  1. Warhammer 40K (same as last year): The release of 5th Edition in July was a big hit, propelling 40K through 2008.
  2. Magic: The Gathering ( up 1 spot): Solid organized play and popular releases allowed Magic to take the place of Warmachine. Depending on the month, Magic can take the number one spot from 40K.
  3. Dungeons & Dragons (up 1 spot): Fourth edition, released in June has been a success, despite the curmudgeons that still debate this. Each new month of releases increases options and popularity in this game. Living Forgotten Realms appears to be the first time WOTC finally got organized play.
  4. Warmachine/Hordes (down 2 spots): The game has struggled in 2008, and has lacked excitement for a while. I've seen key players quietly buying 40K....
  5. Drinks (same as last year): What can I say, MexiCoke rules.
  6. Warhammer Fantasy (up 6 spots): Despite lacking regular play for this game in-store, Warhammer Fantasy still has its local fans. We've become better known as a GW store and we carry every fantasy release (although just the basic back list product).
  7. Fantasy Flight Games (up 1 spot): Lots of solid board game releases from FFG in 2008, along with solidifying some games, like Arkham Horror, as evergreen product. They're becoming the Ameritrash boardgame juggernaut.
  8. Flames of War (down 2 spots): It's not that FoW is on the decline, it's that it's now impervious to excitement. It's the same as it was a year before, sales wise.
  9. Rio Grande (up 2 spots): Success with Race for the Galaxy, Felix, Stone Age, Thebes and Airships, while maintaining their current hot titles (FFG take note).
  10. Melissa & Doug (down 3 spots): Toy sales are flat, flat, flat and the department will see a reduction after the holidays.


The seemingly endless construction project next door is in its final stages. Since the beginning of Summer, a dentist has been noisily building his office there. I know I've lost business from all the racket, but I'm hoping it brings more traffic in the sleepy little shopping center. I think the Japanese restaurant next to them has been brought to their knees because of this. It's one thing to shop in a noisy store, it's another to choose to have your lunch with all the pounding and drilling.

The construction project is a pretty big undertaking, costing a few hundred thousand dollars with the build-out of a mezzanine level, several bathrooms and specialized plumbing and electrical. Talking to the contractor (the dentist's brother), the cost of the build-out should mean they'll need to stay for least ten years to recoup their costs. You can do the math on that, but there's no surprise there's money in tooth repair.

The other day a couple of the contractors flunkies stopped by to talk. They had failed a city inspection because the electrical along our shared wall needed to have the conduit replaced. They thought I should pay for this, since the city required it and well, I guess because I was there first. Nice try. The property management company already told them to blow, it turns out, so they figured they would hit me up, since my game store seems to be making me such a wealthy man.

They pointed out that a fire could start because of the problem. First, the problem will be gone one way or another, because the city won't approve their construction otherwise. Second, I don't recall buying a multi-million dollar commercial building recently, so I don't see how I should make upgrades to one. Third, my insurance company handing me a big check after my store burns down during a recession is not the end of the world. That would certainly solve my AT-43 liquidation problem. Anyway, I can be a little cavalier because I know they'll have to fix it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My Credit Crunch

I was surprised to open my Advanta credit card statement to find they had tripled my interest rate to 27%. This was for a business credit card I've used regularly since opening the business, mostly for parking short term debt at a reasonable rate. It's never used for purchases, just as a line of credit. I would keep about five to ten thousand dollars and make payment of around five hundred to a thousand dollars a month, pretty good for a low interest card (around 7%) and a very useful tool. I've never been late with them, or anyone else, and my credit is good, so I was surprised to see this happen.

When I called them, I expected to straighten this out. Usually when a credit card company does this, they need a little arm twisting to get them on the right path. You should never accept crappy interest rates or ridiculous fees. Call, complain and threaten. Threats of canceling the card are a good start, and that's what I did. The account rep said fine, your account will be closed effective immediately. Wow! Just like that. No argument, no sending me to the closer to entice me to keep my account. No caving on interest rates. They had obviously decided they no longer wanted me as a customer and this is exactly the outcome they were hoping for. It was a surprise for me and my mind raced.

The wheels in my head started turning. What did this mean? It would certainly add a couple hundred dollars a month of extra expense I couldn't afford, if I couldn't find a good way to park that money. What about expansion? My goal was to pay off that card by the end of the year and expand the business by leveraging the credit again on that card. Were my expansion plans finished too? What did that mean long term? I started going through my wallet looking at business cards, most of which I rarely use. A couple had reasonable rates for purchases, but had cash advance rates of around 20%. I decided to call Chase, the bank that owns the card I use most for business.

My Chase card is where I get those obscene amounts of frequent flyer miles. I've been using my personal card for years, because the credit limit is enormous and I need that for purchasing all the goods in the store. After a friendly discussion, in which they told me the huge interest fees I would pay if I tried to park money on that card while at the same time spending fifteen to twenty grand a month on rotating purchases, they convinced me to open a business account. I had been pre-approved for about 2 years now, off and on, so I went ahead and opened a replacement account for the lost Advanta card. This is actually important, since closing a line of credit hurts your credit score, boosting up your debt to available credit ratio.

The Chase rep also suggested I call back about the podunk Chase Amazon business card I signed up for when I was trying to get a free book last year. I already had a business card from them but I rarely use it. After calling the business group, they were happy to park my money for even less than Advanta (5% forever). This told me that I wasn't the one in trouble, it was Advanta.

While Chase, a well diversified bank, saw me as a stable customer for seven years who makes enormous monthly payments and always pays his bills on time, my guess is that Advanta is doing deep data mining and analysis on their business customer base, anticipating all the eventualities. According to this article, Advanta is already in trouble: "Advanta saw an 83% decrease in earnings in its second quarter, due in large to provisions for credit charge-offs." That doesn't help me much, since it doesn't really matter whether I'm to blame or the bank is to blame when my rates get jacked.

Chase seems to be doing fine and they understand me as reflected in my past credit, while Advanta is predicting my business will fail soon. Thanks Advanta. When I told my Chase rep about the Advanta tactics, she was not surprised, telling me she gets several calls a day with the same story. Advanta isn't the only one. The article goes on to explain that rate jumps are often unrelated to customer activity:

Card issuers from Bank of America to Capital One are using the economic crisis as a reason to raise rates. According to Consumer Action's 2008 survey of card companies, Bank of America, Citi, and Capital One have recently said that "market conditions" could cause them to increase APR's.... "It's becoming a more common practice," says Ben Woolsey, director of consumer research and marketing at, a comparison site for card offers. "It's a broad, nebulous provision."

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Gaming

My D&D group is doing well in Keep on the Shadowfell. Although D&D 4 tries to make even 1st level adventuring fun, there's only so much excitement derived from knocking down goblins and skeletons. The party is now starting to move into more interesting encounters and you can tell there's more excitement. We just added two new excellent players to the group last night, James and Allen, who play a couple of pious dwarves from the mountains.

I haven't played 40K since before my trip to Wisconsin. I snagged a Baneblade from our ding & dent auction pile and started putting that together Saturday. The instructions for this model are not up to the usual GW standards and I found myself doing a lot of modifications to get things to fit. I've spent about 7 hours so far and I'm about three quarters finished. I'm not happy with what I've got so far, so I might finish it up and sell it at the store at cost so I can build another one. I really like the idea of the Baneblade, but the model is frustrating me. This model is for experienced modellers and apparently two chimeras, three hellhounds (including a Forge World and heavily modified version), and three basilisks wasn't enough experience.

The truth of my modeling career, now that I've gotten this far with my 40K army and I don't mind sharing, is that I was a frustrated modeler starting at 8 years old. Some people have a natural affinity with spatial dimensions. They're good with directions, physical movement and putting things together. I've got no such affinity and lack the most basic spatial skills. Sometimes I think I'm brain damaged with highly developed spatial coping skills. As a kid I muddled through organized sports, my love for martial arts (despite lacking much skill) and model building and I'm probably better for it, but a wiser person might have focused on other activities.

At 8 years old I recall buying a bomber plane model and attempting unsuccessfully to put it together in the dining room. There were tears, followed by my throwing that plane across the room, smashing it into the wall. It was a moment of modeling shame reinforced by a couple years of hiding the fact that I was buying Snap-Tite models instead of real models. You could get these at the local drug store back then, and I recall the shame of the purchase, as if I were buying condoms and Hustlers.

Nowadays most kids are so attached to video games that even a Snap-Tite kit would confuse them, but back then modeling was a common hobby. I recall a fairly large collection of mostly cars and trucks, but no planes after the dining room incident. So you can imagine I've got a little emotional baggage when I have trouble with a model like the Baneblade as an adult. There was a moment when I wanted to throw it against the dining room wall (or blow it up with M80's).

Finally, my three year old Rocco invited me to play Bendomino Jr. We don't normally play games, just play with toys, so I jumped at the opportunity to support his gaming interest. We played the game like a jigsaw puzzle, rather than using domino rules, but it was fun anyway. I look forward to playing many interesting games with him in the future.

Anniversary Party Photos

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Our Fourth Year

We've had a successful first year in our new location, our fourth year in business. It has been a year of transitions. We've transitioned to a new location, with most of our customers successfully finding their way to our new store. We've transitioned our store model to one of open gaming and organized play, rather than straight retail. As much as I would like to run a pre-Internet, 80's era fantasy game store, the reality is that modern game stores must be broad and supportive with space for play. The store isn't just the old store with more space, we've transitioned our store to something very different than it was before, because other local game stores have made drastic transitions of their own.

Since we moved, we've seen Games Unlimited, Clayton Cards, Blondie's Comics, and Games Workshop Concord close their doors. All the local game stores. Other stores have popped up, but the vacuum these core stores created was filled by us. Being the last man standing was not my strategy a year ago, but I'm not complaining. Much of our in-store gaming community is a hodgepodge of refugees from other game stores. This has resulted in some very strong in-store gaming groups that didn't exist before.

Our Friday Night Magic group is our strongest with 15-30 people in attendance. Our Warmachine league is our most established group, with regulars showing up on Sunday like clockwork for years now. Our Warhammer 40K league has a smaller core of solid players with many more drop ins. Living Forgotten Realms is only a few weeks old, but they fill 2-3 tables of players on Thursday nights. Some of our fledgling new events include weekly Pokemon tournaments and (gasp) a return to Yu Gi Oh organized play with some clearer boundaries and better supervision. Game of Thrones inexplicably brings in large crowds, surprising for a game that we gave up as dead a year ago. Most large game stores would need to choose which kinds of games they would support, while we've been given the benefit of serving the entire game community. I want to point out that our open gaming "distributed" model rarely sees staff running events. Rather, it is up to enthusiastic volunteers to step up and use us as a resource. If we're not running an event you want, maybe you should be that guy.

The year hasn't been all easy. The same circumstances that have helped us have hindered us, as we re-define our place in the gaming community. We've had to adjust to new customers from departed stores, usually using it as an opportunity to serve them, but occasionally having to say no. Some of the things that make customers happy, especially in stocking a broad range of product, are the things that will sink a business if they're not careful. "Consider yes," the popular phrase from indie role-playing games, has been my motto for new products. At the same time, just because store X did things one way, doesn't mean I'll follow, especially when store X just went out of business. Still, I've got a big Ravensburger jigsaw puzzle order about to go out and I've continually tried to find a way to do Magic singles. Customers demand these things. We aim to please, but we also aim to thrive as a store.

Other challenges include a tremendous level of shoplifting compared to the old store. There's a certain percentage of "acceptable" losses and we've gone from the very low end of that spectrum to the very top. Since that level of shrink is considered a percentage of gross sales, it seems even larger since our sales are so much larger (to match our expenses). Staff training only went so far to prevent shrink, so we turned to technology with a closed circuit television system to watch trouble areas. I'll also be considering a tag and gate system. Being the last game store also means I inherited all the shoplifters from all those defunct businesses. Our first shoplifting catch will be made an example of. Stay tuned for the exciting drama.

Just when I thought I was done spending my tech money on expensive cameras, our four year old point-of-sale system started wheezing and coughing. I was hoping to limp through until January, when we might have some holiday money to fix it, but it wouldn't wait. We upgraded the CPU and version of the POS software along with our customer loyalty software package. It was not a well timed expense, but it was necessary. I'm hoping this lasts us another four years.

There were also a bunch of smaller tech changes behind the scene, such as going paperless in the office. It not only meant we could ditch all the paper and the room it was taking up, but we ditched the office! We still have the office space, but it's no longer needed for office tasks, which means we can use it for future business activities like the much promised (threatened) online store.

What About the Economy?
The housing crisis and resulting credit crunch has hit me too. Besides losing tremendous value in my own home, the loss of my home equity line of credit, the main credit source for the business, has me borrowing more short term expensive money from credit cards. This has put a crimp on expansion plans, but so far hasn't effected operations. We've never had a slow down in re-stocking the shelves and we've never missed payroll. Still, you'll find most businesses cautious to spend any money when you've got no financial slack. At the same time, it's almost inconceivable we'll see a well funded competitor pop up any time soon. Note to well funded competitors: If you've got money to burn, make me an offer.

Where we feel the poor economy the most is with missing customers. We've lost several good customers to unemployment and many others have pulled back their spending due to job insecurity or general concern over the economy. This is all "anecdotal evidence," stuff I learn talking to people but not something reflected in our overall sales numbers. Sales for us are strong and we've met our sales goals for the year. Would they have been better during a good economy? Perhaps, but perhaps not. We've gained a lot of new customers over the past few months, and some of that, experts argue, are people "nesting," relying on tried and true board games and hobby activities to distract them from hard times. The most popular American game is alas, not Settlers of Catan, but Monopoly, a game that came out of The Great Depression. Games were made for tough economic times.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life Cycle

All game products have a life cycle. They're created, they're sold and played and they finally hit a twilight period in which stores stop selling them and they recede to the background. As a hobbyist, this can be sad, as many games that cycle through fail because of poor marketing, mismanagement, or just timing. You're an official gaming grognard if you still play these games, especially if they're all you play.

As a retailer, there are new games coming out every day. Where does the money come from to buy these new games? It comes from the dessicated carcasses of the old games, the last few bucks squeezed out of a clearance sale or a slow selling item that will never get ordered again. It can make you a little jaded, especially when you finally clear out a game that you personally love. Ptolus was like that for me, the giant D&D tome that could never be replicated as a gaming project. I was sad to learn I couldn't order any more after selling the last copy. Sad and relieved, as the sales of Ptolus were dwindling down to nothing. Still, whenever something special is left on the curb, a little bit of yourself is left behind with it.

As a retailer, one of my jobs is sales forecasting, including the decision to let a game go. Some go quietly, omitted from my re-stocks. Others will go with a flashy sale, or a bold declaration that I'm done with a game - "I'm kicking it to the curb!" This declaration usually comes from frustration as most games that die wallow about in misery like a stuck pig. AT-43 was one of those games. It started out poorly, with few sales. I visited Parisian game stores while on vacation a few months after the initial release, and despite what industry people were telling me, this French game was a loser there too. Each game store had a basic set or two sitting in a corner, while their basements were packed to the rafters with 40K.

AT-43 finally picked up steam, but lacked in-store play for us. It semed to be the perfect game: pre-painted, sophisticated rules, interesting back-story and models, but nobody would play it in the store. Worse, Rackham screwed it up at every opportunity, with key items out of stock for months, lots of items arriving damaged, shizophrenic distribution schemes, a substandard margin for retailers and inconsistent street dates. Going bankrupt in the middle of this didn't help, even if it's country club French bankrupty. When Fantasy Flight Games finally took over US distribution and increased our margin, the damage had been done. Regular AT-43 customers had moved on to other games, partially because of the barrage of monkey men that few found compelling.

The game isn't entirely dead for us, but a product line is a lot like the stock market. You want to buy on the upswing and get out as it begins to decline. The last thing you want is a portfolio (store) of bargain basement junk because you didn't have the guts or foresight to get out. AT-43: 40% off at Black Diamond Games.

A handsome curve

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe and Me (politics)

I'm assuming Joe the Plumber, the new Republican folk hero (perplexing even to Joe) has a personal income of $250K, rather than a business income of that amount. 98% of the small businesses like mine, have high revenues while the owners are taxed on their income, such as my small salary of $36,000/year. Joe may be a plumber, but I can't quite envision a blue collar "joe sixpack*" in overalls. Call him Joe the Attorney and see how much sympathy he gets. Lets see how well Joe and me do under Obama.

Where the Obama plan helps Joe and me tremendously is health care. Small businesses can't afford to offer health care due to the high and unpredictable costs. We couldn't plan on health care as a stable benefit even if we could swing it, as the expense rises at an unpredictable rate well above inflation. Joe and I should be able to better hire and retain long term employees when we can offer an affordable plan. Until then, many small businesses pay the expensive cost of hiring and training new employees as the old ones are forced to move on to bigger companies with better health benefits.

The second part of employee retention for Joe and me is education. We live in a country where your zip code determines your quality of education, and your income determines your zip code. What if the public schools in my lower income city were of the same quality as the schools in a higher income area? The inequality in education helped fuel the housing crisis, as home owners attempted to leap frog to communities where their children would have educational opportunities. Anyone in American who chooses a lower income, because of their career, chooses to doom their children to substandard education. Become a teacher, social worker or game store owner, and your low income is accompanied by a perpetual feeling of guilt about what you've done to your children's future. And what about those who have no choice? Level the playing field in education, as the Obama plan should help do, and you build communities, retain employees, and allow intelligent people to work in rewarding fields, not just the most lucrative ones. This helps Joe and me tremendously, both in hiring employees and creating a stable customer base.

Finally, the big issue for Joe and me and is not about what's in it for us, but what kind of society we want to have. It's a big picture issue. Nobody is taking money out of Joe's pocket, it's a realization that the current economic system is just a tad inequitable. It rewards the wealthy far too much, shrinks the middle class and adds extra burdens on the poor. Should you pay a little more if you've made it economically? That's the real debate and I would argue that the system favors the wealthy in a variety of other ways and the answer should be yes. This also means Joe's and my employees will be able to live a better life, contributing to our businesses without the need to migrate to greener pastures. Having a little extra money in their pockets, middle class consumers should be able to afford new games to play or a plumber to come fix that leaky sink. It's a win-win for Joe and me.

*who drinks beer from a sixpack anymore?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Anniversary Party this Sunday

We'll be celebrating our 4 year anniversary this Sunday. The festivities start when we open at 10am and last until around 4pm. The store will have regular closing hours. What you can expect:

  • Sales. You'll be surprised at what we have planned for our in-store sales. It will be an especially good time to stock up on deeply discounted toys for the holidays.
  • Prize Drawings. Every 30 minutes we'll be drawing a prize ticket. The winner will receive a big bag full of prizes. Everyone who visits the store is eligible to win, but you have to be present to get your prize.
  • Food. We will have free food and drinks, including soft drinks and popcorn, along with cake.
  • Magic Show. Our pirate magician will be with us from 12:30 - 2:30. She'll be performing a magic show, followed by face painting and balloon animals.
  • Open Gaming. Hang out, eat food, wait for your number to be called and play games in the game center.
Bring your family and friends and feel free to pass this information around!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Best Day Yet

Yesterday marked our best sales day ever, with a record crowd for the Ding & Dent auction. Most just grabbed giant stacks of bargains from the "buy it now" tables and left, but the live auction went well too. What I found interesting was that the auction was only half the story. It would have been a great sales day regardless, as customers not knowing about the auction came in and spent money. Monsterpocalypse was the big surprise. We sold out most of our stock and had a couple tables going in the back. We've got more arriving on Monday. I worked the counter, sometimes with long lines, and some can attest I looked like a deer in the headlights through some of this. Sorry about the lines; that's my biggest concern about improving the efficiency of this process, especially for the customers who popped in to buy one thing.

The in-store trend over the last few weeks is that customers are more cautious with their money. They're carefully assessing the value of game purchases, some, I think, for the first time. They aren't necessarily spending less money, just spending it differently, trying to get the most value from it. That add-on purchase of a pack or two of Magic cards has dried up, while at the same time some accessories are "trade downs" from more expensive, marginal products that they might have been bought out of hand in the past.

It's like how gourmet foods at supermarkets are doing well right now, because customers have traded down from restaurants. Gamers do their own trading down and the big winners are dice and paint. Role players don't pick up the latest book just because it's interesting, it has to be useful. As they're more selective and have a shrinking budget, they trade down to stuff like dice and maybe a handful of pre-painted miniatures. Miniature players don't add to their shelf of unpainted lead, just because of a new release, they buy paint and supplies to paint those models they bought for a rainy day. It's pouring out there. There's no surer things in game stores right now than dice and paint.

The quote I posted earlier in the week mentions "cocooning," when people stay home and entrench. This is what I started doing when the gas prices soared. I went to work, spent time with the family, tried to drive one less day a week, and rather than going out a lot, we cooked at home and worked on our hobbies (building railroads, painting models, etc). I think game room attendance is up a bit related to this concept, and the increased sales seem to show there is more active gaming going on outside the store. This has the added effect of increasing the value of a game. The more people that play it, the more valuable (useful) it becomes. It's kind of like the Network Effect. Get enough of the network effect going on, and you'll see the Bandwagon Effect, which every gamer can identify.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Crash (the economy)

Of all places, This American Life spent a good amount of time last Friday (the third) getting into the details of the credit crisis. You can listen to it online or as a podcast. It's the best explanation of the credit crisis I've heard yet. The episode goes over the problem with "credit default swaps" and how a crisis of confidence and a lack of regulation crashed the economic system. Also of interest was the observation that the West has accumulated far too much debt over the last 30 years, which really means, if you're under 50, everything you know is wrong.

What comes next? The bailout package is discussed, especially how many economists believe the real method for fixing this is to infuse that $700 billion into buying up preferred shares of banks rather than their crappy assets. This gives them the cash they need to operate and lets the market work out how to deal with toxic assets. The real issue is that it's unlikely the West will get a chance to run with such a high debt level in the future. This means everyone: consumers, banks, and governments. Oh yeah, and there's plenty of blame to go around for everyone.

On the positive side, many new ideas and new businesses pop up after a crisis like this. Current business owners and entrepreneurs are deep thinking about their role in that new future and what opportunities they can take advantage of.

Friday, October 10, 2008


My favorite new term:

Counter-cyclical. Used in an ICV2 article to describe the game industry in poor economic times. When people are stressed and the economy is in trouble, they go to traditional past times. Game stores actually do well in rough economic times, veteran store owners say. A retail consultant quoted in the New York Times said:

It might be a holiday of movie tickets and board games, not of big-screen televisions and vacations. This is the cocooning that we saw in the ’80s, for goodness sakes, that we’re seeing coming back.

My most disliked term:

Lifestyle job. Used by a game industry retailer to describe his choice of running a game store. I will admit that most people do it as a kind of lifestyle change, but it hasn't been how I've done things for years now. It has those gentleman farmer implications, that you're toilng away at a job that's only slightly more than a hobby. There are a handful of game store owners that make a good living at this, and that's what I personally aspire to, mostly because it's the only way to survive in this SF Bay Area without the WWGJ (wife with a good job).

Lifestyle job
takes the place of my most disliked term from hub and spoke stores. This term is used to describe how smaller regional stores act as feeders for larger regional stores. Neat idea if you happen to be the hub, but offensive if you see yourself as the smaller spoke.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Ding & Dent

It has been a long time since we did our last ding & dent auction. We've got our next one scheduled for Saturday (sign up at 11:30am), the first in about five months. I want to go over how it works, since I consider these the shopping event of the year and we have a fairly low turnout. It perplexes me and I have to assume it's poor marketing on my part. The place would be packed if more people knew what we did. Also, we're likely to do them less regularly as we look for better avenues of selling these products, notably the plans for the online store in 2009.

We buy up games from various manufacturers and distributors. These are of two sorts, unsellable games in mint condition and current games with various levels of damage. The unsellable stuff is usually a few years old and has run its course or just overstock of more than the manufacturer could possibly sell. This stuff is not worth full retail, or perhaps customers passed on a good game that wasn't a good value. Knock the price down 80-90% and suddenly you've got a bargain.

The damaged stuff is anything new you might see in a game store in various conditions. Games a distributor sends to a store can be refused and returned for even the slightest damage. The corner might be bent on a book or a board game might have a scratched cover. On the other hand, sometimes a whole case of games will get impaled with a forklift. It varies. Besides the damages that UPS inflicts on a game sent from the distributor, often the manufacturers shipments will also get damaged. In this case, the distributor does what retailers do and calls up and says they've got damages and don't want the items. In most cases, the manufacturer will just credit the distributor for the damages, provided there aren't too many. It's often too expensive to ship it back.

All of this unsellable "junk", often perfectly playable games with cosmetic damage, accumulates until a deal can be struck with some clever retailer who will liquidate this stuff at conventions, online and at auctions. I say clever because it's hard to do this. The costs involved depend a lot on geography, both shipping charges and your ability to store it somewhere. I'm perfectly happy to buy up a dozen or so damaged board games, but tell me you've got a thousand copies, and I'm out of the game. Midwestern game stores are perfectly located for both cheaper shipping and inexpensive storage, along with a better market of local conventions and just more gamers.

Your Selling. As a customer, you can bring in your games to sell for store credit. Store auctions are going to bring in a lower price than a national eBay auction, so bring in things you want to get rid of. Anything game related is good, even obscure stuff, as the most experienced gamers tend to attend these events. Why sell with us when you expect to get a low price? Consider it like the current housing market. Yes, you'll get a low price when you sell your house right now, but you're going to buy another low priced house in the same market conditions. This is an opportunity to generate some store credit to buy some of the other great buys at the auction. All auction sales are paid out in store credit.

The Prices. The starting bid for customer auctions is what they set it at, but we encourage a low bid price. As for ding & dent product, we buy up these games, no questions asked, whatever they send us, for about ten cents on the dollar, which we then would like to start bidding at twenty cents on the dollar. Sometimes we get large quantities we want to ditch fast and might sell a $50 boardgame at our cost, or $5 and maybe a buck or two extra for the shipping we had to pay. In other words, games, slightly blemished and in print, start at around 80-90% off. The level of damage also effects how we sell it. Those forklifted games that are still playable will likely go for 90% off, as will games we know have little local interest.

Also note that since we don't select these games and most game stores only have a subset of what's available based on local interest, you are likely to find a much broader variety of games at our auctions.

How We Do It. I'm a horrible introvert and the idea of a live auction sounds a little scary. The majority of the auctions are silent. A sea of items is sitting on our game tables with a sign up sheet next to it. You put down your number and your bid amount. Someone else can override you with their bid amount. You go back and forth like an online auction. The winner is the highest bidder. Sometimes there are multiple items, which takes some of the pressure off.

The live auction has you sitting in you seat with your numbered paddle (a paper plate) and raising your paddle when you want to bid. Live auctions are time consuming so we usually save the best items and customer items for this process. We try to make it fun and lively, with mini reviews from customers and staff as we pimp these games. It's a lot of fun.

Buy It Now Table. Here we have the larger quantities of items and perhaps stuff in the store that we want to discount and get rid of. You can just bring it to the front counter and pay for it, a sales table of sorts.

What Will We Have? No idea, only that there will be lots of it arriving sometime this week. Anything could show up: the hottest board game of the year, new Warhammer 40K models in the boxes, miniatures, boxes of cards, stuff we've never heard of, you name it. Customer often round out our selection with vintage games, including a lot of war games, fully or partially painted armies (I sold my Flames of War army at the last auction), and role playing games from decades ago.

Finally. If you've got a lot of stuff to sell, please come early, either when we open at 10am, or drop it off sometime during the week with instructions on your auction lots and minimum bids.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Elfish Gene

I would like to think it's somewhat eccentric to check into a four star hotel with an ocean view for the sole purpose of painting miniatures. The bellhop wheels his shiny golden cart through the lobby with your paint box and overnight bag as you explain that you're not here to paint the coastline, but instead a group of science fiction desert warriors. This is what I've done lately when the family is out of town, use my seemingly limitless font of frequent flyer miles to book a nice room and get away for the weekend.

This weekend was different however, mostly because my wife didn't book her trip to visit relatives with my son until the last minute, meaning I didn't book my getaway until a few days before the weekend. I ended up not with a four star hotel with an ocean view, but with the best room at a two star motel two blocks from the beach in Santa Cruz. Prostitutes walked the streets outside, traffic could be seen from my window, a noisy home renovation project started promptly at 9am, and suddenly I wasn't eccentric, I was deeply, unforgivably pathetic. Oh my god, I crossed that fine line and I was stuck for the weekend with the D&D 4 Dungeon Master's Guide and the H2 adventure, Thunderspire Labryinth.

Even as a gamer, this was too much to bear. There was no way I was going to hang out in that sad room for two days. Instead, I spent most of the weekend walking into Santa Cruz, enjoying the clean downtown along Pacific Avenue, eating at some great restaurants, like Chocolate, watching a movie (Burn After Reading, highly recommended), and perusing the bookstores. The weather was warm and sunny and even when it rained it was pleasant. Downtown Santa Cruz reminds me of Berkeley, minus the garbage, pervasive smell of piss and aggressive panhandlers. Plus the college girls are prettier. There, I said it.

When I returned to the room for the evening, after walking back from town along the river front, I skipped the D&D reading in favor of an excellent book I picked up. The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange is written by the British author Mark Borrowcliffe. It sounded like it might be interesting, although most books about D&D tend to disappoint. The Elfish Gene turned out to be a wonderful memoir of a man whose childhood was dominated by Dungeons & Dragons, much like myself and many of my friends.

I began reading expecting to wince at inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of the game and talk of devil worship and the religious right. Thankfully the author is from England, which was spared the American witch hunts of the eighties, although the children seemed significantly more vicious. He's about four years older than me, meaning his gaming experience is an ideal gamer study, as it's slightly pre-D&D. The perfect gamer age for the full experience is probably about 45. As a young war gamer he describes his first introduction to D&D and how it captured his imagination, divided the war gaming community, and forever changed his life and the lives of his friends. Friends is a relative term, as obsession with the game meant that friendship was fluid, your associates being more "gaming buddies" than true friends.

I can relate heavily with his experience. The game made you feel unique and special, with a deep sense of personal destiny. It encouraged an elitist view that you were superior to those not ensconced in the secret Gygaxian knowledge. You were destined for greatness, even though it was a time of relative prosperity where real opportunities were plentiful. A mundane life was not enough, even one of relative wealth and comfort. In exchange for being an elite (your perception, and nobody elses), there was an ongoing gamer crucible, an endless test of cleverness and wit. I can recall these painful and often cruel social interactions among boys: battles of wits, put downs, social ostracism and the resulting inability to cope with the outside world in a meaningful way. How much of that was childhood and how much was D&D related is hard to say. Thankfully, I don't recall my gaming groups being quite as cruel and heartless as the authors experiences, and I can still think of a handful of friendships I've maintained from back in the day, although none of them game anymore.

The Elfish Gene gets the details of the game down perfectly, which I'm sure caused lots of fact checking as some haven't been played in thirty years. The author captures the wonders of D&D and the promises of an infinite and endless world of possibilities. It's full of gaming details in all its glory, or tedium if you're not a gamer. What hardcore gamer hasn't made a character from their own personal stats? Who hasn't named their character after a real world idol? Or in my case, my name spelled backwards (Yrag Yar). What teenager didn't consider themselves smarter, wiser or more charismatic than they actually were?

This is all pre-Internet, of course, so it was nostalgic to recall how he would send away for things from ads in the backs of magazines, how there was nearly a contest to see who could obtain game information and products first. This was before game stores. I bought most of my D&D books from a local cooking store, and the unique coffee like smell of those stores still reminds me of D&D. There's the inevitable alienation with parents, yet, like in my childhood, parents accepted that we were at least with other children and not barricaded in our rooms being "anti-social." They generally left us to our own devices, provided we acted somewhat reasonable, even though they had no idea what we were doing. Demons never appeared and nobody got hurt or naked, so it couldn't be all bad. Being anti-social was the taboo of my childhood. It was far better to be out making mischief in the neighborhood with other boys than sitting in your room reading a book. In the old days, kids went outside, by themselves, without any particular purpose in mind. Imagine that.

Beyond D&D, the author talks about the various blind alleys that D&D led him to, the brief dabbling with meaningless occult books and rituals, fencing and martial arts, and what finally led him out of his D&D world and into adulthood, rock music. These were dead ends of my own as a kid, especially the martial arts, even the ninja stuff he talked about and the desire to wear clothing that was unobtainable. While he searched in vain for breeks, I was laughed at by my school mates for mail ordering Chuck Norris Action Jeans from Century Martial Arts, where I also bought throwing stars and nunchuks (later resulting in my felony juvenile record when I got in trouble at school). While rock and roll was his break out from D&D, I ended up using martial arts to lead me to Eastern religion, or more accurately, the realization that martial arts was a futile spiritual vehicle.

From his interest in music, the author found the real catalyst for change: girls. It's what lead to his maturing, leaving behind his oafish behavior developed from years of one upping and cruel pedantic gaming dorkness. Myself and all of my friends left D&D sooner or later, but the timing for us was always about girls. We were deeply envious and at the same time quite angry when we lost yet another player to the female persuasion. I recall it deeply shaking my world view when one of the faithful left the flock. I think the authors level of geekiness and social incompetence was well beyond what I experienced growing up with D&D, but only in its magnitude, not its form. Girls were unobtainable and mystifying, outsiders couldn't possibly understand your world view, and you couldn't be yourself when your identity was associated more with a fantasy world than your community. Looking at his gaming friends years later, most tread their own path, some more effectively than others.

After college, the author ended up quitting his 9 to 5 soul crushing job and following his passion, becoming a writer. Other D&D friends became famous lawyers or computer programmers, but some of the brightest lost their way. Would they have lost their way without a childhood of Dungeons & Dragons? Would the successful ones that found their unique path have been as creative without the limitless possibilities promised by their childhood game? Many of us wonder what would have happened if we had studied more in school rather than memorizing tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide. It's hard to say, but few of us have regrets about our time in the dungeon killing monsters, taking their stuff and indulging our imaginations.