Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Magic: The Shortage

If you didn't believe Wizards of the Coast was intentionally manipulating supplies of Magic when I speculated about it previously, you're probably starting to suspect it now. Zendikar is on the way to retailers this week, and for most, it's a smaller quantity than what they would like. The horse trading has begun, with retailers looking to trade or buy up as much Zendikar as they can get. Some distributors have shorted retailers on their pre-orders, and those who haven't pre-ordered are being rudely awakened this week, as they learn the well is dry.

I've upped our order of Zendikar twice now, including second sourcing a few extra cases. At the same time, we've pre-sold 13 boxes of Zendikar, about 10 more boxes than we've ever sold before. Wizards has done everything in their power to make this set desirable, including new mechanics as well as "treasure" cards, cool older cards that are pulled from their file cabinets and randomly placed in booster packs. What they haven't done is print enough cards. They'll be taking back orders starting next week, but limiting stores to a case each. Magic 2010 is also allocated, in case you thought that was over.

So is this a horrible thing? It depends on who you are. Magic customers are aghast at the incredibly high price of Magic boxes, AKA retail price. Online-only game purchasers have come to expect the online discount price to be "the" price, as opposed to MSRP. On products like Magic, with enormous demand, it's not uncommon to find "case flippers" selling cards for $5 over cost on what is normally a $145 box. That is over as long as supply is limited and demand is high. As a customer, you will pay more, and you're likely to buy more from a brick & mortar store as the price differential becomes irrelevant. We're actually pegging our Zendikar pre-order box prices to Star City Games, an online discounter.

I think Wizards of the Coast has come to an understanding that brick & mortar stores are vital to collectible card games. You can buy as many discount boxes of cards you want online, but the game store provides a steady stream of new opponents. However, when Magic becomes less profitable for a retailer (we know our customers buy the bulk of their product online), the hoops to run Magic events become onerous and cumbersome.

When events decline, there's no new blood in the Magic world, something needed to maintain the frantic treadmill of Magic releases. Sales of Magic have been steady over the last decade, it's just not the same people! There is massive customer churn in the Magic community. Everyone who works at the store, including me, was once heavily into Magic. Now we all view it as something akin to heroin. You can criticize me on this comment after you've played Magic for 10 years. Find me that guy.

Price supports, through limiting supply, makes Magic profitable for retailers again. For some stores, like us, this is a level of profitability we've never seen from this game. Other stores have found it to be troublesome. Some stores find the new Magic paradigm too difficult to navigate. They choose not to pre-order. They have not set themselves up to second or third source products. They can't budget multiple cases of product at a time. In other words, they don't want to work too hard for this product or they haven't developed their own infrastructure to allow themselves to be flexible. What is an incredible opportunity is instead viewed as an obstacle. That's alright though, other stores are happy to eat their lunch and make the best out of a very good situation.

Will this continue? Wizards of the Coast makes $83/box whether it's sold for $145 or $88. The deciding factor will be whether controlling supply greatly diminishes their volume of sales. There's also a savings in not having a lot of unsold product on their shelves; an inventory cost. Finally, there's the question of whether the brick & mortar support argument holds sway. At least those are the obvious questions I imagine they're asking themselves. Of course, they still deny any of this is intentional.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Code RED!

We're one of a handful of stores set up to sell Catalyst Games PDF products through their RED (Retailer Electronic Delivery) program. These include all of their in-print games, along with exclusive PDF only releases. You buy the product from the store, we process it through the Catalyst website, and the PDF is emailed to you. To be more relevant to this process, for a limited time we're offering 20% off PDF products if you buy the print version from us, or can show you bought it in the past.

This is a very interesting program, one which came out of an industry discussion you may recall about the effect of electronic products on the game industry. The retailer positions ran the gamut, from those who thought it hurt the industry (my initial thought), to those who thought it could only help (my eventual position), believing that the market for electronic products is not the same as print. I think most store owners put this in the category of irrelevant and moved on, which is why, I think, so few people jumped on board with Catalyst. Hopefully, that will change when we start reporting positive results.

As a retailer, I can either embrace the future and see if I'll be part of it, or put my head in the sand and wish it into the cornfield. The landscape is changing and as much as I'm troubled by the "long tail" of role-playing games, which infinitely divides the small community into smaller and smaller pieces, I have to think such enthusiasm might energize the community and keep it vibrant. It may even build the community. I'm sure there are shades of gray I'm missing here.

There's still the potential that the future of role-playing games will not involve retail stores, as we're already seeing with Dungeons & Dragons DDI replacing books for some D&D players. PDFs, ironically, play a much smaller role than this new medium, although online piracy is still rampant. One thing I've noticed is that younger role-playing gamers are more comfortable with the idea of electronic products. The fact that I'm even noticing younger role-players may be hope in itself, as the D&D target market of 12-year olds has failed to materialize, at least for us. In the end, if the community grows, even if it grows around us, instead of us at the center, it's still a good thing. Businesses don't deserve anything. We need to stay relevant to our customers or find something else where we can make a contribution.

Product list (bold items are not available in print)
Eclipse Phase

CAT21000 Eclipse Phase Core Rulebook $ 15.00

CAT23000 CthulhuTech Core Rulebook $ 30.00

CAT23001 Vade Mecum $ 25.00

CAT23002 Mortal Remains $ 25.00

CAT23200 Dark Passions $ 15.00

CAT23300 Damnation View $ 25.00

CAT26001 Street Magic $ 25.00

CAT26002 Augmentation $ 25.00

CAT26003 Arsenal $ 25.00

CAT26004 Unwired $ 25.00

CAT26005 Runner's Companion $ 25.00

CAT2600A Shadowrun, Fourth Edition - 20th Anniversary Core Rulebook $ 25.00

CAT26101 Running Wild $ 20.00

CAT26102 Seattle 2072 $ 25.00

CAT26201 Corporate Enclaves $ 18.00

CAT26202 Feral Cities $ 18.00

CAT26301 Emergence $ 18.00

CAT26302 Ghost Cartels $ 18.00

CAT26500 Shadowrun Missions #00: Everyone's Your Friend FREE

CAT26501 Shadowrun Missions #01: Ready, Set, Gogh! $ 3.95

CAT26502 Shadowrun Missions #02: Block Wars $ 3.95

CAT26503 Shadowrun Missions #03: Burning Bridges $ 3.95

CAT26504 Shadowrun Missions #04: Monkeywrench $ 3.95

CAT26600 Digital Grimoire $ 3.95

CAT26601 Bad Moon Rising $ 3.95

CAT26602 The Rotten Apple: Manhattan $ 3.95

CAT35001 Total Warfare $ 25.00

CAT35002 Tech Manual $ 25.00

CAT35003 Tactical Operations $ 30.00

CAT35004 Strategic Operations $ 30.00

CAT35005 A Time of War: The BattleTech RPG $ 10.00

CAT35100 Starter Book: Sword and Dragon $ 12.00

CAT35100a Record Sheets: Sword and Dragon FREE

CAT35101 Starter Book: Wolf and Blake $ 18.00

CAT35122 Technical Readout: 3050 Upgrades $ 25.00

CAT35130 Technical Readout: 3075 $ 25.00

CAT35203 Handbook: Major Periphery States $ 25.00

CAT35240 Masters and Minions $ 25.00

CAT35302 Jihad Hot Spots: 3072 $ 18.00

CAT35302a Record Sheets: 3072 FREE

CAT35303 Jihad Conspiracies: Interstellar Players II $ 18.00

CAT35303X Jihad Secrets: The Blake Documents $ 18.00

CAT35304 Jihad Hot Spots 3076 $ 18.00

CAT35600 Chaos Campaign FREE

CAT35601 Jihad Turning Points: Luthien $ 4.95

CAT35602 Jihad Turning Points: New Avalon $ 4.95

CAT35603 Jihad Turning Points: Tharkad $ 4.95

CAT35604 Jihad Turning Points: Sian $ 4.95

CAT35700 25 Years of Art and Fiction $ 25.00

Sunday, September 27, 2009

If You Build It II

This is blog post 1,000. In my first post in July, 2007, I gave a brief background of my intentions, where I came from and what I wanted to accomplish with the blog. It was mostly sharing my vision for the new store. I think the frequency of my posts has defined the blog, despite any initial intent.

There has been a tension between transparency and vision. Transparency has soundly overwhelmed vision. This is not a place of press releases and announcements. Collaboration, which is what I've asked for with such a high level of transparency can get a little messy. However, I find it highly rewarding, even if the vision of my store isn't as slick and unified in your mind as I would like. The high level of collaboration here provides me invaluable feedback to improve my ideas, push back on ideas thought to be less than great, and with enough talk, establishing consensus on what's important. I still do what I want, but the risks are clearer, as well as the rewards and likely problems.

The dark side of transparency is that business is competitive. A competitor opened up this year, referencing my blog posts as proof of concept of their business plan. Unfortunately, the implicit principle of store transparency can't be transmitted so well. It's the Heraclitus quote that you can't step into the same river twice. The chaos theory of small store ownership basically says that there are far too many factors of a stores success to be adequately observed and measured. You can't successfully replicate a store, even as the store owner. It's why we don't mind sharing information. Everyone has to make it on their own steam.

With 1,000 posts, I'm likely to disagree with everyone at least a couple of times. Some industry people think I'm nuts. Some have vehemently disagreed with what I've said (I wish they would do it more often and in my direction). Some have been right! This is not a medium for those who don't want dissent. It's excellent if you want to lead discussions, as opposed to project discussions which is why podcasts bore me. The good news is the metrics seem to say most people have stayed with me, with readership up 72% over the last year. Thanks for hanging in there!

I also enjoy writing, which is obvious with 1,000 posts. I would be horrible at podcasting. I'm one of those people in class that rarely speaks up because I'm cogitating on every angle of an issue before I feel comfortable speaking. In grad school, my thesis adviser told me: "You've spent 100 pages painstakingly proving your point. I think you can drop the may and might language." I suppose that would be my advice to someone who wanted to start communicating with their clients. Find a medium you enjoy. Talk about stuff you know.

I probably have an average understanding of the game industry as a store owner, and I'm not nearly as much of an alpha gamer as some voices in the industry, but I really know my store and enjoy retail. I'm still learning retail, which is why I write about it. It's fascinating and multi-disciplinary. Retail is the game I play most, and there are lots of interesting theories and strategies on how to play. The bottom line is I'm a business owner, not a professional game player or a product cheer leader. I'll leave that to fans with respectable day jobs.

I talk about stuff I know, and the stuff I do along the way. I'm not a great painter, but hopefully I've shown that anyone can do it, regardless of talent. I don't read too many theory books on role-playing, but hopefully I've shown that enthusiasm and hard work can make for an excellent role-playing session that keeps people coming back. My product reviews are by far the most read, while my game projects the least.

I think the most important thing about blogging is not really caring if anyone reads or not. It's how you stay true to your vision, writing about it until it's completely transparent.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Forge World at BDG

As a regular feature, I've decided to have a small selection of Forge World at the store. This is a pilot test to see if it's worth the hassle and expense. Forge World is not available to retailers, even to most GW stores (only Battle Bunkers), so we're buying it at full retail, having it shipped from the UK, and marking it up slightly to make a small profit. Because we're buying enough to get free shipping, it should still be about the same price or a little bit more than if you bought it yourself from England. Some smaller accessories will be broken up and sold at a higher price, adding a convenience factor to the transaction. Most larger kits will get only a slight boost.

Because of how we're doing this, we won't be accepting any type of discount or club points on Forge World. Also, we'll be thinking about how to do special orders in the future, but for now, we're only taking requests.

The benefit is you get convenience and no risk. If you buy enough Forge World, you know there's a very high risk of getting malformed parts, missing stuff or no order at all! Yet, we love this stuff, don't we? We'll take the risk and inconvenience out of this transaction.

So why do it? It's really not for the money; not directly. It's a way for us to have another fun, interesting thing that we'll be selling that other stores won't. It also benefits me personally, as I can bring in cool things that I like and buy them at my leisure, getting instant gratification and no shipping charge. When I've over-ordered for myself and sold Forge World items in the store, it was successful enough to look into doing something like this.

Here's a list of what we're bringing in. You'll notice it's mostly Imperial Guard. This is because I have a better idea of what IG stuff is worth getting. When I get more information on other popular items, I'll add those to future orders. We won't know pricing until the order arrives and we crunch the numbers:


Friday, September 25, 2009

What Up Gee Dub?

Hey Gee Dub, just want to touch base and see how you're doin. No pressure. I think you've been a stellar partner for two years now, providing a quality product, excellent fill rate (availability), the best terms in the industry, and up until about a month ago, the best communications strategy. It was like we were made on the same Forge World. None of this retailers are from Tallarn, manufacturers are from Iyanden stuff for us. We're solid.

You gave me stunning, color PDF new release documents with photos of painted models, complete with pricing, codes and descriptions. Oooh. Ahhh. Plastic porn. I might even get a sign up sheet from you for pre-orders. You even made the form for me. Sometimes I thought you were carrying this relationship. You would send me spreadsheets going out a couple of months for new releases. I thought we were happy together. I know you were doing a lot of the work, and I just want you to know, I appreciate it. We were able to plan the future of our relationship, including special events, saving the date for big occasions. Well, at least that's how it was until a couple months ago.

Now you've gone all mysterious, Games Workshop. You don't call. You don't let me know where you are. I have to learn about what you're up to from other people. I learn about new releases from White Dwarf magazine. Yes, White Dwarf magazine! It's like finding out what your famous girlfriend is doing by reading the tabloids. You know, it just hurts. There, I've said it. That's how I feel about it.

As I've only had a relationship with you for a couple of years now, I wasn't aware that you have repeated this behavior before with past partners. Yes, I've spoken with them, and they told me about your ugly past. I have to ask, why Games Workshop? Why ruin such a good relationship by not communicating? Was it me? Did I smother you with too much ordering of product? Games Workshop, please be my partner again. I know you've fallen back into old habits, but I think we can make this work.


Black D

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Game Center Changes

Some problems in business build up heads of steam until some sort of resolution is inevitable. This is what happened yesterday when we realized we had grown big enough that we could no longer accommodate open gaming in the evenings. Several event organizers complained in the same week that there wasn't enough space, and that open gamers weren't cooperating. The solution is what many game stores already do: no open gaming during scheduled events. Starting yesterday, after 5:30pm on weekdays (3:30pm on Friday), the only people allowed in the game center are those in scheduled events (or their parents). We'll try to leave weekends alone unless we run into problems.

What we really want is for events to run smoother. Those that are open gaming in the evening have a few options. The most obvious solution for them is to join existing events. Our Friday Night Magic crowd is still fairly small and there's plenty of room for those who want to play. In fact, people show up on Friday night to play Magic and don't join that event (that is over).

Open gamers are welcome to create their own event. Want more Magic? Check the calendar and find a day to schedule an event. Granted, all card events are "pay to play" events, but a $5 gift certificate buy-in is a reasonable fee for a constructed event. There are also informal events that are not on the calendar, like Blood Bowl, that will need to be put on the calendar to continue. As long as an event is open to the public, it's valid.

Finally, there is a group of people who simply use the store as a hang out. Some are good customers, but many begrudge us as much as a soda purchase. We're not stupid; we notice these things. In the world of "free," even a non-spending "customer" can add value to those who do spend money, by providing a worthy opponent. However, this isn't a digital medium. We live in meat-space with limited resources, and we've just hit the limit on that resource. I expect most of the free loaders to move on and the good customers to possibly migrate to an event. This second group is the one that I worry about alienating, but I don't have much choice. We also know much of the shoplifting in the store happens during the evening hours, and the top suspects are our open gamers. Hopefully we'll curtail that activity as well.

The quality of events will improve with this decision. Noise will be reduced. Space will be increased. We can also gauge our capacity better and schedule more or better events on evenings that are clearly slower. Hopefully those that were driven away by the chaos will return. Those who are reluctant will commit to coming.

Welcome to year three in the new location!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

October Events

For those who want to know what we're up to in October, but still haven't signed up for our mailing list, you can view the October events in our archive. We've got big events for Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy and 40K, and of course, our 5th anniversary party on October 25th.

We've started getting in some great prizes from the game industry for our door prize drawing. Alliance has sent a bunch of exclusive games, along with custom Magic: The Gathering life counters, not sold in stores.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Screw Up

So you screwed up, what are going to do about it? Handling business mistakes is something I personally take very seriously, and something upon which I harshly judge other businesses. Anyone can make elaborate promises, but what happens when things go wrong? That's when you know if a company is as sincere as their marketing department would like you to believe. I'm very forgiving of mistakes, provided the problem is solved.

For example, my son and I were at a Carrows restaurant a couple of weeks ago when the bench of the booth he was standing on separated from the wall and fell forward. He fell into the ply wood structure of the booth. He was very scared, but uninjured. The manager was apologetic, and of course, the meal was free. Sure, fine, but why would I come back there? Then someone from the corporate office called and really just wanted to make sure he was alright, promising me they would check their booths and this kind of problem wouldn't happen again. She also offered to send some gift certificates, which I didn't turn down.

Not happening again was key for me, because I obviously didn't want my son injured, but I also wanted to know that it wouldn't happen to anyone else. Hospitals are realizing this too when mistakes are made. Rather than referring all serious patient complaints to their hard assed attorneys, they're attempting to mediate. They've learned that people aren't in it for the money, they often want simple things: An apology and a promise that the mistake won't be made again, including studying how it happened to prevent future errors.

I tried to keep this in mind last week when I screwed up. A customer made a special order, paid their money in advance, and we promptly did nothing. I looked back at the process and found that my employees did everything right. It was me who just didn't get the job done, who let it slip. I apologized to the customer and gave them a gift certificate for the amount of the item, in addition to still trying to get their item for them. In other words, this one's on me and I'll still get you what you asked for. It took a while, and the distributor also screwed up (no apology there) but it finally arrived, and she happily used her gift certificate to purchase five times its value in other product.

I apologized. I promised to set it right. I let her know it was my fault and that I simply screwed up. It wasn't right and she should expect better, so here's how we'll fix it, with a gift certificate and hopefully, if we're worthy, her business and better service in the future. I could get all analytical and tell you that an average customer's lifetime purchase is over $500, and a small gift certificate is the least I could do to attempt to retain their business, but there are more subjective issues at stake.

We want to have a great business. There are far better and easier ways to make money, if that's your objective. The great businesses are the ones that set things right when they screw up. Everyone screws up, and I'll be looking closer at our special order system, but regardless, making the customer happy is my responsibility and duty as a business owner.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Debit Cards (Tradecraft)

Last year, when our point-of-sale machine was being replaced, I decided to add a minor feature, an ATM pin pad. A few of the kids had requested we accept straight debit cards (no Visa/MC logo), and I didn't think much of it. Boy did I miss the trend on this one. I went back to my processing statements and saw that a fairly small number of Visa/Mastercard transactions were on debit cards. I know this because we're charged half a dozen different rates, depending on the type of card being used.* The percentage of debit card use was fairly small, probably about 10-15%. But what the heck, why tell customers they can't spend money with me? In any case, I would eventually save money.

The hardware to accept debit cards was $200, so the question was how long would it take to pay off the hardware and start seeing some savings. Here's how it works: If you swipe a regular Visa or Mastercard, the merchant is charged a fee of around 25 cents, along with a 2-3% transaction fee, depending on the card type. Using a reward card to get 1% cash back? I'm personally paying for your reward miles because I'm now paying 3% on your transaction instead of 2%. Debit cards are different, as they charge a flat fee, around 65 cents per transaction. Check out the chart:

Purchase Credit Debit
$5 $ 0.35 $ 0.65
10 $ 0.45 $ 0.65
15 $ 0.55 $ 0.65
20 $ 0.65 $ 0.65
21 $ 0.67 $ 0.65
30 $ 0.85 $ 0.65
40 $ 1.05 $ 0.65
50 $ 1.25 $ 0.65
100 $ 2.25 $ 0.65

You can see with this chart that when a customer makes a $20 transaction, there are equal fees with debit and regular Visa/Mastercards. So I could take my old statement, calculate the amount spent using debit cards at the Visa/MC rate, and come out with a savings projections. It wasn't very exciting, showing I would save money after about six months. I went ahead and installed the pin pad anyway, worrying about yet another long term savings option with up front costs.

After we installed the pin pad, something interesting happened. When it became known we accepted debit cards, our debit card usage went way up. Even better, the store now had a financial incentive to accept more debit cards, because of the savings. I trained everyone, including myself, to ask if a customer wanted to use debit or credit at that magic threshold (I thought it was $16, but I see now it's $20). Debit card usage skyrocketed. What was once 10-15% of credit card usage jumped to over 40%. My return on investment for that pin pad went from six months to about six weeks.

It turns out this is a growing trend nationally, as people attempt to wean themselves off credit and live within their means. It's also very common nowadays for kids to have accounts linked with debit cards. So the bottom line: debit cards good. If you're a merchant, you should absolutely accept them. If you're a customer spending over $20, save your merchant some money and swipe your debit card. Each year the Visa/Mastercard monopoly charges us whatever they want and the only option is to pay their escalating fees or not accept credit cards.

* What would a post on credit card processing be without some fine print? In addition to transaction fees, we're charged a minimum monthly service fee, batch fees (oh, you want to submit those?), pass through fees (oh, you want us to allow Amex through?), a monthly translink service fee, another Visa fee for accepting Visa, a debit processing fee, and a PCI compliance fee for occasionally scanning my network for security. Our total fees are around $50 a month. Each processor charges different rates, so the only way to know if you're getting a good deal is to crunch numbers with your particular volume, average ticket amount, debit card use, etc. I'm using Atlantic Pacific as my processor and I've been very happy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some Store Trends

The most obvious trend I'm seeing is an overall return to spending by our customer base. It's a mixed bag. A New York Times article writes about concentrating economic pain. Those who have jobs have gotten pay raises and have been adequately compensated over the past year. Those who don't are out in the cold. So although the unemployment rate is high, those with jobs are starting to boost spending. So the most obvious trend for us is a double digit sales increase this Summer. Lets look at what people are buying.

The interesting thing about running a diversified game store is various game genres are cyclical. While one department may be going nuts, another is languishing. I'm not sure how less diversified businesses survive. I suppose they sock away cash when the times are good for when their cycle is down. For game stores, traditionally, you never really make much money, but if you're running it well and it's diversified, you probably won't have many catastrophically bad periods.

Luckily for us, the winners this Summer outnumbered the losers. The most obvious "cyclical" trend breaker for us is the death spiral of the collectible miniature game. For the last few years, collectible miniatures have dropped 50%, year over year. This Summer was no exception and the imminent return of Heroclix is not exactly cause for celebration; more of dread. I hate telling customers no, but Heroclix and several new breeds of collectible miniatures will likely get that response. "Nothing to see here; move along."

The most obvious big winner this Summer was collectible cards, as we became the local place to not just play Magic (you can do that anywhere), but also Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Naruto, Battle Spirits (nobody else even sold this game in the county!), and Game of Thrones. How can the collectible miniatures market be so dead and the collectible card market be so hot? They both feature blind purchases of boosters. At least with miniatures you get a neat piece of plastic, right? My guess is the miniature game play lacks the same engagement as cards.

Most of the collectible card game credit goes to our excellent organizers, especially Matt and Anna for bringing Yu-Gi-Oh back in force (without plunger duels in the game center) and Mark for his persistence in getting Magic back on track. Magic takes a stupid amount of coordination for what it provides, but it's worth it. We also capitulated and decided to do card singles for both Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh. It's growing organically, but customers are glad to have the option to buy and sell single cards.

The losers of the Summer were my personal favorites, both role-playing games and miniature games. There hasn't been a lot of excitement in the world of miniature gaming of late. Games Workshop has had lackluster new releases this year and Privateer Press is in transition with their new edition of Warmachine. Surprisingly, Flames of War had strong sales this Summer, due partially to our Summer league and also the mild success of Mid-War Monsters. Infinity is doing well for us too. I think miniature games are perceived as expensive, and lacking the value of other games (I disagree), so perhaps they're out of fashion for a time, kind of like the Lamborghini drivers trading in their cars for Mercedes, because it's gauche to be so ostentatious during a recession. Lately, however, this seems to be turning around with a lot of new Warhammer armies being started (fantasy and 40K).

Gencon this year was completely invisible to us as a role-playing release event. Nothing stood out for us that was released at Gencon. Pathfinder sold a modest number of copies, suffering horribly from product outages as Paizo hedged their bets (we have it now). It is being played in the game center, however, so perhaps I should be more optimistic. Other big new releases haven't materialized yet. Where is Hero 6? Where is Rogue Trader? Where is Dresden Files (Ok, I couldn't resist)?

Role-playing sales are down this Summer and some game systems may be given the boot soon, as we gauge whether we've seen some permanent shifts among local gamers. Dice and miniature sales are up subsantially, however, which makes me scratch my head. These are usually RPG add-on sales. It makes me wonder just how many people use the Dungeons & Dragons DDI software instead of books. Or how many just download books illegally. The other news in RPG sales is the market share shift, with D&D gobbling up about 75-80% this year. It's not the success of D&D as much as the malaise of the other systems.

Another big winner is board games. I think the big Gencon releases this year were in board games, not role-playing games, and I'm talking Fantasy Flight. Chaos in the Old World and Battlestar Gallactica Pegasus flew off the shelves, with rumors and talk of greater things to come. The Dominion Intrigue expansion is also a huge seller, as you could see by our Top 100 board game list (keep in mind the time it has been out and the placement on the list). Our board game sales are up around 60%, easily off-setting role-playing and miniature games. Imagine the pain if we weren't diversified into cardboard.

And finally, the last set of losers are muggle games: classic games and toys seem to be the bell weather of the general public. Chess sets and Hot Wheels. No love. I sometimes think this is an insight into the general retail economy. Or maybe it's our lack of enthusiasm.

My usual disclaimer: This happened in the past. It's based on the idiosyncrasies of our store, it's employees and its relatively small number of customers and volunteers. Sales and stock evolve based on demand, rather than a formula or "what I want." It's organic and can't be replicated, which is why I don't mind sharing (although some will try anyway).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Box 2 of 3

The one that never showed up.
The one that Fedex claims I signed for with no damages.
The one that clearly never got past Bakersfield.
The one that now resides in Fresno, covered in unspecified goo.
All in a days work.

40K Campaign Ends (40K)

Our 40K store campaign ended last night. It will start up again on the 28th. Below are some photos of my game, in which I learned you can be completely stymied by an entirely defensive army. They can't win, but they can't lose.

Giving up Al-Raheim and his outflanking has made the game a lot more fun. I have several fast attack units that allow me to be aggressive on turn one. The two melta vet squads in chimeras are obvious winners, but the special weapon squad with demo charges in the vendetta is the exciting wild card. Will they get to the target? Will they blow themselves or their comrades up in the blast? Will they distract from the really dangerous weaponry I'm aiming at my opponent? I'm adding ratlings at 1500 points, another low cost, fun unit that should be an additional distraction.

Ready to strike on turn one.

Learned about the problem with objectives in tall buildings. Tedious and Dumb.

Crashed Vendetta and Valkyrie became large terrain features

Forge World Leman Russ Battle Tank turrets getting painted up.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Thought question: Many think one game or another is so big that its decline or sudden rise in popularity would have an extreme effect on the game trade. Are there games or companies that, if gone, would spell the doom of the industry? So the question is: How many of the games we sell do you think make up more than 10% of our sales? How about 5%? 3%?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Selling Board Games

When I opened five years ago, I had a selection of around 100 board games that were thought to be best sellers in the industry. "Best seller" is a speculative term at best. Few board games sell themselves, the rest require the sales person to actively present the game to the customer. If you were to look at my sales numbers that first year, you would think Carcassonne was the best game ever, because I sold more of that game than probably any store on the West Coast. Why? It was the only Euro game I knew (I had played Settlers of Catan but I despised it). I sold the heck out of Carcassonne. Meanwhile, some excellent games were passed over because I lacked product knowledge.

During my first Christmas, an elderly woman scolded me for being so ignorant of the games I sold, and that set me off to my own personal board game boot camp. I started by staying late and playing board games with a small group of board gamers that had developed around the store. These people are friends of mine now. We played a variety of different board games, and they spurred me on by buying from me what they wanted to play (customers who want their store to carry board games should take note). By the following Christmas, I had a modest repertoire of games under my belt, enough to "fake it" with enough board game context to sell a bunch more that I hadn't played.

Playing a game is not a requirement to selling it, but it certainly can't hurt if you remember to focus on the customers needs and wants. Being a race car driver or a gear head in no way qualifies you to sell cars. Likewise, the most important thing in selling a board game is finding out what the customer wants and matching up those requirements with the right game. I've seen my own sales people nearly bore a customer to death telling them about abstract mechanics. Ask questions. What ages are the players? How many people are playing? What kind of games do they like? You can also gauge whether you can evangelize a customer into a Euro game (a goal of mine) or sell them their next mass market Hasborg game.

Board games I hadn't played my second year got added to a cheat sheet. I took every board game in the store and wrote a one sentence synopsis of what I wanted to tell my customers. This was no cut and paste from boardgamegeek, this required that I have the most basic understanding of what the game was about. It's a good idea to do this with new games too, as you buy them. In fact, if you can't summarize a new game in a sentence, I highly suggest you don't buy it.

So my 100 games became 200 games, and we added an entire aisle of shelves in a shameful disregard for ADA requirements. Legally, we were alright, because the shelves had wheels and could be moved, but the store was becoming a rabbit hutch. This eventually led to the new store, and those 200 games, which had since become 300 games, grew to 550 games. As the toy section diminishes, the board game section continues to grow. Right now we are at the same board game stock level as last Christmas. We can't possibly play all of these board games, especially at the fast rate of release, but hopefully we can summarize each in a sentence or two (or fake it by reading the back of the box!). Meanwhile, our board game night has grown, and we now have a steady group of 8-12 people. Occasionally I'll play if I have time, but it's so rare nowadays that most people don't know who I am!

If you're a store owner, give board games a chance. Start with sure bets in these four categories: strategy, light filler games, party games and mass market games. Keep the mass market games to identify your store to the muggles as a place where games are sold. They're decorations with price tags. Once they've got the slightest curiosity, transition them to the light filler games.

Party gamers have their own set of requirements and they shouldn't be ignored; at least read about their games. Strategy games are the domain of "the geek" and high minded board gamers. Most can take care of themselves, but understand their top ranked games. My goal for a while was to play all the top 10 board game geek games, provided I could convince our group.

Filler games are great little games for light play that are often panned by the strategy gamers and rated poorly online. Each of these games has their own adherents. If you're doing your job, you'll create hobbyists who may even exceed your knowledge of board games. This is a job well done on your part. Each customer requires a different sales approach. Each should get some respect in you store and the effort needed to sell to them.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Games of Kings

It's not uncommon for someone to walk in off the street, marvel at what we have in the store, and then comment that their grandson or child would just love this store. In other words, the store is not for them, adult that they are; it's for kids. We'll also get marketing folks in the store that want to emphasize our toys and childrens games, at least until I inform them our average customer age is around 25. What they don't understand is that games are traditionally for adults. It's only through the marketing efforts of corporate giants like Hasbro that games have become something that children play; and then they lost even that when computer games took the stage. Go back a bit further and you discover that games were made for kings and emperors. Games are very special tools that teach abstract and critical thinking to those who need to think that way. Nowadays, that's all of us.

This gets to the heart of how I feel about games. They are special, maybe even a slight hint of "eliteness." They allow you to abstract reality and manipulate the universe to your own designs. For children, this is an enormously useful educational experience, and one they direct, not their parents or teachers. Along the way, games provide life skills that never leave you. I credit my role-playing with getting me on a college track and improving my reading comprehension (and my vocabulary). The true benefit was in visualizing a world that I wanted and making that happen. The act of completing a miniature army for a teenager, for example, is akin to the primary value of my college education: how to stick with something and get it done. Even kids who don't want the heavy reading of role-playing games can learn to follow directions and become handy with the average miniature game. So games have traditionally been for adults, those deemed most in need of higher level skills, but if you allow your kids to engage with them, I personally feel they're on a royal road to success.

Getting started is the hard part. If you value education as a parent, it will show with your kids. It can't not. The same is true with games. If you play games, especially when children are younger, chances are they'll want to play them too. My son loves to paint miniatures. Granted, he's four and he paints the same one over and over again, but he enjoys it because he does it with me. He's also a very good role-player, able to effortlessly slay dragons and open treasure chests. All treasure chests contain toys, in case you were wondering. He'll sit next to me in bed and narrate what's happening on a map. When we go to restaurants, I'll roll up straw wrappers and he'll want to know what's written on the treasure map.

At the same time, I like board games, but don't play them at home, so breaking out a board game rarely works with him. To him, a board game is an alien thing that looks like work, since he doesn't see me enjoying them at home. I'm afraid this happens sometimes to parents who buy our board games after talking with us. "That guy at the store sad this was a great game, but little Johnny only wants to play Playstation."

Getting kids into games then, is a family affair that requires parents to be engaged, and to place value on games higher than other pursuits (like video games and television). After a while, games become natural and they ask to play these games or happily drag their siblings and friends into them. When was the last time you saw an ad for Euro board games or Dungeons & Dragons?

Rocco's Warjack. New day; different color

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Some Top Kids Games

I was putting this together for someone as part of a charity event, and thought I would share it here. Let me know if you have any kids games you would suggest (in print and available).

Age 3-4

This is a difficult category, since kids this age are at wildly different maturity levels. My 4 year old still can't play most of these, while I know of 4 year olds who are playing adult (8+) games.

Kids of Carcassonne
On 14 July, the national holiday in France, the sheep, chickens and cows are set free in the town of Carcassonne. The children have big fun to catch the animals before dusk.

The players in turn draw a landscape tile and place it; unlike in normal Carcassonne, they always match. Amongst other features, the tiles show children in the player colors on the roads. Whenever a road is finished, every player places one of his meeples on each appropriate picture.

The first player who manages to place all of his meeples wins the game.

Coocoo the Rocking Clown
It's show time! Coocoo, the Rocking Clown, just loves to juggle, but his big curved green shoes make him wobble and keep throwing him off balance. Help him juggle the most balls without making any of them fall, and you win!

Froggy Boogy

It's nap time at the pond but the baby frogs still want to play. Baby frogs try to be the first to hop around the pond without being seen by the adult frogs. Players guess or remember which adult frog popping eyes will freeze the baby frogs in their race.

Here's a good review.

Also: Chutes & Ladders, Candyland, Memory and anything that teaches the concept of taking turns and performing actions.

Ages 5-6

Gulo Gulo

Each player is a Gulo, or wolverine, trying to rescue a baby Gulo who got caught by the swamp vulture whose eggs it was trying to steal. Unfortunately for the baby Gulo, all the adult Gulos are distracted by all the delicious swamp vulture eggs, and it has to wait very, very patiently as the adults constantly trip the very, very sensitive "egg alarm" rigged by the vulture to scare off the pesky Gulos.

There is a nice wooden bowl filled with multicolored swamp vulture eggs of various sizes, into which a long thin dowel with another egg at one end is inserted, like a flagpole. As you can imagine, lots of M&M Peanut-shaped wooden bits banging around together in a polished wooden bowl makes it rather difficult to keep a thin dowel with weight at the top balanced...

While Qwirkle is as simple as matching colors and shapes, it is a game that also requires tactical maneuvers and well-planned strategy. The game consists of 108 wooden blocks with six different shapes in six colors. Using the blocks, players attempt to score the most points by building lines that share a common attribute - either color or shape. Qwirkle is a quick game to learn, but you'll soon discover that you'll need to think strategically in order to score the most points.

Pitch Car Mini

Dexterity game where large, wooden, puzzle-like pieces are used to construct a race track that looks very similar to a slot car track when finished. But instead of using electrons, players use finger-flicks to send little round pucks around the track. Contains 6 straight and 10 curve track pieces that allow the construction of more than 10 different racing circuits. 8 wooden cars are included as well.

Gobblet Gobblers

Memory meets tick-tack-toe. This simpler version of Gobblet (Gobblet is for 7+) only requires three in a row, and also has a smaller price tag. Pick your Gobblers and line up three of them in a row to win the game. The Gobblers have a strong appetite and can gobble up smaller Gobblers. These cute characters will test your strategy and stimulate your memory. Easy to learn it is a quick thinking game fun to play again and again.

Also: Blokus, Slamwich

Ages 8+ (adult games that are fun for kids)

This is where I have excellent games to suggest, but nothing new. Have you played any new 8 year old and up games lately?

My usual suggestions:
  • Carcassonne
  • Ticket to Ride
  • Hey! That's My Fish!
  • Bang!