Monday, December 27, 2010

January is New Guy Night

Most of our events use a voucher program. This means you sign up the night of the event, pay $5 and get a $5 gift certificate. It's "free," essentially, but the voucher ensures we gain some sort of benefit from the event. Most people buy snacks and drinks with their vouchers, but for some it's the basis of most of their product purchases. A couple months of vouchers will buy you the latest D&D book, a box of Space Marines, or the  average priced board game.

To kick off the new year, we're starting up a New Guy Night, where you bring in a new person, someone who hasn't participated in our Game Center for over a year (or ever) and you (the bringer) get a free voucher that night, rather than paying for one. Also, just so you don't think we're overly sexist with our New Guy designation, if you bring a female participant (or if you are one), you and your guest both get a free voucher rather than buying one. We want to encourage more women.

What about pay events? There are some events that aren't part of the voucher system because they include a lot of product with the event, such as Friday Night Magic. In those cases, you still get the $5 voucher for bringing the new guy, but normal event fees apply.

You can take advantage of new guy (or new gal) as many times during the month of January you want, as long as your bring a new person.

If you have any questions, let us know.  I'm making this up as I go.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Deserve (To Do With It, Has Nothing)

I was reading a very information post over at the Avalanche Press website about the costs involved in producing a board game. Getting their costs to line up with the correct retail price while staying in business is really hard. But you know what? It's hard for everyone involved in the game trade. Costs are rising faster than sales and there are only so many ways to save money before you have to make serious structural changes to your business. So what caught my attention was a mention of the discount structure for games.

As described in the article, the publisher gets 40% of the MSRP, the distributor 10%, and the retailer 50%. Let me address that from a retailer perspective. First, that 50% retailer take has eroded over time. The main US distributor, Alliance, caps the discount for Avalanche Press to 49%. Established stores get that 49% but stores with less volume get a lower discount (or margin), probably starting at around 44%. Many product lines, like Games Workshop or Days of Wonder are at around 45%. Some product lines are even lower. In fact, my general, overall "gross" cost, for everything we sell in the store, is around 45%. The difference between that 50% and 45% might not seem like much money, but we're talking about a business with an overall profit margin in single digits.

So how does a $64.99 board game break down for the retailer? First, $6.01 in addition to this goes directly to sales tax, supporting our local community. I'll throw that in there since many online shoppers evade this tax and our local communities are starving. It took two hours for the police to arrive to bust a shoplifter this week and our local DA has announced he won't be prosecuting assaults. Go ahead, punch me in the mouth. Nobody cares. Yeah, we're in good shape locally. Now brag to me about your Amazon purchase.

Breaking up the $64.99 MSRP, we see that $33.14 (51%) was our cost of goods, assuming I'm at the top of the discount tier (I am with another distributor). That goes back into the purchasing budget to buy another copy of this game. That leaves $31.85 for the retailer. Should we go have dinner on this new found profit?  Oh no, we're just getting started.

Here's how we spend that remaining $31.85:
  • $9.81 Rent, which goes up a contractual 4% a year. If you want to start talking about "deserve," start here.
  • 9.75 Wages for the four, part-time guys and myself who sell these games. Wages are fairly stagnant right now, but a 3% rise a year is not uncommon.
  • 1.91 Utilities and insurance. All utilities and insurance rise at a steady rate. We work constantly to find ways to cut costs here, like SmartMeters, constantly brainstorming about the optimal temperature for our game center (which I just calculated adds about $250/month to our heating/cooling bill).
  • 1.49 losses due to shoplifting, shelf wear or internal errors. This can range dramatically between stores.  Ours is approaching the higher end due to our higher crime area.
  • 1.18 banking fees. This includes the very expensive credit card transaction fees we spend along with other bank related fees. One of these days I'll have to figure out what a "cash handling fee" is. I thought that's why I use a bank. Perhaps I should add a "game selling fee" to all our purchases.
  • .95 loan payments for our expansion into our beautiful store and its additional inventory. This is where we gnash our teeth the most and hope to transform those payments into profit one day.
  • .39 licenses, taxes, and other misc expenses. Corporate taxes, business license fees, office supplies, broken chairs, outside services like our once a year accountant or specialized IT support. A wizards spell book has nothing on the arcane notes our POS support people have for Microsoft.
  • .22 advertising. This is one that we've cut way, way back on, but lately it shows and we need to ramp it up again. If game manufacturers did enough advertising, especially free (in money, not time) social media marketing, we wouldn't have to work so hard at this. In the past this has been as high as $1.30.
So where's the profit? Where is my boat payment? $6.15 is how much I made on this game (before my personal taxes). That's actually not so bad. However, because manufacturers have felt pinched over the last decade, they've demanded higher margins and have increased our cost of goods an additional 4% more (on average) beyond what Avalanche Press demands. How do we pay for that? They don't care. So now, on average I'm working with $29.24 before expenses, which brings the total profit down to $3.54, or 5.4%.  That $2.61 was the difference between success and failure for many stores. I propose we call this the "tap dance difference."

Good stores (not crummy stores on the margins) that have survived this far have perfected a sort of "tap dance," in which they have some clever trickery, superior marketing or other technique they use to keep their doors open. These stores are generally fantastic. So what? All businesses need to be creative, right? Sure, but these very good stores are treading water instead of excelling like they should. The water is rising, the deck chairs have been re-arranged in innumerable configurations, yet they keep tap dancing. They love what they do. It's more than should be expected of them. They all know this. The crummy stores cut costs so deep that they're now in poor locations, with employees paid in Magic cards, with no advertising budget and questionable tax payment concepts.

So talking about margin and who deserves what is an unfortunate way of looking at this. This is the business we're in. If brick and mortar stores cease being relevant to you, feel free to sell direct. Feel free to shop online (but watch for that punch in the mouth). If your property manager is comprised of a group of money grubbing attorneys who inflate their fees, go buy a building. Don't like paying staff? Work longer hours. Find a cheaper bank. Move your production from China to Vietnam. Start tap dancing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pathfinder Update

I've been doing a year in review for Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons. It's been a volatile year for us in the role-playing department. A lot of mid-tier game systems have "gone zombie," with our customer base decreasing and sales flagging. These games seem to be headed for online-only sales. Meanwhile, all our FATE based games remain very popular. As for Dungeons & Dragons, it has been our worst sales year since I opened over six years ago. That said, it's not all doom and gloom when you include Pathfinder in the numbers.

Adding Pathfinder to the mix brings overall "D&D" sales to an average level for 2010. Now that we treat Pathfinder equally, stocking the full line like D&D, vowing never to be out of stock on anything like D&D, and considering it a valid option like D&D, we then have to ask, are we cannibalizing sales? The answer is most likely. But that's fine. We're not a Wizards of the Coast store, we're an independent retailer looking to fit the right game to the right person. If everyone is properly fit to the system best for them, it means we should see sales grow as they return for more.

So what about D&D Essentials? It's true Essentials has re-invigorated D&D 4. There's a lot of new interest in Essentials, as it adds more flavor and options to the game. Does it go far enough? Don't know. Before Essentials, Pathfinder core rulebooks were outselling Player's Handbooks at a 2:1 rate. With some finagling of the numbers to account for the various Essentials books, it's at parity. Still, overall growth for D&D is flagging, with back list products languishing while Pathfinder holds steady. Worse, there's a sense that some of the D&D accessories may be obsoleted by Essentials.

What has really been surprising is turn rates. D&D turn rates are down about 20% from previous years, which is no surprise with lower sales, but Pathfinder overall turn rates remain very high.  It was a big gamble to bring in every adventure, every tile pack, and every accessory. When we carried a few of each of these, they sold extremely poorly, but in aggregate, they rock. Two thirds of Pathfinder sales are rulebooks, which are only four of over a hundred products, yet overall turns for Paizo products are almost as good as Dungeons & Dragons, which is rulebook heavy. Our D&D turns are at 5.1, while Pathfinder is at a surprisingly good 4.6. Really good turns are considered around 3, and most retailers expect far less from their RPG departments (small press games hover at around 1.5 for us, for a low end example).

This means that, on average, every Pathfinder book we offer sells 4.6 times each year. In reality, core rulebooks sell something like 40-50 times and many supplements sell only once or twice in making up this average. However, I would postulate that you can't get those 40-50 sales without selling those slow selling supplements. It's something retailers know about Dungeons & Dragons or their 40K department. Shock and awe is the strategy, and it creates this "top of mind" position for your store in the heads of your customers. Will Black Diamond Games have the latest D&D or Pathfinder supplement? Hell yes, every time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

5 Game Store Tech Trends for 2010

Looking back just one year, here are some tech trends (or maybe fads) we've seen greatly impact our business:

  • Duel Terminals. It may not be your thing, but our two Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Terminals provide a unique physical product (Duel Terminal cards) with a video game experience. The "return on investment" is not nearly as quick as Konami promised (no surprise there), but they've still managed to be a nice addition to the store and a new revenue stream. The crowds of kids, rampant shoplifting, broken machines and cannibalized sales have largely failed to materialize. I hope we see more electronic investments in the game trade, such as various implementations of the Microsoft Surface when the cost drops. This is an example of an investment that only relatively successful stores will be able to make.
  • Fantasy Flight Media Center. It's an iPad in a box streaming promotional videos about Fantasy Flight board and card games. We've had it for about a month and its best attribute is how it appropriately matches customer with game. Just as important as selling someone a game, the media center has dissuaded customers from buying the wrong game. That's really important, as it means it's providing valuable information and not just blindly selling with a lot of flash. It doesn't seem to attract people not interested in FFG games, but it's a valuable tool for those who are. It serves the existing base. Now, if the Euro game market in the US was more than a bunch of hollow shell companies, we might expect something similar. Maybe someone in Europe will take the lead. Hah!
  • Facebook. We've had our Facebook fan page for less than one year, yet it has revolutionized our marketing with over 1,300 fans. There are some clear lessons we've learned about it. Although all the money we spend on Facebook advertising is to attract new people, it fails to deliver bringing them to the store without far more effort (which we haven't figured out yet). However, as a way to instantly inform our base, it's unparalleled. The lesson: Don't put all your eggs in one basket and don't completely discount old media just yet.
  • Geo-Location Services. These have promise but have largely failed to deliver the goods this year. We give our Mayor on Foursquare a free drink when he visits (it bounces between a couple people) and Facebook Places still isn't ready for prime time. In fact, those who have merged their business Facebook place and page have found nothing but misery. Facebook will likely fix this in 2011 and make it useful. Their trend, it seems, is to ruin things before making them good. Facebook might also become an e-commerce portal for us in 2011, but it's another feature in its infancy (see our page to test it out). Smartphone sales, capable of using these geo-location services, are predicted to beat PC sales in 2011. Now it's up to the services to answer the big question: What's the point?
  • Role-Playing PDF Programs. These are still getting hashed out, but the smaller publishers have jumped on various methods for us to deliver PDF products to those who buy print books from the store. Bits and Mortar is the current incarnation. Brick and mortar stores hope to play some role in the move from print to digital, and although it feels like grasping at straws, we'll work with what we have. My preferred future? Imagine a machine that could print an RPG book right in the store while you wait. An affordable print-on-demand machine is some years away, but we would be in line for that. That may be like wishing for an automated horse shoe installer at the dawn of the automotive age, but I think print will be around for some time to come. Again, it will only be available to stores with resources on hand who could jump on such a device. It reinforces my feeling that big changes are afoot.

What else? Our main distributor finally got their online ordering system up and running. We can now check real-time (more or less) inventory in nearly a dozen warehouses nationwide using various online ordering systems from multiple suppliers. The question of whether something is available is no longer based on guesswork. The promise of electronic order submission is still in the works (it works for Diamond, the comics distributor).

iPads have taken over as the device of choice on the more affluent RPG game tables and iPad games based on popular hobby board games have been very successful in the market (do they drive sales back to the store? Sometimes). I personally use an iPhone app called PFR when playing Pathfinder, which is quicker to reference than the core rulebook (it's the iPad app of choice in my game group). As a DM, I still prefer books.

Let me know if there's a tech trend that you've taken advantage of this year.

 Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Terminal. It looks like a video game, but it's more. It dispenses a special Yu-Gi-Oh card capable of being scanned on the integrated flatbad scanner (and used in the tabletop game, if the card is in official circulation). After a card is scanned , it can be used in the electronic portion of the game. We've got two machines, networked for head-to-head play. New card releases have been put out quarterly, more or less. These are big in Japan (one of the few times that has worked out for us).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Smarmy Elitist Holiday Naysayers (Rant)

As a recovering elitist, one that came from high tech and the "new" economy, I often have to hold my tongue at those who decry the holidays as a morass of evil consumerism. These feelings are generally espoused by iPad wielding, highly educated, liberal dweebs (takes one to know one) who claim that they will never step foot in a brick and mortar store again, that all of the world is available online, and that the rest of us are rubes for partaking in our annual mob-like frenzy of consumerism. I used to be one of these folks, crowing that I found my house online, my cars online, and even my WIFE online! The online world was mine for the taking.

Now that I'm an old economy small business owner, I have to object to the lumping of all of us into the McRetail category of mass consumerism. Over half the non-government jobs in this country come from small business and most of the money you spend with us (two thirds according to American Express) goes into the local community, something you won't get from the likes of Amazon, a company that fights the demand that they collect sales tax. I've considered creating a flow chart of how $100 spent at my store flows into the community, but you would find it shockingly complex. It would include dozens of taxes, including everything from supporting the local schools to mosquito abatement.

What most of those dweebs (again, takes one to know one) miss is that we're part of our communities. By definition, if we've survived this long, through recession and the predatory practices of the Wal-Marts and Barnes & Nobles of the world, we must be offering something our communities want. We support local charities, advertise in school newsletters (pretty infective but responsible), and attempt to work with our communities when our interests intersect. We do this because they are us.

This is lost on the dweebs because they generally don't have much sense of community. They are consumers, not customers, not regulars, and definitely not hobbyists with relationships with their local businesses. I believe they rail against their own sense of disconnect with the world around them. Their relationship with the places they buy are often no more than a website and a credit card number. So when they encourage holiday boycotts of businesses, it's usually because they've already got their orders placed on Amazon and can't see the point of leaving their suburban homes to join the hustle and bustle, and definitely don't know why you would spend a dollar more down the street, or pay sales tax if you didn't have to. They see their dollars flowing to China rather than their local communities, so why not?

They have a point about consumerism, and this country will be digging itself out of personal debt for the next decade. I've come to grips with my own consumption and how it relates to my beliefs. Growing a community was hard for me as a former dweeb, as it was mostly theoretical. Before my own store, I was just like them

Alright, rant off, and feel free to slip that iPad under my door.

Holiday Shopping Patterns

Each store has its own shopping patterns, determined by its community and location. A mall store might look forward to a massive increase in foot traffic in December, while a store that's defined by its college town may not even see strong holiday sales. If you love to spend the holidays traveling, visiting friends and relatives, consider opening a store like that. As a destination store in a strip mall, we have our own shopping patterns that are different from the previous two. They aren't better or worse, just different.

Ramp up. Our sales patterns are normal up until Thanksgiving. We cater to hobby gamers with about two thirds of sales to regulars. The general public, folks who come to shop for what I call classic games, makes up about 10% of our sales. In the middle, making up the rest of the pie are hobbyists who are infrequent customers who are hard to quantify. From Thanksgiving to the second Friday in December, we see holiday ramp-up. During this time, our regulars disengage from the store. Our events are sparsely attended and our sales of new releases fall off. Game companies take great risks during this period by releasing products not related to the holidays. Promoting them during the chaos can be difficult and they often get overlooked later. Most hobby game releases by big companies in December are pretty low key. While our regulars disengage, the gift buying general public tend to fill in the gaps, shopping primarily for board games, but also the list little Johnny submitted to Santa (lots of 40K). The Ramp Up period is usually a kind of wash for us, with our holiday shoppers making up for the disengaged regulars. Customers tend to be happy, receptive and polite.

Mid-Month Frenzy. We don't quite get the frenzied sales of a mall store, but from the second Friday (today) to Christmas Eve, we have about double our regular sales, requiring some good planning so we're not overwhelmed. For example, this year I'm orchestrating a second POS system to handle receiving of new product to free up the register for customers and avoid chaos in the cash wrap area. Our displays have been tweaked for weeks now, especially in our board game department. The sound has been turned down on our Yu-Gi-Oh terminals, the board games have been arranged based on sales patterns, and Christmas music is playing on the stereo. We'll have extra staff on hand during peak hours. Again, it's board games and miniature games that see a big boost, with board games selling double their normal numbers and everything else up a respectable amount. This is the period when customers can be the most trying, as these folks are harried and occasionally even resentful they have to come to us at all!

Post Christmas Aftermath. It's not over yet. We've got one more week of strong, holiday sales followed by two weeks of above average sales as our regular customers return, filling in the gaps of what they really wanted for the holidays. As a kid, I tended not to get any of the games I wanted for Christmas, so this was the period when I spent my "grandma money" and returned a lot of the stuff I was given for the stuff I really wanted. In the past, this period into mid-January was followed by two weeks of slow sales when I would usually take vacation. That period is actually pretty good for us now and with a kid in school for the first time, my vacation plans will have to wait. It's a breath of fresh air to see our happy, regular customers once again. Although the holiday money lets us do great things in the store, I wouldn't do this for long if it was like this all the time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Top Board Games (Fall)

There are a lot of gift guides floating around out there, so you may be wondering what people in our area have really been buying this season, as opposed to games they're encouraged to buy. Here's a list of our top selling board games for the Fall. There is some holiday contamination on this list, but they're mostly solid games that cross the various board game genres (including some card games).

Also, I put an asterisk next to each game on one of the gift lists, including: Boardgamegeeks holiday gift guideSF Chronicle guide, Critical Gamer, The Speil, Gamer Chris and The Morning News guide. Consider them both endorsements and reasons for why these games are top sellers.

  1. Forbidden Island ****
  2. Betrayal at House on the Hill **
  3. Settlers of Catan Rev. **
  4. Resident Evil Deck Building Game
  5. Dominion: Prosperity Expansion **
  6. Castle Ravenloft  **
  7. Dominion: Intrigue **
  8. Dominion **
  9. Atlantis *
  10. Pandemic *
  11. Invasion from Outer Space
  12. Dust Tactics *
  13. Arkham Horror
  14. Puerto Rico
  15. Thunderstone            
  16. Agricola
  17. Settlers Of America **
  18. Small World **
  19. Descent
  20. Macao **
Yes, Forbidden Island is that damn good and at a really good price. Other games not on the list that are on many of the best games lists: Telestrations, Lords of Vegas, Magic Labyrinth and Dixit.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Online Sales (or lack thereof)

A blog reader asked me why we don't do online sales. There are a lot of reasons I could give for that:
  • Profit motive. The only reason to do online sales, as far as I can tell, is to make money, and there are far easier ways to make money than to sell boxes of Magic at $5 over cost or D&D books below Amazon's insanely low price. I've got nothing against money, but in a big store like ours, we could see the same level of profits by adding a new product line. There is actually some money in brick and mortar stores, and if you have a profitable one, it's easier to be more profitable by just focusing your efforts.
  • Market saturation. The opportunity to open an online store to sell games successfully has passed. The sweet spot is to offer product at a 20% discount. Below that discount level nobody will buy from you, ever. We've tried that. Above that level and you will fail, or so says the common wisdom. There are already superb places to buy online at that mid-level (Paizo does it perfectly, I think, with a vibrant online community). There are other models, like the Troll & Toad version, where you buy up used stuff and sell it along with new stuff (used stuff and collectibles get really high margins). Opening an online store is no longer the thing to do when you start your brick and mortar business.
  • Impersonal. The goal of our brick & mortar store is to build a community who will then buy our products and support our store. Talk to me in the early afternoon hours when I'm selling Cokes and Pop Tarts to our unemployed regulars while multi-tasking, and I might get a little surly about the value of community, but it is what we do and we do it fairly well. Online sales are about the money and the online customers don't care if you live or die. And I can tell you from my Ebay sales with some of the most idiotic customers on planet Earth, vice versa. Again, there are exceptions (see above).
  • We do. Oh yeah, we do online sales. It's mostly on Ebay and primarily overstock items. We used to be more invested with an Ebay online store, but that was before Ebay got too greedy. We're experimenting with a shopping cart on Facebook, but we've had few sales, even at ridiculously low prices. People don't buy things on Facebook.
The real reason we don't sell online is I believe the effort it takes to do it right and the risks involved are not commensurate with the rewards. In other words, I haven't figured out how. I have a plan on how I would do it, but it makes only a small amount of sense. I don't understand what value I'm adding to the experience. Also, it would require a significant investment, a huge, distracting amount of time, and skill sets that I possess, but couldn't possibly divide between my current business and this new endeavor (again, if done right). It would require lots of labor. If I really wanted to do it, I would consider buying an established, marginal online retailer rather than starting from scratch.

Finally, since it would be mostly for the money, I would rather do something smarter with my resources, like opening a Subway sandwich franchise, or buying foreclosed properties, or heck, investing in the stock market. If it's about the money, and you have skills, why screw around with the game trade?*

*And that is why opening a game store is called a "lifestyle job" and not a serious start-up with the proper new business intention of making money.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Playin' Cards

I was looking back on CCG sales, comparing 2009 and 2010, and not surprisingly, it looked pretty much the same, with the exception that a lot of lingerers finally expired. Then I was thinking, since we expanded the category to include Living Card Games (LCG's), originally established by FFG to find a "living" home for CCG properties that couldn't survive the brutal format (and then to introduce new games), what if we expanded it to include deck building games, like Dominion?

Dominon has not become the methadone for Magic that many had hoped (or feared). Our Magic players looked at me like I was cracked when I explained it to them and suggested they give it a shot. Why? I think because it came from the board game world, in a board game box, pitched by an aging guy who is not one of them. Heck, Dominion won board game of the year in Germany, a big boon for sales to board gamers, but  also confirmation that it is "not from our world" by the CCG crowd.

I am more sure of this now because a LOT of them have tried the Resident Evil deck building game, arriving tomorrow, and many have pre-ordered it. Resident Evil is made by Bandai, a company that does edgy CCGs. Bandai sent a kit to our local Bandai event organizer, a guy who has been getting people interested in Naruto and Battle Spirits for years. His Resident Evil demos have resulted in far more early interest than Dominion ever did, and across a wide spectrum of our customer base. So want to get CCG players to play your deck building game? Stop selling it like a board game.

Personally, Dominion doesn't scratch my Magic itch. It lacks the kind of crunchy deck building obsessiveness of Magic, that activates the pleasure center in my brain. It's the same button that gets pushed when I spend two days "crafting" a Pathfinder character, compared to "making" a character in D&D 4. It's just how I'm wired. Great games, all around, but they don't do it for me.

So here's a chart showing all card playing activity lumped together. We know the CCG model is money if you can get your foot in the door (that door is mostly closed). We know that LCGs are a tough road, but can work with a hot property. Now you can see how self proclaimed deck building games do for us. I say self-proclaimed because I don't know that we've really defined the category very well (feel free to comment on their characteristics below).

SNF, Stuff Not Magic, is still not a big part of the pie. Everyone has pretty much accepted that Magic has won at this pont. Magic is the Coke of the CCG market, with the unassailable lead (Yu-Gi-Oh is our Pepsi, The Choice of a New Generation®). LCGs and DBs are attempts at innovative card games with more stable revenue and less risk than trying to break into a mature market. Dominion might be a sensation in the board game world, but as you can see, it's third tier when dropped into the CCG market. Still, I have a lot more faith in a slow selling, stable DB game than a third tier CCG that could burn out at any moment.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Black Friday Specials

So what are we doing for Black Friday?  We've got an overall store special:

Buy a starter set of any game and get a supplement at 20% off.
For example, a D&D red box starter set combined wth an adventure or Essentials book, Dominion with Dominion Prosperity, the 40K starter set wth a Battleforce box, or a box of CCG cards with an intro pack or tin.

What else? I've gone through our inventory and after some careful consideration, we've got some targeted offers we can send your way:

  • Dresden Files: Our World (60% off)
  • Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition (60% off)
  • Deathwatch RPG: Game Master's Tool Kit (40% off)
  • Dungeons & Dragons 4E: Adventures and Power Cards: Buy 1 get 1 Free
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3E (used): Buy 1 get 1 Free
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Extra Dice Set  (40% off)
  • Pathfinder adventures (stand alone and adventure paths) (buy 1 get 1 at 40% off)


  • Plastic/Metal Combo: Buy a miniature set made of plastic and get a metal blister packed item for 50% off.


40% off the following:
  • Age of Industry
  • Secrets of the Sea
  • Blokus Trigon
  • Runewars
  • Runebound: Mists of Zanaga
  • Invasion from Outer Space

  • Buy 1 box of cards at full MSRP, get another at 60% off

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

5 Games to Help You Survive Your Relatives

It's the holidays. You like games. Your relatives? Probably not so much. Liking games, that is. You might play a variety of different game genres, but you're not likely to get a lot of 40K in with Aunt Betsy. Instead, here are some fun and light board and card games you might want to whip out to pass the time while you avoid discussing politics, Aunt Betsy's naked backscatter scan, or whatever new way they've found to torture you this year. I want to focus on five that should fit the bill, but also have a small bill at the checkout counter. As much as I would like to suggest you pick up a $50 game like Ticket to Ride, the risk is too high if they balk at playing. Here are five muggle friendly games around $20:

Forbidden Island
Players work together to stop the island from sinking. They've each got a role to play in this fun, stripped down version of the more gamier Pandemic. You might also get some of the kids to play, if the relatives balk, as the age for this games is 10 and up (around 8, if your relatives have smart kids). Forbidden Island will be THE family game of the year this holiday season and it's for good reason. Lots of gaming goodness for around $15. If your family is more gamer oriented, consider jumping right to Pandemic or Ghost Stories. This is a cooperative game, so if they're clearly not going to do that, skip Forbidden Island. Go directly to Saboteur.

In this card game, you take the role of dwarves mining for gold. It works best in larger groups of 6-10 players. There is a cooperative element, like Forbidden Island, but some of the dwarves are saboteurs, attempting to undermine the group by diverting them away from the gold, creating collapses and breaking the other miners equipment. The identity of each miner is secret so there's some hilarity and mayhem as players attempt to figure our what's going on. It's similar to Bang! in this way, but a bit easier to play. Consider Bang! if you've got gamer relatives, or jump straight to the Battlestar Gallactica board game for an even deeper experience as you identify whose the cylon. These are known as cooperative games with a betrayal mechanic.

This is an older card game, but it's still very popular. Players take on the role of executioners during the French Revolution, attempting to execute the high value nobles while letting the innocents go free (and reversing that for your opponents). You manipulate the line order to your advantage using various cards in your hand. It plays well with up to 5 players and isn't half bad one on one. Despite the grim game premise, game play is your fun, "screw your neighbor" type experience, while the cards are cartoony. If you are looking for a more grim game, and your relatives have a sense of humor, consider picking up Gloom, in which you force your family to suffer until you have enough points to kill them off (how I feel about watching sports, followed by Thanksgiving dinner). Some other classic "beer and pretzel" card games that mght be good picks: Killer Bunnies, Munchkin and Zombies!!!, but they're around $25-30.

Felix: The Cat In the Sack
This is a bluffing game where you play mice trying to buy the good cat in the sack, while getting your opponents to buy the bad cats, the dog or whatever you can manipulate them into taking. You do this through a simple bidding system in which you know the values of some of the cards, but not all. It's a cute, clever little game that's a staple at our board game nights. It's for 8 and up and costs around $15. It compares well to For Sale, although your relatives might find a game about real estate as repulsive as Gloom.

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set (Red Box)
Do I dare suggest D&D for a family gathering? Yeah, pull it out. This is a stretch, and you're likely to only get interested teens to give it a try, but you might just start a family tradition. This new $20 D&D starter set is their best one yet. It's not perfect. It's not going to play itself or allow you to learn the instructions in five minutes like some of my other suggestions. However, if you've played D&D 4E, or really want to learn this new system, you should be able to get a lot of value out of this box set and easily introduce new players to the game. Making characters is part of the fun, but you might want to have some pre-generated if you think your audiences attention span may be limited. Consider leaving the game behind if you find a lot of enthusiasm. Everything you need to play is in the box, just make sure you read up ahead of time. Paizo is talking about having a Pathfinder starter set for next years holiday season, so consider waiting if that's your flavor.

Other games that come to mind: Mille Bornes (because my family played it as kids, you probably have a game like this), Citadels, Carcassonne and the ever popular, but $42, Settlers of Catan.

Let us know what you plan to play this holiday season with your relatives.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Limited Edition

Here are some of the "limited" items we have in stock. These are things that won't be back again or won't be back for a long time. It might be useful if you've got your eye on these as holiday gifts or were planning to pick them up after the holidays, with aptly named "grandma money."  Don't delay.

Castle Ravenloft is out of print and won't be back until 2011. The follow-up game has been delayed until next year, so this is THE D&D board game for the holidays. It's also our best selling board game of the year and wildly popular in the store. We stocked up as best we could and have about a dozen in stock. They won't make it past mid-December.

Fire & Lightning duel decks for Magic: The Gathering were released on Friday without a lot of fan fare. They're a little pricey ($35) but will be in huge demand over the holidays. Stores have sold out across the country on release day. We haven't hyped this release at all, so we've still got about ten. Previous decks are in high demand and this is one of those items that makes a great gift, but is hard to justify as a personal purchase because it lacks utility (you can't use most cards in organized play). It's high on the pretty scale though.

Beholder Collector's Set contains four of this iconic Dungeons & Dragons monster miniature. We originally were told we would get 6, then another distributor came through and we got a total of 12. Then we pried 12 more from WOTC's fingers, so we'll have these for a bit longer. Like the Fire & Lightning deck, it's really cool, but hard to justify for yourself. Gift fodder.

Orcus: Prince of Undeath. I stocked up knowing we would have these for the holidays. They're out of print and will likely be worth a small fortune soon. We've got five at the standard MSRP. The closest comparison is the Colossal Red Dragon which goes for $200-300 on Ebay. Again, a really cool model that would make a great gift, but hard to justify personally.

D&D tile sets are limited print runs, and many are gone or are going away soon, such as The Dungeon, the first D&D Essentials tiles. These are useful for D&D and Pathfinder and have been hot sellers. Also, Paizo GameMastery tiles have been going out of print for a while now, with the first twelve or so very hard to find. Paizo lets a lot of their older products go out of print.

Each year, GW comes out with a limited edition miniature case for the holidays. This year it's the Monster Figure Case, a giant case with pluck foam to take care of those one off miniatures that just won't fit anywhere else (where my Lord of the Rings Mumak will eventually go). We've got three left and won't have them again when they're gone. Again, not cheap, hard to justify as a personal purchase, but if a loved one has a model that just won't go away because it just won't fit anywhere, or your gamer shame is driving you to hide your Ork Stompa from the in-laws, this one is for you.

Necromancer Island is a Smallworld promo. Smallworld is a guaranteed big hit this holiday season for a number of reasons and we have a handful of this promo available for sale. Online sites sell it for $12-20 or bundle it with a copy of Smallworld (which everyone who wants this already owns). We've got a few left for $5.

What else? There will inevitably be a hot holiday game, often promoted by some newspaper, website or other source that accelerates a games sales well beyond normal.  We won't know what those games are or what inevitable games will be sadly unavailable until we get closer to the holidays.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Replicative Fading

We're now the number two game store on Facebook with 1,300 fans. It's a list I conveniently keep, with over a hundred game stores. That's a lot of fans, but has it resulted in a lot of sales? Umm, no. What it has done is replace a lot of costly advertising with cheaper, much more time consuming advertising. It's a revolution in savings, but not revenue. It's fantastic in communicating with our user base. However, the bottom line is, just like customers driving by a store, having a bunch of peripherally interested people is not terribly lucrative. Lets take a look at how I get these fans.

About half our fans come from organic means, like telling folks in the store or our very successful (in getting people to fan) Facebook advertising. The other half, however, come from what I've discovered is the quickest way to get new fans, targeting friends of fans. The ads target friends of existing fans within a certain parameter, like 20 miles. Unfortunately, what I'm seeing is very quick growth of those types of fans, which also means high additional costs as those people fan our page. There's nothing wrong with them, they're just not terribly engaged with the page.

Basically what I'm saying is fan counts are crap. Don't chase them. Don't worry about them. Worry about providing solid content to your existing, organically grown, fan base of active users. 100 active users is far better than 1,000 passive fans, who like replicating clones, get farther and farther away from the original intent as the advertising process continues. John's brothers cousins uncles pool cleaner is not my target audience because he thinks games are cool. Some companies are actually selling this social media replication strategy as a business model. Weak.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Less is More (Holiday Planning)

The big retailers are predicting a pretty good holiday season, and the economists (who we now know are completely full of crap), believe recent retail numbers indicate the same. The retailers are what interest me. They're finally dialing in what the average consumer is looking for in the new, post-boom economy. We only encounter these consumers once a year, in December, so I've started paying extra attention to the big stores after getting seriously blind-sided in 2009 (despite great sales).

Last year we experienced what a lot of big retailers already knew: we had too much inventory and not the right mix. We had stocked up for a hesitant but still feeling wealthy 2008 consumer, but ended up with a skittish and impoverished 2009 consumer. It should have been obvious. All I had to do was check my own balance sheet. However, our sales don't correspond with the feelings of the general public. Hobbyists were fairly unfazed by the recession, at least those who still had jobs. They changed their buying habits, but they still bought. We had some national crisis moments that tanked our sales, but in general, they were up in 2009 by quite a lot, with 2010 very healthy as well.

Big retailers this year are hopeful because they've burned through all their dead inventory and have fine tuned their offerings. I would like to think we've done the same thing, or at least plan to. A lot of big stores have discovered that focusing on fewer things and even shrinking their stores provides a better shopping experience and saves a bunch of money. It's all about the bottom line now.  Gross sales and market share are for suckers (remember the dot-com days?). Game stores could learn from the big boys. Dead inventory is an impediment, and I'm constantly balancing selection with efficiency. Do I really need five lines of paint brushes and every D&D product, or could I actually make more money with less? The new mantra is less is more. We'll be cautiously heading into the holidays and stocking up only when warranted. Overstock is for the gross sales crowd.

Changing size is something we're working on as well, hopefully adding some significant space without significant cost. If that doesn't work out, there's a chance, a couple years from now, that we right-size the store in a different location. I'm hoping it doesn't come to that, but the savings out there right now are astronomical. I've been joking lately that the only real money in game stores comes from rent negotiations. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Nom Nom Nom

The game store-cafe concept is all the rage right now. If I had to do it over again, I would seriously consider it. It's probably like other game store hybrid models, in which the sum of the parts does not equal the value of the whole. In other words, from what I'm told, a really strong game store will always beat a hybrid store in sales performance. Still, there's something tantalizing about the coffee shop model, especially having customers during the day. Customers that are not primarily men between the ages of 18-45 (our core).

That said, I know nothing about coffee shops and only a little about coffee. My coffee knowledge: I like it. "I like it" is already the failed business plan for most game stores, so I'm smart enough to know I need to do more research, bring in a partner, or shut the hell up (my current favorite, despite this post). One old friend even offered to come up with the funding if I did the business plan work. I'm honored, but still need to think more about it. I can't help thinking there's a change in the wind. I'm just not sure it's the smell of coffee.

This brings me to our snacks. Some stores have this grandiose idea that snacks and drinks are some sort of huge investment. They're a nice add-on, but not worth breaking a sweat over. Here are our snack sales; far more fragmented than drink sales. The Kit-Kat is the our local champion. Got a favorite?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Imperfect Information

I'm increasingly frustrated and irritated that I can't get information to customers, despite the amazing digital tools at our disposal. Facebook, direct email, in-store flyers, an online schedule and good old word-of-mouth all assume that what we have to say is important to those we're trying to say it to, and they have the mental bandwidth to absorb it. Inevitably, these efforts are met with failure, despite our best efforts. However, I have to remember that the entire process of retail, the entire economy, really, is based on imperfect information.

The concept of imperfect information is counter intuitive and completely escapes some people, especially those who believe the Internet is the ultimate killer of brick and mortar stores. Imperfect information is the grease of commerce (it's not money). According to this Wikipedia article on perfect information,
"it would practically mean that all consumers know all things, about all products, at all times, and therefore always make the best decision regarding purchase. In competitive markets, unlike game-theoretic models, perfect competition does not require that agents have complete knowledge about the actions of others; all relevant information is reflected in prices."
In other words, if we could see everything and every possible permutation of the economy, like in a game of chess or tic tac toe, retail would be an endeavor handled by a handful of Internet discounters, entirely based on who had the lowest price (perhaps Amazon's goal). Imperfect information may be highly inefficient, but the fuzziness of that data makes it possible for businesses to survive, especially small ones. It's fuzzy for everyone, including my competitors.

Back in the real world, retailers and all businesses struggle to get their message to their customers, most of whom are completely overwhelmed with messages, most of whom shop at their store for myriad reasons retailers only vaguely grasp. The Internet crowd will claim they're all computer illiterate Luddites, but that assumes price is paramount and perfect information is at hand.

Where one shops is often about human connections, personal conversations, perceived staff expertise and a sense of community. Price is only one factor. My own relationships with vendors are not entirely based on price and availability. They're often based on fuzzier things like hard earned loyalty. My credit card processor is a high school friend. My insurance agent is a local gamer buddy, and my main distributor spent months of weekends getting me set up while the competition simply mailed catalogs and credit applications. I have to say, I'm richly rewarded by these relationships, despite their imperfection. I might find a slightly cheaper credit card processor, but can I Facebook the CEO when my system is down? Will my insurance agent show up at 7am on a Saturday morning after a break in, like mine did? Will the sales rep at my next supplier work to understand my business and look out for me or is he a keyboard pounding monkey?

What we really seek as business owners is that personal connection with our customers. In analytical terms, it's a way to cut through imperfect information so customers listen to us. Not everyone wants that kind of relationship, which is why it's, well, imperfect.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Helpful Customer

With the holidays fast approaching, I've been thinking about all the great help I get from our customer base in initiating new players into games. Sometimes this even involves help on the sales floor. Some store owners will glare at those who get between them and their customer during a sale. "Come not between the Nazgul and his prey!" they seem to hiss. My approach is a bit more philosophical. With over 6,000 items in my store, and about 20,000 available, there is a really good chance you, the customer, know more about some things than me. I am happy to defer questions to the knowledgeable customer. However, it's better if I have an idea of how that interaction will go down. Sometimes I find myself rescuing the customer from a well meaning volunteer. Here are some guidelines for being helpful in any store:

  • Keep it Positive. The tendency is to denigrate a product or game system to elevate what you're trying to emphasize. "D&D 4 sucks; play Pathfinder." There's no need to do this and what happens is you permanently shut the door on what might be of interest later, possibly later in the conversation. As you get older, you realize the "nevers" of your youth might have been a little extreme at the time. Going back to something once you've declared it sucks is really hard. However, you can declare something unsuitable for a customer's needs based on the criteria they've given you. That's changeable.
  • Ask Questions. You need three bits of information at the very least: What do they like? What is their capacity to play the game (usually age)? and Who will play with them? Price is not an issue yet. What we're trying to do is determine, in a perfect world, exactly what would be best for the customer. If someones son wants to play a war game, that leaves about 50 games on our shelves. If the recipient is 8-year old Johnny, we now have just a handful. If he's playing only with his uninterested mom, that narrows it down to one or two. Price might play a role then.
  • Include the Sales Person. Integrate your discussion with the sales person and you've gained an ally in the sale (and otherwise) and have impressed upon the customer that everyone is working towards their best interest. "Gary is right that Sentinels are mostly for casual play, but in an army themed around fast attack, they do very well." (I don't like Sentinels, you do, and we've agreed the product is fine but might not be suitable). 
  • Keep it Simple. It's the sales person's job to suggest accessories and up-sell useful items. Try not to burden the new customer with too much information or the fact that a serious player will spend hundreds of dollars beyond the initial purchase. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. Want to start 40K? Try a starter set. The sales person will likely recommend some glue, clippers and a paint set. However, if you suggest all this plus a couple hundred dollars in models to make your ideal army, the customer will flee.
  • Know When to Stop. If you find the sales person getting irritated or in some way wishing your interaction to stop, get the hint. Sometimes there are factors you don't know, like the age of the shopper, their budget, the list you didn't notice in their hand, the fact they're a return customer, or a bewildering number of other factors. Be helpful, but not intrusive. Know when to hand off the customer to the sales person.
 That's about it. Thanks for the help!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


It's my birthday today, which usually leads to grim thoughts of mortality, net worth and life focus. It's just how I'm wired. What I wanted to touch on in this post is entropy in business. The main theoretical concern of a new business is return on investment. You put in $100,000 to start a new business, not an insane amount of money, and you expect that money back in a reasonable amount of time. Your first goal is to become "profitable," meaning you stop hemorrhaging cash. That might take 12-18 months. Your next goal is to pay back that $100,000. A reasonable expectation might be 3-5 years. For a game store, it might be far, far longer than that, if ever. It really depends.

After that 3-5 years, you should be hitting profits, but you'll also start hitting some entropy points that will put additional financial pressure on your business, especially if your profits are low or non-existent or you've got longer term debt. For example, we're in our sixth year now, and we're on our second POS machine, second office server, fifth (or so) vacuum cleaner, and we're beginning to look at replacing some of our worn out store fixtures. Tomorrow we're re-painting our game center and having the carpets deep cleaned. Most of my thoughts about the future seem to be about re-focusing on the next thing. If keeping up with the current stuff doesn't bury you, getting clocked by the future can do you in.

This is normal. It's your typical retail "two steps forward, one step back" approach. However, if you're barely hanging on, entropy, and the stress it brings on, is what's most likely to kill your business. It's not slow sales, bad health or customer theft, it's just the inability to keep up with the inevitable breaking down of what you've built or the changing times you can't keep up with. It's evident in once great stores that look tattered and ragged, unable to afford to keep up with the image desired with their initial investment. It shows up often in stores with dead inventory on the shelf and broken promises to bring in the new stuff soon. They've got problems with their distributors or UPS keeps messing up, or so they claim. On the positive side, if you've hit entropy, it means you're probably experienced enough to recognize it and you've got a bag of tricks to combat it, including simplifying and cost cutting. Dealing with entropy, therefore, is also a kind of badge of honor. You've made it! Now do it again.

In my previous business, which was, believe it or not, a mildly profitable BBS system in the 90's, it was the Internet that killed us. Some successful BBS systems transitioned to ISP's (Internet Service Providers) back in the day, but that took a ton of money and foresight. It meant your BBS had a stockpile of cash for that transition, and most were hobbies at best. We were able to transition to a kind of Internet hybrid gateway, but lacked the resources to take the next step, so we realized early on that we were finished. We hadn't paid off the debt from the previous transition, so transitioning a second time was out of the question. That's where a lot of businesses are right now. They're hanging on, not really able to grow or expand due to the poor economy and staggered by existing debt. They hope to avoid the inevitable entropy: a dead POS system, a broken air conditioner, or the landlords devastating common area maintenance bill for replacing the roof (or in my case, continually re-painting the poles in the parking lot or mowing non-existent grass). These businesses are in a two steps back, one step forward mode.

Two steps back, one step forward is how I feel we're operating most of the year and the retail metaphors seem to reflect that with such favorites as death spirals and circling the drain. This just reflects the instability of such endeavors, and hopefully it sorts itself out during better times. I try to combat it much like how I fix my aging car. I try to fix things as they arise for fear of getting buried by entropy. I can live with one broken thing on my car and in my business, but there's a sense of hopelessness that arises when they begin to pile up.

That said, I'm waiting for my credit card period to close next week to bulk up on my holiday inventory and buy a new store fixture or two. I'm also planning a trip to the New York Toy Fair in February in hopes of finding new areas to expand the store. Most of my profits this year will go towards debt, but I can't imagine not focusing some of my energies on the future. Two steps forward, one step back.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gnomes of Golarion (Pathfinder)

I resisted picking up this book for quite a while. It was recommended by numerous friends and customers, but like many of the people who playfully ridiculed me when I announced I was reading it, I had a dim view of gnomes. Gnomes haven't had a solid place in D&D mythology. They were an add-on race, not quite the hobbits (halflings) and dwarves we know and love, and definitely not like the various flavors of exotic elves. If halflings were rogue-like and dwarves were fighter-types, the gnomes were meant to fill a magical role. Worse, they were associated with the lame: illusion magic (AD&D) and bards (3.x). They were instantly despised by everyone I knew. Then there were the tinker gnomes of Dragonlance, the Ewoks of that series. Man, people hated them. Gnomes were literally in a deep hole and thankfully, Gnomes of Golarion digs them out.

Gnomes are fey, we learn. They come from the First World and are forever doomed to seek out new experiences or risk a horrible curse. This curse, called The Bleaching, drives the gnome towards new experiences and justifies their manic behavior. Stop seeking out the new, and The Bleaching takes you. The Bleaching is the average gamers worst nightmare: becoming a dull, middle aged, white guy. You can literally die from boredom as the color leaves you and you fade away. Take it from me, it's a nasty curse. A chapter on The Wonderseekers, those who try to save gnomes from this potentially deadly funk, provides for both a new Pathfinder faction and some great character motivation.

Everything in Gnomes of Golarion is centered around The Bleaching. We get a full evaluation of gnome culture and behavior based on this driving force. It all begins to make sense as we see manic gnomes, deeply devoted gnomes, and highly creative gnomes. There is every level of experience seeking, including the sexual (hooray for adult Pathfinder), with the exception being dull repetition. Expect great things from a gnome artisan, but not anything you've seen before. They take lovers of various races, but tend to tire of them quickly. We learn that when you want artistic inspiration, you find a gnome. Let the dwarves handle the solid, run of the mill stuff, like bridges. Everything a gnome does is related to this search for new experience so they can avoid the curse of The Bleaching.

To envision what a society of such gnomes would look like, we're presented with over a dozen gnome settlements. We've got gnome holy sites, underground gnome hideouts, tree villages taken over from elves, and my favorite town, Umok, a secluded woodland village in which the gnomes have befriended the forest animals to protect them and give warning. Gnomes, like other Pathfinder races, aren't all pillars of virtue, so we have gnomes deeply enmeshed in the drug trade (pesh), gnome arcanists in Cheliax that support the Church of Asmodeus, and other interesting moral compromises gnomes make for their survival in the world of the bigguns'. This section is perfect for dropping in a gnome settlement during an adventure. If the party is looking for something interesting and creative, it's likely in a gnome town. Anyone playing a gnome will probably choose one of these interesting places as their home.

The section on weapons was inspired, although I would have liked to see more artwork. The thunderstone powered devices and Flask Thrower are fantastic. The section on the gods is well done, re-contextualizing gnome beliefs based on their new central premise. Finally, there are rules for The Bleaching, including using it as a curse if players don't properly play their curious gnome. You can also play a Bleachling, that dull, middle aged, white guy who wants to be left alone with his lawn (they develop a new propensity towards druidism).

The book is a slim 32 pages and retails for $10.99. Gnomes of Golarion provides a role for gnomes in the Pathfinder universe. They're no longer that expansion race, another annoying little guy. They remind me a bit of how the high elves were made into Eladrin in D&D 4, yet the gnomes of Golarion are now firmly rooted in this world, at least as rooted as any gnome can be. Am I inspired to play one? Are you high on pesh? No, but I can definitely appreciate a free spirit who wants to properly take one on.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

6th Anniversary Party (Sunday)

We will be celebrating our 6th anniversary on Sunday at the store from 10am-6pm. Yes, it has been six years, with the first three at our dinky store in Walnut Creek and the last three in our huge store in Concord. In case you were wondering, we've got another two years left on our lease and we've already started re-negotiations in hopes of staying another five years beyond that. In any case, you should really come to our party on Sunday. It's customer appreciation event that includes free food and drinks (amazing tri-tip sandwiches), fantastic door prizes every hour (below), demonstrations by the Society for Creative Ananchronism (SCA), sales specials and ongoing gaming in our Game Center. It's all free and fantastically fun.

Paizo sent us autographed copies of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, Advanced Player's Guide and Seekers of Secrets

ACD Distribution sent us a giant chibi Cthulhu plush

Scars of Mirrodin banner and super special collectible Magic life counters from Alliance (they're worth about $50 each). On the bottom is a Fortress of Redemption from Games Workshop.

The local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) will be at our party. Here are a couple of photos of them from our grand re-opening three years ago:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Celebrity DM

Some of the counter talk at the store lately has been around the well known game masters of yesteryear. These are guys who ran legendary role-playing games, usually D&D, but often older systems, some of which they wrote themselves. Younger gamers don't quite understand the reminiscing, so I began describing the role-playing games of the past and how they differ from today.

First, if it's not already obvious, back in the day, the late seventies and early eighties for me, there were a lot more people playing. D&D especially had a player base that was probably ten times bigger than it is today, and when I got a purple D&D box set for Christmas one year, it was because it was THE hot gift, not a staple of of a nerdy niche hobby. A lot of us stayed with the hobby long after the fad faded, but the player base remained pretty big throughout my childhood. As an aside, my childhood after moving to California was pretty miserable until I began making friends in middle-school through gaming. It was sports for nerds.

Second, the game was incredibly subjective. I recall going to a couple Orccons back in the mid-eighties and playing D&D in the open gaming room . The place was absolutely packed with D&D games, ranging from simple pen and paper affairs to foam cut out dungeons built up several feet high. When you sat down at the table, you didn't know what to expect. House rules? All rules were house rules, as the game rules, rules as written (RAW), were more a suggestion than a codified map of play. Gary Gygax openly told DMs  in the DMG that players could go screw themselves if they didn't like it (more or less).  It's not that people were taking liberty with the rules, it was that they were open to so much interpretation that the game experience varied dramatically based on who ran the game.

At one point I recall signing up for an official tournament game, to get a feel for what the real rules were like. They were no less subjective, and superimposed was a ridiculous scoring overlay that tried to give points based on arbitrary actions. Oh, you searched the wizards beard for the missing key? Great, one point for you and an extra day of rations. How clever you are. It was not fun. That said, my favorite adventure of all time is Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, a tournament adventure that forces the party to race through a dungeon before the poisoned air kills them. Good times.

What the game needed, what it required, was a certain type of person to run it. That person had a basket of skills, including organizational skills, basic social skills, a ton of creativity and most importantly, the ability to tell a good story. There weren't books on how to do this, so there was a lot of fumbling around trying to figure this out. There were way more really bad games than good ones and we made every mistake, including the ones that pissed off our parents and teachers.

A general grasp of the rules was important, but that wasn't so hard. It was not uncommon back then to know all the rules, and possibly even what page they were on. We had three "core" books for quite a few years and we would often try to outgeek each other by showing our mastery of those tomes. We could flip to certain sections by touch, as the books began to wear (usually combat and treasure tables). It reminds me of young students of Tibetan Buddhism whose spiritual practice is to study and memorize one text. Knowing the rules was not about who had the most money to buy stuff, and perhaps that's why everyone took a turn at DMing.  Nowadays it's about the guy who can afford to buy all the new releases, and the players who leach off him. Honestly, if you want to get a vision of what that looked like, think modern day Pathfinder, rather than D&D. Fewer rulebooks, but lots of adventures. TSR would screw that up later.

Like painting miniatures, DMing is craft, not art, and anyone can learn to do it. Nevertheless, some did way better than others, taking the bare bones framework of the rules and spinning a mesmerizing story around it. Within my own game group, I freely admit that I was not one of these legendary story tellers. We had several good ones. Jim excelled at modern games, spinning spy tales with clever villains like Taskmaster in his black Porsche 911. That guy was always one step ahead of us. Stefan was a genius, and I recall eating up his game sessions until he inevitably lost interest not far in. Russell would tell the best stories, the writer of the group, although his game design wasn't as good as some of the others. I had a secret DM at one of the city rec centers, an amazing old guy whose name I can't recall  (a college student) who had written a giant, multi level dungeon that we had no hope of ever finishing. He had a grasp of the natural world that blew my mind, with vast underground cave complexes filled with rivers and lakes.  I kept that game to myself, a prized treasure every Wednesday afternoon. Despite obvious skill in some, it was still craft, and we were all learning. Anyone could do it and over time you got better.

That sense of craft is what kept me in the game long after my friends moved on, running D&D games in dot-com conference rooms and later at my house with wait lists of players, not because I was a DMing genius, but because I was seriously invested in the game when there were few people like that left. Again, I will freely admit not being great at it, but that's what having a hobby is about. I'm a professional game store owner, not a professional dungeon master. I reserve the right to suck at my hobby, but endeavor to improve.

Modern D&D takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the game, but it still requires the same set of skills to run a successful game. It's easy to forget that when your game prep is now divided between story and drawing battlemaps and painting miniatures. The story telling can take a back seat to the energy and effort of running tactical combat. Regardless, a good game master brings it all together and any game system can be the platform for a fantastic game, provided you've got a good game master.