Saturday, July 31, 2010

New Release Anxiety

As Gencon approaches, the new release cycle is gearing up. I've been warned to "strap in" for August, as the releases will be hot and heavy. As a store owner, we are new release driven. I wish it wasn't so, that we had a stable inventory of quality games with thousands of customers who wanted them. I wish it was 1985. In fact, we have about a thousand customers and we compete with other stores and most importantly, the Internet. With such stiff competition and so few customers, we're generally only profitable in months with a lot of new releases.

It's one of those ongoing oddities that customers have very different perspectives on new releases.There are two types that always strike me as odd. The first is the overwhelmed completist. This guy is exasperated at the pace of new releases. They just put out a version of that game!  Perhaps that release was five years ago or longer, but there is the sense that his gaming commitment requires that purchase and that he's being somehow coerced into buying. They make a lot of angry purchases, it seems.

At the fringe of the completist group are customers who will stop playing a game if they perceive the rate of new releases is too fast. One poster on boardgamegeek recently mentioned he would pass on the Battle of Westeros board game because there were many expansions planned for it. Really? You have so little self control that you can't buy this complete game and call it a day? The mere existence of more options is such a negative that they will dismiss it out of hand. Are there any real life analogies so strange? "Yeah, she asked me out for coffee, but I really don't want kids."

The second odd duck is the customer that requires new releases. They troll the Internet forums for clues about the next release for their game or news about the health of their preferred game company. "I hear Wizards of the Coast won't be re-printing the D&D core books!" they might announce, exasperated. These folks are gaming animists. They believe their game is a living, breathing organism, and if the company that produces it were to fail or if new releases are not forthcoming, their game is dead. They will actually call it that; dead.

Like the guy who can't abide the overwhelming quantity of new releases for his game, the animist will flee from their game if it has no forthcoming releases like it was a rotting corpse. "Yeah, I left her because we have four kids and she doesn't want any more." I have to wonder if this is a symptom of over consumption. Did I have a hand in this as a retailer? Are there simply too many games, too many options tailored for too many people?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

RPG Releases Next Week

Gencon is next week and many game companies have big releases planned around this time. Here are some of the role-playing releases we know will be in next week:

Cubicle 7
  • Starblazer Adventures: Legends Of Anglerre
Legends of Anglerre shoves a massive battle axe in the hands of the Ennie-award nominated Starblazer Adventures roleplaying game. Play action-packed fantasy using the award-winning FATE RPG system: gritty adventurers on paths to greatness; epic heroes leading mighty armies and noble kingdoms; mythic questers traversing the many planes and battling the gods themselves - and more!

  • Battletech: Hexpack - Woods & Rivers

White Wolf
  • Exalted Second Edition: Return Of The Scarlet Empress



  • Pathfinder RPG: Advanced Player's Guide Hc
Explore new and uncharted depths of roleplaying with the Pathfinder RPG Advanced Player’s Guide! Empower your existing characters with expanded rules for all 11 Pathfinder Roleplaying Game core classes and seven core races, or build a new one from the ground up with one of six brand-new, 20-level base classes. Whether you’re designing your own monstrous helpers as an enigmatic summoner, brewing up trouble with a grimy urban alchemist, or simply teaching an old rogue a new trick, this book has everything you need to make your heroes more heroic.

  • Gamemastery Item Cards: The Serpent's Skull Deck
  • Gamemastery Map Pack: Hellscapes
  • Planet Stories: Before They Were Giants - First Works From Science Fiction Greats
  • Pathfinder Fiction Novel: Prince Of Wolves
  • Pathfinder Adventure Path: Kingmaker Part 6 - Sound Of A Thousand Screams
  • Pathfinder Adventure Path: The Serpent's Skull Part 1 - Souls For The Smuggler's Shiv
  • Pathfinder Companion: Orcs Of Golarion

Dungeons & Dragons
8/6 (early release date)
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Sun Campaign Setting Hc
Aimed at players and Dungeon Masters, this game supplement explores the heroes and wonders of Athas—a savage desert world abandoned by the gods and ruled by terrible sorcerer-kings. Use it to build Dark Sun heroes and thrilling D&D adventures set in the Seven Cities of the Tyr Region, the Ivory Triangle, the Sea of Silt, and monster-infested wastelands—or plunder it for your own D&D campaign!

The Dark Sun Campaign Setting provides exciting character options for D&D players, including new races, new character themes and class builds, new paragon paths and epic destinies, and new equipment. It also provides everything Dungeon Masters need to run 4th Edition Dark Sun campaigns or include Dark Sun elements in their homebrew campaigns. It has rules and advice for handling survival challenges, arena encounters, desert terrain, and adventure creation. It also presents a short, ready-to-play introductory adventure.

  • Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Sun Creature Catalog
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Marauders Of The Dune Sea
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Psionic Power Hc

There are other releases from Mongoose, Cubicle 7 and others, but this is what we're bringing in.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Law of the Jungle

I was driving home today thinking about the various types of customers. My mind was still in Robert E. Howard's Africa after reading Solomon Kane for a week. I got inspired by Paizo's Heart of the Jungle. It may have influenced my thoughts:

The Alpha. These are the guys (they're all guys) who visit once a week, follow new releases, and generally spur us on to be a cutting edge retail establishment. We hit street dates because of them. We study new releases so we don't miss anything, and we enjoy talking about their characters (or army, or latest board game experience). They are often mistaken for those "friends" that staff seem to be enthralled by. Statistically, they're our top 30 or so customers and make up a fairly small group. If retail were a performing art, these would be our season ticket holders and our toughest critics, the people that we're trying to impress. Sometimes we forget that the regular customers, the bulk of our business, only visit monthly. "Yeah, that's not new, it came out two weeks ago." Alpha gamers tend to be involved across multiple departments, such as role-players who also play miniature games. They are statistically more likely to use the game space, but many couldn't care less about it.

The Regular. The Regular visits us about once a month; the average. They tend to be focused on their one game, although some are casual about a secondary game. Most are somewhat informed about street dates and new releases. They are no less important than our alpha customers, and in fact, make up the bulk of our sales. These are not anonymous folks. We tend to know much about their game, have a general idea of their likes and dislikes, and can often steer them to what's new since their last visit. Many will ask "What's new?" It's a question that implies a) I remember what they like, b) I remember the last time they visited, and c) I know ... what's new. The store needs to be aimed at The Regular, but it's often counter-intuitive, since we get so much more feedback from The Alpha.

The Vulture. This might sound like a derogatory term, but the vulture is essential to a retail operation. Vultures only shop the sale, the clearance rack, the ding & dent section, or the used book department. Retail inventory is a zero sum game, so we can't buy new, potentially profitable games until the old, unprofitable product has been cleared out. Regulars and Alphas will buy some clearance stuff, but they tend to be new release driven. The vulture is rather skeptical of new releases, preferring the old and the on sale. New releases will be old and on sale soon enough from their perspective. The Vulture provides a necessary service to the retail ecosystem. Many are deeply knowledgeable gamers with decades of experience in a wide variety of games. Some have deep knowledge of the game industry and have transcended the mainstream game trade, often picking up games for reasons that have nothing to do with the game's intended purpose.  Experienced retailers know to embrace the vulture. Every product has a life cycle and there is some security in knowing that at the end, the vulture awaits.

Internet Shopper (The Parasite). While The Vulture plays an important role, the Internet Shopper is a parasite. These are people who visit the store, shop for games, ask lots of questions from the experienced staff, and then buy everything online. Some of them have been visiting us for years, despite hints that we would rather they not. The worst Internet Shoppers will use our game space, taking up additional resources used by members of our gaming community. The very worst will encourage others to follow their oh so clever path. Of all the types of customers, we have no use for these people. Let me also mention that this does not refer to people who occasionally buy online or even buy a LOT of stuff online. Many, many customers match that description, and although we would like to gain more of their business, I understand their reasoning and hope to find ways to better engage them. The people I'm referring to are those who virtually never buy from the store in such an obvious manner that speaking to them seems like lost moments of your life.

The Angel. How to describe this customer? The rent is due. Payroll has been pushed back a couple days already. In walks this customer, the friendly, easy going gamer who wishes nothing but a pure retail experience. They've got retail needs. You will satisfy them. Angels spend a lot of money. They're not alphas or regulars, they're a handful of customers who will literally make your day. They often have a knack for buying the unusual, or the overstock, or some other combination of merchandise that required the stars to align in our favor. Some visit only once or twice a year, but it's memorable. Retail is a nasty, brutish way to make a living and many a day is spent knowing you'll be losing money, sometimes lots of money. The Angel can save the day, or the week, possibly push you over the edge to make rent or payroll. Most have been our customers for years. Most, I think, don't really know how important they are to the business, especially psychologically.

Finally. It's generally bad form to talk about these archetypes, mostly because people will try to classify themselves, often erroneously, either up or down. Every Regular thinks they're an Alpha. Every Alpha thinks they're an Angel. The Internet Shopper doesn't care what I have to say and The Vulture is too busy on some online Delphi forum to notice. Save the Internet Shopper, every group is needed to keep the store going. Every customer is important.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pathfinder Rising

Months ago we made the decision to stock every Pathfinder product. There was a certain resistance to Paizo, based on their business model, that was becoming illogical. Strong sales of Pathfinder rulebooks were a sign that we were missing out. There were players coming off their D&D 4E campaigns, groups that had formed upon the release of the new edition, that were searching for something different. I was one. Stocking everything Pathfinder put it on equal footing with D&D 4 and bizarrely, defied the rule that supplements were poor selling books aimed at game masters. I believe this is because of the excellent writing.

We now see that Pathfinder and D&D 4 are taking turns each month as best seller. The business model of a rulebook with crunch every month is occasionally losing out to the company that publishes interesting adventures and supplements. The retail pattern shows D&D 4 sales as very spiky, with new releases taking up the majority of sales each month and back list items languishing, while Pathfinder sales, for us, constantly span the entire range of products, albeit with new products seeing only modest sales at first.

On average, we're now seeing Pathfinder rulebooks outsell D&D 4 Player's Handbooks by two to one. On the plus side, both are seeing increased sales as we leave the recession behind (at least for some). Meanwhile, our previously strong sales of D&D 3.5 new and used books has plummeted. In fact, we're no longer keen on bringing more in or paying a premium for used books. The secondary migration from 3.5 has begun, and surprisingly, not to 4E but to Pathfinder.

Pathfinder Society organized play grew from one table every other week to three tables per week, at least so far this month. The predicted D&D apocalypse has failed to materialize. In its place we have a very interesting forked model. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chaos Contained

A while back, I wrote a blog post about the phenomenal success of our Yu-Gi-Oh group and how it represented a completely different demographic of gamers, distinct from the usual hobby game crowd. These are mostly suburbanite kids of color, Asian or Hispanic for the most part, a group that doesn't much identify with the majority of hobby games based on medieval mythology and European sensibilities. They're more the manga and anime crowd. This is phenomenally important in a hobby that is flat at best, and openly dying in some segments. These kids are quite possibly the future of hobby gaming.

That future is not so bright, it turns out. What identifies them most is they're young, and when you get a bunch of kids together in an unstructured environment (it turns out), you get complete anarchy and chaos the likes of which I had never imagined. We had to kick out Yu-Gi-Oh Group 1.0 shortly after we opened the new store, due to insane behavior and rampant theft. This is the group known for stealing the plunger handle out of one of the bathrooms. Why? Because they could. A larger group of 'tards could not be conceived. If I'm referring to your child, I'm sorry, but mostly for you. When comparing notes, almost universally, game stores with large Yu-Gi-Oh crowds have the same problems, and the Yu-Gi-Oh crowds themselves won't deny their part in the mayhem.

Yu-Gi-Oh Group 2.0 emerged after we found two excellent organizers who stepped up and did their best to both maintain order and run a fantastic event. Matt and Anna can be thanked for this. Yu-Gi-Oh 2.0, however, was still out-of-control, even after adding additional organizers and staff. They would steal anything not nailed down and when we nailed everything down, they stole from each other. We had to call the police twice because of various crimes they committed against each other. One kid was arrested after he showed up with a binder from a player he robbed the week before. A five year old was caught grabbing a 20 pound board game and dashing out the door, because he thought it would be funny. This was while we had six people maintaining order at a sneak peak event. It turned out to be a situation that could not be remedied by additional staff.  During this period, I spent a lot of time learning how to transfer data from our CCTV system.

Any sane person would put a stop to such gatherings, as well as take pity on our educators and law enforcement personnel that must have contact with our children. However, during this time of excellent event organizing and petty crime, Yu-Gi-Oh rose to our number three game in the store, despite rather anemic individual sales by customers. It was sheer volume, a descending of locusts on the game plantation that resulted in stratospheric levels of micro-sales. Our Duel Terminal Facebook ad was our most popular marketing program.  The event itself was occupying a dead zone in our schedule, a time when we were previously closed, so we were growing something in a field that was previously fallow. On top of this, our recently purchased duel terminals were a sizable investment that needed another year or so to break even. The question then was not should we kick them out (of course we should), but how could we possibly make this work?

It came down to a simple concept: When they were in our store, they were not accountable to anyone. There was no authority who could enforce rules, or even identify who they were. There were no teachers or parents or repercussions to be reaped afterwards. Their lives, as far as I could tell, were all about structure and authority, and lacking that, they were wild effing animals. Yes, they bucked authority, despised their families, or whatever amoral children do nowadays, but in their social structures, they apparently were able to exist without too much crime and victimization taking place. The question then, was how do we make them accountable?

It was meant to be step one in the tightening chains of game store authoritarianism, one that would stop tightening only after their criminal behavior either stopped or they were all driven out. Either way was good with me. This first step was simple: everyone would wear a name tag. To play Yu-Gi-Oh or to be present in our game center during league play, you had to sign up for the event and show a photo ID. You then got a name tag with your real name. We know comparing Facebook to other online discussion mediums, that people generally stop acting like complete douche bags when they're using their real name. We know who you are. Other players know who you are. Staff know who you are. The police will know who you are, if necessary.

Some kids balked and left, but for the most part, these were the known trouble makers. I know this because the kids that stayed were thankful and let us know. Everyone grumbled, as is required, being a rebel child, but the events ran smoother. A parent or two got angry they had to get out of their cars and sign in their kids, but I say tough beans; that's a small inconvenience for the four hours of child care we're providing for a $6 purchase. So we have extra staff, name tags and a strongly enforced rule that bans anyone not playing from being present in the back (parents are always welcome). Still, there are occasional thefts, which is what you have in a culture where the other kids giggle knowingly when someone at their table asks who stole their stuff. For the most part though, the chaos has been contained.

Sunday we had 75 kids and had to turn some away. Yesterday I ordered another 20 chairs to try to accommodate the crowd. No one in their right mind would actively seek out such a crowd, but when you've already got one, it's hard to let it go.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New Pathfinder Books

GameMastery Guide is one of those "what does it all mean and how does it happen?" books, the meta of gaming. It goes over the nuts and bolts of what gaming is, discussing basics like snacks at the table and player absences, types of players, and group dynamics. The Creating a World section is particularly good, in fact it inspired me to buy the second book we'll take a look at.

If you're looking for practical application in this book, you'll find some excellent toolbox sections for brainstorming or on-the-fly adventures. Dozens of fully statted out NPCs of various level and purpose grace the final chapter, a treasure trove of what's often the hardest thing to develop for Pathfinder, people.

So what do I think? It's very well done. Granted, I've read something like eight versions of a book like this over the last few decades, but this one strikes me as the best organized and most "feature rich." If you're new to game mastering, you should absolutely pick this up for the insights into running a game. It's certainly the best book of its kind in print.

If you're a veteran gamer, you'll probably skip the first 100 pages or so and still uncover new insights on world building, advanced topics like chase dynamic and sanity, along with that rogue's gallery of NPC's. Paizo is the innovator when it comes to D&D adventure writing and they've filled this book with their ideas. For veterans it's more reference book than straight read, and I've already referred back to it several times while thinking about a new campaign. It's hardcover with 320 pages for $39.95.

Pathinder Chronicles: Heart of the Jungle: I've been happily running an urban campaign for ten years now and I'm currently running the Council of Thieves adventure path. The GameMastery Guide got me thinking about a different kind of campaign, a primeval campaign with no established civilization. Heart of the Jungle scratches that itch.

Think Tarzan or King Kong. You've got an impenetrable jungle with a bunch of disparate tribes protecting their territories against trading companies and explorers that want to exploit them. The jungle itself is the major NPC here, with the first chapter discussing all the hazards and diseases it uses to wear down and kill intrepid adventurers. It will literally eat them alive. The chapter is rather insightful, with many hazards designed to just immobilize the party in clever ways so the jungle denizens can have a snack at their expense. I couldn't help but cackle. There's nearly a page just on quicksand, explained correctly and utilized fully for the DM's hijinx. I can't help thinking of constantly on the move explorers, a few steps ahead of some unknown peril that's chasing them and suddenly they're trapped.

The jungle is meant to feel vast and includes your typical tropical forests, piranha (and worse) filled rivers, nearby mountains, swamps and deserts and a variety of jungle cities and trader way points to help keep the party alive. Anything could be out there, including ruins of ancient civilizations, the largest of monsters, and gold, tons and tons of gold I tell you! Flecks of the yellow stuff flow down the rivers, hinting at vast deposits deep in the jungle. I bet there's a city of gold somewhere in there. Shall we find it?

Pygmies, sentient gorilla demon worshippers, halfling head hunters, Sleestak like lizard men and a half dozen tribes of humans roam the jungle, protecting their land from invaders or searching for new victims. My thinking is I would like a campaign where the adventurers are natives. Paizo had another idea, and starting in the next couple months, you may find yourself shipwrecked, playing in the new Serpent Skull adventure path which takes place in the region. This is a preview book of what's to come.

Heart of the Jungle is an excellent jungle source book. It's big on ideas and light on concrete examples (thus the adventure path). It has an African feel to it without being too African, if you know what I mean. The names feel African, it includes a well done religion section on animism and black magic (bad juju), but culturally it's not really African. This leaves you flexibility without having to play Nyambe African Adventures. Or heck, go pick up a used copy of D20 Nyambe and have at it in Pathfinder's Mwangi Expanse.

The book is broad enough to allow for many types of adventures or campaigns in the jungle from different perspective, and the there are many examples. Consider a shipwreck, or escaped prisoners, or native resistance fighters or imperialist conquerors, or your typical Indiana Jones style fetch the ancient artifact mission that goes horribly wrong. Most importantly, Heart of the Jungle is a fun read, which is the main reason I buy Paizo supplements. It's softcover, 64 pages, $19.99.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Joy of Paint

So what hobby paint is best? I hear this daily since we carry five lines of paint.

Vallejo Model Color has over 250 colors, including a bunch of cool experimental concoctions like metallic medium and a plastic putty that I swear is best for gap filling.  

Vallejo Game Color shamelessly copies Games Workshop in color selection, aiming to match Games Workshop colors perfectly. Game Color is a good place to look for discontinued Games Workshop colors (like my beloved Terracotta). They've also added true inks (not ink washes) to counter GW's changes along with a thicker base coat paint that corresponds with GW's Foundation colors. Shameless, I tell you, but very good.

Privateer Press P3 paints are a well designed group of paints known for their cohesive pigments that allow watering down without separation. They're the one paint line that works significantly differently than its competitors. If you dry brush, you'll need to re-learn that technique, for example. Some of our expert painters swear by them.

Reaper Master Series paints are top notch paints at an affordable price; they're my second favorite paints after GW and the paint I would use if I ever got serious about painting. I think they hit a sweet spot: less expensive ($2.99 versus $3.99), easy to use, and capable of great things in capable hands. Right now we sell the line in triad format (3 bottles per blister pack).

Games Workshop paints outsell all of these combined by about six to one and include a great system of base coating, standard coat and paint washes. The three step GW method is easy and you can get excellent results with a few, simple techniques. If you're painting an army of models, this is my recommendation. If you haven't tried them in several years, they're much improved.
That doesn't answer the question though, which is best? Here's my little story: We used to have painting contests at the store. We had a guy win second place at the store in our Reaper Exalted miniature painting contest. It just so happened that Reaper was holding an identical contest, so he submitted the model with them after our contest finished and won first place. The Bay Area painting community is second to none. The guy who won that contest used cheap craft paints from Michael's. Other painters swear by Games Workshop, Reaper Master Series, or Vallejo Model Color. Honestly, there are simply no bad paints nowadays, just paints that are better when using certain techniques than others. Most non-experts could pick any of them and get good results.

That's my way of getting around to mentioning that we're considering dropping the Vallejo Model Color line. It's virtue was that it worked well with Flames of War. There is a strong correlation of sales between the two brands, or more accurately, lack thereof. What I've wanted for several years is the complete Reaper Master Series paint rack with over 250 paints. We have the equivalent in Reaper Triads, but you can't buy by the bottle. Dropping Model Color is more of a space issue than a cost issue, so I'm open to debate and input about dropping the line. I'll probably drop triads at the same time, since they're redundant. The danger of adding a paint line to a store is that you can't pry those paints out of your customers hands once they've embraced them. You can lose a customer over a paint line and I certainly don't want to do that.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Goodbye Flames of War

Our Flames of War is now on clearance at 40% off.

We started carrying Flames of War in 2005 and it quickly shot up to our number one game in the store. It's the only game tracked as its own department. I was a happy, smiling guy, giving testimonials about its greatness at the 2006 GAMA Trade Show. We had organized play for it in our first store and I had an Army Ranger army, headed by Colonel Darby. It inspired me to read historical accounts of the Rangers and for a while I consumed every book that referenced the group.

I'm going to lay a lot of the blame at the feet of Battlefront. With their success, they began emulating the bad business practices of Games Workshop. They lied. They were dishonest with their customers. Their reps changed so often that I stopped adding them to my email address book. Basically, the US operation killed the game as far as I can see. This was as Games Workshop was shedding its poor reputation and reforming itself. In fact, some executives from GW moved right over to Battlefront, their poor practices remaining intact. They even moved the US division to Delaware from the West Coast, a senseless move with a Pacific Rim company. Our customers, mostly veteran "alpha" gamers, fled the game or at least re-focused on other hobby interests. They are a non-renewable resource.

Our organized play opportunities were limited in the old store, and when we moved, all the games that tended to excel with lots of events were given a free pass in the new location. They could prove themselves. It was hoped groups would form around them once we had the space to properly promote them. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Product champions, our most experienced Flames of War players, weren't interested in organized play. Customers couldn't be enticed to run events. The staff was disinterested in running events as well and there were other games with more promise to focus upon. Over three years, we couldn't get those two people to show up once a week for three months. We had Summer events, but they ended in the Fall.

Half our Flames of War sales over the last three years were clearance items. Clearly people were still playing the game, but they tended to only buy at a deep discount. When we hosted regional events, it was the same group of people that traveled the Bay Area and played Flames of War. Eventually there was no inventory fat left to cut and further clearance items were going to be core merchandise. That's when it was clear the game was dead for us. The staff urged me to cut it many times before this, but I had hopes it might turn around. It never did.

It got a free pass for so many reasons. It was our only historical game. It was my first miniature game. Something great for it was always just around the corner, but it never came.  Where was Vietnam? Where was the rumored Napoleonics?  What about Korea? At trade shows, store owners hung on the founders every word. But nothing ground breaking emerged. How many times can you fight World War II?

I don't want to completely close the door on the game. The company might reform and the game might take off, much like what happened when Games Workshop re-focused themselves. I would probably try a new game from Battlefront, if they managed it properly.  Until then, I'll be very happy to divert Flames of War inventory dollars to growing games.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Porsche vs. Maserati (D&D)

I was watching a new episode of Top Gear the other day and they were having a supercar "saloon" (4-door) shootout between three amazing cars: Maserati Quattroportte, Porsche Panamera, and an overpriced Aston Martin that we can ignore for the sake of this discussion.  All this passion got me thinking of Dungeons & Dragons. Of course! Why wouldn't it? It was how the hosts were comparing these two cars that got my attention. Lets take a look.

Dungeons & Dragons 4 is clearly the Porsche Panamera. The hosts could hardly look at it. It didn't conform to their idea of a supercar. It was something they loved, a Porsche 911 chassis, stretched into something nearly unrecognizable. It would speed around the business park where they were putting these cars through their paces and our hosts would avert their eyes as it came speeding by. However, the car performed amazingly well. It was clearly the fastest of the bunch. It handled similar to its two door sibling, rather than the larger cars it was competing against. It did everything you could possibly ask of it, but it lacked a visceral feel. It didn't conform to expectations and made a kind of mockery of the Porsche legend. Still, it was undeniably the best of the bunch and it was well supported with Porsche's number one quality ranking (of all cars) in both Europe and the US.

Pathfinder is the Maserati Quattroporte. If you've ever sat in an Italian luxury sedan, you may never recover from that visceral experience. The smell of the leather, the various colors and textures. Mmmmmwa! Just say it slowly: "Quattro portay." It's like a mini Italian vacation in your mouth. The Maserati performs well enough, but you're mostly enjoying the growl of the engine and the satisfying feel. Inside, the car is a mess, with buttons all over the place, even the back of the steering wheel! Our hosts failed at the most simplest technical tasks, like changing the time on the clock. You would likely be spending a lot of time reading the manual if you needed to do anything but drive.

Performance is slow by comparison to the Porsche. Handling is acceptable and awfully exciting, but there's really no performance comparison with the Panamera. Reliability? Yeah, you'll be spending a lot of time with the car not driving it. Still, Fans of Italian cars, like Pathfinder, can't stop raving about it. D&D 4 fans, like Porsche drivers, don't care, they're out having sex with ladies or doing the other things people do when not obsessing over their hobby. There's no visceral excitement. None required. None desired.  They're in the moment, not obsessing over their feelings.

So which car did our hosts pick? The Maserati of course. It's the enthusiasts pick. The Porsche is undeniably a better car in most every way, but it doesn't conform to expectations. It doesn't connect well to our pre-conceptions, the legacy of what has gone before. It lacks that visceral feel. It's a mass market approach to a niche market. Both are fantastic. I personally think the Panamera is beautiful. But yes, I would want the Maserati too and although I would go broke and be occasionally disappointed by my choice, I would do it all smiling and I wouldn't begrudge the Porsche owner his Panamera.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Starting an Event

Our volunteer system of organized play generally works pretty well, but it requires interested people to step up to run their event. Sometimes this needs fostering, and on many occasions we've had staff run events to attempt to encourage this, such as with Warhammer Fantasy (a game desperately in need of volunteers). In the case of 40K, it's a game that's considered so critical to our success, we've simply decided to make it a staff run event. Many games wouldn't get on the calendar if it wasn't for volunteers, including most card games, so I'm not about to abandon that.

What if you don't see an event you want? That's the purpose of my writing this today. All events started small. To get an embryonic event started, all it takes is two people willing to show up at the same time every week for a set period of time. Usually it takes three months. If you want an event that's not on the calendar, find an open slot, let us know your intentions, and start playing. Once it's established you can actually make it consistently, we'll pimp your event through Facebook, Twitter, direct email, and most importantly, to customers who buy the game you play.

Two people. Consistently playing. Three months. That's it.

If after three months nobody has joined you, it's fairly safe to say it's not going to happen, at least not now. That's highly unlikely. What will likely happen is you'll gather a group around yourself and you can be a bit more relaxed about being there every week and you'll be having a lot more fun with your new group.

Games desperately in need of this treatment: Warhammer Fantasy Battles, Flames of War, and Malifaux. Warmachine and Hordes could use a dedicated event as well.

Friday, July 9, 2010

About Your Junk

One area of the store that I rarely discuss is our used section. It's a significant portion of our sales, and the higher margins offset a lot of purchasing mistakes, along with programs like our Paladin Club. Buying and selling used games is a big factor in our success and a key to our survival. Lets take a look at how we acquire this stuff, mostly used role-playing games that were probably worth upwards of $50,000 when they were new.

When we buy new games, we have a budget. From this budget, we choose to buy new or older games that we think have a good chance of selling within a finite period of time, mostly the period before the bill is due. This is usually 30-45 days, but no later than 90 days based on our turn rate goals (4 turns/year would be every 90 days). The margin on these products is generally keystone, meaning we get twice what we paid for the item as a gross margin. This is required for the game store brick and mortar business model. If we deviate too far away from this margin, we fail.

The budget, the timing, the margin, combined with decisions not to re-order merchandise and incentives to make bad merchandise go away are the fundamentals of a retail operation. It's a zero sum game with a ticking clock. If you were to peek behind the curtain, Matrix style, you wouldn't see zeroes and ones across the screen, you would see a cash flow diagram. I often measure success as how long before we run out of money. Exciting.

Used games are outside of this structure. When we agree to buy used games, it means a few things: a) We'll take whatever quantity you have for us, regardless of our budget, b) We'll take your games any time, and c) We'll take your games with few exceptions. All criteria we use to buy new games, budget, timing and selection are thrown out the window for used games. This is why you will always get a lower price for your games when you sell them to a store. It's a big wildcard that requires different math.

The amount we pay for used games is directly determined by the demand. If you come in to sell me a copy of Ptolus, and there happens to be a guy in the same room who wants a copy of Ptolus, I'm willing to make a smaller profit margin. The going rate for the book is $250 and I would be happy to buy it from you for $200 and hold onto it for five minutes. There is a small risk the buyer won't buy it, but the reward is worth it. Without that guy in the room, the price I would pay is around $85 (a third of the cover price). If it's not Ptolus, just some dingy old hardcover role-playing book, it's worth $4 to me. The buyer and the time it will take to sell it are complete unknowns.

Likewise, if you sell me your entire collection of Rifts, a regular occurrence, I will give you our standard $2/softcover, $4/hardcover guideline, as it's likely they'll sit on the shelf for up to a year before someone buys them. That I know someone will eventually buy them is why I'll take them from you. We've stopped buying D20 products that aren't Wizards of the Coast (the only RPGs we won't buy) because there is zero demand for them. The Rifts collection will sell for $6-8/softcover and $8-12/hardcover. This higher margin offsets the fact that I don't have a buyer for this stuff, along with the likelihood that one or more of your collection will never find a home and will end up in the recycling bin. Everything will eventually end up in the recycle bin.  I just want it to end up in your recycle bin and not mine. Welcome to RPG hot potato.

So what about Ebay? What about the secondary market? You will always get more for your games by selling them yourself and finding that buyer in the worldwide market. You are now a retailer. Enjoy! You will take responsibility for the product, do a bunch of work, answer idiotic questions, ship it, ensure it arrives, and eat it if it doesn't. I use Ebay to get a general impression of desirability of your games, although often after the purchase. If a game seems highly desirable, we'll price it at the low Ebay price and put it on the shelf. We don't have a worldwide market, so we can't be as picky. Likewise, you can often find a book cheaper with us. I very rarely Ebay items myself unless I have them in quantity or they're highly valuable, like that Ptolus.

Likewise, you can usually get a better deal with a vintage collection through a company like Troll and Toad, and I'll recommend this the two or three times I've seen a collection of such high quality. I'll take a crack at it, but if you really know what your stuff is worth, you should do it yourself. These online guys buy vintage games, have a vintage game clientele and generally only want the good stuff.

Also, I'm not in the business of ripping people off, so if you have a particularly good collection or one very rare book, I'll often let you know. Sometimes I can't stop myself from gushing over it. I might say, this giant stack here is junk, but these two are good, which makes this collection worth "X" to me. I don't want you to cherry pick the good stuff out, but I'm happy to add the value to the rest of the pile. If I happen to be busy and I buy your entire collection with our $2/softcover, $4/hardcover (in store credit), and I later find a rare book, I don't lose sleep over it. Having a flat system like this in place avoids making any of this personal or making me feel like Fred Sanford. I tell you what I think your collection is worth and I invite you to say no if you want. I very much want you to be happy and feel no pressure from me, as this transaction is likely a small part of our business relationship. I would say 95% of people take the offer.

So that is the risk-reward structure of buying used books. It works well for us because we have a critical mass of product, a clientele we've built up over years, and methods for disposing dead inventory. There is very little we can't sell at any price (see the aforementioned D20 books). Buying used games is playing the long game, but it's worth it. People drive hours to peruse our used game section. It's what differentiates us from every other store. Some customers only buy used games, while others use the savings on used books to offset new book purchases. Because we're up front and honest about it, everyone seems to think it's a pretty good deal.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


One of our Yelp reviewers was kind enough to email her thoughts on the store. We emailed back and forth and she gave me her impression of the place while I gave my reasoning for Yelp hate, since she asked (not the best customer service approach, but I was being honest). In general though, she brought up some good points, the big take away being that our store, and I'm guessing most, if not all game stores, are big enigmas to non hobby gamers.

I consider the store to be very well organized. Board games are shelved by publisher or theme, miniatures are sorted by army, role-playing games by system, and even the Magic cards are in order of release. But what does that mean to a non hobbyist? It looks like a bunch of boxes, a bunch of random silver army men, some random books and some shiny packs. They're not in alphabetical order as you would find in a library or book store. Most sections aren't labeled. It looks like a disaster to them.

My store has been called The Gap of game stores, which I will take as a compliment. We spent a lot of time and effort making it clean, well lit, and generally inviting. Fixtures match. We do our best to tone down our customers language in the back and we make sure it's always comfortable and cool with the AC blowing, Cinemagic movie soundtracks playing in the background. We have a moms lounge with comfy chairs and non gamer magazines. The effort goes into preventing it from repelling the general public, but how much effort have we made to make it inviting?

It really comes down to staff. Non gamers need guides, especially if they're just getting into the hobby. It's one thing to walk off the street and have no clue what we're doing. Many people will generally browse around, shake their heads, talk about how their son, nephew, father, etc., would love these games (not I, but you're place looks nice), and leave, perhaps a promise to return during the holidays. However, if you've been introduced to hobby gaming, and have an idea of what you want, it can be a difficult maze to navigate. What do you buy after Settlers? What do you pick up after your Magic intro pack? What adventure do you buy now that you have your D&D core books? 

Gaming is a sub culture. It's essentially a word of mouth niche trade that resembles a virus more than a business model. If you don't have that trusted friend, older brother, or peer group to direct you, your enthusiasm will likely fizzle out, or in the case of our Yelp reviewer, send you online where a quick search can bring up the game you want. Internet searches don't care how your board games are organized.

During the day you can get great customer service, since there is time for a lot of hand holding. However, during peak periods, we're often under-staffed. This has to do with what we can afford as opposed to what I would like. Ideally we would have a door greeter, a cashier and a floater during heavy traffic hours. That's what we do during the holidays when we get a large non gamer influx (I'm avoiding my use of muggle in this post). Unfortunately, we just can't afford it yet, so often we have to rely on a quick nod or hello from the one guy on staff as well as a customer willing to approach and ask questions. Otherwise we get what I call the smoker effect.

I once managed a guy who was a smoker. During employee evaluations, this guy was generally reviewed as competent and helpful, but people complained they always saw him smoking in the parking lot. The lot was between our two buildings and everyone could see him out there as they labored away. Our smoker had a break like everyone else, and he could do what he wanted, but his smoking a cigarette, a generally despised activity, in plain view in the parking lot, was held against him. He's doing something disliked while you're under stress. It's why restaurant workers in uniform are often asked to eat in the back or take their breaks outside.

In our store, we've gotten the complaint that employees are spending time talking to friends rather than being of assistance. This usually turn out to be customers they've built relationships with, as opposed to their buddies. When things get busy, when you need service, when you're stressed, innocuous activities appear as damn nuisances. In the case of our Yelp shopper, an off duty employee was checking his mail and goofing off on the store computer when our mystery shopper was present. A big no-no. He wasn't on the clock, but it looked like he was. He was smoking in the parking lot.

I will continue to talk the fine talk, but sometimes the walk is a little wobbly. To their credit, our staff is generally considered helpful once they're engaged. They've just got a lot on their plate sometimes. Thanks to our Yelp shopper for pointing this out. I still think Yelp sucks though.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Game Fatigue?

A friend asked me over the weekend, "Do you get tired of games?" That's a complicated question. The answer is both yes and no.

The perception of a game store owner is that they play games all day, or at least part of the day, or at the very least, a lot. If game store owner Facebook friends are any indication, it's true that they are heavily engaged in their hobby, but it's equally true that it's part of an intensely hectic work schedule, usually consisting of six days a week or more. They work hard and play hard.

If I can compare games to food, what I've personally found is that my appetite hasn't changed, but my pallet has expanded. I play a much wider variety of games than in the past. Over the past five years, I've been heavily into miniature games (Warhammer 40K, Fantasy, Flames of War), role-playing games (D&D 3.5, 4, Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3, Spirit of the Century, Traveller), board games (probably a couple hundred), and even a delve back into Magic, to see what I'd been missing. The previous five years before that I played a lot of 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons and that was about it, albeit at an extreme level of commitment.

Most of my interest in running a game store is in the business side of things. I don't generally play games while I'm on the clock. Thankfully, it's a constantly changing set of challenges. For the most part, it's a game of juggling finances, marketing new releases and devising a long term strategy for profitability. This year, for example, is about running the bases of the first three quarters, trying not to get tagged out along the way, and sliding into home plate in Q4, uniform in tatters, kneeing the catcher in the groin, popping up with a smile on my face with some semblance of dignity ... for the win. That's the game I play the most.

Where I burn out is product churn and new releases. I have a limited amount of enthusiasm for anything currently in print. I'm excited about a good many things, but it's finite excitement. I truly wish I was more of a flitting, multi-genre gamer so that I could talk about and be excited by the dozens of new releases each month, but I'm not (other store owners tell me they wish they had more focus). On top of that, there is a certain fatigue that develops when perfectly good games go away, entirely for economic reasons. Cheer leading for replacement games gets tiresome. Like in those bad Vietnam movies, the new game is just a FNG, hardly worthy of a name, let alone praise. The most exciting stuff tends to be aimed squarely at the most obvious demographic. That's fine, but I want nice things too! I lust after Dwarven Forge, Forge World, and many other cool things that don't even have critical mass to make it to my store.

For some games, I have an inevitable flat line of enthusiasm. "Hey, come play Game X, it's new and shiny!" What I would rather do is focus on what I think is cool, like the new Pathfinder GameMastery Guide or the Dresden Files RPG. I've considered analyzing my Facebook store posts to see if what I pimp corresponds with sales in the store, but I can tell you now, it doesn't align. Part of this is that a lot of our sales are to mono gamers that just don't care about our Facebook page, the store or anything except getting their fix for their one game. That's fine, it's just that marketing to them is kind of a waste of time. Less than half of our email event newsletters are even opened, and this is a list composed of our top customers. The majority of people, probably 90%, see us as a simple store. 

So no, I don't get tired of playing games, provided I'm playing them because I want to have fun and not for some retail related research or sense of duty. And yes, I get burned out on games that I have to actively sell where no personal enthusiasm is present, especially if they seem overly cynical, a bad value or otherwise makes me feel evil or foolish. We all have aspects of our jobs we just have to do to keep them. Also, one man's evil and cynical game is another persons joy and comfort. However, if you're becoming an aging grognard like myself (I'm not one yet), it's quite possible that the wretched game in question is keeping the lights on. Another thing: your tastes can change.

That game you despise now might be just what you're looking for to play with your girlfriend or your son. You might find yourself short on time for your D&D game, but rather than let the group fade away, you play Descent. Money might be too tight with your new house to continue on the Magic: The Gathering treadmill, so you get your fix with pre-set decks of Dominion or Game of Thrones. I personally try not to close the door on games, I try "not to be a dick"  by disparaging other peoples hobbies. I suppose that would be my advice as well.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ethnic Succession Theory

With a troubled economy and high unemployment, it's not surprising people are wondering if jobs are being filled be those legally eligible to work. This is especially true if you're say, older and living in the Midwest, which has seen a huge increase in the immigrant population over the last couple of decades. Your community may only vaguely resemble what it looked like in the past. It might feel overwhelming.

Lately I've heard a lot of fear mongering in the media in relation to shops. A helpful quote from foot-in-mouth Vice President Biden back in 2006 illustrates this:
“In Delaware, the largest growth of population is Indian Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7/11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
If he's saying it, you can safely guess there's a lot of people thinking it.

So what is this about? Back when I was in college I learned about Ethnic Succession Theory. It was taught to me in the context of criminal justice. It basically says, new immigrants come to this country, take what's available to them with their limited resources and education, and move up. In the context of criminal justice, ethnic gangs and organized crime arise with new immigrants until that group gets a foot hold and moves up the socioeconomic ladder. People want better for their kids, so they struggle today with whatever it takes to survive so they can have opportunities for their chidlren. In housing, you get ghetto-like neighborhoods as a foothold until you've got some economic success. My point today is that retail is the ghetto of small business in this country.

Day to day brick and mortar retail, nail salons, restaurants, you name it, are often owned and operated by hard working people who belong to ethnic groups trying to get a foothold in this country. Sometimes entire families run these small businesses, pooling resources and scraping by for the sake of their children. They work hard at a thankless job, businesses that could implode at any moment and are never worth much more than when they started them.

I know, because although a game store is a "lifestyle" job, it shares many of the same characteristics. In my own shopping center, they come to me when they have a problem with the landlord, mostly because I speak English the best. Retail in America is a step above picking strawberries. Picking on these new immigrants is culturally akin to eating your young. I think we should applaud their hard work rather than question their legitimacy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Assertive Kids

I work the day shift at the store, so I don't spend a lot of time around kids until Summer. It's been on my mind lately that a lot of the kids I'm seeing are unable to interact with me. Many lack the ability to say hello to an adult, to ask for assistance, to interact ... almost at all. I don't think it's about shyness, I think it's about how they are being trained to interact with the world around them. Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers discusses what it means to be successful in life, and one key component, up there with opportunity and hard work, is the ability to advocate for oneself, a skill learned as a child.

Not all parents teach this, what Gladwell calls "concerned cultivation," where a child's opinions, skills, and talents are fostered. It's mostly an upper and upper middle class value. I don't believe I grew up with these values, and I'm very grateful that it was part of my wife's life (self taught, I gather), as it's obviously a big part of how she raises our son. I try to do the same, but it's not second nature to me. I have to work at it.

The key in a public setting like mine is to teach children how to become their own advocates, to instill a sense of positive entitlement. Entitlement has negative connotations, but in a store setting, it basically means you have a right to service, to know what's going on and to have questions and curiosities satisfied. I have had children ask me a dozen questions in a row. Sometimes their parents are embarrassed, but I just smile, because I know this kid is going to be alright.

In school it would mean believing they have the right to understand what's going on in class, asking questions until they do and questioning unfairness when they see it. This might sound obvious to you, but if you were brought up in a "children are to be seen and not heard" family, it might sound presumptuous.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Top 10 Reaper Miniatures (Eye Candy)

Just for fun, our best selling Reaper miniatures of all time.

1. Rosie Johnson Chronotechnician

2. Kjell Bloodbear, Barbarian  

3. Sarah the Seeress, Female Wizard

4. Brigitte, Naughty French Maid 
She's "R" rated, so click here to see her.

5. Del Briarberry, Halfling Wizard    

6. Pathfinder: Amiri, Human Barbarian  

7. Gerrin Greystone, Dwarf Warrior   

8. Pathfinder: Ezren, Human Wizard  

9. Brock Battlebow, Dwarf Ranger 

10. Lorna the Huntress