Saturday, December 19, 2015

Asmodee's Specialty Retail Policy: Paving the Board Game Utopia

The big news this weekend (not counting Star Wars) is the reorganization of Asmodee, Fantasy Flight Games and Days of Wonder into a globular amalgamation of board gaming intellectual property. And the biggest news from within that amalgamation is the new sales agreement Asmodee has announced they will try to use to save their retail margins and rescue everyone’s favorite local gaming store from the brink of extinction.

At least, that’s why I assume they are doing it. Ultimately, behind the corporate speak, only the executives at this new Asmodee North America truly know all the reasoning.

What we have is a agreement all retailers will be expected to sign, that severely limits their rights to resell their own property purchased from one of only 5 approved Asmodee North America distributors.

Advice is Cheap, But the Games Won’t Be

I don’t own a game store. But what I do see is a world full of game stores, both online and brick-and-mortar. And I have trouble envisioning why any type of trade agreement like this would ever turn out as a good thing for anyone involved. It’s not like its a new thing, small publishers of niche products have tried to control their retail channels ever since Games Workshop began slowly strangling itself to death doing the same thing back in the early 90’s. You have to buy at certain percentages. You have to sell at certain prices. You can’t sell online.

One of the few benefits to running your own game store is being your own boss. At least, I have to imagine it is. Any report from any “specialty retailer” has first and foremost reiterated it is not about the money. There are far easier ways in this world to slowly spiral into bankruptcy.

Why do We Even Have Favorite Local Gaming Stores?

This agreement, along with opening your eyes and looking at the world around you, both seem to indicate there are plenty of ways to buy cheap board games. Even the most hard-to-find game, if its in print, you can no doubt buy it somewhere at a discount.

In the cold, uncaring marketplace the Asmodee Specialty Retail Policy is fighting the good fight. To keep those faithful retailers making the profit they deserve. But what have retailers been doing in the meantime?

I’ve personally seen the typical gaming store evolve to cope with these challenges. The competent retailer has not stood by and watched people showroom their aisles and load up on their Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Cthulhu-based board games online. Heck, one of the biggest examples of the NEW board game store is the flagship retail establishment run by the former Fantasy Flight Games itself.

There’s places to play your games. Spaces to hang out with people. Food to eat. Drinks to drink. Demo copies of new titles for you to try out.

No online store can offer any of these amenities. They can only compete on price.

Getting Them in the Door

Ask anyone in sales, and they’ll tell you the biggest challenge is just getting people to show up. Once someone has walked into your establishment, they’re already halfway made up in their mind they’re going to buy something. Heck, when I go in a game store it take incredible, almost impossible force of will to leave without buying something.

So even if the prices are higher, if you bring people into your store you will no doubt get sales. And all of the previous reasons are exactly why people go in there. Buying the board games is almost secondary. Anybody can buy board games, any time. You see the ads on Board Game Geek. They’re all over the place.

Retailers don’t need the help. So maybe this agreement will really help Asmodee turn into a super-profitable game company, a board game Google, ready to take the entire board game industry to the next level.

Well, here’s the problem. Even with the acquisition of a couple other HUGE publishing juggernauts, there’s one inescapable fact:

Plenty of Board Game Fish in the Sea

Anyone can publish a board game. There are more small board game publishers than there are stars in the sky. Go ahead and try to count them sometime.

How will this affect the board game industry?

It won’t. No matter how hard they try, I don’t anticipate any time of agreement forced on retailers to do anything whatsoever. Except destroy Asmodee’s relevance in this changing niche economy. And even then, there are so many other companies ready to fill in the gap should even the mightiest oak fall I don’t see that as a problem.

While I’m sure board gamers are already jumping out the second floors of their townhouses in anticipation of some big board game collapse, there’s just no way for it to happen. Buy the games you want to buy, however you want to buy them. And visit the establishments you want to patronize. And if you’re a retailer, enjoy your independence and feel free to shun any board game company forcing you to sign overly complex agreements. Because your clientele aren’t coming to you for the board games. They’re coming to you because you’re you.

Some famous cartoon character once said it best: "Screw those guys."

The Best Theme is a Boring Theme: Xenon Profiteer and Uwe Rosenburg's Patchwork

The Compelling Truth, as told by T.C. Petty III

Recently the  designer of  just-released Xenon Profiteer offered up an in-depth Designer Diary on the nature of his creative process. What struck a chord with me was his analysis of the role of theme in games, and how many of the most interesting games actually had pretty dull themes.

T.C. Petty III wrote:
There's something deeply humorous (absurdist? dadaist?) about creating a game that transforms an activity that sounds absolutely un-fun into a deeply rewarding experience, and it's apparent that I'm not the only one that agrees. Some of the most popular games on this site have the most boring titles, cover art, and themes that the world has ever known, but against all odds, and with intense focus on the fundamentals that make gameplay truly engaging, they pull even the most skeptical board gamer deep into their worlds of abstract grids and crop farming and transitioning from canals to railroads. Seriously, Brass is a game about the transition from canal systems to railroads. Riveting. How is this not considered ridiculous? How is it not considered art?

This insight struck me hard, and I saw the incredible truth. I have felt this way myself, instinctively, for plenty of time during my gaming life. But it took Petty’s words to put all those theme yearnings together under one umbrella that made sense:
The most rewarding games often have the most boring titles, cover art and themes. 
Yet I want to play them, and then I enjoy them, and then I want to get more. Badly.

Time to Lay Some Pipe

And its not just me. One of the most popular games in my household...with the wife, with the kids, with my friends, is Galaxy Trucker. You might initially argue at the boring theme:
“What do you mean, boring? This game is about space, and spaceships. You fly around in space and get hit by asteroids and fight space pirates.
But, I would argue, the flying in space of Galaxy Trucker is actually the uninteresting part of the game. It’s essentially a super-long scoring phase, when the construction of your ship is “judged” against a revolving menagerie of variables. From cargo delivery, to exploration, to combat to the aforementioned asteroid collisions.

Where does all the fun come from in Galaxy Trucker?

The fun part is welding pieces of pipe together. The quick thinking involved in locating just the right piece. The rush of finding a spot it connects with. The balancing of different types of components to ensure your ship can reach the destination. The delight when your opponent fails to find a legal position for his chosen tile. It doesn’t really look or feel like a spaceship. I’m really pretty sure this is not how anyone actually builds spaceships. It could be anything. A bridge or a skyscraper or a sewer line. The fun would be the same.

It’s Time to Talk about my NEW second-favorite Uwe Rosenberg game

If you want to talk about how a boring theme allows you to build up elegant unconstrained mechanics, the best example I’ve seen yet is Patchwork, by famed board game sadist Uwe Rosenberg. Unlike most of his games, there’s no starving children or tortured mutant farmers. Instead each person is weaving together a delightful patchwork quilt.

Of course, its competitive patchwork weaving, so each player is drawing patches from a shared pool, paying some nefarious entity for the patches in the form of bright, blue buttons. Actually, now that I think about it more, this game might be about mutants, too. That makes a lot of sense. The theme, however, is definitely boring quilting.

Much like Galaxy Trucker, no one is going to look at Patchwork and say “oh, this is a perfect simulation of craft quilting.” No, instead the theme is used to surround some exciting mechanics, namely weighing the “value” of different pieces based on their shape, cost and ability to generate more buttons when another income phase comes around.

See I think these are mutants or goblins of some sort. Probably living in someone’s attic, I’m guessing. Play the game yourself and give me your theories.

I want to know where the buttons come from.

The Shape of Things to Come

Before playing Patchwork, I had heard it described as Tetris-like. I would agree on this. Certainly, you are paying buttons for specific pieces to fit better into your quilt design. Because you want your quilt to be complete, without any holes or ragged spots. Because here is the final “I Have No Mouth, But I must Scream” moment Uwe Rosenberg is known for:

At the end of the game, you have to pay this button freak back his buttons, 2 for every missing spot in your quilt. Which means if you don’t play this game right you might actually end up with less buttons than you started with, or even a negative number of buttons. And that’s how this guy gets more buttons, apparently by enslaving mutants in these predatory quilting expositions. No one’s going to buy a quilt with a ragged corner!

And ragged is how they all come out, guaranteed. The natural timer built into the game ensures it.

This Game Had Me in Stitches

The mutants, the button tax, everything is laid out in very abstract, bland terms. But in that vacuum, I was able to take the components I was given and tell an incredible story. How else would you use such an impressive Tetris tile-laying mechanic. You either use patches on a quilt, or you make a game literally about Tetris. Or maybe make it about snake stacking. Fun for you, but not so fun for the snakes!