Boardgame Exchange : NetFlixing Board Games

It’s quite interesting that a recent discussion has brought to light that a new company has launched itself in the US that is attempting to be the NetFlix of Board Games.  Interesting because we actually considered and discarded the idea about 3 years ago when we first launched the site as a potential point of differentiation.

Mainly, we couldn’t work out a way to make it cost effective in Canada.  Of course, unlike the Exchange, we hadn’t thought to discard the boxes (i.e. just shipping components); but due to Canada’s size, it’d still be cost-prohibitive.   We’d generally looking at between $12 -$15 per shipment one-way; thus a total of $24 – 30 per trade.  Add time taken to review and count each game as it came back, and to just break-even we’d need to charge a minimum of $35 per month.  And customers would only be able to receive one shipment a month on this cost.

There’s also the major issue which I’m curious how they will manage – new board games.  If a new board game costs’ on average about $30 to stock; and with an average of say 5 games you’d like to add to the library each month, you’d be seeing about $150 in capital cost.  You would really need to add this ‘expense’ to your monthly fee.  Figure say 10 customers per game, your ‘cost’ to each customer is $3.  So that pushes your minimum fee to $38 or $456 a year and you’d still not be making any money!

As others have pointed, the other flaw of a rental plan is that you would end up with new games at the end of the year.   Of course, you could make the games purchasable (potentially at a discount); but that’s just an additional cost on top of the above.

Truthfully; I think this is another area is another that your local brick & mortar store is better able to provide.  With no shipping involved, the only real cost is the counting & replacement of the games and the need to add to the new ‘collection’.  So a minimum charge of $5 would probably cover the cost and provide a minimal profit.

So what do you all think? Am I off my rocker here? Would a service at say $50 a month that allowed customers to test any game they wanted from our catalog be worthwhile?

Best Practices : Responsibilities & Business Structure

Now that you have an idea about where you want to go, it’s important to build the foundations or shell of the business.  In particular, we’re talking about business responsibilities and structure.

Legally speaking (again, from my experience but I’m not a Lawyer so take it for what it’s worth); I have found that a company structure is best if you are entering business with more than 1 person involved in ownership.   If there’s only 1 individual involved, thanks to the bank’s and distributors requirements that you sign a personal guarantee; there’s no financial liability difference between a personal / business entity.   On the other hand, there is a difference if you (personally) go bankrupt in such a situation. At the end of the day, this is a decision that should be made with a Lawyer.

I’m more interested in discussing how the business responsibilities affect it’s structure.  Even if there’s only one of you involved, it’s worth breaking down the company into it’s functioning components and assigning these responsibilities .  The reason for this is that it allows you to consider the functions that are important to keep in-house and those that you could outsource.

Here’s a brief example taken from our business:

  1. Strategy / Direction
  2. Information Technology
    • Website Design & Infrastructure
    • Website Content
  3. Marketing
    • Advertising
    • Public Relations
    • Graphic Design
    • Promotions
  4. Logistics
    • Shipping & Receiving
    • Purchasing
    • Inventory
  5. Customer Service
    • Sales
    • Customer Support & Enquiries
  6. Finance
    • Bookkeeping
    • Taxes
    • Cost Management / Negotiations
  7. Administrative & Legal
    • Administrative purchasing & supply (paper, tape, pens, etc.)
    • Legal

By breaking down and assigning responsibilities, you can actually start planning your tasks list.  In addition, if you have partners / employees the list allows you to sign responsibilities and reduce arguments when something doesn’t get done.

Lastly, the ability to break down these areas lets you decide if you want to / can outsource the work.  I generally outsource the vast majority of the IT & Graphic Design work, ditto with bookkeeping, legal &  Taxes. Why? Because it’s not core and I don’t have the time / expertise to deal with it.  It allows me to focus more directly on areas that I can influence.

On the other hand, there will be specific areas in this list that you will not want to outsource (e.g. Marketing, Customer Service, Purchasing, etc.) as it’s important to the survival and differentiation of the business.

Lastly; the Boss.  Make sure, if there’s more than 1 person involved (especially if you have equal partners) that you assign where the buck stops. Someone should, at the end of the day, have the responsibility & authority to make the call.

Dust the board game review

Dust is an alternate reality sci-fiction wargame along the lines of Risk. Players are in control of their nations, attempting to build up their armies and areas of control to win the game. Unlike Risk however, players must manage not just the quantity of their armies but the mixture of the units in the armies, production centres and power sources to fuel their production centres. This makes Dust a much more strategically involved wargame, but streamlined rules and a victory point condition makes the game faster to play and finish.

Appearance: Firstly, Dust has the cutest little tanks ever. Seriously, those tanks are so, so cute. The various other models for the units are very well designed as well, cute and easily distinctive across a table. In addition, the artwork on all the cards and in the rulebook is great – I like the comic style art that they have going on. However, the biggest complaint is the board- instead of using a mounted, folded board, the board is made up of multiple cut pieces that are meant to join together. Which they do. Sort of. Various bulges appear consistently, causing pieces to lie askew and sometimes slide.

Rules / Ease of Learning: Since Dust is a Risk derivative game, the basic rules are well known to most players. Each player has units, which do battle against other units via die rolls. However, additional rules are added in Dust to make the game more strategic. First, players have action cards that they play in the beginning of each round which dictate their turn order, the number of production points they have, the number of movement points and attack actions. In addition, each action card has a special ability that may be used once per round. Since the cards (and values) vary,players must balance their options and the main goal of each round before playing the card.

Production of units are dictated by the number of production centres, power sources and the cards controlled by each player. In addition, production of units can only occur in production centres, so players must consider exactly where to locate their production centres.

In Dust, each round moves through production then movement of troops then attacks for each player before the next players turn. There is additional impetus to attack in Dust to receive additional victory points, which is how the game ends (most commonly).

Overall, the rules of Dust should not be hard to teach, leaving the majority of the time to actual gameplay.

Gameplay: Firstly, I should note that I’m a huge fan of Risk-derivative type games. I enjoy the strategic level of gameplay allowed in these games, without getting bogged down in individual unit details. There’s also a lot of fun in tossing dice.

With that said, Dust scratches the itch very, very well. It does exactly what I want it to do – play fast, provide a high level of strategic and tactical decision making where luck might play a part but certainly doesn’t control the game. Good decisions are rewarded in Dust, while tactical surprises can still occur due to the various action cards.

The play between production centres and power sources forces players to hold both areas tightly, attempting to balance both their ability to produce units with the power sources needed to run the centres. In addition, the need (towards the latter half of the game) to keep their Headquarters under guard adds another element of risk to the game. While there’s some complaints that keeping HQs in Dust invoilable in the first half of the game reduces the tension, I think it allows players the ability to be aggressive with their units, which is a good thing.

Conclusion: Dust is fun to play and by far the best Risk-derivative game out there. It certainly does better than Risk 2210 A.D. with fast play, additional strategic and tactical complexity without bogging the game down in too large swings in power dynamics. While luck still plays a factor in Dust, it’s definitely not the major factor in gameplay.

Anime Evolution 2010 Convention Report

On the Con in General

Anime Evolution (AE) 2010 was an interesting convention.  This year, they were back in UBC and the Gym that is close to the Student Union Building.  Now, for those of you who have never been to AE or any Anime convention, the major characteristics of the crowd are ‘large’ and ‘young’.

There were at least 5,000 attendees over 3 days, mostly in the teens to early 20’s.  Compare this to most gaming conventions where the majority are between mid-20’s to early 40’s.  The other aspect of AE is that  most con attendees (at least40%) are Cosplaying – in a wide variety of Anime related characters.  Mostly, I noticed a lot of Bleach and Naruto; being familiar with both those Anime.

The Vendors Room

Since the entire convention was spread out across UBC I didn’t get to see how the rest of the con went; but the vendor’s room was generally well trafficked.  Generally that is till about 4pm onwards; as con attendees wilted in the heat.  Unfortunately, a lack of air circulation and proper air-conditioning meant that the vendor’s room had a tendency to get warm.

Most of the usual suspects in the vendors room were back; so during quieter periods I wandered the hall talking to the other vendors that we knew.  We were again placed near the noisy pornographic book vendors.  Luckily, unlike last year; they weren’t as noisy and tasteless – at least most of the time.

Another interesting aspect for us were the number of game retailers at AE.   Last year, there were 2 others; this year there were 3 others.  All 3 sold board games as well, though not as their main focus.  Even with the greater competition (and at least one vendor dropping their price 3 times to a final discount of 35% off their posted price); we did better than last year.  Admittedly, we sold fewer games like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan because of the competition.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the vendor’s room was ‘Ultimate Showdown‘ a card game created and promoted at AE.  It’s a storytelling based card game where players describe the actions / abilities of the cards they use.  It’s a fun little, cheap card game which you might actually see a lot more of; especially among casual gamers.

The Spiel – another year of sponsorship

The Eagle-Eyed among you might notice that the Spiel now has a spot on our front page, where we’ll be hosting their most recent podcast updates.  That obviously means we’ve decided to continue sponsoring them – for a year to be exact.

After considering our options and listening to the various comments we felt that continuing to sponsor the Spiel was a worthwhile investment.  More than anything else, continuing to support them means supporting something that we feel is worthwhile – a podcast dedicated to gaming for gamers.

Best Practices : Have a Vision (1)

A comment by a friend mentioned that while there is a lot of information out there on how not to run a successful game store, there really isn’t much information on how to do it right.  I think there are a number of reasons why we don’t discuss the best practices.

Firstly, many of us don’t want to turn our blogs into business management blogs so we avoid discussing the nitty gritty how-to’s; secondly, since all businesses are unique to some extent, it’s the unique (read – headache inducing) problems that we see.  Thirdly, there’s some hesitation of giving away information to competitors that might (unlikely but possibly) just put ourselves out of business.  Lastly, it’s a bit of risk – after all, even if you do everything right, sometimes businesses just fail and we don’t want to be blamed for it!

All that said, we’ve decided to start a new series of best practices. Bear with me, I’m going to have to put into place a lot of things I do that I don’t necessarily think about.

With that said, let’s start at the beginning

1. Have a Vision

If you’ve worked in a large company before, you’re probably rolling your eyes. Vision Statements all too often are meaningless paragraphs of dribble that have no relation to anything.  I’m not talking about that kind of vision.

I’m talking about a vision of the company for you. If you have partners, then it’s a shared vision; but it’s one about you.  Not “the largest company in North America” or “eco-friendly, sustainable practices” or any of that other dribble.

Instead, lay out in detail what salary, work hours and vacation time the company must offer you.  Put a dollar figure to it and a timeline.  Don’t worry if it’s not realistic for a retail game store to provide this to you – that’s not the point just yet.

This amount will vary depending on your life circumstances (20-something, single and childless or mid-40’s, married with kids).   You might even need to do 2 different sets of numbers – one for the first 5 years, one 10 years after that.  Whatever number it is, put it together and make sure you are happy with it.  Then make sure anyone affected by that decision is happy (read Significant Others & family).

There’s a few reasons for doing this:

1) Realism: Is what you want realistic? Look at the previous numbers I’ve provided where most retail stores pull in CAD$323,000 a year; and total salary & wages & profit equaled $61.5k.  And that’s likely without a lot of benefits – and not forgetting you probably need at least 1 other employee if not 2.

On that note, you’re probably only pulling maybe $30-40,000 a year at most, after 4 to 5 years in business.  Can you be happy with that? Can you & your family realistically live on that for the rest of your life.  If not, you’re going to have to do a lot of thinking about whether you really want to do it – or what you can do to change these numbers.

2) Planning: You have a number, you have an idea of where you need to be.  With that goal in mind, you can start planning the business backwards – plotting out how much sales you require per year to pull this off.  Then you can work out the space requirements for the business (e.g. can you do it on 300 sq ft? how about 1,000? how about 2,000?).

I’m not suggesting you get 2,000 sq ft straight away, but if you know you will need to expand to reach your goals, you might hold-off on major improvements on your first retail location.  It’ll also dictate the inventory / capital requirements using a turn ratio of 4.

3) Goal-Setting : Perhaps more importantly, you now have a goal.  Whether it’s $30,000 or $100,00; you have a number that you need to hit and a time-frame to do it in.  You and your partners (if any) have discussed and agreed to it, so that number won’t be moving without a serious discussion.  If you don’t hit it, you’ll have to explain it – even if it’s only to yourself.  You now have a goal-line.

Last Points

If you think this is rather cold-hearted; it is. Yes, it’s a great life running a game store.  You get games, you get your own business, you get to meet lots of people who are (often) just like you.  It’s fun.

The business will also only last as long as you, the owner, can do it. It doesn’t matter if the business is making a profit – if you aren’t making enough to pay your bills, it won’t last.  Most of us give up a career, a steady paycheck, benefits and a lot of free time to do this.  Make sure it’s worth it for you.

Deck Building Games – A Comparison of 3

With so many Deck Building Games out there; and more launching soon we thought we’d compare and contrast the three that we have played – Dominion, Thunderstone & Arctic Scavengers.

Ruleset /Ease of Learning

Of the three games, I’d have to say that Dominion is the simplest ruleset to learn. The It’s basic rules of drawing cards from the deck and buying from the piles of cards have been copied by the rest of the games discussed here. It’s major twist of allowing players to continually use these abilities has not been copied, but generally elaborated upon.

Arctic Scavengers is the next simplest game to learn. It only allows players to use their abilities once a hand, but adds a new dig ability (through a junkyard) to the game as well as a bluffing / combat element. In Arctic Scavengers, instead of Victory Points players win the game by having the most number of people.

Lastly, Thunderstone is probably the most complicated. Players now have 3 options each turn – going to the Village, the Dungeon or Resting. Their actions are then dictated by where they are, with the Village allowing players to buy cards (items, spells and heroes) and level up their heroes. The Dungeon is where players fight monsters and garner most of their Victory Points while Resting allows players to get rid of a card.

Quality & Appearance

Thunderstone wins basic appearance / artwork wise hands down. Dominion has rather boring and in some cases bad artwork, while Arctic Scavengers looks somewhat amateurish to my eyes.

On the other hand, when it comes to Quality of the boards, Thunderstone has a major problem with the way they decided to separate the cards. They provide a variety of larger cards to split your deck between different types, but instead of designing and colouring those cards differently, they use the same coloured cards. This causes a major problem when hunting for cards. Dominion has one of the few box inserts that work. Each card has a space in the insert; right next to it’s printed name. It’s easy, intuitive and makes set-up fast. Arctic Scavengers (the original) came into a tuckbox that started falling apart the moment we received it. On the other hand, it has the fewest cards so set-up isn’t too bad.

Gameplay Duration

Dominion by far is the fastest game to play, with games ranging from 20 minutes to an hour. Arctic Scavengers generally plays betweeen 45 minutes to an hour and Thunderstone between 45 to an hour and a half per game, depending on the monsters you draw.

Theme

By far, Thunderstone has the most solidly built theme with players dungeon delving as the head of the party. There’s monsters, items and heroes to level up and it’s quite interesting and fun. Arctic Scavengers comes a close second, with its theme intrinsically tied into the gameplay elements. Dominion is rather divorced from its theme, and perhaps the most boring theme-wise.

Gameplay

As mentioned, Dominion‘s the easiest to learn and play and the fastest. Rounds generally play very fast, though occasionally very good decks as players run through their actions repeatedly. This can also give experienced players a definite advantage over beginners.

Thunderstone on the other hand takes a bit to learn since each card carries a lot of information on it. Once players realise where all the information is though, gameplay can move along quite fast. Since players generally can’t draw additional cards into their hands, they can often pre-plan their turns making each round go very fast. However, depending on the monsters & cards in the Village, Thunderstone can have a very slow start. In addition, players who run into a string of bad luck with their draws can find themselves falling behind as more powerful / luckier players kill the monsters ahead of them. Of course, with more monsters killed, the more ‘useless’ cards these players have so it helps balance out a bit. And unlike Dominion, holding off on gaining Victory Points till the end is a bad idea since players can only fight 1 monster at a time.

Arctic Scavengers is relatively fast to learn, and since there are only a specific number of cards all of which are used in the base game; additional games are faster to play. The balance between cards are pretty well designed; though luck is still a factor as the distribution of ‘medicine’ can be quite uneven. Since medicine is required to hire more powerful tribe members, this can occasionally cause the unlucky great trouble. Luckily, this is rare since there is quite a few different medicine cards in the junkyard.

When it comes to interaction between players, both Thunderstone & Dominion have very little. Beyond a few specific cards, there’s very little you can do to another player to affect them – meaning that it can become individual games of solitaire. Arctic Scavengers on the other hand has an entire section of the game devoted to combat between players over resources. These resources can be quite powerful and game changing which adds a nice twist to this.

Replay Value

Both Dominion & Thunderstone have a lot of replay value in them, since they provide a ton of cards in each game. Of the two, Dominion probably has the highest replay value since most of its card goes into the main ‘deck building’ section; while Thunderstone has to split their cards between Monsters, Heroes & the Village. Arctic Scavengers has probably the least replay value (in terms of Deck Building differences) because you use every card in the game. However, because of this, Arctic Scavengers does allow players to attempt different strategies – whether it’s more direct confrontation or otherwise.

Of course, it’s worthwhile to consider expansions as well. Thunderstone has 1 expansion that is expected soon, while Dominion has multiple expansions already released. Arctic Scavengers on the other hand is out-of-print at the moment but is expected to be reprinted in 2011.

Conclusion
Of the three games, Dominion is the best game to introduce new gamers to; it’s simple and easy to learn gameplay and quick rounds make it a perfect gateway game. On the other hand, Thunderstone is definitely for gamers who like more of a theme in their game and are hankering for a quicker dungeon crawl. Lastly, Arctic Scavengers falls in-between and is perhaps the most ‘complete’ game of them all. It’s certainly the easiest to transport and quickly fill an afternoon or evening of boredom.

Bugs & Spaces – The Complexity of Running an Online Store

Once again, there is a bug in the site.  Sometimes, it seems like every few months we come across a new one – and the truth is, that’s what it is.  Running an online store with ecommerce software isn’t an easy job on the IT side; especially if you’re attempting to improve the store as you go along.

The Complexity

E-commerce stores have to be hosted; think the building a retail store would rent from, and the orders and stock count run from an ecommerce software.  So think of it as the actual physical space (i.e. the store).  Now, the CSS and HTML of a site dictate it’s physical appearance (i.e. the store fixtures & layout) while the process of getting taking payments & shipments are managed by 3rd party suppliers.  In addition, specific processes like the Rewards Program and the like are added code from additional 3rd party’s, so it’s like having another company staffing the store for you.

The Bugs

So why the bugs? Well, the biggest problem is that at any time, any of those different programs could / can be updated.  On both sides, security issues could be found which have to be patched.  Those patches can adversely affect your store code itself, creating new bugs.

Maybe you’re not likely to be broken into; but the bank next door shares the same building so they’ve got to slap some plywood on the big vent people are crawling through to raid them.  Well; that vent was your air conditioning and now the store’s hotter.  Some customers won’t notice; some will love the heat but most will be upset.  So you’ve got to fix it – maybe by finding a new route for the air-conditioning, maybe by slapping some fans together and turning them on full throttle.

The other reason bugs crop-up is our need to improve.  Sometimes, it’s just not good enough – like how slow the site was before the most recent update.  Sometimes, it’s just necessary to update the software to fix a slew of minor (backend) bugs, but by changing, we might be creating additional problems.

Our current bug has the rewards program redemption and the coupon code system share the same ‘space’.  However, the change to the new, larger premises has pushed them together so close, no one get to them.  The trick is finding the best way to move them apart – and unlike a real world example; it’s not as easy as moving a few boxes.

The Fixes

Sometimes, I envy physical stores.  When bugs crop, fixing them can be a headache.  When it comes to coding, I’m the equivalent of a basic DIYer – just about good enough to switch bulbs, patch walls, set up IKEA furniture, etc.  I can, at a push do some plumbing and the like.  I could even fix the tiling on the floors, though that’d take a while.   Like most DIYers I’m slower and just not as good as a professional; but with most things I can handle.

Unfortunately, for most of the bugs that crop-up especially the major one’s, my skills aren’t adequate.  Which is why we have an IT company working with us on this.  Of course, that’s additional expenses and  time, since we aren’t their only client.  Sometimes, a fix that’d take them an hour has to wait 3 days because they’ve got other customers in queue.

The Long-Term Solution

In an ideal world, there would be little to no bugs.  Like Amazon, with a full IT team behind, you’d know when your servers were being updated, you’d be able to test the updates thoroughly.  You might even release the updates to only a small fraction of your customers, making sure that it still works for them before releasing the fix.   Unfortunately, being a small business – we just don’t have the resources to do all the above.

Quite often, we have to test as much as we can the latest update (if we find out about it in time!) and then release it into the wilds, hoping that we caught most of the bugs.  The one’s that weren’t caught; well, we’ll try to fix them as we can.

It’d be easier if we weren’t constantly attempting to improve the site – keeping the site static would lower the number of moving parts.  However, as we grow; like real world retail stores – the original premises just don’t work anymore.  Then it’s a case of letting customers suffer or fixing it.  For us, fixing it will always be the go-to option.

August 2010 : Newsletter


Contest Winner Announcement

This month’s winner is Matt D. with his review of San Juan. As Matt mentions; San Juan’s “A simple game with high replay value. This acts as a great stepping stone to Race for the Galaxy, its much more complicated child that followed after San Juan.” .

Ongoing Contest

The monthly review contest is continuing this month and the winner of each monthly review contest will receive a $20 gift certificate. In addition, we are now awarding 50 Citadel Points to each approved review. Lastly, the winner is enterred into the end of the year draw for the Grand Prize of $250 of board games!

I’d also add that this is likely the last year that we will run the contest. So best start writing immediately!

Site Updates

Those who have visited the site recently might have noticed a huge improvement in load time. We were finally able to shift both the site host and update the site to a newer version, vastly improving load time. In addition, we’ve got the vast majority of bugs out of the system. Our Coupon Codes and the ability to Redeem Reward Points (both linked) are currently off-line while we attempt to find the cause of the problem.

A Con Report on Conquest BC is available as well. Overall, the Convention was small with only 80 or so individuals, but for the first year, it wasn’t bad. I’m curious to see how next year’s turnout is like.

We have added a ton of new games to the Sale Items Category and a few new Ding & Dents from recent shipments.

Lastly, we have decided to continue to sponsor The Spiel – a gaming Podcast. We will be adding them to our Front Page soon so that it is easier to listen to them.

Bestsellers : June 2010

We’ve updated the latest bestsellers for July 2010 on the site. As a review, the bestsellers for June 2010 are as follows.

No real surprises this month – Settlers continues to outsell most other products by a margin of 2 : 1 at least. That’s quite common for us during the Summer, though Dominion is holding very, very close these days. Small World : Tales & Legends has seen a huge surge in sales but it’ll be a matter of time to see if it holds to this level of sales. I doubt it – generally expansions don’t do as well after initial release.

Settlers of Catan

1. Settlers of Catan 4th Edition

2. Dominion

3. Agricola

4. Dominion : Intrigue

5. Summoner Wars : Guilds Dwares vs Cave Goblins

6. Summoner Wars : Phoenix Elves vs Tundra Orcs

7. Arkham Horror : Curse of the Dark Pharoah

8. Carcassonne Big Box 2

9. Axis & Allies : Pacific 1940

10. Battlelore : Dragons Expansion