Fear & Loathing Online

As an online game store, it sometimes feels like the entire industry is out to shut you down.  We’re the evil demon in the mists, the boogieman destroying the fabric of the gaming universe.  We are the bad guys.

The Loathing

We’ve had publishers refuse to sell to us, restrict sales of certain items, issue pricing dictates and offer Brick & Mortar (B&M) stores additional retailer incentives. We’ve had distributors refuse to do business with us, or attempt to dictate how we run our business if they do sell to us, or selectively refuse promotions to us because we are an online store.

Other retailers have attempted to get us discredited, refused to talk/work with us in their industry forums and been actively hostile in person.  We’ve even had some predatory marketing practices targeted directly at us.  And the purchasing public can be just as hostile (if not more so) than any of the above.

The Hypocrisy

What gets me is the hypocrisy often shown by the above.  Many of these publishers will sell online & direct themselves and/or sell to big box stores.  They’ll go to Kickstarter (another online sales method) and provide incentives to customers but not provide them to retailers, cutting directly into a retailer’s customer base.  Yet they’ll state in their very next breath that they are all about supporting ‘the gaming industry’.

The public will complain about online retailers, but then refuse to pay more than MSRP or for the space they use to try out games and socialize in B&M stores.  They’ll buy from Amazon, yet continue to talk about ‘supporting local businesses’.  Retailers complain about online stores but then use eBay to get rid of their additional stock or run online stores themselves.

Distributors at least are mostly up-front about their motivations – they just want your money; and often would sell to you if they could.

If There’s One Thing…

Can’t we all just get along? There’s a lot to love in this business, but this aspect of it is just frustrating and disheartening.  Some days, I really do just want to go evil. Then I take a deep breath, tell myself it’s just business and get on with being the best damn game store we can be.

Professionalism & the Gaming Hobby

Gaming as an industry is filled with enthusiastic amateurs.  Colloquially there are quite a few different ways to define the difference between professionals and amateurs including:

  • professionals get paid
  • expert levels of specialised knowledge or skill
  • high standard of ethics, behaviour and work activities

As an industry that’s us.  Very few designers, publishers or retailers get paid.  Certainly not for the amount of work that is put in.   Yet, what I’d like to discuss in particular is the last point.  The standard of behavior and work that we see way too often in this industry makes me think of amateurs.  Some of the behavior we see include:

  • slow, sporadic or non-existent communication
  • missed deadlines
  • lack of basic planning
  • placement of personal obligations over professional

It’s frustrating because quite often, all these results in lost sales for us and the publishers.  If it takes 5 e-mails and multiple phone calls to just get 1 simple ‘is this in-stock’ query answered, we’re much less likely to do business with you the next time.  If a distributor closes during the busiest times of the year, we can’t make purchases from them; resulting in loss sales for us as we run out of stock.

Why is this so prevalent? I can make a few guesses:

  • Passion driven involvement – a lot of people get into this business because they love the games, not the business side of things.
  • Low cost of entry – when you don’t have a lot to lose, it’s not as important to do it right
  • Low potential profits – unless you have a stellar hit / grow multiple retail stores; the chances are you aren’t ever going to make a lot of money.  So what’s the difference between losing 1 sale here or there if you aren’t going to make the money anyway?
  • Status quo – everyone else is like this, so why not?

There’s not much we can do about this, beyond blog about it and ‘punish’ the publishers / distributors /etc who aren’t that professional by taking away our business.  Still, some days it drives me nuts.

Note that I don’t discuss ethics – there’s very few people we’ve run into who we’d say are ethically unsound.  Good intentions are everywhere, it just doesn’t necessarily make up for the lack of professionalism.

Z-Man Games : 2 Months After

It’s been 2 months since the biggest publisher since Days of Wonder (i.e. Z-Man Games) has gone exclusive on us.  It’s been a rough couple of months in keeping stock for the games; as I’m sure it has been for Filosofia.

The Recap

Z-Man Games announced that they were going exclusive with Alliance in America 2 months ago.  However; they were then barred from selling to Canadian retailers like us forcing us to buy from either Filosofia (Z-Man’s new owner) or a Canadian distributors.

The Effects

As many of you know, we don’t buy from Canadian distributors.  The cost is significantly higher than purchasing from the US and there’s a lot less breadth and width among the Canadian distributors.  That means quite often we’re buying direct from Filosofia.

Here’s a few things that we noticed:

  • a higher cost per game of 3 – 5% due to shipping
  • increasing our minimum stock quantities by about 30% (roughly $1,300 dollars) for Z-Man Games
  • More out-of-stocks for longer periods due to much slower ship times

The biggest issue is the increased costs and the out-of-stocks.  It’s actually hurting our sales and I don’t see this changing.  It’ll be particularly interesting when we come to the new releases for Z-Man since we aren’t likely to be able to restock those games as fast either.  And while I understand this change is probably not something that matters to the publisher since we just aren’t that large a part of the pie; it’s still frustrating for us to not have stock of board games in Canada.


Musings on Kickstarter

The introduction of Kickstater to board game publishing over the last year or so has caused some major changes, with a lot of new independent games being published and dispersed.  It’s also caused a lot of consternation among game stores, and for myself.  I’ve been trying to figure out why I dislike the entire system, and what my concerns are about such a program.  So, here we go:

Present Concerns

  1. Additional work: Scanning through and researching all the board games available on Kickstarter just adds another task to an already busy job
  2. Additional capital: I’ve spoken about this before, and it’s a real concern.  Having to find additional non-working capital to purchase these games is an issue.  The delay between payment and delivery creates a significant ROI requirement, which is not helped by…
  3. Lack of Retailer Support: The few times I find a project worth backing, there often isn’t even a Retailer Support level.  So we either have to contact the publisher to create one (and check back if they do — which isn’t even certain!) or we buy at MSRP.
  4. Lack of Online Retailer Support: I’ll add an additional caveat that there seems to be an even higher level of elitism among Kickstarter publishers than among normal publishers with many of the ‘Retailer support’ levels only available to B&M stores.
  5. No recourse: If and when (because there will be a when) a Kickstarter project is never fulfilled, there is no legal recourse.
  6. Varying demand: Of course, you never know if a game is going to be a hit.  However, with the traditional distribution channels, I can hedge my bets by ordering 1 or 2 copies initially.  That’s all that will sell for many games.  With a Kickstarter-backed project, I have to take 4 to 6 copies and then pray that they all sell — knowing that the customers who really wanted the game might have already purchased it themselves through Kickstarter.

Overall, these concerns have made Kickstarter a non-starter on a corporate basis.  I personally still support some projects, but those are my personal funds.

Future Concerns

While I know I lose some sales and some customers to Kickstarter, it’s not a big issue.  It’s a secondary competitor — one that has a leg-up in terms of getting some product faster, but no more dangerous than any other competitor.  At least, presently.  It’s what might happen in the future that concerns me the most.

Scenario 1: Kickstarter is the financing method for publishing all games

If Kickstarter becomes the financing method for all companies (and there are some indications of that with established publishers like Queen Games and Steve Jackson Games using it), then we will see a major change in how business is done.  The concerns then become:

  1. How much of our customer base are we going to lose?
  2. What percentage of games will sell exclusively through Kickstarter / direct distribution?

Greater Risk

Here’s the thing —  as an online store we might actually be more at risk than your general B&M store.  A core group of our customers are avid boardgamers: Gamer Geeks.  These are customers who are looking for the hottest new games, often with the highest amount of bling and exclusivity. Exactly. This is the same group that are most likely to finance a Kickstarter project.  If we lose a significant number of our Gamer Geek customers, we’ll definitely be struggling.

No More Distribution

There is, frankly, a lot to be said about cutting out the middleman.  If a Publisher can sell the game direct to customers through a system like Kickstarter, then their profits increases significantly.  For them it is better, financially, to sell 1/2 as many games directly to customers than the full amount through regular channels.  If you assume most games are priced at about 8 – 10 times the component cost, then the publisher of a $50 game would make approximately $45 per game selling direct, compared to $15.  I’m not including shipping here, which will push the profit from direct sales down somewhat, but you can still see the attraction.

So what’s to stop publishers from blocking all sales to distributors & retailers? If you realise that 80% of all your demand has been soaked up by Kickstarter, why not just sell the rest direct on your own website? Or just not print more than your Kickstarter funding covers and then put up a 2nd Kickstarter for ‘unreached’ demand?  Suddenly, the retailer and distribution chain disappears.

Lower Margins

Here’s another variation on the above: publishers do allow retailers to purchase; however, they reduce the retailer margin.  An example would be the Ogre Kickstarter where the retailer support level was $200 for 3 games  – or about a 33% discount compared to the usual 45%.  That doesn’t sound like much, but most stores only have a profit margin of 3 – 5%.  A reduction of over 12% in their margins would put most of us in the red.

All the above has the potential to create a major disruption in the publishing channel.   And it doesn’t even have to be all publishers. If, say, 50% of the major publishers start doing this, game stores and distributors will be majorly squeezed.

Scenario 2: Balanced Use

The above is a doom-and-gloom scenario.  What’s likely to happen is something less extreme.  Publishers might use Kickstarter for new and/or risky games where they aren’t certain of their return.  For reprints and classics, they will likely distribute through their normal channels, using the funds from their first print run to do so.

This likely means that retailers and distributors will see reduced sales of new games, and will be much more likely to stick to classic games and bestsellers.  When they do pick up a Kickstarter game, it’ll be a minimal number, since they will know it’s ‘sold through’ already.

Hmmm… maybe we should ask BGG to add a new category to all games: Kickstarted: Yes / No.

In the end, I expect at the retail level we’ll see a lot more breadth of games (more games) but much less depth (numbers printed).  Publishers will likely do smaller print runs in an attempt to ensure they get their Kickstarted games funded, and a large number will be pre-sold.  Retailers will thus have much fewer copies to purchase, and those that do arrive will disappear really fast if they are good games (see Belfort as an example – note, Belfort wasn’t a Kickstarted project as clarified by Michael below) .

I’d also expect there to be much faster discounting of games in this scenario, as retailers attempt to move products before they go stale.  If Kickstarter increases the total number of games by say, 30%, an already busy release schedule becomes even more packed and retailer inventory budgets get squeezed further.  This scenario would be a change, but not a major change.

Scenario 3: A Vicious Cycle

Another possibility is a slow decrease in support for Kickstarter projects in general, and board games in particular.  I would not be surprised if game stores start becoming much more focused on casual gamers:  customers who aren’t as interested in new games, and whose gaming budget might be only $100 – 200 per year (instead of per month), and who are thus quite happy to play / buy the bestsellers of yesteryear.  When it comes to serious gamers, the focus shifts from supporting board games to supporting CCGs and Miniatures even further.  Both of these categories are significantly harder to fund via Kickstarter due to their higher production costs and need for ongoing expansions.

If the above scenario plays out, we might even see the following vicious cycle occur:

Publishers put games on Kickstarter -> retailers buy fewer Kickstarted games -> publishers aren’t able to sell as many games, and are increasingly reliant on Kickstarter pre-orders, adding more new games to Kickstarter -> retailers further reduce support of board games.

If that happens, I’d expect that only a few online stores who either (a) bite the bullet and support Kickstarter projects or (b) lower their pricing significantly to make up for the lost Kickstarter ‘perks’ will stock a significant breadth of board games.  What you see on the regular B&M store shelves will increasingly be the current winners — FFG, DOW, SJG, Rio Grande, etc. — and getting on those shelves will become even more difficult for independent designers, if not impossible.

Final Words

Of course, all of this is dependent on the Kickstarter bubble not blowing up completely as bad products outweigh good ones and customers walk away from supporting the majority of products. If this happens, then not much will end up changing in the end.

Board Game Review : Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories coverGhost Stories  has players as Taoist Monks attempting to banish ghosts from the village.  To win, they’ll have to banish Wu Feng the Lord of the Nine Hells before they themselves are defeated or the village overrun.  Ghost Stories is a tough, complex co-operative game that requires a lot of co-operation and planning to win and isn’t meant for casual gamers or those easily frustrated.

Appearance: I have to say, I love the design and images used.  It’s a touch cartoony; but there are a ton of images on all the ghost cards and village tiles which are well done and add immensely to the theme.

Stock card and miniatures are well done; though the Haunting figures might be a touch too large.  Otherwise, the design is well done with easy to read information transmitted mostly via icons and the rulebook(s) are well laid out to teach the rules quickly.

  Rules / Ease of Learning: The rules of the game are quite well laid out in the rulebook and the game is relatively simple in execution.  Each turn is broken into 2 phases, the Yin and Yang phases which constitute the ghost and monk phase.

In the Yin phase, any ghost effects such as Haunting or the Cursed die take effect before a new ghost is pulled.  If the current player’s board is filled with ghosts already; he does not pull another ghost but instead loses a Qi (life) point.   Ghosts are allocated to each player’s board according to their respective colours, with the black ghost allocated to the current player’s board.  In addition; any effects the ghost has when it comes into play are immediately put into effect.  All this information is shown on the ghost card in simple, easy to read iconography.

In the Yang phase, the player can move 1 space if he wishes.  He may then either ask for help from the Villager on his tile or attempt an exorcism at an adjacent location.  Exorcisms are conducted by rolling the dice and matching the ghosts resistance with the die results.  Any Tao tokens of the appropriate colour may be substituted for a success; and if the player is at a corner location he may attempt to exorcise both ghosts at once with his successes.

In addition; each monk has a special ability that can be used on their turn.  The boards for the monk’s are double-sided; with each side having a variation on the monk’s special ability.  As such; players have to decide on which ability they will be using that game.

Additionally; players get a Yin-Yang token that gives them the ability to use a villager’s ability or flip a haunted tile over at the start of the game.  In 2 or 3 player games, players also get a neutral token that allows them access to the un-played Monks’ special ability(s).

As mentioned, the Village tiles each represent a villager who can aid the Monk’s.  Their aid can range from flipping over a haunted tile to providing Tao tokens, healing for the monks or a Buddha token.

To win Ghost Stories, players have to defeat Wu-Feng.  However, if players all die, run the deck out or have a number of tiles (ranging from 3 to 4) haunted; they lose the game.

Gameplay: Most of Ghost Stories revolves around planning the use of the monk’s and village tile abilities.  Making sure to use the Buddha(s), the Circle of Prayers and the other village tiles as well as the Monk’s special abilities to banish the ghost is extremely important.  Players will have to work closely together to plan out their actions, often 3 to 4 turns ahead to ensure that they win.

One of the major problems with most co-operative games is the ‘alpha’ gamer phenomena where a single player takes over the planning of character actions.  In my experience with Ghost Stories, the best course of action is either blindingly obvious to everyone involved (and already agreed upon) or is a toss-up such that there’s no single right decision.  This makes everyone’s input important; and can sometimes lead to even better moves.

On the other hand, due to the random nature of the ghost card draws as well as the die-rolls for exorcism; Ghost Stories can be more random than many people can enjoy.  It’s quite possible to go from a perfectly controlled situation with 3 ghost present to having 7 ghost on the board, with a die removed and no Tao tokens able to be used all in 2 turns.   The random nature of the game can sometimes put players in a completely un-winnable situation (or make the game seem too simple as everything falls their way) and it can happen very fast.

Conclusion: Overall, I like Ghost Stories.   It has a ton of theme unlike Pandemic and it’s much shorter than Arkham Horror.  There’s a lot of decisions to make and because it’s shorter; it never feels like you’ve wasted a lot of time playing a game that you were never going to win.



A Touch of Evil Board Game Review

A Touch of Evil  A Touch of Evil is a competitive monster hunting game from Flying Frog Productions.  Players are monster hunters out to save the citizens of Storybook from a movie monster – whether it’s a Werewolf, Vampire or other horror.  A Touch of Evil can be played competitively or co-operatively; though the base game is a competitive game.

Appearance:  Production quality in A Touch of Evil is quite slick.  The game comes with good thick cardboard for the board and tokens as well as decent (if glossy and sticky) cards and a series of unpainted miniatures for the heroes.

The rulebooks is a bit dense; and while fine for reading through; the rules could probably be condensed and a cheat sheet of information provided to keep the game running smoother.  However, the use of real photographs is a nice touch and provides for a greater degree of atmosphere to the game.

Rules / Ease of Learning: The basic rules of A Touch of Evil are relatively simple.  Each round is made up of the Hero’s Turn and the Monster’s Turn.  On the Hero’s Turn; each Hero takes their actions in order by first rolling the movement die, taking their movement as they are able to and then using the effects of the space that they are in.  They may also elect to collect Investigation tokens in the space they are in, learn a Town Elder’s secret, heal themselves or buy a Lair card.

On the Monster’s turn; KO’d hero’s revive at the start of this phase and the Monster heals before a new Mystery card is turned over.  They Mystery Card effects are put into play and the first player marker is moved to the next player.  Mystery cards generally have an adverse effect; ranging from the murder of a Town Elder to Monster attacks.

The goal of the game is to force a Showdown with the Monster terrorizing the town and defeat it.  To do so; players have to have a Lair card and be on the appropriate space on their turn.  They may then call for a Showdown; asking for help from 2 Town Elders in the battle before beginning combat.  If they lose, they are KO’d and must try again; losing a d6 worth of investigation tokens/Items or Allies.   As such; much of the game revolves around moving through the Town and the environs, gathering Investigation tokens and Items to help the Hero do battle against the monster and learn what the secrets of the Town Elders are to ensure the Elders aren’t evil and secretly aiding the monster.

There are additional rules dealing with being Knocked Out, how Minions appear, the Town Elder’s secrets and the various Mystery’s that occur; but the major mechanics of the game are quite simple.  Where A Touch of Evil falls short is the many minor rules that plague the game which aren’t easily remembered nor shown on the board or player cards.

Gameplay: Both the theme and design of A Touch of Evil is quite interesting, with great flavour text and pictured cards.  Each turn can also go quite fast; once players get the hang of the game.  There really aren’t that many options during a turn; and players can often start their turns while another player is finishing theirs as there’s very little crossover or interaction.  In fact, beyond Mystery or Event cards that might affect other players; in a competitive game there is often a ‘disconnect’ as players wait for their turn.

Perhaps the major issue we found was the lack of tension in the game.  Since the Shadow Track moves at an intermittent rate depending on the Mystery Cards drawn; there’s never a feel of ratcheting tension that games like Arkham Horror have.  Instead, players play their solo games; collecting their treasures, occasionally being KO’d before they rush off to defeat the monster.  That lack of tension and the inability to (adversely) effect other players makes the competitive game less enjoyable than the co-operative game.  The co-operative game does help reduce some of these factors, thus providing a touch more fun.

Conclusion: Overall, A Touch of Evil is an okay competitive game and a slightly better; more atmospheric co-operative horror game.  With one experienced player who knows the rules managing the Monster actions and other minor rules; it’s a good game to introduce to beginners who want a horror-themed roll and move co-op.  The shorter game play does make this a better game than something more complicated like Arkham Horror or more difficult like Ghost Stories for these kinds of groups.

Growth is Expensive

Everyone talks about how cashflow and how much money you require when starting a business.  It’s drilled into the head of many new businesses how expensive it is to start; the need for sufficient capital so as not to fail.  What people don’t talk about as much is how expensive actual growth is.

The Harsh Reality

When you first start; most of your needs and the work that can be done can be handled by a single person.  As you grow; you find it harder and harder to complete all the tasks necessarily to run a business with just 1 person.    Instead of entering 1 order, 1 invoice, 1 payroll per week; you’re now looking at 100 orders, 10 invoices to enter.  Instead of just shipping 5 – 10 orders a week; you now have to manage 20 orders. You’re growing; but it’s putting a strain on your business.

The Mathematics of Growth

Let’s focus on just inventory.  Say you have 100 products, each of which you keep 2 items  in-stock.  Each of those products you buy for $20.  That’s $4000 in capital that you ‘keep’ in-stock at any time.  Now, let’s assume you get 1 order for each of those 100 products a week (i.e. 100 orders for 1 item);  you actually have 1 item per product (100 items total) in-stock – a happy medium in case of sudden surges so long as you re-stock once a week.

What if you grow to 200 orders for 200 products? Well, if your initial goal was to keep a full week’s worth of inventory on-hand at any one time; you have to increase your inventory by 200 products – another $4000 in capital.

Now, if you take our normal margins into account, that means to build up $4000 in gross profit; we’d have to sell $8,000 of product – $12,000 in Gross Sales.  That’s a very expensive proposition; especially when you take into account this is Gross Profit – not Net.  There’s still a lot of costs; some directly associated (e.g. storage, shipping, processing charges, etc). that need to be paid for.

As I said; growth is expensive.

More Complexity

Let’s add a few more thoughts.   With growth in sales, you’ll need more:

  • space to store your new inventory
  • boxes to ship the new orders
  • employee hours to handle the shipping
  • bookkeeping time to input the longer inventory lists and no. of orders
  • customer service hours to handle the additional questions
  • etc.

The worst part? Some of these costs have to be front-loaded.  You might see a slow increase in sales; but you still need to start stocking up additional inventory before the sales materialize to get the sales.  You might have to hire an employee full-time and find ‘make-work’ for him till sales improve sufficiently to justify him shipping only. And so forth.

Finding the Balance

Finding the balance between necessary growth; planned growth and available resources is difficult.  If you don’t plan for the growth; the friction of insufficient resources will result in unhappy customers and employees.   Yet finding the funds for growth can sometimes be difficult , requiring sacrifices in your plans and goals.