2015 In Review: Industry Changes

I occasionally write these posts about the year before, talking about how the year went or not. I sort of didn’t do a massive review for 2014 last year, more discussing what would happen in 2015 instead. This year, I’ll try to get back to doing my usual year in review post.

Exchange Rates

Probably the biggest thing that affected us this year was the increase in the exchange rate.  We’ve gone from around CAD$1.15 to CAD$1.40 in a year with the resulting explosion in prices. For a long-time we held our calculation on the pricing at $1.35 but we’ve had to alter that recently, with the expected resulting price increases over the next month.  Worst, it means to carry the same volume of product (i.e. same number of items); our inventory numbers have just increased by 22%. In the last 2 years, that means we’ve seen an increase of 30% in our inventory cost which as you can guess with a store like ours is a significant bump in inventory.

Out of Stocks and 3rd party sourcing

Another thing that didn’t help was the lack of product for a number of hot games. As usual, Dead of Winter was out of stock for large periods of the year. Same with a number of hot products like Codenames, Pandemic: Legacy and more.  In an attempt to keep stock in-place, we started sourcing from 3rd party websites and managed to keep some of these items in-stock, even if at a much higher price than we’d prefer.

MAP Policies & Acquisitions

Mayfair made a bit of a splash with us late last year with their sudden attempt to implement their MSP policy. Interestingly enough, they just lost their Catan license, which makes them somewhat less relevant as a business for us. Certainly, if we exclude Catan the only games that actually sell regularly for us is Caverna and Patchwork.

Of course, last year was also the year of the acquisition with Plaid Hat joining F2Z (who own Z-Man already) and just at the start of the year, the lost of Catan’s license to Asmodee North America.  I won’t reiterate my discussion about the ANA announcement either, though that obviously was an interesting addition.

Convention Coverage

Perhaps one of the newest additions for our convention coverage was the addition of the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo last year. We’d have to call it a success and we’ll be back this year for sure.  In addition, we added Yukomicon to our list of conventions we do with Starlit Citadel last year and we probably will be looking at expanding our convention coverage across more countries next year.

Fortress Geek & Product Range

One thing that readers of this blog might realise is that we’ve been expanding our second business, Fortress Geek; aggressively.  It’s actually growing quite well, but for a variety of reasons (mostly backend and long-term); we’ve decided to integrate both sites.  That’s been.. a mess… but it’s mostly been taken care of, just not in-time for Christmas which was sad.  Still, we’re hoping that the introduction to the site will see a wider spread of sales for Starlit Citadel, diversifying us further.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to push Fortress Geek as a separate site.  There are a few business reasons for that, but it’s also a matter of selection. I expect we’ll be stocking some stuff in FG that just would never make it / sell well in Starlit Citadel.

Overall

2015 was a good year for many reasons. We’ve worked out some backend issues, implemented a series of procedures that have significantly expanded our ability to grow and streamlined processes while continuing to grow our business.  On the other hand, there’s been significant challenges in terms of our stock and stock management and it’s probably the biggest area that I need to work on.  Our old methods of dealing with stock just no longer work, at least at the level that we need it to with the worsening exchange rate.

Revolution Game Review

Revolution is an area control board game by Steve Jackson Games that uses a blind-bidding element to let players gain control.  It’s a fast game to learn to play and a fast game to play, which makes it a great game for more casual board gaming groups or as a filler.

Revolution!Appearance: Revolution! comes in big, bright red and black colours and a cartoony design.  There’s really not much in terms of artwork here, and the design is mostly minimalistic and does the job it’s meant to.  Card, map and chit stock are all good so there’s nothing to complain about here at all.  It’s just not outstanding either.  I do like the fact that all the game rules are printed on either the player blind or the player boards as a handy reminder.

Rules / Ease of Learning: In Revolution, each player starts their turn with 3 Gold, a Blackmail and a Force. They then must place their bids on a maximum of 6 different characters on their own player boards.

Players then simultaneously reveal their bids with bids resolved in order from the top left right and down.  In Revolution, Force trumps Blackamil and Gold while Blackmail trumps Gold.  Multiple tokens may be used on a single character, with the player with the highest bid winning the character and his influence for that turn.  In the event of a tie for the highest bid, no one wins the character that turn.

Characters in Revolution! can influence the game in a number of ways from providing additional tokens (Force, Blackmail or Gold), influence in a location, points or other more devious options like removing influence tokens from the board or swapping them around.

Once all the character’s have been resolved, players who have less than 5 tokens collect the remainder in Gold; such that each player starts with a minimum of 5 tokens (all Gold if necessary!) and a new turn begins.  The game ends whenever the game board is completely filled.

Gameplay: Revolution! plays fast as there are only a limited number of options and generally only a limited number of tokens to bid with.  As such, each turn moves quickly.  The game is also easy to teach; with the majority of the strategy one of deducing what each other player’s strategy is for that turn.

The player who manages to pick (by luck or strategy) the most number of characters to influence unopposed generally wins.  The game format isn’t particularly difficult, with the democratizing effects of trying to guess everyone’s choices each turn sometimes destroying even the smartest players.  Unless you’re a professional poker player or psychologist, reading 3 – 4 players and deducing where they are going to place each of their tokens is going to be impossible.  As such, quite often you’ll just be guessing and going with the best possible option.

Conclusion: Revolution! is very much a filler or party game.  There’s just enough strategy to make it a good warm-up but not really enough for a serious gaming group for a long session.  On the other hand, it’s good to pull out with non-gaming friends and its simple ‘rock-paper’stone’ mechanics are easy to teach to anyone.

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.

 

 

The Wheaton Effect

FYI – A new chart with updated statistics has now been added

As many of you know, Wil Wheaton has a Youtube channel dedicated to board gaming called Tabletop. It’s been phenomenally successful – his Small World video has garnered over half a million views. Our review has generated just over 2,000.

With such a spotlight on the game, it’s had a knock-on effect on sales (mostly). Here’s a little chart to show the ‘mostly’ for us.

As you can see, I added a few weeks of pre-Tabletop / Wheaton to all the sales figure to give an idea.  You can see there’s a lot of variation on a week to week basis for bestsellers like Settlers of Catan, so the 0 sales on release date means very little.  Yet, there’s no real change in demand there; unlike the other 3 games showcased.

My guess? Settlers is such a popular, mainstream game that is easy to find; it’s no wonder that we don’t see a change in sales.  Customers don’t need to come to a game shop to find it – Chapters, Amazon, B&N all have the game in-stock.  The other 3 though are harder to find; and thus we receive the ‘knock-on’ effect from the publicity.

Overall, the sales of these games have certainly increased.  The danger for game store owners is correctly guessing the amount of sales we’d garner; and making sure we don’t overstock when the demand dies.  If that happens, especially for really slow-sellers like Tsuro, we’d be caught with ‘dead’ stock once again.

I’ll update this chart in a few months once the current season of Tabletop is over to get a better idea of the Wheaton Effect on sales of board games in Canada.

 

Year in Review : 2011

What a year, 2011 was our best year so far; with solid growth through most of it.   There were significant challenges throughout the year; but I continue to be grateful to all our customers who have made this possible.

Sales & Categories

We continue to be a board game store primarily – the vat majority of our revenue and inventory is devoted to board games.  However, we’ve seen a strong increase in our sale of accessories and the introduction of RPGs has added a new category that seems to be doing really well.  We did introduce a few CCGs and miniatures; but so far; it’s not been something that has taken.  We’re likely to dump our stock of CCGs very soon; and I’m on the fence of our (limited) miniature support.

The Postal Strike

I did say sales was good through most of the year – the Postal Strike being the obvious exception.  We certainly saw quite a drop both before; during and even slightly after the Strike.   On the other hand, the Strike was the impetus for the addition of FedEx as a shipping provider and while the % of orders that ship via FedEx has been low; its addition is a nice back-up. Recent checks on the cost though has had us remove the Free Shipping option for FedEx entirely – it’s way too expensive to offer profitably.

Hiring

This was the year of hiring it seemed.  We added Kaja as a full-time employee in the last 6 months of the year or so; and then proceeded to realise that we needed another full-time employee.  We’re once again in the process of looking for a full-time employee as Pierson unfortunately had to leave for personal reasons.   What hiring new employees also meant that we had to review our processes completely – what worked for myself alone or with Kaja doesn’t work with 2 full-time employees.  We’re still in the process of changing the processes to ensure things run smoothly with 3 of us in the store now.

What it does mean that with new employees, I was able to focus on the website a lot more and start making some real changes.   Some of the changes are rather obvious (Quantity buttons in the front, Pre-Order information pages, etc); others are less so but all are things I’ve been wanting to get done for a while.

Video Reviews

Perhaps the biggest addition this year for customers has been the introduction of our video reviews.  The reviews seem to have been well received; and we’ll begin shooting mid-January.  We’re hoping with that, we should have some reviews available by end-January at least.

The Future

So, what next? It’s hard to say right now.  We’re still paying off all our bills from the Christmas-period which means any future plans are going to wait.  The goal of course it to update the site, redesign it a bit more to make it easier to navigate and of course keep the video reviews going.  Beyond that; this looks to be a year to focus on trimming our costs and working on efficiencies in-house.  There’s a lot of things that need to be done; and a lot of it could be done faster, easier and more accurately with some process changes it seems.  It just means hunkering down and figuring out how – and what new technologies we need to invest. in.

 

 

Guest Review : Pandemic

Pandemic box coverPandemic is a cooperative game for 1-4 players taking on different roles in the fight against four diseases that are ravaging the population of the world. Players must work together to prevent catastrophic outbreaks and find the cures for four regional diseases.

 

Appearance
Pandemic is played on a board with a large world-map with major cities marked and joined by routes of travel. The board is quite nice to look at, however, some of the cities can be a little difficult to identify, due to the close proximity of some locations. Player role and reference are simple and easy to understand, with abilities and actions clearly identified and understandable. Infection cards are a little plain, but the information on them is clear. The player city cards are clear and have population and population density information listed for each city, which is pretty neat (especially when you compare them). Pawns, Research Stations and Disease Cubes are made of painted wood and are easy to distinguish from each other. The main complaint is that the board gets scuffed through the course of regular play from the components.

Rules/Ease of Learning
Pandemic is very easy to learn, but is not easy to win. The rulebook is well laid out and provides clear step-by-step instructions for game setup and how a player turn works. There is also a sample turn played out step-by-step, which makes for very clear and easy understanding of the game mechanics. The real trick with Pandemic is figuring out how to best make use of your role’s abilities and the best way to spend each turn’s actions to mitigate the growing threat of outbreaks.
You need to discover all 4 cures to win. Conversely, you lose the game if you run out of any color of disease cubes, after 8 outbreaks, or there are no cards left to draw from the Player city card draw pile.
A game turn is broken down as follows:

  1. Take 4 actions
  2. Draw 2 city cards to add to hand
  3.  Take on the role of the Infector

There are two types of actions, basic and special. Basic actions govern how players can move around the board. Special actions allow players to build research stations, discover cures, treat disease, and share knowledge.

City cards are drawn into your hand and are used for fast-travelling to locations, building research stations, and most importantly, discovering cures. Cures are discovered by playing 5 city cards of the same color (disease) at a research station. Within the player deck, there are Epidemic cards that will eventually arise. When one of these cards are drawn, the number of infection cards drawn on a turn may increase and all previously drawn infection cards are shuffled and returned to the top of the draw pile. This creates a lot of tension within the game. Cities can only sustain 3 cubes of disease. If additional cubes are added, an outbreak occurs. Outbreaks result in a cube being added to each city attached to the city that caused the outbreak. This may lead to further outbreaks.

When you take on the role of the Infector, you turn over several cards and spread the infection as indicated, which may lead to a new instance of a disease, or intensify the infection of an already infected location, or possibly an outbreak!

Gameplay
Pandemic shines in the aspect of gameplay. Each turn, you manoeuvre your expert into the area that does the most good. For instance, as the Medic, you’ll want to move to the area most concentrated with disease. Or, as the Dispatcher, you want to move people to where they can do the most good.

The theme comes out quickly. You start the game at the Research Station (or, Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta, which for many, really punches home the feeling of being a top-tier specialist at combating deadly microbes.

Each turn when the player draws cards, the emergence of the Epidemic card creates incredible tension, especially if it creates several potential outbreak hubs.

Pandemic is about managing threat levels, resource allocation, and teamwork. If you don’t utilize the strengths of each role, you will not be successful.

The box indicates that it is for 2-4 players, however, one can easily play this game solo, taking on multiple roles, if so desired.

 

Conclusion
If you’re a fan of cooperative games, Pandemic belongs in your library. A great theme and simple mechanics make Pandemic easy to play with gamers of all experience levels. The On The Brink expansion adds several new role cards and a few new ways to play and support for a 5th player, it’s well worth adding to your collection.

Year in Review – 2009

Well, it’s 2010 now and let’s start by saying Thank You to all our customers.  It was the first year that one of us would work full-time at Starlit Citadel (me!) and the first full year that we brought shipping in-house.

Some of the major issues and lessons learnt:

1) Logistics

2009 was our first year downtown and shipping all the orders by myself has taught me a few things.  Firstly, that I desperately need to hire someone to work part-time on shipping (especially during Christmas) and secondly, while I can do it, I’m not the world’s best.  The small attention to detail that  is required is not one of my strengths and we had roughly a 2% error rate – mostly during Christmas when things was so crazy it was hard to double-check everything.

So our first goal of this year is to find a part-time employee to start training.

2)    Conventions & Events

We made it to three conventions this year as a vendor.  As always, both Anime Evolution and V-Con were a ton of fun and we did well at both.  The new location for Anime Evolution in the convention centre offered us a truly large, well laid out booth to showcase our games while VCon continued to be the quiet, intimate convention that we have always loved.

The Stargate Convention was an utter waste of time and effort – in fact, we will never go near another convention run by Creation.  It’s no surprise that we were the only vendor in the room if the way we were treated by the organizers was any indication of their normal practices.

Lastly, the Trumpeters Game Society convention was something that we had initially planned to join but our invitation to be a vendor was withdrawn at the last minute.  We’ll try again this year, but I doubt we’ll get in.

We also went / hosted a few events in 2009 including Gottacon, Starlit’s Anniversary Party and playing at the Gaming for Diabetes event.  They were all highly entertaining events that we’re looking forward to doing again this year.

So our calendar for this year includes being a vendor at GottaCon, VCon and Anime Evolution and hosting the Anniversary Party and sponsoring the Gaming for Diabetes convention.  If you’ve got suggestions for others, do tell us!

3)    Stock
Cashflow was much less of a problem this year, due to some changes and additional funds.  In addition, we’ve added another 700 plus SKUs to the site in the year, putting us over 1,500 SKUs and more addedeach month.  In fact, we’re looking at adding between 20 – 30 SKUs at a minimum each month, often hitting 50.

We adjusted a number of our policies this year including ordering weekly which has improved our ability to keep a wider range of stock at close to the same level of capital.  However, that caused numerous stock-outs during Christmas – in fact, we probably had too little stock even though we doubled or even tripled our stock levels for some important games.

It’s definitely something else we learnt, and intend to improve for next year.

4)    Accounting
Not much to update here, beyond the fact that we’ve got some interesting trend-lines and data now.  We’ll be doing a variety of blog posts once things have slowed down enough to properly compose them.

5)    Marketing
This year has seen a bit more of a focus on branding the website as well as trimming some of our marketing expenses.  We continue to dedicate a significant % of our budget to marketing (roughly 3%) which has included everything from banners advertisements on Board Game Geek and other game sites to Google Adwords and Sponsorships and Contests run on the site.

For the most part, our marketing exercises have been quite successful and we’ll be continuing with most of our current advertisers   While it’s quite often hard to track direct results from some of our advertising, we feel that most of it has had a beneficial effect.

Lastly, our on-site contests have seen mixed results.  The Review Contest continues to do well, with quite a few great new reviews and a ton of entries.  Unfortunately, the Small Publisher Contest was a mixed success.  While some publishers provided great support – over and above the call of duty – others, were difficult to work with.  In the end, with the amount of time dedicated to running it and the eventual results and lack of interest (from publishers and customers); we’ve decided to discontinue the contest.  We’ll still be looking at how better highlight these smaller games, but for now, we’re putting the contest on hold.

6)    Website and IT Issues
Many of you will have noticed a substantial increase in site speed as we have improved code and streamlined some of our processes on the back-end.  There are a few new updates awaiting testing and implementation, which in a few months should see another substantial upgrade in site load times.

In addition, we have a few new modules planned including our long-awaited Customer Rewards Program and changes to how the site looks including improving the availability information on the site.

7)    Customer Service
I like to think we have improved on the customer service substantially, keeping customers informed and resolving issues faster.  Overall, I am much happier with how we’ve done in 2009 compared to 2008 and hope to continue that improvement through this year.

Future Directions

2009 was our hump year.  We had to see a substantial increase in sales to make Starlit Citadel viable and for me to start drawing a salary in 2010.  We achieved the first objective and we’re just awaiting the final invoices from December to see if we can deal with the second.  I’m not concerned at all about it, but I prefer to cross my t’s in this.

Now that we’re over that hump, I expect we’ll be better able to focus on the business even more including the new hire.  At the same time, we’ve decided that we will not be opening a retail store any time soon.  Many of the reasons for launching a retail store in Vancouver no longer hold true.  There are now a ton of great game stores in Vancouver, Alison who had all the retail experience is no longer able to work with us full-time and I’m more suited for working behind a computer.

So that means renewed focus on making us the best online board games store on the web – which to us means great customer service, great selection and the best and most user-friendly website possible.   I’m quite excited at what we’ve got planned for 2010 and I’m sure you will be too.

Tao