Pursuit of Happiness Review

sg8023_lThe Pursuit of Happiness is a game about life, specifically, living your life to generate the greatest long-term happiness.  At it’s heart, this is a worker placement game with an interesting theme which it carries out well.  It’s not ground-breaking, but there’s potentially a very good conversation to be had during and after the game about goals in life and even the structure of the game.

Appearance: This is a cute game.  The artwork is cartoony without being distracting, symbols and information are easy to read and understand and tokens are differently shaped to make things simple to locate.  Perhaps the coolest thing they have are the hourglass tokens which are used as ‘workers’.  This is a decent looking game but it won’t blow the socks off anyone. I should also point out that both the jobs and partner cards are double-sided, allowing  you to pick your job / partner in a way that suits you.

Rules / Ease of Learning: The Pursuit of Happiness is a relatively easy game to learn.  You have hour glasses for your ‘workers’ and can take actions on the board to purchase items / activities, get a job, date someone, pursue a project or spend your free time being creative, studying or making social connections or just working for money.  Spending time taking up projects or taking part in activities can generate creativity / knowledge / social connection points which can then be used to complete further projects or complete your upkeep for your jobs.  There’s nothing particularly innovative about the way the game works and any experienced gamer will grasp the basic mechanics very fast.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that the game brings to play is the ‘stress’ track.  The stress track dictates the amount of time (i.e. workers) your receive each round and at the higher ends, can lead to your death.  With ‘Old Age’ rounds adding to your stress track automatically at the start of the round, players who have managed to lower their stress in previous rounds will be able to gain an additional round (or two).

Gameplay: This game can play fast if taken lightly.  However, if you  have players who are prone to analysis paralysis or who need to get the most out of each round, this can drag as this is a pure information game.  All the cards, all the options for each round are laid out so it’s easy to spend a while analysing the best route to get the most out of your turn.  This can cause the game to drag a bit.  In addition, the uneven ending times can also cause a bit of frustration for those not playing the last round(s), so this is definitely not a game for people looking to finish at the same time.

Other than that, the game plays quite well. There’s ample opportunity for ‘role-playing’ your characters and even more fun making up stories about who and what you want to be.  My last game, I was the fitness fanatic, zen-master ex-President who found love late in life after spending the first half of his life ‘finding himself’.  Another player was the true geek of the group, building up his gaming collection, taking part in and running gaming groups who in the end found his time sucked up by a high-paying job and a demanding wife.

And that’s where the game shines.  The Pursuit of Happiness lets you make decisions that make sense.  Want a job that gives good money? They often require significant amounts of time to upkeep each turn.  Want a relationship or a family? That’s going to require upkeep each turn, how much depends on how involved you are.  Each relationship and job will have different per-requisites  and often different benefits, so best pick wisely.

One criticism I will level at the game is the lack of opportunities to reduce stress.  There are very few cards that allow you to ‘jump’ between stress bands, which means that players are often deadly afraid of getting any forms of stress.  It certainly feels more forced especially since the opportunities to improve your health are entirely luck-based and almost purely project based, ensuring that a player who manages to get a couple of those projects has a distinct advantage over his opponents.

Final ThoughtsThe Pursuit of Happiness begs to be discussed in a meta context.  Does having a relationship really generate that much long-term happiness? Is it always that stressful to date multiple partners (especially if it’s ‘casual’)? Is it better to have items or take part in activities to be truly happy? Should they both contribute the same amount to your long-term happiness? Don’t / can’t a career make you just as happy as raising a family? Those are all questions that can be raised and discussed, both with your friends and family after this playing game.  Unless you have very specific objections to it, it also allows you to discuss the options that people decide to make to ‘win’.

The Pursuit of Happiness is a decent, mechanical game, but it’s the theme and conversations that rise from playing it that raises it above the generic slush of worker placement games out there.

 

 

Business Plans – Write one or not?

It’s strange. I know a lot of people (including us!) pour hours into writing a business plan.  When we first launched, I know I devoted a ton of time writing one.  In the years since then, I’ve worked with a few other businesses and launched others and in all these cases, the work being done being an Internet / Digital business, we didn’t bother with a business plan.  A lot of the time, those businesses failed, a few times, it went well.

Looking at our options and what we did, I wonder if it makes sense to write one.  I know, best practice wise that you should.  However, after a while,  you realise that you end up asking those questions yourself anyway.  Of course, it might vary a bit depending on how much money you are really talking about – most of our other businesses that we ‘launched’ we were talking $5-10,000 in expenses.  Launching a business like Starlit Citadel cost significantly more.

However, if you know the business (or just business in general), sometimes the time taken to write a formal business plan could be spent doing more important things – like research into your location or your competitors or ways to save money on the business.   To me, a business plan is a way of asking the important questions in a structured way, but if those questions are being answered, perhaps it doesn’t matter if it isn’t written in Times New Roman, 12 font, double-spaced with proper titles.  Maybe it’s just better to make sure the questions are answered and you are moving ahead.

Certainly, I’ve seen a number of businesses die in the business plan phase, not because of the lack of capital or time but because businesses moved too slow and another business came in and did it.  Sometimes, it might just be better to fly with the seat of your pants.

Just don’t spend more than you can afford to lose.

Lion Rampant Open House

We visited the Lion Rampant Open House for the first time to chat with the distributors, some retailers and the publishers.It was a fun event, if exhausting coming on the end of 2 conventions. Between multiple conventions and the time zone differences, I was wiped and didn’t spend as much time gaming as I’d like.  Still, I did get a chance to see some interesting new products, some of which I took photo’s of.

Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft
Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft

The Games:

  • Costa Rica by Mayfair Games.  A rather cut-throat push your luck game with set collection where players flip over tiles and collect various animals but must be careful not to get cut off from the island as other hexes are collected out from them.
  • Agricola (vaguely, it’s interesting to see the new design and there’s mentions of new cards)
  • Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft – a good 2 player worker placement / set collection game that seemed to play fast and make sense, with interesting resource management aspect. Very well put together.
  • Android: Mainframe – obviously one of the most popular games out, this is a multi-player abstract that seems to work very well. Players build out ‘walls’ through the system, attempting to cordon off their own nodes from others while messing with other players.  Quite fun and vindictive, the game is simple to teach too with pretty intuitive iconography.
  • Mystic Vale definitely  needs a closer look. I never had a chance to play a whole game but I like the simple deck-building / card drafting mechanic and the clear cards that combine together.  I think it’s a nice change from the other games we’ve seen, and I think it might be a good game. I just don’t know yet.
  • Boomtown Bandits is a fun dice rolling fighting game with a Western theme.  Fans of Cash’n Guns would probably like this – it’s a light-filler with tons of randomness but some fun shouting and lots of dice rolling.

Networking:

  • As always, networking at these events is interesting. We managed to meet a number of our online competitors and also physical b&m stores and trade war stories about the industry which is fun.  It’s a nice break to chat with people who understand what we are seeing on the backend.  It’s also interesting to note how many old timers there are at this business (there are people who have been around for 27+ years!) and get their perspective as well as the newcomers.  There was a gentlemen who had purchased 3 stores in a year and was now trying to figure out what to do which seemed incredible to me.
  • FFG doesn’t seem to have any major plans (yet) to change what is going on in Canada.  They have to deal with existing agreements which need to either run out or be re-negotiated and of course, Canadian law is somewhat different from US law.  As such, from speaking with them, they aren’t going to be majorly changing what and how they are handling Canada in the near future.
  • Board games are becoming a major part of many game stores businesses which means even more competition for us, but also means that the market is growing.
  • Game store owners are seriously beginning to span a wide range of people from youngsters to old timers. There’s certainly a subtle changing of the guard, especially from the other Open House we went to a few years ago (WA not Canada though)

 

Takeaways:

3D Chess!
3D Chess!

 

  • I really, really want one of these (see right).
  • There’s a lot that we are not able to do as an online store that I’d love to do.  It’s certainly made me think that we need more and more to look seriously at a B&M retail location as well. Of course, we’d need the money for that which is a whole different ball of yarn.  Anyone have a $100k to loan?
  • I really enjoy board gaming and I really should get back into gaming more.
  • Clearance items! We picked up a bunch at the warehouse (just a few copies each) and once they actually arrive here in Vancouver, we’ll throw them up on the site and pass on the savings to you. Have fun!

 

The Ending of the Reviews

It’s an interesting thing to have a massive project (okay, massive for a tiny little business like ours) like the video reviews end. After over 110+ board game reviews and over 145 videos in total, we’re finally calling it a day. Assuming each video review took about 20 hours of work (what we calculated was the average) of production time, that’s around 2,300 hours or nearly 96 days (383 working days at 8 hours each!). That’s more than a year’s worth of work that has been put into the reviews by the Starlit Citadel team and it doesn’t even count the time need to play the games or the time cost of replying to subscribers and handling the various requests for reviews. Put another way, there’s at least half again as much work that went into those reviews than that estimate.

On that note, I wanted to publicly thank Joanna & Kaja once more.  As many of you know, Joanna directed and edited the videos in the last couple of seasons while Kaja was the one who scripted all the videos.  The lion share of the hours you see above are shared by them both and it was their consistent professionalism and dedication that kept the videos at such a high quality level.

What I wanted to highlight as well would be the support staff who were part of the video reviews. Rob Hunt was our initial videographer and editor in the first 2 seasons.  Carla Miller was both assistant videographer during this period and when Rob left, the main videographer. Ashley Young came into play in Season 2 when she started doing the ladies makeup.

While somewhat sad to see the reviews end, I understand the need to move-on. It’s always been a huge time commitment for the ladies and while I briefly (very, very briefly) considered seeing if we could continue the reviews, the fact of the matter stands that the current format & success of the reviews have everything to do with both Kaja & Joanna’s dedication.

Heat and the human element

Down in Vancouver, we’ve been having a bit of a heat wave. 28-30C temperatures every day can get pretty warm and even our warehouse which is mostly made of concrete and set below ground-level (slightly, it’s on a slope) stays warm through the day. Without air-conditioning, it’s not much fun.

Why am I talking about heat? Just that I notice people moving slower, getting less done just because it’s not as easy to do so. It also makes us more irritable, less prone to thinking kind of thoughts of customer sand suppliers like who do something minor.

We’re all human, but sometimes, it’s easy to forget that. Small irritations, after a while, get blown out of proportion. A customer who loses his temper at us and sends a bitter e-mail doesn’t have to apologise, we’ll still take their money the next time they are in. We can’t afford to do so, working on the other end; having to keep each e-mail / reply / interaction pleasant. It gets hard, and so things slow down, as we take a moment to step back and just consider the best options.

The Social Media Puzzle

Over the last few months, we’ve been trying to work on our various social media profiles. Part of that includes reading what works best in each area and, further, what kind of content works on each area and trying to move beyond the basic posts that we have set-up. However, the fact is that outside of this blog, we really haven’t had much luck with developing a strong social media presence.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m an introvert by nature, and as the main marketer, it makes building a social media presence really difficult. After all, technically, you’re supposed to interact with people online, talk to them and generally develop a brand image that is authentic.

At the same time, the other issue is the variety of social media platforms out there that it can be hard to decide what to focus on. Twitter is great for chatting with people and quick discussions, but it is known to convert horribly. Facebook is a decent angle, but the problem is generating good content for Facebook eludes me. We tried doing a giveaway and while it generated a lot of interest, but iffy on the returns and Pinterest doesn’t seem to host a large number of our customers. I might be wrong of course, but we certainly haven’t seen much interest in Pinterest for our products.

On the other hand, tapping and dealing with social media is likely to be our major source of return; so it’s something we need to figure out. Now, if only we could…

Making different choices

Our financial year end for our 8th year came to an end March 31, 2015. We’re still finishing up the books, but as always this time of year makes me wonder about the business and the choices we’ve made. Over the years, we’ve tried a lot of things – some that didn’t work, some that did and have left even more roads unwalked. Reflecting on the past is often just a waste of time, as the ‘what if’ game is useless but sometimes it can be useful to consider for what you intend to do in the future.

For us, the biggest decision point recently was deciding not to become a full B&M store, instead moving to a new warehouse to facilitate growing a second business (Fortress Geek). I’m still uncertain if that was a good idea, though the 2nd business has finally gotten some decent traction and sales. It’s been a bit of a learning curve there, and we’ve still got a lot more to learn and grow but we’re developing the business and our customers there.

For Starlit though, not being a B&M store has cut us off huge areas of the ‘gaming’ industry. We can supply RPGers without a problem, but CCGs and Miniatures are large sources of revenue, but neither of those are properly supported by an online store. We can supply the product, but both niches require tablespace and opponents to play with. Neither of which unfortunately an online store can provide as much.

Add the fact that Magic is the juggernaut in the gaming trade and we’re basically trying to build a business with 2 out of 3 legs cut off. Sorry RPGs – you just no longer provide enough revenue that you are considered an essential part of a gaming business. Don’t get us wrong, it’s certainly possible but more difficult and it means the ‘pie’ is smaller than it could be.

Another road we’ve not taken is that of investors. So far, we’ve been financed entirely from profits and my personal funds. Investors would allow us to grow faster, take more risks, push marketing harder – but they also come with their own burden of regulations and requirements. It’s something we’ve considered occasionally, but giving up ownership of the company is something I have refused to do. So far, anyway.

We’ve got a couple of years on our current lease (before our extension option kicks in) and it’s interesting to consider what we need / might / should do in the future. I know for certain that we’ll be fine till then in this space, potentially longer – but perhaps we do want to move and make another big change in 2017. It’s nice to plan and think about, and sometimes the roads not taken previously is the way to go. Or perhaps those roads weren’t taken for a reason.

Gottacon, conventions and recovery

Finally all caught up after Gottacon with all the work that was backlogged as we went to the convention and came back finally caught up. Well, most of it – we still have to log a bunch of a dice we brought in just for the convention. And of course, just as we are getting back on track, we’re back onto the grind to another convention – Terminal City Tabletop this weekend in Burnaby.

The truth is, most conventions don’t generate a lot of profit. When you add in all the travel time, the staffing hours, the packing time before the event and the unpacking after, you need to generate a ton of revenue just to break even.  That’s not even counting the emotional and physical wear & tear these conventions have – I know I was feeling Gottacon for days afterwards.

Gottacon was interesting for us as it has probably the largest number of direct competitors in-play at any one convention. It’s a microcosm of the industry and it tells us a lot about how things are going – and what we are failing at.

For one thing, in general, we have a wider range of stock than most stores. We certainly carry more esoteric games and from a wider series of sources than most game stores. We concentrate on the long tail a lot more than your ‘average’ game store – many focus on the bestsellers.

Another thing that came to light (and always does) is that no matter how many games you have, there’s always going to be something that someone wants that you don’t carry. We brought 50% more games this year than any other year, but we still forgot / weren’t able to bring quite a few.

On the other hand, we are also missing / not able to tap into one of the major sources of revenue / profit in gaming – Magic. As an online store, without a physical location to do casual gameplay / etc., unless we wanted to ‘churn’ boxes, it’s really hard to generate any real revenue. It certainly is the cash cow of cash cow’s in the gaming industry right now.

Overall, conventions continue to be fun to do, if draining.  This year I won’t be at TCTC myself, but the staff should be able to handle it.  We won’t know till we try it.

Bestsellers

So, just a quick update for those curious. Bestselling products for the XMas Season so far include:

Sushi Go!
Sheriff of Nottingham
Machi Koro
Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
Hanabi
Tempest: Love Letter
King of Tokyo
Coup
King of New York
Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Forbidden Island
One Night: Ultimate Werewolf
Splendor
Star Wars X-Wing: Core Set
Pandemic (2013 Edition)
The Resistance 2nd Edition
Jamaica
Forbidden Desert
Settlers of Catan 4th Edition
Star Wars X-Wing: VT-49 Decimator Ship Expansion

To note, I deleted the Dice Masters Foil Packs and other individual booster packs for Magic as well as sleeves, otherwise the entire list would be dominated by these products.

It’s interesing that the difference between Sushi Go! at the top and the Star Wars X-Wing: VT-49 Decimator Ship Expansion at the bottom is nearly 4 times. Of course, Sushi Go is comparatively cheaper, but there’s a steep curve going on here.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with timing as well.  If you check the automated Bestsellers list which pulls from the last 30 days, it’s got Takenoko and the VT-49 Decimator much higher, mostly due to when the products came back into stock.  Other items, like the One Night game might have sold more if we had more copies, but just couldn’t get enough stock in (ditto with Sheriff of Nottingham now since we are now out of stock).

Searching for Value

Been thinking about the values of the business a lot recently.  Part of it came about from Gary Ray’s post, part of it from reading the huge blow-up happening (and caused) by Game Salute and part of it just watching the industry change.  It’s interesting in the sense that I do not, for a number of reasons, ever actually think about ‘my’ values – I don’t prod and ask myself ‘what do I stand for’, etc.  Lots of reasons for that, but it does translate to the fact that the business has never had a written set of ‘core values’.

For the most part, I don’t think it’s been a major hindrance.  In fact, there’s certain arguments for not having defined ‘values’.  For one thing, so much of it is lip-service.  Having worked for larger corporations, I gained a very cynical viewpoint about the worth of the ‘core values’ espoused by most corporations.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s worth taking the time to write it all down and living the values you expouse – Proctor & Gamble is a great example.

So Who Are We?

Truthfully, I still don’t have an answer.  We’ve done well enough as it is, so I’m not going to push the point.  I do know a few things that we strive for as a company:

  • Be fair – that’s for both customers and suppliers.  We treat people the way we’d expect to be treated – fairly. No subservience, no ‘customer is always right’, just fairness.  Maybe a bit more towards the customers side than ours, but that’s because we are in business.
  • Play the long game – I’ve always thought in the long-term, willing to look in terms of years rather than months or years.  It’s particularly useful when considering the future of the company and it’s something we can do as we don’t have to worry about the next quarter earnings reports.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten really.  Perhaps one more – Wil Wheaton’s command of ‘Don’t be a d*ck’ comes to mind.