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Links: The "Z" in WizKids Now Stands for Zev, and Hasbro and Mattel Talk Merger

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• On Feb. 3, 2016, WizKids Games announced that Zev Shlasinger will "head up its expanded Board Game operations".

Shlasinger, for those who don't know, founded Z-Man Games in 1999, and as noted in the WizKids press release he had an "eclectic publishing philosophy" that led to Z-Man releasing a wide variety of material over the years, from widely-regarded titles like Pandemic and Tales of the Arabian Nights to more obscure releases such as Castle Merchants, Gheos, and (one of my favorite light card games of all time) Escalation. He was willing to take chances by throwing lots of titles at store shelves all at once to see what stuck, and while that led to many titles disappearing under the waters with little fanfare, he also gets credit for introducing the classic Japanese games Fairy Tale and R-Eco to the U.S. market.

Shlasinger sold Z-Man Games to Sophie Gravel, owner of Filosofia Editions, in 2011, but he continued to work for Z-Man — which over time became a brand within the larger F2Z Entertainment — as someone who would acquire and develop new titles. Shlasinger left F2Z in early 2016.

At Spielwarenmesse 2016, I spoke with Gravel about Shlasinger and F2Z Entertainment parting ways. In general, as the years progressed his desire to publish all types of games all at once all the time contrasted with her more reserved approach to long-term development of individual games and game lines. Shlasinger wanted to do more along the lines of what he had done in the past, so in the end they decided to part ways. To quote from the press release:

Quote:
"I plan to continue to bring original and unique ideas to market with the help of the WizKids team," said Shlasinger. "They are very serious about building a board game business and are not afraid of good, fun, original ideas. In addition, WizKids has an amazing portfolio of licensed properties to enhance their board game presence in the industry. I think our combined qualities make a formidable team."

BloombergBusiness reports that Hasbro and Mattel "have held talks about merging". In more detail: "Hasbro approached Mattel about a potential transaction late last year [2015], and the companies have held on-and-off-again talks about a deal, the people said, asking not to be identified as the situation isn’t public."

Okay, that's still not much detail. Any deal might be subject to antitrust review given that "If combined, the companies would have probably about one-quarter of the market in the U.S." There's no truth to the rumor that I just started that the combined company would be called HazMat.

• Following the (possible) ruling of chess being forbidden by Islam, we have a report of 32 "foreigners" being busted for playing bridge in Bangkok. As noted by the Bangkok Post:

Quote:
Finding score books, but no money, police initially speculated that the foreigners were gambling, but transferring cash later between bank accounts. Bridge club officials tried in vain to explain bridge is played only for points...

While they found no financial evidence of gambling, police charged the group with possessing more than 120 playing cards that were not produced by the Excise Department, in violation of Section 8 of the Playing Cards Act of 1943.
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Sat Feb 6, 2016 8:38 pm
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Links: Selling Yourself to Gamers and Publishers, and Knowing When to Kill a Game Design

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• On his Hyperbole! blog, designer Grant Rodiek suggests how game designers can sell themselves — and by extension their games — at conventions:

Quote:
When I play my games with people at a convention, I do my best to break down walls as quickly as possible. I immediately start playfully talking shit (pardon my crudeness), I poke fun at people, I crack jokes, and I highlight the cool things happening in the game.

Many publishers say you should let the demoers win, and there's value to this, but I've often found value in executing high level strategies or subtle combos, then explaining it so that people could see how cool the game CAN be beyond that learner's game.

• Designer/publisher Jason Kotarski of Green Couch Games tackles the same topic from the reverse angle, that of designers trying to sell a game — and by extension themselves — to a publisher:

Quote:
As an independent publisher in the tabletop gaming space, I'd much rather work with calm, collected people that I feel like I can be friends with than needy, draining, smelly geniuses. I want to spend time making something I love with people I actually like being around.

Andrei Novac of NSKN Games lists reasons why he killed "one of my beloved projects", W: The Board Game, which includes this gem: "Asking our play-testers if they'd buy the game, less than half said yes while 90% said they'd love to play it." Seems like a decent question to ask all playtesters, although what would move the needle from "play" to "buy" will likely differ from person to person.

• Following Gen Con 2015, Eric Teo from Push Your Luck Podcast had a nice write-up of "Five New Board Games You Should Play" on Kotaku, and I'm only linking to that article just now.

• More recently, Teo has presented Pandemic Legacy to the Kotaku audience: "Pandemic Legacy is all about the decisions that you have made during the game. Etching the results of these decisions into the game reminds you of what you have done. It will feel like you are crafting a game experience that is uniquely yours."

• At Spiel 2015, German podcasters/reviewers Hunter & Cron invited me to appear on their round-up of designers, publishers and ne'er-do-wells, and thankfully they did not require me to speak in German or else I would have been restricted to saying things like "Ich bin eine Ente" or "Die Wasser braucht eine Tasse". What did I say instead? Hopefully things more intelligible than that...

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Sat Jan 30, 2016 1:00 pm
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Links: Asmodee and Z-Man Redistribute Distributors, Nature Explores Evolution & Computers Learn Go

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• Continuing its acquisitive habits, the Asmodee Group announced on January 27, 2016 that it has purchased Bergsala Enigma, a board game and collectible card game distributor in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. A press release from Asmodee notes that "The company will operate from now on under its original name, Enigma Distribution." An excerpt from the press release:

Quote:
The synergy between Asmodee's catalogue and Enigma Distribution's operations in the Nordics and in the Netherlands is a great opportunity to bring new games, from the Asmodee Group studios and from all Asmodee partners to these markets.

Thanks to this operation, Asmodee will have a direct access to two of the most important game markets in Europe of a combined size of €240M.

• In other distribution news, F2Z Entertainment has stated that as of March 15, 2016, Z-Man Games will no longer be distributed in the U.S. exclusively by Alliance Game Distributors, but will instead also be available from ACD Distribution,GTS Distribution, Peachstate Hobby Distribution, and Southern Hobby Supply. F2Z brands Pretzel Games and Plaid Hat Games were already available from multiple distributors in the U.S., and this will continue to be the case.

• In the Dec. 10, 2015 issue of the science journal Nature, Stuart West discusses three games based on evolution: Evolution from North Star Games, Evolution: Random Mutations from Rightgames, and Terra Evolution: Tree of Life from Mindwarrior Games. An excerpt on Evolution:

Quote:
The gameplay is simple to grasp, but can get very tactical. In particular, as with real evolution, the best strategy depends on what everyone else is doing. If there are a lot of herbivores, there is an advantage to being an efficient forager, with traits such as cooperation, but lots of herbivores also means a big advantage to becoming a carnivore. When carnivores appear, herbivores need defences, which carnivores try to get around — and so on, in a co-evolutionary dance.

• Remember all those articles stating that computers have beaten Chess but haven't come close to being on par with masters of Go? Well, that's no longer the case thanks to Google DeepMind and its computer program AlphaGo, which bested European Go champion Fan Hui in five straight games. As Will Knight explains on MIT Technology Review:

Quote:
The researchers built AlphaGo using an extremely popular and successful machine-learning method known as deep learning combined with another simulation technique for modeling potential moves. Deep learning involves training a large simulated neural network to respond to patterns in data. It has proven very useful for image and audio processing, and many large tech companies are exploring new ways to apply the technique.

Two deep-learning networks were used in AlphaGo: one network learned to predict the next move, and the other learned to predict the outcome from different arrangements on the board. The two networks were combined using a more conventional AI algorithm to look ahead in the game for possible moves.

• Speaking of chess, in Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh "has ruled that chess is forbidden in Islam, saying it encourages gambling and is a waste of time", according to The Guardian. That said, the article notes that chess probably isn't really forbidden:

Quote:
It is unlikely that Sheikh's ruling will be enforced, and more plausible that chess will be relegated to the status of other minor vices, such as music, which many in the clerical establishment frown upon. Moreover, since the ruling was in response to a specific question, it was probably meant as an advisory opinion rather than a formal edict.

Okay, well, nevermind then...
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Wed Jan 27, 2016 9:46 pm
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Links: Car Wars Revs Up, Toronto Cafés Serve Even More Games & Cards Against Humanity Gives People Time Off Work

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• For the last three years, the people behind Cards Against Humanity have run one or more holiday promotions in which they sell...something (or sometimes nothing), then use the money to do all sorts of unexpected things. For 2015, they used part of the money raised from sales of Eight Sensible Gifts for Hannukah to give the employees at its printer a week's paid vacation:

Quote:
Our printer in China has grown with us from a small business to a huge operation, and it's important to us to go above and beyond our obligation to the workers who make our game. While our factory provides excellent wages and working conditions, Chinese working conditions are generally more strict. This year, we used the money from one day of our holiday promotion to give our workers something very uncommon in China: a paid vacation.

The printer didn't have any formal procedures for paid vacations, so we bought 100% of the factory's capacity and paid them to produce nothing for a week, giving the people who make Cards Against Humanity an unexpected chance to visit family or do whatever they pleased.

CAH posted pics and notes from the employees that show what some of them did with their time off.

(While not holiday related, CAH's Max Temkin has also sent a small gift to the militia group occupying the wildlife refuge in Oregon: a 55-gallon drum of lubricant.)

• Seven employees of television station WTOL in Toledo, Ohio also find themselves with time on their hands courtesy of Cards Against Humanity, but that's because they were fired for playing CAH "while at the station on New Year's weekend". As for why they were fired:

Quote:
Station officials declined to comment on the firings other than to release this statement from station vice-president and general manager Brian Lorenzen:

"WTOL takes seriously its employment policies and our obligation to provide an environment in which all employees are treated with respect and dignity. As a result, WTOL had to take personnel actions this week related to several employees. Due to personnel matters being involved, we cannot comment further."

Steve Jackson Games has published its 2015 stakeholders report, and it's always an interesting read, given the inside look at one of the largest hobby game publishers in the U.S., and this time it also provides hints of future releases, namely the intention to ship Car Wars Sixth Edition "to distributors before Black Friday" (a.k.a. the Friday following Thanksgiving in the U.S.), "which means the game must go to print before July 2", which means that if all goes according to plan the Car Wars Kickstarter project won't be too far in the future. (SJG's Phil Reed has been posting sneak peeks at the new Car Wars in his BGG blog.)

• Designer Evan Derrick has joined Van Ryder Games in the role of Vice President and Creative Director. Derrick has already overseen the graphic design of two 2016 releases from Van Ryder — Salvation Road and Saloon Tycoon — and his next design will be announced by Van Ryder later in 2016.

• Dice & Mystics — a board game group in Bochum, Germany (next to Essen) that has a BGG guild — plans to open its gaming room in Bochum on Saturday, October 15, 2016 for those who want dedicated space to play since Spiel is more of a looking convention than a playing convention. Says Alexander Urbanek, "We can provide 18 tables with 8 seats per table. There are delivery services and takeaways and a kiosk nearby." Space is free, but appointments should be made given the limited space available. Details are in the "more information" section of the BGG guild. Start planning for Spiel 2016 now!

• Dagmar and Ferdinand de Cassan, editors of WIN The Games Journal, have released issue 485 — its October 2015 issue covering all the games of Spiel 2015 — and this 164-page beast contains "1338 new games by 929 designers from 448 publishers, illustrated with 1308 pictures"! This PDF from the Austrian Games Museum is free for all. (Ferdinand de Cassan has been ill, so the editors have been playing catch up with WIN for some time. I have no such excuse.)

• If you attended BGG.CON 2015, note that Hyatt has now disclosed that approximately 250 of its properties were infected with malware, and "[t]he investigation identified signs of unauthorized access to payment card data from cards used onsite at certain Hyatt-managed locations, primarily at restaurants, between August 13, 2015 and December 8, 2015". The Hyatt Regency at the DFW International Airport, where BGG.CON takes place, is one of the hotels affected by the malware. Check your credit card statements!

The Toronto Star highlights the city's role as "king of board-game café culture in North America". An excerpt:

Quote:
Soon after it opened in 2010, Snakes & Lattes began hosting monthly gatherings — often into the a.m. — for designers to sound-board ideas and test-play their fledgling games. It became a hive of ingenuity for hobbyists.

Designers such as Stephen Sauer and Daryl Andrews workshop their products in bull sessions that have helped yield two games now on the market, The Walled City and Caffeine Rush. The duo expects the release of half a dozen more in the next couple of years.

"You're seeing a lot more Canadian-designed games on shelves," says Sauer, who lives around the corner with his partner and two children.

More than anything, it's Toronto's cafés — none more than six years old — that incubate fresh ideas, sow innovation and feed the creativity mill for board-game designers, says designer Sen Foong-Lim.

"There's this critical mass of hardcore gamers, casual players and designers there, and now they have all these dynamic venues," says Foong-Lim, who is based in London, Ont., but is a frequent TO gamer.
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Sat Jan 16, 2016 4:00 pm
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Asmodee Acquires English-Language Rights to Catan; Mayfair Games to Continue on Its Own

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Since Asmodee's acquisitions of Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight Games in 2014 (covered here and here), many people have joked about what Asmodee will acquire next.

Today we have that answer: Catan — more specifically, "worldwide English-language publishing, commercial and brand rights to Catan", with Asmodee acquiring those rights from U.S. publisher Mayfair Games. (Steve Horvath, CMO at Asmodee North America (ANA), has stated to me that this deal does not affect the license for Catan in any other language or with any other publisher.) Mayfair Games will continue to distribute Catan during an as-yet-publicly-undefined transitional period, after which Asmodee North America (ANA) will take over distribution of Catan within the U.S. while its partners will handle distribution outside of that country.

The English-language rights to Catan will be handled by the newly created Catan Studio, which Asmodee North America describes as an "independent, flexible and creative unit within the Asmodee Group [that] is dedicated to the development of a broad array of Catan content as well as growing, supporting, and nurturing the Catan community". To quote from the press release: "Led by Peter C. Fenlon, former CEO of Mayfair Games, this experienced and talented studio team will work closely with Catan GmbH and their partners to grow a vibrant global brand." (Catan GmbH, based in Germany, "specializes in the development and licensing of entertainment concepts", with Catan designer Klaus Teuber and his sons Guido and Benjamin Teuber all serving as Managing Directors.)

Why does the Asmodee Group want to acquire the rights to Catan? For anyone familiar with modern games, the answer should be obvious, but let's quote from the press release to put some numbers into the conversation:

Quote:
The award-winning Catan board game, invented in 1995 by Klaus Teuber, has sold more than 23 million copies (including expansions) and is translated into 35 languages. For 20 years, this game has been bringing modernity to the classic gameplays through developing innovative game experiences and social interactions. This long-lasting success enables Catan to be recognized as an internationally established brand, with English-language today representing over 50% of the worldwide yearly sales.

In line with the recent acquisitions of Dobble/Spot-It! and the board game publishers Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight Games, this acquisition is a principal part of Asmodee's strategy of expanding its intellectual property portfolio and international presence to continuously offer the most innovative and leading games to the international gaming community and broaden access to games to the largest possible audience. Over the last two years, the Asmodee Group has accelerated its international growth, now representing 67% of the group sales (of which more than 30% in the US), versus 48% in 2013.

Mayfair's first edition
To get a better understanding of how this deal came about, I asked Peter Fenlon, now CEO of Catan Studio, about Catan's standing within Mayfair Games, specifically whether a Catan team operated independently within Mayfair or whether it was integrated with all other aspects of the company. "Catan was the best-selling brand in the Mayfair portfolio, but it didn't become especially distinct until 2007", he wrote. "It was then that I took over as CEO; we reorganized, Larry Roznai [currently Mayfair's President and COO], Bob Carty [Vice President of Sales and Marketing], and Coleman Charlton [game developer and editor] became empowered, and we refocused. Soon, we released the fourth English-language edition and began devoting dedicated resources and programs to Catan brand development. The brand gradually took off, and we remained focused on its success. Our Virginia-based game development team, our Florida-based sales and marketing staff, and our Illinois-based operations crew all came to understand Catan's special standing and value. Everyone helped build the brand as they labored to strengthen Mayfair. Nonetheless, Catan was never fully independent."

As for how Catan came to be part of the Asmodee Group and who approached whom, Fenlon wrote: "Many larger firms sought Catan, especially in recent years. All made multiple inquiries. Many friends sought us out. Still, we felt the brand needed careful and steady development, for we always felt Catan could become an enduring global brand. We believed that it would ultimately become the world's preeminent analog game brand. Once we focused on Catan, that became even more evident. It also became clear that a traditional toy company or brand development house, despite great resources, might not understand Catan's special value. They might not act with the patience and care necessary to build and nurture Catan's great community. Nor would they understand the need to treat it as a 'premium brand', not just a mass market fad."

He continued: "Stéphane Carville, Asmodee's CEO, understood these challenges. He approached us in 2014, learned what we wanted, and came back to us last spring [2015] with a very creative and serious offer. His mission to build the world's strongest 'game company' — as opposed to toy company — excited us. With an opening from our mutual friend, Luc Mertens, Stéphane flew to Charlottesville, Virginia on short notice in late spring 2015. There, he sold Coleman Charlton (Mayfair's Product Director) and I on his vision. His vision complemented and underpinned ours. Soon, our other partners at Mayfair (Larry, Bob et al) and Catan GmbH bought into the proposal."

Many Mayfair employees will transition into new positions at Catan Studio: Charlton will become Catan Studio's Managing Editor, Mayfair Art Director Morgan Dontanville will be Catan Studio's Chief Creative Officer, former Catan brand manager Ron Magin is now Chief Operating Officer for the Catan Studio, and Bob Carty will serve as special marketing and merchandise counsel.

In a separate press release, Mayfair Games (MGI) noted that Larry Roznai will remain as President while also assuming the CEO position held by Fenlon, while Alex Yeager will become Vice President of Acquisition and Development to handle the former responsibilities of Charlton. In addition to distributing Catan during its transition to ANA, Mayfair Games will continue to promote "the Catan brand including but not limited to the continued coordination of the 2016 Catan tournament schedule, Catan Day 2016 and the 2016 Catan World Championship". To add more details from the Mayfair press release:

Quote:
MGI continues to retain a controlling interest in Lookout GmbH and Mayfair GmbH, providing a wide range of games worldwide, and distribution to the European marketplace. These efforts will be expanded with a new focus on multi-language and international products.

MGI is also pleased to announce the acquisition of several Martin Wallace games as permanent additions to the Mayfair game library. Those titles include Steam, Aeroplanes, Automobile, Test of Fire and Clash of Wills.

More from Fenlon about why Catan is leaving Mayfair Games: "Asmodee could never have sold us on the idea of joining Catan to their portfolio if we didn't believe that: (1) they were a content-driven company determined to create and support truly great games; (2) they understood and supported the diverse and growing game community; (3) they understood that event- and story-based marketing need not be cynical, and in fact should offer its own substantive entertainment value; (4) they embraced all levels of the game community and game trade as game consumers; (5) they understood that service-oriented brick-and-mortar retailers had a special value as forums, community centers, etc.; and (6) that each game, each line, each brand offered unique value. This balanced perspective, this diverse perspective, this commitment to great content is a very healthy philosophy. It will help us build and support a healthier and happier game community — and thus market."

As for what will change with Catan as a result of this deal, Fenlon stressed that people will continue to see all that they've seen in the past, but in all likelihood more people will be seeing it: "The Asmodee Group provides Catan with a host of additional resources. In addition to the capital necessary to carefully and deliberately grow the Catan content portfolio and reach new markets in a steady, deliberate, and fair fashion, Asmodee offers Catan access to a strong, diverse, and global operations program and a very talented international team. While we will operate as an independent studio, we'll be able to tap into a lot of new perspectives, thoughtful experiences, and diverse perspectives. Most importantly, we'll be part of a group that understands that we need to think globally and act locally." (As mentioned above, Asmodee North America will take over distribution of Catan at some point. Mayfair Games currently has an exclusive distribution deal with Alliance Game Distributors. I asked whether distribution will expand to ANA's five authorized U.S. distributors, as detailed in this BGG News post, and Horvath said that no distribution details are being made public during the transition period.)

As for the look of the game itself, Mayfair Games has historically done its own thing regarding the Catan games, whereas many of the other licensees have adopted the look and design of the KOSMOS edition, but with the local language replacing the German text. Will this practice continue with the formation of Catan Studio? Wrote Fenlon: "First, please understand that, especially in recent years, Catan GmbH, Mayfair, and Kosmos have worked as a team to develop the Catan brand and its products. Mayfair and Kosmos varied components and presentation to suit their markets. As we developed the latest 'global' edition of Catan — the fifth English-language edition — we worked to improve and synergize the brand. This team approach will continue and no doubt improve as we move forward. All partners within the Catan family should participate more, not less. Like the whole Catan team, Catan Studios' approach to product creation, manufacturing, etc. will remain rooted in the idea that we won't make any change unless it is a substantive improvement. We will also remain committed to the fact that Catan is a values-based brand. Those values — curiosity, cooperation through trade, indirect competition, creative building, and fun — are anything but destructive. We'll never manufacture in a way that harms our environment or the people that labor within it." (Mayfair Games currently manufactures its titles within the U.S.)

Fenlon added: "Catan Studio carries Mayfair's entire mandate, especially content, into the Asmodee Group. In fact, our mandate grows. We'll be working with Catan GmbH, our fellow Catan licensees like Kosmos and USM, to carefully create a host of great new game, merchandise, and story programs. We'll continue to support the Catan World Championship, other tournaments, the Big Game, and other event-based programs that are as much fun products as they are entertaining marketing. There will be new games, scenarios, variants, and special editions, but we'll continue to take great care to avoid diluting the Catan experience. Every Catan game, every product, every event should be substantively fun and worthy."
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Thu Jan 7, 2016 12:01 pm
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Links: BGG's New Look, Ex-CIA Agents Play Homeland, and Cards Against Humanity Against Picasso

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• Nicole at The Daily Worker Placement interviewed BGG's Scott Alden in mid-December 2015 about the site's redesign, including lots of images of the new look in the article and mentioning that an open beta test will likely be ready in January 2016.

• And now for a second BGG-related post: BGG has used Livestream in the past (but will not in the future) for its livestream game demonstrations from Gen Con and Spiel, and since Livestream has reported being hacked, I'd suggest that you take whatever action is needed should you be one of those who uses the same password on multiple sites.

• Three former CIA employees play Gale Force Nine's Homeland: The Game and report on the experience on Slate: "We may have nearly two decades of intelligence experience among us — including time spent working on counterterrorism issues both in the field and back at Langley — but we spent more than an hour trying to make heads or tails of the game's rules and components. There are six different types of playing cards to master, two different figurines, four different tokens that added up to...something. The cards use terminology we used in our former careers — assets, threat analysis, official reprimands — but they meant different things here than in real life."

The Onion's A.V. Club polled readers about 2015's best and worst movie, book, television show, etc., and the only board game to place on the list of games was Pandemic Legacy.

• This link might be a tad late for you now, but The New York Times highlighted eight gifts for family game night, including Dominion, Ascension, Qwirkle (spelled wrong, as it often is), Sushi Go!, and Mary Flanagan's Monarch, with Flanagan being the expert whose game suggestions are used in the article.

• As a publicity stunt, the creators of Cards Against Humanity are polling the 150,000 supporters of its Eight Sensible Gifts for Hanukkah to see whether it should cut up a Picasso print into 150,000 pieces (thereby allowing each supporters to own a piece of a Picasso) or whether it should donate the print to the Art Institute of Chicago. Gabriel Roth responds on Slate by yawning and giving a "Is that all you got?" in response:

Quote:
The idea, I guess, is that some people will be scandalized by the idea of "an original 1962 Picasso" being destroyed ("This is an outrage! Donate it to the Art Institute," reads one of the ballot options), just as some people are scandalized by the idea of randomly combining phrases like "date rape" and "a midget shitting into a bucket" in a party game, while other people — people who find themselves unable to provoke a more complicated reaction in their fellow humans than shock and offense but who still need to be reassured that they exist, that they're not disembodied wraiths passing unnoticed across the surface of the world — will view that potential outrage as an opportunity for a self-soothing act of assertive hostility.

But unlike a racist card game, this chop-up-a-Picasso stunt isn't worth getting upset about. Tête de Faune is "an original 1962 Picasso" print — one of a run of 50 signed lino-cuts. The Art Institute of Chicago would stick it in the basement and barely send you a thank-you note.

If you want to annoy people by destroying a work of art, don't pick one of a set of 50 prints from the waning years of the most prolific artist of all time. Cut up the Demoiselles d'Avignon or something! Go big or go home!

Whether a publicity stunt can be judged successful is determined by how much publicity it receives, and I realize that I'm contributing to that tally. In its own article on the stunt, The Chicago Tribune notes that in 1994 the pop band The KLF burned nearly one million pounds in cash, royalties for its work, as part of an art project. (Wikipedia has details on the project and resulting film, Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid.)
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Asmodee Clarifies Its Changes for 2016: Online Sales Will Continue, No Price Floors Will Be Imposed

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The North American branch of Asmodee announced major changes to its business model that will take place on January 1 and April 1, 2016 — a change of name to Asmodee North America, a reduction in the number of U.S. distributors carrying its products, the elimination of online game sales of Asmodee products by brick-and-mortar stores, and a reduction in the number of online retailers of its products. (For more details on these announcements, head to this Dec. 19, 2015 BGG News post.)

Now Asmodee has issued a follow-up press release to clarify what was previously announced, and I present that release in its entirety:

Quote:
To Whom It May Concern,

Related to our recently announced wholesale terms and policy changes, some questions have been raised by stakeholders such as yourself. On behalf of Asmodee North America, we're happy to provide you some additional context to those changes and clarify several areas.

It is important to underscore that, above all, Asmodee and its publishers are dedicated to creating and publishing great games, and to expand the audience that enjoy these experiences. Our vision is one of mutual success of each participant: publisher, distributor, retailers (of every channel), and, most importantly, the game consumer. We believe our new business terms and policy changes are a significant step in achieving such mutual success.

Why are you making these sudden changes?
While they may appear to be sudden, these policies have been under development for a very long time, and considered carefully. They are intended to allow for success in the channels of sale where our products are represented: success that is not attained at the expense of other channels that provide crucial value to the overall health of the industry and our business.

To that end, we have decided to cleanly define and authorize the channels of sale in which our business partners (distributors and retailers) operate, so that we may a) ensure that consumers receive a quality experience in acquiring our games, and b) ensure that the risk, value, and investment of every channel, relative to others, can be successful.

We believe the current ecosystem of specialty retail and online retail is important to the health and growth of the gaming hobby. Without taking corrective action, we believe this ecosystem would be in jeopardy, which ultimately would affect the quality of game development and the investment in great consumer experiences.

Did you invent this approach?
The practice of product originators authorizing outlets and defining expected behavior in its product distribution chain is well established in many industries and common in high-end and niche product categories.

I don't frequent local game retailers, why are they important?
We believe that business partners whom provide services and investments that we value, relative to others who do not, should receive proportional value from us so that they may succeed in such activities. In comparison to, for example, the online channel of sales, specialty retailers make investments in areas we consider critical to the health and growth of the gaming hobby, such as in-store gaming events, demonstrations, tournaments, and other organized play facilitation. These outlets are a crucial part of an ecosystem that retains and generates players. In turn, this allows publishers to engage and invest in game development. As such, these services are of value to all game consumers, even consumers whom do not personally participate or take advantage of local specialty retailers.

In the future, will I be able to find products from Asmodee North America (i.e. products from Asmodee Editions, Fantasy Flight Games, or Days of Wonder) online?
We are keenly aware and we understand that not all consumers have access to, or that some prefer not to take advantage of, specialty retail game stores. Online shopping is a modern and convenient method of shopping, and Asmodee is committed to keeping this channel a viable and high-quality method of product delivery to consumers.

We intend to work with a number of exceptional authorized online dealers. We are confident that consumers will easily be able to find and acquire our products from a variety of online outlets.

Some brick-and-mortar specialty retailers also sell online, how will this affect them?
We recognize that these new policies come with implications for some retailers. One such change will be that authorized specialty retailers will agree not to sell Asmodee North America products online. That said, we hope the end result, i.e. enabling us to support them relative to other defined channels, will be a significant net improvement for specialty retailers overall.

Will Asmodee North America change any consumer engagement practices of publishers, such as the FFG World Championships, AsmoPlay, Gen Con booth and events, publisher websites, etc?
No, consumer engagement from publishers is expected to continue as has been done in the past, and all the above are expected to continue (in fact, we will be investing to make these efforts even greater). Our publishers represent different brands, gaming styles, and audiences, we have no interest in mixing them or forcing them into a single brand, message, or culture.

How will this affect mass market outlets, such a Amazon, Target, or Barnes and Noble?
We consider the mass/broad market to be its own unique channel of sale, one we want to be successful in its own right alongside our other successful channels of sale.

Many specialty retailers have in-store loyalty or volume discounts, and many online dealers discount their product. In the new policies taking effect on April 1st, 2016, will you institute or impose official price floors or "minimum advertised price" policies on your authorized retailers?
No.

Change is never easy, rarely popular, and we understand that some will dismiss such corporate change as cynical and self-serving. We believe to be making a change that will not only be positive for us, but will be positive for our business partners, for player growth, and for future development of gaming product with increasing quality and imagination.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays,

Aaron Elliott
VP Marketing
Asmodee North America
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Mon Dec 21, 2015 10:33 pm
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Links: 1980s Video Game Flashback, Shots at Ticket to Ride, and Chess That's Less Ready to Make

W. Eric Martin
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• On Boing Boing, John E. Williamson showers love and affection on The Battle at Kemble's Cascade:

Quote:
Everything in the box is made with a love for classic games and it shows, from the manual, to the player cards, to the fake wear of the box, to the variety of enemies. Kemble's Cascade was my surprise board game discovery of the summer. If you die, you can just insert another quarter and play some more.

• In October 2015, The Economist noted that tabletop games "are booming in the video-game age", focusing on the then-upcoming Spiel 2015 for its news hook:

Quote:
Some of the games at Spiel will be aimed at children, but grown-ups are doing most of the buying. There is something for every taste, from Fluxx, a lighthearted card game whose rules change with every card played, to Power Grid, a fiendishly tricky business game featuring aspiring electricity tycoons, to all-day chin-scratchers such as Twilight Imperium, a game of galactic civilisation-building.

• Seth Rosenthal on SB Nation recounts a tale from the 2014 Settlers of Catan World Championship, covers his effort to earn a spot in the 2015 event, and details the Catan tournament that took place at Gen Con 2015.

• On Metro, George Lindsay-Watson offers an ill-thought-out list of "11 of the best board games to make into drinking games", which includes this bit of nonsense that makes it clear that G.L.W. has played few, if any, of the games in question:

Quote:
Ticket to Ride

As you hop aboard and try to lay your track across the country or continent, take a drink for every carriage you get on the board. Also drink for every route point you earn, although if these hit double digits it may be best to divide by two, old chap.

This would kill you.

• Using a photograph of Marcel Duchamp's hand-carved chess set from 1917-1918, Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera recreated the pieces, then released 3D files of them in April 2014 on Thingiverse under the name "Readymake: Duchamp Chess Set" — "readymake" being a play off of Duchamp's "readymade" — so that anyone could recreate the set for themselves.

In September 2014, however, the estate of Duchamp sent Kildall and Cera a cease-and-desist letter, despite the chess set being nearly a century old, and therefore not covered by copyright in either the United States or France. Even so, in 2015 Kildall and Cera decided to remove "Readymake" from public availability, instead releasing "Chess with Mustaches", which is the same Duchamp design with a mustache on each piece. (Wink wink.)

Also not available on Thingiverse: Nude playing against Duchamp
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Sun Dec 20, 2015 1:00 pm
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Starting in 2016, Asmodee Will Operate as Asmodee North America, Cut Off Distributors, and Limit Online Sales

W. Eric Martin
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On Dec. 17, 2015, the North American branch of Asmodee announced several changes in its structure and business model, starting with the formation of the umbrella organization Asmodee North America. As of January 1, 2016, all titles from Fantasy Flight Games (FFG), Days of Wonder (DoW), and Asmodee Publishing will be marketed and sold by Asmodee North America (ANA), which will be located in Roseville, Minnesota, home of Fantasy Flight Games.

Perhaps not coincidentally, at that time FFG CEO Christian Petersen will become CEO of Asmodee North America. A press release from ANA states that this change in the overarching business structure "will have no effect" on the titles being produced by FFG, DoW, and Asmodee Publishing, a claim that mirrors those made when Asmodee bought Days of Wonder in August 2014 and acquired Fantasy Flight Games in November 2014.

Even larger changes are taking place behind the scenes, with ANA stating that as of January 1, 2016, it will authorize only five distributors in the U.S. — ACD Distribution, Alliance Game Distributors, GTS Distribution, PHD Games, and Southern Hobby Supply — for resale of its products to retailers within the country. This new distribution policy will prevent some current distributors of FFG and Asmodee titles from doing so in the future; at the same time, Days of Wonder product will no longer exclusively be available through Alliance Game Distributors, a situation that's existed since July 1, 2008. Retailers can also purchase product directly from ANA.

What's more, retailers that want to continue carrying and selling titles from ANA need to become authorized as an "Asmodee Specialty Retailer" by April 1, 2016 — and to do that they need to agree to the terms of its Asmodee North America Specialty Retail Policy (PDF).

The existence of a retail policy isn't surprising. Businesses use these to ensure that the products that they deliver to distributors aren't tampered with or represented in ways not intended by the originating business, that buyers agree to specific payment terms, and so on. What is surprising is this all-caps section of the Specialty Retail Policy (SRP):

Quote:
IV. Retailer's Conduct

A. Channel of Sale
RETAILER MUST NOT SELL OR TRANSFER ANY ANA PRODUCT PURCHASED HEREUNDER IN ANY MANNER OTHER THAN THROUGH FACE-TO-FACE COMMERCIAL RESALE EXCHANGE WITH END-USERS IN RETAILER'S PHYSICAL RETAIL LOCATION(S) OR AT A PHYSICAL EXTENSION OF THE RETAILER'S RETAIL LOCATION AT A CONSUMER SHOW/CONVENTION. ALL OTHER CHANNELS AND METHODS OF SALE FOR ANA PRODUCT IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO SUB-DISTRIBUTION, SALES OVER THE INTERNET, AND MAIL ORDER.

FOR THE AVOIDANCE OF DOUBT, ANY TRANSFER OR SALE OF ANA PRODUCTS TO SUBSIDIARIES OR AFFILIATE COMPANIES CONTROLLED, OR PARTIALLY CONTROLLED, BY RETAILER OR ANY OF RETAILERS' OWNERS AND/OR SHAREHOLDERS, ARE PROHIBITED HEREUNDER.

The first paragraph bans all online sales of ANA titles, a drastic change given that online game sales represent — well, it's actually not clear what percentage of the market they represent, which means that this change is drastic or not only depending on the buyers with whom you speak. (More on this later.)

This prohibition on online sales can even outlast the contract itself, as noted in the section on "Effects of Termination":

Quote:
3. All ANA Products purchased hereunder shall remain subject to Section IV hereof, which shall survive the termination of the Retailer's active Specialty Retailer Account status until such ANA Product is sold.

4. Except for Section VII.B.3, upon termination, this Specialty Retailer Policy is no longer binding on Retailer or ANA.

The second "Channel of Sale" paragraph is meant to address the issue of distributors that act as retailers — that is, distributors that purchase goods from Asmodee, then transfer them at little or no cost to a retailer owned in whole or in part by the distributor, then resold to end-users. Goods handled in this way can be sold profitably by distributor-retailers at discounted prices that actual retailers cannot possibly match.

One way that ANA will police this policy is hinted at in another section of the SRP: "Retailer understands that ANA Distributors must provide ANA with frequent detailed reports outlining Retailer's ANA Product purchases from the ANA Distributor." In other words, ANA will know which distributors sold which products to which buyers.

In a Q&A-style press release meant to clarify the above policy, ANA wrote the following:

Quote:
Q: I sell some Asmodee North America products in my store, and some on my website (or through another online marketplace). As an Asmodee Specialty Retailer, will I be able to continue to do all of this?
A: No, as a Specialty Retailer, you are limited to the channel of sale involving resale of Asmodee North America products to end-users only, by transaction in your physical retail stores only.

Q: I want to sell products from Asmodee North America online, how do I do this?
A: We will be very selective as to which online merchants will be authorized to sell our products. To qualify as an online merchant, you will need to contribute either significant scale, unique service, or other exceptional differentiation. Most online sales activities, including sales through third party websites, will not be authorized.


Q: I sub-distribute products to other businesses, what do I do?
A: Asmodee North America will not authorize sub-distribution of our products, unless by rare and unique exception.

What will happen to retailers that violate the SRP?

Quote:
A: We reserve the right to evaluate each violation on a case-by-case basis, and we will make a decision on how to respond based on severity, intent, scale, repeat behavior, and other factors. Generally speaking, a Specialty Retail account who knowingly violates the Specialty Retail Policy will be deactivated and therefore no longer have access to products from Asmodee North America.


I sent many questions about the ANA SRP to FFG's VP of Marketing Aaron Elliot: What constitutes an online merchant of "significant scale, unique service, or other exceptional differentiation"? Will retailers such as Amazon, Target, and Barnes & Noble be allowed to sell ANA product online in 2016? What about online retailers such as Funagain and CoolStuffInc? What negative effects does ANA perceive as being caused by online sales of its products? What changes does ANA hope to effect with this new sales policy? What percentage of sales comes from online outlets versus physical retail stores?

Elliot initially stated that Christian Petersen would answer these questions, but noted that all of FFG was taking the afternoon off to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens — no surprise there given how invested FFG is in the Star Wars brand! However, Elliott later sent the following note: "After carefully considering your questions, along with many of the questions we've seen from others, we have decided to issue a statement on Monday [Dec. 21, 2015] to clarify a few things from the initial release."

Thus, we'll have to wait for further clarification of who will be affected by the SRP and what ANA hopes to achieve by adopting this policy, but that hasn't stopped plenty of people from speculating on these topics, as evidenced by this BGG thread started by game retailer Rockin B' Games.

The game industry has gone down a similar road before in 2007 when Mayfair Games announced that it would allow retailers to discount its titles by no more than 20% from the MSRP. Many on BGG stated that this policy would lead to the demise of Mayfair, and I wrote a column on Boardgame News — the site I ran at the time — explaining why such claims were nonsense. (I'll republish this column in the near future since these types of arguments are already being made about Asmodee, and they're still equally ridiculous.)

The biggest issue to keep in mind is that despite BGG having a huge readership and user base, that base in no way represents the game market at large. Days of Wonder, for example, claims to have sold more than three million Ticket to Ride games, and while the publisher doesn't state whether that number relates to sales of the base game, all of the standalone games, or every Ticket to Ride-branded product, a glance through the BGG database shows that no more than 175,000 TtR items of any type are listed as owned by BGG users. Not every BGG user uses the collection function, of course, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I suggest that the hardcore, price-conscious BGG user base is a tiny fraction of Days of Wonder's entire sales base.

As Mayfair did nearly a decade ago, Asmodee is willing to bet that it will more than make up the difference of lost sales to price-conscious gamers through the support of physical game stores that will have more of an incentive to market and promote titles from ANA. At least that's my takeaway from the announcements; ideally we'll see in a few days how closely they match ANA's stated reasons for the policy change...
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Sat Dec 19, 2015 7:00 am
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Gen Con 2016 to Expand into Lucas Oil Stadium

W. Eric Martin
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Gen Con 2015 was the largest game convention yet in Indianapolis, Indiana — 61,000+ unique attendees, 400+ exhibitors, and 14,000+ events — but that growth came at a cost, with multiple reports of first-time exhibitors being unable to reserve a booth for 2016 due to a lack of space in the exhibitor hall.

Why couldn't those exhibitors retain the same spaces they occupied at Gen Con 2015? Partly because Gen Con offers discounted space for first-timers in its "Entrepreneur's Alley", and since those exhibitors wouldn't be first-timers in 2016, they weren't eligible to be in "Entrepreneur's Alley". What's more, both those exhibitors and others who were exhibiting at Gen Con for only the first or second time had no seniority in Gen Con's booth-reservation system, which meant that they were shut out during the show when everyone else was reserving space for Gen Con 2016.

Now Gen Con has announced that for 2016 it will expand its events space into Lucas Oil Stadium, a multipurpose stadium on the block adjacent to the Indiana Convention Center where Gen Con takes place. Here's an excerpt from the press release:

Quote:
As part of this expansion, Gen Con will move several large events into the stadium's exhibition space, including the wildly popular True Dungeon events.

"Expansion into Lucas Oil Stadium is another exciting step forward for Gen Con," said Adrian Swartout, Gen Con CEO/Owner. "Gen Con has grown to host nearly 200,000 turnstile attendees, and it is evident that we have to accelerate our growth plans to meet attendee, exhibitor, and event organizer demand. Expansion into Lucas Oil Stadium allows Gen Con to keep offering more gaming, exhibition, and entertainment options each year."

A large-scale, life-size gaming experience, True Dungeon creates an immersive environment where players can solve puzzles and battle giant monsters. Attendees will have easy access to True Dungeon events through a corridor that directly connects the Indiana Convention Center to Lucas Oil Stadium. True Dungeon's 2016 event will feature an expedition through lava caverns and a mission across an underground city. Attendees can learn more here.

A separate announcement on the True Dungeon website added this plus for its new location:

Quote:
True Dungeon is moving to a state-of-the-art exhibit hall inside Lucas Oil Stadium where we can take advantage of a massive dividing wall to completely isolate the darker adventure area from the brighter lit (and more noisy) coaching area. The better control of light and sound "pollution" will greatly aid us in providing a better lit Coaching Room experience while keeping the adventure areas more dramatically lit.

Gen Con notes that in the coming months it will announce other events to be hosted in Lucas Oil Stadium. As for what will happen with the recovered space in the Convention Center, that will be revealed at a later date...
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Fri Dec 4, 2015 10:41 pm
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