The Impact of COVID and China on the Card and Board Game Industry
How COVID has impacted supply chains, material costs, and turn-around times, and how Chinese tactics are hurting the production of card & board games for USA game companies and their customers
An Interview with Charles Levin, Founder & President of Game Manufacturer Shuffled Ink
Lately we have seen prices rising dramatically for a lot of goods - board games, card games, and playing cards included. Why?
Certainly COVID has wreaked havoc with the industry. In many parts of the world, there have been extensive periods where production has been hampered by the inability of people to come to work, due to government imposed restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And with COVID-protocols in place everywhere, suddenly every step of every process takes much longer.
This has also had a big impact on shipping and transportation of goods. Normally a product simply needs to get shipped from the factory to your home, by way of a reliable and smooth chain of wholesalers, retailers, and with the help of the postal system. That entire process has now been the subject of significant disruptions and delays. Add to that the skyrocketing costs of shipping containers and storage, and the result has been dramatic. We're seeing significantly delayed deliveries, and significantly increased prices. And this includes board games, card games, and various playing card and tarot card products.
But that's not the only factor that has played a role in increasing the cost of board games and similar products. The fact that a lot of game components and entire card games and board games are produced in China is a huge part of this equation. Most people are already aware that China has a big hand in the global economy, because many creators depend on them for supplies or production. But our reliance on China, and the impact that this has had on the market, has become increasingly apparent over the last year or so. And it's not always a pretty picture.
I recently had the opportunity to interview the founder and president of a game and playing card manufacturer about this very subject, to gain an inside perspective. Charles Levin is the guy who runs Shuffled Ink, a family run business and printing company that began on his dining table more than twenty years ago. After outgrowing his garage and constantly expanding, Charles continued to develop his expertise and experience in professional printing and manufacturing, and eventually in 2013 he moved into a 8,000 square ft manufacturing facility. Now his company is currently in the middle of moving into a facility that is more than twice the size, and has almost 30 employees.
Shuffled Ink has been producing custom card games and board games for over 20 years, and has been involved in the fulfilment of many game-related Kickstarter projects. While they specialize in printing custom cards, with the help of their production partners in China they've been able to produce a full range of accessories and custom pieces for card games and board games.
But recent developments like the ones mentioned above have seen the emphasis of their business model and location changing. Despite their years of experience in outsourcing card game and board game products to be manufactured in China, more and more they are focusing on producing products locally in their own printing and manufacturing facility in Orlando, Florida. And while they have a long history in producing card games and board games both small and large, they are seeing the side of their company that produces card games, custom playing cards, and similar products explode.
As a result of all this, Charles is well placed to be able to comment on his own experience with Chinese manufacturers in relation to card games and board games, and the impact that this has had on his business, and the industry more generally. So now it's time for me to put some of my questions to Charles, and let's hear what he has to say!
Matthew (left) and Charles Levin (right) at the groundbreaking ceremony of Shuffled Ink's new facilities on Feb. 6, 2021.
What can you tell us about your experience that you personally have with producing board games in China, especially in recent times?
I have produced custom playing cards, tarot cards, card games, and board games in China for over 20 years. While being economically viable and a great service to provide to our clients, there has been an ebb and flow to it.
Our mission is to ensure that our clients’ custom card visions meet reality. This encompasses more than just bringing their product to life. We also take all measures to protect their intellectual property. That is why manufacturing domestically is always our #1 choice. But like most businesses that must accommodate larger quantities and special orders, we have partnered with China manufacturers to make this happen.
All things in life, whether the experience runs smoothly or endures bumps in the road, is a lesson to be learned. The foundation of my company is built on transparency, integrity, and quality. Conversely, this is what we look for in our affiliates. Now sometimes, we come across bad apples. And while a few bad apples don’t make the whole barrel spoiled, it does keep us on our toes.
Needless to say, in 2008 I moved into my own production facility here in the United States. It has grown tremendously since then and continues to make great strides that have allowed us to become completely independent from China.
Of course, enduring challenges from time to time are inevitable. Right now, we are dealing with COVID’s impact as well as the tariffs that were implemented 3 years ago, which we/our clients pay for.
What are some of the factors causing the price of board games to increase?
The price of board games and all other products has skyrocketed, particularly since COVID started. We estimate that there has been at least a 50% increase in prices across the board. The increase for shipping costs is even more than that.
Chinese factories are operating without 50-70% of their staff, with huge cost increases to materials, massive supply shortages, and their own government's restrictions on use of power/electricity.
These factors have combined to literally wreck every manufacturer I know and have dealt with for many years. We used to get a quote within a few days, but now it takes weeks. We used to turn-around orders in 8-12 weeks, but now they are taking up to 7 months. We used to look at China for decisively less expensive production costs, but this is no longer the case.
A scale model of Shuffled Ink's new manufacturing facility and office space
Can you give an example of how this has affected your business?
One very succinct example of China’s costs are as follows: we have been buying our plastic playing card cases from China since 1999. They had cost us about $.18 each, including door-to-door freight. NO MORE.
The tariffs immediately added 35% to this cost. This cost was paid by us, and not by China as they were advertised. Then COVID hit, bringing the delivered cost to $.42 per case.
So I had our molds shipped from China to me in Orlando, and went to a company near my own facility to produce the cases. We are now paying $.28 per case delivered, for better quality and only a 5,000-case minimum order compared to a 50,000-case minimum order from China.
At the end of the day, this has levelled the playing field for us and USA manufacturers in positive ways we could never have conceived before.
How is this going to affect creators and consumers of card games and board games in the short term and long term?
This is going to affect and hurt creators and publishers of board games, as these are the most expensive to produce and there is very little to choose from in the USA. This will result in much higher prices for board games with much longer turnaround times to produce them. Creators and publishers will have no choice but to pass these added costs onto their consumers.
I think it is going to get worse before it gets better. We are likely 1-2 years away, best case, from seeing any meaningful improvement from China assuming the best of circumstances.
Creators of card games, playing cards, and tarot cards will not suffer nearly as much with these circumstances as our pricing is quite competitive with China, and we deliver a higher quality product in less than half the time China now takes.
What are the integrity concerns you have experienced in doing business from China?
Throughout the past two decades, I have fostered a family-driven mindset. With this, Shuffled Ink has evolved into a multi-generational family business, where my children, their friends, and our neighbors work within various departments of our company. When assisting clients and working with partners in China or in the USA, this mentality remains consistent. After all, our motto stands strong and relevant: your success is our success.
Integrity is at the core of each relationship I’ve procured and nurtured. While some Chinese manufacturers have dismissed these ethics, there are a few that do have excellent character and produce quality products. If more information about this is needed, I can be contacted for further discussion at email@example.com.
A family business: Charles with his two sons and three daughters
What will happen if creators and publishers continue to rely on China for production?
If we (the USA) continue to grasp at the cheap prices and quality of China, then eventually, there will be nothing to save, have, or sell that is made in the USA unless China ends up owning our businesses too.
What are some of the alternative options available to creators and designers of board games, aside from producing in China?
Not too many. LudoFact is an excellent alternative out of Europe, and their quality is the best in the business. There are only a handful of companies in the USA that can produce a decent quality card game or board game, and their minimums and prices are very high. The best one I personally know of is Delano Games.
What about creators that are producing a card game that doesn't have components besides the cards themselves?
Most card games are now easier to produce in the USA than in China. Our production costs at Shuffled Ink are similar and even lower than China’s in many cases, turn-around times are less than half, and shipping costs are a fraction of the costs to ship from China.
Our card game production has increased nearly tenfold over the past year or two due to clients, who used to produce in China, now moving anything and everything they can to the USA.
The reality is that China has become an unreliable manufacturer. Countless game creators and publishers simply cannot depend on China to produce their products in a timely and/or cost-effective manner.
Additionally, freight companies have displayed comparable tendencies, offering long-time clients like us with unreasonable pricing and turnaround times.
What impact has this development had on your own business as a printer of playing cards and as a manufacturer of card games and board games?
We do not print board games in Orlando, so that part of our business has struggled with these developments in China. This is why since 2008 our business has had a growing emphasis on card games, custom playing cards, custom tarot cards, and flash cards.
This has accelerated rapidly since the onset of COVID. Our card game business has now grown to levels that we could only have dreamed of and we have continued to expand our capacity to accommodate this.
In terms of the card games we produce, our product quality is clearly a step above China's, our turn-around times are half or less than China's, and our pricing has become very competitive with China. When you add the value of our live and genuinely caring customer service to the equation, our clients have been thrilled to pay a little extra in order to produce their products with us in Orlando, rather than in China.
We do not see these clients returning to China in the near future or likely ever.
Aside from printing card games, what else represents the largest share of the content that you print?
Custom playing cards, custom tarot cards, and custom flash/educational cards.
Also, we have added fulfillment services for all clients that do not bleed them to death. This has grown dramatically to the point that we now have a waiting list. When our new facility opens in the Spring of 2022, we will have vastly more capacity for fulfillment. If more information about our fulfillment services is needed, I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are there any positives coming out of all this for creators and consumers of card games and of custom cards?
Yes, there are numerous positives occurring for creators and consumers. Creators are now able to communicate with live, English-speaking service staff. They know we will not be stealing their concepts. They are receiving better quality products and do not have to order as much at a time as China requires. And they do not have to worry if and/or when they will receive their products, or what their alternatives are when they receive a defective product from China. Creators and publishers now have a high integrity entity with assurances and recourse. Consumers are benefiting by receiving a higher quality product that is safe and manufactured without toxic ingredients such as lead and formaldehyde, and that is made in the USA.
This entire experience with China has taught and shown me that creators and consumers (mainly in the USA) are more than willing to pay a little more for their games in order to get better service, better quality, and a product made in the USA. Plus they know that they are not dealing with an entity that seeks to bypass or undermine them.
The Shuffled Ink team at the site of their new facility
This interview is very much a perspective from an industry insider, because it captures thoughts shared by someone who has his feet on the ground, and based on personal experience.
Obviously that means we need to be careful in generalizing from Charles' perspectives, since they are in the first place a reflection of his own experience. But at the same time what gives these perspectives real value is that they are based on first-hand experiences from someone in the field. They are insights straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak.
Something is rotten, but it's not in the state of Denmark. Rather, it's the game industry's dependence on China. The simple economics of the current crisis that is affecting production in China and shipping from China means that both production costs and delivery times are increasing dramatically. Whatever the precise cause of these problems besides COVID, it's clear that our reliance on China for production can't continue without consequences. We're already seeing these consequences when we look at the price tags of the games we're buying. We can't expect to keep buying new games at old prices.
But there is a silver lining to this cloud, and it is giving businesses like Shuffled Ink to boom in new and unexpected ways. Increased costs for consumers in the short term may actually come with new playing fields on our home turf, as creators find better ways to produce their products on home turf. And as these new playing fields mature and develop, consumers are sure to benefit in the long run. So don't give up on games just yet!
Where to learn more? Head to the Shuffled Ink website, or check them out on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest). See also a detailed review of my own experience in printing with them.
Featuring game trivia and talk, and comprehensive pictorial game reviews
Archive for Game Trivia & Talk
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the E•G•G Series. It currently numbers eleven games in total. I gather that a twelfth game will eventually be published to complete the dozen.
The EGG series has proven to be more fun than I was expecting. What I especially like about it is the diversity in the series, which features a range of very different types of games. A diversity of mechanics is represented, including dice throwing, trick-taking, deck-building, set-collection, solitaire, party games, and more. Many are very suitable as fillers. Other positive points include the portability, component quality, as well as the accessibility of most of these games, which will appeal to a wide range of people, including non-gamers.
Here is a GeekList with my overview and comparative take on all the games in the series, including links to my separate reviews for nearly all the titles:
The E•G•G Series from Eagle Gryphon Games: collect 'em all?
My current ratings for the games in the series:
Sluff Off, Fleet Wharfside, SiXes
Eggs & Empires, Harald, King's Kilt
Dexikon, Bowling Solitaire, Seven7s
Elevenses For One
(don't own: 12 Days of Christmas)
A big thank you to all those who read any of my reviews over the past year - I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for your support and interest. And my best wishes to everyone for 2017!
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Introducing The Next Great American Game
Let's be honest, most of us can be sometimes be game snobs - I know I can be at times. If someone tries to convince us to play Monopoly, we can be dismissive, sometimes even condescending and arrogant towards the unenlightened and unwashed masses. After all, they're under in the illusion we still live in a dinosaur age and think that there's something good about roll-and-move games. So if someone has made a 1980s style roll-and-move game, and thinks it's going to be The Next Great American Game, we're ready to spit on them, or at least have a few laughs at their expense. We've seen more than a few failed Kickstarters by such individuals, and often considered them entertainment.
But now imagine that you are that person. That's the premise behind Doug Morse's 80 minute film The Next Great American Game (2015), featuring game designer Randall Hoyt. By his own admission, Randall is not really a game designer, but just a creative guy who has designed a game that he's passionate about, and which he is convinced will be the Next Big Thing. In the film, we follow his determined real life quest to get his traffic-jam themed game "Turnpike" published, and accompany him to a series of disappointing meetings with game publishers, as Randall comes to realize he's made a 1980s game that nobody in today's game industry wants to buy. There's disbelief and disappointment as his dreams are shattered - or can his game be changed in a way that it will find a home with a publisher somewhere?
Randall isn't the only one on the path to enlightenment, however; we are. What is it really like to be someone who thinks he can make it in the world of modern game design, but has no clue about the state of the hobby as it is today? How hard is it to crack the world of the publishers, gain their ear, and better yet gain a contract? This film does a marvellous job of putting us in Randall's shoes, and takes a sympathetic look at a man and his mission. In Randall's case, he's also bi-polar, and the complexities of his mental health also feature in the film, helping make him a sympathetic figure that we come to identify with or at least feel compassion for. Rather than laugh at his ill-informed optimism or chuckle at the misfortunes we see inevitably heading his way when he pitches his game in search of a contract at GenCon, the Chicago Toy Fair, or Origins, by the end we'll feel bad for spitting on him, and perhaps have a bit more sympathy for the unenlightened. Putting me on the other side of the gamer fence for a change made me cringe and feel uncomfortable at times, but in a character-building way.
What do I think?
This film and its extras should be essential viewing for an aspiring game designer looking to crack the market, but will also be of great interest to any gamer wanting to get insight into the larger world of the board game industry. You might enjoy watching this even if you just want to watch a modern real-life story of a bi-polar amateur game designer who slowly comes to realize his dreams are turning to dust, and who pursues his goal despite the odds. As a story, it's a good one. Without giving away too much, I can say that the film doesn't end in the train wreck you might expect, but there is a note of optimism as one of Randall's other game designs does get some success. More importantly, by the closing credits, I felt that Randall wasn't the only one on the path to enlightenment, but I was too; he'd earned my respect and sympathy, and just maybe changed my own way of perceiving others outside the hobby.
Where can you get it?
There are several options for purchasing this film, with a basic level digital download starting at $14.95. While it's not inexpensive, the price does reflect something of the significant costs that Doug Morse incurred in travelling to many locations in order to make this film. Most gamers will want to go for the higher levels, which give access to several hours of insightful interviews with big names in the industry, including Steve Jackson, Alan Moon, Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and more.
View the trailer below, and get the film from the BGG store (DVD) or the official site (digital download).
Join the discussion: To what extent is snobbery an issue in the board game hobby? What are some appropriate ways to deal with `unenlightened' individuals convinced they've discovered America's next great game? And if you've seen the film, what did you think of it?
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The folks from `He says She says' reviews, Ryan and Amanda (Magus & Princess), are doing a series of `He asks She asks' interviews with a number of individuals in the gaming industry, including designers, developers, publishers, and more. As part of that, they asked to interview me about reviewing, gaming, faith, and BGG. If you want to read more of my thoughts on those topics and more, check out the interview which they've posted here:
A He asks, She asks interview: Top BGG reviewer EndersGame
Thanks to Ryan and Amanda for this opportunity, and best wishes to them as they continue their series of reviews and interviews!
Update: Ryan & Amanda have since left BGG, deleting all their contributions, including a number of interviews such as this one. For archival purposes and historical interest, you'll find this interview re-posted in its entirety here:
A He asks, She asks interview with EndersGame
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24 May 2012
By now most people have seen the official nominees for the 2012 Kennerspiel des Jahres and the 2012 Spiel des Jahres, along with the games that weren't nominated to win but were still recommended by the jury. You've probably also come across the usual circus of discussion that typically follows this announcement, with many folks voicing the usual criticism that the nominations are a joke, out of touch, irrelevant, or ridiculous. I'm not going to join this circus, but I would like to offer a contribution to this discussion, and I'm especially interested in exploring the criticism that the complexity of the winners is decreasing over time.
The Awards in General: How important are they?
First of all, folks somewhat new to gaming may wonder why these awards are even regarded as being a big deal to begin with, and how relevant they are. That's a fair question, given that they are German awards. The question becomes even more pressing considering that it's quite rare that deeper strategy games get nominated. No wonder that each year inevitably we see a repeated discussion about the apparent irrelevancy and idiocy of these awards.
In actual fact, these awards are a big deal, although we should be honest from the outset and simply concede that they very likely are not at all going to be of high relevance to the serious hardcore gamer who wants to see his favourite heavy strategy game from the past year being recognized. Sorry folks, that's just not going to happen at the Spiel des Jahres, because that's just not what they're about! These awards are specifically geared to family style games, and so in general the nominees and winners are games that need to be fairly accessible to the average consumer, and have to be suitable for the mass market - the average German consumer and German mass market that is. We need to recall that the eurogame revolution in the 1990s originated in Germany, and even today that's still where the heart of the gaming industry is to be found. Furthermore there are other awards in Germany that recognize more complex strategy games, the Deutscher Spiel Preis being the most notable one, which typically crowns as winners what we commonly dub as "gamers games", including Agricola (2008), Caylus (2006), and Puerto Rico (2002). In contrast, the Spiel des Jahres is specifically geared toward a slightly different market, at a threshhold not far removed from what we often call "gateway games". With this in mind, it shouldn't at all surprise serious gamers that many of the jury's choices are not challenging enough by the standards of strategy veterans in the gaming hobby.
So why are they important then? Even if they're perhaps not of the greatest relevance to the serious strategy gamer who has advanced well beyond the threshold of gaming, they are certainly relevant to a slightly different market that's looking for something easier to play. In fact, the Spiel des Jahre awards have a huge impact on sales, especially in Germany, but also far beyond its borders. A publisher whose game wins the coveted Spiel des Jahres award has the luxury of including the winning logo on his products, and this credential will inevitable correspond to a huge increase in sales, one source suggesting it can generate sales of up to a half a million copies world wide. From the perspective of the designer and publisher, winning this award is the equivalent of a small coup in the gaming market, and they can count on it continuing to drive significant sales in years to come. This by no means does a disservice to the gaming community; on the contrary, while serious strategy games may seem to get the cold shoulder from the Spiel des Jahres jury, what these awards do accomplish is help introduce many new folks to great games for the first time, and as such they play an important role in expanding the hobby game market.
The Awards This Year: What got nominated?
So what then about the awards this year? In recent times the folks behind the Spiel des Jahres award have taken a slightly different approach, by adding a Kennerspiel des Jahres category in addition to the traditional Spiel des Jahres category, in order to accommodate games that are slightly more complicated and yet worthy of recognition. The first beneficiary of this new award category was 7 Wonders in 2011, which beat out the other two nominees, Strasbourg and Lancaster. Perhaps the first hint of this concept was already evident in 2006 and 2008, when Caylus and Agricola were each awarded a special prize for Best Complex Game.
The nominees for the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year are Adam Kałuża's mountain climbing game K2, Andreas Steiger's entry in the Kosmos series Targi, and Inka and Markus Brand's novel take on the worker placement genre Village, which features graveyards to help you deal with the mortality of your meeples and of course earn points. As an aside, it's good to see Kosmos getting back into the limelight, with two of their other games making the recommended list for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category as well.
The nominees for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category in 2012 are Stefan Dorra and Ralf zur Linde's Eselsbrücke, Donald X. Vaccarino's Kingdom Builder, and Rüdiger Dorn's Las Vegas. Kingdom Builder is already quite widely known, and Vaccarino's enormous success with Dominion certainly has done his designer credentials no harm. The other two titles might be somewhat unfamiliar for many gamers, but the designers are all established veterans whose names many of us will recognize.
In addition to these nominees, the jury also have the habit of recommending a number of other titles that weren't nominated but are still worth recognizing. I won't repeat them all here, but suffice it to say that you'll find a complete list here:
Kennerspiel & Spiel des Jahres 2012: All the Nominees and Recommended Games
The Awards Over The Years: Is complexity decreasing?
As happens almost every year, you'll see detractors and critics pan the nominees and recommendations, suggesting biting criticisms ranging from accusations that the jury are out of touch with modern gaming, that the typical family gamer is evidently getting more stupid over the years, that the jury that dispenses the awards is clearly corrupting the definition of a family game, and that the Spiel des Jahres awards have jumped the shark. We've already made a case for the fact that the awards need to be evaluated for what they are: not as a set of Grammys for the greatest and best games in the eyes of geeky hardcore gamers (which, let's face it, is most of us), but to recognize quality games that can be picked up and enjoyed by your typical family with granny and the kids. Oh, and let's not forget that some of the hardcore gamers are going to enjoy them as "lighter" games, "gateway" games, or "fillers" too!
But having said that, is there any truth to the contention that the complexity of the award winners is decreasing over the years? I decided to find out, by using the average BGG weight as a guide. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the average BGG weight is determined by BGG users who vote using a 1-5 scale (Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, Heavy), from which an average is calculated. As a relative scale of comparison, it can be quite useful despite its criteria being somewhat nebulous and hard to define, because for the most part it is the same people who are making comparisons and assigning these values.
James Fehr kindly pointed out that the average BGG weight of this year's crop of Kennerspiel nominees is 2.5, and the Kennerspiel recommended games is 3.0, while the average BGG weight of this year's Spiel des Jahres nominees is 1.7, and the Spiel des Jahres recommended games is 1.6. So how do the numbers for this year's crop compare with earlier years? Well, I looked them up, so you can see for yourself:
2011 1.7 Qwirkle
2010 1.3 Dixit
2009 2.4 Dominion
2008 1.6 Keltis
2007 1.9 Zooloretto
2006 2.3 Thurn and Taxis
2005 1.8 Niagara
2004 1.9 Ticket to Ride
2003 2.1 Alhambra
2002 1.2 Villa Paletti
2001 1.9 Carcassonne
2000 2.9 Torres
1999 2.9 Tikal
1998 2.2 Elfenland
1997 1.7 The Mississippi Queen
1996 3.1 El Grande
1995 2.4 The Settlers of Catan
1994 2.0 Manhattan
1993 1.3 Liar's Dice
1992 2.0 Um Reifenbreite
1991 1.8 Wacky Wacky West
1990 1.9 Hoity Toity
1989 1.7 Café International
1988 1.6 Barbarossa
1987 2.0 Auf Achse
1986 1.5 Heimlich & Co.
1985 2.8 Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
1984 2.2 Dampfross
1983 2.0 Scotland Yard
1982 1.3 Enchanted Forest
1981 2.4 Focus
1980 1.8 Rummikub
1979 2.0 Hare & Tortoise
Note that while perceptions of "weight" may have changed over the years, the figures in the above list are all based on what people from recent years think about the weight of the games mentioned, so these numbers are a fair reflection of current opinion. The 4000+ votes that combine to give the 1995 winner CATAN an average BGG weight rating of 2.4 are all from the last decade, and probably the vast majority are from the last number of years when BGG membership has grown significantly. Having 4000+ people suggest that Settlers of Catan's weight is on average between "light medium" and "medium" is a fair indication of what people today think about its complexity.
Admittedly the average BGG weight ratings of newer games is somewhat unreliable, especially if they haven't had many users assign them a weight rating yet. In comparison to Settlers of Catan, last year's Spiel des Jahres winner Qwirkle has an average BGG weight rating of 1.7 that is based on only 300+ votes. This means that these voters think it's between "light" and "light medium", slightly leaning toward the latter, but for the most part these are the same people who contributed to Settlers of Catan's weight rating of 2.4 . So despite the smaller sample size, this result is still based on enough data to give a reasonably good point of comparison, and it's quite safe to conclude that most people think Qwirkle is "lighter" than Settlers of Catan by comparative degree of 1.7 to 2.4.
So what does this mean when we look at all the numbers going back to 1979? Would earlier winners not stand a chance of being nominated today, and are the awards being dumbed down, as some have suggested? I don't think so. It could be argued that the three heavier-weights on the list, Torres (2.9), Tikal (2.9), and El Grande (3.1), were out of character from previous years rather than the norm. It's clear that since its inception, the vast majority of Spiel des Jahres award winning games had an average BGG weight of 2 or less, with a few notable exceptions being the three just mentioned. Over the last 25 years the only other winners that have an average weight greater than 2 are CATAN (2.4), Dominion (2.4), Thurn and Taxis (2.3), the last two of which were both fairly recent winners! In that regard a fairly good argument can be made that the games nominated and recommended for the Spiel des Jahres award this year and in recent years are quite in line with previous years - aside from the three years when the jury opted for more complex titles. If the complainers had been around in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they'd have had reason to complain about the lightweights that were recognized at that time too! Could the "problem" of decreasing complexity be less real than we imagine?
As for this year's Kennerspiel nominees and recommended titles (average BGG weight of 2.5 and 3.0 respectively), they nearly all appear more complex than previous winners, if their current numbers are any indication of their complexity. In that respect adding a separate Kennerspiel category seems to be a good move, in order to recognize games that ordinarily might be considered just beyond the kind of complexity that the jury is looking for in winners of the Spiel des Jahres award. At the same time it's still true that the Kennerspiel games are a long way from being hardcore strategy games. And that's fine, and I doubt that the jury would want it any other way, because recognizing complex strategy games is what other awards are for, whereas the Spiel des Jahres awards are still intended to be a family oriented award geared towards the mass market, with the Kennerspiel going to slightly more advanced games that are just a step up above the usual complexity of the winners. I expect we'll see this trend continue in future years, and I see no reason to complain about it, because it only helps make it possible for a greater variety of games to get recognition.
A Proposed Perspective
So what does all this mean for gamers and how we should view these awards? Well, let's try to be fair when we assess the Spiel des Jahres awards, because we don't help anyone by using the announcement of these nominees as a platform for game snobbery. Instead, why not treat them with some respect, recognizing that they're not firstly of all geared towards folks like most of us. Maybe it's the critics who are the idiots, rather than the jury who are very much achieving what they've always tried to do. Perhaps there's a higher road for us to travel, and that's to be grateful for how the Spiel des Jahres awards accomplish exactly what they set out to do, which is to bring great and accessible games to the family market. And let's be honest, even the hardcore strategy gamers among us need something lighter to play once in a while, even if it is with grandma or the guys at work. And maybe, just maybe, when the occasion suits, there's even a Spiel des Jahres winning game that's just right for us.
Join the discussion: Do you think that the complexity of the Spiel des Jahres nominees and winners has changed over the years? And in your opinion, how relevant are these awards for the gaming industry today?
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I'm a Christian. So I'm going to like any game with a Christian theme, right? Wrong.
(Disclaimer: This article is primarily going to be of interest to Christians, and I know that there are many of you here on the site who are interested in the kinds of questions raised by it. You're welcome to participate in this particular discussion if you're not a Christian, but I'd respectfully request that we keep closely on topic, because this is not the place to initiate RSP debates, but only to discuss the particular issue of evaluating Christian themed games from a Christian perspective. So please ensure that the discussion remains positive and respectful.)
The problem with many Christian games
Most of us are well aware that there’s an unfortunate and all too frequent reality that applies to many games which have a Biblical or Christian theme, and that's mediocre game-play. In other words, despite a thick coat of Christian paint, you can't hide the fact that there's a very poor gaming engine underneath. While such games might prove appealing from a pedagogical standpoint, they are frequently so substandard in terms of gameplay that they prove too painful to be worth playing. Apparently some publishers seem to think that Christians will love anything that's overtly Christian in flavour, independent of whether it's actually a good product when judged purely on its merits as a game, and it seems that there's more than enough consumers willing to take a punt on such a product too. Granted, most of the folks who frequent boardgamegeek.com aren't going to be fooled that easily, because what we look for in a game is a solid gaming experience, and we're well aware that while the theme might enhance the nurturing of such an experience, a good theme alone does not a good game make. But aside from Christian remakes of Catan (The Settlers of Canaan) and Carcassonne (The Ark of the Covenant), how many Biblically themed games that are actually outstanding games in their own right can you think of? I think I've made my point.
A second problem that afflicts many Biblically themed games is that in an effort to provide a theme that's going to be attractive to people who take the Bible seriously, the well-intended game goes overboard in handling the theme to the point that it trivializes the divine revelation of the Bible. Any attempt to incorporate Christian themes does come with many pitfalls, because there is always the potential to mishandle Biblical truth or deal with it inappropriately. An example of this is the Redemption CGG, which in my estimation suffers this fate. While Redemption CCG's effort to bring Biblical characters and events to life on playing cards is in itself laudable, this has the very real potential to trivialize the Bible, and in some instance even to create theological problems (see my review where I make a case for this, and also a further article in which shortcomings in the graphic design are identified). In some instances the theme even has the potential to break down, or worse, to become disrespectful, a problem that can be compounded by the artwork. As a result, sometimes the "Bible edition" of a popular game doesn't end up adding anything positive to the original game, but sadly only serves to make it worse.
The solution for Christian games
So what's the solution? Well to begin with, to have any enduring value, a Christian game should first and foremost be a good game. In other words, before we start talking about the paint, let's make sure that the engine is a good one. Let's not compromise quality just because we like the paint colour.
Secondly, if a game is going to have a Biblical theme, it should handle it carefully and respectfully. Anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God will surely agree that its content is weighty, and this leaves little room for cheesy ways in handling serious truths, or for trivializing divine instruction. It's not impossible, but it sure takes a lot of wisdom to do it right.
A case example
An excellent and recent example of a game that does get this right is the new worker placement game from Philip duBarry and Minion Games, Kingdom of Solomon. It's themed around - surprise, surprise - King Solomon and his kingdom in ancient Israel. Players are governors during Solomon's reign, responsible for overseeing some of his building and expansion efforts, by collecting resources and constructing buildings, including the beautiful Solomonic temple. This is a theme that will feel like an exciting novelty to most of us, because it's a radical departure from the standard fare we've come to see, where some themes seem beaten to death at this point - go talk to Tom Vasel if you want examples. All this makes Kingdom of Solomon stand out by virtue of its theme, not just among worker placement games in particular, but among euros in general, and this historical flavour rightly gives it immediate appeal especially to Jews and Christians.
But while the theme is one solidly rooted in Biblical history, and skillfully woven into the game-play, the game doesn’t make the mistake of becoming tacky, preachy or trying to convey a religious message by means of cheesy mechanics, or at the cost of excellence in the game design. For me personally, my Christian convictions will naturally enhance my appreciation for this particular theme and this particular game, but it needs to be recognized that Kingdom of Solomon is first and foremost a good game, strong enough to stand on its own merits and compete with the rest as a game. Let's face it, being a Christian doesn't mean I'm going to like other hobbies just because you give them a Christian coat of paint. Similarly, I like the gaming hobby because I like games, so if you expect me to enjoy a Christian themed game, it needs to be a good game first of all. Fortunately, Kingdom of Solomon really is, in view of the particularly interesting ways it works with the worker placement mechanic. The good news is that while the theme does bring aspects of the Biblical narrative to life in a respectful way, it doesn't at all compromise quality of game-play.
All this means that Kingdom of Solomon is a fully independent and well designed worker placement game that has the maturity and quality to stand on its own two legs, without needing to rely on the theme as a supporting crutch. Granted, it just happens to have a solid Biblical theme, although it's not one that is so over the top that it will send those who are unfamiliar with the Bible running and screaming. But it sure is refreshing to discover a Biblically themed game that is a satisfying, medium weight euro, and that can go the distance on its merits as a game. A game of this sort has real potential to get some mileage in the Christian market, and in my opinion deserves to make its mark there, but the good news is that its appeal should stretch well beyond that. For this accomplishment the efforts of designer Philip duBarry are ones that Christian gamers like myself should applaud, support and encourage. I've just posted a review of Kingdom of Solomon, and I highly recommend you check this game out:
Want to know more? See my full review: Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Successfully bringing the excellence of Caylus-style worker placement to Bible times
A deeper solution for Christian gamers
But there is another solution for Christian gamers on a quest for good games, one which is independent of finding a good game with a solid Biblical theme, although efforts to produce such games are certainly welcome and deserve to be applauded. And that's to come to the realization that for the most part the elements that make gaming a positive activity for Christian families and groups usually have little to do with the theme. Certainly there might be games that have to be excluded from play by virtue of their objectionable theme or artwork alone. Similarly there might be games that particularly commend themselves for play by virtue of a particularly positive theme - as was the case with Kingdom of Solomon. But for the most part a Christian approach to games is about the spirit in which it is played, the lessons that are learned from it, and the place that it has in one's life - and that includes demanding high standards from the game-play as well.
Perhaps this could be considered a "redeemed" approach to boardgames, when they are played to God's glory and for our neighbour's good, and when they are enjoyed as a gift from God, and none of this especially demands having a Christian theme. This approach gives room for coming to a positive assessment of and enjoyment of boardgames that more importantly meet the criteria of being quality products on the level of design and components as well, and not merely theme. For me and my family, this redemption of boardgames will be more successful when playing something tried and true like CATAN than a game that's overtly Christian but where the gameplay disappoints.
Fortunately this means that Christians have many options when it comes to selecting good games. There are many wholesome games to choose from that don't necessarily have a Christian theme, but give families the opportunity to have an enjoyable gaming session together, and offer good quality gameplay. Sure, Christian gamers will like a good Christian game. But in the end what we really like is a good game - any good game - that we can play as Christians. Now please excuse me, I'm off to go play another game of Kingdom of Solomon, followed by a rousing game of London.
Join the discussion: What's your take on Christian themed games, and what has been your experience with them? Can you think of other examples of Biblically themed games that also pass the test of being quality game designs in their own right?
- [+] Dice rolls
28 Dec 2011
2011 has been a great year for gaming.
I was fortunate enough to play around 50 different new games over the last year, many of which were newer releases. To round off the year, I've compiled and posted my complete overview of the new games I was able to play in a geeklist, along with ratings and a brief synopsis of each game. Check this list for discussion on the individual games:
Ender's 2011: An Overview of 50 Great New Games That You Should Know About
A big thank you to all those who read any of my reviews over the past year - I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for your support and interest. And my best wishes to everyone for 2012!
- [+] Dice rolls
A full six and a half years after posting my very first session report to BGG, I've reached a new milestone: 100 Session Reports! Report #100 had to be something special to mark the occasion, so I chose a memorable session of Arkham Horror played with my good friend the Masked Man - a game which for us personally marked the end of an era. Here it is:
The Masked Man's very last game. Goodbye my friend. [my *100th* session report!]
You can find the complete list of all my session reports here: Ender's session reports [Most Popular] [Most Recent]
This retrospective is simply a self-indulgent look back at the last six and a half years of writing the occasional session report, to reflect on what worked and what didn't, and to highlight some of my personal favourites. My session reports fall into six main categories, which I've listed below along with a selection of some of the most popular in each:
1. Pictorial illustrations of game-play
A total of 14 session reports fall into this category, and these proved to consistently be the most popular. These include my most thumbed session report of all, which is of the game Innovation. I'm also pleased with how my illustration of the gameplay of Richard III: The Wars of the Roses turned out, particularly since exploring a block-wargame was something new for me. I suppose what accounts for the success of these reports is that they help show people how a game worked, so they can visually see the game in practice. Some highlights and some of my own personal favourites:
142 Pictorial Illustration of Game-play: A sample turn of Carl Chudyk's innovative new civilization-themed card game
103 Pictorial Illustration of Game-play: A sample game of 2 de Mayo
102 Pictorial Illustration of Game-play: A sample turn as a weakened King Henry VI fights desperately to save London!
76 Pictorial Illustration of Game-play: Let's learn how to play Haggis!
60 Pictorial Illustration of Game-play: Some sample plays from an innovative two-player trick-taking game
2. Creative reports of game-play
I really enjoy creative writing. Sometimes the muse just flows, and I get into the groove and the words just appear readily. Even so, in most cases a good session report receives the benefit of much editing and tinkering before it is finally published. Session reports are especially rewarding when they convey a sense of story, and some of my favourites attempt to recreate the drama and tension of real-game experiences. I'd like to think that I have some sense of humor, and that this also contributes to making these fun to read. Some highlights and some of my own personal favourites:
95 A pictorial report of my first ever block war game: a man and his 13 year-old son take a thrilling ride back to medieval England
71 The perils of serving Haggis for a date-night on Valentine's Day: an eyewitness report
50 New World Records: Celebrating the 2008 Olympics with Knizia's Decathlon
37 Rewriting History: the intense and hilarious drama of my best ever game that I didn't even play
37 Sherlock Holmes and the Dastardly Case of the Dead Druggist: a dramatic pictorial report
3. Pictorial reports of game-play
A picture can tell a thousand words. In some instances my retelling of the story relied heavily on the pictures, so that the visual images constituted the majority of the report. These are some of the picture-heavy reports that seem to have been enjoyed over the years.
111 A pictorial report of our first game: the adventures of a man and two children, in their valiant quest to defend the king's city
100 Extreme Scrabble: Taking Scrabble to where it's never been taken before!
67 A giant sized version proves a big hit with seniors at an outdoor garden party (with pictures!)
44 Introducing three children to the city of Belfort (a report with pictures)
35 A Tale of One Family and Three House Fires (a pictorial report of three games with the Family rules)
4. Gaming with the Masked Man
The last three categories of session reports all recount various gaming adventures with three good gamer friends of mine. The first of these is the infamous Masked Man, and no less than about 30 session reports regale some of our adventures together. Please don't be too intimidated by the pictures - you may find that the stories of these games have more charm and humour than you'd expect!
44 The Masked Man goes homeless and hungry after drafting his beloved Cube (The 100 in 25 Challenge: #25, Week 10)
37 The Masked Man helps usher in a new error* in the anals* of human history (The 100 in 25 Challenge: #14, Week 5)
31 The Masked Man fiddles while Rome burns (The 100 in 25 Challenge: #11, Week 3)
20 The Masked Man meets the world's ugliest San Juan themed tablecloth (The 100 in 25 Challenge: #21, Week 8)
18 The Masked Man & an invisible friend revisit the world's worst tablecloth (The 100 in 25 Challenge: #22, Week 8)
5. Gaming with my buddy Scurvodsky
I was fortunate enough to spend an entire week on holidays with my friend Scurvodsky and his family, and we got in a lot of games during this time together. Here are some highlights of the 10 session reports that resulted:
24 In which Ender plays his first ever game of Tigris & Euphrates
22 Will 1960 fade into obscurity in 2012?
20 The tension that is Agricola - but do I like it or not?
19 Ender revolts against the game: Why should I play for 3 hours and not even finish Turn 1? (with pictures)
16 Family fun with one of the very best euro/wargame hybrids (includes a Mare Nostrum review)
6. Gaming with the random gamer at the cottage next door
Finally, I also spent a week on holidays with another friend, and this also generated about 15 session reports. These were among my very first session reports, so they were briefer for the most part - but the games they record were certainly no less interesting!
14 The Random Gamer at the Cottage Next Door: Game #1 Lifeboats
11 The Random Gamer at the Cottage Next Door: Game #3 Vikings
4 The Random Gamer at the Cottage Next Door: Game #4 Pandemic
5 The Random Gamer at the Cottage Next Door: Game #6 Age of Empires III
4 The Random Gamer at the Cottage Next Door: Game #8 Attribute
In closing I mention that Mozart78 has been doing a herculean job in going through every single session report on BGG and awarding what he calls the "Excellence in Session Report Writing Awards." I've been fortunate enough to have my session reports chosen a few times, and you'll find a list of the winning sessions here:
Excellence in Session Report Writing Awards winners
Will I write another 100 reports over the next six and a half years? I have no idea. But one thing I do know: reading over some of these reports reminds me of the wonderful experiences games can generate and the lasting memories they can create. For me, session reports help me preserve something of an experience that is precious to me. And that, really, is what gaming is about for all of us isn't it?
Join the discussion: Do you ever write session reports for games that you have played? Why or why not? What do you think is the value of session reports on BGG?
- [+] Dice rolls
24 May 2011
Back in February I posted an article on this blog about the humour in some of the promotional pictures put out by game publishers.
With that still fresh in my mind, it was with great interest that I recently read about The Table of Catan, a custom made and officially licensed table for Settlers of Catan, available at www.tableofcatan.com. After all, who wouldn't want to own a piece of exquisite craftsmanship like this, with the official Settlers of Catan brand? Well... maybe not every gamer, but you have to admit that the custom table actually looks rather impressive!
But now what I found rather amusing were the accompanying promotional pictures on the website. They raise all kinds of existential and pressing questions about the game, and about the game group pictured there! Questions that deserved to be asked and answered by the BGG community!
Exhibit A: Game Board
● Why is a four player game being played on the larger 5-6 player board?
● Why did the green player place her starting settlement alongside the desert and a 3, when there were so many better options?
Exhibit B: Game Group (Part 1)
But wait, we're not done yet:
At least now we've got five players in the game. But there are some odd things going on:
● Why is the lady wearing green sitting in front of the card bank instead of in front of her own colour?
● Why is the lady with the dice about to roll right on some settlements and roads, and cause chaos on the board? And are the other players laughing because they think that doing this is some kind of sick joke?
● Where are all the men gamers? Or is this a ladies night?
And perhaps most important of all:
● WHO LET THE LITTLE KID WITH THE DRINK THAT CLOSE TO THE BRAND NEW TABLE???!!!
● And what's with the sausage rolls on the game table, and so close to the board?
Exhibit C: Game Group (Part 2)
But we're still not finished. Because it gets better:
Order is restored, because dad has arrived! Notice that the game state has not changed at all since the previous picture! Yep, it's exactly the same game. But what has changed is the presence of dad, and the absence of all the food and drinks. Which raises all kinds of new questions:
● What happened to the cans of coke that two players were enjoying in the previous picture? Evidently dad has enforced his "no food or drink at the game table" rule. Did they get to finish their drink?
● What happened to the little girl and her mother? Did they get evicted from the game and the house because of the kid breaking the `no drinks' rule?
● Where is the fifth player? What happened to the lady rolling the dice in the previous picture - did she get sent home as well? And did she take the dice with her?
● Why did the ladies wearing blue and brown get to change places mid-game? In my world that's called cheating!
● Why are the other players all looking at and smiling at dad? Are they sharing a secret joke at his expense?
Inquiring minds want to know!
Join the discussion: What other pressing questions deserve to be asked when you see these pictures? And can you come to any grossly unjustified and thoroughly speculative conclusions in an attempt to answer any of these questions? Let speculation run rife!
- [+] Dice rolls
A New Photo Caption Contest
I've run several BGG Photo Caption Contests over the years. There have been some excellent entries and winners, and over 150GG of prizes have been awarded. Here are some of the winning entries that I've especially enjoyed from previous contests:
"Hmmmmm, so THIS is where my college fund is going. - Kodos
"The third day of a convention often takes its toll on the mind. In this shot, a sleep-deprived gamer checks his camel for line of sight." - cbs42
Want to see previous contests and all the winning entries? See the complete list here:
BGG Photo Caption Contest series
Now the BGG Photo Caption Contest returns, and for this edition, I have again picked a number of pictures that are themed around gamers and their antics. Please join in the fun, and share some of your humor, or just enjoy the wit of your fellow gamers! There are some GeekGold prizes to be had!
Want to join in? Find the current contest here:
BGG Photo Caption Contest #5: Gamer Antics
A New Personal Milestone
So why another contest? Well I figured the timing was right, since last week (Friday, May 13, 2011) I reached two significant milestones with respect to my BGG contributions on the same day: 100,000 thumbs, and 10,000 images! Yes, I'll be the first to admit that it's ridiculous - but there you have it!
I decided that running another photo caption contest would be another way of thanking the BGG community at this time. BGG is a place where we can meet and exchange ideas and information about a hobby that we mutually enjoy. In many respects what makes it such an enjoyable place to frequent are these reciprocal connections and exchanges of material, and the willingness of gamers around the world to share their contributions with fellow enthusiasts. It's really the cumulative contributions of a multitude of diverse users that helps make this site the incredibly useful global resource that it is!
To humour myself, I compiled a retrospective of some of my own contributions over the years:
Ender's Greatest Hits: Celebrating 100,000 thumbs and a platinum meeple
Crossing the 10,000 Images Milestone: Some of my favourite pictures
Thanks to everyone who has ever given a `thumb' of encouragement to any of my contributions over the years. And I'm grateful to everyone here for making BGG what it is!
- [+] Dice rolls