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Links: Play Catan, Play with CMON, and Don't Play More Games Than You Ever Thought Possible

W. Eric Martin
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Let me lead off by stating that I hate April Fools' Day, so I have nothing tricky posted below. Everything is a legit link unless someone has uploaded new pages on me after the fact. I loathe that I even have to give such warnings, but there it is.

With that anti-caveat in mind, let's get to some industry happenings, starting with the announcement of CMON Play, an exclusive promotional program for brick and mortar game stores in the U.S. and Canada from CMON Limited. An excerpt from the press release:

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This new program is designed to help promote the growth of retail stores by offering exclusive access to Game Night Kits, Pre-Release Kits, Demo Copies, and Kickstarter Retail Pledges from CMON's wide library of titles.

The board game industry and culture is here because of brick and mortar stores, and CMON wants to ensure our retailers have the tools they need to keep their businesses and communities thriving. Ruby Nikolopoulou, CMON's Marketing Director, explains, "Throughout the creation of the CMON Play program, retailers, their stores, and their customers have been front-and-center in our minds. They are the cornerstone to our industry, and CMON Play give us a chance to connect with them and support them in exciting, new ways."

Game Night Kits allow stores to run events for popular CMON games, such as Zombicide: Black Plague, Blood Rage, Potion Explosion, and Bloodborne: The Card Game. Kits will be available every two months, beginning with Black Plague in June [2017], and will offer game content that has never been available before. Running these Game Night Kits as events also allows stores to earn points that can be spent through CMON directly.

Continuing the retail-first philosophy of CMON Play are the Pre-Release Kits. For specific, high-profile games, CMON is offering retailers the ability to sell the title two weeks before any non-CMON Play store and online retailers, beginning with the highly-anticipated The Godfather: Corleone's Empire from designer Eric M. Lang.

Asmodee North America plans to host Catan Days 2017 on April 21-23 at the Fantasy Flight Games Center in Roseville, Minnesota. The event opens with a preview of upcoming titles from Catan Studio on April 21, followed by a two-day Catan tournament with up to 96 players that serves as a qualifier for the Catan National Championship to be held at the 2017 Origins Game Fair in June. Saturday, April 22 will also see a "Catan Big Game" tournament in which up to eighty players compete in the same game simultaneously. You can preregister for the event on the Catan Studio website.

Plan B Games, which will debut at Origins 2017 with Century: Spice Road (game preview and designer interview here), has been rolling out names of future design collaborators without any mention yet of what those games might be. Those collaborators include Pandemic's Matt Leacock (as announced here), Ubongo's Grzegorz Rejchtman (announcement), and Anita Landgraf from White Castle Games Agency in Austria (announcement).

Daniel Solis has designed a number of games, including Kodama: The Tree Spirits and Belle of the Ball, but he might be better known in the industry for his layout and graphic design work. He oversees a lot of different artists on these projects, and to help himself and them work toward inclusive art direction, he's compiled a number of tips, such as these two:

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Question the "default."

You know how Earth is moving around the sun and the sun is moving through the galaxy, but we don't recognize it because we are born into it? That's sort of like the "Default." My beliefs, body, culture, class, or anything else is not the "default." The "default" is just the motion we're born into and assume is the standard forever. In truth, the "default" is the inertia of history, family, and culture. If I stop putting in effort, just trying to remain "neutral," I turn into debris floating along with that inertia, harming people in my path who can't go along with that inertia. It takes ongoing effort just to keep myself standing still, holding what little progress I've made in improving myself. It takes even more effort to actually move against that inertia, to change what is considered "default."

Accept responsibility.

Sometimes I see questionable art direction justified by "It's what the market wants" or "It's historically accurate." Even granting that, which I do NOT necessarily, it is still an art director and creator's choices that rule the day. A fictional character doesn't have an ethnicity, gender, body, or pose by accident. It's a creator's choice to present a character a certain way. Even in video games with character customization, the creators set the options available. If an option is available, that's a choice. If it isn't available, that's a choice, too. Deferring and defaulting is a choice; one that I'm trying not to make whenever possible.




• Travis Severance, owner of Millennium Games in Rochester, NY, invited folks from various parts of the game industry to address this topic — "The Deluge of Board Games" — and he published their essays on his blog throughout March 2017. Here's a sampling from each writer:

Designer perspective from Travis R. Chance of Indie Boards and Games:

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As a small publisher, it can be extremely tough to land games from more established designers. This often means approaching newcomers to design. This potential compounded lack of experience is very likely to produce an altogether forgettable game, one that ends up on a crowdfunding platform, funds in defiance of all logic, and in turn inspires someone else to do the very same. It is an unending process of facsimile wherein people are in such a hurry to "create" that they never stop to question if their game NEEDS to exist. Any more, this is true across most creative mediums. If you have a camera on your phone, you are a photographer. If you have a simple audio recording/editing program on your laptop, you are a music producer. People are no longer good at one thing, they are mediocre at many — but I digress!

Publisher perspective from Jeff Tidball of Atlas Games:

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[T]here's truly a game for everyone, and everybody's game is for somebody. I've seen lots of games published by all kinds of people. And I'm not shy about thinking a whole lot of them are awful. But I've seen so many people who're honestly in love with games that I think are just garbage that I'm completely convinced that every game is for somebody. Even if you push the argument to the most ridiculous extreme, consider the designer's mom. Everybody's game is for somebody.

Specifics are valuable, so here's an example: I made a game called Band or Album last year. I made it because I think the premise is hilarious, and because I wanted it to exist in the world. It's not for everybody. In fact, it's hardly for anybody. But the people who it is for think it's great. One of the ways I can tell is that since it came out, it's been featured in a short film and been directly referenced in at least two other games whose designers have approached me to make sure it's cool to do that...

I made Band or Album because I think the premise is funny and because I wanted it to be out there for others to enjoy. Markedly absent: The desire to make a buck. So to put food on the table, I work with other people to publish games other than Band or Album, which have the potential to make better money.

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I've been working on a miniatures game called Gravstrike for years. My partner and I are getting close to the point where it'll be time to release it. It'll be the first release for a new company we created specifically to publish it, and the idea that it'll come out in a marketplace that might bury it for no easily discernible reason is not pleasant.

But that same marketplace has already made Gravstrike immeasurably better than it ever would have been in a less competitive world. We've gotten great feedback from friends and colleagues, and tested the game with dozens if not hundreds of actual gamers — not to mention store owners and journalists. We've found new factories who're working hard to provide components and materials that were unheard of in tabletop games ten years ago.

If we had pushed Gravstrike out even two years ago, it would be a remarkably worse game. Flat out, full stop. So I'll realize that competition in the marketplace is making me stronger, and I'll keep in touch with actual fans, and pretty soon we'll pull the trigger.

Distributor perspective from Mike Paschal of Peachstate Hobby Distribution:

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Everything is being ramped up. More games, designers, publishers…you name it, they are joining the ranks of this industry. How does the little guy stand a chance of being noticed? Should they be noticed? Harsh reality but a fair amount of products just shouldn't have made it to market, just to be found in liquidation bins next quarter. This is something I am very cognizant of when vetting new publishers/games. Sometimes I pass on a publisher's first game as to not tarnish their company name with our customers for their second game that will be a much better product. Retailers are quick to notice dust on a product; best to not have anything to collect said dust.

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Ultimately, we are kind of hand-tied and dependent on publishers marketing correctly — not just for their 3-4 new games that month but also properly marketing their back catalog of products. We have gone from a spike in initial sales, followed by a slow decline, to now just a spike in the first few days, followed by a flat line. In the cult of the new we are in, it's hard to justify spending marketing bandwidth on last month's games when you have an abundance of new releases coming out every other week. This has been our discussion in the office as of late. How do we keep sales up for last month's games? Just like when dealing with the up-and-coming KS folks, do we? If the publisher is no longer pushing it, why should we? Do we sell out of these few cases and not reorder? At some point we are going to go from trying to market for "last month's games", to "last week's games", to "yesterday’s games."

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With so many new products releasing now, I have been a little tighter on ordering titles in the middle or lower tier of the "hype train". I am ordering less from the start and immediately adding those items to the order I have due for NEXT week's new releases. This is opposed to ordering enough to last for the lines until it's time for a normal restock. Any given month we have 200+ board games (related) and selectively we do not carry everything on the market. We have to sell 80-85% of what we purchase, just to break even. If we pay freight coming in and going out, which happens most times, it's even more we have to sell. Back when we had 20 new items a month, we could afford to take deeper stances on new releases, as they would have a longer "new release" period. The number of new evergreens coming to market remains the same for the most part, annually. The number of products that have a higher chance of not hitting that 80-85% sell through is what is increasing. The biggest risk for us in taking this safer approach is under-produced products and thus not getting enough for our demand.

Marketing perspective from Ruby Nikolopoulou of CMON Limited (her again!)

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Deciding where to invest your time

From the first time we play them, some games just strike us as total winners. We know we have something quite exciting on our hands. Every now and then we fall in love with a title, and we feel that magic will work on others. We cannot guarantee it will sell for years, but we know it will probably make the finish line of highly successful releases (however we define that). Let's assume this represents 10% of all games we see. Am I too pessimistic? Okay, let's give this category a generous 15%.

Then, one could argue, other games deserve to see the light of day, yet we are almost certain they will not be with us for long. We hope they prove us wrong, but the hunch is quite strong. Can we assume these represent 20% of the games we see?

That brings me to the third category, which includes games that may speak to us but are not compelling enough for us to jump into certainty. Maybe the game mechanics are just all right, or the theme reminds us of previous ones we've played, or they play very well but what about that cover or the price point? In brief, the proposal does not come across as a certainty. We know it could do well, but have no clear indication it actually will. If my above assumptions are correct, this category accounts for 65% of games released. In reality, even if this percentage is off a little, we are talking about thousands of games and expansions per year. It's this 65% that has us all running in circles. Is it necessarily a bad thing? Depends on how you deal with it. Some of these games will become solid contenders if they are treated right.

The real question is: "Where should we devote our time as a marketing person?" The obvious answer is that we should focus on the best games. If only it were that easy! Looking at the other 65% with a critical eye to select the ones you think should be promoted is the real challenge. A choice needs to be made because marketing budgets are not infinite, neither are marketing teams or time. When finding an optimal solution is not possible, a heuristic method of decision making — call it at an educated guess or an intuitive judgment — is the approach to take. So we will invest marketing time and effort in that "absolutely sure this will kill it" category and then, with the help of our team (sales, development, marketing) we choose some titles from the "hold on, there might be something here" category. The choices from both categories become our short list of games. And we pour all our energy and creativity into this list. Of course, we then keep an eye out for any signs that validate or discredit our choices and adjust if necessary. After all, as Talleyrand would say: Only fools never change their minds!

Consumer perspective from Al Autovino:

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Is this the "Golden Age" of gaming or is it the demise of gaming as I once knew it? The answer is YES!

What do I regret about the deluge? Most games are "strangers" to me. I own over 400 games but most games have less than 10 plays. Back in the 1980s, we played Cosmic Encounter numerous times (probably numbering over hundreds of plays). We knew the game so well that we created a "Law Book" to document the decisions that we made when it came to rule ambiguities. When I played competitively at the local game convention (SimCon in Rochester NY), I would have to inquire about the differences between our group's "Law Book" and the game master's interpretation of the rules. CE was no "stranger" to me. Other games in the 1980s and 90s that were played extensively include Risk, Diplomacy, Civilization, Acquire, Conquest of the Empire, Fast Food Franchise, Kingmaker, Kremlin, Settlers, Airlines, and the early 18xx games.

In recent times, it is a rare game that gets over 10 plays. Some small and quick card game like Love Letter or Fuji Flush will get over 10 plays, but I want to focus on the board games. The most recent board game that I have gotten over 20 plays is Scythe. I love the game and think I know it well, but I still have a lot to learn. However, the honeymoon is over, and it is getting table time less and less as new games emerge to take its place. I own a copy of Scythe and its expansion, but most of the plays have been on somebody else's copy. It makes me wonder whether I needed to purchase my own copy. Being a game collector and a player made that question easy…of course I needed to own a copy of Scythe! Other recent board games that have gotten over 10 plays include Terra Mystica and Concordia. I'm sure that other games in my collection have gotten numerous plays but those plays come in spurts. Then the game may sit on my shelf for a number of months or years before the game is played again. The games become "strangers" to me once again because I have to reread the rules to be able to play the game again.

Brick-and-mortar retailer perspective from Travis Severance:

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Small publishers: You've got a lot of work to do. You can't hit a single or a double and hope to catch my eye. It needs to be a grand slam. I know that if your game is good and you make it into distribution your stock numbers are going to be wrong. You may not have the capital for a reprint. You may decide that short term gain is better than long term growth and make the decision to crowd fund the reprint. Why do I want to risk bringing in your game? There's lots to choose from.

How are you spending your marketing dollars? Oh, you don't really have marketing dollars because you didn't understand logistics and the shipping for your project is killing any profit that you would have made. That's okay. Sell me a case and I can treat this product the same way you are likely going to end up treating it, as a one and done. There's a number of smaller publishers that aren't in distribution that I buy direct from. It's pretty simple. I contact them when stock is low and they ship me a case of product. I really enjoy this relationship.

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Publishing owes me nothing. They produce games and I sell games. They are doing their best to make as much as they can. I am doing my best to help shape them in a manner where I can sell as much as I can. I don't like the direction all of them take. That's okay. They need to eat, too. They don't ever come into my store and tell me how to retail. Supply is a very real issue. They ultimately decide who gets what when it comes to product allocation. Some put their heads in the sand when it comes to this. Others are much more active and do a much better job of making sure the health of the industry as a whole is being looked after when it comes to their brand and titles. Many could be more proactive when it comes to this.

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The current issue, as I see it, is two-fold with distribution. They are buying far too wide instead of buying deep. Some distributors are putting in orders with that are far more than they have pre-orders for and when the game gets allocated and it's a flop, back-dooring that game through online vendors at an unhealthy rate before it even hits retail shelves to try to get out from under a bad purchase decision. The game hits, it sits on distribution shelves, it sits on retail shelves and we all chalk it up as a loss.

In the meantime, the publisher has no idea what hit them. They sold out, they pressed the re-order button when they did, now they are buried in cardboard. If I was a publisher and I wasn't sure who was playing this game, instead of giving a blanket percentage allocation to all distributors based on pre-orders, maybe take the time to adjust the dial per distributor a bit and see what happens.

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Consumers, when it comes to board games, go through this very unique evolution. Many times we are the first to introduce them to a game that isn't simply "You are the player, represented by this piece. Here is the method to get around this board. If you do so successfully, faster than everyone else, you are the victor. Decisions, you will make none." Introducing people to the world of board games now is an amazing experience. Being able to show them different products each time they come in is not only fun but rewarding.

It's odd though in that most cases, the better we do introducing them to the category, the more apt we are to lose them as consumers. Their purchase patterns increase and then they disappear. We see them when we have a promo. We see them when we have a game that's more expensive online. They wander over to our sale table and browse for games that they could possibly get a better trade for. They utilize our buying program for used games. We are no longer their hub for front end purchasing. It's sad when the retailer/consumer relationship gets to that point. We did our best to introduce them to this new world and they supported us during their growth. Now that they are purchasing more, our role to them changes. I understand. The volume has increased to the point where price is their primary drive. They can find it cheaper for sure. They are pledging for crowdfunding because they want that new "it" game. I don't blame them. I would likely do the same. If I could survive on smaller margins and still being you the shopping experience I do, I would.

There's nothing in the world I hate more than having to say "it's out of stock/we don't carry that". If ordered every new game that comes out, I would go out of business in about a month. It's just not sustainable. I understand your desire to not want to backorder. If you wanted to wait two days, you could probably find it elsewhere. Please understand though I am trying my best to curate stock that I think will provide you with the most compelling tabletop experience you can find. If you wanna know what I find most compelling, look at my demo tables. The rent for the space of those tables is pretty significant. If the games on those table weren't good, they wouldn't be on them.

Thank you for your continued support. Without it, I wouldn't be able to keep doing what I love to do in this industry.
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