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Interviews by an Optimist # 94 Nick Medinger

Nick says this about himself…

I was born in small town Nebraska where the land is so flat they say you
can watch your dog run away for 3 days. When I was 8, my parents moved out to Southern Oregon where I lived the typical kid/teenage life. I attended and graduated Drake University, located in Des Moines Iowa, with a double major in history and political science. After living a couple years after graduation in Des Moines, working in the computer/online industry, I moved back to Oregon.

I started at Funagain just before the Christmas season in 2002, and was hired on as a shipping clerk to help with the holiday rush. I spent a few years in Iowa going to college and working there. I finally decided I had enough of Iowa, quit my job, moved back home and needed employment. I saw an ad for a job at Funagain, and I applied. I knew Funagain existed, as I had visited a couple of times when I was home on break during college but was really unaware what Funagain did.

I worked through that Christmas season packing boxes, typing labels and doing general warehouse work. In the spring of 2003 I started processing orders and doing customer service work. In the summer of 2003 I left Funagain for another job, but in January 2004 that job, which had always been only potentially long-term, was no longer needed and I returned to Funagain in the customer service mode. I did that, as well as some very
mundane office operational work until August 2005 when I took over as Funagain's Marketing Director.


Tom: Nick, Funagain Games, according to my sources from manufacturers, holds the lion's share of the online board game market. What are the reasons for this?

Nick: One thing that certainly helps Funagain is our long history as a board game retailer. Funagain was created about 8 years ago, and as such we have a lot of experience at dealing in the board game industry. We're also able to build and keep a loyal customer base which keeps returning to us because we provide a wide selection of games from around the world, good customer service and a good experience when buying online. Providing that good experience is probably the most difficult thing to do when running an online business (we do have a store front), and we constantly strive to keep those standards pretty high. We try to give people the same experience when they shop on our site, as when they walk into our store. It's much easier, from a customer service standpoint, to help someone when they are directly in front of you asking questions and giving feedback as you go. I think the depth of our catalog also helps us in the market place. At any given time we have about 2,000 different titles in stock (last time I looked it was running near 2,100), and we always try to remember that not every customer wants the same thing. Certainly, most people order the newest, most popular games, but we like having a catalog full of older still great titles, and some really great hard to find stuff. That's why Funagain takes going to Essen every October so seriously. It allows us to go directly to Germany and find those gems that lurk in the back of game stalls that you
just can't find in the US.

Tom: Keeping such a huge stock must take a lot of room! How do you determine when to no longer carry a title?

Nick: That's the trick to it all. Part science, part art, part divining. Knowing how many customers will want of something can at times be quite the guessing game, and we do our best to take pre-orders, get a feel for pre-release buzz and just see what gamers are saying about a game. Then we have to determine at what point do we think our sales will level out, or maybe they'll never level out. For most titles, if they are still available, we try to carry very limited quantities instead of not carrying them at all, because somebody somewhere probably wants a copy.

Tom: What about the swarms of new online board game companies that seem to be constantly springing up? Do you think that they will last?

Nick: I think that depends. Just like any industry that's growing there's certainly room for many players to each carve out their own positions. It just depends on if those players can find a position/niche they're comfortable with, and also sustain their business. In a sense like that I don't think the retail game industry, online or otherwise is any different than any other industry.

Tom: Nick, recently FunAgain has had some exclusive offers, such as Carcassonne: the Discovery, and Havoc: the Hundred Years War. Some have criticized this "exclusive" policy, stating that it hurts the game business. What is your response to them?

Nick: Funagain enjoys bringing hard to find and unusual games to the public, and we've recently had the fantastic opportunity to play a major role in distributing really good games to the public as the leading games retailer. It makes it easier for certain game publishers to do it this way, as they often have very limited staff to manage distribution. We're pleased to be able to offer such great games, and we hope to continue to do so even more widely.

There's been quite the discussion on exactly what happened with Funagain and our exclusive distribution deal, and now that it's become a public debate, we'd just like to get the facts out to everyone. In 2004 Funagain was approached by Rio Grande Games about helping produce Carcassonne: The Discovery, because at the time Hans im Gluck was not going to produce a German version. The game was designed and ready to go, but without a German print run would never see the light of day, so Funagain made the decision to produce the game. However, Hans im Gluck changed their minds and decided to move ahead with a German version after Funagain reached agreement with Rio Grande, so Funagain became the distributor of the English version of the game instead of the only version of the game. We've been very happy with how it performed over the holiday season (our #4 best seller), and sales continue to be strong this January where it's been our #2 seller. It's a good game, a good addition to the Carcassonne franchise, and Funagain is proud to have helped the game come to market.

Tom: What would be your response to those who argue that online stores are putting the "Friendly Local Game Store" out of business?

Nick: Funagain sort of has a unique position when it comes to this debate, as we are both an online retailer and run a traditional brick and mortar store. Online stores and the FLGS can co-exist together in the same market place. For instance, Funagain provides a lot of imported hard to find new and used titles (over 2,000) that would be next to impossible for a normal brick and mortar store to provide. Funagain also provides products to what is still a niche market in this country, and this helps both our online and our retail store presence. People find us on the internet, or locally because they know we'll carry something out of the ordinary. Throughout the year, but especially during the summer travel season we have people stop by our store on their way down from Seattle or Portland, or up from San Francisco or Los Angeles because they heard about a game, or played a game and expect that "that Funagain place" is going to have it. We're also exploring plans to open new brick and mortar outlets in different locations, as we think it's the best way to spread the world of gaming to the general public.

I do agree that deep discounting hurts the gaming industry in general, as it undervalues the product. Everybody along the line, designer, manufacturer, distributor and retailer want to get paid for their products and want to be able to make a living at it. It's pretty hard to do that, when the product you made, which you have an idea of how much it should be worth, ends up being worth a significant amount less when it hits the end of the chain. This entire argument, of course, is a larger economics argument, and some internet retailers have really brought this to a head.

Tom: What would be your advice to someone who's thinking about opening their own game store?

Nick: Carry variety. As much as the really serious Eurogamer enjoys the heavier games the vast majority of people who play games want a light, fast, minimal rules game. Also be prepared to constantly answer that you don't carry any kind of video games. That is probably our number one question from people who've never been into Funagain, and don't know what Funagain is. You'll also play a lot less games at work than you'd like, so don't go into it expecting to get in any game time at work, because it probably isn't going to happen. Remember that a game store is a destination store and that people will drive a few miles to come patronize your store, so make your store known around the local community. Ashland (where the Funagain store is located) is in a fair-sized valley, and we have customers who drive 30+ miles to come visit us on a regular basis.

Tom: How much "mass market" stock, like Monopoly, should a store carry? What about CCGs and miniature games?

Nick: Mass market is still very important. People expect that your store will carry Monopoly, Scrabble, and the mass market party games like Catch Phrase and Scattergories, and if you don't carry them, they'll likely not return. The key to getting people past Monopoly or Scrabble, or introducing them to a new "lots of people" game is to show them something very similar to what they're expecting. For example, when I'm
watching the Funagain store and somebody comes in asking for Scrabble, I show it to them, but I also show them Buyword (which we have next to Scrabble) and let them know that it shares some of the same characteristics as Scrabble but is different enough that they might like it. For party games I've recently started suggesting Wits & Wagers; as I've had a chance to play it and find it to be a very well designed game, which is not often the case when it comes to party games. Most people only buy a few games a year and play those games a lot, so they want something they won't get bored of and something that has lots of replay value, if you give that experience to them, they'll be grateful. However, with all that said there are still going to be people who just want Monopoly; and you need to have it, so they don't go down the street instead. There's also a growing stock of games that while probably can't be considered mass market are much bigger than a niche. Settlers is probably the oldest title out of this batch, but new additions include Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Blokus, Set, Take 6/Category 5, and Wizard. We sell a lot of these games, both via the website and our store, and it's amazing how many people come into the store and say, "I bought game X from you and loved it. What else do you have similar to this, or what's the next step up?" Where game X is one of those games from the list.

CCGs and minis games are a little different animal. They have a different market than board games, and it just depends on what market you're aiming for. We only do the Axis & Allies Minis at Funagain and no CCGs, because we've made the decision that we're going to concentrate on board and card games only. If there's not already a few decent sources for CCGs/minis in your area, then it's probably a good idea. If you're just going to be another player in an already crowded market, then it's probably not worth it.

Tom: There are thousands of games out there. How do you determine whether or not to carry a game or not?

Nick: Sometimes the decision is fairly easy. If it's a new game from an established company, then we generally give it a shot. Unsolicited games are a little more difficult. We try to get our hands on a demo copy and/or all the promotional materials a company can provide. We take a look at the whole game, how it plays, what the components look like and their quality. We also have more than one person look at a new game. This helps us from getting tunnel vision, and not being able to recognize a game that one person many not enjoy or play, but that has a market.

Tom: Can you tell us any interesting selling info, such as games that sold a lot more than you expected, or your top selling games, etc.?

Nick: Our top 10 games sold during this past Christmas season (in order) were Carcassonne, Rat-a-Tat Cat, Elfenland, Carcassonne: The Discovery, Blokus, Buyword, Rage, Ticket to Ride, Lost Cities, and Havoc: The Hundred Years War. Some of these are not surprising, because they've become perennial favorites; but Funagain's mention in the New York Times certainly didn't hurt to expose good games that otherwise wouldn't have received as much attention, like Buyword and Elfenland. We were also very happy with the sales of Carcassonne: Discovery and Havoc, which both cracked the top 10 list.

We also had some surprise sellers this year, like the Family Pastimes game Max, and Wits & Wagers did very well for us and ended up as our top selling party game of the holiday season.

Tom: Have you ever run into problems, such as a game sells quite a bit less than you expected, and then you are overloaded with stock?

Nick: It certainly does come up, but we've gotten pretty good about playing psychic on how much to order. Depending on the source for the game, if we can get a re-stock quickly, then we can be a little conservative on what we order. We also don't mind carrying a few extra games on hand, as it helps add to the depth of our already very large catalog (about 2,000 different titles), we just don't want to carry 100 extra copies of something if we don't need. At that point you just do any of the standard retailing tricks of offering the game at a really discounted price or combining it with some other promotion. More often than a game really underselling, we find a title that oversells and the supply dries up. A perfect example of this happened at Christmas when the Hide N Seek Safari game/toy had huge mass market media exposure, and our orders for the game skyrocketed. Unfortunately the manufacturer had short supply as well as the game quickly sold out and was not available at all during the peak season. If anybody could develop a crystal ball to see the unexpected hit a couple months ahead, they'd make a killing.

Tom: What are the best and worst parts of your job?

Nick: Well like any job, working at Funagain involves paperwork, and it's not exactly the most exciting part of my day. Some people probably have the notion that we do nothing here all day except play games, but there's just as much regular office work as with any other place. The best part is easily all the cool games. When I started at Funagain, I was only marginally aware of designer games (I had heard of Settlers); but I played a lot of traditional stuff. Then I was exposed to the kind of games that Funagain carried, and it was like working inside a dream world. It's even better now, because I get to be apart of making the decision on what cool new games to carry and do really cool things like going to Essen. It's also really great to know that I'm working in the entertainment world. Every game we sell to somebody is probably turning into hours and hours of fun and enjoyment. It's nice to know you're helping people have fun and spend time with others.

Tom: What are your personal favorite games?

Nick: The truth is I have a hard time picking favorites, because I'm pretty forgiving when it comes to games; and as long as I have a good time while I'm playing it, it ends up in my "good game" list. I tend to gravitate towards the light to middle-weight games myself, mostly because my attention span can only go for so long, and I enjoy the designer game standards like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and Settlers. Recently I've been playing Railroad Tycoon a lot and enjoy it, even though I have yet to win by being a Chicago based tycoon. I also really enjoy St. Petersburg and the never-had-an-English-edition, Edel Stein & Reich. When I can be talked into a heavier title, I do like Puerto Rico; and though I've only had the chance to play it once, I did enjoy Power Grid. I also play some more traditional games with my family friends which I enjoy like Mexican Train, dominoes, or Wizard, or poker.

Tom: What would be your advice for an aspiring game designer?

Nick: Playtest. We see a lot of games that haven't been playtested enough, and the final product suffers. Having a well tested game doesn't guarantee that your game will be a hit, but it's much harder to make it successful if it isn't. Especially if you're going for the designer game crowd. People are very savvy these days about what does and does not work. I'm sure there's a lot more good advice for a new game designer, but this is crucial from the sales end of the process. Retailers can help a good game get noticed and push sales, but nobody is going to do that with a bad game.

Tom: So, give us some predictions from 2006. Any games to look out for?

Nick: Pretty much a no brainer, but Caylus should continue to do very well. We sold out of our first allocation very quickly in December, and I expect it will keep going. When I was at Essen this past year, the Ystari booth was packed and basically impossible to walk by, as there so many people wanting to play the game. I started wondering if the game was going to be able to stand on its own legs or if it was all hype. So far it looks pretty good. The new Ticket to Ride game should do well, as the first two in the series are still holding their own. I'm also hoping Railroad Tycoon keeps up strong sales, and I really think that Wits and Wagers has a really good opportunity to go mainstream and sell numbers that us "niche market" folks aren't used to. I'm also really excited to see the re-release of Can't Stop by Face2Face coming up this summer/fall.

Tom: Nick, what can we expect to see from Funagain this coming year? Any change, promotions, etc?

Nick: You can expect to see more of the same from Funagain and even more than you have in the past. We're going to continue to provide a huge selection of designer games to the core US market and our large customer base in over 50 countries around the world. Great customer service will also continue to be of prime importance.

Our goal, as avid gamers ourselves, is three things: to make sure our customers are having fun with family and friends with their games, that the larger gaming community grows, and the number and quality of games continues to expand for everyone. As I previously mentioned, we had, and continue to have, great success with our exclusive distribution games, especially Carcassonne: Discovery and Havoc, which continue to be in our Top 5 Bestsellers even now into February. We plan to continue to work with smaller game publishers who are just getting started and need some help, or on other great titles that for one reason or another will never see the light of day. We have some more exclusives planned in 2006 (we have one in particular that I'm very excited about). We're also going to heavily push the "designer game" genre to the general public, as this is really the key to getting the industry to grow. We have a lot of work to do for our hobby. We also plan to increase focus on our physical store and its tie to the community by continuing and expanding outreach programs with our local science museum and school game days. We also have a lot of other plans just in the initial stages, and it's really too early to talk about anything publicly at this point.

We plan to continue to offer the lowest prices on certain "special games", like Monkeys on the Moon for $8, Fist of Dragon Stones, Queen's Necklace and Hare and Tortoise for only $10, with a minimum purchase of only $25 (you can get all four with the minimum purchase). We rotate these games regularly so stay tuned. This and other features, such as the reward point system, our customer reviews, our gift buying guide, our fresh from Essen games, offer our customers a unique buying experience, and we're committed to keep that experience and continuing to improve it. Many people have obviously figured this out, as our business continues to grow. We like that, not only for obvious reasons, but also because we get to help bring the wonderful hobby of boardgaming to the world and help bring family and friends together in a way that computer games can never do.

Tom: Nick, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Nick: I'd just like to take one last opportunity to say thanks to all of our customers and everyone who's purchased a game from us. It's great knowing that we can help make so many people's lives fun, and we have every intention of continuing that tradition well into the future.

Edited by Tom and Laura Vasel
March 7, 2006
"Real men play board games"
www.tomvasel.com

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Re: Interviews by an Optimist # 93 - Nick Medinger (Funagain
This should actually be #94, right?

Thanks for a great series, Tom. I don't think Optimist get's enough credit. It's easily the most informative and inspiring series of gaming-related articles I've ever read.
 
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Re: Interviews by an Optimist # 93 - Nick Medinger (Funagain)
When I read this I was stunned:

Quote:
I do agree that deep discounting hurts the gaming industry in general, as it undervalues the product. Everybody along the line, designer, manufacturer, distributor and retailer want to get paid for their products and want to be able to make a living at it. It's pretty hard to do that, when the product you made, which you have an idea of how much it should be worth, ends up being worth a significant amount less when it hits the end of the chain. This entire argument, of course, is a larger economics argument, and some internet retailers have really brought this to a head.


As Yogi Berra said, "It's like deja vu all over again."

Nick is, of course, correct. But I guess what suprised me was hearing him make the same argument about lower perceived value that has gotten me into some pretty lengthy debates.

Personally, I am still of the opinion that Funagain is an example of the right way to do online and that they are much better suited to carrying obscure or niche titles that would be dead weight for 99.9% of B&M stores.

Guess I'll have to stop in sometime when I'm over that way and give them some business. Nice job again Tom, great interview.
 
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