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Interviews by an Optimist # 84 - Keith Blume

Keith gave this biography of himself…

I enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, served for 7 years and developed a long lasting love of the Corps. I served in Japan, Puerto Rico, Panama, various states in the U.S. and the last three years I was a Marine Security Guard in Iceland and Uruguay. I earned my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University and worked in the circuit protection (1 year) and wireless industries (2 years). My wife, sister and sister-in-law all earned MBAs so I figured I better try and keep pace, so in September 2001 I entered the MBA program at the University of Chicago GSB and graduated in June of 2003. October has been a great month the past few years. In October of 2003, Logan Alexander Blume came into the world and has been a real treat for my wife Pam and me. In October of 2004 I attended CHiTAG and saw several members of the Eagle Games team. I went home, did some research on the company and as luck would have it, when I contacted them there was an opening for Director of Marketing. Two weeks later I was hired and the rest, as they say, is history. Speaking of history, my family was involved with TSR back in the mid to late 70’s (Brian, Kevin and Doug are my uncles) so my work with Eagle Games really is no less than a dream job. Being involved in the game industry that I have enjoyed for some many years is always a pleasure for me.


Tom Vasel: What exactly do you do at Eagle Games?

Keith Blume: As to what I do at Eagle Games, the short answer is that I do what needs to be done (that was actually in my job description). As director of marketing I am responsible for ad budget, content and placement. I look at our release schedule for the year and project a budget and target the publications or demographics that we want to reach. Glenn often has a good idea of what he wants an ad to look like. The ad layout of our games tends to be similar depending on the type of game (for example big box games like Conquest and Civ will often feature the map on one side and pictures of the game assets along the border). So I have pretty clear marching orders of what an ad will look like.

On the execution side I am currently managing our demo program for retailers who carry our products. We have found that when our products are demoed, sales typically double. We appreciate retailers carrying our products and realize that for some of our bigger games it is a difficult choice whether or not to break open a game for the store. Historically we had the distributors handle this type of promo, but by having me involved it gives us a touch point with the retailers and expands our touch points with the distributors by helping me get to know the sales reps and the retailers themselves. The feedback that these parties provide is extremely important. What do people like? What don’t they like? How can the product be better? When we get feedback on questions like this from different points along the consumer supply chain, we can incorporate this feedback and continue to improve our products.

I travel to most of the shows we do, consumer (ie GenCon), retailer (ie distributor shows) and mass market (Toy Fair). The shows I enjoy most are the retailer and consumer shows. Visiting with people who play and carry our games is always a treat. This is my first year with the company, but there is a good connection with people at the shows when they realize that I play our games (and others as time permits). The old adage of “know your product” is as true in our industry as it is anywhere else.

I am involved heavily in playtesting, developing an extensive network of playtesters and creating an “Eagle Eyes” network, as I like to call it. We have several great people who are helping us by running demos of our games at various conventions across the U.S. This program is in its infancy, but with the caliber of people we have involved so far, I am really excited about this program.

Just recently I have started helping process retailer orders and handling some of the product support. From day one, everyone at Eagle Games has worked really hard to provide outstanding customer service and that really starts at the top with Glenn. I think it helps that he is a gamer as well and recognizes how important it is to provide the best support possible. We like people to look forward to our games and if anything is wrong, a quick resolution helps keep that excitement going.

Tom Vasel: The focus of Eagle games has seemed to shift over the last year or so. Is this true?

Keith Blume: Without question the last year saw a shift in focus due to the overwhelming success of our poker product. This year and next year our release lineup shows that we are back in the game and back to our core competency but with an expanded focus. Our product line now includes lighter family and party game products such as Cluzzle and Wits and Wagers, both from our partners at North Star Games. We are releasing more games from other designers, most notably Larry Harris (Conquest of the Empire) and Martin Wallace (the Struggle of Empires re-release and the co-designed Railroad Tycoon). This trend started with SDR, the team that brought you Bootleggers and our relationship with them continues as we will bring Charlestown Exchange to the table in 2006.

I think the expanded line is good because it allows for a wider audience to become familiar with Eagle Games. We want to remain true to our big box heritage, and we certainly will continue to release games in this format (most recently Conquest and RR Tycoon) but adding a wider range of fare helps spread the word.

Tom Vasel: What would be your response to the vocal minority of naysayers who criticize Eagle Games for lack of playtesting?

Keith Blume: I think that vocal minority has dwindled recently. From Bootleggers forward the feedback has been largely positive. Ultimately that feedback about playtesting was/is very important. A few months ago Glenn was talking about his plans for future products and one of the cornerstones was to increase the amount of playtesting. For some of our earlier releases, the playtest group was familiar with Glenn and so they were more likely to understand his intent. When you have fresh eyes that can only read the instructions and not be taught the game, this helps flesh out weak points in the rules. Also you get exposure to more playing styles, which can expose an oversight in the rules. A recent example of how helpful fresh eyes can be is when we posted the Railroad tycoon rules on BGG and during the course of playtesting we had moved from unit dollars to thousands of dollars, but there were some references to units that hadn’t been changed. Since we had always been used to the rules, it wasn’t apparent to us. The eyes on BGG caught it quickly, and we were able to correct it before going to press.

Tom Vasel: For Eagle to produce a game, does it have to have a giant board? Or more seriously, how do you determine the components for each game?

Keith Blume: We do seem to have a production issue where regardless of what we request, the board always winds up 3’ X 4’...we don’t get too many complaints about that, but there are a few.

We are known for our big games. Nowhere was that more apparent than at Essen. When I talked to Pat (the head of our European office), it was obvious that he really likes the big boards. And when people came by the booth that is what they wanted to play, the big games. When you walk around Essen you see roughly 400 new products. A big board without good game play is just a tabletop, but it certainly helps to be able to catch someone’s eye. We like games that are appealing in gameplay as well as appearance. I think this is one of the areas where Railroad Tycoon fills a pretty big void. When you play that game, the board begins to look like a miniature model railroad.

Basically our pieces have to serve a function (such as the mobster influence markers in Bootleggers), but we also like the cool factor in that they are fun to look at as well (the fact that they are mobsters instead of wooden wafers or something like that).

Tom Vasel: How do you go about choosing the components to games?

Keith Blume: Your question certainly gets to a key point of any business model. How do you make money, and how do you provide a value proposition? We try and get a good idea of how many units of a particular game we will sell over the course of a few years and negotiate production rates based upon those numbers. It takes some discipline for this approach to be successful, but it is key to providing good bang for the buck. These numbers are not produced all at once, but when we can provide a pretty solid commitment, it helps when negotiating rates. As many know, we have also moved a lot of our production to China. Even after shipping this saves a lot of money. It also provides a nice value added in that the figures are no longer on sprues (which people REALLY appreciate). We also try not to achieve maximum extraction. When you want to do repeat business with a party, it is important for both sides to feel they are benefiting from the transaction. By providing a lot of good product at a fair price we encourage repeat business.

On some of the posts on BGG, you can see a negative example of this in that some people were unhappy with some of our earlier releases, and it takes them awhile to come back around and give us another chance. We appreciate the customers who have stayed with us, our new customers and we are working hard to bring older customers back into the fold. The way to do that is provide a high quality product at a good price.

Tom Vasel: Eagle games are in more stores than any other “niche” game company. Why is that?

Keith Blume: Glenn has always aggressively pursued opportunities with mass chains. We also make products that appeal to a wide audience, so it makes sense that these games are carried in a wide range of stores. Licensed products such as Sid Meier’s Civilization, Age of Mythology and now Railroad Tycoon have a wide appeal. Stores that may be reticent to carry a $60 game from a niche company are more likely to take a chance on a well known license such as Civ.

I think with Glenn’s sales experience from the halcyon days of the PC game industry have stayed with him. Recognizing the sustained effort necessary to sell to a mass retail chain buyer and keeping after it, I think are the main reasons.

Tom Vasel: Obviously having a licensed product has many advantages. What are the disadvantages?

Keith Blume: Expectations, without question. For example if you look at the threads from Railroad Tycoon, it is apparent that some people would love to have more of the company management in the game. The goal is to make a good game in the spirit of the PC game and identify what translates well to a board game. We tried to have more company management with RR Tycoon, but the bookkeeping just became cumbersome. Things like that can be addressed in an expansion or with house rules. We have long felt that rules are a guideline, they are not the “be all end all”. I recognize for tournament play and for beginning play it is helpful to have a clear set of guidelines, but if something isn’t to your liking, change it. These are games, and the goal is to have fun.

Tom Vasel: Can you clarify Eagle’s relationship with North Star Games, and Rebel Forge?

Keith Blume: North Star Games is a developer with whom we have partnered. We produce some of the games they develop (they produced the initial run of Cluzzle before we became partners, and we picked up the second production run along with the production of Wits and Wagers). Rebel Forge came to Glenn last year at Essen with a finished and already produced game (Blood Feud in New York), and we picked up the warehousing and distribution for them. My guess is you know our relationship with SDR since you didn’t ask about them and also have interviewed Don not too long ago :-)

Tom Vasel: Can you quick give me the rundown on SDR anyway, since some people will be reading this who haven’t read the other interview…

Keith Blume: SDR is a design team, and we have published Bootleggers by them. I always have a great time when they come to town and show us some of their designs. We also plan to publish Charlestown Exchange, and they are helping with the design of Pirates. How is that for some scoop? :-)

Tom Vasel: With so many games that Eagle distributes, how do you decide which games get priority when advertising, etc.?

Keith Blume: We try to identify the correct outlet for our various products. For example Conquest of the Empire is appropriate for Armchair General, but advertising for that in the Civil War Times is a bit of a stretch. Another example of an advertising challenge is a game like Wits and Wagers. We get great feedback from people who play the game (retailers at distributor shows, consumers etc.), but an ad does not do a good job of capturing the fun of the game. The game has high quality assets, but they do not convey the sense of fun in the game very well. This is no fault of the game; I think the same could be said of advertisements for any trivia game. In this case, what we want to do is get demo copies into retailers’ hands. So instead of spending money on flat advertising, we have a very aggressive demo program for Wits and Wagers.

We give each product the attention it deserves, but by the same token expectation is also a driver. The advertising budget for a licensed/potential mass market game like Railroad Tycoon is going to be higher than for a niche game like War Age of Imperialism.

As far as future advertising and product plans go, it is important to note that we feel Conquest and Railroad Tycoon certainly were released closer together than we would prefer. Going forward we plan to do a maximum of one release a quarter. This gives a game ample time to get some momentum and also be the sole focus of our advertising effort. This may get adjusted up or down as needed, but in general we like people to get excited about releases we have in the pipeline and by maintaining a disciplined release schedule we can keep that enthusiasm high.

Tom Vasel: So what can we expect to see from Eagle in the future?

Keith Blume: Our release schedule for next year looks like this:

Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery
Pirates!
The American Civil War II
Charlestown Exchange
Civilization IV (hopefully :-))

We are in Alpha testing of AoE right now.

Pirates is being co-developed by Glenn and the guys at SDR, so that will be in alpha in less than a month.

The American Civil War II will be an update to ACW (new map, maybe a few rules tweaks)

Charlestown Exchange (4 players rules are set, there is some work being done on a potential 5-6 player version).

Civ IV (we will save information on that for a future discussion).

Tom Vasel: What other information can you give us on Age of Empires III?

Keith Blume: In its current state, Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery has exploration and expansion as you would expect in a game like this.

There are no dice in the game. At present, you bid for turn order. Unlike RR Tycoon, You pay whatever you bid, regardless of position, so it can get a little interesting in the bidding.

You have a series of options available to you, but each option can only be used once per turn (some examples are explore, settle, build army, native uprising and attack). So depending on what you want to do that turn, you may need to pay up. An interesting mechanism is the reform option. This effectively ends the turn. You don’t get to do anything game wise, but if you don’t have any options that are appealing to you, this ends that turn, and everything starts over again.

The map covers the Eastern portions of North America and South America. Each region has a particular good associated with it, and the more goods you have access to the higher the income you receive. So it encourages you to expand into as many regions as you can.

You start out with a certain number of ships. These ships are expended when you explore (you draw a card and it tells you how many ships your voyage consumed. You get victory points for discovering a region, and until you settle it, no one else can build there.

You have access to several buildings when you settle a region. Currently they are a trading post, a plantation, a settlement, a city and a fort. (The settlement is upgradeable to a city as long as it is adjacent to enough plantations).

Natives are present and must be befriended or removed if you wish to build a large presence in a region.

We are still working on the end game (a set number of turns, or when a certain number of cities have been developed).

This game is still in the alpha stage, but I really like how it played and feel that it has several unique (or at least uncommon) and enjoyable elements.

Tom Vasel: What advice would you give to prospective board game designers?

Keith Blume: Since I am not a designer, I can only answer this as an avid fan of games.

1. Know the type of game you want to make (and as an expansion, know your audience).

2. Seek feedback and incorporate as needed.

3. When looking for a publisher, create a five minute pitch that includes a simple example of gameplay.

Most people know what type of game they want to make. My advice would be to know your target audience as well and also how big it is. Typically audience size goes down as complexity goes up. Complexity is by no means a bad thing (think ASL) but recognize who and how many people will be playing the game. Once that is determined, make sure you follow through with the rules. If you are trying to keep rules streamlined, stick to it. If you are going for a highly detailed game that accurately models WWII combat, then do that thoroughly. You will lose your audience if you take one approach and then mid game take another.

Playtest, playtest, playtest. Playing with your friends is a good start but find players outside of your group to give the game a try. This will do two things; it gets you unbiased feedback, and it gets you a fresh set of eyes on your rules (as we at Eagle Games can appreciate with the feedback from BGG). We have been gradually expanding our pool of playtesters, and it is not hard. The most difficult part is creating multiple prototypes so that others can play when you (the designer) are not present. At a minimum, create a simplified prototype (maybe a smaller part of the map) to get people familiar with the mechanics and the rules, so they can provide at least some feedback.

When pitching a game remember that publishers see several designs, and they often have to say no to high profile designers. As with a job interview, it is important to articulate the merits of the game quickly and clearly. Highlight the points above (this is the game, here is the target audience, here is the size of the target audience, it has been playtested by x number of people, this number of people outside of my gaming group without me, here is the feedback, here is what I did with the feedback, here is a brief example of gameplay...boom, boom, boom. The goal is to get the publisher interested quickly, and then they will ask more questions and follow up. Don’t ask for two hours (or more) to try and take them through a whole game. It is not realistic, especially at game conventions or events. In addition, try and get in touch with who you will try and contact at a show or event. Scheduling a meeting is ideal, but shows are so fluid that it can be tough to stay on schedule. At a minimum, if you make contact ahead of time, it implies that you are doing your homework and planning ahead for the presentation.

Tom Vasel: What do you like best about your job? Least?

Keith Blume: There are many things I like about my job, but what I like most is that I am involved in something that people do for fun. When someone sits down to play a game, it is interactive, and it is a form of enjoyment. If my company does its job well, then people have a good time with something I helped create. The flipside is that if we don’t deliver, they are unhappy and can walk away with a bad feeling. That is not a bad part of the job; that is the responsibility of the job. As a person who has grown up around games, I know how much fun a good game can be. I take it personally when someone doesn’t like one of our products. Quite frankly I think I should take it personally. I recognize you will never please everyone, but I also know that it is important to keep getting better and one of the ways to do that is to pay attention to feedback, both positive and negative.

What I like least about the job is missed deadlines, transparency in the channel and the cash conversion cycle. It seems like there is always some delay in a product release. Nothing is more irritating than having a product that you have been scrambling to get ready for a timely release sit on a “edited” dock for three weeks due to paperwork. There is a lot of money to be made in this business if you could create some good visibility and communication back through the logistics channels into the manufacturing process. Marketing effectiveness is hard to track because we don’t know what is most effective. With a three tier system (publisher/distributor/retailer) it is hard to know where a product is doing well and why. You almost have to go with a gut instinct. What I am beginning to think is that marketing efforts have to be close to the end consumer. A broad approach just doesn’t work for our type of product, it has to be targeted (narrow and focused, like the demo program for retailers). The cash conversion cycle is tough for manufacturers (I think in general) because product has to be paid for up front, and sometimes it can take several months for the payment on that inventory to come in. It is just part of the business, but it would be nice to have better cash turns.

Tom Vasel: Conquest of the Empire was a successful remake; will we see more of these in the future?

Keith Blume: We were lucky with Conquest of the Empire in that it came available after it was not reprinted for a certain period of time. As I understand it, Hasbro has several rights that are “in the vault” so to speak. So to republish some games, one would need to go through them. CotE is a classic, Larry was interested in working with us, and the subject matter was strong and timely so that was an added bonus. Remakes are certainly something we are open to. One of the things I like about CotE is that we were able to add value by including two rules sets. Although this earned us an early “1” rating on BGG, I think most people have appreciated the opportunity to play two substantially different games from one package. Some games are classics in their own right, and it would be wisest just to do a straight republishing (can you imagine changing the rules to Acquire…), although, as mentioned previously, I doubt if our manufacturers know how to make a board less than 3’ X 4’, so that might be a challenge.

Tom Vasel: How does Eagle decide what games to publish? Or more specifically, how do they choose the designers?

Keith Blume: It certainly helps to be a published designer, but I think the game has to be the driver. Good designers can make a bad game as easily as the next person, so while a published designer probably has an easier channel of communication, the bottom line is “How good is the game?” There are three questions that I think we have to ask when evaluating a game. Is it fun, does it fit with our product line and will it sell? Certainly the fun part can outweigh the product line question. And sales are how we stay in business. If we see a game that looks like it will be the next Magic the Gathering or Ticket To Ride, I would like to believe that we would make room for it. Certainly DD Poker was a smaller example of that. That product came out before the market got flooded with poker products and did very well for us.

Tom Vasel: Why is it that Eagle seems to have no competition? Why are they the only company producing such massive, sprawling games?

Keith Blume: Ha,ha. I think there is a company in Minnesota that would beg to differ with that statement. In fact I was speaking with one of my friends at Fantasy Flight when we were at a distributor show and he said, “You may have more pieces, but ours our bigger.” Certainly when you look some of their recent products, there is no arguing that point. But to answer your question, I think the bottom line is that there is a barrier to entry. There are several variables that need to be considered, and they all revolve around capital. Where do you manufacture? If you are in North America or Germany, the production cost for a big box game drives the price point through the roof and limits your potential market. If you go to China, the production run needs to be high to make it worth the effort, but then the trade off is a brutal cash conversion cycle and several potential delays with transit and customs. In addition, with the higher print run you need to make sure you have the market for all that product. So to a degree it is self fulfilling once you get to that level. Once you set the bar high, you cannot go back. If someone opens up a big box game from us, they should expect a big game: lots of cool toys, a big board and high production value. I think as a company we continue to move in the right direction. The feedback on Conquest of the Empire and Railroad Tycoon is that they are both really good games. For RR Tycoon, there are some criticisms about the components and certainly the board needs some attention, but those are things that can be addressed. These are the first and second big box games (Bootleggers was our first in China) from China so the lessons learned from CotE and RR Tycoon will help with the development of Age of Empires III and Pirates and so on.

Tom Vasel: Thanks for answering my questions, Keith! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Keith Blume: It was my pleasure Tom. It was great meeting you in person at Origins. I respect what you are doing in Korea and wish you the best. For those who were interested enough to read my ramblings, you have my thanks. I hope it was reasonably lucid. My final thought is that if some of you have been holding back on giving us a try, my request is that you make sure your local gamestore is taking advantage of our demo program and take some time one night and try one of our new releases. I recognize everyone’s time is valuable, but I believe in our product, and I think your time will be well spent. At best, we will earn your business, at a minimum, if you have a criticism I will listen, and if it is something that is actionable and relevant, I will work to incorporate it in future efforts from Eagle Games. Beyond that, I wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season.

Edited by Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
www.tomvasel.com
January 9, 2005
 
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Very enlightening.

I assume your TSR uncles are the famous "Blume Brothers". I got roped into playing in a D&D demo at a HIA show back when they were at TSR. They paired me with a well-known TV-psychologist, Dr. Joyce Brothers. She played a pretty mean elf magic user as I recall.

I hope this article is read by the many critics who are good-hearted gamers but who somehow fail to see the difference in producing large quantities of big games with lines of communication that span continents and oceans versus producing small print run games where you can drive to the printer and see the samples before committing to the run.

If my opinion counts for anything (other than the fact that my mother thinks I'm a genius), I believe that Eagle Games, along with several other publishers, is going to bring this niche hobby to a level of awareness for the general public that will be astounding. Just for the record it certainly seems to me that there is a growing trend amongst affluent westerners to reject solitary pc/console and eventually online gaming as the themes, interactions and pleasure is getting stale.

I'm not ready to kiss anyone's butt just yet, but I will say that in my last two years of retailing games Eagle titles, Days of Wonder titles and to a lesser extent RGG, Mayfair and FFG titles sold in numbers that I hadn't seen since the first few years of Settlers.

Another thing I think you inferred is that Eagle (and FFG/DoW) are not trying to do what the Europeans have already done. It's a different approach, a stepping up of the volume and eye candy. Same market for sure, but the drive is, I hope, to broaden the market with games that have impact when they are viewed and handled.

Now, will you guys just get the frickin' Pirates game out so all these whiners will shut their cakeholes?
 
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Re: Interviews by an Optimist # 84 - Keith Blume (Eagle Game
I missed the main and present question: when this company will release the second edition of RRT.
I want to buy that game, but I have read multiple commentaries about problems with the board and with the colors.
On the other hand, I have read that they are preparing a second edition that would improve that. When seeing this interview I supposed that that would be the first question.
What a pity: it was not formulated. shake
Patrick Korner wrote:
Quote:
The other issues with the board, which have been well-documented across the Internet, are twofold: Firstly, the printing of the blue cities on the board is a bit off – they look more violet than blue. Secondly and (to some) more seriously, the board is only ‘finished’ on one side (in other words, the map is glued on to the one side while the backside of the board is essentially pure cardboard). This might not seem like an issue, except that, as the glue dries, it tends to want to contract, leading to some board warp, the severity of which seems (if accounts are to the believed) to vary from board to board. My copy of the game has a little bit of warp, but nothing that will prove to be a long-term issue since some judicious back-folding of the board segments appears to have more or less taken care of the problem. However, it is worth noting that others have commented that their boards are more severely affected. Eagle is well aware of the board issues, and a company representative recently commented that a planned second printing of the game will most likely feature fixes for them (second printing? Clearly, the game’s doing well for Eagle regardless of what I have to say here!).

Source: http://www.boardgamenews.com/index.php/boardgamenews/comment...
 
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