Monday, July 30, 2012

Pathfinder Adventure Paths

While hanging out and playing Pathfinder, we started talking about how many of each adventure path book we sell and the likelihood that a group actually finishes an adventure path. I'm currently playing in book five of Serpent Skull. I stopped a Council of Thieves campaign after book five when I ran out of steam. I've also had a campaign abort at book two of Legacy of Fire. At the moment I'm running my own Pathfinder sandbox campaign to take a break from the paths.

Pathfinder subscribers get every issue of an adventure path, obviously. They may or may not actually run the adventures, with the suspicious going towards the "not" side. They're awfully fun just to read. In the store, there's more granular control of adventure path book sales, so it should be an indicator of whether these are actually being used or not.

In our conversation, I felt the first one sold very well but the rest were relatively equal, which is not exactly the case. Here's our chart:

This represents several hundred books going back to the original Rise of the Runelords for 3.5, which we honestly didn't stock like we do now. For the last several years, we've religiously stocked everything Pathfinder, including every in-print Paizo product we can get our hands on.

For adventure paths, we order each new book deep enough to avoid losing sales, and then keep multiple copies of book 1's, which makes sense when you look at the chart. As mentioned in previous posts, adventure paths defy adventure sales logic. The Pathfinder solo adventures still have the traditional slow turn rates of around 2 a year, while the adventure paths are higher, more like game master supplements at around 3. The few hard cover rulebooks still account for about 75% of all the sales of what's now well over 175 products.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Taxes and Community Support

"All politics is local," according to the late Tip O'Neal, and that includes taxes. In this election season of who did what to whom, I can tell you that this small business owner is mostly done by local government. The screwage often comes from on high by the state who gives permission to its vassals, county and municipal governments to do what they please to hapless small businesses that lack proper influence in their court. They won't tax the people directly, for fear of retribution, but the money has to come from somewhere. It's not generally "about Obama," although his stimulus plan did help us with reduced payroll taxes.

Putting a more positive spin on this, by supporting small businesses in your community, you help pay for  various services and benefits you receive on a daily basis. I may have built my business myself (with family, friends, volunteers, and a neglectful employer), but not without excellent infrastructure, well educated staff, roads for UPS and Fedex to bring me stuff and customers to get to me, police and fire to respond to my emergencies, and a plan for the eventual retirement of myself and my employees. In the case of my business, I pay through your purchases, over $15,000 a year. These are relatively "fixed" costs that don't move around much depending on sales.

That $15,000 does not include income taxes. As an S-Corporation, we have "pass through" taxation, so investors, such as myself, pay personal income tax on profits (when there are any). Income taxes are the bulk of federal and state government budgets.

This also doesn't include sales tax you pay, as we're just a conduit for collection. That extra 8.75% we collect would completely dwarf this chart. It would be a tiny footnote. It also doesn't include sales tax we pay for goods and services, including 125+ products we buy locally and consume.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Soured on Kickstarter

Beggars can't be choosers, is the expression that comes to mind. I requested very publicly on my blog and Enworld that Kickstarter projects include levels for retailers. Since then, I've received half a dozen retailer supported projects (including Indiegogo), plus I've supported ten projects that are in progress. The bottom line for me as a retailer, it doesn't really work.

There are two types of crowd sourced projects, the truly indie project that would never see the light of day without crowd sourcing and the established publisher looking to cash in on easy financing. I really like bringing the light of day to the first group. About a third of gaming projects constitute new designers, and that's exciting. Unfortunately, the economics of the indie project don't work for me.

The quantity I need to order is too high, so the product won't come close to selling through. My average annual RPG turn rate is 3, high compared to most stores, and the minimum quantity required to support a Kickstarter project at the retail tiers is around 6-12 copies. A two year to four year supply of any product is simply too much. That's why we have distributors, to break that quantity into bite sized chunks.

Although I like supporting the indie guys, it doesn't make sense for me. Despite some huge Kickstarter support numbers, the average game store customer really doesn't care about these projects. These things appear to appeal to the gamer elite, the alphas, the lapsed gamer, and those whose tastes have transcended the mainstream. I sell mainstream, because that's how the rent gets paid, despite yearning for the elite.

The second type of project is the established publisher who will be going through distribution, eventually. The main motivation in carrying this stuff, honestly, is to get a jump and have them early. It also allows me to tell my customers, often the alphas who I have a lot of time to talk to, that we'll get that game when everyone else who supports the Kickstart gets it. In other words, don't buy from them, buy from us. Unfortunately, that strategy is a failure, as the KS project often provides better rewards than I can provide if the customer were to wait. "What, there's a Complete Book of Flying Monkeys? Great, I'll go order it!" So rather than generating buzz, I need to use the Games Workshop marketing strategy: "Surprise!"

The problem with the established publishers is there is no lag time between supporters receiving their goods and distributors. So why buy in at 12 copies on Kickstarter when the distributors will have it three days later? That's exactly what happened with the last product I supported. I would have ordered 2-3 copies from the distributors, but ordered far more than that because I wanted in.

So Kickstarters are not designed for retailers. There is no implied value proposition aimed at us, no promises, only a bone thrown in the corner allowing us to sit at the table. We are appeased by receiving the opportunity to participate, and I do appreciate that, but that doesn't mean we should be involved. There are better uses of our resources than gnawing on that old bone.

I think Kickstarter is an amazing method to get the indie stuff out and a highly questionable method for established publishers, but that's another discussion. The exclusivity of having something fresh and unique on the shelf comes at too high an inventory cost. The product is often not packaged or produced with retailers in mind (posters that come in one big tube, dice candy that melts on the counter). The funds are drawn months before the product is created, resulting in cash flow problems, as our support levels are in the hundreds of dollars rather than the tens. And the emails, oh the many emails, over 120 since I last checked, half of them are probably for Ogre.

I've had my taste of Kickstarter as a retailer, and it's rather sour. However, it's a taste I better acquire soon though, as I've got ten more projects on the way.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dear Facebook

Dear Facebook Advertising,

We got to know each other slowly, quietly, in a group setting, but then you wanted to open up our relationship to the world, and I said alright. You seemed too good to be true, providing the kind of satisfaction I wasn't getting in my older relationships.

You were hip and modern and although you would never communicate with me, I always kinda knew where we stood. Sure, you shared our relationship with everyone you knew, the intimate details laid bare, but it seemed like a good trade off for the things you would do for me.

Once you had me, however, you started getting demanding. This often happens in committed relationships, so it wasn't terribly surprising. If I wanted your attention, I now had to pay for it. I had bought the cow but the price of milk kept going up. It pretty much required I only see you exclusively, which I think is what you wanted. Our relationship was strong, and we had gotten this far, so what choice did I have?

Eventually, your neediness escalated into frantic demands for attention. What was once given freely, but then given with conditions, was now costing greatly, too much really. It was exhausting. When would it end? I feel like you're squeezing me for everything I'm worth. I feel ... smothered. Trapped.

So what I'm saying is I think we need a break. Sure baby, I still love you, but I think we should see other people. You know, get a new perspective. It should  allow our relationship to grow. But with me here and you over there. In a friendship kind of context. We'll still hang out. Promise.

Love always,

Black Diamond Games, Ltd.
"Quest for Fun!"

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Board Game Sales Over The Years

Attached is our top 25 board games for each year we've been in business (items in red are no longer available). It's a big chart, so you may have to download it first.

There is a lot of data in this list, if you can see it, Matrix style. You can see the strength of Blokus as it sits at the top of the chart and then crater as it hits the mass market under Mattel. You cans see the importance of Settlers of Catan, always in the top five and number one half the time, despite being in the mass market now.

Stuff you can't see includes the influence of the San Francisco Chronicle's holiday board game review article, which can catapult games into high positions, often only for that year. Finca, Maori, Atlantis, Sherwood Forest, Wasabi, Macao and Qwirkle got their minutes of fame and won't be seen on that chart again (although all are still carried). The 2012 list will be changed significantly by the article.

Also not seen in the chart are card games, especially Dominion which hit hard in 2008 and exploded in 2009 when we sold over 100 copies of the various versions. Also ushered in during that period and filtered out of the data is the sleeve fetish that started during this time. Now there are sleeves for everything.

The Spiel des Jahres and other awards have a modest effect, if you compare that list to ours. 7 Wonders (3rd) in 2011, Dixit (9th in 2010), and Dominion, which I already mentioned for 2009.

As usual, this is just one store. We have a fairly high population base and no real local board game competitors, so the data is pretty clean. There are areas that we just don't do well with, like party games and kids games. My staff is universally indifferent to games to games like Dixit, which has been a huge hit in other stores. Kids games are hard to sell because we don't see enough traffic to gain any real traction. I would dump them (along with classic games like chess), if I didn't feel they were important to round out the store.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


The big news this week if you're a game store owner is the decision by Mayfair Games, maker of the board game behemoth Settlers of Catan, to move to Alliance as their exclusive distributor. This move essentially locks up three of my top five board game companies with Alliance: Mayfair Games, Days of Wonder and Z-Man (in that order of sales). On top of that, Carcassonne, my top Rio Grande Games will be going to Z-Man soon. That's 22% of my board game sales through Alliance, when I include Carcassonne and the Wiz Kids board games  (also an exclusive). So is this a good thing?

It's good for the game publishers, if you ask Alliance. The publishers have seen dramatic sales increases through exclusivity. Plus they can dictate MAPs, minimum advertised prices, which they can use to club online discounters that erode their brand value. That should be good for game stores, in theory, although many consumers would argue, bad for them. Publishers gain this advantage through better efficiency and business intelligence. Of course, they also sell to big box stores like Target and Barnes & Noble through the much maligned PSI, the root of all evil, according to some, so exclusivity is really only about game stores. Thankfully, at least Target and B&N sell at MSRP, although Amazon still sells Mayfair at a discount.

It's clearly not good for competition in the distribution tier, but I'm rather indifferent there. I would like there not to be exclusives, but I see the business case for it. Decreased competition is definitely not a good thing, especially when you look at Alliance's parent, Diamond, a lumbering, Cthulhuesque behemoth of infuriating insanity, and the only distributor I've had to cut all ties with to avoid their crazy invading my life. I would sell comics if it weren't for Diamond and their near monopoly on that trade. So if Diamond scares you, I suppose their tiny game arm, Alliance might give you pause.

Is it good for retailers? It's probably a win if your primary distributor is Alliance, as it's a one-stop shop that's likely to benefit from that efficiency. I've got a customer who calls nearly daily looking for the Mage Knight board game from Wiz Kids, an Alliance exclusive. With a quick check of the Alliance system, I can tell him without a shadow of a doubt, that he's out of luck. However, if Alliance is not your primary distributor, you have a big problem.

The game distribution system, at least for the big guys, works off a discount model. When you start with a distributor, your discount is pretty weak, usually 47% or so. As you buy from a distributor, your volume increases your discount level, usually capped at 50%. So generally, if you work towards that discount level, you'll have a 49-50% with your primary and something in the basement with your secondary. I've got a 50% with most of mine and until recently, I only had a 47% with my secondary (Alliance). So what does this mean?

It means if you don't have Alliance as your primary distributor, you're losing money on these exclusives, which for me is 22% of my board games. It's a different amount for each game store, but I figure I would lose about $1,000 a year in added "cost of goods" costs. I don't know about you, but when my bills go up $83/month, I tend to howl a bit. So the obvious answer, the one I'm sure Alliance is not unaware of, is to change your primary distributor to Alliance. Or, if you've got enough volume, add Alliance as your strong secondary distributor to boost your discount level. That's what I've done this year, at the expense of many of the smaller distributors.

So what's the solution? For the sake of peace in the game trade and preserving the margins of retailers, make these exclusives net priced, or a fixed discount. Game retailers won't be penalized for their relationships with their distributors, relationships built over years. They can continue to buy from their existing primary, while still picking up the games they need from Alliance. They'll likely buy other stuff from Alliance along the way, to obtain free freight on the order (another "unique" game trade trait), so Alliance would still see increased sales. It's better than seeing retailers attempting to cut these games from their purchasing budget, something easy to do with a Wiz Kids, but potentially suicidal when it includes Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne.

Finally, I just want to say that all the people involved in the making of this blog post are real, and that they're by all accounts, good people you would be honored to know. The folks at Mayfair and Alliance, especially, are some of the best in the industry. Amazon remains evil and Diamond is from the Far Realm.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tail Wagging Dog

Our Magic 2013 Core Set release was very strong yesterday, and other stores across the country also reported good sales and strong Friday Night Magic turnout. I mention this because it's a bit of a surprise. The alpha gamers, the guys we see every day at the store, had dismissed the set. They issued their dire warnings about it, due to there not being a lot of interesting cards, at least to them.

What they don't understand is Magic is a lot bigger now than their core crowd. Magic, nationwide, doubled sales over the last year, and that means a lot of new and returning players. Most stores use DCI numbers issued to determine this rate, and it's very high. So the box pre-orders were faily low (veterans), but the sales on release were about as high as Avacyn Restored, the last blockbuster set a few months ago.

This is the second time this has happened in the last month. Warhammer 40K was also dismissed by veterans, who I foolishly listened to when I under-ordered 6th Edition Rulebooks. The thing is, only a tiny slice of people troll Internet forums and debate rules before they're even published, just as a tiny number of people, less than 10%, buy stuff online (the online buyers are perplexed by this).

Most players of any game are delightedly surprised to find a new book on the shelf and even getting them to know of its release is a painfully difficult process that nears impossibility if they're not actively listening. Oh god how many times have I told a D&D player that we get the books two weeks early?

So when the 40K veteran snidely asked how the new 40K rulebooks were doing, I would give them real numbers: 10, 20, 30, 40.... And they would look shocked, because they're worldview doesn't include all those people. Their friends are "holding off" or waiting for the inevitable, mythical starter box, that hasn't been announced yet. Meanwhile, a lot of people are having a great time with, by all accounts, a pretty good version of the game.

This all goes back to a previous post where I mentioned we listen a little too closely to alpha gamers, because we feel closer to them than casual gamers, because they spend the most money (individually) and because they challenge us to go beyond bread and butter game products. We would probably be them, if we weren't running the store (or maybe we already are, by various measurements). But when it comes to gathering market intelligence? They're rather dangerous to listen to.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Rules

If it's a service, it doesn't count, unless I made something for you, in which case it counts. If I build you a model, it counts. If I repair the model I built for you after you drop it, it doesn't count. If my assistant helps me build something, their labor doesn't count, unless they help me repair it, then it counts.

If it's a product, it counts. Unless you can eat it. But not if I prepare it for you. You'll have to unwrap that candy bar on your own. If you can drink it, it doesn't count. Unless it has bubbles, then it counts. But not if it's juice. But if it's referred to as a supplement, it counts.

None of it counts if I ship it out of state, but it might count for you when you get it. If the government is involved, it never counts.

And that's why I don't have my Warmachine models assembled yet.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Motivation and Success

In the game trade, if you're successful, meaning you make money and don't lose it (and you mention this), people are curious how. They'll write you emails with questions, show up at your store with coffee (I like Americanos) and ask you to talk at trade shows. Before that point, you're kind of a buffoon for being in the trade. You're the jester of retail, the tilter of windmills, the butt of the joke about the guy who started with X to end up with 1/2 X. You're the carnival barker selling toy soldiers. People on web forums, if you care to consult them, will tell you it can't be done, especially your way, rather than telling you how (because they don't know).

So yesterday a couple of trustworthy guys asked me about success, so we started talking. We discussed the lofty missions and ideations of Apple and other more entrepreneurial businesses. For me though, the motivation was thinking I could do it better, if given the chance, which can be a very dangerous motivation, because more than likely, you can. Nowadays, I tell people to beware the "I can do it better" argument, because it's not really enough.

It was also about a more simplified lifestyle in which I could understand what was going on around me. I sell games. People play them. They come on a truck. How hard could that be? Warren Buffet will only invest in stocks with companies he can understand, which I can totally relate to. Doing otherwise is gambling. So my motivation was to just do things better, rather than some crazy entrepreneurial drive to revolutionize mouse traps or create needs that nobody knew about yet. It turned out to be far more complicated than I envisioned, but I kind of aspire to that level of complication. Also, with such basic motivations, I'll never get rich doing it.

As for process, an article published yesterday in the Harvard Business Review summed it up for me: Less Confident People are More Successful. When I started out, I didn't have much confidence in what I was doing, mostly because I didn't know what I was doing. This lack of confidence constantly grated on my business partner, who was my head cheerleader and secondary investor.

He's a money guy who understood the basics of what I needed to do and allowed me to bounce the financials off him on a regular basis, as they never seemed to add up. Without his support, I probably wouldn't have continued. Because of my lack of confidence, I did what I usually did in IT, I studied, planned, charted a course, and carefully executed. I did it totally wrong, but I had a plan and stuck to it, which eventually allowed the business to stabilize. As the article points out, those who are less confident, but who are still ambitious, tend to be successful because they are self critical and plan things to death.

Around that time I recall having a discussion with my father, who doing his due diligence, had a serious discussion with me about this crazy idea. He was amazed I had a business plan. He had never gotten that far in his dream of a mail order side business. Most people fail to plan or fail to execute.

If it's not the planning, it's the commitment, such as leaving the day job. Most people can't do it, psychologically or financially.  Leaving my day job was a strong motivation for the store, in fact, one that made me worry, as it's a poor reason to get into business. I was careful to push that job hate way down while I was planning, so it wouldn't force me to jump the gun. Eventually my boss brought me into his office to discuss what they were doing with me (nothing). It's when I gave notice.

So the motivation was wanting to do it better. The method was planning the hell out of it because I was less confident. The final commitment required me to leave my day job for good and embrace the new trade. I listened to criticism and especially our customers, who understood I was no expert, but wanted me to learn, both their interests and their needs. So I'm very grateful to them, my business partner, and my family for their support.

BDG 1.0

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

RPG Sales - Year to Date

This is my annual chart of year-to-date RPG sales, comparing 2012 to 2011. RPGs are down this year because of Dungeon & Dragons mostly. D&D sales dropped about 50% in 2011 for us and dropped another 50% in 2012 so far.

Pathfinder continues to go gangbusters. The core rulebook is our best selling non CCG product in the store, which is pretty amazing. It's a little flat this year as our local market matures. Plus 2012 is going up against sales of Ultimate Magic, which was very strong in 2011. Frog God Games is our first Pathfinder compatible company to make the list (although there's a small amount of Sword & Wizardry in there too). Back in D&D 3.5 days, half this list might have been made up by D20 compatible companies.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (Goodman Games) makes the #10 spot as a late entry and will hopefully continue to grow. DCC won't have a lot of releases, so it likely won't be seen again on this list, although third party publishers appear to be poised to support it and an annual DCC book will likely make a list or two if popularity continues. Despite being a blip on my chart, I believe there will be long term interest in this game (I want to do something with it myself).

The various Warhammer based RPGs by Fantasy Flight have fallen off a cliff this year. Some complain about the prices. Others point out how the Deathwatch core book has been out of print for months now, which is what everyone feared if FFG got hold of an RPG. At this point we've got half the various lines on clearance and no longer carry Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Finally, this chart would go on for another 20+ entries if I didn't cut it off at the top 10.  We're in a mature market once again, like I mentioned with CCGs.

Check out the 2011 chart to compare.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Usually you have to talk about sex or politics to get the kind of reaction most people have to Klout. On one hand, it's potentially the most narcissistic,  self-congratulatory, wankfest one could imagine.The website gives you a numerical score based on your influence, essentially using an algorithm to rank your online footprint. Everyone is given a place on a grid showing what kind of influencer they're are, broad, specific or more of an active listener. It reminds me of the classification people are given in Brave New World.

The more people you connect with, the more you participate, the more people who participate with you, and the more important those people are, the higher your score. You're also rewarded for interacting with people with lower scores, in one of the sites more altruistic intentions. You might get some perks, like coupons or access to the lounge at Singapore Airlines at SFO with a high enough score, but it's mostly theoretical, since the site is in Beta. High score individuals are considered more influential (amplification) and have a broad reach. This would seem like something to avoid like the plague, but I'm somewhat drawn to it for what it could mean (and it's kinda geeky).

On that other hand, Klout promises to hook up people who need expertise. For example, I've got a high ranking in retail (there aren't a lot of people on it yet, really, so it's rather meaningless), so potentially someone could use Klout to contact me for advice and I could give it. Klout would make the connection and I would be rewarded with Klout points for being a useful human being. Plus it's fun and fulfilling to be helpful (but we still need incentive, apparently).

Or if I want to write a book on retail, a publisher might ask me my retail ranking and not want to talk with me until it's higher. Klout is also showing up in human resource departments, and having a high score in your area of expertise on your resume is not uncommon anymore.

That holy grail of connecting people with others in a useful manner, isn't there yet, but that's the hope. Right now we tend to use the Internet for crowd sourcing, as in asking your friends on Facebook a question about board games. Klout promises to hook you up with a board game expert who is naturally enthusiastic and rewarded by helping you. Crowd sourcing is great, but, you know, it's a crowd. It's no replacement for real expertise, something the Internet tends to sneer at.

So over the last 90 days I've been trying to "game" Klout a bit, mostly by doing what they recommend. It's essentially allowed me to legitimately connect to more people through common sense social media logic. I've played on the system extensively, giving out "+K" as they call it, inviting friends onto Klout and pretty much playing their game. It's not really a site you spend time on messing around, like other social media. Eyeballs on the site is not how it works. I probably spend about 5 minutes a day on the site, giving out +K and exploring "experts" on various topics. It's mostly a passive thing that looks at everything you're doing online and assigning a value. Their revenue will supposedly come from the perks that companies will pay to put in front of influencers.

So in the end, I want to think this means something, like the mashed potatoes scene from Close Encounters, but so far it's kind of meaningless in its current Beta form. It did help me optimize my reach, but it also encouraged me to stay on the social media treadmill, in fear my score would drop, although scores seem somewhat resilient. That's one reason why you've seen more posts here over the last couple months. However, if I were really about boosting numbers, Google can tell me which buttons to push (game rankings, criticizing anything RPG related, and mentioning Lady Gaga, oh crap I just did it).

 Connect with me on Klout if you want to check it out.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

More Boom Time Psychology

This is a boring trade. The level of growth is boring, the daily grind is predictable, and the areas that are complex tend to be that way because they're screwed up, rather than because they're intellectually challenging. Cleverness is rewarded over the raw processing power of your noggin. This supposed boredom is what drew me to the game trade, because I could wrap my head around it. I could leave my job as a cog in an off kilter machine and find something more serene. I was mostly wrong of course. It turns out to be far more dynamic than I expected, far more complicated, and my own machine is equally off kilter.  However, it's still predictable enough that I can imagine where I'll be this time next year, or five years, in fact.

Right now the trade is booming, something store owners normally only experience during the holiday season. It is anything but boring. It's full of opportunity. If you haven't had a real job before this, a career job with capital and sales and reasonable profit margin, this is what they would refer to as normal. There is money for projects, as just about every local store I know at this point is expanding their space, inventory, or cash position. Our expansion project is still scheduled for later this year, but we're already anticipating the cash for what's next.

This boom period will eventually end, and with it will go the project plans, the dreams, and all that sweet money that allowed you to tell your friends and family, for the first time perhaps, that you're doing fantastic. When it ends, like I know from the holidays, I tend to get a little depressed, post-part-em depression as I miss the relatively easy money that was rolling in. Now there will be only work and recrimination as we shake our fists at the imaginary idiot who killed our cash cow. The small problems that were ignored during the boom will loom large.

I recently heard a story about another store owner who quit the business after going through one of these boom periods. When it was over, he realized the day to day of the game trade just wasn't what he wanted to do. If you're a physicist and you're discovering elemental particles every day, that's got to be exciting, rather than the reality of decades of research and dead ends that lead to those discoveries.What you realize during boom times is this is what I'm good at. I was born to do this! Give me more! Where is the more? And you're off to find a real job where more is normal.The game trade is not about that.

So what is the antidote to this? I think it's gratitude. It's easy to say you need gratitude, but I think we need to constantly practice gratitude. It's easy to be gracious to the guy who buys the case of Magic cards. Heck, I could kiss him on the mouth. However, it's much harder to be gracious to the kid with his soggy shoe money who buys a single booster pack after fifteen minutes of careful selection, or the guy who wants to buy a single die with his ATM card. Gratitude is being thankful for all of it, even shoe money kid. It's about changing your attitude and looking for opportunities for gratitude where it's lacking in yourself. That's really hard.

It includes being gracious to our volunteers and working with their increased sense of importance during the boom times, while grounding them for the inevitable slow times that will likely sap their enthusiasm.

It's managing the staff and being thankful for them, continuing to see areas in which they might grow, rather than holding on for dear life, like often happens during boom times. Growing staff is the holy grail of management that tends to elude me. It's seeing if they need anything extra, including more staff to make their lives easier. It's easy to take them for granted and focus on damage control as you try to steer your ship safely.

It's being gracious to suppliers who often get overlooked in the mega purchases of the boom times. When an average CCG order is thousands of dollars, my budget is often beyond stretched and I forget to order from the specialty distributors, the one off distributors, and the guy who fills in my product holes. Who has time for cribbage boards when I'm ordering Magic by the case? Who can afford to stretch the budget when Fedex is now delivering my stuff through their freight service? It's not only ordering but spending some time to build relationships with these people. I probably need a visit or two after neglect in this area.

Finally, it's being gracious to yourself. You've worked hard, but this isn't you. As Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, "Deserve has nothing to do with it." Accepting the boom time with some equanimity with stability, composure, and awareness, we avoid the big swings in our mental outlook. Some personal graciousness means not beating yourself up when things go wrong or excessive back patting when they're great. It's practicing kindness to yourself. You are doing what you want to do, not what you have to do. You did it before the boom time and when it slows down; you'll do it again, without beating yourself up or grasping mentally for the good times. At least that's what I tell myself.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Collectible Card Games

In the last post, I broke down our sales by department. In this post, I'm looking at collectible card games in particular, along with living card games, which I lump into the same department. As you can see, Magic dominates, although it wasn't always quite this large. Wizards of the Coast admitted recently that their 2011 sales for Magic were double the previous year, and that's directly reflected in our booming sales. 

Other is about 50% Vanguard and 50% FFG LCG games

When I think of CCGs, I think of the boom periods of the 90's, when store owners were buying houses and boats on the massive amounts of cash coming in from games like Pokemon. I got into the game trade about 8 years ago, opening my doors with 34 CCGs in stock, only to see them crash and burn a couple years afterwards. So now I see CCGs as a mature market. 

The market is dominated by a few key players, with various others on the edges trying to weasel in. It reminds me of the soft drink industry, also a mature market, where Coke dominates (like Magic), Pepsi is a strong challenger (like Yugioh, the game of a new generation), Cadbury-Schweppes (now Dr. Pepper Snapple Group) carries the top off brands (our Pokemon position), and the rest of the crowd fights for survival. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Half Time Gut Check

Although I usually reserve navel gazing for troubled times, it's often interesting to analyze success. The concern when things are going well is something important is being overlooked, something that will bite you when the tide turns. Now that we've just completed the first half of 2012, lets take a look at how the store is doing. Again, just one store in a galaxy of game stores.

The chart below shows our sales year to date, compared to 2011 YTD. So let's spin a narrative about what we see here.

Most importantly, we remain in a CCG boom period, reflected in both years. It was hard to do a comparison like this with pre boom time sales, but now we can take a look. CCGs are still going strong and we're seeing competitors enter the market, hoping to slice off a piece of the pie.

There's Monsuno from Topps (a non-starter for us), Wizards of the Coast's Kaijudo, a Duel Masters resurrection (it's #2 in Japan) and Cardfight Vanguard, which stumbles along like a drunken kung-fu master, but seems to be gaining its footing with anime card game alpha gamers. There are others which we choose to completely ignore, but you get the picture. This is nothing like 2005, when we sold 34 different card games, all somewhat successfully, but competitors can sense this is where the money is once again, and as the economy improves, the market should theoretically grow.

The money in CCGs is good enough that dedicated card shops are appearing once again, often with owners that are looking to cash in quick with tiny retail spaces and huge game spaces. They know their days are numbered. The money in CCGs can not only hide a dysfunctional business model (the card shop), but it can also hide problems or shortcomings in other areas of the game trade.

Those shortcomings for us are rather large. Tactical miniature games have had difficult times in our store over the last 18 months, and I'm referring almost entirely to Warhammer 40K. When a monster like 40K runs into trouble, it's reflected in the numbers pretty clearly. Thankfully, the 40K release of 6th edition yesterday was moderately successful, despite a lot of grumbling.

There are highly anticipated releases of a game (3rd edition D&D, 5th edition 40K, etc.), then there are releases that fans grudgingly accept (or not), like this one. Is 6th edition 40K good? Perhaps, but this one will be a slow burn, hindered by a company that believes secrecy is a marketing plan.

Meanwhile, our Warmachine sales are very high for that game, akin to 40K actually (after all, it's where all the 40K players went), and we're investing heavily into Dropzone Commander arriving at the end of July.  We'll be carrying the full line by the second wave of releases and we're doing pre-orders for it now. For a while, we'll be the only store in Northern California with the full line in stock.

Also in the arena of shortcomings are role-playing games. Game Trade Magazine declared 2012 the Year of Pathfinder, but our big Pathfinder transition year was 2011. We're still getting a lot of new players and the core rulebook is the best seller, but we're ahead of the curve on this one, with Pathfinder already well established. Meanwhile, D&D languishes with mediocre releases of mostly accessories like tile sets and those confounded cards.

D&D Next does look rather good though, especially if they've truly ditched miniature grid based combat for more "theater of the mind." This is a strong differentiator from Pathfinder and 3.5 (which they're reprinting in August, by the way) and should appeal to those who thought D&D was at its height during 1st and 2nd edition. I expect next Summer we'll be talking about the blockbuster release of that game. The re-print of the three books for AD&D are still due out this month. Wizards of the Coast is throwing all their intellectual property against the wall to see what sticks, which is fine with me.

Everything else is more or less stable. The miniature cases are about last years change over to Battlefoam from Sabol. Collectible miniatures were about the tail end of WOTC D&D minis during the first half of 2011. You can see we haven't been as successful with Paizo minis, which haven't seen a booster release since January. Heroclix were a little bit more popular last year as well.

Overall, if it wasn't for collectible card games, we would be flat or up a point or two. That's good to know for when the CCG boom period eventually runs out. I've also noticed stores that generally despise CCGs and their crowd jump in whole heartedly, since the writing was on the wall. Wise move.

Analysis like this forces us to ask the tough questions. Are we paying enough attention to our role-playing games? Do we need to do a better job organizing 40K events? Do we need to improve our snack selection? These are questions you might not ask yourself if you were blinded by the success of cards.