Get into board games: Five reasons to go to the UK Games Expo, May 29-31

UK Games ExpoWith just a week to go until the UK Games Expo in Birmingham I thought I’d give it a quick plug. It is the UK’s biggest convention dedicated purely to hobby gaming and it’s getting bigger each year, in line with the hobby itself.

The three-day event at Hilton Birmingham Metropole (at the NEC) runs 2-7pm on Friday, 9.30am-5pm Saturday and 9.30am-4pm Sunday. And it won’t break the bank, with day tickets just over £10 and a day family ticket at £30.

This will be my first year attending the Expo as I’m usually away during school half term. But I’m really looking forward to it, as its an event a lot of my friends put in the calendar before all others at the start of their year’s planning. If you’ve got nothing planned for this particular end of half term, and are within reach of Birmingham NEC, what have you got to lose! So what’s it all about?

1. Get back into gaming in ‘The Family Zone’

One of the largest open gaming areas at the show is the Family Zone. There will be a massive range of family games to try your hand at, as well as areas to get your creative hat on too (they’ll be everything from story telling to designing). Run by Imagination Gaming, its the perfect area for those rediscovering the hobby, as Imagination staff will be on hand to help you choose the right game for your group – whether all adult or with your kids too. Allegedly they’ll have 150 games to choose from too, so you shouldn’t get bored! And if you find games you like, you’ll be able to pick many of them up at the store too.

2. Putting games to the test

Hundreds of new board and card games are released each year – which all have to be rigorously tested. It’s a tough process for designers but it can be a lot of fun too – and you can be part of it. Playtest UK will be at the event all weekend, with budding and published designers looking for members of the public to try out and give feedback on their latest designs. Who knows – you may get a chance to change a rule in the next Ticket to Ride or Magic: The Gathering! Or if you feel you want to get involved, there will be chances to put your own design skills to the test with the board game redesign competition.

3. Get your geek on: dress to impress

young or old, many people like to get costumed up for a bit of a party – and parties don’t come much bigger than this. The UK Games Expo is also a celebration of all things geeky, so if you want to dress up as an elf or a super hero knock yourself out – you’ll be in good company (you can bet there will be plenty of daleks, stormtroopers and the like to mingle and your selfies with too). Cosplay is another growing hobby, with people spending an incredible amount of time getting their costumes as accurate as possible (some of them are amazing) – and it’s a great way to liven up the even with a bit of extra colour.

4. Open gaming – board games, competitions and RPGs

Open gaming is one of the highlights of any board gaming convention, and the UK Games Expo is no exception. At various places and points during the event there will be room for up to and over 1,000 people to sit down and play games – with hundreds available to borrow from the in-house games library (run this year by the fabulous Thirsty Meeples cafe from Oxford). But you can also sign up to join in with a host of role-playing games; or sign up to be in a tournament if you really want to get your game face on.

5. Let’s get serious: A gaming education

There will also be more than 20 seminars running over the weekend, ranging in topic from how to publish your own game right through to a sci-fi quiz. Some big names in gaming will be attendance for Q&As, including Eric Lang (Chaos in the Old World, Dice Masters, Game of Thrones card game) and Monica Valentinelli (Firefly RPG), while you’ll be able to get tips on everything from fiction writing to running successful competitions and events. Personally I’m looking forward to news on the 2016 expansion into the NEC itself!

I’m arriving Thursday evening and will be there pretty much throughout the weekend. You can see a pic of me on the ‘about’ page here: if you read this blog at all, do come up and say hello! It’s going to be a great weekend of gaming, but more importantly socialising. See you in the halls – or in the bar!

Introducing… The Disagreeable Designers

Statler and waldorfAs much fun as playing and designing board and card games is, we all need a break sometimes. Which is of course when we argue about board and card games.

And why have an argument in private when you can have it publicly and messily on the internet for all to see – and let others join in with it themselves?

We’ve got an oddly large group of board game design enthusiasts in Cambridge and it’s fair to say we come from very different schools of thought. Six of us (from four different countries, no less) have gotten together to spout off about a different board game topic each week – under the guise of The Disagreeable Gamers. Why not come say hello (or tell us how WRONG we are)?

The first post went live this week. It’s not a very argumentative topic, as it happens: asking us which game do we wish we’d designed, and why? I think it was a question more designed to give readers an idea of what we’re like rather than to fuel a big debate in itself, but answers still managed to range from snakes and Ladders to Arctic Scavengers…

The regulars will be Andrew Sheerin (War on Terror, Crunch, The Hen Commandments), Brett J Gilbert (Divinare, Elysium, Karnickel), me, David Thompson, Matthew Dunstan (Elysium, Relic Runners, Empire Engine) and Trevor Benjamin. While currently unpublished, both David and Trevor have games signed with publishers which we all hope to see on the shelves in the next year or so.

While we can always find something to argue about, we are of course open to ideas for topics – please post any ideas in the ‘comments’ section of the début post. Along with why we’re so wrong, of course (especially David). Or if you want to call me a terrible, money-grabbing capitalist for choosing Magic: The Gathering, you can do that right here instead!

Happy & poor: One month into ‘game design Mondays’

Go Play Listen business card 2015I started my attempt at making a living from my hobby six weeks ago (initial aims here), so thought I should post an update on the early progress.

It’s been an odd start as there have been three Bank Holidays in the first six weeks, meaning I haven’t had full days off from my ‘real’ job. But while frustrating, I have made progress.

First up, business cards (pictured). While a little pricey these seemed like a good idea, as I’ve been asked for them quite a bit – especially at Essen – and they seemed like a strong statement of both intent and professionalism.

The website

I spent my first couple of weeks researching and then actioning my transition to my own domain for the blog, which was a lot less hassle than I’d feared. Having sourced a good amount of feedback I went with TSO Host and everything has gone well so far.

Next I signed up with the UK Gaming Media Network (linked on the right) and created a logo that fully reflected my site’s shift in emphasis to almost 100% board games. It felt important to get the ground work up and done early, and it feels like a gaming site now – but is there anything more I can/should do? Any feedback welcome.

While I’m yet to have any success with sponsorship or similar, I’ve recognised the fact that ‘income’ in terms of the site doesn’t need to be in the form of actual cash. Clutching at straws? Maybe, but I’ve already received a free game to review (and a good one) and a press pass for an event I would’ve had to pay to get into, which between them have more than covered the cost of the business cards and the hosting for the year. It’s a start!

Unfortunately several other publisher approaches have met with deaf ears, but I’ll persevere – at least one is looking hopeful if I can get my rankings up (and that’s happening). And while I haven’t yet looked into AdSense (not that I’m getting the traffic to make much money), otherwise I think I’m making good on my initial goals.

Game design

UK Games ExpoWhile I’ve made a few small inroads into two new games – one collaborative and one of my own – new design work has largely been on the back burner due to some positive feedback from a publisher on a game I was pushing last Essen.

This is potentially great news, and at worse good news – so either way it’s a positive.

It would obviously be great to get the game signed, but even if it doesn’t happen the work I’ve been doing on it over the past few weeks has really improved it. I’d be much more confident putting it in front of other publishers in future if this one doesn’t bite.

The lack of progress on other titles is frustrating, but its easy to forget just how long game design takes – and how much writing up is as much as experimenting, especially in colaboration: doing it in this kind of programmed environment really brings that home. When I was just tinkering it was something I did of an evening without a care for what was really achieved. Now I’m on the clock I’m realising just how long something like writing rules or cutting out some cards really takes!

I’ve also realised I need to get more organised: get a list of game ideas, with a sense of each one’s progression and what I feel I should be prioritising. But also a list of publisher contacts, with an eye for already starting to think about a strategy for Essen.

But before then there’s just a few weeks to go until the UK Games Expo, so I need to really prepare for that – both in getting a prototype ready in case I get in on the play-test area and seeing about starting to build a network of contacts. While it isn’t yet the kind of internationally important event it could one day be, it’s the best the UK has to offer and I’d be foolish not to see it as a big opportunity.

So all in all it feels like these are exciting times and – so far – I’m glad I took the decision to try this out. I’ll check back in at the end of the quarter.

Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!

Gearing up for my first UK Board Game Expo

UK Games ExpoNext month I’m attending my first UK Games Expo at the Hilton Metropole Hotel in Birmingham (May 29-31).

It’s the UK’s largest annual hobby games convention and is attended by thousands of gamers, as ell as hosting the national championships and tournaments for the biggest games in the business including Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan.

So how come I’ve been to Essen three years in a row, but have never attended UKGE? It’s simply a matter of timing. My better half works in a school, the Expo is in half term, and we’ve usually booked flights to somewhere exotic before I realise they clash. But this year we’re staying local for our holiday, so I can get the best of both worlds.

I’ve been a regular at Essen for three years now, and love it, but the UK Expo is more than just a giant board game shop. There will everything from authors, artists and special guests to seminars and talks on all things gaming – as well as it being the UK’s biggest gaming trade fair.

It’s child friendly, hosting a family zone packed full of kids activities; plus if you get bored of board games there’s everything from live action gaming (The Dark Room), RPGs (more scheduled here than at any other UK event), costume groups – even a UK cinema premier for documentary ‘The Next Great American Game‘ by Doug Morse.

Doug is an occasional visitor to the Cambridge Board Game Design Meetup group and I’m pleased to say a big chunk of us will be in attendance – at least five at last count. And play-testing is another big reason to attend, as there will be plenty of great prototype games to demo from the likes of Matthew Dunstan and Brett Gilbert.

Sadly AEG aren’t in attendance this year, but hopefully Empire Engine will be on sale somewhere! But there are plenty of board game publishers heading to Birmingham: the big boys include Mayfair Games, Czech Games Edition, Asmodee, Queen Games, Ragnar Brothers and Surprised Stare.

As a first time attendee I’m not setting myself an agenda but am really looking forward to it. I’ll be there from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, so if you read the blog at all and are attending please say hi – or preferably buy me a pint. See you in Brum!

Reclaiming Mondays: Board game design and website targets

creativity is intelligenceI recently wrote about going to a four-day week to pursue my ambition of making money out of the things I enjoy doing creatively – or at least helping ends meet enough to get by. This becomes a reality this week: as of April 2015, this chapter begins.

In the past I’ve found listing my goals and challenges here to be a real motivator because even if no one else reads/cares about them, I know they’re here. So what better way to start the project than with some objectives and ideas?

Monetising the website

This may seem a little pie in the sky, but even if I can get a small regular income it could make a difference. And this doesn’t have to be as straightforward as cash in hand:

  • Explore possible sponsorship: As the site is now getting more than 2,000 views a month it would be great to get a relevant banner ad or two up here – maybe a store.
  • AdSense: It also seems sensible to get an unobtrusive Google ad panel on here too, as such clearly targeted traffic has to be worth something.
  • Explore my own domain name/hosting: What can I do in terms of advertising while this is still a free WordPress site? Do I need my own URL to up my game?
  • Review copies: If I can get publishers to send me games, I can review newer titles and get more views – while free games equals competition prizes, sale items etc.
  • Get more into the community: Who else is out there? What can I join, share links with, bounce ideas off? How do I extend my reach while making friends?

Game design

2015 has started slowly on the design front , but I feel I’m starting to get my mojo back. We’ve been sent the contract for game number two (hopefully a 2016 release) which I hope proves Empire Engine wasn’t a fluke, so again it’s time to kick on:

  • UK Games Expo: I need to see if there will be any opportunities to sit down with publishers, or with prototypes, at the event. May have left this too late.
  • Push War!Drobe: I put this in front of a few publishers at Essen 2014 and didn’t get a bite, but I think its good enough to make the grade so I need to go again with it.
  • Take the lead on collaborative projects: I’ve started on games with both Matthew Dunstan and David Thompson in 2014 and need to get back on track with them.
  • Empire Engine 2.0: I have an idea. I have a theme. I have enough to start fiddling with a prototype – so it’s time to get it made and to the table.
  • Football prototype: A good action-based football game is possible, I’m sure of it. It’s time to take my initial thoughts to the next level.
  • Revisit my old ideas: I’ve had ideas that have either gone into notebooks or been dropped after early failures. I know more now, so they’re worth another look.

Right – better get on with it then. As always, any and all feedback is most appreciated.

Game design: In search of a half decent football (‘soccer’) game concept, Part 1

SubbuteoBeyond the flicking genius of Subbuteo (pictured), the collective game design minds of the world have so far failed to create a compelling football game. But it must be possible.

The reason oft trotted out is that its impossible to emulate the excitement and energy of a team sport in which so much individual flair and energy is played out; while retaining the higher level of strategic thought that pre-match planning and management bring to each match.

But computer games have got around both of these issues, making either football management sims or fast-paced action games such as FIFA. But we have nothing of either that have made a splash in the board and card game arena. And what about skirmish board games and battle card games? How are they not emulating an exciting tactical situation with an underlying strategic edge?

Then there are commercial concerns. Hobby gamers have for years been earmarked as nerds and geeks only interested in basement games of fantasy battles and space ship combat. But the hobby is throwing off those shackles at a pretty decent rate now; surely there would be a big publisher ready to take a punt on a game with such huge crossover potential into the mainstream?

Football simulation problems: The pitch

sensible soccerAny sensible (pun intended) design conversation needs to start with the ground itself.

Minds immediately turn to hexes or quadrants, with each player represented with a meeple, card, detailed plastic minis (Kickstarted, natch) etc.

And so we run into our first problem: 22 players on the pitch. Controlling 11 people seems too many – especially when you take into consideration that only two or maybe three people will ever be directly affecting play. Positioning will become way too much of the game, making this very much a manager-level sim and losing too much of that all important feeling of energy.

Designers have of course gotten around this but tend to do so in one of two ways (and often both); which I have dubbed the Nintendo and Dilithium approaches:

  • The Nintendo way: Chibify the game, set it in the ‘street’ or the jungle or a school playground, and make it five-a-side – immediately alienating the vast majority of your original target audience and losing any semblance of ‘proper’ football in the process.
  • The Dilithium way: Give them swords! Make them robots! We can set it in the future or the past to get around those awkward offside rules and allow full body contact to make it exciting!! And then add EVEN MORE EXCITEMENT!!!

Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things – it’s just not football.

In my mind, this situation harkens back to my original analogy of squad combat. That tends to have fewer than 11 pieces per side, and they can of course interact with each other far more often: that damnable ball is the problem. For me, this rules out the idea of a pitch, or board, or minis – sorry (we shall briefly pause to let the Kickstarter publishers slope out of the room).

Football simulation problems: The players vs the manager

BergkampThe real joy of football – as with many team sports – is that while both teams head out onto the pitch with a plan, set out by the manager and coaches, this needs to be executed by human beings: and with another bunch of human being trying to stop them.

Football is a chaotic sporting mash up of strategy and tactics defined by flawed individuals: and fans have an opinion on every single one of them. Players have strengths and weaknesses, both physical and mental, which are the absolute essence of the game. You can’t have a ‘proper’ football game without them.

It’s not easy to create a game system where 22 individuals will be different enough on paper to have a significantly varied effect on the outcome of the game. Where do you draw the line with stats? You can have attack, defence, midfield, goalkeeping – but what about stamina, temperament, ‘special powers’ – free kicks, penalties, leadership, flair…?

And that’s just two teams. Any football game worth its salt will want a good 8 teams to start with – and if things went well, more like 20+. That’s more than 200 players now. And what about referees, linesmen, pitch conditions, the effect of the fans?

And of course the manager. Beyond picking the team the manager should be having an effect on the pitch – will they encourage long ball, wing play, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 – and what about substitutions, or reshaping the team after a sending off, or an injury? Oh yeah, I forgot about injuries. And can we really give up on the pitch idea completely?

Football simulation ideas (so far)

Brady top trumpA card game seems the obvious way forward. While dice feel like a good idea, the idea of random on top of random always turns me off in a game that should be at least 30 minutes long – and I feel a proper football game should go that distance or more.

To take it one more step, a collectible/living card game again seems obvious. Building a deck of 11 players chosen from a larger pool (perhaps 20 for a squad) would give the individuality required. Attack and defence stats may well be enough, with individual player ‘powers’ adding the all-important individuality.

These player cards would be bolstered with manager cards: tactics and special plays learnt on the training ground. And finally there can be situation cards, used to represent those moments you just can’t legislate for: the terrible tackle, the ‘bobble’, the amazing drive from 30 yards. And of course those contentious refereeing decisions.

I’m aware these three types of card are falling easily into stereotypes made so popular by the hugely successful Magic: The Gathering card game: the players are the ‘creatures’, manager cards the ‘enchantments’ and situation cards the ‘instants’. Frankly I’m comfortable with that, as I feel there will be divergence enough from this starting point.

The real challenge will be the elephant in the room: that bloody pitch. I’m thinking it could be represented by a single card or play matt, split into three simple areas – the two ends and midfield. A marker will show where the game is currently being played, with each turn ending with a battle for supremacy in the current area: a midfield or defensive win moves you forwards, while a win at your opponent’s end results in a chance.

But how will chances be resolved? Will there be some kind of cost to put cards out? And once out, how will they be removed from play – if at all? How about weather, or home advantage? All decision for another day.

Kickstart me baby! (sorry, no minies)

uncle moneybagsI’m putting myself on Kickstarter*. I reckon a £20,000 target should do it. And you’re all going to back me. Why? Because I’ve got a plan.

About 90 per cent of the games you’ve bought on Kickstarter are crap. And worse they have no resell value, because everyone knows they’re crap. So what’s the solution to all this wastage? It’s not as if you can STOP spending money on Kickstarter now is it?

That’s where I come in. For a mere £20,000 I could, just about, give up the day job. Sure, I’d be on the poverty line, but maybe things such as ‘food’ and ‘clothing’ could be bought if stretch goals were reached. Not that there would be any stretch goal rewards.

So what’s in it for you, I hear you ask? Because that’s what board game related Kickstarters are about, right? They’re not about taking a risk and helping someone try and fulfil their dream (and who might possibly fail). No. They’re about cold. Hard. Gain. But let’s for one minute pretend we’re not board game Kickstarter people – let’s pretend we’re normal Kickstarter people, who see the potential in something and take a (cheap) punt.

Here’s the deal. For just £20,000 (one 73rd of what Zombicide 2 made on Kickstarter, or one 31st of Sedition Wars) I could become a full-time game designer for a year. Instead of spending a few tired evenings each week after work trying to work on prototypes I could spend 40 or 50 (maybe more) hours each week dedicating everything I’ve got to design.

Of course I’ve not got much in the way of credentials to back me up right now. I’ve got one published game, Empire Engine, which has been pretty well received (well, it’s currently ranked higher that Sedition Wars on Board Game Geek); and another game is with a published and should be out in 2016 (too early for more details, sorry). But that’s one or two more games than many of the designers you backed on Kickstarter had, right?

The games I design will be put in front or real publishers with genuine track records in getting high quality games to market; publishers with experienced rules writers, graphic designers, game developers and playtesters – as well as strong relationships with manufacturers and distributors. And while some may take the games to Kickstarter anyway, at least they’ll be companies you know you can trust.

Of course there’s a risk that none of the games I design within the year get publishing deals: I’m not arrogant enough to guarantee success, but I could guarantee that I’d put everything I’ve got into making it work – my heart and soul. If you go in knowing that, so not expecting a physical product, how could you be disappointed if I give my all?

I’d be happy to blog regularly on my progress, the process and involve people in testing. I could even put questions out to backers when I had interesting problems or decisions to make. And imagine how great you would feel if I did get some games published: you’d really be a part of it, rather than just backing a game that’s already (allegedly) finished.

I expect I could even sort our some sort of discount on the games that did (in theory) make it to stores: I could probably sell them at little over cost to backers. But then I wouldn’t want to guarantee that, because then it’s all slipping back to commerce; about expecting results; about capitalism over creativity. Which is why this will stay a dream, rather than a reality. And that’s a shame.

I genuinely think this could work. I think it would take a designer with more clout than me to pull it off, and I think it would need cast iron guarantees of physical results for backers if it games were published. But as the success of Patrion, and Kickstarters for publishers such as The Dice Tower have shown, paying creatives a monthly wage is something some people are willing to do (for an end result).

As there’s little money in it for the average board game designer, people who want to make a living from it are essentially forced into making their own company and self-publishing – that’s where the most potential profit is. I doubt most of these people want to be dealing with manufacturers in China and shipping games out of their garages, while trying to price cards and chits and dice. They want to design; they have to sell.

Maybe in a generation or so the hobby will be popular enough to sustain the full-time development of game designers – either through increased revenue through higher royalties on sales, or from game publishers becoming cash-rich enough to take more designers onto staff (as Plaid Hat is now successfully doing). Until then, I guess I’ll stick with the day job.

* I’m not really.

Designer and critic: Does one have to give?

reality checkAs a journalist and all-round gobshite I’ve spent my career (and social life) ‘generously’ giving my opinion to anyone who would listen.

This is fine when you’re a third party; when I was reviewing music, for example, all I had to worry about after writing a scathing review was the occasional poorly spelt threat from the bass player. I wasn’t in a band, so reputation wasn’t an issue. If anything, writing something controversial was likely to get you noticed – often a good thing.

Of course nowadays I’m all about the board games. I’m 30+ reviews and lots of opinion pieces in; but now my first game design is out there, with hopefully more to come. So should I draw the line on reviews? Or what might I lose by carrying on?

Taking it on the chin

I was chatting with the Cardboard Console guys the other day (check them out of you like board and computer games) and they asked about reading the comments made about our game, Empire Engine, on Board Game Geek. They said, if it were them, bad reviews would make them super angry: did I read them all?

The truth is yes, I read them all – good and bad. and I watch the videos and listen to all the audio (which is tricky, as it might be a two-minute brush off in the middle of a poorly edited three-hour podcast). And do they make me mad? Nope, not at all.*

It would be contrary of me to criticise others for having an opinion when I’ve earned a living out of spouting mine; and having spent my working life in creative environments, I’m used to criticism. But any design process can be a hard, long and personal and its easy to see why some people find it hard to separate emotionally from that.

So lets say someone has a bad review and they’re pissed. Some will internalise it and have hurt feelings; but others will take that anger and run with it. This can take us back to our angry bass player, threatening scenarios you can just laugh off; but its the smart ones you have to worry about – especially when you’re starting to put some tentative paws into the very industry you’re biting the hand of.

There is no law

You’d think a well balanced review, explaining its reasoning while critiquing opposite opinions, would put you on safe ground. Don’t kid yourself. There are some vindictive, nasty bastards out there. I’ve seen people go on personal crusades to rubbish someone they’d heard criticise them, even if it was an unarguable truth.

One bad review can see you struck off the mailing list of a PR company or manufacturer. You’re then left with the dilemma of integrity versus acceptance; the right versus the easy way out. As a new member of the designers club, this comes even more into focus.

Let’s get hypothetical. I criticise Game A by Designer A, from publisher A – and both take vindictive exception. Designer A goes and gives all my games a 2 out of 10, writes bad reviews and starts to bad mouth me to his designer friends. Publisher A refuses any meetings with me to see my prototypes, while suggesting to other publishers I’m trouble. A bad rep can spread like wildfire in a small community; soon I’m pariah number one.

I’ve seen how friendly this industry is – and it genuinely is exceptional. But then I also listen when people have a few beers, and read between some of the 140 characters on Twitter. Yes it’s a nice industry, but the people in it are only human.

Right and wrong

So what of the moral side? Forget personal consequences – what’s the right thing to do? I mean, why would you want to upset someone in the first place? Especially your piers.

I’m probably not the right person to ask, as my moral compass has been called into question on occasion, but I believe if you think something sucks and people listen to you, you have a duty to say so. Alternatively, you can simply bow gracefully out of the game.

Personally I’m going to stick to writing nice reviews here, while writing pithy 20-word criticisms on BGG when something gets my goat. As I do about one review per month and haven’t been sent a single freebie (bastards) its hard to write a bad review – I don’t buy games blind and if I do play a crap game I tend to play it once then run for the hills.

But if free games start turning up (please!) I’d feel duty bound to review them all – and honestly. At that point, I’d have to think again; do I really want to be that guy?

* OK, maybe they do a bit; but ironically it’s only really the rating number that annoys me, not the words: every 3 or 4 rating brings the average down significantly right now and is hindering the game rising up the rankings. So stop it. Please 🙂

What does the rise and rise of Asmodee mean for the board game industry?

Logo_AsmodéeI listened to board game industry commentators largely gloss over the recent acquisitions of Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight by Asmodee Group with interest.

The vast majority of responses seemed to be, “Well that’s good huh?” with very little actual thought put into the topic. Naysayers tended to be brushed off as fear mongers, seemingly due to the fact Asmodee is seen in the industry as a good egg.

On a superficial level, you can simply read the press release and agree with the publishers that this is purely a US/EU buyer/gamer win/win – everyone will benefit from increased resources, distribution channels etc etc on their opposite side of the pond.

Now I’m no expert, but I’d like to put a few things out there for debate. I don’t think this is something we should just accept and move along from without digging a little deeper into the possible ramifications.

Euraze-who?

While everyone and his meeple announced this as the gaming news story of 2014, very few spoke about the fact 2014 also saw French private equity firm Eurazeo buy an 83.5% stake in Asmodee for €98m – making it just another portfolio company in its €6bn stable of assets. While we were innocently talking about the possibility of slightly cheaper Star Wars minis on our local games store, the business press were talking about a possible new contender on the high street for Hasbro and Mattel.

I recently read an old article from the Harvard Business Review titled The Consolidation Curve. It looks at new or deregulated industries and how they have a “clear consolidation life cycle” with your average successful industry taking around 25 years to move through it fully. And this is every every industry, so there is no reason to suggest board (or should I say hobby) games will be any different.

Very briefly (I’m no business grad), this curve moves through four stages:

  1. Opening: After one or a few companies start the industry, their market share quickly drops to between 10-30% of the market as competitors arise – start-ups and spin-offs, plus consolidating companies from other industries.
  2. Scale: Major players emerge and buy competitors. The top three grow back to 15-45% market share as the industry consolidates. It’s all about protecting a core culture while taking and keeping the best people and products in the industry.
  3. Focus: Aggressive expansion sees the top three empires grow to control 35-70% of the industry, while there will generally be 5-12 players in the market. It’s now about global deals, profitability and the eradication of under performers.
  4. Balance and alliance: The big three now have 70-90% of the profit and concentrate on alliances, as there’s nothing left to grow into. It’s about defending their position, while looking for areas to branch out into – while avoiding regulation.

I think there’s an argument that says we have just moved into phase 2, ‘Scale’, and that our third industry ‘major player’ has begun to put its stall out.

Is it fair to say we now have Mattel, Hasbro and Asmodee?

The wrinkle point in these four stages, in terms of hobby games, is it was very much a cottage industry – but it has always been a little brother to a giant: high street toys and games. But now we can see the rising tide in terms of sales, boosted by a mainstream media softening towards nerds thanks to smartphones and tablets. It was only a matter of time before a big investment firm took a punt on the industry – and is it any surprise 2014 was also the year we saw Mattel dipping its toe back into euros at Essen with Bania?

Using the UK as an example, where Mattel and Hasbro had things sewn up was the high street; but even this has started to change. Non-traditional stores such as book shops have started to take hobby games seriously, while board game cafes and bars are starting to appear – let alone booming online sales. So where are people getting these games from? Well the UK hobby games distribution market has been sewn up by Esdevium, but don’t worry – it’s in safe hands of its owner, Asmodee.

The quote you hear all the time from the board game media is “you don’t go into the board game industry to make money” – but what they don’t add on the end is, “unless you’re going into manufacturing or distribution”. These firms employ creative people, of course, but they’re first and foremost businesses: just like film studios or record companies, they rely on exploiting (as in – making full use of) the talents they sign to make profit.

Mattel and Hasbro work in the same way. Designers are employees, not people worthy of having their names on game boxes. They work within the confines of a business remit for a product, rather than having total creative control, and work to deadlines. None of these things are intrinsically bad; they’re just not ideal for free spirited hobbyists, or people doing these things for the love rather than to pay the mortgage.

When will me move from ‘scale’ to ‘focus’?

There are so many questions. Will Asmodee work towards a similar structure to compete with these two gaming behemoths on an even footing? Will other conglomerates of gaming companies form to try and compete with them on a global distribution scale, creating the 5-12 ‘focus’ stage players? Is the upward trend of hobby games too slow to see this happen in the next five years – or is it actually a blip, that will see sales decline and enthusiasm wane from such big investors (which could of course have its own ramifications)?

From both a designer and customer perspective, these will be interesting times. An obvious move would be to see a smaller range of games being released each year from a shrinking number of players, but these games being released in bigger volumes as the popularity of the hobby increases.

This would drive price-per-unit down and force games on lower print runs into niches or bankruptcy – which, judging on the quality of many one-and-done Kickstarter projects, wouldn’t be a problem and will probably happen anyway as people come to their senses. But then of course there is the rise of the digital space and the possible love-love relationship that should blossom between 3D printing and print-and-play. There are just so many possibilities!

Of course I’m sure this article will be labelled naive, and I’ve already admitted I’m no expert – but if helps create a bit of debate on the subject that goes beyond giving this news a ‘Story of the Year’ award then I’m happy with that. I’m keen to learn more on the topic, and about the industry, so here’s to healthy debate.