As 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 While currently unpublished, both David and Trevor have games signed with publishers which we all hope to see on the shelves in the next year or so.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!
It’s been a privilege to be paid to write for a living, despite not being paid to write about what I love. So I’ve written for free about music, travel and games when I get home at night, because I’m not competitive; I’m not going to fight the ‘careers’ for jobs I don’t quite care enough to fight for. I work to live, not live to work.
But despite that, I’m a reviewer – which means I’m an attention seeker because I want to be heard. I have an opinion, I think it’s worth something, so I put it out there with passion. Every reviewer wants to be heard – so every reviewer is an attention seeker. And that’s fine, it’s accepted, it’s the way of journalism. You have something to say.
I’ve been a game designer for a year or so.
It’s hard. You put your mind and soul into themes, mechanisms, ideas – and they die on their arse. But you stick with them, you nurture them, you iterate them to within an inch of their lives – and if you’re lucky, one of them becomes a game.
Then you show it to publishers and just maybe, one of them bites. And a year later suddenly you’re a game designer. You’re at Essen, walking past the AEG booth, watching people buy/demo/reject/slag off/fall in love with your game. You get invited to present your game on BGG TV and you thank all the gods in all the heavens that you have a publisher meeting for a new game so you don’t have to go and be on the tele because you’re a writer, and a game designer, but you’re not someone who wants to be on TV.
I’m not a pop star. I’m not a movie star.
You might be thinking, “no shit Sherlock”. But think about it – that’s what you’re really comparing here. You’re looking at main stream media and comparing it to board games. It doesn’t work like that.
Actors and musicians do things one way. They love to be on screen. They have EGO to burn. But what about authors? How many of them would you put up for people to recognise? Or screenwriters? The people who are, essentially, behind the scenes doing creative work that is never meant to be recognised in the same way?
PR = expense
Designers are poor publicists because that’s not why they do it. And it’s the same with most publishers. Stephen Buonocore is a rare exception, while some of the French designers are getting more media friendly. But do you think it’s an accident Stefan Feld and Mac Gerdts don’t have their own daily podcasts? No. They’re designers and their reputations will stand or fall on their creations. They’re doing the bit they want to do.
And PR is an expense. You need to put yourself out there. Tom Vasel makes a living from The Dice Tower – but do you think he’d entertain the idea of paying someone to appear on one of his cash cows? Of course not. Why should he? He’s an ego on legs, it’s about him and why shouldn’t it be? He has created a world in his image without any help from the industry beyond a few free games so good luck to him (and I genuinely mean that).
Your game is crap
Which moves us on nicely to dissenting opinions. I’d argue Tom Vasel has become that one guy that can do this for a living because he calls it likes he sees it – and there’s no better thing for a journalist to do. You simply need to be consistent and (mostly) right.
Any journalist, in any industry, who kowtows to the man instantly loses respect. All companies make mistakes and they know when they’ve screwed up; slate those mistakes and a good company will give you a pass. Because they know when they do good, you’ll give them the praise they deserve – and that’s golden from a respected reviewer readers/viewers know doesn’t pull any punches.
I wrote a while back here about video reviewers not being more ruthless; about them not putting the boot in but only reviewing things they like. And predictably they all pointed me to hard to find links to pages/blog posts they’d apologetically written about the games they don’t like – as if anyone finding them to read one review would ever find that page to find out what they really think as a philosophy. Guys, really – you should be linking to those pages on every video you publish as a disclaimer.
Trolls are pathetic – simply ignore them or you’re in the wrong business
Speaking of negativity, the first thing you need to adopt as any kind of artist or journalist is a thick skin. Ignore rude comments: or either reply politely then walk away (which will enrage them hehe), or let people fighting your cause handle the battles you can’t be arsed with (if you made a cohesive point, someone in internetland who has more time than you is likely to back you up).
Opinion is free and if you put anything anywhere someone will disagree with you. If you can’t be bothered to argue (and you can’t) just walk away – it’s not rocket science. I want to reply to every shit 5/10 review Empire Engine gets but do I? No. It would serve no purpose.
And finally, pay to play – really?
Your average journalist does their job because they’re opinionated; give them something to review and they’ll be honest. The ones that aren’t are totally transparent and anyone with an ounce of sense will spot their bullshit a mile away and vote with their feet sooner rather than later.
There will always be someone on the take from publishers; often because they’re sadly small time and can’t quite believe they’re getting something for nothing. But the simple fact is that this is the case in every single industry on the planet; you can’t expect board gaming to be any different.
I decided a year ago to largely avoid games on Kickstarter. I had three terrible Kickstarter experiences in a row (read about those here) and, with a 0% strike rate on Kickstarter versus a 100% hit rate in terms of games from shops, I went with the sensible odds.
Now I’m not here to rain on Kickstarter (again); I’m sure at least one in 10 Kickstarter games is pretty good and if you fancy a gamble, knock yourself out. And if my best avenue to get a game of mine published was through a Kickstarter company, I wouldn’t hesitate.
What I want to talk about is the fact traditional board game publishers seem woefully off the pace in terms of getting their message out and if they don’t get with the program, they could be a few years away from trouble.
Living in a board game boom time
While non-high street board and card games are still a drop in the ocean compared to most corners of popular culture in terms of sales, this is as good as it has ever been for the hobby in many countries. The US in particular has seen a strong rise in interest, while countries such as the UK and other parts of Europe are also experiencing a growing acceptance of games.
This is most obvious in high street stores, with the likes of Target and Walmart in the US and Waterstones and WHSmiths in the UK deigning to stock the occasional game that doesn’t suck. This means everyone publishing games should be seeing some sort of rise in sales and it’s easy to see that as a sign to ‘keep on keeping on’. But when this growth curve flatlines, which it probably will, traditional board game publishers may get a shock.
Because while many traditional publishers keep doing what they’ve always done in terms of marketing, a new generation of start-ups is Kickstarting its way into the industry. And these people are tech savvy, learning as they go, and recovering from their mistakes as they move forward. So where are the new consumer battle lines being drawn?
It’s all gone quiet over there
Every time I listen to a podcast, I am bombarded with Kickstarter adverts. And, once the ads finish, I’m oft bombarded with a Kickstarter ‘preview’ or five telling me how I can go and back these games RIGHT NOW! Yup, free ads following the paid ads.
And then they bring out this episode’s ‘special’ guest – who could it be?! Reiner Knizia? Stefan Feld? Mac Gerdts? Zev from Z-Man? Eric Hautemont from Days of Wonder?! No? Oh. It’s Billy Nochops from Our First Games speaking reverently about how he used to play D&D and how he made up a game and now he wants me to back it because, you know, what else am I going to spend my money on?
When I go to BoardGameGeek, the spiritual home of most hobby gamers, the majority of the banner ads and competitions are for Kickstarter games – and the videos section is going that way too. Twitter is awash with them, while ‘going viral’ is pretty much the Holy Grail of any Kickstarter board game project. And so it should it be – we live in the age of social networking, where one free Tweet could end up doing you more good than a $2,000 convention stand.
Kickstarter project leaders also realise their games need to be played and their voices need to be heard – especially with so many Kickstarter disasters having muddied the waters for some buyers. So again, they’re innovating – getting paid previews done, sending free games to the top video reviewers, and now increasingly putting out free print and play versions of some (or all) of their new game for anyone who wants to give it a go.
And they’re also using the spaces between the traditional June/October release windows to snap up that gamer dollar in the 10 months a year we’re largely left pining for new games to spend our hard earned cash on. And then there’s apps…
Board game publishers: bring your reputation to the party
Traditional publishers, and by association designers, seem to think it’s OK to largely ignore the new media. They tend to have a website (although good luck finding one that’s well maintained), a Facebook page (some even post on them!) and maybe a Twitter account. I can only presume they think that Spielbox, Essen, GenCon and a press release will do them just fine, thank you very much. And for now, in the boom, it probably will.
You only need to look at, say, ANY INDUSTRY to see that ignoring the internet is going to bite you in the ass long-term. Publishing was a classic, and music too, then retail – while I’m sure there are examples across the board of companies being last online and the first onto the scrap heap.
Of course some publishers are getting it right. Once the traditional release windows start coming around you won’t be able to get Stronghold Games’ Stephen Buonocore out of your headphones (and very entertaining he is too), Plaid Hat has its own podcast, while Queen Games has taken to Kickstarter like a duck to water. But they tend to be the exceptions, rather than the rule – and few get it right in all avenues.
So this is a plea to traditional publishers – start taking the internet seriously before you fall so far behind the young Kickstarter companies that you risk becoming irrelevant. Most of the best people in the industry work and design for the big publishers but you need to wake up and see that the world is moving on around you.
Get on with it already!
You are in a great position. Board game consumers, unlike many traditional retail areas, LOVE most designers and publishers. People and firms in the industry tend to have good reputations, again knocking the general retail/business trend, so there is not a popularity hump to get over – just a technological/forward thinking one.
And more importantly, board gamers want well tested, well designed, well laid out and graphically outstanding games. They want solid release schedules, games that don’t need an expansion to make them work, and that they can pop online and buy today rather than hoping to get it in 2015 in the two-day window it’s in stock. We want arbiters of quality, taking the best games they find and producing them, sending others back to the drawing board where they can be improved upon BEFORE they come out.
So what do you say, traditional publishers and designers? Is it too much to ask to bring your website up to date and get one of your employees to regularly tweet and run Facebook competitions? To get your designers on the phone with The Dice Tower, On Board Games and the rest for interviews? To get your games to the video reviewers to coincide with pre-order campaigns as Plaid Hat does? I don’t think so.