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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Friday, January 13, 2006

I Can't Think of a Title

I’m supposed to be posting these on Thursday but haven’t been able to get caught up yet.  Maybe next week…

Over on the Teaching Board Games list, my friend Mike Frantz has been sharing his attempts to start an adult “Beyond Monopoly” class at his local community college in Wenatchee, Washington.  The idea comes from a course Ben Baldanza offered in the DC area, and it appears to be an effective way to reach an audience that might otherwise miss out on the typical mainstream marketing done for strategy games (that was a joke… what marketing?).  Mike appears to be close to his goal and recently posted the flyer he will use to advertise the course.  I would love to do something like this but I’ll need to wait until I shed some other extra-curricular, which I seem to be adding faster than I can take away.  While I step down as Cubmaster for my sons’ Cub Scout pack in February, I’m going to start teaching a Ruby on Rails class to high school students in February and will be head coaching a baseball team starting in March.  Where are my priorities?

My lovely wife Julie, on the other hand, is very active using games during special break-out sessions with third graders at Jacob and Matthew’s elementary school.  Favorite games include a 4–player version of Shut the Box that we picked up at Essen, Rolit, Amazing Labyrinth, Pickomino, and Blokus.  I just purchased three copies of 6–player Take it Easy to give to the school – we both think this is a great game for this age and it is the most scalable game since Bingo.  I hope to get Julie to write a guest column soon about her experiences doing this with the kids.  She takes a very no-nonsense approach and is equally likely to use older abstracts (like Othelo) as she is shiny new games.  I’m just a bit biased towards the new shiny thing, though I do teach chess twice a week at school and I guess that qualifies as an “older abstract”.  Most of the students that get pulled out are in the “Talented and Gifted” (TAG) category, but it is always at the discretion of the teacher involved.

For Christmas, I gave games as gifts to several of my co-workers over at Corillian.  In all cases, the games were hits with the families and I’m getting the common follow-on question – where I can I get more?  That’s when I know I have them hooked.  When asked, I invariably point them to our friendly-local-game-store (FLGS) – Rainy Day Games.  There’s nothing quite like the impact of walking into a store, being able to browse and touch the games, and getting advice from a knowledgeable store owner.

Changing subjects, over on Spielfrieks there has been a very involved discussion about the wisdom of exclusive arrangements between publishers and retailers, namely Funagain Games.  Clearly I’m biased here, so take my comments with a healthy dose of skepticism.  The thread started with a comment about recent games being carried by Boulder Games that are exclusives at Funagain.  If you look at the product page for Carcassonne: Neues Land over at Boulder, you’ll see this editorial comment:

Note: If you believe competition is good and going into cahoots with a producer to get an exclusive to thwart competition and fix the price is bad, then buy this game instead of Carcassonne: the Discovery. You not only strike a blow for all game consumers, you save yourself a good bit of money.

This is one of the silliest, most uniformed statements I’ve seen in a while.  When Funagain decides to enter into an exclusive arrangement, they take on a significant amount of sales risk in the process – they are effectively transferring risk from the publisher to the retailer.  I know this first-hand as a principal at Sunriver Games.  This is at the heart of what competition is all about – finding strategic ways to offer a competitive edge over the competition!  What would be anti-competitive is retailers getting together to decide not to do exclusives (or to price fix).

Havoc: The Hundred Years War is a first-rate production, but it is too bad that Sunriver chose a way to market the game that alienates gamers who believe competition is good and price-fixing is bad.

I guess I’d like some feedback – for those of you that believe competition is good, did we alienate you?  I’m convinced that we’ve sold 2x the product we would have otherwise, largely due to the exceptional marketing provided by Funagain.  What if we had chosen to only sell the product direct (as Columbia Games did for a while)?  Is that anti-competitive?  I guess I just don’t see the connection.  Exclusives are a common competitive attribute of a free-market system.


  • At 10:16 AM, Blogger Wes M said…

    It seems to me that the bulk of the whining regarding Havoc's being available exclusively at Funagain (at BGG, I'm not a Spielfrieks member,) was driven by folk who had an issue with Funagain, not with the *idea* of exclusive arrangements. (I.e., arguing that they have a conceptual problem with exclusive arrangements looks "higher road" than kvetching about "that one Funagain did this..."

    Frankly, if Funagain was abusing prices, neither they nor Sunriver would gain. Sure, if Havoc was available everywhere the price would be lower, by a staggering $1 - $1.50; Funagain is taking a risk by purchasing inventory from a start-up company, they deserve to be compensated.

  • At 11:05 AM, Blogger Josh said…

    I have no beef with SunRiver's exclusive deal with Funagain, although I find it personally inconvenient as I find their prices generally too high and shipping too expensive.

    I was less happy to hear of Funagain's exclusive deal for Carcassonne: The Discovery, as Rio Grande doesn't have the limitations that a small startup game company like SunRiver does, and I couldn't see any reason for them to do this. The reasons presented on spielfrieks for the exclusive do make sense, though. Not that I care in more than an abstract sense anyway...I need another Carcassonne like I need a, well, maybe even less than that.

  • At 1:04 PM, Blogger Jeff Coon said…

    No pulling punches here - I think exclusive deals are totally bad for the consumer. I can understand why Sunriver chose to go that route, and for small indie publishers it might be the best option, but it sucks for the consumer.

    I can give you a non-insider's view on Havoc. That's such a solid game that you guys would have sold that many copies without the exclusive deal. The word of mouth for Havoc was huge, especially at BGG.CON. I've been talking with a guy overseas who buys from distributors, and he said there would be a good market for the game over there, but he can't buy it. It's possible even more copies would have sold without the exlusive deal.

    I'm a big believer in markets. Competition is healthy. You guys did what you had to do for Sunriver, and it may have been the best move, maybe not. But hopefully if another print run is made, it will be in wide distribution.

  • At 2:26 PM, Blogger Shannon Appelcline said…

    Personally, I think you're shooting yourself in the foot with your Funagain exclusive.

    Sure, your sales might have been 2x by going exclusively with Funagain. And if this was going to be your only product ever, that'd make good sense for you.

    However, you're also retarded your ability to grow. If you'd released Havoc into the marketplace, then you might have had lower initial sales, but they would have slowly grown due to word of mouth about a good product. And your next product would have done better. And the next. But instead you're capped at that 2x that you're getting from funagain.

    And in the meantime other retailers who are aware of the exclusive may be less likely to stock your next product as a result, rather than more.

    I also agree with Jeff that exclusives are bad for the consumer, and as I've said over on spielfrieks, I think they're bad for the industry.

    So, if you guys are planning to publish again this year, I think the Havoc exclusive only had one winner: not the consumer, not the industry, not you. Just funagain.

  • At 3:11 PM, Blogger Chris Brooks said…

    Great comments from everyone.

    Shannon, it will indeed be interesting to see how things work with the next game. Will retailers "boycot" a second game because of the initial deal? Will distributors shy away? Do they hold grudges? If the game is good and they can sell it, why would they not want to carry it? Do retailers that were told they couldn't carry Columbia Games hold out from carrying them out of spite? Frankly, I would be surprised if that's the case. But maybe I'm wrong - time will tell. This issue was debated and considered extensively before we entered the deal.

    Also, the game has made it into other markets - Funagain is acting as a distribution pipeline into some other channels, including overseas. They may open that more in the near future - it is ultimately their call. In fact, we at Sunriver viewed this primarily as a distribution deal, not a retailer deal (long term). If you haven't owned a product company and dealt with product fullfillment, you'll be very surprised at the amount of effort that goes into packaging and shipping orders. The exclusive has allowed us to begin working on a next game much more readily.

    Taking it a step further, if the lack of an exclusive prevented an otherwise good product from entering the market (willingness to expend more funds or take more risks on a new product), would that be a bad thing? Or is it better for the product to get to market even if only through a single retail channel?

  • At 11:17 PM, Blogger Shannon Appelcline said…

    I suspect you're right and a bare minimum of people will hold a grudge. As you said, they'll want to carry it if they can sell it, and to do otherwise would also be a disservice to their customers.

    The bigger problem that I see is that your product still isn't proven to the distribution & retailer network and thus you'll be starting from the same ground zero and building up with product #2 as with product #1.

    Yes, you'll have good press, but you had that already coming out of Essen. The only advantage I can see is that you might have a bit more consumer pull on the other side of the counter ("order this product!"). On the other hand, if your next product isn't quite a big a hit as Havoc, you may be behind where you were on Havoc, when otherwise you would have had some good karma to spend.

    In any case, I'm happy that funagain did some distribution for you, since that will clearly help next time.

    By the by, I have worked at a very small game company, and I'm well aware of how much time product fulfillment took. I understand why you made the decision you did for a first-time product, I just wanted to offer my honest opinion when you asked for the same.

    For the small game company I worked at it was about 1 FTE constantly shipping, a few half FTEs marketing to the distributors and taking orders from the distributors, and the whole company had to step up when we had to unload a product. (Due to a bad loading dock at our warehouse we had to unpack then repack every pallet.)

  • At 11:24 PM, Blogger Shannon Appelcline said…

    I missed this last question:

    Taking it a step further, if the lack of an exclusive prevented an otherwise good product from entering the market (willingness to expend more funds or take more risks on a new product), would that be a bad thing? Or is it better for the product to get to market even if only through a single retail channel?

    That really depends on your goals as a company.

    If you just wanted your product out and to break-even on real costs, it's a fine idea. People who want to, can find your game and play it and you get the joy of creation and knowing that other people have played the game and enjoyed it.

    (I've played the game since I've reviewed it. I've enjoyed it.)

    If you're trying to build a serious company that can employ some of you full-time I suspect you might have advanced further on that goal by braving distribution.

  • At 10:44 AM, Blogger Chris Brooks said…

    The point about "braving distribution" is a very good one. When I was trying to get Havoc into distribution, I couldn't get companies like Alliance to return my calls or emails. Now that Havoc is out there, I've had about 10 emails from distributors wanting to carry the product. The irony here is that may not have learned about the product had it not been the exclusive. What I do know is that I'm much more likely to get interest from distributors (if we decide to go that way) for a second product given the reputation of Havoc.

  • At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Interesting discussion at http://tajmahalfred.blogspot.com/2006/01/competition-and-exclusives-chris.html and http://www.haloscan.com/comments/alfredhw/113717831228826699/


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