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Creating Translations for Imported Games

James Nathan
United States
Cincinnati
Ohio
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Microbadge: I attended T5Microbadge: I love trick-taking gamesMicrobadge: Cincinnati OH, January 2020
(In which I mostly talk about what I do to cobble together English language translations for Japanese games when I don't speak, read, or write any Japanese.)

This portrait of Yayoi Kusama hangs in the stairwell at my house. It's a cheaply framed page ripped from a magazine, and the only photo in my house that's not of a friend or a family member. (That seems like a weird thing to say, but I never understood that schtick of having pictures of Elvis or Rod Stewart above the fireplace, so it seemed like maybe I should explain. She's my Elvis.)

From gallery of xitoliv

It's there because of those polka dots in the background. Her shawl, too. It's the repetitive action of creating those dots. Of making those...tassels. There was a time when I made a lot of pottery, and I had become infested with the same polka dot virus that got to Yayoi.

From gallery of xitoliv
I don't do well attempting to meditate or staying focused in yoga, but there was a time when I had polka dots. I'd spend my afternoons and my evenings and sometimes my mornings or my late nights with an eye dropper in one hand and a pot in the other. Dip, squeeze, squeeze, rotate, squeeze, dip.

There was an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition.

I worked at five or so different studios, and when switching one time, I gave myself a variation of an assignment my mentor at a previous studio had done: Make two hundred tea bowls. Don't make anything else. Don't get distracted. Me being me, I also didn't tell anyone what I was doing, so I also had to brush off their encouragement that I could...do something else. It was a time of growth: doing away with inefficiencies in my processes and techniques; gaining flexibility in what I was working with.

There was an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition.

In the first half below, I'm going to talk about ways for someone else to do, or have done, the translation you're looking for. In the second, I'm going to discuss what happens when it falls to you, and the answer for me is going to involve something something solace in the process.

Have Somebody Else Do the Leg Work

Double check that someone else hasn't already made a translation. Twice with games that were released at the 2018 Fall Tokyo Game Market event, I was nearly complete with a difficult translation when the publisher released English rules. English translations usually list the translator, so now I ask one friend which rules he has been tasked to translate before I start so that we're not redoubling our efforts.

Board Game: ペーターと2匹の牧羊犬 (Peter's Two Sheep Dogs)
For Peter's Two Sheep Dogs, Kevin used a method I'll talk about momentarily to get a workable translation, but later it turned out that the publisher had a translation that they had forgotten to share, so it's also worth asking them directly — which usually means on Twitter, but Japanese rules typically include contact information at the end, though, again, usually that's a Twitter handle, but sometimes there's an e-mail address. (When Game Market releases do include English rules, these rules have often been printed at home or are given as a handout along with the game and not packaged within as time constraints may have prevented their inclusion at the time of release. A game not including English rules does not mean they aren't being worked on for a later release.) I double-check the game's Game Market page to ensure that English rules aren't there either.

There is a subreddit (a specific forum on the Reddit website) where you can get some free translations. (I'm not going to discuss paid translations as it's likely to cost several hundred dollars at minimum, so we're just moving on.) Here's an example where my friend Jason got a fairly lengthy translation, and this is the method Kevin used for Peter's Two Sheep Dogs. I try not to abuse this method, and it isn't always perfect. Sometimes I use it more to square up some nuance I'm struggling with rather than using it as a first pass, but the price is right, and usually a response can be received overnight. Post it one evening, and wake up to a translation! (This also works in the BGG Japan forum, as demonstrated here.)

Now It's Your Turn

There will come a time when it's down to you and Google Translate, and there's no way around that. (Well, learning Japanese, but for our purposes, I'm assuming that's off the table.)

There are a few quirks to the process which we'll discuss in a moment, but you need to start with the best input you can. What format are the JP rules available in? My preferences are:

(1) PDF where I can select the text to copy and paste
(2) Physical copy of the rules
(3) PDF where I cannot select the text to copy and paste
(4) Image of the rules (.jpg, .png, etc.)
(5) PDF where I can select the text to copy and paste, but it pastes as an endless string of unrenderable boxes (⎕)

In June 2019, my friend Yuto shared some musings on what Japanese designers and publishers should consider regarding the availability of EN language rules for their games. In discussing the topic with my friend Rand Lemley and I beforehand, Yuto was surprised about our valuation of being able to copy and paste the text. As you'll see below, having the correct text is often one of the key stumbling blocks to an understanding of the rules. I have access to hardware that allows me to scan in physical rules at a good resolution and software that can OCR the scanned document (a process by which the program searches the PDF for JP text and renders it selectable so that I can copy and paste.) However, this procedure is inevitably filled with quirks, especially when it comes to smaller-sized fonts, expressive fonts, columns, and gameplay examples.

This is a good time in your process to again check on Twitter, Game Market, and any publisher website for a copy of the rules. Before, we were looking for EN rules, but this time you want JP. There may be an image of the rules on Game Market, but maybe a PDF awaits on the publisher's website. Sometimes, rather than being in a document, the full text of the rules is just under your nose on some website, in the case of something like Fraction Poker, or on the Game Market site, in the case of Übergang des Barocks.

The first thing to know about doing MT (machine translation) of JP rules is to remove the "hard returns". Here's an example from 名人伝 (The Legend of the Greatest Master). A selectable PDF of the rules is available, and here's what a strict copy-and-paste portion of the set-up rules translates as:

From gallery of xitoliv

I can't make heads or tails of that. However, there is a hidden character at the end of each of the JP lines which when removed looks like this, and leads to a much clearer translation.

From gallery of xitoliv

In this trick-taking game, one card (the "Arrow" card) shuffled into the deck determines the start player. The start player reveals that they have it, but to ensure equal hand sizes, the other players randomly discard a card (and have some asymmetric knowledge about the available cards).

Be careful with removing these hard returns as sometimes the JP side may appear as if none remain, but the EN side shows that they are present, as in this example:

From gallery of xitoliv

As I said above, sometimes you need to OCR the rules and there are inevitably quirks. Here is a passage from the FINAL BURGER -LAST ORDER- rules, and how it pastes, in an extreme example:

From gallery of xitoliv

From gallery of xitoliv

Yikes. That won't do at all. This passage, and frankly several large portions of these rules, are difficult to make out, both in the scan and in the physical copy. This is an egregious example to stress that you should proofread what pastes into your MT software. Be aware that many JP characters may appear similar, but are not. つ and っ, for instance. Is the character below 様 or 樣?

From gallery of xitoliv
Even when the OCR is clearer, you'll need to scan the text to make sure that it jibes with your source material. Columns, examples, and image captions can get in the way as the software often takes a line from column A and a line from column B, then splices them.

One of the hardest of these to deal with is rules that use, well...this is where we need to talk about Japan's three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. For our purposes today, kanji are the more visually complex characters borrowed from Chinese (and it continues to astonish me that each rule set includes several new characters I've never needed to draw before). Some rules use a system called "furigana", in which a line of hiragana characters is placed above the kanji. It looks like this, in an example from the Fraction Poker rules:

From gallery of xitoliv

The hiragana characters from the line above the main text show how to pronounce the kanji characters below them. For your translation purposes, you can ignore the hiragana line, but it will make your copy and paste more difficult.

Recently, I've been exploring an alternate OCR method and having some better results. Using the "Scan" option of the Google Translate app, your phone will take a photo; the app will search for text in the selected language, then you highlight with your finger the text you'd like to translate.

From gallery of xitoliv

As with everything else I'm talking about, this method isn't without its quirks. Specifically, it still has some of the hard return issues; at other times, it may be difficult to select only the passage in which you are interested. The oddest thing it does is sometimes transpose pieces of what you've selected in ways that I haven't yet been able to pin down the cause for. (As a result of the transposition and inevitable OCR hiccups, even when I use this method, I copy and paste the Japanese text into the document I'm working on the translation for so that I can deal with corrections on a computer.)

When OCR fails you — not if, but when — you'll need to know efficient ways to input JP characters. Google Translate offers two ways to do this: one in the desktop interface, and one on mobile. I suppose both are at some point the same, but for our purposes they have key differences. Highlighted in the image below is the button you want for the desktop version.

From gallery of xitoliv

This pencil button allows you to draw characters with your mouse, then Google will autosuggest the character you are trying to input. Here's an example of when it works — and I suppose that means you know what is going to follow.

From gallery of xitoliv

Other times, the result you want either isn't there or appears not to be there.

From gallery of xitoliv

In this case, though, your result is there. Here's another example: No matter how many times you draw it, the "L" shape doesn't seem to be in the options.

From gallery of xitoliv

Though again, your result is there. The trick is the style of font the character is being displayed in. If I understand correctly, in the first example, I've drawn the character in the "ming" style that is used by the rules, but Google is rendering my options in the "gothic" style. In the second example, Google has rendered the kanji character in Chinese rather than the Japanese version that would be expected. The first row below shows the same character in two fonts, as does the second row.

From gallery of xitoliv

(I typically see those characters in rules as I drew them above: り in the ming style, and 直 in the Japanese version.)

Those two characters seem to be fairly common and are the only ones I routinely come across where I need to know that the suggested characters are correct, even when they don't appear as such. (You can see more examples of this "L" shape variation and its usage here. h/t Saigo.)

(If you found this fascinating, I recommend checking out what happens to the Cyrillic alphabet in italics, notably "Т".)

I'm about to discuss the differences between drawing the translations by mouse through the desktop interface and drawing them by hand through the mobile interface, but first, a note on these two characters on mobile.

From gallery of xitoliv

The mobile Google Translate interface does render り in the same ming style as the typical ruleset.

One thing you may notice about the mobile interface above is that you cannot see what I've drawn. The desktop interface waits for your input before deciding upon an interpretation, so take your time. The mobile interface, on the other hand, immediately proceeds with its best guess if you pause for too long. At first, I hated this, but now I love it. Drawing with the mouse can be difficult; for me, it is much easier to reproduce the characters by hand. Some of them are becoming familiar enough (though I still don't know what they mean) that I can draw them with my finger rather quickly. The mobile interface helps you out here also as you can enter several characters at once (as many as you can fit on the screen), and it will typically convert them flawlessly, though it still gives you options from which to choose.

From gallery of xitoliv

One of the drawbacks of the mobile interface is that, well, the results are on my phone. I find it beneficial to have the results in a document so that I have it for prosperity, can combine with other portions that I have been able to copy and paste from an OCR document, or can input into different MT software. (To do this, I usually copy and paste from the mobile app to a Google Doc.) The benefit of the mobile app is that it has a nice memory of what I have drawn; for instance, I was at a coffee shop yesterday working on the translation for 3番目に強いもぐら (Third Strongest Mole), and the app will let me bring up any of the passages I drew yesterday.

From gallery of xitoliv

Just as you need to learn when two characters are the same, but appear different, Google will give you translations that are a puzzle the first time you see them, but will become secondhand in time: references to a "mountain" mean a deck of cards; the "parent" is the lead player.

You may find yourself in a position where OCR isn't going to work or is sufficiently unreliable that you're faced with entering all of the rules by hand. Take this page of the GORiATE rules, for instance.

From gallery of xitoliv

It seems like a simple card game, but that's page 1 of 4. This is where the intro comes back around: For me, there's an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition of drawing the characters. It's also addictive. I don't know the language, so the characters become only symbols. The theme paragraph usually goes okay, but the components and set-up are smooth sailing. Many of the rules I translate are trick-taking games, so much of the gameplay is hanging on a familiar armature. That leaves only the scoring, then we're out of here.

It's like squeezing those dots onto the pots. Draw this character. Draw another. Draw another. Draw another. Soon, the sentence is finished, and you see what it means. Many of the characters are becoming second nature, though I know what almost none of them mean — I'm vaguely becoming familiar with the characters for "card" and "points" — and this makes the process more relaxing.

(I'll note here that one thing I'm still exploring is using AWS [Amazon Web Services] as a translation tool. It is free for low volumes, though seems to require a different Amazon account than the one with which you shop. I haven't yet found the translations to be notably better, but it does have the ability to import a custom XML file where I could pre-define deck and lead player.)

It's work. You have to put in the work, but I love seeing the results! "Just one more sentence..." Maybe I want to see how it plays. Maybe I'm looking for context clues to understand the previous sentence. Keep drawing characters whose meaning you don't know. Just keep drawing.

There's an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition.

Anyway, after a first pass, a few nuances will need addressing, and we have a couple of approaches for this. We can try an alternate MT service, for instance. Take this passage on the turn order from 3番目に強いもぐら (Third Strongest Mole):
Quote:
The next player to the right of the third player
will be the starting player so that the third
player to the meeting place will be the third
player today. The next start-up ear next to the
player on the right side is the next start-up
so that the third player who will be third in
the game will be placed third.
Ouch. Step one, proofread the JP characters to make sure I haven't mistaken a つ for a っ. (In the above passage, I did accidentally accept Google's interpretation of し when I meant レ, but the revised result isn't much clearer:
Quote:
The next player to the right of the third player
will be the starting player so that the third
player to the meeting place will be the third
player today. The next player to the right next
to the third player will be the next start player
so that the third player who will be in third place
will be the third player by comparison.
The game is themed around coming in third, so I suppose it is saying that the third person to arrive to play the game today should go third in the first trick, but I could be more confident, and I certainly don't know who leads the second trick. Let's ask Yandex's translation service:
Quote:
Just as the 3rd player who came to the meeting
point today is the 3rd player, next to the 3rd
player is the starting player. Next to the 3rd
player to the right side of the 3rd player
becomes the next start player, so that the 3rd
player to the 3rd place to the next player to
the second place to the left.
...that...uh, doesn't clarify things. (See, you thought you knew where that example was going.) Luckily, rules often have redundant portions. This passage about turn order has been from the section about the start player for the first round. If we move to the section about who leads the next trick from the rules for resolving a trick, Yandex gives us:
Quote:
The starting player (the player next to the
player on the right side of the 3rd player)...
Ah, I see. The start player for the next trick is determined such that the player who was thirrd in the previous trick's rankings is now third in turn order. In hindsight, I can see that in the earlier outputs.

Sometimes, I try to watch a video. For ジャンキー (Junkie), I was having trouble determining how the scoring works. The game has two suits — milk chocolate and white chocolate — and I knew that the scoring involved the difference of the two chocolates that a player had collected, but in what manner? Sum their values and subtract? So I watched this video and tried to follow along with the scoring:


That didn't work. Then I got out my copy of the game and moved the cards accordingly and realized that the score is the absolute value of the difference of the number of cards collected of the two suits.

I'm also grateful for the support of publishers and designers in helping get through the finer points of the translations. Across the board, they have been very supportive in offering their assistance. I usually approach them only with specific questions, asking my question in both English and Japanese, and trying to reference specific elements from the rules. Their English knowledge varies (though it's almost always more than my Japanese), but here's an example where the designer ショータ (SHOTA) couldn't explain my questions in text, but drew, colored, and scanned illustrated examples to touch on the points about which I was unclear. It was perfect.

From gallery of xitoliv

When I'm finished, I share a link to a Google Drive PDF of my text with the designer/publisher. Google Drive lets you manage "versions" of PDFs, so if I need to update something later, I can do so, then the link I've provided will update as well. I never know whether my efforts will be helpful or not, but they never know whether making English rules up front will be helpful or not. I do it as an act of goodwill, and it seems to be appreciated on their end.

At the extreme end is a ruleset that I'm working on getting into decent OCR shape for a friend. The scan of the rules looks like this:

From gallery of xitoliv

The text of the rules is cyan on white, and it includes not only furigana, but English-language notes from a previous owner. In this case, Rand had the idea of using photo-editing software to clean up the scan first. This one is a work in progress, but I've erased the hand-written EN and furigana, and I've darkened the main text so that it looks like this:

From gallery of xitoliv

Much clearer. Not the cleanest, but it is a quite legible font. I'm still working on getting it close to this state but without some of the fuzzy artifacts around the characters.

I did some work with cleaning up around the characters and inverting as the letters seemed clearer, but my OCR resources were not fond of the inverted image:

From gallery of xitoliv

As usual, the situation is developing.

Other Resources

From what I know, a central list of which titles folks are working on translating doesn't exist. If such a list were out there, this is where I'd tell you about it. I share any rulesets I've made and am sufficiently confident in to BGG, but sometimes I keep them to myself if I've done 90% of the work to determine whether the game is something I want to purchase, but then decide not to.

There is a 2015 GeekList from Joe Huber for folks to list JP titles where they are looking for EN translations, though now I believe the community is using Nathan T's 2017 GeekList for adding new such titles. This GeekList can serve as a sort of central resource through which you can be notified when a new translation is available. (I'll also mention that Nathan T keeps a list of the ones he is working on in his BGG profile.)

As for me, I'm working on at some stage:

ゴリアテ (GORiATE)
三ツ星ショコラティエ (Apprentice's Journey to a Three-Star Chocolatier)
• トリテセット1 (Trick Taking Set 1) (るりるり)
• トリテセット2 (Trick Taking Set 2) (るりるり)
• トリテセット5 (Trick Taking Set 5) (るりるり)
• Trick Taking Party 2019 Finalists (TBA)
巨獣大進撃 (Tokyo Oneway)
カエサルは賽を投げない (Caesar Does Not Throw Dice)
Coconut Empire (Thai)

James Nathanより

(Adapted from my June 2019 article on OpinionatedGamers.com)
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Mon Apr 6, 2020 1:00 pm
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Come Tour the Deutsches Spielearchiv in Nürnberg, Home to 30,000 Games

W. Eric Martin
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
During the Spielwarenmesse 2020 trade fair in late January and early February, Lincoln Damerst and I spent a few hours away from the Messe to tour the Deutsches Spielearchiv in Nürnberg, Germany, a museum filled with more than 30,000 games that is accessible primarily for research purposes.

The museum is not normally open to the public, but during Spielwarenmesse 2019, it conducted a mini-tour on the Monday following the trade fair, and Lincoln and I joined that tour despite neither of us speaking German beyond the bare minimum, e.g. "Sind zwei Halbbrüder einen Bruder?", a helpful phrase that Duolingo has taught me. Despite catching only a few words of the tour guide, we were blown away by what we saw, so ahead of Spielwarenmesse 2020, I contacted the museum to see whether they would be interested in us filming a tour so that the public can get a sense of why the museum exists, what it holds, and what its plans are for the future.

I'm not sure how well we answered those questions. I wasn't even sure what to ask, so I stumbled through questions as well as I could, mostly overcome by a desire to drop the mic and start rummaging through everything that we saw. For more on the museum, check out this February 2020 post, which also includes many pics that I shot when I could stop gawking for a few minutes.

We were joined on the tour by designer Brian Yu from Mattel, who had ditched work at the show to view this otherwise unviewable museum, and he helped with the filming by manning a 360º camera as we moved from floor to floor and aisle to aisle. Thanks to Lincoln for not dropping the camera to paw at games, and huge thanks to Derek Porter for editing the footage into this video:

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Wed Apr 1, 2020 5:43 pm
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Solitaire Sunday: Lunar Landing and Gecko

W. Eric Martin
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
From gallery of W Eric Martin
I don't normally cover logic puzzles in this space — logic puzzles not being games and all that — but with folks spending more time in their residences these days and not able to gather with others in one location for games, I thought I'd start covering a logic puzzle now and then in case you're looking for other ways to challenge your mind.

The first two videos in my "Solitaire Sunday" series are now live, with the first covering a puzzle, Lunar Landing, that I've owned and solved and shared many times since I first bought it in 2000 and the second covering a plane-worthy title, Gecko, that you're not likely to be solving in a plane any time soon.



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The BGG Show: Catching Up on the Past Four Months

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Man muss auch gönnen können
I'll keep this update brief:

1. I've now posted more than ninety game overview videos from the Spielwarenemesse 2020 trade fair on our BGG Express YouTube channel. Many of the videos are only two or three minutes long, giving you a quick taste of what awaits in the future. I have another eleven still to post and will do so in the next day or two. Lots going on right now...

2. We have a BGG team at the FIJ game fair in Cannes, France, and they will be livestreaming interviews with designers and publishers on Saturday, Feb. 22 and Sunday, Feb. 23 on our Twitch channel. You can see the schedule of which titles will be featured on camera here, but that schedule was somewhat empty and the team has been dragging unexpected guests on camera to talk about their games. Who knows who will show up next?!

3. I'm heading to NY Toy Fair on Saturday, Feb. 22 and Sunday, Feb. 23 to see what there is to see, and I'll be tweeting pics and notes on BGG's Twitter feed. Follow along, or wait for the round-up posts that will come in the next couple of weeks before BGG will run its next livestream at GAMA Expo 2020 on March 10-12.

4. After months of busyness following SPIEL and BGG.CON 2019, we have finally recorded another episode of The BGG Show. Lots has happened since our last show, and we summarize some of those events, with me giving a quick rundown of Man muss auch gönnen können, a somewhat involved roll-and-write game from Ulrich Blum and Jens Merkl that was recently released in Germany by Schmidt Spiele. I plan to do a thorough overview in the future once I've played a few more times, but this will give you a taste of the game:



00:15 Opening and intros
01:01 BGG News and Announcements: Moving
04:11 BoardGameGeek Express Channel convention coverage
07:52 GameNight! Live: The Wilson Wolfe Affair — George G Fox — Simulacra Games
08:36 Top 10 vs. 10
10:52 BGG Events — BGG Spring 2020: May 22nd-25th
12:19 Upcoming convention coverage
15:08 Dodo — Frank Bebenroth, Marco Teubner — KOSMOS
17:39 BoardGameGeek has exceeded 100,000 subscribers on YouTube!
19:57 News and New Releases: Repos Production purchased by Asmodee
21:27 New edition of Belratti
24:05 What Have You Been Playing?
Eric — Man muss auch gönnen können — Ulrich Blum, Jens Merkl — Schmidt Spiele
29:08 Nidavellir — Serge Laget — GRRRE Games
30:19 Steph — Maracaibo — Alexander Pfister — Game's Up
36:07 Scott — Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated — Andy Clautice, Paul Dennen — Renegade Game Studios
38:53 Lincoln — 5 Minute Dungeon — Connor Reid — Wiggles 3D
39:49 Video Vortex — Mitch Ryckman, Trevan Haskell — Mondo Games
43:55 BoardGameGeek turned 20!
45:43 Goodbyes
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Spielwarenmesse VIII: A Mini-Tour of the Deutsches Spielarchiv in Nürnberg

W. Eric Martin
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In 2019 after attending the Spielwarenmesse trade fair for four days, Lincoln Damerst and I took a tour of the Deutsches Spielarchiv, a.k.a. Haus des Spiels, in downtown Nürnberg.

The archive is not normally open to the public — or open on Mondays generally — but in honor of the trade fair, it was hosting a special tour. The tour was in German, as you might expect, so Lincoln and I didn't follow much of what was being said, but we were blown away by the holdings of the archive, so ahead of Spielwarenmesse 2020, I contacted the archive to see whether we could film a tour in English in 2020. They agreed, so we spent a few hours filming on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020 after leaving the trade fair early. Designer Brian Yu helped out by manning a 360º camera, while Lincoln filmed staff members talking about the origins of the archive as well as specific exhibits.

I'm not sure how the footage will come out given that the archive has archive-friendly lighting (i.e., not super bright) and we were kind of all over the place in our recording, but that's a challenge for Lincoln and Derek Porter to figure out. As for me, I took a few photos along the way, so I thought I'd give you a look at the archive in still images. Should you care to visit the Deutsches Spielarchiv, note that the game room in the Pellerhaus is open to visitors for game afternoons (details here), whereas access to the archive itself requires an appointment, with you needing to state your reasons for visiting, typically for research purposes.

Let's start with exhibits from the archive that you might have already seen:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

If you've attended SPIEL, you might have run across display cases like these two, although these were actually next to the SAZ café at Spielwarenmesse 2020. These cases include a few games on a particular theme from the Deutsches Spielarchiv, along with museum-style note cards that explain what you're looking at. Cases like these give you only the tiniest taste of what's held in the archive.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The entry level floor at Haus des Spiels — which is open to the public — has a larger display of game cases on a particular theme, with 2020's theme being "Stadt" (which is German for "city"). The cases featured games based on German cities. The note in the lower image gives a short history of Spear-Spiel, which was founded in the late 1800s. In 1932, the Spear family, which was Jewish, opened a factory in Great Britain and moved most production there, with the Nazis taking over the German production facilities in the late 1930s to start turning out propaganda games such as Im Fluge durch Grossdeutschland and Bomben auf England.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Look at all those Edition Perlhuhn titles! So many tubes!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
History in my hands

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin

The Deutsches Spielarchiv has approximately three floors of metal shelves holding games, with those shelves not nearly being as full as my shelves at home. Lots of room to grow here!

The archive has added multiple collections to its holdings over the years, and those collections typically each have their own identification system that has only sort of been integrated with the other ones. In 2019, the archive started a new more comprehensive shelving ID system for new titles being admitted, and over time everything will be reshelved according to this new system.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

In some cases, the games are shelved by series, as with the Heyne Taschenspiele and 3M Gamette titles in the image above this one, and in others they're shelved by subject matter and in still others they're shelved by some other means. In the image above, for example, you're seeing a collection of games that were created on behalf of companies for use as marketing materials, and in this image:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

You see more than fifty boxes filled with other marketing-based games that were acquired as a collection that's yet to be unboxed and catalogued. So many things to explore!

Board Game: Enchanted Forest

The highlight of the archive, at least for me, was its collection of Alex Randolph prototypes, such as this pair of prototypes for the Spiel des Jahres-winning game Sagaland.

Funny thing: The top prototype has been in the archive's collection for a while, having been added at the same time as many other Randolph creations, whereas the prototype on the bottom was discovered only recently in yet another collection acquired by the archive.

Board Game: Drachenfels

Drachenfels, a Randolph and Leo Colovini co-design released by Schmidt Spiele in 1986, featured its iconic rainbows in the prototype, too. (Sorry about the glare, but I couldn't find an angle in which it wasn't present.)

Board Game: Jagd der Vampire

This prototype, called "Ketchup" with an explanation as to why in the lower-left corner, was published as Jagd der Vampire in 1991

Board Game: Choo-choo

Choo-Choo is a basic Randolph design, with each player having an identical set-up of colored bits in their individual track layout. You flip over colored tokens until the third token of a color appears, after which each player races to rearrange the colored bits in the right order by using the dead-ends to switch things around.

The most amazing thing about this image isn't the hand-crafted prototype of Choo-Choo, but that it's lying on top of at least ten other such prototypes in the archive's collection. I didn't want to leave that room, which also has closets full of individual game components from Randolph's collection and shelves of his dozens of published games, but alas, I had to leave. We always have to leave, whatever we want to keep doing.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

At the end of the evening, the Deutsches Spielarchiv hosted the annual awarding of the Duali award for best two-player game by the Ali Baba Spieleclub, which has more than eight hundred members in ten cities across Germany. Members of SAZ, a group for game designers that originated in Germany but which has members worldwide, also attended the event.

Lookout Games' Mandala won the award, with Nagaraja and Robin of Locksley taking second and third place.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Wed Feb 12, 2020 3:00 pm
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My Highlights of the 2010s: Innovation, The Mind, Abluxxen, Strike, Battle Sheep, and More

W. Eric Martin
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With the year of Steinbeisser upon us, I thought I'd do something unusual by doing something completely normal, namely highlighting my top-ish ten games of the past decade.

I don't normally make top 10 lists, and I tend not to rate games until after months or years of experience with them, so I don't have a list of anything other than my top two games of all time — but I do have a record of my games played in the 2010s. My memory isn't great, but I find that I'm able to look at a record of games played on a certain date and reconstruct who was playing and what the gaming session was like, which is one reason I keep such records.

I scanned that list to find the ten games that (1) I had played the most and that (2) I had the best memories of or (3) most want to play again. After all, the idea of a "top 10" list as anything other than a celebration of the lister's personal tastes seems absurd. I'm not judging in the abstract which games I think are best, only which games are best for me.

As I looked over the list, I realized that one thing my favorite games tend to have in common is that they play out v. differently depending on who the other players are. Sure, all playings of Codenames or The Mind are similar on the surface, but my experience with them is far different when playing them with my wife or with experienced gamers or with kids at my son's school or with people I've just met at a party. These games are a mirror of the players' personalities. As much as I like, say, Agricola or 7 Wonders, those games feel like they largely play out the same way no matter who's at the table, so they don't resonate with me as much as other designs.

In any case, let's start with a cheat:

Board Game: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
Board Game: T.I.M.E Stories
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 / T.I.M.E Stories

These two releases from 2015 fall into the same bucket for me: highly thematic, disposable games that I played with people whom I love playing games with. One of the reasons that I think Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 shot to #1 on the BGG charts is that people going into it knew that they were committing to playing 12-24 games with the same group, so they made sure to play with a group that they enjoyed — which meant that they were already primed to love the game. (The second element that ensured that love is that anyone who hated Pandemic would never try it in the first place, so their potential low scores would never be registered.) I was also able to preview the game in March 2015 with co-designer Rob Daviau, so that was special, too.

I've played only four T.I.M.E Stories scenarios, one each year at SPIEL from 2012 (when I first previewed the game) to 2015 with mostly the same group in playtest sessions with publisher Game Works / Space Cowboys, and I couldn't imagine playing it with other people, so I didn't. That said, the game series is being rebooted with the "blue cycle" of scenarios in 2020, and that sounds new enough that I plan to explore T.I.M.E Stories again once I get the chance.

Board Game: Azul
Azul

In my position as BGG News Editor, I get a chance to preview many games prior to them being released, which is handy for a write-up like this one since I can point to my first impressions of Azul from August 2017 after having played the game twice at a press event ahead of Gen Con 2017.

Azul is the title on this list that most violates the "different players play differently" rule, but I've still experienced a range of playing styles, mostly in the two-player game, which is how I prefer to play. When you have only one opponent, you know that the other player is getting every tile you don't, and you have more of a say over how those tiles will be distributed — and sometimes you can hammer someone with a huge penalty because you saw just a little further ahead on the choice tree than they did, which is always a nice bonus.

Board Game: Codenames
Codenames

I've talked about the magic of Codenames in my preview of Codenames Duet, namely that the gameplay at the heart of the design can be applied to almost any subject matter. Codenames succeeds because it allows players to be creative and clever, with their efforts making the game something unique to them at this moment with this specific combination of things being guessed.

Out of all the titles on this list, Codenames is my top choice for game that will still be on the market in 2120.

Board Game: Battle Sheep
Board Game: Battle Sheep
Splits / Battle Sheep

This design might seem the most out of place on this list, but I love non-random abstract strategy games, and this is my chance to represent them.

Francesco Rotta's Splits was first published in 2010 by French publisher Jactalea as a two-player-only game. The idea of the game is simple, as is common with most abstract strategy games: First, lay out the tiles to set up the playing area. Second, each player places their stack of pieces on a border space. Third, players take turns by splitting one of their stacks and moving part of that stack as far as possible in one direction. Eventually no one can move any longer, and whoever has occupied the most spaces wins.

I played Splits more than a dozen times and loved it — then as often happens I put it aside and forgot about it since I'm writing about new games all the time. Blue Orange Games, the European branch of which had been born from Jactalea, then licensed the design and released it as Battle Sheep, which could be played by up to four players at once. (You adjust the number of landscape tiles based on the number of players, so the available space per player remains the same as in Splits.)

I've played Battle Sheep a number of times and like it as much as the original game, but beyond that I took it to my son's school as part of the game club I ran and taught it to tons of kids. The candy coating of colorful sheep made the game more attractive to those young players, and they all seemed to have a blast. I know that some claim that graphics don't matter in a game design since the strength of the design is all that matters in the end, but for most people that claim doesn't hold up. Aesthetics make a difference in whether people want to play something or not. The thinkiness of Battle Sheep is still there if you want to look for it, but you can also play it more lightly instead of as a serious affair.

Board Game: Strike
Strike / Impact: Battle of Elements

Dieter Nüßle's Strike from Ravensburger seems like a nothing game: Drop dice in a box, maybe match symbols with dice already in the box, and try not to run out of dice to win.

Even so, I've brought Strike to multiple outings (picnics, student gatherings) where people have played it over and over and over again. Things get personal around the dice arena! I enjoy watching the variety of how people approach this simple game, with some gambling each throw until they claim back dice or bust, others plopping one die onto the bottom of the arena and never risking a collision with any other dice, content to do as little as possible and hoping to survive that way.

Strike returned to market in 2018 as Impact: Battle of Elements, and the special powers included in the game as a nice touch, but the shape of the arena doesn't allow for the more dynamic dice impacts you find in Strike. Perhaps Ravensburger will change its box sizes again in a few years, and we'll see the game return in yet another form...

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

I've already written up Thomas Sing's The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine from KOSMOS twice — once from BGG.CON 2019 where I had just fallen in love with the game, and again with a video overview after I had played the game nearly sixty times in a week. Perhaps the shine will come off this co-operative trick-taking game in time, but we'll always have November 2019 as that special week in our lives together.

Board Game: Linko!
Abluxxen, a.k.a. Linko!

Abluxxen, a hand-shedding, point-collecting game from Michael Kiesling, Wolfgang Kramer, and Ravensburger, is another title that I fell hard for, played dozens of times, then haven't touched since the year of its release. Part of the problem is that I cut the box down to one-third its size to make it more portable, then apparently shoved it in something while quickly getting things out of our garage when we converted it to a game room, then...I couldn't find it again. I just need to buy another copy instead of letting this remain a personal missing grail game.

Board Game: The Game
Board Game: The Game: Extreme
Board Game: The Game: Face to Face
Board Game: The Game: Quick & Easy

The Game / The Game: Extreme / The Game: Face to Face / The Game: Quick & Easy

I wrote a few thousand words about mortality and the first three versions of Steffen Benndorf's The Game in January 2018, and I'm not sure what else I have to add to that, other than to note that in that essay I expand on the idea above of people making a game their own through play, of connecting with people through play.

I'll have more to say about The Game: Quick & Easy, which I've already played 22 times on a pre-production copy from NSV, on January 13, 2020 once the review embargo ends.

Board Game: The Mind
Board Game: The Mind Extreme
The Mind / The Mind Extreme

I've also written a few thousand words about Wolfgang Warsch's The Mind from NSV. This bit from that essay still stands out to me:
Quote:
The Mind invites you to participate in the performance of a magic trick. You become both audience and performer, playing a trick on your fellow players while amazing yourself in the process. That's the hope anyway...
I still get this feeling from playing The Mind, and now from playing The Mind Extreme. What's more, my thoughts on games themselves have changed since playing that design. I now find myself paying more attention to the emotions generated by a game design, to the sensation of what it's like to play the game.

You might notice that aside from the first two titles listed, all of these games have bare-bones rules. After learning of my game preferences recently, someone asked me whether I have a short attention span since I don't care for longer, more involved games. That might indeed be the case, but I think a more likely explanation is that I prefer not to have to think about rules while playing. Yes, a game consists of its rules, but I don't want to have to think about this rule detail or that while playing, instead immersing myself in the game as a whole. I want the details of the rules to fade into the background of the room that they create, leaving me to perform in that room without being distracted by the pattern of the wallpaper or the texture of the stucco. Simple rules make it possible for me to focus on the actions of my fellow players instead of the environment around us.

Board Game: Innovation
Innovation

In April 2012, as part of a "Voice of Experience" challenge that asked people to review games that they've played at least a hundred times, I compiled my writings on Carl Chudyk's Innovation from Asmadi Games, which at that point I had played 168 times.

As I noted in that post, "My Innovation play rate took a steep drop after I moved out of New Hampshire in June 2011". That fact hasn't changed as I only recently hit play #200, even though my love for the game hasn't abated over the years. I should hardly complain about my job, given how privileged I am in doing what I love — writing about games — for a living, but it does get in the way of me playing my favorite games as opposed to playing the newest games. Ah, well, small complaints. If you're a fan of Innovation and we happen to be in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina, buzz me on Geekmail and force me to set up a time to play. I'll thank you for it.

I'll close by pointing out that as much as this post focused on games released in the 2010s, it was also a collection of my writing highlights of the 2010s. Typically I'm focused on day-to-day game announcements, database updates, and hundreds of other odds-and-ends, but every so often I make time to dive into something deeper, and when I look back on those essays months later, I'm surprised by what I find, curious to discover part of myself that was exposed by games. Thank you for your time, and I wish you well now and in the future...

Board Game: Innovation Deluxe
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SPIEL '19: Packing It In

W. Eric Martin
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
For a change of pace this week, I'm presenting a side of the convention experience that happens only after it's over: Getting all of those (potentially) great games home.

Okay, yes, you might be figuring out your luggage space while the con is underway, pushing your clothes aside to drop a box or two in the suitcase and compute what will likely still fit: "Hmm, one KOSMOS, a Hans im Glück, two Lookout 2p, a handful of AMIGOs, and a few other oddball items."

Then you discover something wonderful and suddenly you're contemplating how much can fit in your carry-on bag.

Should you find yourself in that situation, I offer some packing advice in this video, along with teasers for SPIEL '19 releases that might find their way into overview videos down the road:

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Mon Nov 11, 2019 1:01 pm
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Counterfeiting Is Cheating

Scott Gaeta
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Board Game Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
(This article by Scott Gaeta, owner of Renegade Game Studios, first appeared on his personal blog on Sept. 25, 2019 in a somewhat different form. —WEM)

Fake copies of popular consumer goods have been a problem for decades. It seems that if something is popular enough, people will counterfeit those items and try to pass them off as the real thing. Handbags, trading cards, perfume, toys, watches, jackets, shoes, shirts, and many more items have been counterfeited over the years. I had dealt with these issues before when making collectible card games, and the sports card industry was plagued by it for years. Upper Deck came into existence largely because they had a solution to counterfeit sports cards back in the late 1980s.

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Iconic
Sometimes consumers of these items know they are buying fakes and don't even mind. They rationalize it by saying they can't afford a real one or they are saving money this way. Others never know they've been taken, often paying top dollar for something and getting a fake.

With the recent rise in boxed game sales, this has become a huge problem in our industry. Most games are made from simple materials such as paper, card stock, and wood. Plastics are tougher and more expensive to knock off, but if the demand is high enough, it's not out of the question.

In 2018, we had one of our games counterfeited and being sold online. The first indicator was that the price was ridiculously low. When we looked at the seller, it was a third party with no history, a brand new account. We first discovered this on Amazon and ordered copies to inspect.

At first glance, the copies were pretty decent, but once you looked closely, you could see glaring differences in quality and production. We immediately contacted Amazon, and they shut the seller down. Then the seller popped back up under another account. We shut that one down, too, and the game of whack-a-mole was on. Our strategy here was to be so diligent in policing this and shutting them down quickly that we wouldn't be worth it. We shut down a few more, and this went on for a couple of months.


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We also put out messaging to the gaming community, where news was circulating of this bargain price, that these were not real copies of the game. The old adage "If something is too good to be true, it probably is" was certainly relevant here.

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In working with Amazon, they made us aware of a new program they were testing and invited us to participate. The program is called Transparency. The way it works is that we print unique codes on our games. These codes are issued by Amazon in advance and tied to a specific game. Every copy of the game has a unique code. Any game without a code will never make it to a customer through their platform. Customers can scan codes to verify the product is authentic no matter where they purchase that item.

We have rolled out this program on many of our games, and so far it has worked very well. Other platforms can still be a challenge, but when you cut off the world's largest online retailer from the options these counterfeiters can use, it makes our games a much less attractive target. Any platform that allows third-party sellers has potential for abuse. We've even heard of counterfeiters reaching out to individual brick-and-mortar stores to try to sell them fake games. I don't think this practice is widespread in North America or Europe, but in other parts of the world, many products are sold openly on the streets and in stores.


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Another factor that has made these counterfeits viable is the agreements between global postal systems. The short explanation is that underdeveloped countries are not upcharged by wealthier countries to move mail that originates overseas to their final domestic destination. A counterfeit seller in China can advertise their fake on eBay and get away with charging only a few dollars (or free shipping) for a package that weighs less than 4.4 pounds all the way to New Jersey. In turn, shipping that same item back to China would cost $25-$100 depending on the service you choose. The original intent of this program was for mail to move easily and freely around the world, for lesser developed nations to be able to communicate and not be locked out because of their lower economies and personal incomes — but with the rise of e-commerce and online selling platforms, it has facilitated a pipeline for fake goods. Luckily, this program is going away and its demise should help curb the flow of fake goods being shipped directly from the source to consumers.

Counterfeit prevention and policing is also much easier when we have proactive customers. Our original problem was verified quickly by our customers. We were able to gather information from those who unknowingly purchased fake copies. For that, we are thankful that they came forward and helped in our investigation to identify the source.

My advice to publishers would be to look into programs like Transparency and Brand Registry on both Amazon and eBay. Your intellectual property and trademarks can be protected only by you or your agents. As gamers, it's on us to do our due diligence and report these fakes when we suspect them.

After all, counterfeiters are cheats, and gamers hate cheats.

•••

Additional reading:

• "The End of Cheap Shipping from China", from The Atlantic (Oct. 2018)
• "Fair Competition in International Shipping", a transcript of a hearing in the 114th Congress from June 16, 2015
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The Business of Board Games: The Superstar Effect

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Board Game Publisher: Pandasaurus Games
(This article by Nathan McNair, co-owner of Pandasaurus Games, first appeared on the company's blog on Sept. 4, 2019 in a somewhat different form. —WEM)

I want to talk about an issue called "The Superstar Effect" and the chaos that it creates in markets, focusing on the board game industry and why games are often out of print.

The Cabbage Patch Effect

There is a long-standing "common knowledge" theory that companies like to intentionally constrain supply in order to create a false sense of demand in the market, thereby making a thing hard to get, with that scarcity then making people want the thing that they can't have, even if it's not a thing that they would have otherwise wanted. This all falls under the blanket term "artificial scarcity".

From gallery of W Eric Martin
From gallery of W Eric Martin
This has absolutely happened in collectible markets for sports cards, Magic cards, Beanie Babies — any consumer product whose value is derived from the act of collecting itself or from speculation in secondary market prices. Rares have to be...well...rare. I was an avid collector of basketball cards as a kid, and I loved grabbing my Beckett and valuing my cards. If the rare cards had been more abundant and you could easily get them from a blind pack, then there would have been little point in collecting them as you could cheaply and easily get whatever collectibles you wanted.

Oddly enough, the most famous examples of artificial scarcity (Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, Ocarina of Time, Popeyes chicken sandwiches) were likely not artificially scarce. They were unexpected hits — or at least bigger hits than expected — that wound up outstripping the producers' capacity to make them. There is a famous story about the factory that made Etch-a-Sketch working around the clock on Christmas Eve to produce more to sell on Christmas morning.

The initial shortfall of supply for most of these products is a matter of guessing wrong about how badly people would want the item. After that, they couldn't catch up to the demand, at least not until months after Christmas.

Cabbage Patch Kids were all unique dolls. No two were ever going to be the same — I see you, KeyForge — and that caused massive issues at Coleco trying to keep up with the production demand of creating millions of unique dolls for Christmas. They just couldn't, which led to mass chaos and angry parents fighting each other in malls.

The vast majority of things that are supply constrained are not artificially constrained. They are actually constrained in the supply chain by how quickly they can be produced in quantity to meet demand.

The board game industry is not supply constrained, at least not in the hobby board game market. If our company wanted 100,000 units of a game, I could likely have them produced in 3-4 months. (I'll note that 100,000 units is a massive success in the hobby game space.) There is, of course, some upward theoretical limit of board game production capacity and at certain times of the year we come close to hitting it, but in reality the board game industry does not have a production capacity issue.

So if that's the case, why is it that board games sell out all the time?

Board Game: Root
The Superstar Effect

The superstar effect isn't a new idea. The basic theory is this: If something is perceived to be of a higher quality, it will get a disproportionate number of dollars.

I'll put this into board game terms. Let's say that Root is 10% better than some similar game that came out in the same year. We'll call the other game Little Root. He has the heart of a champion; he's just not as good as Root. For this example, we'll assume Little Root is mechanically, artistically, thematically, and cost-wise similar to Root, but a little worse.

Logically speaking, Little Root is 10% worse, so you would expect sales to be about 10% worse if demand were linear.

And in a world in which consumer information was low, you would expect Little Root to do pretty well. After all, a game that is 10% worse than Root is still a good game. Why wouldn't it do well?

The problem for Little Root is that Root exists. More than that, though, Reddit exists, BGG exists, Facebook groups exist — and consumers talk. They talk about how good Root is. They talk about how Root is better than Little Root. They may even say things like "Little Root is actually pretty good, but it's not as good as Root." Consensus starts to form around how good Root is. People are playing Root, so then other people want to see why everyone is making cute woodland creatures go to war against one another, so they buy Root.

As a result, Little Root is not going to sell 10% worse than Root. It's going to sell a lot worse. Labor economist Sherwin Rosen's formula for the superstar effect is complicated, but the net result is this: Root is going to get almost all of the sales, and Little Root is probably not going to fare well.

It's simple. If there is a limited amount of money to go around for consumers, and Root is better, why buy Little Root at all? Just buy Root.

Of course, the board game world has hits out there other than Root, but they tend to fill a different niche, either mechanically, in game weight, or thematically. As a result, Scythe and Dinosaur Island and Wingspan and Root and Spirit Island can all coexist with one another. Santorini, Azul, Sagrada, and Machi Koro can all sell well. They all scratch a different itch from one another and will find an audience.

Board Game: Root
Board Game: Azul
Peas in a pod?
When you ask someone "What's the better game, Root or Azul?" the answers will probably be along the lines of "Uh, those are super different games so that's a weird question. They're both good." But if you asked the differences between Azul and a hundred other gateway level games from 2018 — well, you may find Azul coming out on top.

The hits are HITS. The non-hits are...well, going to do poorly.

What About the Sell-Outs?

You might be saying to yourself, "I thought this was about why games are sold out all the time."

I'm getting there, I swear. The reason games are sold out all the time is because of the superstar effect. Not every game can be a hit. For every Root, there are probably a hundred or more Little Roots that don't sell well.

And here is the big twist: Before consumers vote with their dollars, it is very hard to tell the difference between Root and Little Root. After all, it's not like Little Root is bad. It's a really good game, 90% as good as Root! And it's not as though the publisher of Little Root was aware that Root was coming out. If so, that publisher would have done something different.

Now for the second twist: Root didn't know it was the superstar either.

Leder Games has talented people top to bottom, and Root is a fantastic game — but Root could have been Little Someothergame. I think most talented publishers and designers set out to make the best game they can, but there is always the chance that another game will be better or be perceived as better.

Board Game: The Mind
We're not
mindreaders...
See, no matter how hard we try and no matter what we put into a game, publishers do not decide who the superstars are. Consumers do. It can be a combination of gameplay and art, or price and right-place-at-the-right-time, or a perfectly timed review or reviews.

Good publishers tend to have more than one hit title, so there are some things that we can do — release fewer games, be choosier about the games we release, put the games through longer development cycles, spend more on art and components, etc. — to try to give our games a chance at becoming a superstar...but we don't actually get to decide what is or is not a superstar.

This means we have to be cautious, so let's MATH!

Risk–Publisher

I'm going to keep the math brief.

If we run a 30% profit margin on a game (made up numbers, but close enough to average, I would say), that means we need to sell 70% of our print-run to break even. We're going to ignore fixed costs in this calculation, so understand that the real numbers are likely worse than what I'm describing here.

• If I print 1,000 copies at a 30% margin, I need to sell 700 copies to break even.
• If I print 5,000 copies at a 30% margin, I need to sell 3,500 to break even.
• If I print 10,000 copies at a 30% margin, I need to sell 7,000 to break even.

Now let's reverse this.

• If I sell 3,500 games and I've printed 5,000, I have broken even.
• If I sell 3,500 games and I've printed 10,000, I have lost money — a lot of money.

If we assume this is a $50 game and the publisher sells the game into distribution at 40% of SRP, we're talking numbers like this:

• Revenue from selling 3,500 units: $70,000
• Cost of printing 5,000 units: $70,000
• Cost of printing 10,000 units: $140,000

So the swing is from breaking even to losing $70,000 by overprinting. Overprinting is a huge risk for publishers.

If I am Root, printing 10,000 copies is probably safe. Hell, printing 100,000 copies is probably safe. But if I am Little Root, printing 10,000 copies is bad, like "my company could be out of business" bad.

Now if Little Root doesn't know it's not Root, and Root doesn't know it's not Little Someothergame, then what does a publisher do? The answer is simple: We go to store owners and distributors and ask them, "Hey, how many of this thing do you want?"

Perfect, So You Solved It!

As it turns out, distribution and store owners, well, they also don't know what is going to be a big hit. They have more information than publishers do, generally knowing far more about the games that are coming out across the world.

Board Game: Tapestry
Superstar?
We all learned a few weeks ago that Stonemaier Games was putting out Tapestry, whereas distributors have likely known about it for, say, five months. If I had gone to one of our distributors and excitedly showed them a civilization-building game, they would probably not take very many because they would likely feel that Tapestry is going to be the bigger hit.

Yes, sometimes distributors have enough information to have a good sense that given all the games they know are coming out, Game X is likely to be a success — but they aren't always right. There are games that surprise them. They certainly have under-purchased games from us in the past — and they have over-purchased games from us in the past as well. I mean, a quick perusal of games that are regularly on sale for 80% off SRP is a good guess as to where someone bet wrong.

Distributors Are More Risk-Averse Than Publishers

It turns out that distribution also has to worry about risk.

Distribution generally buys board games at about 40% of SRP and tends to sell them somewhere in the range of 50% of SRP to retailers. It's more complicated than that, with minimum order quantities and free freight shipping and discounting so that number can range from a little less to a bit more than 50%, but I don't want to overcomplicate stuff here.

In general, if distribution buys a $50 game for $20 a copy, they are going to sell that game for $25 a copy. Distribution's profit margin per $50 game (not accounting for fixed costs, shipping, marketing, employees, running a warehouse, etc.) is $5 for every game sold.

Again, let's run some math. Let's say a single distributor buys 1,000 copies of a $50 game.

• Cost to distribution: $20,000
• Revenue from selling 500 copies: $12,500
• Revenue from selling 1,000 copies: $25,000

These numbers can help you see part of the problem: Distribution's margin is thinner, and their risk on overbuying a title is higher than it is for even the publisher.

Distribution has some advantages over a publisher, namely (not accounting for exclusives) that they are more likely to be able to spread around the risk of games that underperform. For publishers, Little Leder Games and Little Root are in a world of hurt, while Leder Games and Root are doing great. The distributor, on the other hand, may have taken too much Little Root, but they'll also get to sell Root to offset some of those losses.

To sum up, the risk per title is worse for distribution and their overhead costs are far worse, so even though they can spread the "superstar" risk across more titles than a publisher can, they still can't make a habit of buying 5,000 copies of everything in the hope that they are all Root.

Retailers have similar limitations with risk, so they don't generally run around buying cases of games. They buy one or two copies and take a wait-and-see approach to most games for the same reason that we don't run around printing 20,000 units of every single title.

Board Game: Mental Blocks
Where Does That Leave Us?

It leaves us in a pickle without a good way out. The reality is that for the vast majority of games, no one knows how big of a hit it's going to be until the game has come out and consumers have played it. Given that I don't want to go out of business, we have to print most titles as though they are Little Root.

If we have a breakout hit, then we'll print more and run with it. It may take us 6-9 months to find the right balance between demand and production, which means gamers are likely to be annoyed when they can't get games. We also run the risk of losing shelf space on store owners' shelves and losing mind-share in the marketplace while the game is unavailable.

We also don't actually know how many people want the game. Selling out of 5,000 copies doesn't mean we should go print 100,000. Demand for the game may top out at 6,000 copies, or perhaps 10,000 — or maybe over the next year or two that demand will continue to grow as more people play it. We just don't know.

We also risk another game coming along in the interim and firing us. It happens, and it happens not infrequently. You sell out of your first print run of a game and enthusiastically print more only to have some other new game come along, and the next thing you know you're Little Root.

Basically, everyone is cautious, and since everyone is cautious, it means hit games will be hard to get ahold of for the first 6-9 months of release.

What is Pandasaurus Games Doing About It?

We would be a pretty poor company if our solution to the whole "how to gauge demand" issue was to throw our hands up and say there is nothing to be done. Here's what we're doing instead:

Make fewer games that are better.

There is a business model out there that says print 3,000 copies of loads of games. Sell the first 3,000, then move on. There are companies that certainly follow that model.

It's a bad model.

If consumers figure out that a company can't be relied upon to make consistently good games, they will take a "wait and see" approach to your games. If stores get stiffed and have loads of your old games collecting dust or being put into sidewalk discount sales, they will remember. If distribution has loads of your games in a warehouse not moving, they will take less of your next game.

Our goal is for all of our games to sell 10,000 copies in their first twelve months. We are getting close to that being the case, and we've done that by releasing fewer games and making sure that every single one of them is special.

Our goal is that most of our games get a third and fourth printing and that one or two titles every year become evergreens — games that continue to sell for the next ten years and beyond. So far, we've had a lot of luck with several games that continue to sell extremely well year after year.

Board Game: Machi Koro
Fun fact: Machi Koro has sold more in 2019 than in 2018. It's five years old.

The way that we are getting our average sale per game up is by making sure every single game is good and by putting money into art budget, marketing, and store outreach. It takes years to earn gamers' trust that our games will be high quality and of an expected sort of game. This usually means family-friendly games in a gateway to midweight category. (Dinosaur Island is probably the upper limit of difficulty that we will release.)

It means Molly and I have a lot of frequent flyer miles. We are on the road all the time, both looking for new games and meeting with store owners and distributors globally to make sure they know about our games.

Jonathan Gilmour has been to four conventions in the last six weeks looking for new games for 2021. (2020 is already fully set in stone.) It’s a ton of work. Jonathan looks at up to a hundred games at larger shows, with a lot of them being repeat designs as he may see a game at Unpub and give feedback, then see changes at Origins or Gen Con. For our 6-8 releases in a year, we are likely looking at 400 designs to find that small number.

Now, we don't just put out the best eight games we find every year. Sometimes a game is fantastic, but it's a weird fit for our brand, so we'll send those designers to friends in the industry who would be a better fit for the title.

Board Game: Wayfinders
We then send those games through a 6-12 month internal and blind playtesting network. Games go through the wringer and come out substantially better for it. Wayfinders is probably about 90% the same as the game that we originally signed, but those small tweaks that Thomas and Jon made took the game from a very high-quality gateway-plus game to something incredibly special, and it took a lot of hard work and time.

After development we go through graphic design, art and production, something for Molly and Stevo to cover in a blog post at some point, but I think our artwork is top-notch, and our production quality tends to be on the higher side of the industry.

Wait, Why Don't You Just Make Root?

Well, for one thing I don't think Patrick will give it to us, but for another, it's because of everything I said. We don't get to decide which games are going to be superstars. We just put out high-quality game after high-quality game and figure if we play the odds enough, we'll get one occasionally. All we can do is make the best games we possibly can and hope that what made a game resonate with us also resonates with all of y'all. And we have to be cautious about the numbers that we print. Most of our games have print runs of 5,000 copies, although Machi Koro Legacy was several times that amount.

All that we can do as a company is try to make our non-superstar games more successful. If we can't do anything to make Root, we can do something to make sure our Little Roots find a bit more success in the market as a baseline and give them every chance we can for them to become superstars.

It also means something crazy has happened, and this entire blog post was very prescient on my mind because we have a "good" problem: All of our new releases for mid-2019 are completely sold out at the publisher level. Now, this doesn't mean that all of them are going to be the next Root, but it does mean you should probably snag any of our new games you want quickly. We're reprinting all of them, but it'll be December 2019 before they are back in stock...
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Thu Sep 12, 2019 1:00 pm
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Gen Con 2019 Demo Schedule; Final Additions to the Gen Con 2019 Preview; and A Look to SPIEL '19

W. Eric Martin
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A few updates on recent and upcoming events:

• I've posted BoardGameGeek's Gen Con 2019 livestream broadcast schedule, which is fully booked at this point barring cancellations. As always, we couldn't book every newly released game that folks will want to see, and we leaned toward booking newly released games over prototypes, although we did end up booking a few of those, such as Tom Lehmann talking about Dice Realms, New Frontiers: Starry Rift, and Res Arcana: Lux et Tenebrae on Friday morning. He doesn't attend Gen Con most years, so I didn't want to lose a chance to have him on camera talking about upcoming items that folks will want to see.

I know that some publishers are missing from the list, such as Upper Deck and Fantasy Flight Games, but when folks don't return your messages, you can't book them for demo time! I'll visit their booths and others on Wednesday once set-up begins, and if we can slot them into the "cushion time" — that is, the ten minutes of empty time we schedule every two hours so that we can catch up if we're falling behind — then we'll do so.

• The Gen Con 2019 Preview, which has now topped six hundred listings, is nearly complete, mostly because I'm about out of time for further updates. I plan to post several game preview videos in the few days that remain before Gen Con 2019 opens, so my focus until then will be on completing those videos.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
• That said, I've also been working on the SPIEL '19 Preview, which contains nearly two hundred listings at this point and which will go live on Monday, August 5, 2019 following the conclusion of Gen Con 2019.

We're starting to schedule demo times in the BGG booth for SPIEL '19 this week — yes, ahead of Gen Con this year! — so if you are a designer or publisher who will have new items for sale in Essen, please submit your completed SPIEL '19 info survey as soon as possible. If you didn't receive one of the 600+ requests for information that I sent out, please email me or Geekmail me, and I'll forward the RFI letter to you.

I'll be adding items to BGG's SPIEL '19 Preview until Friday, October 11, 2019, so if you don't submit the survey now, you'll still have another 2.5 months in which to do so, but (1) we're booking people soon, which means your preferred demo slot might be taken, (2) the earlier you submit the listings, the more people will see it, and (3) you'll undoubtedly get super busy between now and SPIEL '19 and possibly forget to submit your info. Get this item off your plate and your games onto our preview!
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Wed Jul 24, 2019 9:09 pm
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