Tracer Rounds: The Local Game Store – Guild Hall, Saloon, and Crack Dealer, all in one
Your FLGS probably deserves more respect that you’re giving it ~
Brant, 02 May 2016
I had to take a few weeks off. Sorry. The fallout from the last Tracer Rounds column cost me a good friend who thought I was (indirectly) taking shots at him and I hope that in time, we can reconcile our differences and become friends again. But while I’m sticking by everything that I said, the last 2-3 weeks have really reconfirmed why I was so reluctant to wade into the topic in the first place.
There was another discussion that popped up on my online radar that wanted to explore, though, and it involved the role of the FLGS in our hobby. The genesis of the discussion was a new policy by some companies to release certain games through brick-and-mortar stores before making them available to online retailers, or setting certain pricing minimums for online stores, to keep them from undercutting the physical stores too much and driving them out of business.
For those of us where the brick-and-mortar stores serve a vital social role in our hobby, this is a Good Thing™ to help keep the community cranking along. It’s somewhere that gamers can discover new games, meet new gamers, casually watch games being played to gauge their own interest, and generally socialize with those that share the same hobby. It also gives us a local business to support that’s almost always run by fellow gamers.
Those sorts of roles can be performed in other ways in our hobby, and in some cases, could even be performed better in isolation. But not unlike the slugger on a baseball team who might hit 45 HRs for you but strike out 420 times in the same season, you might be willing to trade excellence in one area for a slightly lower level of performance if it gains you significant other advantages. Do you want a D&D character with one 18-level score and a bunch of 10s, or do you want a handful of 16s and some 11s to go with it?
You can discover new games by following ads online, reading message boards (like the GH forums!), or getting recommendations from friends through social media. That might lead you to a product page on the publisher’s website or BoardGameGeek and from there to a YouTube video where you can watch someone playing the game. You usually get disembodied hands or a voice of varying aesthetic quality, but hey – you’re ‘discovering a new game’… Or you could walk into the FLGS and look at what’s on the shelf that you haven’t seen before, which is how my daughter gets Monster Factory for Christmas and loves it.
Similarly, you can meet new gamers through online sites like GrogHeads, where discussions can lead to online games can lead to eventually getting together face to face to play. Hey, if it can work for someone looking for love then it can certainly work for someone looking for meeples, right? But that requires a far more intentional process than just showing up for an open game night at the store and seeing who you’ve got to play with. It also doesn’t clear the hurdle of where the gamers are going to meet up to play. Are you ready to bring a random stranger into your game group at your house? Do you have an out-of-house location that you’re certain will provide a good gaming environment that won’t run afoul of the local establishment authorities, like a mall food court or local library? Can you count on the availability of that facility? It’s not just meeting a new gamer that might become a regular gaming buddy; you’ve got to find an appropriate, acceptable, and socially comfortable place to play.
While waiting to play, or browsing the shop, there’s always the chance to watch others playing, too. Similar to discovering new games, it can sometimes be enjoyable to watch people play games you already know, just to learn something about the game. There’s a world of difference between learning the rules for Carcassonne and getting your butt kicked regularly by competitive players. There’s a world of strategy to be learned through observation and if appropriate, through discussion with the players. Although I’ve only dabbled in the OCS series of games, I’ve enjoyed some number of hours watching others play while chatting with them about what they’re doing in the game.
Socializing with others in the hobby cannot be underestimated as a useful service at the FLGS. Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of social awkwardness in a room full of gamers. Having a conversation-starter built in – “what do you like to play?” – dramatically eases that awkwardness for gamers who have difficulty finding a level of social comfort in groups. Hoping to encounter a similar setting at a local bookstore, or in an online-turned-real-world meetup is wishful thinking at best. It’s just not our strength.
Finally, the idea of the FLGS as a local small business with a community member as an entrepreneur may not appeal to everyone, but for some of us (OK, me) at least, it’s a worthy cause to support. Isn’t it nice to go to a business and reasonably expect your needs as a customer to be understood because the business owner is also a customer just like you?
Now, the big knock on the FLGS is that it isn’t ‘necessary’ when there’s solid competition from online retailers that are in a position to carry a much wider array of options and aren’t dependent on the whims of the local audience to determine what’s in stock this week. A contributing factor to this knock on the FLGS is the very real issue that not many game stores have a sufficiently voluminous population of nearby wargamers to stay in business by focusing on our little corner of the hobby. But they may carry wargames as a part of a broader spectrum of a variety of games – including Euros, RPGs, minis games, and the dreaded CCGs.
For a gaming omnivore like me, that’s a small slice of heaven. I help run a wargaming site and play them when opponents are available, but in the meantime I’m happy to play Euros with my family, or RPGs with friends at work. I even dabbled in CCGs when they were first released, and (fortunately) held onto some of them that are now worth a small truckload. For hardcore hex-and-counter kreigspiel-über-alles wargamers, that might not be as appealing, and I understand that. But if you don’t fly your wargaming flag, you don’t know who might rally to it.
Sometimes the FLGS is run by a jerk. I get that. And I wouldn’t patronize a store run by a jerk, either. Better they tank because of their jerkness, and let another store rise in their place. But the key distinction needs to be made – did the store tank because there legitimately weren’t enough gamers in the area to keep it going, or because it was inhabited by jerks?
Similarly, sometimes the clientele at the FLGS are people with whom grogs have very little in common, like the .\\tG CCG crowd. Yes, those kids can sometimes be borderline obnoxious. And if the FLGS fails to rein in the behavior, then that speaks to the same theory I espoused above: don’t reward bad customer service by continuing to patronize it (yes, you have no choice with the DMV, but you do with the FLGS). The CCG crowd is pretty important to the bottom line of the FLGS, however. They are consistent paying customers whose product continues to fly off of shelves, even if it’s not you buying it. How often do the .\\tG kids sit around saying “hey, I know – let’s bust out a set of decks built from The Dark expansion!”? (Look it up, kids; it was before you were born.) How often do wargamers sit around and say “hey I know – let’s bust out a game of Third Reich!”? Wargamers are more likely to pull out an older game and enjoy it just as much (or more) than those kids are going to pull out a bunch of older CCG cards to play. The ‘fresh’ content keeps them coming into the store. The $80 you spent on a new board game in one shot gets spread of 6 weeks of trips for those kids. Meanwhile, they’re guzzling sodas and gnoshing chips on Friday nights that help pad the store’s bottom line. Wargamers are not as important to the bottom line of most stores, but that doesn’t meant they can’t be consistent contributing factor. It also doesn’t mean that you have to put up with crappy behavior just because the kids are spending money. If you get treated poorly, either by management or other customers, take your business elsewhere.
Now there have been some inaccurate, and borderline silly, comparisons made in online discussions about the FLGS, and we need to attack two of them head-on.
The first is the idea that the game store should get plowed under by the online retailer in the same way that Amazon has crushed everyone but Barnes & Noble. Amazon has certainly kicked bookseller’s butts. But there are a few key distinctions.
Amazon made a huge amount of their money by exploiting The Long Tail – niche books that were still in print but not economical for mass brick-and-mortar retailers to stock in all 500+ of their stores. Game stores are not subject to the exploitation of The Long Tail because they are inherently niche business already. Moreover, while there is a huge aftermarket for used and collectible games (not unlike used and collectible books), there’s a practical limit to how many games are in print at any given time, and that ‘tail’ of low-production niche games might still be found at any number of brick-and-mortar game stores, depending on the whims of the local audience. Amazon can attack a large rival by exploiting The Long Tail; they cannot attack a business that by definition lives in it.
The second key difference in the online-vs-‘real’ game store-vs-bookseller comparison is that game stores are local business, not large chains with bloated back offices to prop up. How many game stores have a full-time staff that numbers greater than two dozen? How many local B&N branches don’t? Game stores are generally much more in tune with the local gaming community as smaller, more nimble businesses that rarely have long lead times for their orders from distributors or warehouses, and scheduling a promotional event with the local game store owner is a damn sight easier than coordinating any sort of ‘event’ with the local branch of a large bookseller. Amazon can shave pennies off of books that end up costing their rivals hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales. The only way to take away hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales from your FLGS is for them to first be the most successful FLGS in the history of ever.
The second ridiculous online comparison is that of the FLGS as your neighborhood Blockbuster video rental – and the idea that games are somehow going to end up getting “Netflixed” and delivered to your house the same way movies do. (Side note – I wonder if “play Catan and chill” will ever catch on.)
One commenter event dropped this howler online
“Gaming is not inherently social and shared. It can be, but it is certainly not required — as the rise in solitaire games and the long history of solo wargaming demonstrates. “
The failure of this comparison is almost too obvious: film is generally consumed in a non-social environment, while gaming is consumed in an inherently social environment. Yes, it’s possible to watch a movie by yourself, or on a couch with 4 friends . . . who are engaged in absolutely no cross-conversation because they’re all focused on the screen listening to the movie while not wanting to miss any of the visuals. It might be shared but not social. It’s McLuhan’s classic ‘hot media.’
Gaming, despite the niche-within-a-niche comment above, is an inherently social and shared experience. It virtually requires social interaction to work. Ever played a role-playing game without talking to someone else? Maybe if you break out Mimes & Magic (incidentally, a search of rpggeek.com turned up -zero- results for games with “mime” in the title).
Here’s another McLuhan-inspired comparison: how often are you watching a movie in the comfort of your own home with the lights off? how often are you playing a game in the comfort of your own home with the lights off? That should answer your question about which one is more social.
Sure there are games you can play solo. What’s their percentage compared to every other game currently available? Just for a quick check, I pulled up BGG and did a search on games published in 2016, and searched for all games that had a player count of one (yes, I get that there are multiplayer games that can be played solo). So far this year, there are 36, and that includes things like the reprint of Empires in America. The next BGG search was games published in 2016, and had a player count of exactly two. On just page one of the search results there are 108; there were over 3 pages of results. And that was just two-player only. I didn’t even search multiplayer (2-x). Are there solo games out there? Yep. Are they the minority that proves the rule? Yep.
The attempt by those championing the video-store comparison to ascribe a “failing” business model to the FLGS is based on a false comparison with an industry that was supplanted by digital delivery precisely because it removed an unwanted social interaction (the video store) from a non-social activity (watching a movie).
The FLGS serves a greater purpose than simply acting as a game-delivery-mechanism. It stages events to introduce new players to new games. It serves as a meeting point for people to share their activities in a way that a video store would never even attempt to do. Have you ever seen a couple of strangers sit down in the FLGS for 2 hours and play a game together? Did you ever see a couple of strangers sit down in a video store and watch a movie together? Which one was/is more common? Exactly.
As a social hub for a local gaming community, how often do gamers go into the store, play something, chat with folks, watch another game for a few minutes, and buy a soda and a candy bar (but no games)? How often did that ever happen at the video store?
The FLGS is not a failing business model, either in a bottom-line P&L sense (see this link from ICV2), nor from a community-building standpoint in a hobby where nurturing future customers is just damn good business.
Can a local gaming club fill the same social niche as organized play at a game store? Maybe. But we’re not all lucky enough to live in town with CABS. And even if you are, you get every other Friday night and occasional Saturdays, but not Monday, or Wednesday, or Sunday afternoon.
So yeah, some publishers are going to support the FLGS. Some designers are still going to take their designs to the FLGS to try out their ideas. Some regular groups are going to meet up there because it’s a fun, safe, shared space inhabited by like-minded gamers that doesn’t put an undue burden on one party to play host at home. If publishers choose to preference a method of delivery that offers a wider range of industry-wide benefits to their future customer base, that’s completely their right, and it is, in fact, very, very easy to make a solid business case for doing so.
Meanwhile, when the “use it or lose it” meme for the FLGS pops up online, don’t immediately dismiss it just because your local FLGS might not carry your favorite game. They’re going to carry what they can sell, so don’t be afraid to ask them to order something for you. Not every week, or every month. But maybe twice a year? It gets your games coming across their counters, and demonstrates to them that there is a market for your type of game in that area. Maybe there’s actually a few dozen of you in the area, and each of you buying 2 games a year from them add up to at least one wargame every other week on special order, and the owner decides “hey, maybe we can bring in some steadier business if we set up a wargaming day once a month,” and now you’ve got new opponents, and potential new converts, checking out your hobby, and now you’re on your way to expanding the pool of grogs out there. And that’s always a Good Thing™.
This week’s soundtrack:
12-bar blues is about as American as you can get. This isn’t anything revolutionary. This is a kick-ass groove in a basic 12-bar blues format that’s just better than anyone else right now. These guys aren’t innovators or pioneers, but they’ve got the good goddamn sense to take what they’re doing and do it just f’n perfectly.
Game that caught my eye:
The Vox Populi mod for Civ5. I’m going to have to figure out how to piece it together to run on my Mac.
What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games:
It’s finals week. I’m grading a ton of tests and submitting everyone’s final grades.
Wouldn’t it be cool if…
The FLGS could become a more meaningful pillar of the wargaming community in particular?
This week’s poll:
Signing off… Bayonet 06 – out!