Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Errata: Your safety net to fun!

Recently, I purchased a new $75 rulebook for one of my favorite miniature games (we'll call it "Swore-hamster" to protect the company). This book is gorgeous, huge, well-produced and thorough. Shortly after its release, an errata was issued for this rulebook, and all the other army books
that I own.

Yes, I know this was done because, any time you change the core of the game you have to bring the supplements in line. I get that. But keep this in mind: when a company issues an errata that contains FAQs, clarifications and re-wordings it means that the development job wasn't done properly in the first place.

Play testing needs to happen, regardless of your view on whether it should be in-house or not. And yes, you do have to listen to your community to a certain extent. But the design approach of "we can always issue an errata" means "we don't have time to do it right, but we have time to do it over." Not an approach I agree with.

And this happens with RPGs, board games, and card games as well as miniatures. As a customer, I don't want to buy a new product only to find out that my rulebook isn't up to date, or that some of the components have changed. If the writing, development and play testing are done properly in the first place, you can mitigate the likelihood of having to publicly fix your own mistakes*

*(piss off customers)

Now, I know what you're thinking: 'This happens in the electronics/software industry all the time. You have to download updates to fix bugs or update security features.' And you're right. But I'm not a software or firmware developer. I can't do what they do. I'm also reticent to compare that to cardboard and plastic. The rules for SworeHamster are not quite as complex as how your iPhone works. Furthermore, why is it I tolerate behavior from game companies that I would never tolerate from my bank, doctor, employer or spouse? I can't turn a project in to my boss 'completed,' but under the caveat of "it should be fine, if anything goes wrong I can always fix it later at the inconvenience of the customer."

Don't go anywhere Fantasy Flight Games, I'm not done with you yet either. I'm ok with throwing down $90 for a cool board game that I don't really need, but if you're going to be an "industry leader" then please lead by example. Don't issue the errata the same day as the street date for your new game. I know the game was delayed by 4 months (standard procedure) but I had hoped that part of that was due to fixing your rules. Also, I'm perplexed by the effort of putting a piece of paper inside my board game stating "Read this first!" (just like 'we need to talk,' nothing good can come of this statement). So upon reading 'this' first, it tells me to find a certain card or component and throw it out. Ok, that's like bringing me a birthday cake, then telling me to take the eggs out of it.

Play test your stuff! Don't have the time/resources? Farm it out! Don't give me a product that is shrink-wrapped, yet not finished. Don't schedule future time to re-write a rule that you know is going to cause confusion.

Despite their best efforts, do mistakes get through? Of course they do. These, after all, are humans doing this stuff. It happens. But the mindset, the approach, of the design process is sometimes the culprit.

Bobby still plays board games and Warhammer. He is still mad about the Beastmen book. He still lives in Seattle.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Board to death...

I really like board games. Even if the game play experience is so-so, I'm heavily attracted to the quality of the components. This brings up an interesting quandary: 'Miniatures' in board games!

When I was growing up, my friend had a copy of "Dungeon!" by TSR, which was your basic dungeon crawl. By today's standards, it looked garage-made. The art was concept at best, the cards looked like they were typed on a typewriter, and I think the character pieces were colored strips of cardboard (the Barbarian was blue).

Nowadays, board games are much more production-savvy. Compare "Dungeon!" to "Descent" and it's like comparing a Ford Escort hatchback to the Space Shuttle. But here is my hang-up-- when board games use miniatures, they are rarely done well. Now I know what you're thinking, and you're right: 'Minis are not the focus of a board game!' However, I would argue that the 'experience' should be the focus. Some games use colored wooden blocks, cardboard chits and what have you. That's fine. I don't mind that Settlers of Catan is 2D with some plastic shapes. But dammit, I want miniatures to represent my characters in Arkham Horror!

I know the next thing you're going to say, and you're right again: "FFG just put out pre-painted character minis for Arkham Horror." But... have you seen them?! I'm not going to use a mini if it isn't better than the printed cardboard standee that the box originally came with. I'm sorry, but if it looks like my kid painted it (she's only a month old) then that doesn't really capture the flavor of my character, now does it? When you have 8 year old kids in China scrambling to paint little black dots in the character's eyes, the effect is that my brave fighter or powerful warlord has a look of utter shock or surprise. Worse yet, if those dots aren't centered on the mini's EYES, then it looks like my character has some sort of lifetime brain trauma.

The effect it has on game play is psychologically damaging. I can't get excited when the artwork on the box portrays an awesome Barbarian warrior, but the mini looks like it came out of a bag of drug-store grade toys. Bottom line for me-- if you're going to charge $90 and up for a board game, don't skimp on the components. Keep them consistent. Either make ALL the components terrible, or make them ALL the same level of awesome.

I so rarely find good minis in a board game. Some do, and those deserve credit. Space Hulk is just one example. And don't get me wrong, I don't use these minis for anything else. And I don't care if they're painted. Just don't embarrass yourself, Mr. Game Publisher.

Are there board game minis that you think are awesome? What about the worst of all-time? Let me know!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stars and Bars (gaming in the South)...

A little background: I grew up in Cleveland, Oh. I lived in Memphis, TN for 5 years while working for Games Workshop. 2 of those years were spent as manager of the Battle Bunker. I now live in Seattle. I've been involved in tabletop gaming in all of those cities, but gaming in the South is a whole 'nother thing.

As you may know, Tennessee is the "buckle on the bible belt" as the locals put it. Therefore, you have a lot of church-going folk. While this post isn't meant to start an argument outside of the topic at hand, this tidbit is important to the story.

When visiting game stores in TX, AL, FL, GA, TN, MS and the Carolinas, I've seen Space Marine Rhinos with NASCAR numbers painted on the side....Drop pods made out of Mr. Pib cans, and even an old metal Whirlwind tank put together with JB-Weld. No lie.

Now we all know the age-old war of fantasy gaming vs. Christianity (usually involving Dungeons & Dragons) but it happens with other products, as I'll illustrate:

A dad and his 11 year old son came into our Games Workshop Battle Bunker, and dad walked up to me and told me that little Timmy has been going on and on about Warhammer, but dad had to check it out first (as all good parents should). "See I have to make sure that he doesn't get into anything that involves Wizards, Black Magic, or Demons. That's why he's not allowed to watch Harry Potter, y'see."

I see.

My job just got a little harder, as I watched Timmy dart around the store excitedly picking up boxes of Daemonettes, Bloodletters, Chaos Lords, Sorcerers of Nurgle, Vampiric Necromancers, and Daemon Princes.

Dad even did his duty and politely asked me if I attend church. "You're looking at it" I told him.

So I showed dad and Timmy the Lord of the Rings starter set and gave them a demo. Timmy loved it, and dad approved wholeheartedly.
I told him he needed to know that Lord of the Rings DOES involve wizards who practice magic, and has demons such as Ring Wraiths and the Balrog.

"That's ok" he told me "Those books are Christian, and besides, they had movies!"

That's true. His argument was flawed, but his total was over $60.

Another satisfied customer!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Your 'Gaming Bag'...

Recently, I became a father. By 'recently' I mean just this past Tuesday. And by 'father' I mean I now have a baby human child to take care of. (This may seem obvious to our most loyal readers, but my mom would have read "recently I became a father" and interpreted it in a way that suggests I have joined the Catholic faith and have become a man of the cloth. I just wanted to clear that up).
Anyway, those of you that have children know that it changes your life in all kinds of ways. As a stay-at-home dad, I see this as an opportunity to get a lot of painting done, but there is another hidden bonus of fatherhood...

Let's back up a bit. I don't know if I'm in the minority, but I have a 'gaming bag.' This is a shoulder bag that I use to bring all of my books, dice, templates and other accouterments with me when I play in a tournament, friend's house, games store or soup kitchen. It's handy, and it has the level of functionality that I need from it.

Let's fast-forward slightly, to a time when I already procured my gaming bag, but had not yet become a dad. The wife-person and I had a baby shower. For most of you gamers out there, I will define: "Baby shower" is a party where people get you gifts related to the baby, i.e. diapers, bottles, clothes and other stuff that baby needs.

A good friend of mine purchased us one of the most essential items-- a diaper bag. It's a shoulder-bag type of thing that stocks an array of diapers, wipes, powders, lotions and anything else needed to clean up baby shit. But my friend was smart. She knew I didn't want to walk around in public with a bag that had kitties or bunnies or other cute crap on it. Probably because she feared for my safety. In my city, you'd get your skull caved in if you walked around with one of those.
So she bought me a diaper bag from a company called "Diaper Dude." Now dad can carry all the essentials and support baby's needs, without looking like a diaper-douche. This company makes diaper bags with camo patterns, dragons, skulls and other scary iconography that would scare certain minorities into submission.

It's basically a shoulder bag with a comfortable strap, large inner pouch with other internal pockets, exterior compartments that look like they can also hold 30-round 7.62mm magazines, and even has a pacifier clippy/ grenade lug on the outside.
And I got to thinking... this bag is way cooler than my current gaming bag!

So when my daughter finally learns to use the potty and stop shitting herself like Grandpa does, I'm commandeering this bag for myself. I can stash my rulebooks, my dice, any glue or modeling tools, my flask of scotch, tape measure and all those templates I need right inside my bag adorned with skulls on it.

If Diaper Dude made a bag with a huge Chaos star on the outside, I'd own 4 of those!

What do YOU use for your 'gaming bag?'

Friday, July 2, 2010

I hate Blood Bowl...

I'm-a say this once, y'all. I hate Blood Bowl. I know what you're thinking, and you're right.

I simply don't understand it. It's not a bad game, and I'm not saying that YOU should hate it, only that my brain cannot accept this game in the slightest. I know it's an outrage to go against the dozens of people across the globe who absolutely love this game, but allow me to make my case.

First of all, the box says "Blood Bowl: The Game of Fantasy Football."
Couple that with the uniforms, ball, field and other imagery of American Football, and you have... Australian-Rules Rugby?? Or something.

I love football, and I understand football. Maybe that's why it's so goddamn irritating that this game does everything but play like football.

Someone much more adept at game design than me can tell you that the mechanics are brilliant, and I don't doubt that. True, the components are outdated, the rulebook obsolete, the price point absurd, the miniatures hard to get and too expensive but the game is solid.

I know what you're going to say next, and you're right again: "You can't just play a one-off game, you'll get much more out of an ongoing season."

Let me tell you about the work league I was in.
One of my co-workers (we'll call him Beaker) really liked a certain Warhammer race (we'll call them Dark Elves). After about 3 or 4 games of not scoring, dropping the ball at the worst possible times and subsequently going 0-4, Beaker snapped. And I mean snapped!

Here was a 27 year old dude going absolutely gorilla-gastro about his experience. He began venting about the lack of control, randomness, etc (I zoned out after about 20 minutes) and got so worked up that his face turned a purple hue, and we could see his morning Dr. Pepper pulse through his temples like a supplemental rage-stim. Beaker began to almost make himself physically ill over his angry tirade. We weren't sure if he was going to break down and cry or strap dynamite to himself and take us all down.

My personal experience went pretty much the same:
1. I like Vampires
2. I'll try Blood Bowl for the first time
3. Hence, I'll start learning the game with Vampires
4. Wrong!
5. Tragedy!

Something they don't tell you up front: If you're new to this game, do not play your favorite team. Ever.
You should play a team you hate, like Orcs, since they are balanced and easy to learn. Vampires were a team created by the game designers simply to fuck with people who got too good at the game.

But unlike Beaker, I don't drink soda and eat Lil' Debbies for breakfast. Therefore, my anger at the game was more of a dull migraine.

I simply went back to my old electric football game where the metal 'field' vibrates and all the little plastic dudes run around in seemingly random directions with no coordination or semblance of a 'play' whatsoever. You have two teams: Red and White. No Vampires. And the components were complicated plastic gears that didn't work. But back in the day, it sold for like $12.

And to me, that's what football should always be.

Addendum: Beaker and I permanently retired from Blood Bowl. My team is now up on eBay, and Beaker still gets all worked up when you mention this story. (Jesus, Dave, let it go after 4 years already).

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Demos: You CAN screw them up...

In another sordid tale of working in the gaming industry, allow me to start with some background (and I'll keep it brief). I have worked in a sales and marketing role for several major tabletop/hobby game companies. That means, I had to go to a lot of shows like Origins, Gen Con, Pax, and Comic Con. Not only did I work the show booth, but often times I either gave hundreds of game demos, or trained the staff to give demos. The simple goal of a demo is to get someone to invest in the game.

Therefore, the company took demos very seriously. I would carefully write a script, and train the show staff to follow it. That way, everyone was giving the same demo. It's a kind of marketing and quality control. Every part of that demo was by design.

So here's the story of how it can go wrong. At Origins (a game show in Ohio that is about 3 years past its death) I found myself on a 15 minute break. I like to use my breaks as a way to scout out other companies and products and I usually pick a new game that I end up purchasing or trading for by the end of the show. I like board games, and have always liked the beautiful quality and creepy themes of Fantasy Flight Games. On my break, I wandered over to their booth and asked for a demo of "Fury of Dracula." The young 'volunteer' eagerly sat me down in front of the board and started rattling off rules...in no particular order. After about 10 minutes of my 15 minute break, I asked him "how long will this demo take?" He said "Oh, about 2 and a half hours." O_o

What the fuck, dude? It's going to take 2.5 hours of my day for you to try to sell me on this game?!
I should just read the back of the box. I explained that my break was almost over and that I had to get back. Which sucked. I got to see the components, and it looked cool. But I had no idea if I would actually like the game or not. And I never even got to play a turn!

So I went back to my booth, and passed my story on to one of my co-workers (Justin), who then lit up and said "Oh that's a great game!" and he proceeded to give me a 2 minute rundown of what the game was about and how it plays. I was hooked! I got all excited and really wanted to buy it.

Keep something in mind: In just 2 fucking minutes, without even having the actual game in front of him to work with, Justin gave a much better demo and actually sold me on the game!

FFG's demo monkey was planning on taking half my day and even had the game to present to me, and couldn't get it done.

So how is this possible? Well, I trained Justin and not the other guy, so Justin gave a great demo and did his job!
To break it down and not sound like an ass: Justin injected all the story and flavor and excitement of the game in his explanation, instead of randomly quoting pages of the rules. And he kept it short. He demoed the game like he was trying to get a friend involved, not as if he was trying to teach a thermodynamics course at a community college.

It's a simple formula: Tell a story, and get the player some hands-on action right away. It should take no more than 5 minutes. The next time you walk around at Gen Con (Origins will be dead by the time this post gets published) take a lot of demos. You'll see the difference. I've had great demos sell me on an okay game, and I've had shitty demos turn me off from a great game.

And if you're giving a demo, try not to make your customers drool themselves to dehydration. Don't fuck it up like some people.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gaming at home (or, 'How I learned to enjoy my hobby')...

Last time, we discussed how 'Sidecars' can throw a huge wrench into your enjoyable game (be it tabletop miniatures, card games, board games, etc).

This leads me to explain why I enjoy gaming at home:

1. No one else is around to comment on, or interrupt, my game. This is great, because I can't stand the 'armchair general.' I know my army looks awesome, and I know I made some tactical errors on nearly every turn. I don't need play-by-play, and your strategic advice is unsolicited. And going beyond that, neither I nor my kid have to learn new words for 'vagina' from the boisterous dude at the other table. I've literally been in a store full of kids where some of the older teenagers had a full-volume conversation about "sluts" they've "fucked in the mouth." 90% of the customers in stores are responsible for giving game stores their dubious, shady reputation, which in turn degrades the value of the products and thusly, sales.

2. The bathrooms are clean. This is a big deal, since 99% of all game store bathrooms carry 99% of most known viruses and bacteria. This includes, but is not limited to, the Hanta virus, Bubonic Monkey blindness, most African mosquito-borne diseases, NM-156, e-coli, and depression.

3. No one is trying to sell me anything. The GW stores excel at this. "Man, you could really use another 10 minotaurs to beef up that unit." No, what I need is to not be made to feel like I owe you something for using your tables and babysitting your bored kids (see #1).

4. Swearing. For me, it's the 'fluff' that enhances the story. I'm respectful enough to not do it in a store full of kids, but on my home turf it's "fuck-all!"

5. Drinking. After the movement and shooting phases, comes the drinking phase. A buddy of mine used to supply a bottle of something for each game. The rule was, we both had a drink at the end of each turn, and we had to finish the bottle by the end of the game. As a result, I have no idea what my lifetime record was against him. By turn 4 of a Warhammer game our bottle of chilled, unfiltered Sakè was halfway gone, and Beastmen and Wood Elves were having a Mardi Gras together on the battlefield. All the models shook hands after the game.

6. I don't have to smell your food. Nothing turns my stomach like the smell of McDonalds which has been congealing and achieving room temperature for 4 hours. At home, we can roll out the grill and throw on some steaks or BBQ chicken. And I won't have strangers wandering over to ask if I'm going to finish my fries (see #1).

7. I can play my own music. And I guarantee my music is better than yours. Honestly, I choose background music to enhance the game, and it adds a certain ambiance that my guests enjoy.

8. It's free. Nothing beats the comfort at home, and I don't have the store staff trying to charge me for the divine privilege of using their plywood table with beat-to-shit terrain consisting of spray painted pop cans and cardboard 'bunkers' that make the battlefield look like downtown Beirut.

All in all, if home-cooked meals made from fresh local ingredients, great-looking terrain, a good soundtrack, clean bathrooms and a wargame-like ambiance sound good to you then come on over!

And bring booze.