Reno and the Peppermill [Hotel] will be tested in earnest next March. If that test amounts to "be better than Bally's," Reno will probably do okay.I spent last week at the 2018 Edition of the GAMA Trade Show and I can say with confidence that the risky play of moving the show to the Reno-Tahoe locale paid off. Here, then, in the spirit of last year's article, are my reflections on this year's Show!
Rather than a four-hour drive from Chandler to Las Vegas, I got to enjoy a two-hour flight from PHX to RNO, which took a total of almost seven hours thanks to security and flight delays on the way out -- which made it all the more impressive that I flew back on time out of a veritable blizzard. Reno, which is actually located farther west than Los Angeles, sits at altitude, nestled against the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Reno was cold. I stepped out of the airport to the shuttle curb in sub-freezing temperatures and wondered what lunacy had befallen me. After all, March in Las Vegas is spectacular, with the Mojave Desert spring offering sunny skies and poolside temps. Fortunately, upon arrival at the hotel, I found a comfortable room that heated quickly and efficiently to 76 degrees, the way I like it.
Once again I joined John Stephens from Total Escape Games in Colorado to present the director's cut of our seminar from 2017, SWOT Analysis, or as originally conceived, "Competing in Crowded Markets." (See photo above). Rather than giving a man a fish, we opted to teach a man to fish, and by man we mean all retailers, and by fish we mean how to use the SWOT analysis tool specifically. Strategic business decisions, steering the entire barge, tend to incur great costs and cause great disruptions. They had better be worth the payoff. How can we know what we're doing, how we're going to do it, and whether it ought to be done at all? The SWOT analysis can help.
There's a nigh-insurmountable barrier to entry for new trading card games in the market, and this is the first one I've seen lately that seems primed to clear it. A retailer group I network with had a chance to meet with the publisher's exhibition team for a closer look at the game, which seems like Hearthstone but without the frustration. Most importantly, it's fun. The asymmetric game engine is clearly designed with smartphone play in mind, but the tabletop version of the game offers perks of its own: a low price of entry, great-looking foil premium cards, and scannable codes on every card to allow players to import their physical cards into their digital collection. Once we've knocked out some higher-profile releases in our existing lines, DSG is going to buy in.
Changing of the Guard
GAMA Retail Division board members Paul Butler (Games & Stuff, Baltimore), Steve Ellis (Rainy Day Games, Aloha, OR), and Travis Severance (Millennium Games, Rochester) all finished their terms and opted not to run for reelection. They have been on the board for all four years I have been going to GAMA. My store was open for three GAMAs before that, but I didn't go, I wasn't involved in direct operational management for the first couple of years and was just making the transition in the third. These gentlemen leave behind them a different landscape, one in which the professional side of the retailer ranks can have productive, beneficial, and healthy personal relationships with the professional side of the publisher pool. We are all in their debt for this great thing they've built. Replacing them on the board are Jennifer Ward (Crazy Squirrel Game Store, Fresno), John Coviello (Little Shop of Magic, Las Vegas) and Dave Salisbury (Fan Boy Three, Manchester, UK). Dawn Studebaker (The Game Annex, Indiana) is now our GRD Chair. Congratulations all!
The Peppermill Hotel and Casino
It may be in a colder clime and located nowhere near the rest of Reno's tourism establishment, but the Peppermill is absurdly better than Bally's as a host hotel for this event. Room rates were better. Amenities were better. Show space was better. About the closest thing I had to a complaint on that count was that the seminar rooms required traversing a twisty set of hallways from the main hall and meal area, or else a quick dip to the casino floor to "go underneath" and reach them that way. But honestly, come on. Free fast wi-fi. Glorious bathrooms. Large, comfortable beds. Free bottled water. Great restaurants in every corner of the place. A sweet arcade (see below). And plenty of capacity for the Trade Show. This place is a winner. I will caveat that I upgraded to the Tuscany Tower and I am informed the two other towers weren't quite as comfortable.
Star Wars Legion, or "May the 40K Be With You," is expected to be the dominant game in the category for at least a few months. Ultimately players will come back to Warhammer. They may linger after Legion with this summer's Song of Fire and Ice miniatures game, which looked excellent at the show. Knowing so clearly what is coming, and being deeply in sync with other retailers' assessments of how it's going to play out, should result in me having a chance to plan our way through this on a called shot and cause little in the way of waste or loss. We shall see.
Black Tar Heroin
I went a long stretch without any beverages other than water or coffee, and a couple days in I hit the weary point and needed to indulge my one vice, a non-carbonated energy drink that I use as a bariatric-friendly boost. Naturally, the hotel gift/snack shop didn't carry it. I braved chill rain to locate a 7-11 just south of the casino and lo and behold, there it was. On my way back, a homeless couple asked if I would buy their Magic cards. They had "all kinds of cards, mythics and rares and everything!" Not even making that up. I was afraid I was gonna get stabbed, so I apologized that I left my bankroll back home in Phoenix.
Syncing with TCGPlayer
Last year the big news was TCGPlayer Pro, a standalone means of running TCG sales through a web interface, but not ultimately a true point-of-sale system. TCGPlayer announced they would allow front-end apps, and sure enough, this time around we got to see what that was going to look like. IMP POS, now ION Retail, is going to have a full sync front-end for TCG. Fulcrum, a POS that comes from the video game side of the trade and has a timed exclusive on Pricecharting API data, is also going to sync with TCG. And oh, by the way, Crystal Commerce, the only existing sync POS for TCG, is getting the rest of its sync... hopefully before too long... with every other product in the catalog becoming accessible to that channel. Whatever particular preference a given store has, the bottom line is that everyone's options got better this year.
Wizards of the Coast continues to shrink their GAMA presence, which is a baffling move from my point of view, but I suppose if they think they don't have to do more, they aren't going to do more. Their two-hour workshop presentation this year truly astounded me. The store they chose to showcase as their exemplar? The Gaming Goat in Bourbonnais, Illinois. I am not even making that up. In a world where the Goat is held up as the archetype to emulate, I have to question whether this publisher has bought into the notion that its key product is "worthless cardboard," as Goat founder Jeff Bergren so disingenuously asserted under oath. Wizards of the Coast is a leader in this market. They have some initiatives underway that I hope will push things in a better direction. Meanwhile, I'm afraid my fellow retailers did not behave well in the presentation. I'm embarrassed at this on behalf of those of us who weren't here to rabble rabble pitchforks. I guess this was the first GAMA after a pronounced downturn in Magic, and stores who never experienced an existential crisis before were out for blood.
Eevee = Expected Value
I have written recently about Pokemon's veritable collapse in my store, where booster packs (and only booster packs) have any traction anymore. Pokemon seems to be bigger elsewhere, to the point where we had neophyte retailers scouring the hotel looking for gaming tables and asking who had Poke-cards to trade. I don't think those folks understand the purpose of the show, but we all do silly things our first time in attendance. My first year, I brought Commander decks and spent a total of perhaps two hours all week playing them... against the guy who I shared the hotel room with. Good thing I didn't network or anything. I'd hate to have spent that time learning anything.
The Peppermill has a video arcade on its third floor, and I was surprised at how decent it was! Most of the floor space was given over to kiddie casino ticket crap, which is to be expected these days, in particular at an arcade inside an adult casino. But in that final third we found some pleasant surprises! A half-dozen brand new pinball tables, a dozen or so vintage games in reasonable shape, and a Star Wars Battlepod, which I had been meaning to try! Paul Simer and I needed a break from the show grind and took the opportunity to indulge.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
None of the stores in town that are or purport to be "rivals" of mine made the trip to GAMA. Only four other Arizona retailers I know of were there, and all four were friendlies. I learned all kinds of things about the "rivals," though. Dollar for dollar, nothing you can spend to disrupt someone else's operations is going to be as effective as that same amount spent making your own business better. Nowhere has that been clearer than in the seismic shift of the local landscape resulting from our move to bigger and better-situated digs. At GAMA, I made a point of simply making as many friends as possible and seeing where I could make another retailer's day better. (Or publisher's day, or distributor's day, you get the picture.) My reward was an unexpected bounty of great intelligence regarding those "rivals," as it happened. More than I'd ever have gotten sending smurfs to their premises to turn over rocks and report back.
I have a near-infinite appetite for accessory products, but this week's budget was devoted mainly to Masters 25. I had to pass up the show special from Norse Foundry; I'll come back to them in a month or two and buy four grand worth of rock and metal dice. Ultra-Pro showed off new Eclipse configurations and versions and they looked outstanding, those will arrive in the normal course of distribution. No Adventure Scents this time, I'm sorry to report. I still think those would have been cool. Nobody agrees with me.
A common meme among the player base is to call bad things or people or undesirable outcomes "cancer" or "AIDS" in slang. That's a bit of a tough pill to swallow when people we care about fall victim to such ailments. I've lost a lot of family to cancer and compared to many people I've gotten off easy on that count. AIDS is as unpleasant as it comes and you'll never use it as slang again once you've met someone wasting away from it. But we still needed some sort of word or term for when we have to name something as being just repulsively, disease-infestingly bad. Fortunately, Gonorrhea stepped up and took on the job. And if we ever get tired of using gonorrhea's completely convenient urban shorthand, there are always Syphilis and Chlamydia waiting in the arsenal.
Asmodee North America, the 900-pound gorilla of this category, made a big impact with its own take on the Games Workshop stockist program on Tuesday, as recounted in last week's article here. IELLO had probably the most impressive preview offering content-wise. I saw great material from Steve Jackson and Renegade, and I know I'm probably leaving someone out. In fact, I've mentioned lately that board games are performing for me now that we're in Chandler, and I suspect I may just be rolling with the tide on that, with the quality increasing almost as quickly as the quantity has been. I am going to keep developing this category for as long as I keep seeing these kinds of results.
Last year I called out the Retailer Lounge as the high-EV play for networking, but this time the Lounge was tucked away in a place where retailers weren't spending a ton of time, so we kind of just rolled with it and found ways to visit with one another. I had a couple of meaningful conferences just sitting in chairs in the hallways. The Peppermill actually had such seating, where at Bally's, any time you needed a quiet corner to confer in, God help you. GAMA offers something like six ticketed meals and over the course of the week you're going to eat like 15 more. The eateries at the hotel were all excellent, and though not cheap, they were reasonable. That's over 20 chances to meet with your professional kine from one tier or another and Become Better. Don't pass them up. And if you can manage not to burn out from all the day's exertions, the evenings become a glorious chance to revel with your people. I was visiting until like three in the morning on a couple of nights.
Video Games In Absentia
I can't speak for Paul Simer, except during the times he was with me, but I was asked frequently and repeatedly for guidance on getting into video games. Last year Paul and I presented a seminar on that topic, but this year it didn't make the final schedule. The seminar itinerary was awesome so I can't fault them for anything they had on there instead. We took a humor photo from an empty retailer lounge one night for Facebook so we could claim nobody showed up for our special video game tutorial. But the reality was that I was presenting some part of that seminar at least once or twice every day, paying it forward to attendees who found themselves with me with time to kill and questions they were able to articulate. I don't think video games are a good fit for every tabletop store, but I do think there are many tabletop stores out there that would get better by adding them.
Believe it or not, I had never taken an Uber ride until the one I shared with Paul to the airport on the last day. My impression of it? The taxicab industry is doomed.
We Shall Always Remember the Night
I wore my Ori and the Will of the Wisps shirt, which I was given from a Moon Studios social media drawing, to the second exhibition hall day at the Show, and I actually got spotted by one of the best Ori and the Blind Forest speedrunners in the community! We swapped experiences and our mutual anticipation of Wisps, which we all hope might be released before 2018 is out. He even gave me a challenge coin from the ongoing All Skills tournament, and wouldn't let me pay him anything for it. As if that wasn't enough, I ran into another gentleman from distribution and got to share the fandom with him as well. It totally made my day, there was no way I expected to share the joy of Ori with others at this particular event, where video games are an afterthought and Ori is a tiny niche within them. If you haven't experienced Ori for yourself, you're missing out. I've said before I think it's the best video game in a generation and now that the community has spent another million hours or so exploring its greatest depths and brightest heights, I contend that time will mark it among the best video games ever made, period.
Other Hybrid Theories
Stephen Smith (Big Easy Comics, Louisiana) presented this year's Hybrid Theory seminar, assuming we're retroactively branding last year's video game seminar as the first in the series, the way the Zendikar Expeditions were retconned as the first Masterpieces. Steve talked comics, and it's a topic he knows very well. Comics are not for dabblers or those who are resource-starved. I won't reprise his talk here but suffice it to say anyone interested in entering the category got crucial information if they attended. Next year's Hybrid Theory, I am told, will focus on another category entirely and I am excited to see what it is, from among the topics being floated in discussions at the show.
There has been some controversy with some of the content included in the Free RPG Day product kit both this year and last, where a publisher whose signal I won't be boosting here saw fit to include material that, some argue, crossed the social line between being risqué and abusive. I run a family-friendly store and I don't want to pitch my flag with harder-edged adult content, though I acknowledge that demand for such content is going to be right for some stores to fulfill. A countercampaign called #RPMeToo has begun and I do plan to participate in that. This should not signal an intention for DSG to become political, but rather the reality that our market for RPGs is small and can be socially unapproachable, and this is a problem area where we need to improve at all levels of the industry. In terms of new RPG offerings, both Overlight and Dungeon Abbey look promising. The latter is exactly what it sounds like: a D&D/Downton mash-up. Shut up and take my money.
I bet that never happened after the show ended in Las Vegas. Reno's snow fell light, fluffy, and exquisite. I am at luxury to say that because I don't spend four months out of every year shoveling exquisiteness out of my driveway. My flight was unaffected by the voluminous winter storm, but I know some others weren't as lucky. I yearn for the day when I can roll right into a winter vacation from the show, or leading into it. Just gotta grow the store to that scale, or else finish writing that million-dollar screenplay. You know, either way.
This is the only thing on the setlist repeating exactly from last year's article. It will appear every single time I recap the GAMA Trade Show because it's the entire reason to go to the show in the first place. Without net income, you don't even get to be a part of all this. You can't pay your people, you can't pay your bills, you can't maintain your business as a going concern, and you can't pay yourself. The past year has been a lean one for me as DSG endured the crushing expense of a store move (two locations' worth!) plus construction. It was the longest long play I've ever attempted in my life and there were certainly times I questioned whether I had made the right call. But by the end of 2018 we'll be operating in the black and we can start building reserves toward the future. Must be present to win. The stakes are high, it's time to buy, and you can never have enough.
I'm holding out on you. I'm afraid there's nothing for it. I spent the money and the time and I went to GAMA, and I have two games I think are going to go stratospheric and I want to make sure I'm in on the ground floor before they close the gate. So I'm not mentioning those here. I also move amongst certain private social circles that took part in the show, and our activities were entwined with many other aspects of the week and served as some of the standout experiences I had on a personal level. I also know for a fact at least one private group I am not involved with had a presence at the show. The whole week was a delightful dance of secret handshakes and iconography. I was also taken into confidences far more times during this GAMA than all previous Shows combined. In some cases I have been approached by publishers wishing to include me in special endeavors, in another case it was a distributor wanting to branch into something I am known to be familiar with, and a bunch of times I was trusted by my fellow retailers for one reason or another. I shall honor those confidences as though my business depended on them. My reputation surely does.
That's it! Hope you enjoyed that recap of GAMA 2018! In all likelihood Griffin will go to Origins 2018, GAMA's major summer game convention and the one that is open to the public for gameplay and all kinds of tournaments, sneak previews, and like such. My next appearance will almost surely be GAMA 2019 once again at the Peppermill. I'll bring my best jacket.