Monday, March 27, 2017

DSG 2017 Q1 Tabletop Winners and Losers

The first quarter of 2017 was a whirlwind for DSG, with our mergespansion into Tempe and the utter explosion of business selling online Magic singles, to a degree well beyond even what we imagined we might see in a best-case scenario.  It really did change the math.  With the moving and the shaking of last autumn, we even met with and entertained buyers for the store (the only store we had at the time) and I'm a little bit glad they did not pull the trigger.  I am far better situated regardless of the outcome spread now, even without knowing what market moves might happen in the region.

If you don't see a tabletop product line in this list, either I don't carry it or I didn't notice its performance this quarter one way or the other.  Here is how things stacked up, in brief:

Magic: the Gathering - WINNER.  It seems counterintuitive for me to crown Magic as one of the better outcomes after the underwhelming performance of Aether Revolt sealed product, but we literally do not have enough time and labor to keep up with the singles growth we are seeing in online sales.  I looked, listened, asked, learned, and finally appear to have the right combination of variables in place to where cards posted for sale disappear very quickly and profitably, and despite a 1.2x price multiplier for integrated channels.  This means, in plain English, local buyers in-store and on our store's own website pay 20% less for cards from us, yet remote buyers paying the higher price are purchasing far more cards for far more gross revenue every day.  Is there some local economic downward pressure?  Are there simply too many stores and/or backpack dealers in Phoenix?  Any combination could be true.  February, for the first time, saw us pay out more in cash on buys than we took in on cash in sales for the month.  It was the first month where our net bank-to-safe cash movement outpaced safe-to-bank deposits.  Wow.  Pawnshop much?  (Obviously most sales are paid via credit card.)  Oh, and Modern Masters 2017 is the best reprint set of all time.

Pokemon TCG - WINNER.  Ask me again in June.  As I mentioned last week, the Pokemon TCG is selling extremely well for many game stores right now.

Final Fantasy TCG - WINNER.  I haven't had much product, but 100% of it cleared no later than upon arrival, and at over MSRP due to sky-high market demand.  Aside from printing more cards, if there is anything else Square Enix ought to have done to make this product healthier, I can't imagine what it is.

Star Wars Destiny TCG - WINNER AND LOSER.  Like Final Fantasy, we saw booster packs clear from stock at full price almost instantly, and that's as healthy as you might like.  We also saw Fantasy Flight Games announce a baffling, cumbersome, and unnecessary printing and rotation schedule, complete with a very Reserved-List-esque "sets will be one and done" self-imposed limitation.  They did not restrict themselves from any number of reprints of specific cards, thank goodness, but realistically this was Fantasy Flight on the eve of victory high-fiving itself like Rosencarl and Guildenlenny.
Android Netrunner LCG - LOSER.  It pains me to say it, because the last two cycles have not been well received by the player base.  Perhaps the imminent rotation and the first new cycle from the game's new lead designer will see a resurgence in interest.  I am still fully on board the Netrunner train regardless as I deeply enjoy the game.  The Android universe is as strong as ever on the heels of Mainframe and New Angeles, two excellent board games.

Star Wars LCG - LOSER.  We moved away from this game in this quarter, for the most part, though the development of Tempe has given us some wiggle room on how quickly to jettison diminishing lines.  The player base migrated to Destiny in force, when they could get any product.  The Star Wars Living Card Game is probably approaching its own Ewok Celebration in the near future.

A Game of Thrones LCG - WINNER.  In the Living Card Game space, there were two winners.  Thrones held solid with good releases and steady player growth.  The other...

Arkham Horror LCG - WINNER.  It's sold out in distribution.  Not much more I can say than that.  The need for Destiny product outstripped FFG's production capacity for Arkham.  Product will be back, so don't pay the silly inflated Amazon prices.  Eighty bucks for The Dunwich Legacy?  Forget about it!

Warhammer - WINNER.  I mean both 40K and Age of Sigmar.  I cannot fully account for Games Workshop's hot streak right now except to say that maybe it's a natural market move away from the grind of constantly chasing Magic singles.  I know of more than a few card players at the DSGs that have moved away from the shuffle and embraced the model-paint-play cadence of wargaming, and if you're going to wargame at all, Warhammer is pretty much the focal point.  Other games exist, but in the world of minis, Games Workshop right now is where Nintendo was in 1988 in the video game trade.  There's them, and then there's everybody else.  There is a certain creative itch that wargames scratch very well right now.  You get to build an army, including custom touches.  You get to paint an army, especially custom touches.  And then you play, and by then you've already had two-thirds of the fun so even a losing game can be enjoyable.

Guild Ball - LOSER.  There is a small and devoted cadre of players and nobody else is interested.  A shame for a miniatures game that seems so accessible and affordable.

X-Wing - LOSER.  The last new releases that players cared about were the Rogue One ships, and the staggered Regionals and Store Championship schedule has mostly sown confusion.  X-Wing was one of the games that benefited most from the Asmodee North America online sales ban; we were a whisker away from discontinuing it in late 2015 because online sales had gutted its value.  Now after most of a strong year we are unfortunately seeing a little weakness again.  The usual suspects are getting a bit more aggressive and the player base is not accustomed to the spending model of most hobby tabletop games, and has been pushing back.  Ultimately if these players don't get as much enjoyment out of X-Wing as they would playing something else, they will disengage.

Imperial Assault - WINNER AND LOSER.  We once again hosted the largest-attended Regionals in the country back in January, and yet the product trickles out at a rate suggesting that most players aren't deeply invested in the ongoing expansion offerings.  This is one of those games that's just basically lucky my analytics attention has been elsewhere lately.  On a core level, if there is a Star Wars licensed skirmish minis game in print, I want my store to have it.  On the other hand, sacred cows can be dangerous.

Warmachine / Hordes - WINNER.  Against all expectation and despite unpredictable stock availability in distribution, I've seen our WarmaHordes crowd grow and sales tick upward.  It was good enough that I traded another store a bunch of comic statues and Magic cards for their entire Privateer Press inventory.  Nowhere is this game going to scratch any skin off Warhammer, but I'm happy to see it retaining fans on its own.

HeroClix - LOSER.  This franchise had a pretty good second half of 2016, but the releases in Q1 2017 were poorly received for the most part.  I'm still sitting on an unnecessarily large amount of Joker's Wild, despite internet liquidation attempts.  Deadpool came in and has had a bit better buzz, but the sales aren't showing up yet.  Since the HeroClix model is one-and-done sets, all it takes is a strong release or two and we're right back in business.

Dungeons & Dragons - WINNER, OH GOD, WINNER.  I have never seen anything like this in the role-playing game realm.  Not even when Stranger Things sold us out of polyhedral dice overnight.  D&D is on an absolute tear and it's so hot that even with product being dumped egregiously online, we still can't keep anything in stock despite deep reloads.  Player's Handbooks?  Gone.  Other sourcebooks?  Gone.  Table mats?  Gone.  Dice?  Can't keep up.  Dice BAGS... gone.  Spell Cards?  Unobtainium.  Prepainted miniatures?  Every booster turns, singles are down to a modicum and badly need a new set brick/case break.  Unpainted miniatures?  They released last week to white-hot enthusiasm.  Time will tell whether they hit the mark with players and Dungeon Masters.  The brand-new adventure compendium Tales from the Yawning Portal appeared and was gone on release weekend despite deep stock.  Just wow.

Star Wars RPGs - LOSERS.  I cut them all loose early in the quarter.  Consistent inability to make turns or even approach turns meant there was no real business case good enough to justify them.

Board Games - WINNERS AND LOSERS.  There's a lot going on here, could be an article all its own really.  I think we hit some kind of floor for board games and bounced back a bit from it.  The space gain from the extra store took the thumbscrews off of the bitter edge of the board game category, and gave me some time for more observation and sales turnover.  Mostly board games are still in a rough position.  There is far too much being released, and too little of it is great.  But I am seeing some unexpected resilience from mainstays from some of the more attuned publishers, and every now and again a new title goes nuclear hot.  I expect the next such board game to be Dark Souls by Steamforged Games.

Comics have some different things going on that doesn't describe well in this article's format, and video games don't behave in the same quarterly way when most of the business is not tied to newly released merchandise.

And that about wraps up my look back at tabletop's winners and losers for 2017 Q1 at Desert Sky Games and Comics!  There is probably some nuance in performance differences between the two locations.  I'm putting off bothering to intuit much along those lines until we complete the move, later this year, of the Gilbert location.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Reflecting on My Week at the 2017 GAMA Trade Show

The 2017 GAMA Trade Show was an absolute blast to attend.  I got to spend half the week with my wife along for the ride, and the entire week with a business partner as focused on work as I was, as opposed to my previous business partner whose primary objective at GAMA 2016 was to party.  That's fine, it's Las Vegas, we understand that merriment is within easy reach.  But I am more interested in making money in the long haul than I am in tasty beverages today.  Net Income was the recurring theme of the show, and is the recurring theme of my 2017.

The various publishers have already released their GAMA news to the general public, and some of it was pretty prominent stuff, such as the TCGPlayer Pro launch.  Rather than recapping that, I wanted to round up some of my business thoughts and impressions and some things that stuck in my mind afterward.

Video Games
Paul Simer and I presented "Video Games? In My Game Store?" as a seminar introducing tabletop stores to the category.  Our first showing was packed with my own in-state competition, so I'm sure some of them will make a go of it.  And it actually doesn't matter!  The category is just that wide.  The typical poaching and rivalry that comes with the tabletop territory is barely relevant here.  For all those who audited our seminar, I hope you do well with video games if you dive in.

Wii Play Games LV
I visited WPG's locations no less than three times (East twice) and absorbed the wisdom and guidance of its proprietor, Mickey Tenney.  This is a gentleman who has it dialed in.  Nobody had to tell him that net income was the real goal.  Last year, he and Paul taught me how to get back into the video game category properly.  This year, Mickey showed me what he was doing at the next level.  Maybe ten or fifteen process advancements that I wasn't ready for last year and still won't fully implement until later this year.  But a couple of them are going to happen quickly.  I have much to do and that's two I owe Mick for showing me the way.

Competing in Crowded Markets: SWOT Analysis
My other seminar paired me with theater adept John Stephens from Total Escape Games in Broomfield, Colorado.  We taught the use of the SWOT tool for competitive edge in markets where pop-up stores seem to appear one after the next.  I had a lot of local competitors in this seminar as well, so hopefully they weren't paying that much attention.

Games Workshop sent in the Necron Monolith with their new Trade Terms announcement: effective May 3rd, a Minimum Advertised Price of 85% of MSRP, coupled with permission to sell online via web shopping carts and third parties at instant purchase prices only, no auctions.  I could scarcely have been happier.  I will be required to raise my prices, since my local market is extremely competitive and a 20% blanket discount had been a necessary tool these last few months.  This will mean somewhat healthier sales moving forward, as well as a lot of eleventh-hour buys on or just before May 2nd.  It will be great to add Warhammer to the list of brands where my customers are able to shop from their phones from our store website and pick up in-store after work, as many Magic, Pokemon, and Fantasy Flight players have already been doing.

The RuneWars minis game that Fantasy Flight is about to release was laid out for demo and looked pretty stunning.  I don't know how it's going to do, but I admire the question.

I backed the Kickstarter of the upcoming miniatures tabletop adaptation of Dark Souls.  The buzz and hype around this title is unreal; distribution is sold out and it will surely follow Gloomhaven as the late spring's unobtainium title.  Everyone wants it and everyone who didn't back it wishes that they had.  I don't back many Kickstarters, but this was one that seemed like a worthwhile risk.  Also, Cool Mini or Not, now christened simply "CMON," announced plans to use Kickstarter as their pre-order vector for new core games, after which successful titles will see expansions routed entirely through distribution.  For years, Kickstarter has been a problem.  Can Kickstarter now be a solution?  We shall see.

Battista's Hole in the Wall
Every Vegas trip requires a stop at this eatery, and not just because the liquor store next door has a 99-year lease.  (Did you know they had a 99-year lease?  They do!  99 years.  Just so you know.)  Battista's is one of those places with a 20-item menu that's painted right on the walls, minestrone or salad with every meal, as well as unlimited wine and garlic bread and a cappuccino to finish it off.  Their lasagna has the density of the black hole at Messier 31 in the Andromeda Galaxy.  Their Chicken Rio was good enough for Griffin to order it thrice in one week.

Role-Playing Games
This might count partly as a miniatures item, but I got to see and handle the new WizKids unpainted D&D minis that release tomorrow.  These are everything RPG players ever wanted and outclass Reaper Bones in every way.  I more than tripled my order with distribution and I wish I had ordered even more still.  These will be white hot and immediately I find myself wondering whether I have nearly enough paint and brushes on hand.  (The figures come already treated with Vallejo primer.)

John Stephens and Dawn Studebaker join the returning David Steltenkamp on the GAMA Retail Division Board.  For some reason Travis Severance got the chair again, which I can only assume is a result of the institutional rank conferred by his additional tattoos.  Congratulations all!

Magic: the Gathering
Wizards of the Coast does not do much at GAMA anymore, just a few publisher workshops oriented toward neophyte stores.  They do not have a presence in the exhibit hall anymore.  I got to catch up with DeQuan Watson from WOTC, and of course he graciously deflected my relentless attempts to elicit cardlists for Eternal Masters 2: Electric Boogaloo.  I got a call shortly afterward that the mothership wants to do some marketing with DSG this summer, to which I quickly agreed.

I got to meet some of the mega-scale Magic e-tailers who have given me valuable guidance and instruction to getting DSG to where it is today.  Without exception they were a pleasure to meet in person and I look forward to a long future of mutual regard.

No Commerce Like E-Commerce
TCGPlayer Pro is going to be big, and the room howled in approval (including yours truly).  Many foretold the doom of Crystal Commerce as a consequence, only to discover that the Pro pie isn't quite fully baked yet, and will need more time in the oven before it becomes a widespread and versatile tool as envisioned.  Given its shorter-than-short development time, this is understandable.  Meanwhile, Crystal Commerce themselves presented a peek into their platform's future that moves in a somewhat different direction but is still extremely relevant.  Moving to a new application core will break some existing utilities and require upgrades, and it took a moment before Dan McCarty realized to assure us we wouldn't be charged for it.  Chedy Hampson's pitch for Pro was somewhat more polished, and I know the room responded to that, but I would join Simer in cautioning others to look before leaping.

But to be sure: TCG Pro made a splash.  You know something significant just happened in this space when the next couple of guys you talk to about it are Jim Sorel and Michael Caffrey and they both ask you what you think is going to happen with the new platform.

I felt particularly sympathetic to Andrew Zorowitz, the Convention Tycoon, whose Crystal Commerce / TCGPlayer deployment was hours old at the time of the TCG Pro announcement and everything going sideways.  Fortunately, he is making us Tarmogoyf Dice, which will accrue to him much esteem.

We stopped on our way north at Game On Arizona, Josh Fohrman's huge mall store at the Prescott Gateway Center.  The main public store is one of the largest in the state, possibly the largest overall at just under 6,000 square feet, and their backstage area is gigantic.  The main store carries all the things you'd expect to see, but stands out due to some canny merchandising with Coldwater Creek's second-hand fixture buildout, and excellent signage throughout the facility.  DSG Chandler/Gilbert will give us an opportunity later this year to follow Fohrman's example.

It appears we were not the only ones impressed by Game On.  They also won the GAMA Outstanding Store of the Year Award for 2017.  So, you know, they possess some modicum of quality.

Pokemon TCG
I have spoken about how strong Pokemon has been lately for me, and it appears I am not alone.  Mickey, mentioned earlier, was just one of several retailers who told me Pokemon was topping his sales charts now.  The 20th Anniversary was a hit, the Go mobile game is still being played by a few people at least, and the Sun & Moon series has been well received.  I really hope TCGPlayer adds Pokemon to its Direct program.  In any event, I have called for my staff to hard pivot to getting our Pokemon cards prioritized for additional listing.

Going Vertical
Adding floors above and below one's store seemed to be the order of the year for 2016-2017.  At GAMA we had Travis Parry's The Nerd Store and John Coviello's Little Shop of Magic existing in the land of the Other Floors, joining such great establishments as Greg May's The Uncommons and Laura Martin's Meeples Games.  Meanwhile, Gary Ray built himself a loft bungalow and then ditched out on us to spend time penning his memoirs.  Adding floors is usually a big "screw that" in Phoenix, so I don't think this trend will quite reach us here at DSG.

I can't drink beer due to bariatric surgery from 2012, so this eatery is limited in its impact on me.  Everyone else has a rollicking good time at the best Biergarten within range of the Strip.  I just have to content myself with the best of their wurst.  Ja, is gut.

Board Games
God help me, I thought I was done with this category.  And then they pull me back in.  I saw board games with potential from a broad slate of publishers, from WizKids to Renegade to Iello.  A new (to me) publisher called Smart Toys and Games had a substantial spread of educational games that I would have snapped up in an instant if I already had a mall store open.  I will proceed with caution.  Board games is a category I loved that didn't love me back.  We will see what the future holds.

Little Shop of Magic
John Coviello's upstairs mezzanine store, now four times its previous size, give or take, has already hosted a bunch of Regionals that my local players traveled to play.  The converted office complex seeks to add coffee service in the near future (its location taped out on the floor) and already affords ample room to product and events.  Their broadcast room, optimized for streaming shows, is an especially nice touch.  It's no accident they have survived and thrived since opening in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1994.

The Not-Bootleg Circle K
It's real!  I couldn't believe it!  So certain I was that this odd-branded orange-striped Circle K had to be some manner of impostor, but when I walked in, the familiar rounded strikeout emblem was everywhere.  And as if on cue, multiple Circle K stores locally in the Valley have just rolled out the new branding as well.  Surreal.  Like when you were a kid and your family was on vacation in another town and Robotech came on at 4:00 p.m. instead of 4:30.

There isn't a nicer guy in the game trade than Steve Ellis.  Unless it's Gordon Johansen, and we get to have two nicest guys because of the exchange rate.

Comic Sans
I was not especially alert to comics this time out, and Diamond did not have a presence that I noticed.  Our comics business has normalized to a slow but steady burn lately and I am content to sit back and monitor that from orbit.

Fight Clubbing
One of the phrases of the week at GAMA, referring to when you buy a card or game from someone and sell it back to them shortly afterward.  On balance I'd actually rather not do this.  But it happens.  When a customer wants to sell me things, I am not in favor of saying "no."

Inventory Management Program
Nate Petersen had the most excruciating week ever.  Rumors swirled about that TCGPlayer was going to announce a point-of-sale solution, which could have crushed IMP POS in the cradle and put the waste to over a year of Nate's work.  At the presentation, he was sweating it good, one Powerpoint slide away from witnessing his own mortality.  And then... life!  Not just alive, but kicking!  TCGPlayer left it to the programming community to build the front-end apps that would manage their new e-commerce beast.  They couldn't have handed it to him more clearly if they had issued an engraved invitation.  Crystal Commerce is in the pole position, but let nobody be mistaken: Nate's IMP is going to be the app of choice for more than a few TCG resellers.  I imagine Nate will be busy for a while.

Missed Connections
I met and/or caught up with (as applicable) a lot of the people I hoped, but did not manage to visit with Scott Gaeta, Michael Webb, Paul Butler, or Bryan Winter this time out.  Next time I hope!  Articles like this are a tough write because I could just drop names all day and I still would leave some out without meaning to.  Like Josh Petrik or Chad Suico.

I placed a rather large order with Norse Foundry for some gemstone dice, since they sold out readily last year and restocks were pretty slim to come by.  Not many people buy $80 sets of polyhedrals, but for that person who wants such a thing, they really want it, and no substitute will suffice.  A second dice offering called Halfsies got our attention, but they were sold out and we had to contribute our business card for later.

Ultra-Pro was there as always pushing sleeves, and obviously we will be carrying some amount of that in perpetuity, but they were aligned with the degenerates from Unrivaled, and that puts a stain on their name as far as the general game retailer community is concerned.  Enthusiasm level = down.

Crit Success Rings was there again and as usual I didn't get around to ordering six hundred units like I keep meaning to do.

Cafe Saint-Louis and The Boulangerie
Do you want cheese and bacon omelettes for two meals a day?  I do.  Bally's is connected to the Paris by tunnel, and so it went.

I'm pretty sure Paul Simer carried one of everything in that shoulder/belt pack.  I saw multiple flashlights.  I was aware of multiple firearms.  I used the hand sanitizer.  If he is anything like my friend Eldon Palmer, he found some way to stash a spare patrol car in there.

The GAMA Retailer Lounge
One of the highest EV plays at the GAMA Trade Show is to network in the retailer lounge with peers.  Even if it's to do nothing but commiserate at our shared frustrations, the catharsis is exquisite and the opportunities to learn from others are plentiful.  Amusing things happen as well, such as when random drunks stumble into the room and we feel obligated to start teaching them how to improve their organized play programs.

How do they work?

The next three GAMA Trade Shows at minimum will occur at the Peppermill Hotel in Reno, rather than in Las Vegas.  I have never been to the greater Lake Tahoe area and next March's show will be a new experience for me.  My other business partner isn't a fan of the Peppermill, but I don't know whether that reflects some shortcoming as a resort location or whether he has been to a trade conference there and found it lacking.  It is certainly fair to say that Reno and the Peppermill will be tested in earnest next March.  If that test amounts to "be better than Bally's," Reno will probably do okay.

Net Income
At the end of the day, it's about your quality of life and whether your investment capital is doing the job you sent it out to do.  DSG has posted phenomenal gross growth since its inception, never taking a loss year-over-year, but our net has been less impressive as we weathered the storms of departing partners and aggressive competitors at the same time as the industry travails everyone else had to endure, such as Crystal Commerce's "Red October."

A one-owner-one-operator shop that posts decent net can absolutely provide a quality of life worth engaging.  A megastore with economy of scale can do the same.  A chain can work wizardry from load-balancing to calendar optimization and has the kind of brand reach that gets more for its money than any single specialty store.  The odd store out in this mix is the "Mario," which until the end of 2016 is what DSG Gilbert was.  A little bit good at everything, but not dominant at anything.  I definitely have work to do.  And if I can't see the kind of net income that DSG ought to be able to produce, I'll go into a healthy-margin business elsewhere, whether carpet cleaning or cabinetry or what have you.

Meanwhile, people like to throw gross figures around, and I am no exception.  My grosses are pretty damned impressive.  I would give back a meaningful chunk of them if it meant better performance pound-for-pound.  Always remember, butts in seats still have to be monetized.

Las Vegas
I can do without Bally's for the rest of my life, I think.  I don't know that it's especially worse than other Vegas megahotels, but I also don't think it does anything so much better that it would make me go out of my way to go back.  It is difficult to get to the parking garage regularly, not an issue for those who traveled by air but a bother for when I had somewhere to be.  Everything at Bally's is expensive and a generation out of date.  It sufficed and I have some memories, but that's past and now I'll move on to the future.

It will be a bummer not to visit Little Shop of Magic, Wii Play Games, or any of the other Vegas game stores next March, but I find myself in Las Vegas on some pretense every year, so I am sure I will drop by.  I still need to hit up Darkside Games and out of curiosity at the spectacle I may drop in on the Gaming Goat.  I missed the Pinball Hall of Fame this time, much disappointment, only to learn that it was closed or something?  Renovations or repairs?  The moose out front should have told me.

Maybe by the time I head back, Interstate 11 will finally exist.  We can hope.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

FATCQ: Fast Answers to Customer Questions Volume 4

Greetings yet another time!  As in previous iterations, I am answering customer questions candidly and within no more than three lines of text in Google's composer!  My previous limit was five lines, but I want the challenge of having to answer these questions really fast.  And concisely.

In this article series I endeavor to answer any customer question, as long as it is not disingenuous and does not request confidential information.  Feel free to ask questions for future installments in the comments of this web zone.  These are combinations of questions I have been asked by customers in-store and online, and one that I made up on the spot, so let's start with that one.

Q: I came into the store today and you weren't there.  What gives?
A: I am at the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas this week along with my wife Stephanie and my business partner Mike Griffin.  Not to worry, our DSG Gilbert and DSG Tempe staffers possess great expertise and can accommodate the vast majority of customer needs and requests.

Q: Can I meet up with you at GAMA?
A: I'm going to spend some time in the retailer lounge so I can network with my fellow shopkeeps, to teach and to learn.  I'll post to the Facebook retailer groups when I have specific times or when I happen to be there.  My calendar for the week was already pretty full (I'm presenting four seminars!).

Q: I bet you feel pretty stupid for being wrong about Damnation and Craterhoof two weeks ago?
A: I feel pretty awesome for being correct about essentially everything else, actually.  Remember, at 8:59 a.m. on Monday morning of spoiler week, the set was bad and would be low value.  Turns out it was the best ever.  Even Rudy himself, king of downward market pressure, offered his approval.

Q: What was the deal with Gloomhaven?
A: It was this winter's Scythe, a board game where the demand was infinite but the publisher printed only thirteen copies and shipped them all to a Barnes & Noble in northern Michigan.  Distribution got an 8% fill rate.  Online price is $300+.  We got one copy and sold it for $170.

Q: For that matter, what's the deal with board games?  Are you in or are you out?
A: Moving our comic archive to DSG Tempe sort of changed the math at DSG Gilbert.  With enough rack space to let board games breathe a little, I have been building deeper into stock on solid sellers.  Boss Monster, Lanterns, Gloom, Mystic Vale, Castle Panic, Forbidden Desert, etc.

Q: Regarding board games, what will you do if a Gaming Goat opens in Phoenix?
A: Mostly I will shrug.  Their model does not really threaten my revenue mix.  Their 30% off deal on board games is psychologically attractive, but they would make almost the same unit sales at 20% off.  Money left on the table.  That said, I think they may have tapped into potent market space.

Q: You refer to your "revenue mix."  What is that?
A: The categories where we make our hay.  Magic singles overwhelm all right now, explosive growth throughout 2017.  On lower volume, video games are my healthiest category pound-for-pound.  Miniatures and D&D are decent lately.  Competition has affected us less in 2017 than ever before.

Q: If Magic is as much a revenue driver as you say, why bother carrying the other things?
A: Because I want to!  I pay the bills how I must, but I am a gamer and enjoy other categories of the tabletop and electronic game landscape as well.  For example, I don't have much time for Dungeons & Dragons anymore, but that is where it all began and I still dig it.

Q: Do you even still play board games?  What's good right now?
A: They are the main thing I play, when I have rare time to play anything.  The best board game released lately in my opinion is New Angeles from Fantasy Flight Games.  Honorable Mention goes to the card builder Peptide by Genius Games, which is already becoming tough to find.
Q: So DSG Gilbert: Renewed or no?
A: No.  The lease ends this fall and the successor tenant is already signed.  DSG Gilbert will move.  We do not yet have a landing spot for it.  We want to be in the same general area.

Q: Seven or eight months... isn't that cutting it a little close?
A: Yes.

Q: Doesn't it take 90 days to clear permits in Gilbert?
A: It can.

Q: So what will you...
A: We are aware, I assure you.  We plan to find a location already cleared for occupancy.  When we opened Gilbert our construction buildout turned out to be mostly wasted money.  By taking a suite as we find it instead, we can hold out for a better lease option on shorter notice.

Q: What about east Mesa / Superstition Springs?
A: We still have our eyes on the mall offering.  Three new stores are slated to open in the area sometime this quarter, and I have severe doubts that a market base consisting mostly of retirees can sustain them all.  I'll let those three fight amongst themselves, and I think I know who will win.

Q: You, uh, ever going to take down the Tempe Comics sign?
A: All in good time.  We have a perfectly good sign in Gilbert that may or may not be usable for the new location, and if it isn't, we'll move it to Tempe.  That sign was over $6k, so it is coming with us one way or another.  I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a third sign.  Waste not, want not.

Q: Do you have a plan for DSG Tempe?  Things seem very inchoate there.
A: Much will depend on what we do about DSG Gilbert.  DSG Tempe has a lot of inexpensive square footage, a capable crew, a community that shows up, and other assets.  Part of the GAMA agenda this year is for Griffin and I to explore ideas for how to develop the Tempe premises specifically.

Q: So now that most of the comics are in Tempe, what happened to comic sales in Gilbert?
A: Almost unchanged, which suggests to me that our lack of space was a severe barrier to visitors' ability to shop the comic archive.  Most of our boxholders have been cool with the change as it affects them little.  A few people were unhappy with the change and I'm genuinely sorry about that.

Q: Your Yelp and Google reviews are mostly good but there are some pretty savage one-stars in there lately.  What's up with that?
A: It's review culture.  There's usually a real story the reviewer isn't telling.  One guy was upset we wouldn't sell him rare comic books, price tagged $20 each, that he "found" in the $1 bargain bin.  That's not how it works. Items that are misplaced or mis-racked don't suddenly become 95% off.

Q: What about the guy who says you offered 7% on his cards?  Aren't your buy ratios much higher than that, like 33% or 50% on most cards?
A: Of course they are.  He was a backpack dealer trying to sell off his leftovers.  Cards less than a certain value, we buy at bulk rates.  Much of his inventory was low-value cards.  Interesting how he doesn't mention that in his review.  Two sides to every story, folks.

Q: What do you do about misleading bad reviews like those when you see them?
A: I try to gain some operational benefit out of them if I can.  Training opportunity.  If I know who the person is I might reach out.  Some of our bad reviews are not misleading and are fully deserved.  Those are the ones that give me the best information on what I need to fix or do better.

Q: Play any Magic lately?
A: Two or three sessions of Vintage Cube, which were excellent, and some Aether-Kaladesh draft, which is a better format than I expected.

Q: What's wrong with Magic right now?
A: Too long to answer in an article like this, but in summary: Too many Magic stores opened and are in cash distress, and must dump product that doesn't move instantaneously, driving down product values.  As the situation shakes out and bad stores close, good stores will get healthier.

Q: What's wrong with Warhammer right now?
A: Not a lot.  Games Workshop is on a positive streak lately and their new releases for both 40K and Age of Sigmar have been well received and good sellers.  This week we're expecting to see GW announce new retailer terms and requirements.  That could be a big deal and lead to a future article.

Q: What's wrong with comics right now?
A: DC's two-week treadmill is having exactly the impact we worried about, it's wearying for subscribers and we've seen a fall-off.  Marvel politicized its storylines too much; even for sympathetic readers we saw interest wane.  But otherwise we're seeing relative stability.

Q: What's wrong with RPGs right now?
A: If it's not D&D, nobody is buying any.  Hereabouts, at least.  Meanwhile, Dungeons & Dragons is the hottest I have seen it since I re-entered the business in 2012.

Q: What's wrong with video games right now?
A: Nothing.  The Nintendo Switch is awesome, every system out there has great games now and upcoming, and prices are inching downward.  The only complaint I can find is that it's still tough to find NES Classic Mini and New 3DS XL systems on store shelves.  That's a positive problem.

Q: What's wrong with X-Wing right now?
A: The player base and publisher are still going through some of the competitive growing pains that Magic etc went through decades ago.  The flow of product is improving, but still not dependable when a hot new build sends many players seeking the same ships.

Q: What's wrong with other TCGs right now?
A: Destiny and Final Fantasy are just zero product availability.  It's very difficult to cultivate the player communities for both with bare shelves.  But if I had to pick one to get a shipment of and not the other?  I would pick Final Fantasy TCG.  Meanwhile, Pokemon is mostly just great.

Q: What's wrong with the LCGs?
A: I am worried about Android Netrunner lately.  The last two cycles, Mumbad and Flashpoint, were not that well received by the player base.  Hopefully the new Red Sands cycle will turn things around.  A Game of Thrones is mostly great.  Arkham Horror has severe stock fulfillment issues.

Q: Why does everything have to be wrong?
A: OK, I made up this question.  I think the game trade is mostly good right now.  It's just easy to find topics of discussion that start with a gripe of some kind.  Commiseration makes companionship.

Q: What change in your personal purview within the company do you most want to see in 2017?
A: I want to get back to working on the business, not in the business.  DSG experienced its greatest and healthiest growth when I was able to be an architect, rather than splitting time between supervision and execution.  Red October and the downturn that followed put me back in the trenches.

Q: What change in DSG's business model do you most want to lay the groundwork for in 2017?
A: Making it a place worth paying to play at.  Whether this means comfortable rental rooms, a coffee bar of some sort, games available for borrow, or some other combination of factors, I don't yet know. But I think we have to solve our industry's unhealthy allergy to monetizing space.

Okay, that concludes the fourth installment of this fun exercise!  Leave a comment on this web zone or on Facebook if you have questions you'd like to see me answer in volume five!

Monday, March 6, 2017

My Two Decades In Organized Play: The Judge Years

My first step in what would become my career track, little did I realize it at the time, took place in the spring of 1997 and kicked off, at least in the immediate result, over six years of my life spent heavily involved in judging Magic: the Gathering tournaments.  My "Judge Years" were basically Act One of the twenty years I have spent in Organized Play.  Act Two sent me to law school and working for state government, and I was a player and backpack dealer.  Act Three opened up Desert Sky Games and saw me evermore as a tournament organizer and host, and (intentionally) not much more, but for a wider variety of games and not just Magic.

It all began here:
The Costa Mesa Women's Club, south of gloriously smoggy Los Angeles, California, as photographed by Matt Murphy of Shuffle & Cut.  The Club served as host venue for every qualifier event, prerelease, and regional championship tournament for the greater SoCal region for many years since Magic's earliest days.

Indeed, so unassuming a facility it wouldn't catch your eye driving past, the Club nonetheless was the Place where the Happen Did.  It of the too-small parking lot, the dealer tables full of sketchy guys with scotch-taped binder slots, the latest tech at every table in an era when most players had no idea there was such a thing as "tech," stifling humidity no matter the time or date, the Takenagas processing any number of registrations in mere minutes, Scott Larabee being asked to sanction events if enough random pedestrians could be brought in to hit minimum attendance, Truc Bui rolling in 15 minutes late and winning a pod after drafting five-color, and The Dan Gray having disqualification criteria thrust into his judging arsenal again and again by players who thought the fifth Hypnotic Specter would be sure to escape the eyes of deck-checkers.

This was where I pulled up in the spring of 1997 to certify myself as a DCI Judge, under the fledgling judge program of the time that has grown worldwide today and encompassed officiating of competition at the very highest levels.  But back then there were few judges anywhere.

I traveled by car and had essentially no money at the time, so I slept in my car overnight just outside the Center, and this was both uncomfortable and doubtless did little to enhance my appearance and the impression I delivered the next day.  Level 2 judge Andrea Kunstt administered the written and verbal test to me, and Dan and Scott checked it with her afterward.  I whiffed on one question, having missed the news about the David Mills disqualification for announcing his spell before tapping land -- the horror -- but my X-1 score was good enough to convince them to certify me straight to Level 2, which is no longer done.  Pictured below were Dan (left) and myself with James Lee in 2001, judging Grand Prix Denver.
I opened Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in summer 1998, as you can read about right here on this blog, and served as the Tower's only judge about 99% of the time for its life cycle.  I then partnered into Arizona Gamer in 1999, a story I will have to tell at some point, and again served as judge pretty much throughout.  Magic wasn't played every single day at stores all over the place back then... but it was played on most days at the stores I ran, because... okay, I was in a rut and didn't know what else to do with myself.  The truth can be uncomfortable sometimes.
I was not the greatest judge.  Let me be perfectly clear about this.  By 1999 I forged my way to Level 3, mainly on the strength of being willing to work repeatedly and often at any event that would have me.  I failed my first Level 3 attempt before passing my second.  But even then, today's Level 2 judges are better at the craft of officiating Magic: the Gathering events than I was as a Level 3.  They are better taught, better practiced, they have better communication and better resources, and the player base knows much more finely what to expect and how to interact with judges during difficult ruling scenarios.  I once tried to back-to-back a PTQ and some other premier event in Tucson for Ray Powers's Monastery Productions and had such a horrible night's sleep that the second day was a blur of coffee, irritability, and poor rulings.  I personally deck-checked a player at Pro Tour San Diego 2002 and missed a card inclusion cheat that was discovered a round later on a floor call.  I botched the end of a PTQ in New Mexico when two semifinalists agreed to the random outcome of a match and I missed the conversation unfolding right beside me because of an ear infection and my attention being on the other semifinal match.  Above all I was not nearly as professional as I wish I would have been.
I did a few things right in that time.  Bands like King's X and Phish gained respect for their willingness to tour to every nook and cranny of the world to perform, night in and night out, and that was me in my judging heyday.  From fall 2001 to spring 2003 I was occupied on over 50% of weekends with a prerelease, PTQ, or higher event either in Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, Albuquerque, El Paso, Las Vegas, and in some cases elsewhere that WOTC flew me.
My peak was probably testing up new Level 1 judges as a Level 3 trainer at Pro Tour New Orleans 2001.  Held in a facility that was destroyed four years later by Hurricane Katrina, PTNO'01 also took place during the legendary Diamondbacks-Yankees World Series.  I got to sit in a pub on Bourbon Street near Tolouse and watch a room full of mostly Yankees fans whoop it up for three straight nights while I suffered my D'Backs giving up late walk-off wins.  Then, the Saturday of the Pro Tour itself, Scott Larabee smugly slowrolled me, "Okay Bahr, time to put you out of your misery.  I'm not sure the D'Backs are going to have any lead changes at this point.  Oh, the score?  They're ahead fifteen to two."  I flew home the next day just in time to watch Game Seven.
It wasn't all Pro Tours and Nationals, though the Nationals 2002 in Orlando was delightful and stands still to date as my only visit to Disney World.  The event took place at the Wide World of Sports arena and we even got to experience a tropical storm.  During downtime, I got to draft Invasion block with Mark Rosewater hosting my pod, which was cooler than I realized at the time.  But a more typical judging day had me at Ray and Kelly Powers's Gamers Edge store in Chandler, holding the line against savage cheaters and delinquents.
Ray and Dan even hosted the first Grand Prix Phoenix in 2000, on a freezing weekend in Glendale when fewer players showed up than we typically saw at area prereleases.  Matt Stenger was still a Level 3 judge at the time as well, and he and I were regular fixtures at local events on the circuit.
For some reason, Ray's organizer territory was expanded at one point to include San Diego in addition to Arizona, which meant he could run prereleases in two cities on the same day.  This was many years before the in-store prereleases; back then one organizer would host a huge event for the entire metro area.  I logged quite a few miles in my Chevy S-10 pickup back and forth to the Gaslamp Quarter, getting all familiar with F and G streets and how to park anywhere near Harbor Boulevard.  To say nothing of knowing by sight when I was approaching Winterhaven, Jacumba, Alpine, La Mesa, and El Cajon.  In fact, at one point Ray was sending me back and forth along the I-8 so frequently and I was getting so comfortable with the San Diego area that I put in a request to transfer my day job at University of Phoenix to their SoCal ground campus.  I was divorced, single, my friends were all beginning that mid-twenties scatter as we all sought our fortunes and careers, and the timing seemed just right.  If I was ever going to leave Arizona, this would be it.  I had work to back up my judging and judging to back up my work.
Obviously I never moved to San Diego.  I can't tell you exactly how it worked out that way except that I missed the timing on about four things in a row and that's just how the bough broke.  The finance advisor position at UoP SoCal didn't open up as scheduled or else I just didn't get it, memory fails me.  I think some other organizer took over for Ray in San Diego and it wasn't someone I had worked with, so with the region no longer under Ray's purview, I was not assured of getting any judging work.  I was dating someone briefly and I think I turned down some element that would have gotten the ball rolling on the relocation, because she had a rock-anchored job in Phoenix and I didn't want to break up.  Of course we broke up soon after that anyway.  But the big one was after those things each whiffed, I made a career move that ended the discussion.
The flip side of my willingness to work and then work some more is that I got burned out on judging, and began to appreciate somewhat more the tournament organizer/administrator side of the coin.  My autism-spectrum brain loved the complex rules system and the mechanics of winnowing players from a room full of dreamers to a Top 8 playoff of contenders.  But that same autism-spectrum brain hated the taskwork of responding to judge calls and struggled deeply to "read" players and make determinations on whether a player was being honest or deceptive.  Kind of an important thing for a judge to be able to intuit, wouldn't you say?
I had finished my associate's program at UoP while gainfully employed there, and I decided that law was the career for me, since it consisted of getting paid to understand complex rules systems, comma, I thought.  I guess I was not fully wrong.  But I retired from my DCI Level 3 certification and did not renew it, and aside from working events with Ray every now and then, I focused my efforts on finishing college and then law school at ASU.  By the time I came back to the tournament world for good, it would be in a store logo shirt, not in judge stripes.

And thus ended The Judge Years of my two-decade-long (and counting) involvement in Organized Play.  Hope you found the photos of me from 15 to 20 years ago as amusing as I did!