Two truths are writ large upon the unfinished biography of the SA boardgaming industry – first and foremost that it is both passionate and blossoming, but of notable importance is also that the relationship between the hobbyist and the distributor is unique when compared to the large American or European markets. Yes, we have local publishers looking to make an impact on the market (and the community need to support them as much as possible), but for the most part we rely on the bigger distributors (and FLGS) to act with our best interests at heart.
We rely on them to source content from all the international publishers as well as to grow interest in the hobby, and that kind of intimacy can blur the lines to the point that we forget their passion is mirrored by the desire to stay in business. As such, CBQ believes that it’s important for consumer and distributor to be able to communicate with transparency.
With that in mind, we sat down with Fabio Salvador, Chief Kid at Boardgames.co.za, and asked him a few questions about his recent trip to Essen 2015 as well as his thoughts on the state of the local market.
Chief Kid and Matt Leacock
We’re aware that this isn’t your first trip to Essen, how many trips have you made thus far, and were there any significant differences between this year and the last Essen you attended?
Now I’m giving away my age! I think this was my fifth trip. I actually saw quite a few differences. The big one that struck me was that they have opened up a whole new hall compared to previous years, so it was a really massive event, and so the growth is unrelenting. And the second thing that struck me is that I saw a lot of Asian companies there, so Korea and Japan predominantly. There must have been twenty booths there from the East, where last year if there was one that was a lot. All of the games I recall seeing from them were the micro-style games.
The other thing that struck me was the amount of service companies that were represented there offering Kickstarter services. ‘Let’s help you get through this Kickstarter process with our professional services. We’ll help you produce the videos, we’ll help you with the design, the artwork we’ll help run your social media campaigns’ – there was about four booths. So those kinds of things were not there last year.
Fabio then went on to point out differences between the American conventions and their European counterparts.
Spiel doesn’t have the same model as what the US does – there’s no real play-halls – the Germans do it differently, they put their playtables on the booths, so the spaces are bigger – like the Days of Wonder booth had about 30 tables on it for people to just come and try the new products and Asmodee also, they had about 4 different stands all spread out, and literally where they had the demos taking place was the play-space. So if you look at Gencon, which has separate playspace, Spiel integrates it all. And the demographic is very different, it’s all parents and their kids, I would say mostly. And then secondary would be like boardgaming groups of guys and girls walking around. That’s definitely…the big future is always year on year the family unit walking around playing together at Essen.
Days of Wonder
The general consensus seems to be that this was the strongest showing yet for the hobby at this year’s rAge. What elements of Essen would you like to see reproduced at future local conventions?
The big big difference is, you are looking at publishers exhibit at Essen and you’re looking at distributors exhibiting mostly at rAge. So, I think we’d need to see quite a significant growth for the publishers to show up in a single country. Where I think the evolution is, and I think all the distributors involved with Unplug Yourself, we think that the evolution will be that we secure larger and larger space at the show, but that we will actually partner then with our overseas suppliers for sections of that space. So I can definitely see a Wizkids area and a Mayfair area as we go. I think that is the next step. because right now, it’s the distributors that are funding that presence. I know there’s the flea-market aspect, and we support those guys, but in terms of growing the market and creating the awareness, that all is contributions directly from the distributors. And we’re talking big six figure numbers.
Looking at the local market, would you say the SA scene is driven more by European releases or US releases? Or not significantly one over the other?
I would say the gateway stuff is maybe happening a little bit with the Euro influence. If we categorise Ticket to Ride as a Euro, along with Catan, I think those have been helping to make the broader market. But I think that the branded American stuff has definitely caught quite a large share of the market. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory – that kind of IP related stuff is also very much a popular thing in SA. So my perspective on it, I think that when you look at even the trading card stuff that’s also very big in the country. Boardgaming itself though, I think the gateway stuff we could give credit on the Euro side, with the more story-telling stuff happening as people catch on.
Have things improved with the timing of international releases in terms of how soon they arrive on our shores? Can this be improved upon, and if so, what would your advice be to local distributors along these lines?
We definitely wrestle with the big companies that are based in the US. They tend to orientate their releases for their Xmas season, so if they don’t have a large overseas footprint their products all release mid-November, and that’s an ongoing problem. Where most of the European companies will time their releases for Essen, and that kind of makes it doable, but thankfully we do work with a lot of companies that realise that there is a lot of shipping involved. So we have been able to get quite a lot of product that can be on the water now, but only for general release after Essen.
The growth is there, I mean gee whiz, every supplier we sat and discussed business with, I think they’re all very satisfied and very impressed with how the market is growing in SA. So it’s a good time for tabletop gaming locally. I think right now until the exchange rate fell through, there was the option to get by with just last minute flights. You just stick a pallet or two on an airplane and you get that last little delivery in time to make the Xmas deadline. I think the local market is in for a bit of a shock when those last minute items arrive and those retail prices are calculated. We’re going to see the full effect of the weak Rand over this Xmas period.
We try to mitigate that as much as possible, we’ve got got a 80ft container full of goods in order to keep the costs as low as possible and in some cases we’ve actually manged to lower some of the prices of the goods, and in others it’s just not been possible, but the airfreight shipment that will come now with the new release stuff – there’s no way to protect that stuff from the prices. We’re paying peak season rates to transfer the goods and the rand is doing what it’s doing – it’s not easy at all to control those prices.
Tabletopia kickstarter project
Legacy games and reprints – is this a trend that indicates positive industry growth, or is it more indicative of publishers attempting to cash in while the going is good?
I think the former scenario is where I think it is. And the reason for that is so many brilliant games came out maybe twenty years ago and there’s nothing wrong with them. But I think that even the Euro style games have understood that they can’t just sell the game off the mechanics alone. They have to refresh the products and make them look attractive. There are games out there that if you go on Board Game Geek, you’ll see they’re in the top 100, and when you look at the packaging – if you had to put that on the shelf on retail stores in SA, you’d probably get maybe 3 impulse buys. Because the packaging looks like you’re buying an ancient jigsaw puzzle.
Nothing about that compels a youngster to pull his mom’s sleeve and say I want that, and so a refresh on some of the games is a brilliant idea. We’re sitting with just the most incredible games like Power Grid and Puerto Rico, even Carcassone. Brilliant games, but when you look at the packaging and presentation, you seriously have to be a discerning gamer to appreciate it. If they take old games and make them look as good as Five Tribes, why not? The product is still fantastic – it’s not like software that ages. They’re pretty timeless.
Star Realms and Epic
If I look at the game Innovation as an example, it originally launched…it was awful in terms of its look. And then Iello had a go at it, and they’ve created a nice ‘bookshelf’ version of the game. And what they’ve done without interfering with the game, is they’ve made it look really attractive. And I see on Kickstarter that there’s another Innovation thing going, so the owner of the IP is pushing all over the industry to do more with what they’ve created. Their livelihood is based on the royalties they get for all the units produced, so in a way they have to keep doing that while they’re developing new stuff.
I think we’re going to see a circulation of that IP in the industry forever, I don’t see it changing. Look how many times Monopoly has rethemed itself. We haven’t gotten there yet with most of the other products, but I’m seeing some other interesting stuff like Star Realms as a platform – there’s a new game, they’ve licensed the engine of Star Realms, and so they’re creating their own game, but they’re using the platform of Star Realms. That’s an interesting cross over for me, the guys actually think 80% of the game is great but they want to do something else with it. That’s more like a computer gaming pattern – they’ll license the Unreal engine and studios will build up around that.
There’s always a title or two that seems to outperform all the others at conventions, whether it’s sold out before the convention ends or that all the attendees seem to be discussing it – which games in your estimation fit the bill at this year’s show?
By nature of our business model – my radar is not tuned as a hobbyist consumer. But what I did pick up there was Scythe was a really big showing there. Codenames finally arrived in the European market, that was also extremely popular. There were some kids titles that were very big – they won’t mean much in the local market so I won’t go into much detail there.
What was your own personal game or games of the show?
It was announced, but there was nothing to show, our partners who did Thunderbirds had a press evening there and they announced the upcoming title that they’ve licensed to develop Kung Fu Panda. So it’s going to be quite a fun, action-filled co-op game. One of the highlights was seeing Ancient Terrible Things there in German. There was a big German company with big German posters of Ancient Terrible Things. How awesome is that? That was an unexpected surprise. I had about 17 meetings while I was at Essen, and a lot of them were showing me some prototype stuff of what’s coming.
The White Wizards Game’s Epic, was a standout for me. Because they’ve literally taken Star Realms and they’ve done even more with it. So now the same box for more or less the same price, that you can get a full four-player game out of it. And every single card in that deck is unique. The investment to produce 180 cards worth of art must be over the top.
Did anything at Essen inspire you in terms of novel ways to grow the local market in 2016?
What I have seen is that some of the guys are definitely…I don’t know if it’s from borrowing from Gencon, because I’ve never been, but they’ve laid their stalls out quite differently. So there was one Asmodee thing where they had an entire area branded with photos of the designers, and they had an area that looked like a VIP section where the various authors would be sitting there to sign the game. A lot more stalls – guys were bringing bigger version of their standard games, like life-size versions that people could play. Catan brought their world record attempt – we’re actually bringing that to SA, that game system itself is something that they’re going to be releasing for local markets. So we will be ableto work with a whole bunch of retailers to try and set up a 600 player Catan game.
So that will definitely be something we’re going to be taking on the road. It’s early days but I can certainly see us hosting the massive two hour game – what I like about it is you can have…it’s almost an infinitely scalable game, and it plays a bit like 7 Wonders in that every one of your neighbours, the adjacent people all the way down, so you can go like 1000 players, but each player is only playing with the person across and two to the left and right. So every person is having a 6 player game – every 6 players experience is different – and so you can set up this massive thing that will draw a lot of attention. But you’re not having to set up a 12 hour game, you can get it all done in a few hours.
So from a recruitment perspective in terms of growing the market, this is definitely one of the top 3 items for us going forward, is to get that buzz going around the big Catan game.
All aboard the Catan bus
Traditionally the role of the community from a distros perspective has been that of the customer. Do you envision a role that extends beyond this?
My perspective on that is that what we are working on is that the community will kind of pivot on two things; one is the game system that they enjoy and the second being the retailer that they are let’s say loyal to. So those two things are seen as the critical aspect. We want that all to click, so we want the retailers to feel that they are growing a community around them. We want the retailers to be offering a good choice of gaming options and the Unplug Yourself program is really looking at shepherding that growth, so the retailers will participate in Unplug Yourself, and they will expand their own horizons by virtue of the program and they will offer TCG type stuff, miniatures, boardgames and events and open days. And as they go, so we hope these communities will form, but form around the retailer.
That’s ultimately the piece that needs to be in place more than anything. Because I think it’s the retailers, for the most part, it’s the retailers environment that creates that sense of belonging. And so we want that to evolve and become as inviting as possible. So that new players can say ‘I want to belong to that. I like the venue, I like the atmosphere and the vibe. I want to be associated with that’. The only way we’ll get the reach to keep driving this growth.
Cardboard rock stars
Next year will see the introduction of Cape Town’s first rAge as well the annual event in Joburg. Do you guys have plans to get involved in Cape Town’s convention?
I really hope rAge and Essen don’t clash next year! Yes, we’ve already spoken with Michael (James). We’ll be there, we just don’t know what scale yet. Once the exhibitors manuals have been prepared, we’ll get an idea of what sort of investment is required. Assessing the attendance is a bit of a shot in the dark, but I think the brand is strong enough that it should do well on its first outing. So the intention is to be there, we just hope it doesn’t clash with other commitments. February, funnily enough, is quite a busy time from the exhibition perspective. So we hope to iron all that out in the next month or so. Cape Town is a very important market, so we certainly hope to be there.
Ancient Terrible Things in German
As pleasing as it is to witness the growing local scene, I imagine that it does put local distributors in a precarious position. Sure, a larger market should theoretically translate into sales, but it also means that international suppliers will see potential, and evolve their offerings to suit the market. Certain international online retailers offer free shipping, and with the advent of Kickstarter this has made bypassing our FLGS an attractive proposition. So where do we find the balance? As consumers, we’re obviously interested in feeding our cardboard addiction at the lowest price possible. But at what point do we end up shooting ourselves in the foot?
And similarly, can we be confident that local distributors are doing their level best to price as fairly as possible? It’s important to keep the dialogue open, as well as to understand the implications of our actions as consumers toward the market. At CBQ we believe that impartiality is essential if we are to make any claim toward being of value to our readers, but at the same time it would seem clear that the best outcome for gamers in South Africa is a respect-based mutual relationship between us and suppliers.
Disagree? Got questions you’d like us to put to suppliers? How do you picture the way forward for the local scene?
check out their full gallery of Essen 2015