Friday, 14 September 2007

Boardgamers' Love/Hate Relationship with "The Mass Market"

"Sound advice, except for the 'giving money to the (evil) Wal-Mart part...."

Does this seem familiar? If it doesn't, you haven't been spending enough time in the boardgaming forums. For whatever reason, gamers seem to have a tangible hatred for "The Mass Market".

Why is this? I have no idea. It probably has something to do with that "us against the man" vibe that runs through many hobby communities (though I don't see this as much from video game communities--and even if I did, it would be laughable...what, don't buy from Wal-Mart but or Gamestop instead? Yeah, Gamestop only owns *every videogame store outlet* there from them, that will show "The Man!")

Personally I've always gotten the warm fuzzies when any game that could be deemed "geek-worthy" finds its way onto mass-market store shelves. And if people really cared about the hobby as much as they claimed, they'd cheer too.

I can't tell you how many times I've been browsing the boardgame section (such as it is) at the local Wal-Mart when I'll see someone--maybe a young couple, or maybe just an older guy--hobble through the aisle. You can see it in their eyes; a listless but at the same time relentless, hopeful search that SOMETHING is out there that will catch their eye. You see them pick up game after game, showing it to one another, but maybe with a slight shake of the head put it down again. And who can blame them? I don't doubt for an instance that these folks have bought a game blindly in the past from these very same shelves, only to be wildly disappointed.

Still, that something...that urge...brings them back. There has to be more, right? Maybe they've heard or seen some of our "geek" games out there and are puzzled when they can't find such things on Wal-Mart or Target shelves. And very likely they don't have an online resource such as BGG...they probably haven't the foggiest clue that such a thing exists!

How do I know this? I used to be that guy. Of course, I'd seen great games like Space Hulk in the past, but still I would browse the store shelves looking for something like that. And part of me still does that. I still catch myself looking over those tired shelves hoping that something "geeky" has punched its way through.

That's probably why I celebrate games that do make that breakthrough. I sing the praises of games with a geek pedigree such as Battleball or Epic Duels or Heroscape...probably disproportionally so. Sure, they're good games, but you cut them a little slack because they rise above the muck such as Spongebob Monopoly or High School Musical: The Game or even Failed Party Game Where People Shout Words at Each Other #3718. Seeing a game like Crossbows and Catapults or Laser Challenge mixed in with that lot of rubbish is cause for celebration.

For a lot of people, that's the only hook into our hobby that they'll ever have. They've seen the "Game Store" but shy away because of (mostly wrong) stereotypes of mouth-breathing CCGers and bespectacled D&D nerds and old men carrying big tackleboxes full of Warhammer figures painted with frightening detail. (I said mostly). They just don't think that such a place holds anything for them. And to turn the tables, the same would apply to you if you weren't into a particular hobby; imagine not being much of an outdoorsman and having to entertain thoughts of going into a Hunting hobbyist store filled with live bait, expensive gear you couldn't possibly tell one apart from another, and orange-clad "Good Ol' Boys" chewing tobacco and talking about getting up at 3 am and covering themselves in Deer essence just to get the drop on an unwitting Buck. Stereotypes RULE!

So where does that leave our potential "normal" would-be gamers? Shuffling the aisles of Wal-Mart. Or Target. Or whatever. Looking, endlessly looking.

I don't usually take it upon myself to be an evangelist, but I can't help myself in such situations. One time when doing my own Wal-Mart shuffle, I noticed a man and his young son pick up the Heroscape box. It was obvious that the man was interested--his son doubly so--but the price tag of $40 was certainly scary on an unknown entity. Still, Heroscape grabbed them, peering out with its attention-getting large shelf profile, indicating its dominance over the weaksauce titles that surrounded it.

"It's a great game," I said to him. He turned to me. "Is it really?" he said. "Yep. Your kid is going to love that."

And that was enough, that gentle nudge, that assurance from someone who seemed to know what they were talking about. Now, I would've never talked this guy into going to a hardcore hobbyist store, but the bait was there in a place where he would find it...and ultimately, he took it. Did he and his son become boardgamers for life? Eh, not so sure about that. But this was the only shot for that to ever happen.

So I'll keep on shopping those big store shelves, looking for new champions of worthiness among the drek that's out there. And yeah, I'll cut it a bit of slack...and more importantly, I'll buy it from a big store too. Even though I'm just a datapoint, hopefully I'm one that says, "More, please". So I'll buy Heroscape stuff at Wal-Mart. So I'll buy Travel Blokus from Target. I'm probably naive, but maybe we can shape "Mass Market" into our own image, or at least enough to hook in another father and his son into a lifetime of memories.


Dan Daly said...

Another factor in all of this is animosity in "the board game community" towards mass market publishers as well as the distributers.

Some people don't like walmart, but there are lot more posts on BGG railing against the evils of Hasbro- who makes pretty much every boardgame you can buy in Walmart or mainstream toy store.

Hasbro puts out a lot of junk, but they also make a lot of good games.

Risk 2210 and Risk Star Wars Original Trilogy are too very good Ameritrash games. If someone won't try them simply because they're "mainstream" then they're missing out.

Ken B. said...

Exactly my point, Dan.

Despite Hasbro being "bad" and "big business", they bring us some nuggets of greatness from time to time. And their economies of, can you imagine another smaller company bringing us Heroscape for only $40?

The only comparable bits per price was FFG's publishing of "War of the Ring". Descent too but it is twice as expensive. And that's coming from a relative giant such as FFG.

When I spoke with Rob, it was obvious that he wants to push that hobbyist envelope. But there are constraints, of course...not to mention that Hasbro pushed hard early in the decade to penetrate that market and had a lot of failures/clearance items to show for it.

Muzza said...

oh so that beardy dude lurking in the games section of Target was a games evangelist... damn, maybe I should cancel that restraining order...

Ken B. said...

No, the smelly guy with the furtive eyes and unopened packs of Pokemon falling out of his pocket WASN'T me. Better keep that restraining order on.

Jack Hill said...

Target regularly carries interesting games, and you can nip into a store and buy Blokus and Rumis. (I adore Rumis, it has cool pieces, is terrifyingly short and is one of the most brutal games I know. )

Hasbro and Mattel both do occasional nifty things, and I end up picking up 3-4 games per year from the Mass Market.

Shellhead said...

It used to be that boardgamers just played boardgames, and since those games often had long play times and high replay value, there was heavier play of a smaller selection of games.

Possibly thanks to the short play time and limited replay value of so many modern Eurogames, this hobby has become more focused on buying and collecting, and less about simply enjoying favorite games and the occasional new acquisition.

So with greater emphasis on the shopping experience, it's inevitable that some boardgamers have become overly obsessed with such trivia as shipping costs or the retailer's brand identity. Or even boxfart.

Your point about buying games from stores like Target or Wal-Mart is a good one. I admit that I tend to buy most of my games either at GenCon or the local game store, because I want them to do well. But buying from the big chains is good, too, because that may keep them interested in offering games that can introduce more players to the kinds of games we love.

I'm a nerd, but one who can easily function in all kinds of circles and get along with most people. Sure, I was the skinny guy with glasses back in school, and I spent long hours playing D&D and reading comics. But I also played sports, worked construction, partied my way through college, buffed up at the gym and then dated like crazy for ten years before settling down with my current girlfriend.

But there are plenty of nerds who are less functional in society. They were rejected as teens, and now as adults, they have their coteries of nerd friends. And they get their petty revenge for past (and present) rejection by being clannish and exclusive. So there is a vocal segment at BGG that is always badmouthing the mass market, party games, and normal people in general. This may make them feel superior, but to me it smacks of hypocrisy.

Rliyen said...

bespectacled D&D nerds and old men carrying big tackleboxes full of Warhammer figures painted with frightening detail. (I said mostly).

I resemble these remarks (insert Feng Shui instead of D&D) and I don't shy away from them. In fact, I wear them as a badge of honor.

I totally don't understand the Hasbro bashing, either. Dude, I'm a gamer and I own their stock. Reason? Because of Heroscape, as well as their other toys (I have a growing son). Also, because I can try to influence, however small, the way the company does its business. When I read in the upcoming year that they were revising Monopoly (again) and The Game of Life - Twists and turns (again), I voted down the current boardmembers. Did it work? Probably not, but I felt better.

I want Hasbro to take risks again. I want them to refurbish the AH line and not do it in such a hamfisted way that they handled the other properties.


But, I am grateful for their hits: Epic Duels, SW: Risk Original Trilogy, MMA, Nexus Ops, and Betrayal. And their flops: Battleball, Mission Command: Land.

DC said...

- With absolute apology to Martin Luther King, Jr. -

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all hobbies are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the green hills of Bentonville the sons of former wargamers and the sons of former deer hunters will be able to sit down together at the table to play Dune and eat jerky.

I have a dream that one day even BGG, a site sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their affinity for Caylus or their desire to smite small woodland creatures but by their desire to purchase ammo and play excellent games at low, low prices.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down at the Wal-Mart, with its always low prices, with its greeters and friendly salespeople; one day right there in Wal-Mart, mouth-breathing CCGers and bespectacled D&D nerds will be able to join hands with orange clad Good Ol' Boys as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every zombie game shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be lined with camouflaged blinds, thin card stock shall be made thick, and the Mossbergs will shoot straight, and the glory of Knizia shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together on the aisle along the wall at the back of the store.

This is our hope. Yee haw, meeples, yee haw!

Liumas said...

Nice story Ken, well done.

J de said...

The mass-market bashing is a normal social mechanism. In a hobby there is always the paradox between exclusiveness (avant-garde, look what obscure stuff I found) and inclusiveness (I cant believe this cool stuff isnt more popular).

It's blaming people for buying Garth Brooks, when Wilco is much more better. And if you really want to look cool, you get bootlegs from Uncle Tupelo. (huh, what's that?, some of you may ask. That's me showing off: exclusiveness ya know?)

There's a second question to this. Do you buy this from the Friendly Local Game Store, the Walmart or some online giant? Do you
a) support the local specialist (more expensive, broad choice, better access and advice)
b) the mass market (cheap, with little advice but sending the signal that it is worthwhile mass producing these games, which may)
c) the specialist mass market (cheap, broad choice but with little advice but you find your own)?

Krizman said...

Some things are more important to me than boardgaming. Social justice is one of those things.

My not shopping at Walmart won't make any difference in their habits. Neither will one of you shopping there cause them to carry more boardgames.

The reason I don't shop at Walmart is I can't stand to give them any of my money when I know of their oppressive policies. There are dozens of other reasons I could go in depth into but that is the main one.

I hate the entire concept of corporations and hyper-capitalism. But you cannot survive in the US easily without using corporations in some way. Gas stations, grocery stores, clothing stores, health insurance companies, online super stores...almost all large corporations you have to use at one time or another to live a comfortable life.

Walmart is the largest, and the worst by far. They set the standard that all other stores have to meet...they drive down down quality...they are the measuring stick in a way of our nation. People and companies must meet their demands or be forced out of business. They thrive on slave labor all over the world. Yet 5 of the ten richest people in the world are members of the Walton family. They are parasites. So I oppose them, I dont shop there as they represent the worst of the worst of our society and political structure.

Ameritrash vs. Euro: Ameritrash has the better games. But thats only one reason I was drawn towards it. I despise the consumerist attitude of alot of BGG...where the goal is having thousands of boardgames you never play, or play once and then move on to the hottest new title with the same mechanics. I would rather have a handful of really awesome games, that have high replay value...that people online enjoyed playing and talking about irregardless of if it was the hottest new item or not.

mtlawson said...

I personally don't shop at Walmart, because Walmart tends to stock the cheapest stuff imaginable. The only thing that I ever bought from Walmart that lasted more than a year was a clock, and I couldn't stand the cheesy digital chime so I snipped the wires running to that.

I never thought it was possible for K-Mart to be kicked out of the basement of the discount store food chain, but the Walmarts around here sure did it.

That said, I tend to shop at Target, and I have seen games at Target that would make a geek happy: Buffy (okay, that was a while ago), a couple of A&A and Risk variants, the now ubiquitous Apples to Apples back before it became so popular, and other titles. Of course, Target is trying to attract a different customer than Walmart: Walmart wants customers who shop for the cheapest items, and Target wants stylish and trendy oriented customers who are on a budget.

If you're going to see any penetration in the mass market for AT or Euros, it's probably going to be seen at a Target first.

Okay, I guess it's time to mention one big item that you avoided, Ken: some people seem to think that if Euros or AT were to penetrate the mass market successfully, that would cause the death of the Euro or AT market. The thinking there is that games would then be designed for the mass market, and would therefore end up being dumbed down. I believe I also saw one post where a guy was claiming he was happy with the size of the market -a boutique market, I believe he called it- as it currently is. Go figure.

I simply don't see what the big deal is if on the unlikely chance an AT or Euro title were to actually go viral; I rather doubt that small game publishers like Z-Man or FFG would drop producing games that they love just to chase the buck and become the next big hit. If everyone and their grandmother suddenly started buying Tannhauser, I doubt that FFG would drop everything to make Tannhauser clones. Even if they did, some other enterprising soul would then fill the void left by FFG. Witness what happened to wargames after AH: while there isn't an 800 lb. gorilla around, the demise of AH allowed newer game companies such as GMT and Avalanche and L2 to thrive.

--Mike L.

Matt Thrower said...

Nice article, with many good observations.

However, I feel compelled to touch on something that no-one else has done. I know quite a bit about Wal-Mart having once worked for a company that managed their marketing data. They're a dreadful, dreadful employer: the stories you may have heard about employees being told how to apply for food stamps as part of basic training because the wages are so poor was certainly true a few years ago. I was also told by someone who'd visited their HQ that the window count in the building was strictly limited to stop employees gazing out on the view instead of working.

In other words that are reasons for not shopping at Wal-Mart that have nothing to do with gamer snobbery.

Ken B. said...

Alright, so let's de-couple the vitriol at the Mass Market from the dislike of Wal-Mart. That's understandable, and that might color people's viewpoints.

Still, I've seen the "blah blah blah crap games Toys R' Us blah blah oh you can buy that at Target blah blah" making that leap to mass-market shelves is a badge of dishonor.

I remember very well the "boutique" comment. That boggled my mind...but again, who would be so surprised to hear such a thing from one of BGG's legendary curmudgeons?

There's almost a self-loathing at work here. As if gamers don't want to see their favorite games "make it" to the big time. We'll just settle for our niche, thanks. Oh, a game or publisher just worked their way onto mass market shelves? Feh. Proof that they're going "down the tubes" and not "giving gamers what they want".

That's just a crazy thought being at the mass-market level would ruin geek-style boardgaming. Why wouldn't the inverse be true? Why couldn't "good" games in mass market locations elevate our hobby instead of the hobby being dragged down?

The people are already browsing those shelves. They're obviously looking for SOMETHING out there to fill that gaming void. If more "good" games were available there, our hobby would have to grow, just by virtue of the law of averages.

And Hasbro takes a lot of bashing...but you know what? They take what chances they can. What do you think has a higher cost/benefit ratio--a retread of Monopoly/Life with a popular kids' theme attached, or an original title like Heroscape?

Sure, they're in it to make cash. And yeah, they take a lot of low-risk roads. But the point is, they never have to take a higher risk road. At all. Take the AH aquisition--that was high risk. Trying to revitalize the line was a higher risk. For the most part, it didn't work out for them, at least not in acceptable numbers.

Yeah, I realize this is a very much "take what you can get" perspective, and I assure you that if I had to live only on mass-market boardgame offerings alone, I wouldn't even be a part of the hobby. But that doesn't mean I can't be happy to see small victories in the mass-market arena.

Lastly--yeah, Target rocks, doesn't it? It's gotten to where I can get stuff there that Wal-Mart doesn't carry or is slow to carry. Prequel Risk? Available at Target weeks before Wal-Mart. Original Trilogy Risk? Had to buy mine at Target--never saw it at Wal-Mart at all. Heroscape expansions? Bought more of them at Target and Toys R Us than Wal-Mart.

Plus Blokus, Rumis, and other stuff that Wal-Mart hasn't yet seen fit to carry. Given the choice, I easily prefer Target.

Anonymous said...

"Sure, I was the skinny guy with glasses back in school, and I spent long hours playing D&D and reading comics. But I also played sports, worked construction, partied my way through college, buffed up at the gym and then dated like crazy for ten years before settling down with my current girlfriend."

Could somebody turn this into a movie please?

Krizman said...

Matt Thrower: well said and I have heard other stories from people who have worked with walmart and seen their gritty underbelly. always good to hear another story.

Ken B: I can agree with your last post as well. Its a sad day when members of any hobby look down upon the masses enjoying it as well. I think a case could be made that a company focusing on a wide market will water down it's games, but as a whole so many great games are coming out there's no reason not to rejoice if one or two becomes widely available in retail stores across the country.

They are 2 different issues, one is the nature of our society and how large corporations are run, and the other is boardgamers insulating themselves and becoming too cliquish. I'm glad we were able to separate the two. :)

There are probably plenty of boardgamers who don't shop at Wal-Mart for all the wrong reasons.