One Retailer's Perspective
By Bob Schwartz

What's the big deal? All this talk about "German Games" might lead
you to think of them as the next American fad. Move over trivia,
collectible card, and video games, the future is here. Not likely?!
The question is whether these Designer games will enter the
consciousness of the general American public. So far, sales figures
don't bear this out, yet.

What distinguishes these board games as a separate category? Others
in this series have no doubt addressed that in detail. The common
features are most often:

Short and easy to understand rules
Playing time of 1-1.5 hours
Quality components
Interactive strategic content

This certainly isn't the first introduction of a more sophisticated
series of board games to a U.S. market that basically views games as a
holiday purchase for children. Some point to Ravensburger as the company
responsible for the U.S. introduction to "German" games. Their offerings
fit all the criteria above, and well, they are a German outfit. When I
opened a game store in 1979, the idea was to fill the place with all
the great stuff that the mass-market manufacturers hadn't made available
to an eager public, then play every game in preparation for helping our
customers. Hare and Tortoise was my 1st experience into the genre, and
immediately a staple with our "game testing" group. Later, Wildlife
Adventure, Midnight Party, Scotland Yard and others had us convinced
that these games were not only different but also immensely popular
with those willing to try them. But no public groundswell followed.

A case could be even be made for crediting the '60s release of the 3M
"Book Shelf" games (Acquire, Twixt etc.), later acquired by Avalon
Hill. Again, they fit the description. The irony is that they weren't
German games.

For that matter, there's a game where the Swedish player must use his
nobles to protect the king from the Muscovite player trying to capture
him, and exit safely the field/board. The game is Tablut, a variation
of Hnefatafl, dating back to at least the 14th century. Easy rules, less
than 30 minutes to play, quality parts, lots of strategy and even a
modest theme to boot.

But the release of Settlers of Catan best marks the beginning in the
U.S. (1996). Again with all the above criteria met, Settlers, and those
that followed, had the added advantage of the Internet, which permitted
players to connect and be heard. The name 'German Games' was a result.

As with any new category, the industry/hobby idea is to introduce these
games to a wider audience. In this case, there is the added advantage
that the category being promoted is a quality product that customers
will enjoy and come back for more. From a personal perspective, "German"
just doesn't work. When I point out that the new German games are to the
left, most customers turn right. I will avoid the obvious reasons but
understand that there are only a few seconds to interest a potential buyer
in a new product group before they start to tune out or move on. The name
used DOES make a difference.

Alan Moon, a German games designer since the early '90s once called them
"Second Generation" or the more common "Family Strategy" games. But Alan
thinks that games need a catchy name. America is all about hype and it's
time to start creating hype about games.

In the store, I've tested "Continental Games", "Imported Games" (neither
is truly accurate), and others with some success. But recently, an interview
of Mr. Moon stated he was looking for that elusive moniker to call the games
he (and I) loves. A gamer (Nick Danger) suggested, partially as a whim, that
gamers should help Alan find a new name. The idea was NOT to get long time
gamers to change what they already happily called their hobby, but to find an
alternative to use as an introduction to the domestic mass market. It was a
fun exercise and actually produced a name I liked. Now, when I point to the
ever-growing section of new "Second Generation" strategy games, I find myself
using the term "Designer Games".

Armed with a new name, the job became finding the breakout game. As good as
they are, without promotion the general public won't give a second look at
titles like Settler's of Catan, El Grande, Carcassonne, Tikal, Web of Power
or the others as a potential first Designer Game. But the holiday season of
2000 saw the release of one with which the U.S. population can identify. Lord
of the Rings, in my store, has, and will continue to introduce a significant
number of people to the category. Reiner Knizia's offering sold over 125 copies
for me this December alone, the most of any board game since Trivial Pursuit.
Amazing!, especially with no promotion from Hasbro (Wizard's of the Coast).
This is less surprising considering that the Lord of the Rings website has
recently become one of the most popular destinations on the internet, and with
the release of the first movie in the trilogy set for December 2001, interest
will only increase. The potential for the game will as well.

Apart from being quality products, the advantage of stocking Designer Games
is that TRU & Wal-Mart don't sell them. Still it's not enough to put a few
on a shelf and expect them to do more than gather dust. Sure a few gamers
will recognize them and pay full price rather than wait for an order from
one of the discount online sites, but more is needed to make them a viable
product line. The key for me has been to become familiar by playing them.
Start with Lord of the Rings and progress at least to the recent Games
Magazine, Gamer's Choice, and Spiel des Jahres award winners. Any other
information you might need is readily available from numerous game sites on
the web. Remember, the idea isn't to compete with online vendors. It's to
develop a potentially huge untapped market.

Is it really worth the time and effort when previous forays into more
sophisticated gaming have met with little success? Why bother when the
public shows little interest in any game that doesn't pay $200 for passing
GO? I suggest two reasons why the time is right. There are 40 million baby
boomers in the U.S. between the ages of 50-65. Most did not grow up playing
video games but rather those of the board variety. The battle for their
recreational retirement dollars will be waged by many entertainment industries
and there is no reason why this new category of board gaming shouldn't attract
a considerable following. Second, the product is already in place. Some, like
Greg Schloesser, president of the Strategic Gaming Society and tireless promoter
of Germany style games, have called this the "Golden Age" of gaming due to the
wealth of superior titles currently available worldwide. With games like Lord
of the Rings to pave the way and dozens of great options to back them up, the
time is right for Designer Games. If so, I'll be ready. If not, I've had a great
time playing them. It's a win win situation.

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