Board and card gamers are used to being a minority in the greater world of all things geek, but the situation is a bit of a catch-22. You can't just walk into a major retail outlet and pick up the hottest release, so hobby gaming as an industry has had to rely on small niche shops and word of mouth growth.
There's little doubt that board games are going mainstream, though. The breakthrough of Settlers of Catan into Silicon Valley is often cited, but you could just look at the raw sales data or attend any convention to see the hordes of freshly minted players.
Recently, the Barnes and Noble retail chain picked up on this trend and decided that hobby gaming was ready for the mass market. Yet when the local bookstore dives head first into your hobby and stocks a better selection than some dedicated comic and game shops, people start asking why. To answer these questions, I sat down with Kathleen Campisano (Vice President for Toys and Games) and Ellen Heaney Mizer (Lead Toy and Game Buyer).
MTV Geek: Let's lead off by getting right to the heart of the matter. What is B&N's history with the board game industry, and how has the company's expansion into this market played out?
Ellen Heaney Mizer: We started [carrying] games in 1999 with a simple endcap of Mensa award winners, and have been seeing double digit growth annually since inception that year. As we started to test the waters with other categories, it led to a generalized fixture of games and puzzles with no segmented categories. We started expanding with the core Catan game in 2007, but in 2009, we had the opportunity to test 65 of our stores with a segmentation strategy.
Kathleen Campisano: What we learned is that these guys and girls are very centric on the game mechanic. A big part of it is that they like to consume games in the way they like to think, so what we did in that segmentation strategy was serve up strategy games, card games, board games, and word games. We clustered the assortment into those four buckets.
Heaney Mizer: With that, we expanded on our number one word brand with Scrabble, and went out and bought some really interesting word games. But I knew there was more to the strategy element. I really started to research online, and began talking with companies such as Fantasy Flight Games, Days of Wonder, Mayfair Games, etc.
I got behind their history and where their brands were coming from. I also had the opportunity to attend Nuremburg Toy Fair to meet with these vendors one-on-on and learn everything from how everything from the Speil des Jahres works to how US licensing and distribution rights are set up.
So we started bringing in the full Catan line, bringing in the Munchkin brand, supporting Dominion when it won [the Spiel des Jahres], and we’re still testing the waters. We have a lot of information available to use through sources like BoardGameGeek.com where we can pop on and see the hotness, and feel great that we are already in on what people are talking about right now.
I took a trip to the Freehold, NJ store to check out the strategy game selection for myself, and sure enough, it was quite deep. Titles ranged from Survive: Escape From Atlantis by upstart publisher Stronghold Games, to obscure titles from the big guys such as Mayfair Games's Empire Builder line.
Geek: Are there any specific challenges that the hobby gaming industry presented that you wouldn't expect, coming from the world of books?
Heaney Mizer: We’re bringing in a lot of last-minute releases. In this world, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding Origins, Gencon, Essen, etc., and this product category does not follow any sort of traditional release model. They’re bringing out new products last minute in November and December and we want very much to be a part of that.
We formed a very strong releationshiop with a lot of the key vendors, and they are very good about providing information early enough so we’re able to participate. A great example of this is last year, when we carried Civilization. It was announced, and I immediately got on the phone and made sure I had at least 3 copies in each of my “A” stores. We made it happen, dropped it before Christmas, sold out, and had to re-order.
Civilization is definitely one of the more crunchy strategy games on the market right now, but it had no problems selling to mass market consumers. Might titles such as this with a strong video game tie-in be the key to success?
Geek: What is the scope of this current expansion? How many stores are you actually planning to sell games at?
Heaney Mizer: We’re bringing all of the brands relevant to our customers through 450 “A” stores, with an active game presence in 680 total stores. We have the “best of” in all of these stores, but the “A” stores are the bigger stores.
Geek: What percentage of the entire chain does that represent?
Campisano: We have 705 total stores. We had already tested a couple these stores and done a survey to see what’s indicative of the nation when we decided that [the expansion] was ready to roll.
Geek: So what do you really look for in a game when deciding whether or not to stock it?
Heaney Mizer: We’ve honed in and look for quality. In this category I never have a concern because of the chip board, card stock, and sculpted pieces [game publishers] use.
But it’s really the play value. You need to make sure the rules are clear for the customers, and that the presentation is there. More than anything the value is to make sure we are retailing them for the right price and the customer is going to be satisfied when they leave our store.
Campisano: We’re not offering every game under the sun. We really take the time to understand our customer and serve up merchandise that’s meaningful to them.
For instance, on our word game fixture, we offer everything from Bananagrams to Scrabble, but it’s not just a single Scrabble. We stock Scrabble Flash for techies, Travel Scrabble for those on the go, and Scrabble Slam for card game people. This idea of going deep, going vertical with the game mechanics.
True to Kathleen Campisano's claim, this section proved to be a word nerd's dream, equaling the strategy games in depth and scope.
Geek: Are there any specific categories or genres you are trying to focus on?
Heaney Mizer: It’s all about the strategy games right now. We’re focusing on that because it’s trending up for us right now. It’s because we’re getting into things like Kingdom Builder from Queen Games. How many people really know about that? [Note: this interview was recorded in October, 2011]. We’re going to have that in stores in December.
I just got out of Toy Fair Dallas with a book of notes for things that are going to get onto the fixtures for next year. It’s exciting to be in this new category. How high is up? We don’t know.
Campisano: We're really excited with the opportunity for an entryway into hobby, collectibles, and trend-based merchandise. The Walking Dead, here is the best selling graphic novel series, and now we’ve got board game opportunities. So here’s us partnering with our book sellers, and seeing what is resonating with them.
Geek: What about the abstract strategy genre. What is your interest in that market?
Campisano: We categorize our strategy games into “adventure strategy” and “abstract strategy", but the abstracts have not hit as strongly as the adventures. But for us, it is all relative. If you take a step back and look at this industry’s NPD numbers, you see an industry down for the quarter, but we are not seeing that even in that abstract category. It has not grown at the same rate, but it is still growing.
Geek: Stepping back and looking at all of the genres, have you had any individual games that were surprise sellers? What has exceeded your expectations so far?
Campisano: I’m continued to be blown away by Munchkin. And while you might not consider this a game, one item from our recent expansion that continues to impress me is the Lego Architecture series. At least five of our top 20 toys & games category comes from that line of products. If I took them out, you wouldn’t find anything from the “puzzles” subcategory getting into the top 20.
Munchkin from Steve Jackson Games has been a hot seller for Barnes & Noble. The game was also recently chosen, along with The Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Dominion as part of a regional test expansion in Target stores.
Geek: I'm a fairly avid gamer yet sometimes I even have trouble finding the right group to try out a game. Do you have some sort of internal playtesting staff you can use to give these games a thorough evaluation?
Heaney Mizer: Early on we started to test-play games on the train ride home. The overall process was comical. I would actually recruit 12 or 14 people on any given Thursday night on the way home, and we’d test play a modified version of a game to see how it was resonating with all the different walks of life you’d see on a commute.
We started that way but now that I’ve converted to the bus, I can’t use my train friends anymore. At least twice a month, we pull together people from our building who are gamers. We just say “hey we are going to test play A, B, and C, come on and we’ll order you pizza.” Sometimes the vendor will come in if it’s a really brand new game and they want to explain it.
Campisano: We have a nice little team. There are three of us directly responsible, but when we do playtesting, that’s not exclusive to the adult game and buying team. We have a cross-representation of game players in the building, and that extends over to our other teams.
So our team is a cross-functional discipline that participates quarterly to review new titles. Now they don’t play every game the way we do, but we usually get a narrative about the game mechanic. Of course, we are going to the Toy Fairs and the game conventions to get a background in this field.
Geek: What about your buying staff? Is this all just you, Ellen, or is there a team at work fueling this expansion?
Heaney Mizer: It was me up until two years ago, but now I have an associate level buyer, Allison, who helps with the day-to-day vendor relationship, setups, and all the correspondence relating to bringing the products into the distribution center and online. We do also have a buyer for educational toys and games, but as far as the adult games and puzzles, it’s just me and Allison.
Geek: Is there any sort of in-store promotion that goes along with these game releases?
Campisano: We participate in some of the national events such as Hasbro Family Game Night and National TV Turn-Off Week, but in general we supply inventory to stores, and they have community managers to gauge relevance and run more of these sorts of events.
Barnes & Noble has been quick to participate in national game promotions such as Hasbro's Family Game Night, but the company has yet to show a focused effort for using store space to promote game play. Perhaps the Play in Public campaign should drop them a line?
Heaney Mizer: We haven’t done much lately. In the past we did the game nights and let the stores sign up for it if they had staff, space, and interest. Our vendors would provide a full kit and some tchotchkes to give out to the players. In the big picture we have our website as a vehicle to provide some email blasts, but I have to say there isn’t a lot out there in the advertising regionally with the individual roll-outs and expansions that we are doing into games.
Geek: I know author readings and book signings are a common occurrence, but what about appearances by some game designers? Games are an industry where the name on the box matters can matter just as much as the author's name on a book cover, yet there are few opportunities for fans to interact with these designers. I think something like that would really draw the gaming geeks into the store and make them aware of B&N's expansion.
Campisano: We haven’t thought of that specifically, but it’s a great idea. I hope you don’t mind if I take it and run with it! We know a lot of the inductees to the toy hall of fame, and there are many game designers among them. The same way we feature some of our authors, we could feature these inventors.
Geek: These games have come a long way from Monopoly. Do the store employees receive any sort of formal training on games so that they are familiar with all of these new products?
Campisano: Yes, as part of our big roll-out we issued a training video and a brochure called “The Booksellers Reference Guide to Toys & Games” so we are absolutely doing our best to make sure that as we bring in this new merchandise, the staff is as knowledgeable. We are getting up to speed and I wouldn’t say every person on the floor has the same depth of knowledge, but at least one person in every store is an advocate for this.
Geek: One thing I've noticed with the selection a B&N is that there are the occassional exclusive board games. Tell me a bit more about your process for that. Is their a push to make games B&N exclusives, or do the companies come to you?
Campisano: It’s a little bit of both. We have inventors, who like to start out small and slow, holding the price point. Putting a game into the market takes tremendous dollars, but with a B&N exclusive, they seek this more cult-drive word of mouth hyperbolic kind of gameplay recommendation. People liken it to the case study of Cranium.
Heaney Mizer: That started many years ago with the Apples to Apples brand. When I started my quest in the “game zone” aisle at Toy Fair where all of the smaller vendors are, who may only have one or two games. That’s where I really started to pick up all the special items, and we still try to remain 80% specialty and 20% shared with the masses.
With that, we found more and more big vendors buying up all of the little guys, such as Mattel buying up Apples and Blokus, but when Apples first started with their original publisher, they came to us and said “look, we’re at a point where we really need to go mass” so we said how about creating a special version just for us and that’s where the Apple Crate came from. They were able to package all of their expansions and the original game into this really cool apple crate and we launched that as our exclusive.
The B&N exclusive games have had their share of successes, most notably the Apple Crate pictured above. A personal favorite is the drawing game Yamodo: Party Time [Review]
Campisano: Sometimes we have new games, for example Telestrations, which is a specialty game that is one of our top tier party games. We played it and loved it, but found out from the manufacturer that the board only allows for 4-6 players. The reality was that we had 12-15 players in our game review session. We have more fun that way, and recommended to the Telestrations team to do a party pack exclusive to us.
Geek: As we bring this to a close, I always like to ask about personal favorites. Are there any games that really sit at the top of your list?
Heaney Mizer: When I started, I had a favorite pretty much throughout, and that was Cranium. When Scene-it was launched I came out of Toy Fair with a “wow factor” over that, but then that got tired, and the next big “wow” moment was seeing Telestrations at Toy Fair Dallas. Party games tend to be my favorite as a social personality, but I do have favorites in each of the categories.
I'd like to thank Ellen and Kathleen for taking the time to chat with me, but most of all, for taking a chance in support of the hobby gaming industry. Board games are only fun if you have other people to play them with. Hopefully, Barnes & Noble will create new board game fans among a crowd that might otherwise never have been turned on to the hobby.