Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Meditation on a Visit to a Game Store

Last Sunday I stopped at Game Empire in Pasadena.

First, let me say that Game Empire is what other gaming stores should aspire to be. The retail space is well-stocked but not unnecessarily cluttered. They have current games and an out-of-print section. There are board games - including a wall of games recommended on Board Game Geek - and roleplaying games and puzzles and dice. There are miniatures and paints. The vast play area has miniatures terrain for use by visiting gamers. The staff member was helpful and knowledgeable. It's a beautiful store.

But as I thumbed through books and studied boxes, I was struck by something I hadn't really noticed so obviously before: trade dress is more important than content.

I looked at Bruges, and was struck by how much it reminded me of a dozen other resource management and strategy games, such as Doge, which I already own. Change the tokens, the cards, and the nominal setting and Bruges could be set in Antwerp or a dozen other cities as easily as Doge could be set in Livorno or Amsterdam or anyplace else with canals. Most of the games weren't about anything but rules of incredible sameness, and the trade dress of pirates and merchanters or Renaissance traders or whatever existed solely as window dressing.

On top of a book case full of Warhammer 40K books sat a copy of Avalon Hill's Starship Troopers, still in the shrink wrap - and only twenty-five bucks?! that's crazy cheap! All of the minis and army books and terrain and the meticulous and relentless art direction, just to offer the same bughunts as the board-game-in-a-box on top of the bookcase. In the future, there is only trade dress once again.

I flipped through FATE Core System. Talk about a game I really wanted to like but could never quite embrace. The core book reminded me why. Why are 'basic' roleplaying games so bloody involved? I've been playing for the better part of more than thirty-five years now, and if I'd had to read a rule book that big to start, I'd never've given up wargames. That point was reinforced when I got to our game later that day, and I pulled out my printed-out .pdfs for Flashing Blades - the core rules, the piracy supplement, and three adventures, all of which fit together in a term paper report cover. Our hobby is dominated by designers writing for existing gamers, and if this is supposed to attract new gamers, there's some serious delusion going on.

In the end, I bought some beautiful dice - two twenty-siders, two six-siders - the only products in that terrific store for which I had an actual use.


  1. I walk to that store from my house about once every week or so, and used to visit them in their old (inferior) location as well.

    Best part of the new place, which is awesome by itself, is that it's across the street from a great pub with over 50 beers on tap!

    I had no idea we were so close by to each other!

    1. I'm actually down in Long Beach, but one of the guys in my gaming group is in Pasadena.

  2. One of my board gaming buddies described Reinier Knizia and his disciples/imitators' games as "colors, numbers, and some theme that will attract players but is totally unnecessary."

    1. I've never understood the hate that Reinier Knizia and similar games get from people. Those games are about the mechanics, yes, but they're board games. They're not meant to be role-playing games. Nobody gets upset at games like Chess or Poker because they don't have "themes." So these types of board games add a theme, and then people complain that the theme doesn't "match" the rules. I'm not sure I get that.

      My buddy Wil is all about "theme" games and will gladly play a game with a great theme but really horrible mechanics (Munchkin comes to mind - that game is terrible but people seem to love it because of the "theme").

      I'd much rather have a game that challenges my brain, helps me to think differently and keeps me on my toes as I try to keep track of my resources, my tokens, my money available for bidding, what cards I need to get from the draw, etc. (Tribune, a totally awesome game, comes to mind) rather than play a myriad assortment of other games with horrible (or minimal) mechanics just because it has a cool theme.

      Of course, to each his own. :)

    2. A lot of other games do "theme" very well in my experience; I'm thinking of a number of the old Avalon Hill games I played back in the day.

      I don't think anyone expects theme from poker or chess - thou gh consider how many themed sets of pieces one can choose from. I think, rather, that the tokens/cards/bidding game with a theme tacked on turns out to be repetitive; owning Doge, I honestly can't see much reason to shell out for Bruges.

      There's nothing wrong with the games themselves, but there's also no real reason to buy more than a couple of them, in my experience.

  3. Wow, Game Empire has really expanded from the days it was the humble old Game Zone! Good for them.

    It's interesting--yours is the third post I've read today lamenting the tome-like size and overproduction of contemporary RPGs. I see this excess as similar to the current CGI excesses of Hollywood. In both cases, we have industries where people seem to be more interested in what they can do than what they should do. Strangely, this line of thinking only seems to produce a sort of bloated sameness, regardless of the medium.

    I really do hope (again, in both cases) that things find the middle ground again. In the case of RPGs, there's room for thick, heavy hardbacks with gorgeous art and layout, sure, but there do need to be more accessible games, and more room for idiosyncratic game design. Here's hoping...

    1. Oh my goodness - Game Zone was awful! It was dark, dirty, and carried the gamer funk of a thousand years that you couldn't get rid of. I have books I purchased there that still smell of stale Cheetos, Mountain Dew, and desperation.

      Pretty much the only thing I liked about Game Zone was that it was so disorganized that you could treat it like an Indiana Jones expedition every time you went. It was truly possible that you might uncover an ancient RPG treasure buried underneath a new pile of D20 books. I once found an entire Bushido games from Game Designer's Workshop in there buried under an avalanche of crap. Unfortunately it was in such horrible shape that I couldn't bring myself to buy it.

    2. Yeah, the "treasure hunt" element was always interesting. I remember they still had Rifts miniatures for sale in the mid-2000s. And I bought a set of someone's home-cast, pirated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles miniatures there, too. I'm still not sure how they managed to have so much crap piled up in such a small space.

      And the funk! I used to park in the back lot and come in via the shared LAN/gaming space. This was during the height of EverCrack. It was like having to enter the store through an opium den. The way they had it set up, the would-be customer had to twist and bend just to get through the bank of MMO zombies. I swear, one time I somehow stepped on someone's roll of back fat that was spilling off their chair. Still not sure how that happened...


  4. That looks like a really cool store -- and what a funky facade. The only game store in my backwater town burnt to the ground earlier this year :-((

    Our hobby is dominated by designers writing for existing gamers.

    I agree! It's a shame, because some of my most memorable sessions have been with non-gamers.

  5. Grrr.... in Pasadena and no phone call? I am not far from the Empire...
    I go to another place for game stuff in Burbank because the staff and owner are downright hostile to my preferred system.

    1. We played later than I planned or I'd've rung you up. If we play up there again, would you be interested in sitting in for the day?

  6. Didn't know it was a chain. The one here in San Diego is good. I pretty much just go to the used game section in the back. Found many gems there.


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