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Rotation and Tabletop Economics

Wednesday was a big day in the world of tabletop gaming. While in the UK we were having bonfires around the country, in Roseville, Minnesota Fantasy Flight Games announced a bonfire of the Living Card Games. Well, a light singeing at any rate. To any non-tabletop gamer, and indeed any non-LCgamer, this will probably mean absolutely nothing. But it’s an interesting response to a growing problem which the fans of these games have recognised for a long time.

Ever since I worked in a comic shop in the early nineties during the speculator boom (and arguably going back to when Games Workshop decided to change their business model in the late 80s and alienate fans like myself), I’ve always had an interest in how economics impacts on hobbyist interests. Tabletop gaming is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with convention visitor numbers up, the number of games exploding, and games starting to enter mainstream consciousness. To what degree this period of growth will be sustainable in the long term is an interesting moot point, and there have been a lot of busts in the past. Reading the excellent four volume Designers & Dragons as I did recently, it was made painfully clear how vulnerable tabletop gaming – in that case RPGs – are to such cycles, and the severe consequences when the industry takes a dive. Fantasy Flight Games in particular appear to be on a high right now – they more or less owned Gen Con this year with a succession of announcements which had their fans – especially Star Wars gamers – frothing at the mouth. Past experience suggests that at some point someone is going to make a big mistake and for this to all come crashing down around our ears. The question is, when?

I don’t want to suggest in any way that Fantasy Flight’s announcement on Wednesday is an early warning that that crash is imminent; quite the opposite. In fact it’s a sign of something I’ve felt for a while, which is that FFG are a generally very cautious and sensible company that is all too aware of the risks inherent in the industry.

CCGs and LCGs

First of all, a bit of terminology. Living Card Games is a trademark of FFG which they use to describe their customisable card games and the business model they use to market them. The model itself is now being adapted by other companies as a sign of its success. Customisable card game may require a little more explanation for people not familiar with the concept.

Most people will know what a card game is, whether its poker or Uno. The most significant thing that makes customisable card games different is that the players have their own decks of cards which are kept entirely separate from their opponent’s. What’s more, while a standard deck of cards might be finite – 13 cards for each suit plus one or two jokers – the different cards that might appear in a customisable deck is potentially infinite. Before the game itself, players will “build decks” by selecting cards from a pool of cards that they own. They can customise their decks however they like, as long as they stick to certain restrictions laid out in the rules of play.

The difference between a Collectable Card Game and a Living Card Game is how players acquire that pool. The first customisable card game – and the first Collectable Card Game – was Magic the Gathering. This game and its hundreds of imitators sold players cards in the form of starter decks and booster packs. The business model was essentially cribbed from trading cards (or football stickers, cigarette cards or bubblegum cards depending on what you’re more familiar with): the cards came in randomised packs, with some cards especially rare and hard to find. If you want a full set, you would need to buy many thousands of cards (seriously; I recently acquired a bunch of retail packs of a long out of print CCG called On the Edge. I’ve ploughed through two boxes – 1,800 cards – and still don’t have close to a full set of the basic 270 cards).

The Magic the Gathering CCG model was wildly successful in the mid-90s until it all came crashing down, taking retailers, distributors and publishers with it. Since then, Magic itself has remained a strong contender and a number of companies continue to do good business that way, but the mania that surrounded it has died down. Fundamentally, there are people who hate it as a model and won’t go anywhere near it. Even Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic, have recognised this and increasingly sell pre-made decks for more casual players.

Fantasy Flight dipped their toes into the CCG business but in 2008 decided to switch to the LCG format. In their business model, there are no randomised packs (let’s park discussion about draft play for now). Instead, they sell core sets, boxed expansions and cycles of smaller packs of cards, all of which contain exactly the same cards. What LCGs lose by abandoning the random factor they gain in an increased focus on optimising decks and keeping up with the “meta” (the groupthink of the player base in which certain cards and strategems fall in and out of favour as more cards are published).

Rotation

The LCG model has been extremely successful for Fantasy Flight. Beginning by reformatting their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs to the new model, they currently publish six games – including the wildly popular Netrunner – and retired a seventh earlier this year. The announcement they made on Wednesday is in response to that success.

The one thing FFG are good at doing is supporting their successful games, and that means expansions. For their more traditional board and card games, that’s relatively straightforward: sell a game, offer players the options of expansions and they can pick and choose what they want depending on their enthusiasm. The prevalence of expansions aren’t a huge barrier to entry for board games; they give you more variety and options but since all players are playing with the same set, there’s no competitive need to buy expansions.

LCGs are different. If you don’t buy all the cards, you have a competitive disadvantage to the players who do. At least, in theory; skill and practice is a generally a far bigger factor. Nonetheless, that drive for completion is real. Right now, completing the Game of Thrones card game means acquiring the core set, six boxed expansions, and 72 smaller packs. Each of those smaller packs will set you back a tenner, meaning that if you want to buy everything available right now, you will end up spending just shy of £900. The other games are less extreme, but by the end of this year, relative newcomer Netrunner will consist of a core set, three boxed expansions and 18 smaller packs, costing just under £300. That isn’t just a challenge for players; that’s a challenge for retailers who only have so much shelf and storage space.

There’s also another problem, and a different economics. Fundamentally, the more cards in the pool, the smaller an impact each additional card will make. This is mitigated by FFG deliberately taking note of and attempting to disrupt the aforementioned meta from time to time. Thus, if they spot that a specific card is being used in all the winning championship decks, they will set themselves the task of coming up with a new card that will weaken the power of the old one. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of LCGs, which is that play in the real world has a direct impact on future releases. But over time, their ability to keep evolving the game in that way becomes increasingly limited as more and more options become available to players. At that point, the theory goes at least, the game will become less exciting; it will no longer be “living”.

I haven’t ever played the Game of Thrones LCG for precisely the prohibitive entry restrictions that I outlined above, but I understand that the problems with the metagame outlined above have become acute with that game. Rather than try to fudge it, FFG have opted instead to simply bring out a new edition of the game and be done with it. For the other games however, they have decided to introduce a new system called rotation. What that amounts to is the smaller packs over time being declared not tournament legal and falling out of print.

The most interesting thing about all this to me is how modest a change this new policy amounts to. Because rotation will only kick in when a game reaches its eighth “cycle” (a cycle is a set of six thematically linked packs), at which point the first two cycles will be taken out of circulation. With FFG pumping out slightly less than two cycles a year for each LCG, that means that cards will have a tournament life of around four years. Contrast that with Magic the Gathering, which I understand has a rotation cycle of roughly 18 months.

The total tournament legal card pool will remain huge. For us Netrunner players, we still have five and a half cycles to look forward to before our cards start becoming obsolete and I personally can’t even visualise what a card pool that large will look like. It isn’t obvious to me how this will especially lower the barrier of entry for new players, although I suppose it will at least encourage them to invest in the newer cycles and box sets and not bother with the older ones which have less tournament life in them.

I suspect, also, that in reality a game will have to be doing extremely well to actually reach the stage when a cycle is rotated out. Hidden amongst all the announcements on Wednesday is the news that rotation won’t actually affect the Call of Cthulhu LCG because they won’t be producing any new cycles for it; it’s a complete game. The same has already effectively happened with Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game and thus players don’t have to worry about tournaments. It is by no means certain that the other LCGs – Netrunner, Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – will survive long enough.

The Future

I presume that Fantasy Flight wrestled over this a lot before settling on a change that will have such a modest impact. While I don’t think it is a backwards step, I do think they have hedged too much to avoid alienating the existing fanbase. For all its flaws, Magic the Gathering offers far more frequent jumping on points for new players, which explains its longevity (20 years and counting). I suspect that once the concept of rotation has bedded down, they will tweak it more in favour of bringing in new players.

What’s fascinating is seeing a tabletop games company explicitly planning over a period of five years. This represents a level of maturity generally unheard in the industry. The business plan of most games companies seems to be: produce a new game on a regular basis and, if it’s a hit, rush out a series of expansions and spin offs until the cashcow has been squeezed dry. To be fair, an increasing number of companies seem to plan their release schedule 1-2 years ahead, but Fantasy Flight seem to have a bigger picture in mind. And it seems to be working for them.

You can especially see this in their Star Wars game range. They’re currently supporting 8 Star Wars games (counting the three RPGs separately despite their compatibility), and it’s clear that they’ve had quite a far sighted release schedule in mind. With the new films on the horizon, it’s increasingly looking as if their game ranges will be maturing at exactly the right moment; a completely unprecedented bit of marketing synergy (if you can pardon the expression).

The million dollar question is, how much is too much expansion? LCGs, while apparently cheaper than CCGs, expect their players to sink around £170 into the game every year, and rotation won’t change that. The X-Wing miniatures game, while allowing for more specialisation (i.e. in LCGs, you have to buy all the different “factions” which are available to play in the packs; in a game like X-Wing you can focus on a single faction or even a handful of specific ships), costs even more to buy the entire range, and that is about to be joined by two more miniatures games this winter. If enough players suddenly snap and stop buying product, these games could suddenly see sales plummet. It hasn’t happened yet in this case, but there are past precedents (such as RPGs in the early 80s).

Fantasy Flight themselves appear to be quite mindful of that, and produce games in modest print runs. What’s mildly irritating to us consumers in terms of product being out of stock all the time, makes perfect sense for them. But the downside of this approach is cost. This was drilled home to me when I attended the giant Spiel convention in Essen this year, where you can buy German board games intended for the high street for literally half the equivalent US games typically cost. The former is produced in print runs of 500,000+ while the latter is frequently produced at runs lower than 5,000. The reason FFG charge £12 for a pack of 60 cards is because they don’t want to be left sitting on thousands of unsellable packs and come unstuck in the way that so many of their predecessors have done.

I’ve already heard grumblings about how much better value AEG’s new Doomtown Reloaded customisable card game compared to its Fantasy Flight equivalents. The reason is simple: AEG are looking to break into the market and only have one game to support: they have both the capacity and the incentive to undercut FFG. As FFG grow, an increasing number of their competitors must be making the same calculation. And while I think FFG are too cautious to create a boom (and AEG are a veteran company – this is not their first rodeo), I’m not so sure about everyone else. That’s a cause for some concern.

This year, the US gaming convention Gen Con is believed to have eclipsed the German Spiel for the first time in terms of attendance figures. Even here in the UK, Games Expo has been enjoying exponential growth over the last few years (of course, these conventions are still tiny compared to the largest computer game cons). It very much looks as if we’re on the cusp of a boom. We’ll almost certainly see a market contraction at some point; the question is when, and by how much. In the worst case scenario, this could see high street gaming stores – already in long term decline – obliterated. But if the lessons of the past can be learned, the overall impact – with the rise of board game cafés and mainstream consciousness – could still be positive. FFG’s announcement on Wednesday suggests to me that at least one company is very mindful of the risks and rewards at stake.