ENGAGEMENT (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Running a wargames company can be hard work. It'd be great if all you had to do was publish great games, and then folks would buy them, but of course that isn't quite that simple. Folks need to know that the game exists, and they need to know that the game is great. The million dollar question is, how do you let them know that? A lot of our time and effort is spent grappling with this question, and occasionally we'll do a bit of "opposition research": we'll poke around and see what other wargames companies are up to.

I came across one company a couple of weeks back that, to be charitable, seems to be doing it wrong. On the surface, they seem to be doing it right - they have a presence on Facebook and on Twitter, both of which are updated several times a day. Newsletters are frequent (perhaps to a fault). A tremendous amount of time and energy is being spent on sending out the signal several times and several ways throughout the day, screaming, "Here I am! We exist! Come buy our games! They're great!" And it's true that the more frequently that you send this stuff out, and the more forms it takes, the more likely it is that someone's going to see it.

WWII action flag

They'll see it, yes, but are they actually going to look at it? Are they going to click the link that comes with that tweet or post? Is that then going to turn into a purchase? And I'm of the opinion that it depends on the quality, not the quantity, of the content. And that's where this other publisher dropped the ball, I think. Every one of these tweets or posts told me almost nothing about the game: WW2 Combat action. Fast. Tactical. Fun. Or, Refight the Invasion of Sealand in 30 minutes or less. Just the kind of bare-bones stuff you'd find in a banner ad. In fact, the same little snippet of text, sometimes verbatim and sometimes barely changed, would be used and re-used several times over the course of a month, with the same photos.

And, you know, maybe this works for that publisher - after all, they're still in business. But none of that really made me want to plunk down thirty or forty or eighty bucks to grab one of their games. I do own a couple of their games, but it had nothing to do with their social media presence. It had to do instead with someone on BGG passionately recommending it.

You can tell folks that your games exist, and you can tell them that they're the greatest thing since sliced pineapple (and sliced pineapple is pretty great, because it makes it much easier to throw out that disgusting pineapple), but they're under no obligation to take your word for it. In fact, if the only person who's telling me how great your stuff is, is you, well, I'm going to take that with a bag of salt, and I don't think I'm alone in that.

The easiest, and most effective, way to sell your products is to get other people to sell them for you. Certainly our best-selling titles, An Infamous Traffic and Agricola, Master of Britain have both benefited tremendously from word-of-mouth, recommendations, reviews, being featured on podcasts, and popping up in geek-lists and forum threads. In the latter case, for example, every time someone asks "what are some great solo wargames?", someone will mention Agricola, and chances are we'll see one or two new sales that day. It's not just someone naming the game that does it, of course - it's someone going into detail about what they like about it. Or, if they don't, if all they do is name the game, it's someone using that recommendation to look closer at the game, at which point they'll find someone else going into detail. A lot of someones, in fact, and that gamer with thirty bucks burning a hole in his pocket says, "Hey, this looks pretty cool!"

So, the question becomes, not how many eyes can I get on my stuff, but, how many people can I get talking about my stuff? And how do you get them to do that? The game has to be great, of course, but it's not enough that the game be great, because if folks don't buy it in the first place, they can't talk it up enough for other folks to buy it. I think the game also needs to have some kind of presence or "buzz" before its release.

And again, that buzz isn't about posting the same pictures and blurbs over and over again. Because the problem with those blurbs is that it doesn't give anyone anything to respond to or to talk about. "WW2 Combat Action" isn't a conversation; it's not even a sentence.

The time that Mary and I spend not actually designing, developing, and prepping games for publication, we spend trying to start those conversations. Here on the blog, or on Facebook, or in forums on BGG and CSW, or even in our podcast, we try to provide interesting and engaging content that highlights what's cool about our games, and tries to give you as much information as possible about how they work and what they would bring to your table. We try to provide depth, maybe to the point that we get into the weeds a little. And on the surface that might hurt its ability to travel beyond its point of origin; things that go viral tend to be short, pithy, and ironic, easy to parse, easy to transmit, and 800 words about how heavy tanks provide column shifts that allow you to open holes in the enemy line but must take the first casualty, while light tanks are capable of exploitation movement - that's not exactly going to light the internet on fire.

But I think it's more likely to get an individual interested in the game; if they buy it and like it, maybe they'll recommend it to a friend. I think it's more likely to get a response from someone that's more meaningful than "kewl"; maybe someone will respond to that, and then someone else to that - for someone like me who cut his internet teeth on USENET groups, that's bread-and-butter. Maybe someone will share it on one of the various wargaming-related Facebook pages, and maybe it'll start a discussion there. The more meat on the bones, the more people can sink their teeth into it. The content matters, especially when you're dealing with a specialty niche like military history games. We are people who, after all, push little cardboard squares on sheets of paper, and grapple with (and appreciate) the implications of rule 16.3.2 sub-case a. We need a little more than a flash and sizzle to get us going.

Trying to come up with new meaningful content is tough work, and often exhausting, but also very rewarding. And the games where we have succeeded in doing this seem to be the games that do better during their initial release, which increases the chances that more people will talk about them subsequently, driving later sales. Releasing the rulebook at least a month ahead of publication yields better results than doing it a few days after; that book is going to give them a much clearer idea of what the game's about. I think the earlier release of Agricola's rulebook is what keyed folks into the cup adjustment mechanism that drives the game, as well as much of the discussion about the game. Some folks will even reach out to you with suggestions and questions about ambiguous rules, which allows you to correct them prior to publication, which is terrific! Having some kind of play example or AAR does wonders - I think the strong initial sales of Supply Lines of the American Revolution are due, at least in part, to the extended play example that was uploaded to BGG five weeks before the game was released, as well as the Facebook posts discussing some of the strategic and tactical considerations that come into play.

The great thing about having actual, meaningful engagement is that it compounds over time. People talk about games, people buy them, now those people are talking about them, and more people are buying them. And, of course, this extends across the whole line - people take more of a vested interest not just in this one specific game, but in other games you publish, and in you as a publisher. One-time customers turn into repeat customers; you get folks who will buy pretty much everything you put out - which, thank you, guys, it's very much appreciated!

Dinosaur Train

Of course, you can't just let it sit there. To keep growing your business, and to find new customers, you need to keep engaging - and while it gets easier to get people talking about your stuff as they continue to talk about your stuff, it still takes just as much work to come up with new, meaningful, and useful content. You can't rest on your laurels, or get lazy, or start using non-sentences like "Bear-riding robot cavalry supported by pteranodon archers, eight-sided dice" to describe a game, though actually never mind that's something I would pay real monies for with no other information, Mary put Charlemagne on hold, I have to work on this immediately.


  • It’s a niche within a niche until it isn’t any longer. Call me crazy, but the niche over the past decade is certainly defining itself larger. Maybe it was Twilight Struggle which set off the new interest in political-military simulations. Although the bones of PolMil have been around for a long, long while, only recently it seems that designers have taken up the mechanics to blaze away at new players. And new players are coming. This is a kind of “build it and they will come” kinda dealio. It won’t get built by fretting about niches within niches.

    Neal Durando

  • Wargames are a niche of a niche of a niche. When starting out in this industry, folks in this industry told me the best way to make a small fortune in the game industry is to start with a large one. And yet, ten years later we are still here, without a small or a large fortune just yet.

    Wargamers are also creatures of habit. Often very friendly creatures of habit. When one wargamer was looking at An Infamous Traffic at a show, he picked it up, read the blurb on the back then gave me a look that said “I thought you sold wargames, what is this?”. It had a countersheet, which makes it a wargame, but it also had cubes and no hexes, which makes it not a wargame. I could see the conflict within :-)

    Of course, it turns out AIT can be quite the wargame when currency replaces body count. What is of importance is that he heard about it from one of is wargaming buddies. Not bad considering Hollandspiele was not even on the scene for six months at the time.

    Some wargamers are completists. They can be completist for a certain period of history, a certain designer, or a certain company or a combination. While they may be more likely to purchase certain titles, completists want to know about a game before they buy it – they either look for it online or ask their wargamer friends. And it seems to me that wargamer friends are the ones whose words carry the most weight. Having sat behind the vendor table at many a con, I’ve had to work very hard sometimes to make a sale and other times, a wargamer comes in with a friend and says “this is the game I was telling you about, just buy it now, you’ll love it”.

    So blogs – important. Social media – important. But most important is how you start the word-of-mouth rolling on the game itself. Because what they say about it is more important than post counts mentioning the title on the internet,



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