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Interviews by an Optimist # 34 - Erik Arneson

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  • Tom Vasel
    Interviews by an Optimist # 34 - Erik Arneson Erik Arneson has been writing about board games for About.com since March 1999 (when About.com was known as The
    Message 1 of 1 , May 8, 2005
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      Interviews by an Optimist # 34 - Erik Arneson


      Erik Arneson has been writing about board games for About.com since
      March 1999 (when About.com was known as The Mining Co.). About two
      years ago, About.com merged its card games site into the board games
      site, so he now writes about both. It was announced on Feb. 17 that
      About.com, which receives 22 million unique visitors each month
      according to Nielsen // Net Ratings, will be purchased by The New York
      Times Co. for $410 million in cash. (It's currently owned by magazine
      publisher Primedia.) Once the acquisition is complete, the
      NYT/About.com will be the 12th largest entity
      on the Internet.)

      Erik is a lifelong game enthusiast, growing up on American classics
      like Scrabble, Monopoly and Clue. He mainly plays games with his wife
      Elizabeth, who runs About.com's bed and breakfasts site, and the rest
      of the Iron Valley Gamers, a loosely organized gaming group. By day,
      he serves as Chief of Staff to the Majority Leader in the Pennsylvania
      Senate, where he witnesses a political chess match nearly every day.
      He is a former newspaper reporter and former disc jockey. Erik
      graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia, where he majored in
      Radio-Television-Film -- but he thinks
      that he probably spent more hours playing Risk than he did studying.

      Tom: Does being chief in staff of a politician affect your enjoyment
      of political board games at all?

      Erik: Working in politics makes me appreciate good political board
      games -- like Die Macher and Quo Vadis? -- more, and it causes me to
      have less patience for bad ones.

      Another way the job impacts me is that I do a lot of negotiation at
      work, so it's fun to really cut loose on a negotiation game like I'm
      the Boss!, where I don't have to be so concerned about other people's
      feelings during the negotiations. I can't tell you how many times I
      wanted to use an "I'm the Boss" card at work to reset negotiations
      with me in charge. And with I'm the Boss!, you can hose people right
      out in the open. You usually have to be more subtle about it in
      politics.

      Tom: Your job seems like it would be quite time consuming. How do
      you find time to play games?

      Erik: I don't get to play games nearly as much as I'd like to, and I'm
      very jealous of people with strong weekly gaming groups! (Last year I
      did manage to play 139 unique games a total of 356 times, about 50-50
      online vs. face-to-face.) Most of my gaming gets done on weekends.
      Beth and I recently hosted "The Day Before Super Bowl Sunday Game Day"
      and had some friends over including Thor Samuelson and his kids; Thor
      runs the online store Game Surplus with his wife Sarah. That was great
      fun, so now I'm planning "The Saturday Before Memorial Day Game Day"
      for May. In March, we're filling up a local bed and breakfast with
      gaming friends for two weekends (the inn has five rooms), so that will
      be a ton of fun. We also try to go to a couple of nice gaming events
      each year, such as The Gathering of Friends.

      My boss is a Republican, and when we had a Republican governor (we
      have a Democrat now) I had more free time. So anyone who lives in
      Pennsylvania and wants to help a fellow gamer have time to play more
      games, please vote Republican in 2006!

      Tom: Can you tell us a bit about your work with www.about.com? How
      did you start working there, and what exactly does the job consist of?

      Erik: Beth and I applied to write about bed and breakfasts for The
      Mining Co. in 1997 after reading about the web site in an email
      newsletter. After about two years, I decided to apply for a separate
      site, and fortunately (very fortunately!) board games were available.
      Just as fortunately, the company accepted my application. Not terribly
      long after I started writing about board games, the company changed
      its name to About.com.

      Basically, my job is to write about board games and card games.
      Although I have a lot of editorial freedom, within a general
      framework, I do work with About's editorial staff in New York City. I
      do my best to keep the site updated with what users seem to want.
      Which right now includes a lot of material about Poker.

      Tom: To whom is the website geared towards? Or should I say, what
      kind of gamers make up your primary audience?

      Erik: The front page of my site is essentially a blog, complete with
      RSS feed for anyone who wants to subscribe
      (http://z.about.com/6/g/boardgames/b/index.xml).

      You can always see the most popular and "hottest" features on my site
      by looking at some of the boxes on the right hand side of the page.
      For most of the past year, Poker features have filled four out of the
      top five most popular slots. The fifth is usually something about
      Monopoly. The "what's hot" box often surprises me, but generally is
      filled with the most recent features.

      Since so many people find the site while searching Google for the
      classics -- Poker, Monopoly, Risk, etc. -- I've tried to make it a
      bridge for people who like games but don't have any idea how many
      great games are available.

      So if you come looking for Monopoly information, hopefully you'll also
      see information about Acquire or Modern Art. If you come in looking
      for a new trivia game, maybe you'll read the review of Smarty Party.
      Usually, I don't write a lot about the deeper designer games -- other
      people do that very well. But games like Ticket to Ride, HeroScape,
      San Juan... those hit my sweet spot. Games that can be commonly
      enjoyed in a family setting.

      One example of how this plays itself out in practical terms is that
      I've started doing two year-end best of lists: for example, The Best
      Games of 2004, and The Best Mass Market Games of 2004. I want to
      highlight games that my site's readers can find and enjoy. And a lot
      of my readers have no idea what a "German game" or a "designer game"
      is. Since I can't walk them through a tutorial (although there is an
      "introduction to designer games"
      feature on my site), I try to get them interested by placing the games
      side by side, so to speak.

      All that said, I certainly hope that some fans of designer games find
      some of my content entertaining and/or informative!

      Tom: How much interest does your site generate from board game
      companies? If I recall correctly, you had information on Heroscape
      expansions before anyone else. Do these companies send you updates?

      Erik: I have good relationships with a lot of game companies, but not
      as many as my friend Rick Thornquist at Gamewire! Seriously, I don't
      focus as much on release dates and future releases as Rick does, and
      his site is by far the number one place to go for that information.

      But game publishers are very good about sending information. Of
      course, it's in their best interest to have their information seen by
      as many people as possible.

      I do know that many publishers read About.com Board/Card Games -- or
      subscribe to the RSS feed -- because I often get a little thank you
      note when something is added to the site.

      Tom: So it's safe to call your site almost a "gateway" site for those
      who've only had mass market gaming exposure? How many hits do you get
      a month?

      Erik: I think the term "gateway site" is an accurate description, yes.
      I hope that readers leave the site having seen something about at
      least one interesting game they didn't know about before. But if
      people only want to learn the basics of Poker, or see where they can
      play Monopoly online, that's fine too.

      Unfortunately, my contract with About.com prevents me from discussing
      site-specific traffic numbers. The About.com network as a whole gets
      more than 20 million unique visitors each month, and obviously those
      visitors tend to visit more than one page. There are about 475 people
      who write for About.com, covering everything from board games to
      woodworking to European history to financial planning to animation.

      Tom: Since you are a "gateway" site, what are some of the best
      "gateway" games that you've seen produced in the past couple of years?

      Erik: Ticket to Ride stands out. Carcassonne is a masterful gateway
      game. High Society is also excellent. I've played Cartagena,
      Elfenland, Tikal and Settlers of Catan with newbies to great success.
      Mass Market games like Star Wars Epic Duels and HeroScape also qualify
      as excellent gateway games in my view, as does just about anything
      published by Out of the Box.

      I could list dozens more games, but it really depends to a large
      extent on how the game will be introduced, and to whom. If it's a game
      you're buying for someone who you'd expect to open it and play it on
      their own without you, something like Settlers becomes much less of a
      gateway game (and Carcassonne might be a much better choice). But if
      you're teaching it, Settlers can work beautifully in this regard.

      Tom: You play a lot more "mainstream" games than most serious gamers.
      Are there any good "mainstream" games that gamers would enjoy?

      Erik: Sure. Not every serious gamer will enjoy every game -- and there
      are a lot of "mainstream" games that are sub-par -- but some good
      choices would be HeroScape, Star Wars Epic Duels, BattleBall, Break
      the Safe, Spite & Malice, the Lemony Snicket Perilous Parlour Game,
      Blokus, and Linq.

      The trend is very positive, in my estimation.

      The Hasbro design team is working very hard to incorporate really
      solid gameplay into even their licensed games, and one of the game
      designers for Mattel attends The Gathering of Friends.

      This year at American International Toy Fair, Reiner Knizia's name was
      on games being published by several "mainstream" companies, including
      Gamewright. (Ultra-mainstream Gamewright has already been introducing
      designer games like Land Unter and Solches Strolche to
      English-speaking audiences.) Based on the success they've seen with
      Blokus, the company Educational Insights is introducing a series of
      new games -- and most of them looked pretty interesting to me.

      The line between designer games and mainstream games, if that's the
      best way to divide them, is getting more blurry each year. And I think
      that's a good thing overall.

      Tom: Are there any games that get a bad "rap" unfairly in your opinion?

      Erik: That's hard to say because it depends entirely on the subjective
      adverb "unfairly." Certainly, some games I like are disliked by other
      players, and I don't always understand why. Of course, I dislike some
      games that others love. But the fact that not everyone likes the same
      kind of games is part of what makes the world work.

      That said, I do think that words like "broken" and "unbalanced" are
      thrown around more casually than they should be when describing games.

      Tom: Many gamers are constantly vocally hoping that what they call
      "TGOO" (these games of ours) will make it into the mass market - like
      on Toys 'R Us shelves. Do you foresee this happening in the future?

      Erik: Only in limited cases. And I don't think it should be a goal
      that game publishers spend too much money or effort striving for. Just
      putting a game on the shelves in a popular store won't make it sell.
      It needs to be able to attract casual gamers, and it needs sufficient
      marketing support.

      The cost of publishing 1,000,000 copies of a game is much higher
      (obviously) than the cost of publishing 10,000 or 100,000. And few of
      the companies that publish designer games have the kind of capital you
      need to do that with any kind of regularity -- I believe that one
      1,000,000-copy failure would sink a lot of the companies we love.

      Another point: I've been told that Wal-Mart accounts for about 40
      percent of Hasbro's sales right now. Published reports indicate that
      more than 20 percent of all U.S. toy and game sales take place in
      Wal-Mart. If that's accurate, it's not good for Hasbro or the overall
      industry -- it gives too much leverage to a single retailer.

      Smaller publishers don't have the benefit of having their games sold
      in Wal-Mart, but they also don't have the problems. People will still
      find good products that aren't carried in Wal-Mart. And the profit
      margins in Wal-Mart are much smaller for game publishers than they are
      in other stores, especially with the charge-backs and other hidden
      requirements imposed by the big box retailer.

      I don't mean to sound anti-Wal-Mart. If people want to shop there,
      that's their business.

      But the reality for a small or mid-size game publisher is that getting
      their games in that store could very well be the cause of the
      company's eventual downfall. All that glitters is not gold.

      Tom: What do you think about the online games stores vs. "brick and
      mortar" stores debate?

      Erik: There will always be a place for good bricks-and-mortar stores,
      and there will always be a place for good online stores. There's a
      decent store about 25 minutes from my house, and I try to stop in a
      couple of times a year to buy a game or two. Whenever I'm in
      Pittsburgh, I try to visit the great Games Unlimited store. But most
      of my purchases are online, and I suspect they always will be.

      Tom: For people who've never been to your site, can you give us some
      of the highlights of visiting it?

      Sure. Here are some of my favorite sections.

      Games Timeline (the 50 most significant games since 1800):
      http://boardgames.about.com/cs/gamehistories/a/timeline.htm

      Top 10 and Top 5 Lists:
      http://boardgames.about.com/od/toppicks/

      Game Reviews:
      http://boardgames.about.com/od/azreviews/

      Free Games:
      http://boardgames.about.com/od/freeboardcardgames/

      Poker:
      http://boardgames.about.com/od/poker/

      Locating Hard-to-Find Games:
      http://boardgames.about.com/od/findinggames/

      Free Email Newsletter and Email Courses:
      http://boardgames.about.com/gi/pages/mmail.htm

      Tom: What other sites on the internet would you recommend?

      Erik: Well, I use Bloglines.com to keep up with just about all the
      game-related RSS feeds listed here:
      http://boardgames.about.com/cs/newspublications/a/rss_feeds.htm

      In addition to the standards of Boardgamegeek.com and Rick
      Thornquist's Gamewire, my favorite game sites include:

      The Games Journal
      http://www.thegamesjournal.com/

      Game Central Station (the work done on the five and dime lists is tremendous)
      http://www.theswitchingyard.com/

      As for online retailers, I like Funagain but most often buy from two
      located in my home state of Pennsylvania:

      Game Surplus
      http://www.gamesurplus.com/

      Games Unlimited
      http://www.bgamers.com/gamesunl.htm

      Tom: Do you think that the online community is helping board games as
      a whole? Does this community have any disadvantages?

      Erik: Definitely helping, in a very big way.

      I see two downsides. First, some games get examined beyond the point
      of reasonableness, with every minor problem getting blown out of
      proportion. Second, it can be hard for casual gamers and new gamers
      to feel comfortable in established online communities.

      By the way, both of the downsides are really extensions of good points
      -- it's great that game reviews and session reports are so widely
      available, and the communities (like Spielfrieks and BoardGameGeek)
      are thriving.

      Tom: How can experienced games help new gamers feel more comfortable
      in established online communities?

      Erik: That's a great question. Because a large part of the problem is
      something that I don't think should be changed -- the volume of
      information. But the other part of the problem is the negativity that
      permeates too many discussions. I know that I've left more than one
      non-game discussion group because so many of the discussions were
      negative.

      There's so much that's positive about our hobby -- we're living in the
      greatest time ever to play board games and card games. It would be
      nice to see more discussions that sort of keep that underlying fact as
      a premise. (That's not very artfully phrased, and I doubt it gets
      across what I'm trying to say -- I'm really just talking about the
      tone and attitude of discussions.) I think this would help newcomers
      feel comfortable and get excited about participating in established
      online communities.

      Tom: What factors do you think play the part in most "ordinary" folks
      buying games? How much an impact do you think sites like yours make?

      Erik: Let's assume that by "ordinary" we're talking about people who
      own a couple dozen games, certainly less than 50, and who don't spend
      a lot of time reading game-related online forums. I believe that
      people like that buy games based on the theme, the box art, and
      recommendations from friends.

      Web sites can help, though. If someone wants to find out if Clue Jr.
      is any good, and they type it into Google, my site (at least as I type
      this) comes up as the second link. Theoretically, they click on that
      link and read the review. Then at the end of the review, they might
      click on "Best Mystery Games" which will lead to a page that includes
      mini-reviews of Top Secret Spies and Mystery of the Abbey, among
      others. Making connections like this is one way I try to use my site
      to introduce casual gamers to games they might not find otherwise.

      Tom: As someone who writes reviews, I'm sure that you get at least
      some review copies of games. How hard is it to be objective about a
      game you've received for free?

      Erik: It's not hard at all. I studied journalism in college (my major
      was radio-television-film, but I think I was just a class or two away
      from an official minor in journalism) and my first full-time job was
      writing for a daily newspaper, so journalistic ethics have been ground
      into my brain.

      Additionally, I've been writing reviews for more than 15 years --
      music, books, CD-ROMs, and now board and card games. I worked at a
      small magazine where music publishers actually pulled advertising
      because we printed a negative review of one of their albums. At a
      small magazine, every advertising dollar counts -- but if you don't
      tell the truth, you lose credibility with your readers. The editor and
      publisher of that magazine, Notebored, taught me a lot about review
      journalism.

      My typical approach is to publish reviews of games I like and ignore
      those I don't, but more than one game publisher has stopped sending me
      review copies based on things I've written that they didn't like.
      That's OK -- I buy plenty of games anyway, and there are always more
      published than any one person can possibly review. Well, except you!

      One thing I try not to do is publish negative reviews of games
      published by one-game companies. Typically, my readers won't run
      across those games anyway -- and people have often mortgaged their
      house to pay for the publication -- so I don't see any point in making
      it worse for them.

      Tom: What are your thoughts on these "one-game" companies? Is it
      worth it for people to self-produce their own games?

      Erik: Usually, no. But I saw several companies at Toy Fair this year
      who were one-game companies three or four years ago and now have two,
      three, four games published and seem to be doing just fine. I think
      two keys are how well you're capitalized, and that you take a
      conservative approach. Don't mortgage your house to publish a game!

      Publishing games is like driving -- everyone thinks they're an expert.
      Here's the dangerous thought process: "Oh, I have a game that is *so*
      much better than (fill in the blank with a best-selling game). We
      should publish it and make millions."

      Well, maybe your game really is better than (fill in the blank). But
      probably not. And it's also probably very similar to a game that's
      already on the market. And...

      People just don't think it through, they don't do research, they don't
      do blind playtesting. They love their game, and they get blinded by
      the praise of their family and friends. They think it will be easy to
      publish 5,000 or 25,000 copies of a game and sell it. Alas, they're
      wrong.

      I'd advise anyone who wants to publish their own game to do several
      things, including: (1) Join the BoardGameDesign Yahoo Group; (2) Join
      the Board Game Designers Forum; (3) Join DiscoverGames.com; (4) Use
      those forums to ask people who have already done it a *lot* of
      questions; and (5) Wait at least a year after you decide that you want
      to publish your own game to actually do it. Number five is on there to
      serve as a cooling-off period. A year later, if you don't have the
      same enthusiasm, forget it. Either enjoy the game with your family and
      friends, or try to sell it to an established company.

      Tom: Thanks for all your insights, Erik. Any final words for our readers?

      Erik: Just to enjoy this era in board games and card games as much as
      possible -- the past 10 years have, in my view, been the best decade
      ever for gamers, both casual and serious.

      And thanks for the interview -- it was fun. I've enjoyed reading your
      other interviews very much. Keep up the good work!


      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games."
      May, 2005
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