Tuesday, 9 November 2010

interview with an online game retailer

CK Au (@ Jeff @ jack208) is one of the owners of boardgamecafe.net (BGC) (Facebook page here, blog here, online store here), and the guy who started the regular open-to-public gaming sessions at Old Town Kopitiam (OTK) Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, which is near where I live. I had known about this OTK group for quite some time, but first joined them to play only in September 2009. CK runs an online boardgame store serving Malaysia, and I thought it would be interesting to interview him about what it's like running a boardgame business.

Warning: This is the probably the longest post in the history of this blog (3+ years, 350+ posts).

Note: Photos are courtesy of BGC.


    CK the gamer

  1. How long have you been gaming and how did you get into the hobby? What were the games that hooked you?
  2. July 2005 was when I discovered the more recent Eurogames, and my first game was A Game of Thrones, and interestingly my 2nd game was War of the Ring. In fact it was not until early 2006 that I actually learned how to play The Settlers of Catan.

    If we are to look at when I actually started boardgaming, that has to be many years ago when I was still a student, with the usual Parkers Brothers stuff like Risk, Totopoly, Formula One, Buccaneer etc., then moving on to Rail Barons, Acquire, Diplomacy and a couple of Avalon Hill wargames like Afrika Korps and Battle of the Bulge. That was also the time when I was very involved with Subbuteo, a tabletop football (soccer) game which I am still hoping to revive.

    Work and business took over most of my time then and I had kinda “forgotten” about boardgaming until I rediscovered Eurogames in 2005. And I’m glad I did!

  3. Did your taste in games change over time?
  4. No, not really. I suppose I am and have always been a “board” person and as such didn’t really get into Collectible Card Games (CCG's) or miniatures. Another branch of games that I like but have not really been able to spend much time on is hex-based wargames such as Afrika Korps, Victory in the Pacific, and the more recent Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) Starter Kits.

  5. What are your top 5 games (or game systems) now?
  6. 18XX games certainly has to sit right at the top. :-) Within this game system, 1856 would be my top game, with 1830 being a close second and 18EU the third. I have 1841v2 but I have not yet had the chance to play it. I suspect it’ll feature somewhere among my top 18XX games.

    1856

    Diplomacy takes my 2nd vote. A confrontational game where no one player can win without the help of the other player(s) but since there can only be one winner, everyone is just watching out for the inevitable “knife”. When playing this game, we should heed Oscar Wilde’s quote, “True friends stab you in the front.”

    The Werewolf (or Mafia) game system is my top choice for social games. My preferred game for this would be Lupus in Tabula as I feel the special characters from this set are the most balanced. This is not a game system where the players can optimise and strategise to win. It’s a system where players are pit against one another and you literally have to lie out of your skin in order to outwit your opponents.

    Let me share an interesting story on a Werewolf session. There was this gamer – he’s an OTK regular but I shall not name him (grin) – who is so honest that he cannot even bring himself to lie in a game. In that session, he drew the werewolf card. During the day session when we were all discussing who’s a suspect wolf, I sensed him fidgeting. I immediately asked him point blank, “Are you a werewolf?”

    I mean, the only answer to this would have to be a fast and firm “NO!”. But instead he tried evasively to get out from having to answer that question!! He was lynched that day!! LOL. I find this game to be deliciously wicked!!

    ASL – in particular the Starter Kit series – would be my next choice. I know I do not play enough of this game system to even claim to be knowledgeable about it but from the few sessions I’ve had, I can appreciate the depth of its mechanics in simulating a squad-level engagement.

    Economic games that has a semblance of a real economy as opposed to a false economy. What do I mean by this? Take the economy in Puerto Rico. Regardless of how many barrels of corn we produce, there’s always demand for them. Compare that to games with a real economy such as Container, where the demand rests solely on the other players and not on a false economy sitting “outside” the game that’ll always be able to take the 9 barrels of corn you produce. Wealth of Nations is another game that has a real economy. We do not see many games fitting this description. I hope we’ll see more of them.

    I know you asked for five but I really want to mention Dune here. We played a semi-complete session a few months ago at OTK Cheras (of which you did a very good session report) and I can see the game is very closely themed with the book. A full game with all 6 players who are familiar with the game and its characters would have to be a full tilt experience, I think.

    Ainul, CK, Ken and Arm playing Dune at OTK Cheras.

    You mostly named game systems. What if you have to choose five favourite games?

    1856, Diplomacy, Lupus in Tabula, ASL Starter Kit, Puerto Rico.

    Puerto Rico? I thought you said you prefer real economies?

    Umm... the game is fun.

    Any train games other than the 18XX series that you like?

    Age of Steam, Railways of the World (formerly Railroad Tycoon).


    CK the online retailer

  7. When was boardgamecafe.net started? What triggered you to decide to start up an online boardgame store? What were the goals that you set for yourself?
  8. I was running a business doing e-commerce back in 2005 so naturally the idea of using the internet to form and drive a local boardgaming community was always on my mind. The domain name was registered in Nov 2005 and the site was online around Dec 2005.

    In the early days, all I wanted was merely a forum for boardgamers to gather, discuss about games and arrange meetups. At that time, there was only a single distributor for boardgames in the local market and that’s Imagine Games. Initially we thought of selling games just to earn some revenue to help in supporting the website. We worked with Imagine and the boardgamecafe.net online store was thus born!

    Our goal for boardgamecafe.net back then – and even now – has always been simple: to promote the growth of boardgaming communities in Malaysia.

  9. You still have a day job right? What do you do? How much time do you (and your partners) spend on boardgamecafe.net?
  10. Yes, unfortunately. LOL. I work as an IT/PMO (Programme Management Office) Consultant, and right now I’m involved in a project managing and driving the implementation of an enterprise-wide application for a shipping company.

    We don't really track how much time we spend on this business. Time spent on meetups is considered "play time" and not really "work". :-P

    Other than meetups, how much time per week on average is spent on the business side of things (processing orders, updating the online store, corresponding with distributors)?

    It's quite irregular, so it's hard to measure. Things can get very busy when a big shipment arrives and we need to update our inventory, send out pre-ordered games etc.

  11. Can a person make a decent (average) living running an online game store (only) in Malaysia?
  12. “Decent” is a relative term especially when we are talking about “money” so it’s really hard to answer this question; but I suppose you can say it’s possible but very challenging, since our local market has not yet achieved the critical mass required.

  13. Top 3 biggest challenges in setting up shop?
  14. I presume you are asking this from the perspective of an online retailer. If you are a distributor (which is what BGC is) the challenges can be different. For a retailer, they would be:

    1. Getting a supply of games - Who to buy from? Directly from the publishers? From master distributors? Distributors? Some publishers like Rio Grande Games, Fantasy Flight Games and Z-man Games do sell directly as long as you have the volume. Some like Days of Wonder only work through distributors.
    2. Knowing which market to serve - For example do you focus on the hardcore gamers or the more casual gamers? Some retailers target the 1st wave. They always get the newest games, but in smaller quantities, and these games are often quickly bought up by the hardcore gamers. BGC mainly targets the 2nd wave. We do ship games in about once a month, but we don't always have the fresh-out-of-the-oven titles. We wait and see what the more popular games are before deciding to stock them, and we usually order in bigger quantities.
    3. Getting to the market - E.g. BGC mostly sells via its online store.

    BGC is a distributor? I thought you're a retailer.

    Normally a supply chain looks like this: Publisher --- Distributor --- Retailer --- Consumer. BGC is currently a mix of distributor and retailer. So we are not a pure distributor either. The hobby boardgame industry is unusual in that there is a wide range of products, and you can't really try to stock many units of the same product unless you have a huge customer base. In many other industries (Hiew: and in the mainstream boardgame industry too where you have Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble), the product range is smaller, and you can stock in bigger quantities. The hobby game market in Malaysia probably cannot easily support a pure distributing model yet.

    We do hope to grow our retailers. If we can build up the boardgaming community in Malaysia to be able to support more retailers, we see ourselves eventually shifting towards being a true distributor.

    Do many retailers buy from you?

    Not many yet. They mostly operate offline (i.e. not a webstore like us).

  15. Who and where do you order games from? Distributors / publishers? USA / UK / Germany / China / etc? You fly the games in? Or ship them (by ship)?
  16. We order our stocks direct from the publishers, mostly in USA. However our recent Citadels Malaysia edition tie-up with Swan Panasia means we’ll slowly shift some of our orders to come from North Asia. We mostly bring them in by ship though we are now exploring FEDEX as an option (but this again goes back to challenge (ii) above).

  17. Do you collaborate with other local stores?
  18. Yes, but perhaps not yet as much as we'd like to. I suppose while “boardgamecafe.net the community” has been around for some time (since 2005), “boardgamecafe.net the distributor” is still a new kid on the block and for the past few months, we have been mostly busy with engaging our suppliers on purchasing, setting up the internal system to handle inventory tracking, sales, etc. We’ll be focusing more on getting to ground-level over the next few months, partnering with retailers and other stores to move our games, and supporting more meetups and/or gaming groups.

    Any collaboration with other local online retailers? E.g. sharing information, batching together orders?

    No.

  19. Many challenges in shipping / insurance / customs / taxes?
  20. Not really. As long as we have factored the above into our cost model, we should be in a position to manage them. A more critical metric to us is the cash conversion cycle. The boardgame industry is rather unique in having a wide range of products and most products being slow moving. We’ve been tracking and measuring every purchasing metric for the past few months which now allows us to validate the conjectures we made during our initial start-up planning. We are getting into a better position to revise our business projections for next year based on more solid hard data (which we weren’t able to do earlier this year), and the numbers look very encouraging. :-)

  21. Any interesting (good or bad) stories dealing with customers? ("Do you have something like Monopoly?")
  22. Yeah, lots of interesting stories. But I find dealing with the variety of customers very engaging and usually refreshing! The response I always love to receive is when we introduce people to Euro Games and they go like “Wow… I didn’t know these types of games existed!! I thought it was just Monopoly.”

  23. Is your boardgame warehouse a spare room / garage (or two) at your home? :-)
  24. Spare room, garage, whatever space we can grab now. Our initial plan was to look into getting a proper storefront in about a year’s time but we’ve initiated ahead of schedule the search for a storefront which will also be our warehouse and regular meetup joint. Let’s hope we can find a good “home” for boardgamecafe.net. We do have an offer of a really good place, and we are now in the midst of looking at the numbers to see if they make sense.

    Henry and CK caught in a serious moment pondering Endeavor.

  25. How big is the hobby game market in Malaysia?
  26. I don't know, frankly. We are still “new” in terms of distribution and I can’t say we are in a position to provide this estimate. We can of course extrapolate from what we know but I don’t think we’ll want to share that publicly. :-) What I can say is that the current boardgame market is certainly larger than what it was when boardgamecafe.net first started putting up boardgames for sale in our online store back in 2005.

  27. How many different titles do you have in stock now?
  28. An interesting nugget for you…. The first ten games we added to our online store (and that’s way back in 2005) were – Ticket to Ride, Memoir '44, Gulo Gulo, Hare & Tortoise, Buyword, Fury of Dracula, DOOM, Clans, Citadels and China. How many of you readers have actually played ALL these games?

    In terms of title count, we have close to 700 titles in our online store database. Obviously not all of these are in stock – or even in print anymore. As to titles that we do carry – or routinely restock – we have close to 400 titles. Out of these we have 250 different titles in stock now, i.e. physically available for sale locally. I suspect we might be one of those who carry the widest range of boardgames locally, no?

  29. Top 5 sellers (in past 1 year)?
  30. That’ll be the usual suspects of The Settlers of Catan, Citadels, Bang, Saboteur, Puerto Rico, in no particular order.

    Any game(s) that you decided to stock but sold so badly that you wished Malaysia had winter and you had a fireplace at home?

    Thankfully no. We are the "2nd wave" guys, so we wait-and-see what would sell before we decide to stock.

  31. You are also partnering with a retailer in Thailand. How does the partnership work? How did this arrangement come about?
  32. Not a retailer. Our partner in Thailand is also a distributor like us though at the moment, they are as “new” as we are in the market and probably assuming a “master retailer” role like we are. Over time, both of us are supposed to assume a more background role of promoting the market and letting our retailers move the game sales.

    He came to us first as a customer, a new convert to Eurogames but the real connection that linked both parties was our common passion to one day actively use boardgames to deliver education to children and young adults. The Boardgames in Education phase of our project will be primed under our BoardgameKids label and it’s really something exciting that I wish I could talk more about, but that’ll likely be another interview.

    In what form do you collaborate with your Thai partner, given that you are physically far apart.

    Mainly we approach distributors or publishers together, so that we have bulk. Our shipments are mostly separate, i.e. shipped directly to Malaysia or directly to Thailand. Our partner also has other businesses and has connections with shippers, which helps.

  33. How intense is the competition in the boardgame business locally?
  34. There are certainly a few more players in the market now compared to 2005. Competition is a healthy thing, if everything is done with integrity. I mean, if you are in the business which has no competition, that’s probably a “sunset business”. What we want to avoid is “monopoly” which is very unhealthy.

  35. How much does Facebook presence help in promoting boardgamecafe.net?
  36. Tremendously important! I would even say boardgamecafe.net was reborn via Facebook after it went through a lull when I was not sure how to take it forward. Social media is no longer a fancy playground for the Gen-Z. Social media is now recognised fully as a key and important channel on which one can build a thriving business.

    Books like “The One to One Future” and “The Cluetrain Manifesto” were actually way ahead of their times. If these books were published when social media is as pervasive as now, they would be game changers. Go and pick up “Crush It” (yes another book) to get a more up-to-date perspective of the importance of social media to businesses of today.

  37. Do you think a real boardgame cafe will work in Malaysia? There has been some in the past, but it seems none eventually worked out.
  38. Mage Cafe initially started as a boardgame cafe, but has gradually switched to more of a regular food & beverage outlet. The food is good. They are still around. Customers come for the food and the atmosphere. Boardgames are a perk for those who are interested, but are not the main course.

    Pit Stop Cafe in Serdang is still around, and they have recently opened a branch in Section 17, PJ where we work with them to host meetups.

    Outpost at The Curve provided a good meeting point for sci-fi and boardgame fans, which was good for building a community. Unfortunately things didn't quite work out. They eventually switched to a kiosk.

    Settlers Cafe is a successful franchise in Singapore and they had opened a branch in Damansara Jaya before. The per-hour charge business model probably didn't work at the time. This model may work now, since Malaysians are gradually getting more used to it, e.g. cyber cafes.

    I would say Malaysian gamers are quite fragmented. We have many small groups in very dispersed locations. We don't have a strong concentration in any particular area. Opening a boardgame cafe is challenging, because gamers who do not live in the vicinity likely won't visit. There is no single convenient location for everyone.

  39. You mentioned a physical home for BGC. What's the business model you have in mind?
  40. Not exactly sure yet, but we think a physical presence will be important to further build the community. An online store is a cost-effective way to sell games, but it isn't very suitable for building a community. To us, selling games is just a means to support building a boardgame community. If we have a storefront, it will be helpful to introduce new people to boardgames. There is this impact when you walk into a store stocked wall-to-wall with boardgames. The physical store will be a place for meetups as well. It will likely not be a cafe though. We also hope this physical store will help in our education / creative learning initiative. Our OTK sessions are fine for hardcore gamers who don't mind meeting strangers in a crowded cafe to play boardgames in public, but this may not be the ideal setting for regular parents looking for an alternative educational tool for their children.

    Alvin, Heng and Michael playing Automobile at OTK Cheras.

  41. Is running BGC (a) a hobby that gives a little side income, or (b) a serious business investment with high aims?
  42. It's a passion. I don't expect it will grow to something very big. However BoardgameKids may have better potential. It's an educational service business, like Smart Reader, and is not really about selling boardgames.

  43. If one day you decide to stop running BGC, what would be the likely reason(s)?
  44. Definitely there is better ROI (Return on Investment) elsewhere. If I stop running BGC, it will be because I'm not a gamer anymore, but I doubt that will happen. BGC's business model may change over time though.

    One possible threat to the business is the big players, like MPH (bookstores) and Borders. They would be able to order in bigger volumes than us. But hopefully if they ever enter the market, by then the market would be big enough to support smaller niche players like us.

  45. Ever dabbled in game design?
  46. I have met many people who want to design games, but I think many underestimate how difficult it is to design a good game. They only see the end product and don't fully appreciate the hard work behind it. Playtesting and balancing a game is not easy at all. So, no. Not in the short term.

  47. Ever thought about game publishing?
  48. No. It's a big risk. You need to invest a significant amount of money, and you may end up with a lot of firewood.


    CK the game group organiser

  49. Since when did you start organising open gaming sessions at Old Town Kopitiam, Cheras? Why a public location as opposed to more private ones?
  50. We did our first meetup at OTK Cheras in Jan 2007. Looks like we’ve “camped” there for close to four years! Time flies when you are having so much fun. Not many people actually know my home is just a few blocks away from OTK Cheras, within walking distance! And I have my complete library of over 400+ games there. So why not just hold the meetups at my home? I think it depends whether I’m doing it as a closed community thing or to grow a community. Put simply, if I want to build something that’ll grow beyond me, it needs to be in a place that’s not an extension of me. My home is certainly an extension of me. If I’m out of town for 2 months, that’ll mean meetups will stop, yes? But if I do meetups in a public place, others in the same meetup group can continue to run those meetups in my absence.

    Secondly, when your intention is to get more people into gaming – and not necessarily gaming with me per se – the meetups will invariably attract new people to the group. Now these new people can be anyone, and they may not have met me before. Two questions arise, both equally valid.

    • For me, “Hmmm, I have not met this Norman guy before. How do I know he’s not a psycho?”
    • For him or her, “Oh... meeting up at his home? I don't know this guy or his group. I don't even know where his home is and who's in there! How do I know the environment is safe for me?” (especially if it's a lady)

    Obviously if you are only organising closed meetups, the above doesn’t apply at all since everyone knows everyone else and one of these people’s home is probably the best place to hold the meetup. It all basically boils down to whether you are doing a meetup just for yourself and your friends, or you are looking at a wider target.

    We are fortunate that OTK Cheras opens 24 hours, and they have infinite patience with our group, to the extent that the coffee table on the 1st Floor is kinda reserved for boardgamecafe.net on Friday evenings. I would like to note our appreciation to the OTK Cheras people for providing us with a place where we have enjoyed so many meetups! In return I feel we’ve kinda made “OTK Cheras” a legendary place for boardgaming here in Kuala Lumpur!

  51. What were your goals in running these OTK sessions? Do you feel you have achieved them?
  52. The goal for the OTK Cheras sessions is simply to have a regular gaming group for the gamers who are in this part of town (i.e. Cheras). In the early days, almost ALL the gamers we knew were from the Damansara or PJ areas, hardly any from Cheras. Happy to say that now we are seeing more new gamers coming on board who live around Cheras.

    A second goal is obviously to have a place & people for me to game with regularly. :-)

    So, I would say yes, I have achieved both goals.

  53. How did the OTK sessions start out? Do you already know all the regulars (Henry, Heng, Allen) then?
  54. Some yes. Heng I met at Games Circle (Damansara Jaya) when we were doing meetups there. Henry first came to our BGC meetups in Cheras. Some like Allen, I met via OTK Cheras.

  55. You and Ainul recently started open gaming sessions at Cassian Kitchen, Subang Jaya as well, usually on Saturday afternoons. Will these eventually become weekly too?
  56. Possibly. Even if not weekly, the objective is to have monthly or fortnightly meetups. That’s Ainul’s domain so I’ll defer to his call (rather than impose on him the frequency of such meetups). But yes, we are certainly looking to go beyond just OTK Cheras. This will be part of our BGC Evangelists programme which we are working on now - to spread the love of boardgaming.

    Indonesia being played at Cassian Kitchen.

  57. You used to do MeetUps right (as in meetup.com)? You no longer use it.
  58. It was actually very useful then. However I suppose Facebook would have made it obsolete now in any case.

  59. Where and when else do you play games other than the Friday OTK session? Who else do you play with?
  60. I used to play with a few other group of gamers. The Landak Group in Pudu, and the Terasek Group in Bangsar. Sadly these two groups are no longer active (and one of the common reasons is the hosts are no longer gaming nowadays). Then there’s the Damansara Jaya Group who used to be based at Games Circle but have since moved to Mage Cafe. I know CE (of Squark Games) is still holding Saturday meetups quite regularly at Mage Cafe. I do miss Tracy’s signature fried rice! :-) And of course, the weekend Midah Group (i.e. yourself, Han and Allen) which plays at either yours or Allen’s place! Too bad weekends are usually very busy for me. :-( I would also like to give a special mention to the Weiqi Boardgamers Group (they are all Go sifu’s - masters) who have recently caught the boardgame flu. They meet up regularly at their taikor’s (imperious leader) place every Saturday evening in Sungai Long but sometimes one or two stray over to OTK Cheras on Friday!

    Allen and Han. Hey guys, we have a name now - the Midah Group.

  61. When are you going to update the front page of boardgamecafe.net? :-D Or are you going to redirect the front page to your blog page? Or webstore page?
  62. That has been on my plate for some time but things just keep coming to take up my time. Hopefully I’ll get that sorted out before this year end. Part of the “delay” is also me trying to figure out how to meld all the various touchpoints into a coherent social network, without duplicating the content/effort or confusing the users.

    For now, our Facebook fan page is our de facto landing page for events & updates while our blog is our primary communication channel for what’s happening at boardgamecafe.net. But to answer your question, yes we’ll get our front page sorted out and yes it should be done soon. :-)

7 comments:

Aik Yong said...

Thanks for the hard work in writing the interview. My wife always ask me why not I do boardgames as a job since I like it so much but I've got written proof here that it is a niche market.

Ah, and the insight as to Jeff's favourite game, I think the 18XX series is a misnomer since his favourite mechanic is 'sociology'! (werewolf, container, diplomacy)

Hiew Chok Sien said...

My wife has asked me before too about opening a boardgame cafe, but I just don't feel that's a feasible business in Malaysia.

Sometimes I feel tired of my current career, and think about a career change. But then the challenge is money. Can I make as much, or even enough, if I make a career change? If you ask me what I want to do if money is not a problem, I may want to be a teacher. Jeff's boardgame-education pique my interest. I should ask him more.

Jonathan / Spheniscine said...

Yeah I would like the Cassian meetup to be more frequent, as both the location and the time are somewhat more convenient...

Anonymous said...

I just got into the board gaming hobby early this year. As a student, I don't have the money to buy a lot of games, or the time to travel and attend meetups. However, boardgame cafe's games are priced a little more affordably and I recently ordered Mr. Jack in NY online. BGC's service is really good in spreading the love for the hobby, and this article was great in showing what happens behind the scenes. Thanks!

Oon YS said...

Great interview. I'm from the DJ Gaming group and I knew CK thru some meetup ages ago. Now I know where he went :). I do agree with the assessment that the board gaming community is still quite fragmented but I can see more Malaysians taking up hobby gaming (board,miniature and CCG) as an alternative to computer gaming and that is good, no? Especially for worried parents who thinks their children is too engrossed in the virtual world.

caleb said...

Great interview! I've gained much through this too. :)

Mohit Goel said...

Your interview was very informative. I am also an avid boardgamer since 2006 and have just started a ditributor-cum-online retailer of boardgames in India (www.blahgames.com). I would be very interested in connecting with you.