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Inside a Casual Game Revolution

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By: Noah J. Nelson

Tabletop games have been making a comeback in the last few years as older geeks (like yours truly) put down the console controllers and rediscover the joys of trash talking in person. Okay, it's a lot more than that. European board games-- deeply complex affairs-- have captured some gamers imaginations while casual party games like Apples to Apples and its dark twin Cards Against Humanity are go-to party fodder.

Of course once you have the gaming bug what you want and need are new games to play. This is where crowdfunding has come into play. One of the most interesting sub-communities on Kickstarter are the board gaming set, who are bringing to life all kinds of projects.

Which is where Casual Games Insider comes in. This isn't a Kickstarter for a game, but rather for a gaming magazine. Initially targeted at game store owners CGI, which is being developed by casual game publisher Stratus Games, is looking to raise funds to get the first four issues of the ground and begin a campaign to change the way game stores market to the casual set. The magazine is a beachhead with which Stratus Games president Chris James hopes to change the face of game stores across the country.

We spoke with James through good old-fashioned email about the magazine and his planned Casual Game Revolution.

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Turnstyle: How did you get involved in casual games?

Chris James: My wife, Melanie, and I have always enjoyed board games and party games as a fun and inexpensive form of entertainment, but there was a point when we felt we had played everything there was to play. We were then introduced to some of the well-known "gateway" games that opened up our perspective to the whole world of board games that we never knew existed.

For us, however, we had no desire to dive into heavier gaming, but we appreciated gaming on a casual and social level. With the hobby game market dominated by games that were far beyond our level of casual play in terms of game depth and length, we took it upon ourselves to dive into game publishing to produce the kinds of games that we felt were "just right." Thus, Stratus Games was born.

Through years of running our company and observing the industry, we realized that there was a greater need for industry recognition of casual games, which is why we launched the Casual Game Revolution program. Through it, we hope to band together with other casual game publishers to spread the message that casual games are key to the growth and success of the board game industry.

TS: For those who are not gamers, can you explain a little about the increased interest in board and other non-video games over the past few years?

CJ: Board games have always been around, but they are often viewed as being intended only for kids. This is due in part because huge amounts of money are spent on advertising games that everyone played as kids or that are clearly marketed for kids. However, in recent years more and more people are discovering a new crop of games that are fun for adults, too. Today's games are vastly improved over the long and boring "luck fest" games that we were all familiar with in our childhood. They are designed to include interesting choices, better player interaction, and more tension, and generally there is no elimination. In other words, all of the things that most people may have despised about board games have been fixed and they're better than ever.

As soon as one discovers this, it is an eye-opening experience. Not only are these games fun, but they offer a means of face-to-face interaction that is lacking in almost every other form of entertainment. Our society is so immersed in texting, video games, online social media, and other technologies that we rarely get a chance to enjoy time together in person with our friends and family. As everything else tends to distance us from face-to-face time, more and more people are turning to board games as a refreshing escape from the digital world.

TS: The pitch video hints at a rift between "hardcore" and "casual" gamers... is the situation that severe?

CJ: In order to simplify our message, we needed to make some generalizations. I can admit that even the most hardcore of gamers can appreciate casual games to some extent, inasmuch as they are very passionate about board gaming. However, we often see casual games being used only as a means to an end: a conversion tool to heavier hobby gaming, either for one's friends or children. Casual games are also used as "filler" games to take a break between long sessions of heavier gaming. In other words, casual games are not typically seen by hobby gamers as the primary reason to get together to play games, but an afterthought. It is not uncommon to see reviewers preface their review of a game with a disclaimer that the game is a "family game," which is usually communicated as if the game were a let-down or disappointment.

Of course, everyone has their preferences, and that is fine. But the problem we see is that the hobby board game industry is usually the gatekeeper when it comes to mass market reach. In order for a casual game to reach a larger audience of casual gamers through mass market retailers, it must first establish an extraordinary sales record within the hobby. But the hobby is not the primary audience for casual games, and therefore the vast majority of casual games never get the attention they deserve in order to make it to the next step. Casual game publishers usually must build a large audience of faithful hobby gamers with a line of hardcore games before they can find success with a casual game. We want to change all this so that publishers can reach casual gamers more directly, rather than being forced to rely on a secondary audience.

TS: The magazine looks to be pulling double duty: both as a tool for store owners and as a direct appeal to consumers, What's the planned balance?

CJ: Our initial priority is to meet the needs of the industry, especially store owners and publishers. Brick-and-mortar stores are the key sales force for casual games, because they have direct access to many casual gamers who walk into the store out of curiosity. The problem for publishers is that it is difficult to promote games to stores because there are usually 1 to 2 distribution levels that separate them. We want to make it easier for publishers to get their message to stores, and by extension, the casual gamers that they have access to. With the help of existing distribution channels, we can initially distribute our magazine to a vast number of stores, which will allow us to hit the ground running as a valuable platform that publishers and sponsors can support early on.

While the industry is our priority, we do want to include content that is useful for consumers, as well. This content will include reviews, recommendations, and several articles in each issue that can be appreciated by casual gamers themselves. We will likely increase the amount of consumer content over time as our readership grows. For the first few issues, 90% or more of the magazine readers will be directly tied to the industry, but we expect this to balance out over time as our message spreads and more casual gamers become aware of it.

TS: What kind of outreach have you been doing with your campaign?

CJ: Since the industry is our initial focus, we have been reaching out to game publishers and distributors far and wide. We believe that they will have the most incentive to support us, and several key publishers have already jumped on board or expressed interest in doing so. We plan on really promoting the campaign at the Gen Con convention, through which we hope to gain the support we need to push the campaign over the top.

TS: What's been your biggest hurdle with the campaign so far?

CJ: We have found that many publishers are very interested in our project, but they either don't have the money to support it or they have planned their marketing budget far in advance. What we hear is, "This is a wonderful idea! Come back to us in November when we're planning our 2013 budget." This is certainly understandable, but it can be frustrating when we need to gain support now to run a successful campaign. This campaign is very different from most Kickstarter campaigns, since the target audience must make very calculated budgetary decisions in order to back the project rather than backing it on a whim.

As a bit of an experiment, we have arranged with several publishers to include an assortment of existing casual games to supplement the campaign. But what we have found is that Kickstarter users are not nearly as inclined to back a project to get an existing game as they are for one that they are helping to fund. It makes sense, but we were hoping for a bit more support from these rewards than we have received so far.

TS: What do you think of Kickstarter as a platform? Are there any tools that you feel are missing from their service?

CJ: I think Kickstarter is a great platform, which is evidenced by the vast amount of new project creators who make their appearance on the site and successfully gather funding. There is no denying the impact that crowdfunding is having on many industries, and the board game industry is certainly no exception. Many board game publishers, big and small, are turning to Kickstarter as a "must have" boost to their product lifecycle. More importantly, there are many products that simply could not come into existence if it weren't for the generosity of so many people who believe in the project and pledge their support.

The platform is nearly complete. I wouldn't mind seeing a more complete "browse" feature and the ability to select multiple reward levels when backing a project, but I will happily continue to support the platform as it currently stands.

Originally published on Turnstylenews.com, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.

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