GAMA Trade Show 97

Report by Ken Tidwell
March 28, 1997

Each year the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA), an American organization for game manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, hosts a trade show to bring as many of the elements of the American games trade together in one place as possible. In practice, the show is ignored by the very large manufacturers like Hasbro (and its vassals, Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers) and large retailers like Toys'R'Us, WalMart, and KMart. Just about everyone else is there, though, so its a good place to have a look around at what's happening in American gaming.

Since this year's show was held in Reno, Nevada, it was just a short plane hop away from home and I had to go and check it out.

Collectable, Customizable, or Cluttered?

There was general gloom about the marketability of new collectable/customizable card games. Companion Games (makers of Galactic Empires) claimed that they had two more games warming up in the wings but no takers amongst the distributors and retailers. Conventional wisdom says that the market is too cluttered for new entries to have much of a chance. However, Companion was happy to report that sales were increasing with each expansion of Galactic Empires. Apparently, consumers are happy with some of the games out there (most notably Magic, Legend of Five Rings, and Galactic Empires) and are happy to buy more cards for these systems.

Companion have certainly done a good job of pioneering new ways to sell expansions to consumers. When ICE releases the new Lidless Eye expansion to their Middle-Earth system, they will be using Companion's clever box window to allow collectors to see through into the box and identify which set of cards they will be getting. This packaging is a step up from AEG's innovative marketing of the various clan decks for Legend of the Five Rings since the manufacturer only has to deal with a single box design that lets a distinctive card within the pack tell the tale and make the sale.

One representative from USPC (makers of the X Files CCG) vehemently assured me that the first 'C' in 'CCG' must stand for 'collectable'. In his opinion, only the companies that had "eaten their own young" and overpopulated the market with their product were resorting to referring to the games as 'customizable' card games. USPC will be moving aggressively to protect the collectability of X Files by introducing a totally new set of rares and ultra-rares in the second edition. Of course, with the X Files game system they may be wise to concentrate on collectability.

While existing CCG systems may still be selling well, getting gamers to try a new system seems to be a daunting task. Despite this fact, two of the most exciting projects on display were new CCGs: Dune and Imajaca.

Five Rings Publishing, the Seattle based group that have been handling the manufacturing and distribution of Legend of the Five Rings for AEG, have struck a similar deal with Last Unicorn Games to publish Dune, a CCG based on the epic books by Frank Herbert. Dune has been notoriously difficult to adapt to other media. The film languished in Hollywood for years before being released to mixed reviews. The board game published by Avalon Hill in decades past suffered from poorly written rules riddled with ambiguity and rivaled in obscurity only by the first edition Magic rules set. Last Unicorn Games may have finally pulled off a first rate adaptation. CCGs seem to be a great medium for simulating huge, complex, empire spanning conflicts. The Dune CCG design owes more than a few nods to Legend of the Five Rings. There are multiple victory conditions, players must manage multiple pools of resources, and each player assumes the persona of a great house. Dune takes some of these mechanisms to new heights, however. Players must jockey for play order, earning the right to the first strike, while managing their pool of funds, stocking up on spice, and currying imperial favor. The designers have done an excellent job of creating tension on the playing field by allowing players to bring out cards face down. Each turn a card spends face down, the cost of bringing the card into the game is reduced by one. Your opponent can see your face down store ticking away like a time bomb ready to explode across the face of Arrakis in a blossom of spice and blood. Good stuff. Great art, too. Look for this one in the Summer with four expansions to follow.

Yet another heavyweight is poised to join the American game industry. Harper Collins, the book publishers, have decided that it is time to branch out into games. Their first offering is a CCG adaptation of the work of one of their top authors, Clive Barker. Imajaca is set in a world of dark fantasy and features art by heavyweights like HR Giger. The game mechanics seem clever enough and incorporate some nice new features. The game has not yet gone to press but, based on a whole ten minutes playing with the prototype, my one criticism would be that the game may be a bit too busy. There were an endless procession of attributes that combined, recombined, and modified on each card. On the other hand, the proof artwork was genuinely stunning. Just in a completely different league from any other work in CCGs. Harper Collins will also have access to distribution and marketing such as the CCG industry has not seen since the height of the Magic frenzy. By combining that business ability with a good game design and the fan base that Clive Barker enjoys, Harper Collins' game division may be a off to a good start. Look for Imajaca in the late Summer or early Fall.

Other developments on the CCG front were Aliens/Predator designed by Precedence and published by Harper Collins due out this Summer, Groo the Wanderer by Archangel Entertainment due out in May, the second edition of X Files due out in May followed closely by an expansion set, Deadlands designed by Pinnacle and published by Five Rings Publishing, the Crimson & Jade expansion for Legend of the Five Rings is ready to go out in May, and a new Mythos expansion, Aeon, from the Chaosium is also due out in May.

Multimedia for Mood

Speaking of adaptations, FPO, a small Belgian company, is now offering a line of music on CD that compliments various roleplaying systems. This year's big releases are Firstrun, music for dark hackers playing Shadowrun, and Revelations, blood thinning tunes for Masquerade. You can hear sample tracks on FPO's web site.

Heavy Gear from Dreampod 9 will be branching out into a new line of computer sims from SegaSoft. You can also look for more computer games in the Fading Suns line.

Board But Not Boring

There were very few new board games on offer. There were lots of rumors around about great projects that will appear over the next year, though, so perhaps we will see more activity by Christmas. Keep your eyes peeled for action at Wargames West, Chaosium, FX Schmid, the new Mayfair, and Wizards of the Coast.

Companion Games have Trial of the Century. A nice use of their card game experience in a board game format, the game is a light, very random piece that may sell well in the mass market. It looked silly enough to work as a beer and pretzel game, too. Trial of the Century is wending its way through the distribution pipeline even as you read this.

Agents of Gaming are offering a Babylon 5 miniatures game. Along the same lines as Starfleet Battles, the creatively named Babylon 5 Wars comes in a starter edition with maps, massive rulebook, hundreds of die cut counters, and six minis. The game is supported by blister packed minis of all the major Bab 5 races and by larger scale, Japanese quality models of the ships. I believe Babylon 5 Wars is either already out there or will be out in May.

McGartlin Motorsports had demos of the packaging for the new edition of their auto racing card game. The cards for the new edition are due back from the printers any day now. I hope they come in time for the Gathering! Watch for it in stores or order it direct from McGartlin very soon.

Prism/TimJim had two new games. Tom Lehman studiously warned me that they both took too long to play for me to be interested. Some of you will want to check them out though. Throneworld is a game of interstellar conquest. Claw your way to the top before someone else beats you to the throne. Reign of Terror simulates the terrible days of the French Revolution. Mobs roam the streets and the guillotine never stops. Tom is also working on a CCG based on stellar empires that looked really interesting. Look for that later in the year.

Strange Magic Games have come up with two alternative rules sets for their sprawling game of trade and war, Material World. The first set, strangely referred to as Super Material World, retargets the game at the casual or family market. The second rules set is for use in tournaments. Look for a review of Super Material World in a future issue (if I can keep my playtest group calm in the face of all those die cut counters!). Strange Magic includes the new rules in all new copies of the game. They've also cut the price by $10.00 based on retailer response.

Lost Horizons produce a series of just past DTP quality board games. They tend to be more than a little bit eccentric. International Insult is a game set in pre-World War I Europe. Each player is a diplomat attending an official dinner. The goal is to insult as many of the other countries present as possible. Murphy's Island and Mansion are two games that are very similar to GOOTMU and WizWar. There are some other bells and whistles, to be sure but the basic themes are very close. Morphus is a very abstract strategy game. Double Morphus adds a polymorphic playing field just to make the game even more complex.

Simtac, a miniatures company, had Kryomek Football, a game of violent destruction involving a semi-sentient ball and hordes of tiny footballers wielding nasty energy weapons. Games Workshop fans should check this one out! Its a steal at $25!

The Medium Needs a Massage

InQuest magazine announced that it will be extending its coverage beyond CCGs. They are going to bravely go where everyone has gone before: roleplaying games. Bold move, guys. I'm happy to report that their staff are easily as loud as their covers.

InQuest's publishers, Wizard Press, announced a new magazine called ToyFare that will cover the action figure beat. Each issue will include a coupon for a limited edition, guaranteed hard to find, collectable but not customizable action figure starting with Kitty Pryde in the first issue.

Dicey at Best

Amazingly, there were two new collectable and somewhat customizable dice games on offer. Now, it seemed to me that Dragon Dice and their poor relations, Throwing Stones, were a good idea on paper. In execution, the games were about as exciting as watching daytime TV. This time out we have some serious designers getting involved.

Dicemaster, published by ICE, was designed by Jean Vanaise and Kris Burm. Jean Vanaise is best known for his work at Flying Turtle where he co-designed Shark and Sinbad. Kris Burm has been making a name for himself in the world of abstract game design with Quads being the easiest of his game designs to find in America. Dicemaster is a race/quest game. Each player has a set of dice representing a character, a city, places along the quest path, weapons, hazards, and magic. The dice from both players' sets are used to construct a path between two cities. As the player characters travel down this path they try to collect a full set of runes. Their opponent litters the path with monsters and other dangers to try to impede their progress. The first player to reach the destination city with a full set of runes wins. Two basic sets are needed to play the game. Basic sets, known as the Cities of Doom, are all identical except for three randomly chosen dice: the character die, the identity die, and, I believe (I'm stretching here), the landscape die. Additional complexity can be added by purchasing Wilds of Doom, each expansion set supports two players and adds additional rules and options. The Doom Cubes expansion packs allow you to quickly amass the collectable dice from Cities of Doom and Wilds of Doom. Dicemaster is out now.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Collectible Dice Game (try to fit that on a billboard) from Five Rings Publishing seems to be doing good, by board game standards, but not great, by CCG standards. The design looked iffy to me but the Game Cabinet's newest reporter, John Nienart, took the playtest. More from John later, I'm sure.

TSR was also showing what appeared to be interesting additions to Dragon Dice. Despite having a booth that consumed four times the space of many of the other companies, the TSR booth was completely unmanned every time I went by to find out more. Perhaps the rumors of doom for the House of D&D are all too true.

Staying in Character

Roleplaying games are still the province of eager startups. Archon released Noir, their roleplaying game set in the gritty world of film noir. In this genre you get to trade quips with The Thin Man, chase the fat man with Bogey, and consider the macabre underbelly of Western society in the 1940s. The art is good - the main rulebook has a Howard Chakin cover and the other art lives up to that standard. The game is supported by two collections of short fiction set in the dark world of Noir. Noir is out now and should be in the shops soon.

Wingnut Games wins the clever idea award. Og is their caveman RPG. The rules look fairly straight forward and brief but feature the clever twist that the characters' vocabulary is limited to only seventeen words. "Big bite - ooog!" might mean "Look out! A sabretooth tiger! Run!" Sounds like fun.

Fading Suns is a very hip and trendy science fiction RPG by Holistic Designs. Fading Suns was hailed as the Ars Magica of science fiction and as "the next big thing" in RPGs. It looks good and Herr Nienart will have more to say about it, I'm sure.

Did I Mention It Was in Reno?

The trade show was held in the lovely Reno Hilton, a delightful den of vice and depravity just over the border in Nevada. I tried my hand at blackjack and lost, as usual. Then I wandered over to the craps table and realised that some time in the last ten years I had completely forgotten the rules. Mr. Nienart introduced me to Pyramid Dice, a game of total random chance and more than a bit of good fun. The game features a board showing all the possible rolls of two dice arranged in a pyramid with the double six at the top and combinations with a one in them (1-1, 1-2, etc) arranged along the bottom. I'll leave the clever amongst you to fill in the rest of the pyramid. One player rolls the dice and continues to roll until they repeat a combination. If they manage to fill in a complete slice through the pyramid - a horizontal slice (such as all the one combinations), a left leaning slice (such as 2-6, 1-5), or right leaning slice (2-2, 1-2) - or even just get through more than six rolls without repeats then the corresponding bets pay off to various odds. That's a pretty poor explanation but gives you a better grasp than several of the dealers running the game had. Clearly it was a new and experimental offering. We had fun.

Overall, the show seems like a good thing. The seminars sounded like they would be valuable to both retailers and small manufacturing startups. It was a good place for the manufacturers to explain their wares to distributors, retailers, and the press. And everyone seemed to be having a good time.

The year looks to be a good one with nice innovations in CCGs, new offerings for roleplayers, and the industry pregnant with promise in board games.

Stay tuned!

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell