Essen Preview #24 – To Pre-Order or To Not Pre-Order: An Essen Game Buyer’s Dilemma

As the countdown to the 2011 Spiel fair at Essen continues, the enthusiasts in our hobby community have created numerous lists of games they are tracking, spent many hours trying to glean nuggets of information about hundreds yet-to-be-released games from sources like BGG News Spiel 2011 Preview, published game rules, and game previews from the OG blog, all in an effort to pare down the list to a manageable size both for luggage space and time limit at the Spiel to actually try out games.

Because I am a card-carrying member of the Cult of the New, I have bought huge number of games from Essen each year. Starting last year, I am also hosting a gaming gathering about 10 days after the end of the Spiel fair, so my purchase list has expanded from games that look interesting to me to also include some games that may not be my cup of tea but I know others may want to try. Like many overseas visitor to the Spiel fair, I used to limit my Essen purchases to the games that are difficult to get outside of Essen, which eliminated the titles that would have English version/US distribution releases, were from/by US publishers, and the ones that I could get from German e-tailers such as milan-spiele.de. With the new objective of getting as many interesting new releases as is reasonable (i.e., luggage space and budget would allow) for the convention attendees to play less than 2 weeks after Essen, I end up having to purchase a lot more games at Essen. To guarantee that we have the games to play by the time the gaming gathering starts, we even have to buy Essen releases from US publishers at the Spiel, as most publishers have the games shipped directly to Germany.  When we are talking about ~100 games, it is definitely beyond the realm of possibility for the try-first-before-deciding method of Essen game buying, and not surprisingly, almost half of the items on this year’s list have been pre-ordered, and significant number of others will be purchased without getting even a demo.

I should first tell you that even though I am intimately involved with planning which games to purchase (well, it’s my money so I should have some say) and with the logistics of getting the games back in time for the convention, I am not actually attending the fair at Essen myself. For the second year in a row, I am paying for someone else to attend and be the official game mule. After all, planning is much more of my forte as opposed to standing in queue and lugging around bags of heavy games. Last year, we did a few pre-orders and sent a newbie mule to swim with the sharks with a long prioritized list of games to check out before buying.  Through a series of comical miscommunication, we ended up buying Flaggo! instead of Olympus, leaving 5 boxes of games on the floor of the Messe (supposedly FedEX would pick them up on Monday but it never happened) whose fate remains a mystery to this day, and having the poor game mule detained by the US customs agent and missing the connecting flight home.  Trying to avoid repeating the same mistakes, we have started the planning and coordination process much sooner this year, and I think pre-order will play a key part in making the process go more smoothly.

To pre-order a game for Essen pick-up typically means that a copy of the game has been reserved for you (or your game mule) to be picked up either at the publisher’s booth or an otherwise pre-determined location. Some pre-orders require pre-payment, while most will take cash payment when you pick up the games. Not all publishers offer pre-orders. The BGG website is a great resource to find out if a game is available for pre-order. Some publishers have requirements regarding when the pre-orders need to be picked up, and any unclaimed pre-ordered games will be released for sale after the deadline.

Two big issues with pre-ordering games are buying games on spec and pre-commitment of the limited/precious luggage space. Often the decision on whether or not to pre-order has to be made before much information is known about the game. The English rules may not even be available yet. However, if I wait for the rules, I risk not getting in on the pre-order. I have a reasonable way to deal with the this issue as I can always put the game(s) that I don’t plan to keep (not my type of game) on the auction table at the end of my gaming event. Chances are someone else will like the game or will get it for cheap off my hands. As for luggage space, it’s the matter of planning other purchases around the pre-orders to not exceed the airline’s weight limit, and utilizing international shipping as a last resort.  Once these two issues are addressed, I’ve found that pre-ordering games (when possible) is a great way to save time and money for an Essen game buyer.

To me, the benefits of pre-ordering games include:

  • Ensuring I will get a copy of a popular game with a limited print-run – This is especially a problem with smaller publishers, limited edition games, and games that encounter production issues resulting in smaller quantity being available for sale at Essen. Sometimes even later pre-orders can be out of luck, as illustrated by R&D’s Key Market last year. Everyone who pre-ordered received the game, but not all were able to pick up at Essen. This year, Fragor’s Poseidon’s Kingdom sold out of the pre-order allocation before 9/1 (they will still have up to 100 copies to sell at Essen if they receive all 1000 copies from the print run). Other games with limited quantities (and high buzz) are: Eclipse (Lautapelit.fi), Terra Evolution (Mindwarrior Games), Zeitalter der Vernunft (Spielworxx), Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas (Strategem), Wilderness (FryxGames – only 10 copies), Mil (Homoludicus – limited quantity due to production issues), Vanuatu (Krok Nik Douil editions), Panic Station (White Goblin/Stronghold) and Japon Brand games, etc.  Some publishers do not plan to have a booth there this year, so some of the games have to be pre-ordered so the publisher’s representative can bring only the ordered games to Essen for pick-up.
  • Receiving pre-order bonus items – Some publishers include bonus or promotional items, typically an extra card or a mini-expansion for the game for the pre-order customers. If I end up liking the game, the bonus item provides additional variety to a game I already enjoy. If I don’t like the game, the extra bonus makes the game ‘worth’ more in a trade or sale. The promotional items tend to be of limited quantity and are only available through pre-orders. For my pre-orders this year, I am getting some nice bonuses such as the Supernova expansion for Eclipse, the Performer promo card and a plate-spinner for Drum Roll, and mini-expansions for the White Goblin games (Dragon’s Gold, Panic Station, Revolver, Singapore, Rattus: Africanus, and Lost Temple).
  • Saving money with pre-order discounts – Often publishers will have a special discounted price for pre-orders. I should point out that even with the pre-order discounts or bundle discounts, I am still most likely paying more for the same game than I would if I wait to order from the e-tailers. However, in my case since I am buying the games at Essen anyhow, I’d happily take any discount I can get. Being an early adopter can be costly. For the most part, the discounts are in the 5 EUR (~10%) range, but French publisher Le Joueur is offering huge discounts for pre-orders.  Their game Déluges has been on my radar for some time, and I am happy to pick it up for 15 EUR (50% discount).
  • Flexibility to pick up games at a less busy time – Unless there is a pick-up deadline, pre-order games can be picked up at the booth when it is less busy so the game mule doesn’t have to spend time in the queue. If there is a way to pick up games on Wednesday (and if it is allowed), he can also save a trip or two back to the car/hotel to drop off the purchases. While everyone else is in the long queue waiting to purchase the popular games, our game mule can visit the less crowded booths to get a demo of games on the try-before-buy list.
  • Pre-paying can also save time and money – I try to pre-pay for games as much as possible. First of all, it will save our game mule the time he has to spend in the ATM queue. Also, if I pre-pay for a pre-ordered game, I lock in on the exchange rate at the time of payment. If the Euro-USD exchange rate trend follows what happened around Spiel the last few years (lower in September and early October and increased to more than 1.5 the week of Essen), I will save some money. However, given the current Euro instability, this may not hold true for this year.

So, those are my rationale for pre-ordering about 50 games from this year’s Essen releases. Let’s hear from the other more experienced Essen game purchasers….

Jonathan Franklin: Years ago, preorders were rare (I’m talking 2005, so I’m in no way an old timer).  There was buzz before Essen and you tried to get your most desired games on Wednesday if you had a press pass or exhibitor pass (or knew someone who did).  Now, there are crazy stories about there being no available stock even for the first walk-up buyer (Key Market last year and Poseidon’s Kingdom this year).  If you miss out on a preorder, the key is to be persistent, both at the start (to get on the waiting list) or to show up at the booth right after any uncollected preordered games have been released.

I did not preorder many games this year because I already have enough games to keep me happy for a year.  if the grail comes out and I don’t get a copy until July 2012, I’m fine with that.   Almost everything you really want will be reprinted or released domestically.  Unless you are doing something amazing, like Jennifer’s event, patience is your friend.

One oddity is that most pre-orders are more like reservations with no money down, as Jennifer mentions.  The next question a game player might ask is, “Why not just preorder everything” and then just claim the ones you decide you want.  The answer is that Essen is a total zoo with almost no playing space.  The odds are good that you will leave with gossip about 75 of the 700 games and know little more about the games you preordered than when you arrive.  Short of assessing the bits in person, reading the rules at home and selectively preordering from home makes far more sense than preordering willy-nilly and ending up with mediocre games with nice bits that you buy when hungry or tired.

In short, preordering is great for all the reasons Jennifer mentions, but is most useful when done selectively and responsibly.  You don’t want a small publisher not making a sale because they are holding an item for someone who does not intend to collect it.

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