By Jonathan Franklin
“Something in the board game world is happening at Amazon, and the fine folks there invited us over to not talk about it.”
After weeks of planning, Nate Beeler and I showed up at a fancy new Amazon building at 2:50pm on October 11, 2018.
After a security process and greetings, we were ushered up to a conference room for a late lunch (Jonathan) and an early dinner (Nate). The motley crew was made up of Nick and Kenny from Amazon, several well-known local audio/video stars, a team from a radio station, and two Opinionated Gamers.
Nate and I have been puzzling about this event since we arrived, expecting there to be ‘news’ about Amazon and board games. The day, described below in more detail, felt unformed yet not pointless. So we kept asking ourselves, what was the point. What were they trying to say to us that they could not say directly?
Here are our guesses – they are supported only by the few tea leaves and bread crumbs Nick and Kenny left us with. They could be completely wrong, counter to Amazon’s plans, or spot on and visionary. Only time, Nick, and Kenny can tell.
Guess #1: Amazon will compete with Kickstarter in the board game space, if not more generally. They have the Etsy competitor (Handmade) and the product incubator (Launchpad). They have a fulfillment system and a huge base of customers with preexisting accounts. Why not facilitate board game creation and funding, taking a cut on each project in exchange for using their platform, finance, and warehousing systems? As a bonus, their established nature in many countries might help them facilitate projects in countries that Kickstarter does not yet accept.
Guess #2: Alexa will soon teach you a board game. Rules are the biggest hurdle to increasing the size of the board game space. Could they use natural language and possible analysis of existing rules teaches to create an instant explainer that could be interrupted with questions or tell you not to forget a certain rule? Going further, could it listen in to your game and prompt you when it hears something that conflicts with the rules? If people want videos, Amazon clearly has the production capabilities to hire a fantastic explainer and provide through- the-roof production values.
Guess #3: You will play games with other people, using Alexa as a moderator. I won’t be surprised if there is a popular persistent werewolf game going on with an Alexa moderator some day soon. This does not mean playing against Alexa, it means using voice as a platform to connect people using games that don’t need physical objects or screens. I know hardcore social deducers need the cues that come from seeing people, but if you live in a small town and cannot get the folks together, this could be awesome.
Guess #4: Amazon will buy BoardGameGeek or at least license data from it. This would not mean the end of the geek, but could drive Amazon’s predictive engines, improve curation with linkages between games and discussions, and populate Amazon’s review sections if the users who wrote the reviews permit it. Amazon already knows how many people click through to Amazon from BGG and BGG likely knows how much BGG benefits Amazon, so a partnership seems natural BGG could then use that cash and Amazon’s expertise to convert BGG into Good Reads for board games (a site Amazon purchased :) )with a high quality UI, improved findability, etc. If this comes to pass, I expect those who love their board game/Excel mashup to lament the old game page format again. To get the idea, see https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/413-exciting-news-about-goodreads-we-re-joining-the-amazon-family
This might have some licensing issues (BGG ToS: https://boardgamegeek.com/terms) and could start an evil empire/BGG is dead-to-me backlash, but it could benefit both BGG and Amazon. Suzanne Sheldon mentioned that there is already an Amazon API, so we should not worry about Amazon capturing BGG data and not permitting it to be extractable. I’m just a pessimist and worry that we could lose access to factual board game data some gloomy day. Amazon was quite open about their willingness to let others create tools/content for Alexa, so maybe I’m paranoid. As a librarian, I want to be confident that the factual descriptions/data points for each board game are preserved and perpetually available to all.
Guess #5: Amazon will increase the curation and promotion of board games in its brick and mortar stores. I do see Amazon’s push to provide extra access to highly rated products as having the potential for highly ranked board games to show up in Amazon Go stores or their ‘four star’ stores where everything stocked has a rating of 4+ stars. I am not sure how revolutionary this would be, and sort of assume that most people who live near a Whole Foods also live near a store that sells board games, but that could be wrong.
Guess #6: Amazon will expand print-on-demand to include board games. Cards, boards, hexes, etc. I could imagine a company creating a tool to print board games on demand, but don’t think it is likely Amazon will move in that direction, other than perhaps for purely card-based party games.
Guess #7: Amazon will become a non-digital or hybrid board game publisher. They already have digital games for Alexa. They already have Amazon Studios and see the potential in vertical integration. They could grow their own studio or go buy CMON (or Asmodee? :) ) and have the IP for numerous evergreen titles that would feed directly into their distribution system. I think it really depends on how much value Amazon could unlock that Asmodee’s current owners cannot. For most companies, this would be a terrible idea because they don’t already fulfill physical objects. For Amazon, with their global warehouse system and the growth of the board game market, maybe.
Guess #8: Amazon will start offering monthly board game boxes through a subscription service. They have segmented their board game stock into party and strategy games. Fluxx is around the dividing line and falls on the strategy side, to give you a definitional sense. Amazon mentioned that they are offering STEM subscription box services (aka Loot Crates) for different age segments. I could imagine Amazon creating strategy game and party game distribution on a monthly subscription model. People know what books and music they want, but might be more open to a party game of the month. It could even be more nuanced, such as ‘after dark party games’ vs. ‘family friendly party games’.
Guess #9: Amazon will start trying to soften its image from a monolithic and cold entity to one run by people who care about what you care about. They are seen as the killer of bookstores, and I am perpetuating that story by repeating it. They want to be more like a Friendly Online Game Store and that we think of them as buying games from Nick, rather than a giant cash-ingesting product dispensing machine. I think it is reasonable, having heard their pitch, that they are tired of hearing that they are the bad guy over and over. Perhaps they want to create a friendlier game purchasing experience though a less commercially focused ecosystem, while still providing good prices and convenience. This might make the site more of a hangout and resource for board gamers than just a place to shop. (See #4)
Guess #10: Maybe it is none of these and they invited us over to play games and listen so we would then generate awesome ideas for them for the price of a lunch and a bag full of games provided by Asmodee. Ok, your evil plan worked!
I am known for overthinking things, so consider the above as a series of fever dreams after a verbal puzzle hunt in the form of a presentation by two Amazonian board game enthusiasts who we think might have been trying to tell us something without coming out and saying it.
What led us to think the above? Well, here’s the story,
This was an exciting new event for Amazon and was scheduled to run from 3pm to 9pm. The first two hours were a presentation about Amazon – its philosophy, its driving motivations, and what came across most clearly was absent other factors, a preference for action over inaction.
We were not explicitly told any board game news. Our excellent hosts, Kenny and Nick spoke, took questions, and the group bantered for quite a while.
Mistake #1 – thinking like a consumer. This was not a meeting to discuss cool new ways to get ubergamers (the obsessive 1%) more games that can only be found in one store in North Korea. This was clearly more about B2B and larger plans for the future, not getting Carpe Diem from amazon.de using Prime. My secret hope that they would create a cost-effective Essen pre-order system with instant delivery was squashed pretty early on. I think that is too small potatoes for them.
Mistake #2 – thinking Amazon is going to become more price competitive with other online retailers. That is clearly not in the cards. Their pitch is that they offer great convenience and good prices, but they are not trying to compete with the bargain basement board game sellers. If you have game night tomorrow night and want a specific brand new game to hit the table? Amazon’s fulfillment expertise might deliver the game to you faster than an online store 3000 miles away and cheaper than your FLGS, if you are lucky enough to have an FLGS.
Other topics we touched on:
What are Amazon’s plans to cut down on counterfeit board games being sold by third party vendors? They are working hard on it and if you suspect you got a counterfeit board game through them, call customer services. They log those complaints and look for patterns that might/will drive future actions between Amazon and those sellers.
How can outsiders help curate the board game area of the site? – include video reviews, certifications from authoritative sources, etc. Build a community of users to support board game purchasers? Create better video reviews using Amazon Studios with their high quality equipment? Contract with an existing reviewer vs. growing their own?
How can the media improve the perception of the Amazon brand in the board game space? – invite people like us to write articles like this – sponsor booths at conventions – ally with FLGS – somehow show they care more about gamers than they currently do. I don’t think they are shooting take on CSI, but they want to have a broader range of games so that you can get most in-print board games through them, even if they are not the cheapest source. Perhaps this means you can expect an expanded selection in the future.
After this part of the day, we picked up our bags, left the conference room, and walked over to the Spheres, where Part Two of our story continues.