A couple years ago I was repping AEG at boardgamegeekcon and had a great time. When the show ended, we had inventory left over. Among other things, a couple of cases of Monkey Lab, a game about monkeys. In a lab.
During breakdown, I was over at the Funagain room, trying to sell leftover stock at a discount so we didn’t have to ship it home. I brought the full list of everything we had left–Thunderstone, Infinite City, Nightfall, some other stuff. The Funagain guy picked some, rejected others. He wouldn’t take any Monkey Lab.
I asked him why.
“It’s an OK game,” he said. “That’s the problem. There’s plenty of OK games.”
Monkey Lab is probably nobody’s favorite board game. It’s not a bad game. It was good enough to get published. It’s a decent kids’ game. But by some measures, that might be a step worse than being an outright bad game.
Every game company that’s been around for long has a stable of these. Games good enough to publish, but not good enough to flourish. Games that will roughly break even and then sink to the bottom of the catalog.
Reminds me of the apocryphal story of when Sony bought MGM studios. The formerly-MGM execs presented their slate of movies for the year to their new bosses.
“We’re going to make 40 movies this year. Five will be blockbusters. Ten will do OK. Twenty-five will lose money.”
The new bosses ask, “Why don’t you just make the five that will be hits?”
The movie types say, “We don’t know which ones they are.”
Some of that happens in any creative endeavor. Nobody wakes up and says, “I’m going to make a sufficient game today!” But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell what’s really good until it gets out there. Your bullshit detector loses its calibration unless you take pains to keep it accurate. When you’re running a business, that calibration easily falls down the to-do list.
More often what happens is that you MUST put something out. Cash flow is desperately important to a small business, often more important than high-quality product. A game that you’re confident will break even keeps cash moving around until the real moneymaker shows up.
But as we’ve seen, it can be hard to tell the moneymakers from the money-not-losers. A lot of companies jump from sufficient game to sufficient game for a long time. I guess that’s really just called “business.” Nearly every game company would like to operate like Blizzard or Days of Wonder, only putting out excellent games on an excellent schedule. But in most cases, that is neither feasible nor desirable. One that I know of intentionally operates the other way, publishing good enough games as a wildcatting strategy. It works too.
Ultimately, I wrote in praise of the OK games. They have a place, although not an honorable one. We would love for all our games to be Tickets to Ride, Agricolas, and 7 Wonderses. But thank the Lord there’s room for Monkey Labs too. Monkey Lab keeps us all here in ways that Power Grid cannot.