Out in my workshop, I have a wall of bookshelves. About half the bookshelves are full of old role-playing games, and most of those are defunct. I also have cards from a lot of dead TCGs — and I have Magic cards. Magic is anything but dead. That got me wondering — is Magic’s longevity something special?
After all, do you know anyone that has ever played Lords of Destiny — the Avalon Hill RPG? Unlikely — that game died fairly quickly. For that matter, Avalon Hill died, too. Wizards bought it up years ago.
I have a couple of games that Avalon Hill, back in its heyday, rescued. I have an original copy of Titan — the giant creature battle game that was printed in water soluble ink. A single spilled Coke could literally wipe out armies. I also have an original B-17 game, complete with some designer errata written on the pieces by hand.
The simple rule is that most games fail. Starting a new game is really tough. Designers work long hours to create and perfect a game, then more long hours trying to get it printed — then still more hours trying to get it into stores, or find other ways to get players to buy it.
Going to a gaming convention, like Gencon, can be a blast. It is less so when you go to demo your game 16 hours a day for day after day.
I was thinking about all the role-playing games I have played, back in the day. Villains & Vigilantes, Space Opera, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Twilight 2000, Amber, Lords of Destiny, DragonQuest, Rune Quest, Ring World, Toon, Torg, Gamma World, Universe, Space 1889, The Morrow Project, Chill, Boot Hill, Top Secret, Daredevils, Tunnels and Trolls, Empire of the Petal Throne, Justice, Inc., The Rocky & Bullwinkle RPG, Phoenix Command, Bureau 13 — Stalking the Night Fantastic, and on and on. For that matter, D&D, AD&D, AD&D Second Edition, Arnesonian D&D, AD&D Third Edition, AD&D Planescape, AD&D Ravenloft, etc.
And those are just the games which I remember playing. There were tons of others I (or any of my friends, for that matter) never bought.
Almost all of them are out of print. Occasionally companies try to bring some back (for nostalgic reasons, mainly) but most of them have died and stayed dead. Some died because they were fatally flawed. Some died because their market niche was just to narrow. Others just simply did not make it.
Top Secret! was a great example of an early — and bad — RPG. For example, the reaction tables were ridiculous. If a normal person talked about anything in which they had no skill, the reaction of whoever they were talking to was unfavorable to extreme. For example, if you asked a stranger “Will it rain today?”, and the other person had any knowledge of weather, the interaction table results ranged from dislike to murderous rage. Top Secret was the kind of thing you played until you found another spy game — even marginal games like 007 — then you dumped Top Secret. (Yes, second edition Top Secret was better, but not better enough.)
At the other end of the spectrum were games like Phoenix Command. Phoenix Command had, as I recall, the best list of firearms anywhere, and wonderful firearms rules. It was a reference book for characters wanting a massive armory — in other rules systems. The problem was that Phoenix Command wasn’t much of an RPG, once you got past the guns. The rules in games like that were often so complex and detailed that they were unplayable.
Other systems died because they could not find enough players. Pendragon was a good example of a narrow genre. It was medieval role-playing, with knights in armor founding dynasties. It used the Call of Cthulhu rules engine, but the game did not have a lot of magical or supernatural aspects. It was mainly about armored combat, battles, and jousts. If you won enough tournaments, captured some valuable prisoners and did not have to be ransomed yourself, by the third generation or so, you would have really good armor.
Even at conventions, it was really rare to find anyone playing Pendragon.
I have noticed the same effect with trading card games. Some are too narrow, some have bad rules, and some just fail. In general, I have avoided a lot of these games because I really cannot afford to invest in many TCGs. I can barely afford Magic. Still, I have played, or have cards from, Pokemon, Duelmasters, Call of Cthulhu, NetRunner, Sim City, Illuminati, Pirates and probably a dozen others. I have seen many more played — games like Seventh Sea, Legend of the Five Rings, Vs., Spoils and others.
None of these, except maybe L5R, have been all that successful.
Played much Harry Potter recently?
You know, just maybe, Wizards does know something about making Magic work. A huge percentage of the games I played in past years are dead and gone. Magic is closing in on 20 years of really solid success. That seems atypical — almost unique.
So far, though, all I have is anecdotal information. It is possible that this sample — the games I played — is not representative. It is possible that my tastes are just weird, and no one else likes the games I like. Or maybe not. The fact is that anecdotes never prove anything. It is time to get a bit more scientific. We need to find a better sample of games, then examine their success rate.
The Academy of Adventure Gaming, Arts & Design gives out annual awards at the Origins Game Fair. The gaming “academy awards” cover a number of forms and genres, and select the best in each. If anything should survive, it should be the best games from any given year. Let’s look back at past years, to see what survives and what winds up on the bookshelves in the workshop, gathering sawdust.
Best RPG: Shadowrun.
Best Board Game: (tie) Nuclear Proliferation and Hacker
Best Magazine: White Wolf
Let’s see. Shadowrun was sold to different publishers twice, went out of print from 2006 to 2007, and now a third publisher is trying to bring it back. As for Nuclear Proliferation, it is still going strong — the “quintessential beer and pretzels game” is probably immortal. Hacker — not so much. White Wolf Magazine is long gone. That’s a shame — I submitted articles to that mag, once upon a time.
Best RPG: Traveler, the New Era
Best Fantasy or Sci Fi Game: Magic: the Gathering.
Best Graphical Presentation of an RPG, etc.: Magic: the Gathering.
Traveler has been in and out of the stores over the years; I don’t know if it is still in print or not. (I can’t check at the moment — I’m in Germany. I don’t know where the nearest game store is, at the moment.) As for Magic — it’s still going strong. Note that Magic did not win in the trading card games category. No surprise there; before Magic, there was no such thing as a trading card game.
Best Gaming Accessory: Legends (supplement to Magic: the Gathering.)
Best RPG: Castle Falkenstein
Best Graphical Design for an RPG…: Planescape Campaign, AD&D
Best Card Game: Illuminati — New World Order
Best Magazine: (tie) Duelist, Shardis, Dragon
Magic wins again. (Okay, Legends is technically out of print, but that’s part of Magic’s marketing strategy — the game as a whole is fine.) Castle Falkenstein, on the other hand, is dead. I miss the original steam-powered fantasy game. AD&D Planescape is sort of dead, sort of evolved / absorbed, I think. (Confession time — my friends and I were still playing AD&D First Edition campaigns when Third Edition was released, and we kept playing First Edition until the group broke up. I don’t know much about the current AD&D worlds and supplements.) I do know that the Illuminati card game is available mainly through close-out sellers at cons. Of the magazines, the only one that published one of my articles — namely, Dragon — is still around.
Best RPG: Mage: the Ascension
Best Card Game: Middle Earth: the Wizards
Best Magazine: Shardis
All three are dead. RIP Shardis — I liked that mag, even when it rejected my stuff. Never played the other games.
I’m going to start reviewing every other year from here on in.
Best RPG: Legend of the Five Rings
Best Trading Card Game: L5R TCG
By 1997, trading cards had their own category. I know that L5R is still around — I heard them shouting “Bonsai!” at GenCon last year. (You know, I never did get the whole miniature tree thing.) I think the L5R RPG is still around as well, but I don’t know. I never played either one.
Best RPG: 7Th Sea
Best Card Game: 7th Sea: No Quarter!
Best Periodical: Knights of the Dinner Table
I’m really sorry to say that these games are dead. I have a great 7th Sea character, and Ingrid and I have invested in most of the books. It was a fine campaign, but it just could not get enough adherents. On the other hand, KoDT is still going strong, and highly recommended. Seriously — if you have ever played an RPG, go find KoDT Bundle of Trouble #1 right now and read “Lair of the Gazebo.” You will be hooked.
Best RPG: Adventure!
Best Trading Card Game: Lord of the Rings TCG
Some games are shooting stars. They burn brightly for a while, then disappear. If these two ever were, I must not have been looking up: I don’t remember either one. I think the license for Lord of the Rings was yanked a couple years later.
Best Card Game Design: Bang!
Best RPG: Angel
Best Trading Card Game: .hack//energy
Gamers’ Choice RPG Award: Savage Worlds
I did look around at a couple game store before I left. I don’t remember seeing any of these. I do remember playing Savage Worlds — it was interesting, although the GM at the con was not awesome. I could be wrong (and if I am, I apologize for dissing any mentioned game) but I think all of these have gone on to the great gaming table in the sky.
Best RPG: Artesia
Best TCG: Ravnica
Artesia: the Known World RPG’s official website last posted any news in June, 2007. At that point, it said that new supplements would be available “really soon now.” The comic book is still around, but the RPG seems to be in hiatus, if not dead. Ravnica, on the other hand, is a Magic expansion. Magic is doing just fine.
So, after looking at the awards for the period since Magic was introduced, we get the following:
RPGs: At least six of the nine RPGs are DOA — and two more are on life support.
Magazines: Dragon and KoDT are going strong. Over time, those two won most awards given out, and eventually the Academy stopped giving awards to magazines.
Trading Card Games: Magic won a few awards. Of the rest of the award winners, only L5R is still alive. The rest: not so much.
This review seems to be pretty good evidence that my anecdotal evidence is not a fluke. Over time, most games fall out of favor, and out of print. Magic is very much the exception.
That bears repeating: in a genre where most games die in a few years, Magic is the exception. It is closing in on its 20th anniversary.
We writers often bash WotC for a lot of what they do. Maybe we should keep in mind that, overall, Wizards of the Coast is better at this business than anyone else. WotC invented the genre. A lot of companies have tried to copy it. Vs. dumped a ton of money into big money tournaments. Spoils created an entire pro tour clone. Both games are in sad shape. Most of the cards I own — from other games — are usable only as proxies or bookmarks. Magic Cards are still appreciating in value.
A week or so ago, I attended a GP with 750+ players, while a GP near Paris had just under 2k players. That is more than the entire player base of some other games. I am also writing this in Germany, on my way to another Pro Tour. (And editing it after a Berlin, which had over 400 players, if I heard correctly.)
We can bash Wizards all we want — but they do know what they are doing. Even when they mess up, they fix it. Urza’s Saga went too far in one direction; Mercadian Masques over-corrected, but that was followed by Invasion — and Invasion was great. Invasion was the original Ravnica — and Ravnica was another award winner. Shards looks like it will follow in that line.
Right now, Wizards is slowly rebuilding MTGO. It also needs to fix its PR department. I have no doubt that they will do so. WotC has proven, over the years, that they can do gaming far better than almost anyone else. It just takes time.
Free markets are totally pitiless — they kill anyone and anything that persists in making mistakes. Wizards’s very survival proves that they can avoid such persistence. So, while criticizing Wizards is really easy, remember that they have a proven record no other card company — and certainly no writer or forum troll — can match.
Wizards really does know what they are doing. We can all fill articles with complaints about trivia (Mythic Rares — OMGWTFBBQ!!!1!!!) but the simple fact is that Shards is the FIFTIETH (50th) MTG expansion, and, to put it in LOLCat: “doing pretty well actually.”
In English: Fifty expansions is frickin’ amazing.
“one million words” on MTGO
Note: I have filled a lot of column inches with complaints. Most of my gripes were probably justified, but I should have said — far more often — the state of the game, overall, is great. For not saying that more often, Wizards, I’m sorry.
Can I have my free cards now?