November 27, 2007
Office Madness, a little Kindness, and Lunch on Mark
In the midst of the 2007 Holiday Specials and shipping batches of new game releases, the office can get to be a very crazy place. And sometimes it can get a little tense for the office and warehouse ladies, as SEVEN of them work feverishly to handle the orders and requests from around thirteen thousand customers. But even during these stressful times, I often hear, as I walk through the office, "Gene, we have GREAT customers!" Generally it's because of some customer's spoken kindness or display of patience when we messed up an order (yes, it DOES happen on occasion, despite our best efforts); sometimes it's just because so many of you are courteous on the phone or via online chat. Your kindnesses make their days better - especially on those inevitable days when they've had someone treat them rudely. Far and away MOST of you guys are really nice to the office ladies, and believe me, it makes a difference to them. So I just want to let you guys know that I very much appreciate the manner in which you treat our staff.
We have one customer, Mark Kaczmarek, who prefaces his twice-yearly treks to Hanford for the GMT Weekends with a phone call. "Gene," he'll say, "Can I please take the ladies to lunch on Friday?" And each time, Mark takes all the office ladies out to lunch at the restaurant of their choice. Pretty classy, but then Mark is a classy guy.
(from left) Sherry, Denise, Letitia, Mark, Ginger, Elizabeth, Cha (Laura missed this one)
Mark also has a sense of humor, and his friendship goes way back to some of those "Get Gene" games a bunch of us played together with Ed Blomgren back in the early-mid 90s at the LA conventions. Well, Mark harasses his friends, so he'll occasionally try to get the office staff to play tricks on me. Sometimes they even agree! But at last month's GMT Weekend lunch, Mark got his, as the ladies called the restaurant early and conspired with the waitress to ensure that the bill that was delivered to Mark for the meal was about 5 times greater than it was supposed to be! When the bill arrived, Mark was momentarily flustered. As he frantically scanned the bill to find out what on earth they all ate to cost THAT much, the ladies chorused: "We got you!"
So it's not a bad idea to stay on their GOOD SIDE! :-)
November 21, 2007
As most of you probably know, we've been tremendously busy in the office and warehouse of late. Essentially, because of some earlier production delays, we are attempting to ship about three months worth of games in three weeks! So, it's definitely been "interesting times" for us here at the warehouse lately.
Yesterday we got a nice surprise when one of our customers, Troy Nichols, came from several hours away and brought his sons to help us assemble games. Wow! Incredibly nice of them, and they did a terrific job. With a little help from the Billingsley kids after school, they built right at 800 copies of Asia Engulfed yesterday. Thanks guys!
Here are a few pictures of our intrepid volunteers, along with a few of our office and warehouse folks.Enjoy the pics, and the games. And to all of our US customers, Happy Thanksgiving!
Here's the whole volunteer crew from yesterday. Thanks guys!
One of the stacks of Asia Engulfed that they built
Letitia, our wonderful office manager
Elizabeth, Exalted Ruler of all ship lists, double checks a product before shipping
It was necessary on occasion to provide fuel for the workers!
November 19, 2007
Today's look InsideGMT is an interview with game designer Rick Young. Rick is the co-designer, along with Jesse Evans, of the popular Europe Engulfed, which GMT has now reprinted. He and Jesse have the EE companion game, Asia Engulfed, coming out sometime in the next ten days or so. Rick is also the designer of the new Fast Action Battles series. The first game in that series, FAB Bulge, is slated to ship early in the first quarter of 2008. Leaping Lemmings, the laugh-a-minute-backstabbing-strategy-screw-your-neighbor-fast-and-fun-Euro-themed-hybrid wargame, is also Rick's handiwork.
Rick lives in North Carolina now, but he was recently our guest at the GMT Weekend in Hanford in October, where we got a chance to catch up on all his designs while also temporarily satisfying his pent-up longing for In-N-Out Burgers.
So Rick, how did you get started designing games?
I was in the Marine Corps in the late 70's, and on a 6-month Mediterranean assignment with the Battalion afloat. Lots of time which was spent playing Spades, Wargames (mostly the old SPI Folio games), and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. I was GM'ing a fantasy D&D campaign, and it was leading up to a full-scale war situation, so I designed my first wargame in that fantasy environment. It was challenging and fun, and the game worked very well indeed, with airmobile Orc battalions (12 orcs belted to each giant locust (two per leg)), heavy cavalry, and lots of exploration and combat.
How did you hook up with GMT?
I was at a Los Angeles ORCCON in 2001 playing Europe Engulfed, and Gene Billingsley of GMT was manning the GMT sales booth. I had just been turned down (again) by another publisher that did not want to put Europe Engulfed on their P500-type list. I approached Gene and asked him to take a look at the game, and he had been following the posts about EE on Consimworld, and since he couldn't escape the booth he asked me to send the game to Andy Lewis.
I did, and then had a chance to show it off to much enthusiasm at GMT West in the Spring of 2002. EE went on the P500 list on June 22, 2002, and was published in December 2003.
Like most of us who do this hobby "work" on the side, you have a family and a "real job." How do you fit design work into your “real-life” schedule?
Weekends and weeknights mostly. My wife isn't always happy about that, and I have to take time-outs often enough to make sure she doesn't feel neglected.
Do you have any hobbies outside of gaming?
Not really - I read history books, and watch movies, and go out to dinner with my wife often enough. But gaming (play and design) completely satisfies my hobby life.
Game designers seem to be gifted in ways the rest of us “mere mortals” just aren’t. What are some of the gifts/attributes that you see as important to being able to create these “paper time machines” – historical games?
I am a mere mortal myself, and do not see myself as anything special. Just a gamer that knows what he likes when he's playing a game (elegance, fun, historical feel), and I do my absolute best to maximize those qualities in the games I design, because I want to play them too.
Do you have a favorite of your designs? If so, what is it about that design that makes it stand out?
All four of my current designs appeal to me for different reasons, and my current favorite might result in a different answer depending on what I want to play on that given day. That said, my sentimental favorite will always be Europe Engulfed. As my first published design, and the one I spent the most man-hours designing (along with co-designer Jesse Evans). Jesse and I played and developed that game again and again. It was a fun process, and I'm very happy both with the game, and the great quality GMT Games infused into the components. They made it their labor of love too, and for that I am eternally grateful.
What are a few of your favorite games that others have designed?
Currently I'd have to say Twilight Struggle, We the People, and Ardennes '44.
We hear GMT talk a lot about the value of development TEAMS to the process of creating and producing great games. What is your perspective on such teams? How do you work with your team, and what benefits and/or frustrations do you find there?
There is great value in having a developer who can search out problems and work closely with the playtest teams. I make sure I'm included on all the e-mails, but it is very helpful that the developer can field most requests without my needing to intervene. The developer and I might not always agree on a problem, but we can talk it through and usually reach a solution or agreement which enriches the game. This is a win for all the players down the road. The only frustration I've felt personally is one I'm sure most game designers feel, and that's trying to get quality artwork and components before the game is ready to print. Kind of a catch-22 that you need the final artwork to generate sales, but you can't get the artwork until you've had enough sales. I understand fully that games going to print are the priority, and there's always at least one of those in the queue, so there is no solution that I can see; still it can be frustrating.
You have Asia Engulfed shipping within a couple of weeks and FAB Bulge in final development nearing production. Are you involved at this point in the final development/ production process? If so, what kind of things are you doing?
Absolutely - I am deeply involved, proofing every draft from the art department, and proofing every reformatting of the rules. With FAB Bulge I took the precaution (necessary due to the fundamental change of the map from point-to-point to areas) of printing out the near final components and playing a game on them. I'm glad I did. I caught about 20 errors, none of which were major, but they would have been annoying had the game gone to print with them. I will try to do that with all future designs as well.
What about this whole “P500 list” process? It seems like GMT’s approach is a great deal for customers but has the potential to be a pain in the nether regions for designers who have to wait for their designs to be published. What’s your perspective on P500?
I'd love for my game to just be published without having to wait for the orders, but that is not the reality in our small niche of the market. Most wargame companies have now mimicked GMT's process to one degree or another, which indicates the true need for it and that it works. I'll suffer through the wait if it ensures the company will be around and strong when my game's turn finally arrives.
OK, we’ll give you a pass here to just tell us anything you want to about any of your games on the P500 list. What is it about these games that players are going to really like?
Asia Engulfed - This may well be shipping or have been shipped by the time you read this, but since I have a free pass... AE will be liked because it provides more tension and excitiement than EE does, due to the smaller block counts and the great expense of the fleets. Putting them at risk always gets the stomach acid churning. The game is usually a very close contest in terms of victory conditions (not in terms of who is going to win the war eventually). Very enjoyable, and plays in about 2/3rds the time of EE.
FAB Bulge will be enjoyed because of the unique asset/event mechanic and the speed of play. Playing the entire Bulge in 4-5 hours while still having meaty decisions to make should make a lot of gamers happy. I am very happy with the design and look forward to bringing you FAB Sicily next.
Leaping Lemmings is a different animal :) This game has been mostly ignored by people until they play it, then they run off to order it. It is a fun wargame-like experience for the whole family or gaming group. I designed it to provide multi-player mayhem with lots of back-stabbing, screw-your-neighbor goodness in every game turn. 16 distinct Special Action cards add significantly to the fun, and the two hungry eagles circling overhead provide a certain satisfaction when you can direct them to your opponent's lemming, and oaths of revenge when they get directed to one of your own. Please step out in faith and order this game if you appreciate the fun, elegance, and feel of my other games. This one will not disappoint, despite its seemingly silly theme.
Can you give away any secrets about games you’re working on that aren’t on the P500 list yet?
I'm working on FAB Sicily, and there is another game in the FAB series that I might co-design with another popular designer on the GMT team of designers. FAB Market Garden, FAB Kharkov, FAB Chosin, FAB Arab Israeli Wars, FAB Guadalcanal, FAB Salerno, FAB Anzio, and possibly a WWI Engulfed game are all on the to-do list, God willing and the creeks don't rise.
Do you get time to play games outside of the design process? Where/when do you get to play?
I play every other week with a group of gamers here locally, which includes local designer Wray Ferrell (Sword of Rome). I also play with a few other gaming groups once a month or so. Mostly this face-to-face gaming is of the "euro" variety, with a few wargames sprinkled in now and then. I do play wargames using the wargameroom.com interface, and also at the three gaming conventions I attend each year (Prezcon, CSW Expo, and the WBC's). Hopefully I'll see you there!
Thanks very much for your time. Anything else you’d like to say to all those folks who buy and enjoy your games?
I would like to thank GMT Games for taking the chance they took with a first-time designer like myself when they published EE.
I would especially like to thank those of you that play my designs. It seems there are a lot of you out there that share my taste in games. Please know that I will continue to design games that I want to play, and that will hopefully continue to mean you want to play them too. It has been an awesome experience meeting many of you at the annual conventions. Please feel free to stop by and introduce yourself. I am name memory challenged though, so please excuse me if you have to reintroduce yourself a year later (getting older isn't all that it's cracked up to be).
November 16, 2007
Welcome to InsideGMT!
This new section of the website will be dedicated to answering your questions and to giving you a look Behind-the-Scenes at many of the people who make GMT products happen. We hope that you will find this an interesting and enjoyable read, and that you will send us plenty of questions.
We intend to update InsideGMT every few days with questions, stories, or interviews, so check here often to see what your favorite GMT personalities have been up to lately.
Questions: We'll do our best to answer a question or two each time we update this section. Please send any question about our company or products to us at [email protected]and put "InsideGMT Question" in the e-mail header. That will get it in our InsideGMT mailbag.
For today, we'll answer a question and present an interview with one of the GMT principals, Tony Curtis.
Question: What on earth happened with all those multiple charges for the Down in Flames Bomber Pack? Did you guys need some extra funds for a Vegas trip?
Answer: <Laughing> Although that IS an interesting theory, what actually happened was a little less extreme, while still pretty embarrassing for us and very annoying to our customers.
We had a function built into the admin tools of our website that was SUPPOSED to do one mass charge for any given P500 game once we told the system that we were ready to charge. We also had (we thought) coded a fail-safe "already charged" flag into the program so that if there were some problem during the charging process and we had to recharge later, nobody would be charged more than once.
Well, THAT was the theory, anyway. It didn't quite work out that way in real life. What happened was that we went to run the charge after giving a weeks notice and asking everyone to please make sure all their credit card info was up-to-date in the system. We ran into the first of several problems when the process stopped about 2 minutes into the charges and only about half a dozen cards were charged. So we had a problem, but we proceeded to make it worse, as we misdiagnosed it as a code issue. Once we fixed a piece of code that did have a small bug, we ran the charge again, knowing (we thought) that we were safe from anyone being charged twice.
To cut to the chase, SIX charge attempts later (each getting progressively better in how long the process ran before stopping), we finally figured out that the problem was that over half of the customer credit cards were being declined because the card or expiration dates were outdated. The piece that we DIDN'T know was that there was a flag in the cart software that automatically stopped the charge process when "x in a row" charges were declined. Worse yet, that cart flag happened BEFORE our flag to never charge a person more than once, so the system never even saw our code to set that flag before it halted the process. Thus, we had a BUNCH of multiple charges for that game. Pretty embarrassing, and a royal pain for both our customers and for our office ladies.
We've since fixed the code, but are waiting for another small charge run (probably History of the Roman Empire or the Sword of Rome Deluxe Map) to use the automated charge feature again. The office ladies are doing the C&C Ancients charges by hand, which takes a lot longer, but beats doing a week of credits by a long shot.
So there's your answer. And again guys, we're very sorry for the inconvenience. This shouldn't happen again <fingers crossed>.
An Interview with Tony Curtis
Gene says: Back in the early-mid 90's I made a phone call to my friend Mark Herman inquiring about one of his ex-Victory Games designer/developers who I was interested in working with. In the course of the conversation, Mark said "There's a guy who works with him; his name is Tony Curtis. He's the Crown Jewels. Whatever you do, get him!"
I knew of Tony from the Victory Insider articles on the Vietnam game, but hadn't really ever thought of approaching him about working with GMT. But I've been soliciting (and following) Mark's advice for a long time and he's never led me wrong yet. And BOY was he ever right about this one! Initially a Developer for several of our games, Tony's talents in organization, management, and finance soon became obvious. Best of all, he is a smart, principled, humble, team player. He's been just a tremendous asset to our company and a great friend. We're a far better company today because Tony Curtis is on our team.
1. So Tony, tell us how you started working with GMT?
A long and winding road, so to speak. Lots of years as "just a wargamer" until 1980 when I left the Army, joined merrill Lynch, and went to New York City for several weeks to train to work for them. SPI was going strong in those days, my Friday nights were open, and playtesting on SPI projects was eminently desirable. Call it serendipity. My eagerness and dependability put me on the radarscopes of some of the SPI luminaries, one of whom, Mark Herman, kept tabs on me when he went on to Victory Games. After SPI went under, I happily continued playtesting for Victory, and did enough work on Nick Karp's Viet Nam that I was asked to write two articles for the Insider. Out in California, someone totally unknown to me, Gene Billingsley, read the articles and decided they were not half bad. Victory Games died also, and Kevin Boylan, the developer I worked with, cast his lot with GMT. Gene learned that I was working with Kevin and took me in as well. So, here I am :-)
2. Judging by your list of game credits over the years, you seem to prefer the Developer role, as opposed to designing games. What is the "fun" for you, in developing?
We all have differing gifts, and designing is not one of mine. Tinkering, however, is. I am pretty good at taking an existing design and figuring what works well and what does not. I have an eye for detail which does not hurt. No one person can catch everything, but I generally catch a lot. The fun for me in developing is to "plug the holes" as they are found, and to make good designs even better - those are the payoffs for me.
3. What are your current areas of responsibility at GMT?
There are three general areas: cash flow management (one of the talents I brought from those years at Merrill was a willingness to listen carefully for whenever the cashflow lady sings the blues), sales to distributors and retailers, and production scheduling.
4. Give us a sense of what an "average day" is like for you, given all the different hats you wear?
No two days have ever been alike. Each day has a fair amount of emailing back to customers to answer questions. There's no day where there isn't communicating and coordinating with the office, warehouse or any combination of Gene, Rodger, Andy and Mark. For the past two weeks, the days have been full of production planning and coordinating. There are at least seven games/modules coming out by year's end, and lately I feel like the juggler with several running chain-saws in the air at one time :-) When new games ship, much of each day is spent getting orders from distributors and retailers, and then following through to make sure that their orders are correct when they go out - in short, we try to provide the same sort of customer service to the distributors as we do for you individual gamers. Then there are the bills to pay and the cash flow to manage. On average, I do at least an hours' worth of development work a day, with some days almost entirely devoted to it. The days of developing three games simultaneously are long gone, however :-) The company has grown and requires much more time, so my first love has taken a backseat to more pressing matters.
5. It seems like you can hardly go a week on Consimworld without reading about production problems at various companies. You're the "production guy" at GMT. Is dealing with the production process as much of a monster as it seems? What are some of the things that can jump up and bite you?
Well, we've got our problems too, and most of them are traceable to a growing customer base and increased production schedule - since problems will always be there, I much prefer the "growth" variety. Four years ago we printed about 9 or 10 products a year, and print runs averaged about 2500 copies per game. This year we will have printed/reprinted 24 products. Until 2003, most of our games did not have cards, and none had blocks or cardboard maps. Europe Engulfed and a host of CDGs changed that. All of our printing was done domestically, and once the files went to the printer, it took about 8 weeks to get the components to Hanford.
All of our blocks are manufactured in Germany. About a third of our games are partially or completely printed in China. Completion and shipping for the overseas items takes a minimum of 90 days - often longer.
Dealing with germany is OK. I speak passable German and read it pretty well. I am blessed also with a truly outstanding production coordinator over there. China - well I speak zero Chinese, and their English emails make for interesting reading :-) Resolving production problems takes far longer than over here where I have worked with some printers long enough that we communicate in a shorthand that we all understand. That won't happen in China for a long time. Did I mention they have a completely different set of holidays they observe, inclding a couple that shut down the plants for a week to ten days at a stretch?
By far our biggest bottleneck, however, is a shortage of qualified graphic artists to keep pace with the production schedule. In 2003 our biggest concern was finding the funds to print the games. Cash flow will always be a concern, but we are in far better financial shape now than we were four years ago. Back then, between Rodger and Mark, all of the graphics needs were met in a timely manner. At the current production pace, however, both Rodger and Mark were burning out. Production-wise, we had slid into a crisis management production mode where the graphics were hitting their desks at the eleventh hour with absolutely no margin for production or graphics delays. We are now in the middle of an ongoing program to bring onboard more independent graphic artists with both Rodger and Mark`doing more coordinating. It's allowing us to begin forward planning and production on graphics.
6. OK, now we put you on the spot. Of the GMT games you've worked on, which remains your favorite? And outside of GMT, in the broader hobby, what are a couple of your favorite all-time games?
I'll hedge a little bit. My favorite GMT games are the East Front Series, Ukraine 43 and Commands and Colors. Outside of GMT, I go back to the Victory Games days and claim Viet Nam and Flash Point: Golan, two brilliant designs, as my favorites.
7. With all the WORK you do on games, do you still get time to play them? Solitaire? Online? With a gaming group? At conventions?
My play in Lawton, America, is solitaire. Thus far, I hve not jumped into online gaming. I do count the playtesting that goes with development as gameplay because for me, it is enjoyable. I do play at Consimworld Expo and WBC and enjoy getting the opportunity to play.
8. If you could point to one thing that you think you, in your various roles at GMT, need to consistently do to help keep GMT running on all cylinders into the future, what would it be?
The most important thing I can do for the foreseeable future is keep pushing forward on the production front to increase the graphics production. We've had a history in this company of identifying and overcoming bottlenecks, and this one will be overcome too.
Next Time: An Interview with Designer Rick Young