Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Open Letter to Steve Jackson Games

[Editor's Note: This post was originally supposed to be much, much shorter, but it kind of grew into this ugly scribe. If you are already familiar with the history of the CCG format, or--so help me--Illuminati, you can skip down to by highly persuasive marketing strategy I've outlined farther down below. This post was prompted by the latest Daily Illuminator, here, though it's something I've been thinking about for months now.]

There were many casualties and few (i.e., one) victors in the collectible card game boom in the mid-90's. With the runaway success of Magic: The Gathering, scores upon scores of CCGs flooded the market. Inevitably, most of them failed, and to this day there are only a dozen games or so that could be considered "successful" and even fewer enjoyed any sort of longevity.

It was a shame, because even with the inherent money-sucking market strategy and (often) indifference of publishers and designers to flesh out rules and card errata, the CCG format itself was able to introduce many new innovations to the board game hobby. The main issue was that, instead of creating a game that was organic within the format, many designers tried to cram "normal" game rules into the CCG realm, often with disastrous results.The simple flooding of the market--even those with disposable incomes weren't able to try each new game, let alone sink wads of cash into it--also hastened its demise.

Enter Illuminati: New World Order.

This was one of the very few CCGs I got into. Actually, by the time I had found out about it, it was already showing up in the discount bins; I never paid full price for a pack. I dabbled in a few others, but mostly because I was able to by entire booster boxes at fire sale prices, but most of them were pretty boring.

INWO straddled many worlds. It was based on a board game that Steve Jackson Games created waaay back in the early 80's. Influenced by the Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, but also by decades of pent-up conspiracy theories and paranoia, it pitted players as a cabal of secret masters attempting to control the world against each other. Your role--the Illuminati--ranged from the mysterious Bermuda Triangle to the money-grubbing Gnomes of Zurich, and each player set to control a myriad of groups to do their bidding, such as the Post Office, the C.I.A, or Nuclear Power Companies. Meeting a certain goal unique to each player--or meeting a basic goal--won the game. (I won't go into rule specifics here, since they can be easily found most anywhere on the internet.)

The format of this old board game was one of necessity. Instead of a traditional "board," players played cards that was the formation of their conspiracy. Rather that being awkward, this melded perfectly into the theme of the game itself: If the Republicans controlled The Mafia, and the Mafia controlled TV Preachers, you would set your cards up in that order, with additional groups, if any, dangling from the sides. Since multiple strains of groups formed your power structure, each player's "board" would grow, spiderlike, across the table. For many games this would look, and feel, strange, but for the purposes of this game it was done well. Another consideration, of course, was cost: by only requiring a pack of cards and perhaps some dice and counters, the production of the game could be done on a shoestring. It felt like a board game but could be easily sold and transported more or less like a deck of cards.

This, of course, was all before my time. But as the description above notes, this old, famous game was perfectly suited for this brand new format called CCGs. Instead of packaging up everything in one box, players could customize their own set of conspiracies and still have the feel of the original game. With a built-in fan base and the opportunity to update rules and groups (say hello to Cable TV, Bill Clinton, and Silicon Valley!), the CCG ended up doing well. Even though many packs made it to the cheap bins, Steve Jackson Games still ended up making a decent profit.

[As an aside, I was never a fan of the original game; it has a "megabucks" system that always seemed clunky and ill-conceived; I also preferred customizing my own deck. When everyone pulls from the same deck, it's hard to make any long-term planning, and adds a lot of chaos to an already chaotic game. But, of course, I played the CCG version first, and I'm sure that formed a pretty strong bias.] 

Of course, the CCG game was not without its flaws. With massive library of 400+ cards, contradictions and clarity issues abounded to the point that errata ballooned to something like 50 printed pages. While the first expansion (Assassins) filled a lot of holes, it also produced a number of awful cards that needed to be completely reworked after printing. And a second expansion, the stand-alone SubGenius, was a disaster--by this time the market was drying up, and basing all of the cards on a cultural reference that was already ludicrously small in number just added to the perplexity. It effectively killed the (admittedly dying) franchise.

And so we come to the important part of this open letter: It's time to re-publish this game.

It would, of course, be foolish to release an expansion as a CCG. The market is dead, the game has been out of print for about 15 years, and the base game is so heavy with legacy costs as to be impractical. However, a new, reasonably robust format has arisen: the LCG, or living card game. Rather than buying packs like baseball cards, gamers would purchase entire sets of pre-determined cards at once. The publisher usually posts some sort of schedule--a new set each month, for example. Instead of being random, players know what cards they are getting ahead of time; yet since the cards are related in some common manner, players may pick and choose which sets they prefer. And, ultimately, the "customization" part still applied, since players can still throw all the cards together as they see fit.

Just as the CCG was a perfect fit for an adaptation of the original game, LCGs appear to be a perfect adaptation of the CCG game.

The sets are already more or less determined: The original CCG release had nine Illuminati cards, with a few new ones added for the expansions. The mix of cards could be fashioned around this. And the cards in each set would be vaguely related, so a workable deck could easily be formed from the cards available in each set.

The game also has an automatic built-in marketing system. Just as Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, and Ted Kennedy are instantly recognizable public figures in 1995, throwing Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, or Donald Trump as cards would immediately grab people's attention. A lot of new conspiracy has been produced since 1995: The Da Vinci Code, 2012, Y2K, etc., not to mention all of the trends that have emerged since then, such as Facebook, reality television, and the Tea Party.

[Aside 2: Steve Jackson Games have been releasing regular expansions to the original Illuminati game that include many of these cultural milestones, but since the rules are different--no plot cards, much fewer special abilities--they don't seem to have been explored to their whole potential.]

And, finally, Steve Jackson Game's website recently posted in their daily update a list of the most trafficked internal parts of their web site here. Listed at #9 is the site of INWO. For a game that has been out of print for a decade and a half, that seems to be a remarkable feat. It's clear people are still playing and referencing this game, even when it's in the mix with other products by SJG that are in print. And this is separate from the original Illuminati game, which, while higher on the list, is also still being actively sold.

So, the Fail-Safe Sure-Fire Marketing Justification for re-releasing INWO as a LCG is thus:
1. There is clearly still interest in a customizable version of Illuminati.
2. The original CCG is too clunky and out-of-date to tinker with at this point. It's dead.
3. The LCG, while not nearly as prevalent as the CCG format was, has still had many more long-term successes than CCGs had.
4. There is still interest in conspiracy theories, and many of the items in the original games are much more well-known now. And due to the nature of the game, it will be easy to hook people. Customers already know about the CIA and UFOs; you don't need to sell them on a new character or universe.
5. From a design standpoint, the sets are more or less already made. Sure, it will require some fine-tuning, and some decisions will have to be made about scheduling and Illuminati cards, but it's well-placed for regular updates. 
6. This would also provide a good way to comb out all of the snags in the rules. Simplify and streamline while keeping the spirit of the original theme.

Obviously, I don't know the industry details as to the viability of such a project. SJG has a pipeline to the major book stores (though these days I suppose that's not saying much) and they are one of the few veteran gaming companies that are still kicking, three decades later. And releasing this parallel to the original game may be cause for saturation concerns.  Yet, while nothing in the board game industry is a no-brainer, and the economy is still a bit waffly, this is much more of a sure bet than other ideas game companies have been shilling lately. Just...something to think about.

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