Let’s pick right up from where we left off with my interview with GMT’s Tony Curtis:
Jeff McAleer: Twilight Struggle is a fabulous game and is almost always in the top five over on Board Game Geek – I believe it’s currently number three. I know the recent Washington’s War uses somewhatly similar mechanics as far as being event card driven. I’ve also noticed that 1989 has made the grade on the P500 system and that game also looks to work somewhat similarly to Twilight Struggle. Should we expect to see more simulation type games moving into a direction that aren’t just simply about pushing counters across a map and referring to combat results charts?
Tony Curtis: I am sure we will. Success spawns follow-on games. This month we ship Labyrinth, a game that utilizes many of the Twilight Struggle mechanics, but covers a completely different area – the post 9/11 war on terror. 1989 will follow in 2011, and there will be more. To a certain extent, Dominant Species also falls into this category, as does another game on the P500 by the same designer, Urban Sprawl.
JM: It seems to me that GMT is at the forefront of a movement to produce realistic simulations that would appeal to the traditional wargamer while at the same time keeping the designs fresh and engaging for those who would never have considered playing that sort of game in the past. How difficult is it to walk that design tightrope between realism and playability? Why do you think GMT has been more successful in this regard than other companies who were mainly associated with wargames?
TC: I don’t want to be non-compliant, but I do not comment on other gaming companies. I have far too much to do keeping on top of what I have to do at GMT. Let me start here: I believe that gaming is constantly changing and evolving, and we ignore that evolution at our own peril. For example, the entire card driven game genre originated with Mark Herman’s We The People. Thanks to Mark’s design genius and generosity (he “gifted” the mechanics to the gaming community to be used as desired), card driven gaming had opened an entirely new vista to wargamers. Our first card driven game (CDG), was Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory, a game that proved, if nothing else, that World War One could provide the historical basis for an exciting, competitive game. We’ve had no fewer than ten follow-on CDGs in the Paths of Glory format, and then Twilight Struggle built on the established base, but turned off on a new direction of its own. Much of our success comes from these CDGs. Where would GMT be if we had elected to disregard the CDG genre?
The realism vs playability conundrum? Designers submit designs of their choosing to GMT. These designs are “their babies” and they go to great lengths to insure that their designs are historically accurate. How they design their game mechanics pretty much determines whether we see games with detailed rules and long playing times, or games with less complex rules and shorter playing times. On balance we have erred on the side of playability. We still field some really complex games. For example, we have three long-running series with moderate to high complexity – Great Battles of History, Great Battles of the American Civil War and the East Front Series. All three series field games that are excellent historical simulations, and also that are eminently playable – if you have the time and the space.
I have already mentioned the grognard demographic as one imperative for evolution. Here is the other big imperative for us – time. We’ve realized for a long time that the world was becoming a busier place and even many of our grognards no longer had time for the multi-weekend games they once cherished playing. We still keep the grognard games in our line-up. In the last year we produced Battle For Normandy, a veritable five map, multi-counter sheet monster that has sold well. The Crimea game coming up has very impressive P500 pre-order numbers. That being said, the expansion in our product line has been toward the gaming side of the equation. For example, Commands and Colors Ancients has been very popular in large part because battles can be fought in an hour or less.
Our turning point toward faster playing games was Paths of Glory. That game showed us that we broadened our customer base because we had a conflict simulation game that allowed historically possible outcomes, but that was also filled with tough decision making and could be played in three hours or less. Many of our grognards embraced it, but many who had not been GMT customers prior to its release now were in our database too. The extent to which we continue to offer “games” depends on the amount of support we receive for them on P500. Many grognards are still lukewarm toward the non-traditional fare we now have on P500, and many crossover gamers are coming out of a Eurogame culture that doesn’t encourage committing funds in advance, and the gaming landscape in Europe is littered with the bones of companies who bet the farm on games that didn’t sell. Makes for an interesting situation for us because when it comes to printing games, GMT won’t go out on a limb without company – the gamers who pre-order on P500.
TC: On a personal level we believe in the Golden Rule – treat our customers as we would want to be treated. We strive to be error free, but we are human and mistakes happen: games get shipped with missing or damaged parts, game boxes get torn up shipping to customers, orders get entered that do not get invoiced and shipped, and so on. We have always believed in the basic honesty of our customers. If a customer calls and says he is missing the counter sheets to a game we shipped to him, we send them out right away because we believe those sheets really are missing. If a distributor contacts me and says they were short two games in their last shipment, we send them right out. We have not been disappointed by our customers. We have the blessing of working with a segment of society where honesty is the norm. From a business standpoint we know the one thing that will drive a customer – and any future purchases – away is being treated poorly. Owning the best GMT game in the world will not compensate for poor customer service after the purchase. We still lose a few customers, but it’s not for lack of trying. With stress levels through the roof because of the economy, it’s even more imperative to try to solve customer problems quickly, efficiently, and most of all, cheerfully with no questions asked.
The Tough Economy Specials. We gamers are a unique bunch of people. In our hierarchy of basic needs, buying and playing games ranks right up there close to food shelter and clothing. OK, an exaggeration, but there is truth to it. Gamers thrown out of work by this recession get hit twice – they have to deal with the emotional and financial issues of being downsized, and with diminished budgets they can no longer afford to buy the games that would bring them enjoyment. We have run three Tough Economy Specials. For those anywhere in the world who have ever bought a GMT game from any source and who can show they have become unemployed as of a certain date, we have sent two free GMT games of their choice and paid for the shipping. We just wrapped up the third special. We are in what economists who are not out of work glibly refer to as a “rolling recession.” All sectors get hit, but not at the same time. We had gamers thrown out of work in the fall of 2008. We have gamers getting downsized now – and at all points in between. There may well be a need for a fourth Tough Economy Special.
JM: Why did the Tough Economy program seem to make good sense for the folks at GMT?
TC: I’m glad you asked. For us it has made perfect sense, but the average business person looking in from the outside might think we were nuts. We have been taken to task for giving away games we could have sold, and truthfully, at a time when our revenues were down, we created an additional expense we had to absorb. On the other hand we’ve been complimented for coming up with one of the neatest customer loyalty programs out there. Well, since day one for GMT, customer loyalty has always been a top priority. It’s not like we suddenly decided it was important. Our motivation to run the specials has been two-fold. First, all five partners are Christians and believing in Matthew 25 and James 2: 14-18, we could not stand by and do nothing in the midst of such widespread suffering. Second is our gratitude for the loyalty our customers have shown us through the years. As I mentioned before, many of the gamers out of work are the same ones who kept us alive earlier through their faith and generosity. We wanted in some way to repay their loyalty – return kindness with kindness.
JM: No doubt those are just some of the reasons that gamers who have played GMT games are fiercely loyal to the company! Let’s finish up by looking at what’s on the near horizon at GMT. I see that shipping or soon to be are Labyrinth: The War on Terror, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, and a game that I’m very interested in checking out, The Spanish Civil War. Care to share with us some of the reasons why we should be excited about these new releases?
TC: Not everybody will want to run out and buy all three, but each will appeal to some gamers. I think The Spanish Civil War will not only play well, but will help gamers learn more about that war itself. Labyrinth has already engendered spirited discussion about simulating current history, but the designer is well qualified to present the subject. If you like the way Twilight Struggle plays, there is a good chance you will also like Labyrinth. C&C: Napoleonics follows in the footsteps of its illustrious predecessor, C&C: Ancients, but there are significant differences in how it plays. It’s a different form of short and enjoyable. Here again, had we not decided long ago to branch out into block games starting with Europe Engulfed, we would’ve missed out on a lot of really good block games – the Commands and Colors games included.
JM: I’m sure there are quite a few people who are going to read this interview who will be very interested in picking up the three latest releases, that’s for sure! Is there anything else coming down the pike that we should really be keeping an eye out for?
TC: There always is! We’ll let you all decide for yourselves. Enjoy the games!
JM: Well, Tony, thanks again to taking time out to share with us your thoughts on GMT and the hobby overall! I’m always keeping an eye out on your latest games and I hope I have a chance to meet with the gang from GMT at 2011’s ConsimWorld Expo right here in the Phoenix Valley!
Interviewer’s Rather Biased Note: I think this byplay with Tony certainly shows why he and GMT Games itself are so well thought of in the industry. It’s obvious that the company has a great business model in place to provide gamers with the titles they’re going to want to tackle but obviously also truly cares about the gaming community at large. Sorry to say there aren’t many companies out there who look outside the bottom line. Or at least not in the same way as the gents running the show at GMT do.
For those of you who have never considered giving a GMT game a try because you had the impression that all they produce is “conflict simulations” I can wholeheartedly recommend giving Dominant Species a try. Or if you’re looking for something a little more family-centric pick up Leaping Lemmings (we’ll have a review up shortly) and then branch out a bit; Twilight Struggle isn’t one of the top games over on BGG by accident! After that I leave you to your own devices…
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