Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Meet Gilad Yarnitzky

I'm still working on chapter 4 of Encounter. In the meantime, here is an interview I did with Gilad Yarnitzky.

Gilad is the creator of www.boardgames.co.il and the founder of board gaming groups in Modiin and Tel Aviv. In addition, he is trying to create a country-wide board gaming organization in order to promote board games in Israel.

Tell us a little about yourself, apart from gaming.

I'm 37 and married with three kids. I'm an engineer, with everything that implies :-). I work as a software engineer, having just finished my masters in biomedical eng, and hoping to find a job in that field (maybe start my own startup company). Every ~4 years I get bored at the job I'm doing and I switch fields (but sometimes in the same area). I have too many hobbies and too little time for all of them: bridge, model wooden ship building (these first two I hardly do anymore owing to the lack of time), origami, woodworking, and, of course, board games.

Tell us about your involvement with gaming.

I have a relative long history with games. I started in the third grade when my older brother showed me AH Kriegspiel. It took me a year or two to realize it was so different from all the other games I played with my friends. After that, D&D came to Israel and I was in one of the first groups that started here. Many AH games followed. After the army I started a gaming company with my friend that did the first and only Hebrew PBEM and some other things that didn't get published in the end (some really bad luck, I might say). After that, I took a few years off from gaming (I was too disappointed with my failure). The trigger back into gaming was the Eurostyle games that got me started again.

After working in the computers field for so long and seeing how my kids are getting addicted to them, I saw in board games a way out of this situation, and I’m happy to say my kids are game. In order to increase the exposure of board games I started a board game forum in the largest forums community in Israel, which got some exposure, but not enough. I’m now trying to create the Israeli board game association and join forces with companies who are importing games, and with shops that sell the games. It takes time and patience to educate people, but I believe board games in Israel will catch up.

My kids get a large dose of gaming at home, and I'm also teaching their friends whom I sometime invite especially to teach them a game. I can see some success when their friends come over and prefer to play a board game rather than watch TV or play on the computer. One last but not least thing: I must admit that all this effort would not be possible without my number one gaming partner: my wife. I'm a very lucky guy - my wife will play any game that is not a full fledged war game.

Tell me more about your gaming company. What was the business model? Did you create your own games? Did any of the ideas survive?

We had two types of income generating activities:

1: PBM game that combined both roleplaying and war games. At that time, there was a rising hype about roleplaying and we thought it would be a nice addition to the options for players in Israel to have. We examined the market size in the U.S. according to publications by different companies, both free games and pay-per-turn games. Our goal was to reach 200 players on a regular basis. At our peak, we only reached ~60-70 players - that is still nice. I’m sure that nowadays we could have reached more.

2: Advice to technology companies that want to develop games. Many companies here had some nice technology, internet was on the rise, as well as graphical engines, etc. We got in touch with a few companies offering to develop a game that would benefit most from their technology. Our idea was to sell the computer game rights to the company and keep the board game rights to ourselves (for games, this was possible). Only one company said that they understand their limitation in developing games and wanted us to do it. All the rest said: “How hard can it be?” One even showed us after a few months a game they developed. Great graphics, great user interface, lousy game. We gave them a few pointers on why their game was bad. They said “Graphics will cover for every thing.” Needless to say, 6 months after this they canceled developing the game any further since there was no interest in it. With the one company with which we did work together, everything went great. We created a great diplomacy-like game (I still have the prototype at home). We even got in touch with AH and my partner went there and they had a few sessions playing the game. But the game did not go commercial (the computer version) since the company was bought and the new owner decided that he did not want to promote games with their new technology.

We did not lose money, and even made some, but not enough to make a living out of it so we stopped after 2-2.5 years.

Bottom line: We had a great time, developing our own games, met interesting people, and hopefully I'll do it again some day.

How did you decide to start the board game forum, and what has been your experience with it so far? How did that lead to boardgames.co.il ?

I was thinking of a way that people can get information in an "interactive way" by asking for information and reading articles. The forum is one way to do it that did not require any resources on my part except for time. It started slow, with about 4-5 regular people and slowly grew to about 15. Then I decided to hold a forum meeting where people could meet each other and play together. The number grew until it reached ~30-40 people interested in the subject. Sadly, slowly people left the forum. I'm still in touch with lot of them, and they are still into board games more then ever, but the activity in the forum has declined over the past year. This is partially my fault since I did not publish as much as I had previously done.

Some of the people who came into the forum helped me with opening the game club (that didn't work well, but that is another story) and also with opening boardgames.co.il as a center of activities for the board games in Israel. I need to invest more time in increasing the amount of data available at the site and hopefully I'll have more time in the coming year.

OK, I'll bite: tell me about the game club. While we're at it, tell me about your contacts in the gaming world (Grognads seems to like you a lot!)

The idea of the gaming club was to have a place where many people can come and play games and play in tournaments format. There are two problems:

1: A place for all the people (and usually a place means paying money).

2: Games. Since these games are not very well known, I couldn't expect that people will bring their own games. After all, I wanted to create an exposure to games so I needed to supply the games.

We found a very nice bridge club with a nice cafeteria that agreed to host us for a very acceptable price. I bought lots of games, both for tournaments and free play, and decided to charge a bit more in order to cover the costs of the games. And still the cost was less then a movie ticket for a ~4 hour gaming session. The problem was that we tried to do it on a weekly basis, and there are not enough people here to support such a format. We had an average of 12-15 people per night which was not enough for the bridge club owner so we had to stop the activities. We are now trying to start again with a game shop and do it once a month and see how things go.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough people from the gaming world. I had some letter exchange with Jeremy Young from Uberplay who was very helpful with my large game order from them for the club. Some letter exchange with Greg Aleknevicus, author of “The Games Journal”. I have also been in touch with Greg J. Schloesser, and I made some connections with people from the BGG, mostly Grognads and some other nice fellows from the chat. I’m not even sure how many of those people will recognize my name, but it doesn’t really matter; they were always very nice, very helpful and I’m happy to be part of this great community. I do hope that as time passes, I will be more known, but as I said, this is not the issue for me. Creating a large board gaming organization here in Israel is more important at the moment.

Do you envision the board gaming organization to include traditional board games, like backgammon, chess, go, bridge, Scrabble, etc., that are already established in Israel? What is the possibility of overlap with these groups?

This is a bit tricky. Most well established organizations will probably prefer not joining another organization, especially well organized and large groups such as chess and bridge. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind people who are just interested in these fields in joining, but I fear the board games organization will provide less specific services compared to those large organizations. Maybe in the very far future, if the IBGA (Israel Board Gaming Association) will become very large, we can do joint activities.

Where do you buy your games?

I usually buy the games online from different shops. Usually I do a price check, unless I'm looking for a specific game that can only be found in a single shop (or two) and order. My last two orders were from playme.de, but I also bought games from Funagain, Gamefest, and Cardhaus. Occasionally, I do step into a store and buy a game. Here in Israel it is rare, but on vacations abroad I try to buy several games.

What games do you buy?

Most game I buy are Eurogames for 2-5 players, with playing time 1-2 hours. The games have to be interesting according to what I read on the net, and it is best if I can read the rules before buying. I also like to gamble about once every order. Last time, it was Tyros by Wallace, and it turned out to be fine.

What games do you play?

Due to the nature of people I can get into playing games, and the time limit I have, I currently do not play any heavy war games. Anything else goes.

What are your favorite games?

This is a hard one, simply because in most games I can find something interesting. It is very rare that I will encounter a game I will not play again. This is also due to the fact that since we (me and gaming partners) have so many games, they cycle; until a game returns can be a long time, and then everyone is willing to have a go at it.

But games I do like and will play any chance I get are:

King Maker, AH Civilization , Taj Mahal, Vinci, Citadels, Puerto Rico, Traders of Genoa, and there are many more.

What are your wife's favorite games?

My wife will play about any game that is not a core war game. So most of the games on my list will also be on hers, including King Maker and Civilization (even AH Britannia).

What are your kids'/kids' friends' favorite games?

Since they are still relatively young, they have not had a chance to be exposed to the heavier games. So most of the time they prefer: Cartagena, Carcassonne, Carcassonne: the Castle, Zoosim.

What are the favorite games of the people you play with?

Most of the people enjoy Bohnanza, Citadels, Taj Mahal, Samurai, and Settlers of Catan. These are the games I usually introduce to new players and usually they work great in luring people into the gaming world.

Do you have any comments about gaming and your country and/or religion (interpret this as you will)?

Personally I don’t have problems playing games that include the Arab-Israeli wars, games with fantasy gods and things like that, although I did meet some people who had problems with these kind of games, some because of religious problems and some because they didn’t like the fact that Israel can lose in the game.

Are there any games that you wouldn't play based on moral or ethical considerations?

Yes, games that encourage law breaking, killing, and abuse of other people. I think some computer games are on that thin line, but I’m happy to say that personally I haven’t encounter a board game with those “features”.

What do table top games have to contribute that people can't get from some other social hobby, such as sports, knitting, reading groups, etc...?

I think it is the combination of things: it is a very social activity where during the gaming session you can also have a nice discussion about things other than the game while waiting for your turn (try doing that in a group sport activity and your group buddies will tear you apart). It is a good activity to give the brain a good workout, which is also very important. One last important thing: it is very dynamic, in the sense that there are so many good games that every meeting can be so different than any other, so people who start gaming, do not get bored by it.

Do you go to general Israeli game conventions?

I usually go not as a player but as a board game moderator. Many conventions have limited sessions of board gaming and I want to increase the exposure to games, so I volunteer to host some board game sessions.

What do you think is possible in Israel with respect to board games in the next few years?

I’m quite optimistic about the possibilities here in Israel. When I look backwards at the last 3-4 years and I see the advances that were made (2 companies import games, 5+ shops sell board games, one even quite large now, larger exposure in media, larger number of gaming groups), I believe that we are at the beginning of an increase in board game activities, just as happened with roleplaying in the last 10 years.

Will we ever have an international board game convention in Israel?

Sadly, I’d have to say that there is a small chance for that. Not only do we have to increase the activities here to a much higher level, but the costs of most people to come to Israel is so high (the flight price alone can kill you), that I don’t believe people will come to Israel just for that.

Any last words?

Join the force, eh, game players. It is good for you. No harm will come to you, join us… (diabolic laughter)

OK…Thanks for answering!

1 comment:

Coldfoot said...

A great interview with an interesting person. Good luck to Gilad in his endeavors.