by Chris Sanderson
As I write this, our store has been open for exactly eight years. We opened with little to no fanfare, with no real plan and with a marketing budget of “my mates.” My goal: a place to hang out and play RPGs together. Sure, we’d been hanging out and playing RPGs together for years so what made me suddenly decide to open a games store? Well, the Japanese book store chain Kinokuniya started to add board games to their bookshelves… great except for one small hiccup, not a single member of their staff knew anything about board games! Not a thing! I was horrified, so decided to open a game store where people actually knew how to play games…and Battlefield Bangkok was born.
Looking back, we didn’t do our research, and probably if we had, we’d never have opened. A country where people don’t really like reading, where English is a second or third language and where there is little to no history of board gaming. Okay, that’s not true, Thai people love playing games and there are any number of board games around that you can see people playing on any street corner, or could until mobile gaming killed them.
When we opened the store we picked games based on their Board Game Geek rating, many I knew, many I had never heard of. I hired a store manager who had been educated in the USA and had played games at University. And one hot sunny May morning we opened the doors….and it was quiet…very quiet.
We’d opted not to be in a shopping mall; we wanted full control of our open hours. So the foot traffic was minimal, but we had great parking and a mass transit station only 300 metres away as well as being right next to one of Bangkok’s main through roads (Sukhumvit for those that know Bangkok), however we were not central… we pretty much worked on the basis of “if you open it…they will come….eventually”.
We sacked our store manager on day three when we found him on his phone playing a casino game.
Which is when things turned around. We offered the job to one of our first Thai customers… and that was the catalyst that turned the store from being an expat hang out to a place where Thai gamers were born. Our store manager (Khun Nat) was soon telling all his fringe board game players about the store and very swiftly we went from “It’s 7pm, we’re empty, we might as well close” to “it’s 3am we might need to close soon.”
The ability to control our own open hours and having a local gaming fanatic as our store manager turned us into the place to go for gaming. Granted, it was still a pretty small player base we were targeting but the seeds were planted and they grew. We expanded into miniatures and attracted existing Warhammer players, and shortly after that, we saw the first competition start to open!
With such a small market, my initial thoughts were along the lines of “DOOM! DOOM! DOOM!” for probably two years I worried every time we saw someone selling games from their bedroom, on Facebook, via email, or from newly opening stores. It took a while for it to sink in that each of these new outlets meant that gaming was catching on…and that each of these outlets was promoting games … free marketing for us!
As more stores opened, our sales increased, it was quite incredible to watch. We were seeing a whole new hobby being born in Thailand, from the small seed that we had planted.
Roleplaying took a little longer to catch on. With all the games in English, and the general dislike of reading here, it was going to take something special for us to hook local players. The answer should have been obvious… but it was one of our local customers who pointed out the obvious to us…Thai people love ghosts and horror… and so we ran our first Horror RPG, in English for just Thai players. It was a disaster…they totally failed to follow the plot, got carried away doing their own thing, fell for the “damsel in distress” and ended up the session on the run… did I say disaster? I meant it was a thing of beauty. They owned it! They left that demo and went out to preach the glory of RPGs! Our first RPG evangelists were born, shortly after this we ran Free RPG Day… we ran twelve sessions, eight in Thai, it was wonderful to watch.
These first RPG evangelists are still playing RPGs today and have branched out into all kinds of wonderful games.
This success with RPGs very much brought home the fact that we needed evangelists for complicated or expandable games, but it an RPG, card games, miniatures, HeroClix…whatever, if we wanted a game to catch on, grow and have an ongoing community we needed to be sure we had a local evangelists who not only was happy to be the cheer leader of that game, but also really did enjoy playing it.
Our evangelists soon had their own blogs, Facebook groups, Line Groups and all other kinds of social media that made it possible for them to share their excitement about games to all their friends and from there that it be shared broadly across multiple play groups. So not only did our store benefit, but every store that was touched by the social media groups that the players created.
Today there are over 80 board game stores and gaming cafes nationwide and every month we see more opening. We’ve gone from being a quiet shop that celebrated seeing a couple of customers on a Friday night, to being a major supplier of games to the local game stores.
There has been one key element that I should touch on in closing. We do have a huge advantage over many other countries, and that is “we control who sells”. And through that we ensure there are no web-only stores. Our focus has always been on community and social gaming. By ensuring that every store has the same pricing and same access to all games we ensure that players support their local stores.
This philosophy has spread to the other suppliers in Thailand now too. Every seller is a store, every store has a community and therefore gaming is growing.
So, now I just need to open a small shop on a little island down south and I’ll be in semiretirement, with a board game in front of me and waves lapping at my feet!