“Nothing inspires creative thinking more than a lack of funds.” John Zinser
In our early days this certainly seemed to be true. At one point, about a year into publishing Shadis, Wizards of the Coast announced that they would be doing a unique card insert in all of the game magazines. Shadis, InQuest, Scrye etc. They asked each of us how many cards we needed, and we each gave them a number that was double or even triple of normal distribution and then we told distributors about the promotion. In that week we got a true understanding just how much bigger Magic the Gathering was than every other thing in the industry. Our distributors started raising their orders for the magazine from 30,000 to 50,000, then to 75,000, and then to over 100,000 in a week. We could not believe our good fortune. We celebrated and chanted out loud, “100 THOUSAND COPIES”!!! We were drunk, literally and figuratively. The next week as the number continued to rise, Wizards pulled the plug. They realized that no one had any idea how crazy this would get and it was obviously going to cause more problems than benefits for them.
Well, that was a bummer. 100K-plus copies of Shadis would have been a major payday. Just what we needed. After some cursing, we decided to make lemonade. We bought a bunch of cases of the The Dark expansion for Magic and we made a bunch of one-card boosters. A little Magic the Gathering lottery ticket in every issue. It worked, and we did sell more copies of Shadis 16 than any other issue ever. Not 100K, mind you, but respectable enough that we did it again in Issue 18 with Ice Age cards.
Back on the L5R front, the AEG partnership with Ryan’s company was on rocky ground after the challenging launch of the game. Our guaranteed demo program was working just well enough to keep the doors open each month and my partners were out searching for an angel. That angel happened to be a guy named Bob Abramowitz. He had worked in the 80’s with TSR and knew something about the game industry. He was a toy guy and a salesman, and certainly had a different way of thinking than either Ryan or myself. Bob had investor contacts and was able to put the money together to move forward with our plans for L5R, so Five Rings Publishing Group (“FRPG”) was officially formed with the owners of Ryan’s company and the AEG owners as founding shareholders and AEG remaining a separate entity.
I’ll write more about Bob in future blogs. He was quite a character!
AEG would continue to develop L5R as a development house. This becomes a very important decision in the future, but for now AEG was focused on L5R CCG development with FRPG and Shadis. I was doing sales for both companies and Ryan was building the framework for the business that would FRPG would become – developing and publishing games beyond L5R.
While all this was going on we had a GAMA tradeshow to attend in Atlantic City. Cash poor, absolutely no trade show experience, no booth. Dave Seay, Ryan and I flew to the East Coast with a box of freshly printed Shadowlands flyers and a few boxes of demo decks.
This was a strange and wonderful trip. We were broke, but good things were happening and we were excited and ready to celebrate. I guess we had $100 each in per diem for the week and one credit card that was not maxed out. We did the logical thing that young broke people do: We decided to teach Ryan how to play craps. The short version of the story is that we caught a heater and Dave, Ryan and I ended up walking away from the table with over $1,000 each.
To put this into context, none of us regularly had much more than $100 in cash in our wallets. It was the first time Ryan had ever seen $1,000 in cash in one place that belonged to him. Dave was a cop from one of the toughest precincts in America and even he was a little uncomfortable with how much cash we suddenly had compared to what we were used to.
We won the money across the street from the hotel where we were staying. So Dave crossed first, to “keep an eye” on us. Then Ryan and I walked (calmly) across to join him. Then the three of us went to the front desk and asked (quietly) if we could store our winnings in the hotel safe. The front desk manager looked at us, smiled politely and said “of course!”. We deposited three thick (to us) wads of notes and got receipts.
In hindsight, the whole thing was ridiculous. There were probably people standing near us with 10x as much cash on them all the time; but we were young then, and it seemed like something close to a fortune. Great customer service from that manager, though. He could have made the moment agonizing, but instead he made us feel like the high rollers we thought we were!
We went from cash-strapped to balling in Atlantic City. There was still this issue of our booth at the show. No signage, no table drapes, very poorly planned. The convention center rented a piece of plywood mounted on two 4×4 legs as a poor man’s booth backdrop and we grabbed one. We stapled Shadowlands flyers to the booth and basically ran demos the entire time to retailers. We were amazed that even at this stage so few CCG companies were actually playing their games with the purchasers. Our little corner 10’x10’ booth was one of the busiest the whole week and we converted a bunch of retailers to the cause.
The next magical thing that happened to us occurred about mid-morning on the first day of the exhibit hall. We had taught a young guy who was at the show with his parents how to play L5R and he kept hanging around the booth, asking questions. If there was a momentary lull he wanted to sit in and play again. After about a half-dozen games, he shyly asked if we would be willing to trade one of the L5R t-shirts we were wearing with him in exchange for him sitting in our booth and demoing our game.
I looked at Ryan, Ryan looked at Dave, and then we all fell over each other to say yes and got that kid a shirt. And thus was born one of the great institutions of L5R, AEG, and FRPG: The Demo Team. In exchange for a little swag, a lot of compliments and kudos and a place to play, our community grabbed ahold of our little game about samurai and started making big waves.
Huge regret now more than 20 years later: We don’t know who that young man was, but he lives on in our stories and in our hearts as The First.
It’s amazing what a little cash and some positive vibes does for your attitude. We were walking tall, socializing, meeting contacts and having a great time. The show was an unqualified success. All we needed was a bookend to our great Atlantic City story.
On the last night we had a nice dinner, a few drinks, and headed back to the casino. Ryan had become obsessed with the hard way (1) bet on the first night. He was parlaying (2) $1 into $10 and then on a crazy roll he parlayed that into $100 and it hit. That is how he won his $1,000 that first day. On this last night he said “if it happens again I am going parley it into $10,000.” I told him that is not happening because we won’t get the chance. But we did. Our last night played out much like the first night. The tables were nice but not crazy, and then the dice got hot. By the time Dave got the dice we were up and the parlay bets were flying. Ryan parlayed a $10 hard six into $100 bucks and Dave hit it again – he’d just won $1000! Ryan looked at me and said, “I’m doing it!” I said, “No, you are not!” He turned to the dealer and said “Parlay that hard six!” The pit boss, who we now knew pretty well, said, “Are you sure, sir?” (3) and Ryan said, “Yes, this casino is buying me a car.” Wow! The casino pulled $10,000 in chips out so everyone gathered around could see what Ryan might win. Dave, who was shooting, was more nervous than Ryan and we were all caught up in the moment. The dice flew a bunch more times before Dave finally rolled a soft 6 and the casino pulled down Ryan’s $1,000 bet. It did not matter – we had crushed Atlantic City and made memories for a lifetime! Ryan did not win the $10K, but it was still the most exciting time I have ever had at a casino and the perfect book end to the trip.
(1) Hard Way
A “hard way” is a craps bet on four, six, eight or ten and it only wins when the dice show two of the same numbers; for example, a roll of two 4s for a total of eight.
Palay in craps means to let your winnings ride, multiplying your potential take if you win the bet again.
Observant readers will note that the hard way mechanic makes its appearance in AEG’s best-selling Space Base tabletop game, introduced in the Emergence of Shy Pluto expansion!
(3) Are you sure, sir?
This pit boss liked us, and she was trying to subtly tell Ryan he was making a mistake. Not because he wanted to make an outrageous bet – that’s how the casino makes its money! But the problem was that if Ryan had won that bet, the casino would have been required by law to write him a “1099-G” tax report statement which meant that they would have had to withhold 30% of the winnings against his future income tax; instead of walking away with $10k, he’d have netted $7k. But if he had made that parlay bet for maybe half instead of the full $1K, there would have been no report or withholding.
Again, a great example of customer service in Atlantic City, even if we were too inexperienced to understand it.