Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Caplan Christmas

Let us pause a moment at this time of year to remember some of the good folks that have passed through the card business, and laugh a little at their cards.

I first encountered Allan Caplan when we started doing consulting work for SkyBox in the mid-‘90s, though my partner Dean had known Allan before, from Dean’s days as the advertising manager for the highly late and constantly lamented Baseball Cards magazine.

Dean warned me about Allan. “He’s something else,” Dean said. “Wait ‘til you meet him.”

I didn’t meet him first; I heard him.

There’s something about the way Allan Caplan greets you over the telephone that’s unique in the way that red-bean-sandwich-flavored Kit Kats are unique. You have to be ready for it, and even if you’re ready for it you may not like it.

“Hi, Kit,” Allan said when he called the first time, drawing out the “I” in “hi” like homemade caramel, and talking in a sort of Mean Streets patois but higher-pitched, so I understood right away why some people called him “Uncle Al, the kiddies’ pal.”

So he said, “Hi, Kit,” and then he said, “this is Allan Caplan.” He always said, “this is Allan Caplan,” stretching the syllables until you could read a newspaper through them, no matter how many times we talked, as if there could be another who talked with that peculiar mix of elasticity, gentleness and Brooklyn.

I don’t remember the question he asked me, but I’m guessing it was unanswerable, because that’s the way Allan’s mind works. He’s a marketing genius; he knows more angles than a geometry textbook, and if he called someone for help in those days it was either because he needed one of us to look up some arcane fact (good business in those pre-Google days) or the question couldn’t be answered.

Plus, I think he liked talking to a couple of Midwestern hicks who laughed pretty easy.

Allan was somewhere in that gray area between trusted-and-valued consultant and employee, and he was in charge of most of the SkyBox’s non-Star Trek non-sports cards. He had a key role in developing the original Marvel Universe cards, and he played a crucial role in the development of movie cards for Disney and others.

That means he takes at least a little culpability for Pagemaster[1] cards (though I don’t know what role he had in picking that lhasa apso of a license), and a whole lot of credit for the non-sport-card business as it shaped up through the ‘90s and into the 2000s.

Allan used SkyBox and all those non-sport sets to figure out The Formula, the exact mix of chase, autographs and other elements that would deliver collectibility and value to the buyer and profits to the seller, and once he had The Formula perfected, Allan took a couple of key people, left SkyBox and started Inkworks.

Inkworks did good work. I have a mess of its sets on a bookshelf behind my guitars, and they’re arguably the best base-level non-sports sets of their times. Inkworks did the best James Bond set, the best Elvis set, the best Simpsons set. They're perfect examples of The Formula in action.

Here’s what I mean. I just pulled my SimpsonsMania set off the shelf. It’s housed in a deluxe binder (extra, from your local Inkworks dealer or direct, via an on-pack offer). The base set consists of white-bordered cards that parody conventional trading cards; for instance, the set’s first card, Comic-Book Guy, has a word balloon with “Worst trading card ever” coming out of his mouth and his favorite aroma (“The smell of Mylar in the morning”) inset in the right-hand corner. There are puzzle cards, Wacky Packages ripoffs (my favorite: “Barnacle Bill’s Home Pregnancy test – just add urine”), a chase featuring comic artists’ reinterpretations of Simpsons characters, a mod day-glo chase, and fold-in inserts, all for less than $2 a pack – with a full set in a box guaranteed.

Given everything else that was on the market then and now, that’s value. Hey, it’s still pictures on cardboard, but it’s pictures on cardboard done right. It’s the difference between Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and generic. You can see and smell and taste the difference.

The other thing I love about Allan Caplan is that when he ran Inkworks he kept Christmas well.

A couple of years ago I cleaned out the Christmas-card bin and blogged about it here. In that piece I showed two Inkworks Christmas cards and talked about how Allan talks, but in the meantime I've found a couple more Inkworks Christmas cards to share.

Everyone signed this holiday card from 2003, including Godzilla. That’s his John Hancock in the lower-left corner. The thing I like about this card is that it doesn’t promote anything – except perhaps Inkworks in a snow-soft sort of way. It’s merely a Christmas trading card from a trading-card company. It’s like a bakery sending a Christmas card made out of bread, or an advertising agency sending a holiday greeting made out of weird.

Even though this card works the commercial side of Christmas Street I like it anyway. After all, few things say Christmas better than a come-back-from-the-dead gumshoe appearing (so to speak) in a wretched movie starring Gabriel Macht.[2]

This card also points up Inkworks’ greatest flaw and its eventual undoing. The company lacked the wherewithal to go after the slam-dunk licenses with the built-in fan base, so it had to bet on the come on licenses that either were dormant and underappreciated (e.g., Bond) or properties that could go big and develop critical mass (like the Buffy The Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel). The Formula also got a little tired after 10 years of constant use.

Let’s not dwell on that now. Let’s join hands with this cardboard card of a cardboard character and gaze up at the holofoil Christmas tree and sing.

Have a grand ol’ Landfill Christmas, everyone.

[1] Talk about a movie that vanished from the planet. They don’t show The Pagemaster anywhere. You can’t even buy it for $5 at Walmart. I can understand why, but they still show Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses without an ounce of compunction.
[2] A movie so bad that Roger Ebert remarked memorably, “There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

That's Dich Trickel To You

My running feud with racing cards has been well-documented. Basically I assert that racing cards – stock-car-racing cards, as if there were any others – try to make way too much out of way too little[1]. Racing cards fire back with something snappy like, “Oh, yeah? Well, you’re old. And ugly, too.[2]” And then we push each other a little and NASCAR cards pretend to fall down and break their leg because they watch a lot of Premier League soccer, and we both wind up in the principal’s office on double-secret detention.

Honestly, though; do the math. There are roughly 40 NASCAR Winston Cup[3] drivers and subs. Each one has a car. There is no reason for a racing set to contain more than 80 cards, yet Traks and Finish Line and SkyBox and Upper Deck would roll up to the start line with 200-card sets so overstuffed with mechanic cards and transporter cards and impact-wrench cards that getting a Lake Speed in a pack was a real accomplishment. When you’d find him you’d do your little NASCAR-card happy dance and point in the air with your pointer fingers and titter, “I got Lake Speed! I got Lake Speed!” It was only a couple minutes later after the initial charge had worn off that you sat down and said very quietly to yourself, “Oh. I got Lake Speed.”

So given all that, I ought to like, or at least not hate, the Hi-Tech Brickyard 400 Race Preview set. Right at the top of the spec sheet it says, “75-80 card set.” Now, you might quibble that it’s missing a hyphen, or that if you’re making a spec sheet to sell your card set that you really ought to know how many cards are in your set, but no matter. It’s an appropriately sized set, and that’s what matters – right? Right?

Well, maybe not so much. Note that the card set is for one race and one race only – the Brickyard 400 – and the race hasn’t even been run yet.

To give you a parallel, that would be like making a football set for the Texans-Jaguars set before the game. Gotta build up that anticipation.

Okay, so maybe it’s a little more than making a football set for the Texans-Jaguars game. Maybe it’s like making a set for the entire league for a really important game. Like Donruss Opening Day.

Hmmm. Better scratch that analogy, too.

So there is no analogy that makes the Hi-Tech Brickyard 400 Race Preview set look like anything other than a bad idea. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. Let’s look at the rest of the specs.

According to the sell sheet, the cards feature five-color printing (for those times when four-color simply isn’t enough), purple and gold foil, UV coating, and a limited edition of 2,500 sets. Especially on a day when I was reading about Collector’s Edge’s plan to strictly limit production to 100,000 of each card, 2,500 sounds all right.

In fact, things were going along swimmingly between me and the Hi-Tech Brickyard 400 Race Preview set until I read this: “On August 16, 17, 1993, thirty-two teams and thirty-four drivers participated in practice sessions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the inaugural Brickyard 400. Excitement and enthusiasm ran rampant among stock-car teams and dedicated race fans in anticipation of the August 6, 1994 event. This set, second in a three-part series of the Brickyard 400, details the action and events of the two-day test session leading up to this year’s run to the bricks on the Greatest Race Course in the World.”

Reading between the lines of slipshod writing (Run to the bricks? Greatest Race Course in the World? Greatest Semi-Round Strip of Asphalt Encircling Drunk Morons in Winnebagos, maybe), do you realize what this is? This is a race-car set of cars not racing but practicing to race a race that isn’t going to be raced for a year. Not only that, but this isn’t a 75-80-card set but one of three 75-80-card sets, pumping up to 225-240 the total number of cards dedicated to a practice run for a race that had never been raced before. That is one big ol’ heapin’ helpin’ of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Not only that, but – hold me back, now; hold me back – take a good, close look at the sample cards. Do you see what I see, high up on the page, shepherd boy? (Sorry.) It’s a star all right – Jeff Gordon, the biggest star in the sport at that time. Only look at the spelling of his name: Geoff Gordon.

No freaking fooling. Hi-Tech, in the course of promoting one of its three sets of cards showing cars practicing to run a race one year later, screwed the unscrewable pooch of stock-car racing, the one name that’s absolutely impossible to mess up, Jeff Gordon.[4]

What kind of wacky-ass cardmaker does that?

To give you some perspective, because of the small number of drivers in NASCAR each driver is worth about 25 baseball or football players. So in essence Hi-Tech just misspelled the names of the 25 biggest stars in the sport of your choice – as in Gerry Ryz, Emmitt Smyth, Steve Younge, Jo Montana, Barrie Sanders, et al.

Several months ago, in one of my periodic paroxysms against racing cards, I named off all the race-card manufacturers but omitted Hi-Tech. On one hand, how prescient of me. On the other hand, how could I? They’re perfect.

And ugly. And old.

Neener neener neener.

[1]  Except for Morgan Shepherd, Dick Trickle, Dave Marcis, and your choice of Sterling or Coo Coo Marlin. Never can get enough of them cats.
[2] Sorry; that’s what my kids say. Stock-car cards just say, “Well …,” and then breathe real heavy for a while before turning and clomping off.
[3] Still the best marketing concept used in service of Death on a Stick.
[4] Confused him with the nonexistent F1 racer Geoff Gordon, obviously.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Blow To The Head

The normal content of all of my blogs has been pre-empted by what I consider to be an essential message. If you're looking for something else a little more entertaining, be patient and share this with your favorite athlete, and his or her parents. 
My son no longer plays youth hockey, and I no longer coach youth hockey. And while I am heartbroken by this turn of events, I am totally at peace with that decision.
Obviously, one event precipitated the other. On Nov. 17, my son Andy suffered his third concussion in 10 months, in a B-level bantam game. The next day a neurologist – whose son was a star hockey player – recommended he give up the sport.
We didn’t argue or fight back. Instead, we accepted the recommendation with a measure of relief; at the same time, I resigned my position as an assistant coach with my son’s team.
My son was not going to be a star hockey player; he shook out as a borderline high-school varsity player. But his skills as a hockey player did not have any impact on this decision. He’s a very good B-level bantam hockey player, arguably one of the best in the state. With him on the ice, his team stood a very good chance of winning a state title. He didn’t leave a lesser team or a less meaningful situation, not that that matters or should matter. I can’t imagine any decision to leave a team could have been any more heart-wrenching even at the highest levels of the game, yet we made this decision unanimously, without compunction or remorse.
Andy is walking away primarily because the doctors and his parents recommended it. I am walking away because I can no longer with a clear conscience recommend that young people play upper-level hockey.
This isn’t a cause-and-effect thing; it’s not simply a case of me losing my desire to coach because my son had three concussions and had to quit hockey. Instead, this is a conclusion that I have reached after coaching more than 100 hockey games over the last four years. I can no longer convince myself that there is sufficient concern for players’ well-being coming from any sector of the sport – equipment manufacturers, sanctioning bodies and organizations, officials, coaches, parents, and other players.
In the last six games I coached I saw three players on our team leave the ice with concussions or concussion-like symptoms. In less than a full season I saw six players sustain concussions and one break his collarbone.
I asked Andy how many penalty minutes were doled out as the total punishment for those injuries, all of which were inflicted through illegal or borderline-illegal contact. He said six.
Six minutes: That’s a total. That’s a total for six significant brain injuries and a broken bone resulting from illegal and borderline-illegal contact.  Cause injuries like that on the street and you’re spending a year in prison. Do that in high-school hockey and your team can’t play for a state championship.  Do it in the NHL or NFL and you’re suspended one game minimum and fined five figures. Do that in bantam-B hockey and you spend six minutes in the box.
Does this seem right to you in any way? If not, the easy way out is to blame the officials and leave it at that. They should have called the penalties. Call the penalties and none of this happens.
Okay, but consider the officials’ situation. Most of our team’s games were officiated by children as the law defines them, 16- or 17-year-old boys looking to make a little money. For some of them, the first game they officiated was our game.
It never struck me until very recently, but I am absolutely terrified by the mere idea of having a barely trained 16-year-old boy, in many cases a head-knocking product of a head-knocking hockey culture, being put into a contentious environment and charged with enforcing the rules protecting 14-year-old kids in a sport where violent high-speed collisions occur every minute. These young officials have only the most basic knowledge of the rules, are not sufficiently removed from a hockey culture that may encourage illegal contact, are easily influenced by coaches and spectators, and in no way feel empowered to make the difficult calls that need to be made to create an adequate atmosphere of safety on the ice. They’re in a no-win situation, and the game and its players suffer for it.
Not only do officials need to be better trained and sufficiently empowered, the rules backing them need to be stiffer. A lot stiffer. It’s okay to be draconian here, to punish player, coach, and team for hits resulting in head injuries. If USA Hockey, the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association, and all other hockey-sanctioning bodies wanted to remove from the game 90 percent of the hits resulting in head injuries, they could. Disqualify teams from tournaments. Suspend coaches. Suspend players. Forfeit games. Bar organizations. It’s not as if they don’t know the dangers or what’s at stake. After all, there wouldn’t be state or national titles if these bodies didn’t create them out of whole cloth.
Football has taken huge steps toward criminalizing head contact. Hockey’s efforts look half-hearted by comparison.
As long as we’re on the subject of sanctioning bodies and half-hearted efforts, the attempts to educate coaches on the necessity of removing the culture of violence from the game and discourage head contact come off as less than half-hearted – one-quarter-hearted, maybe. USA Hockey’s age-specific modules spend at least as much time talking about why eight-year-olds should not drink alcohol as they do avoiding the subject of head contact. (USA Hockey’s glass-half-full approach is to teach appropriate body contact, and avoid the subject of the head as much as possible.) Educational requirements are bare-bones for most coaches, with nothing that stresses the absolute necessity of compliance. Coaches can and do sleep through their clinic, stumble through their CE, and go right back to teaching the art of the high elbow to the jaw and the stick butt under the shoulder pads.
Somehow, someway, the head-knockers and red-bloods that are coaching kids need to be weeded out, or dialed back at the very least. I had the privilege of working under some superb coaches who truly understood the game. Jim Lawrence is a Ph. D. in chemistry who coached the club-hockey team at Purdue. Ron Dufresne played Minnesota hockey and Ivy League football. I’ve seen these highly educated men teach the game the right way practice after practice and game after game. They’ve sat kids who were improperly aggressive, dialed back the bench when they cheered a big hit, treated referees with respect, acknowledged good plays by opponents, supported kids who needed supporting, held back kids who were hurt, and shook hands at the final buzzer.
Did we sometimes cheer the wrong things at the wrong times? Sure. But we never belittled a child, swore at a child, swore at an official, sanctioned players who swore at other players or officials, applauded illegal behavior, encouraged head-hunting, or raised hockey players the way NFL players raise pitbulls. We played against plenty of coaches who did, unfortunately.
“So there are bad coaches,” the red-bloods say. “Big news flash. Most coaches are good.”
I’d go along with that. More than half of all coaches are good. All that means is that once a week my son was facing a coach who wasn’t good, who wasn’t teaching kids the right way, who was condoning reckless, unsportsmanlike, dangerous play.
All right, so one-third of coaches are bad. That means my son was being put in a dangerous situation a little less than once a week. One-quarter bad? In danger every other week.
The odds really don’t ever get good. It’s not acceptable for a child’s long-term health to be put into the hands of irresponsible adults once a month, once every other month, once a year, or ever. It’s just not acceptable.
 “Geez, why doncha just do away with checking altogether?” the red-bloods ask mockingly. “And then it’ll be just like girls’ hockey.”
I’m okay with that, actually. None of the life lessons hockey teaches involve head injuries.
One of the reasons I’d be okay with youth hockey minus checking has to do with equipment. Equipment manufacturers say that their equipment is better than ever. It is; it’s better at turning kids into high-speed battering rams.
This isn’t just a hockey thing. Football is struggling with the same problem. Advancements in protective equipment for both sports do a much better job of protecting the deliverer of the blow than the receiver. There is no “concussion-proof” helmet. There is no fail-safe knee brace.
The inventors of such things would enjoy untold riches through organizational endorsements and grateful-parent purchases, so I don’t necessarily think hockey parents should underwrite the development of truly safe equipment through higher fees. But if that’s the way it’s going to get done, surcharge away.
I used to think better equipment was the ultimate way of making hockey safer. Now I think it’s probably the least necessary component in the equation. The ultimate answer isn’t scientific; it’s cultural.
Here is where we really need answers. Rules and punishments come to a dead stop when they run into the head-knocking red-bloods – parents, coaches, players, and organizational officials -- that make up an unfortunately large part of hockey culture.
I may not have the answers, but I have a few suggestions.
Coaches need to take this stuff seriously and realize it’s not the game they played for the most part. It’s a faster, better game played by more larger, faster, more highly skilled players. That’s the game they have to teach, and if they can’t teach it, they have to step aside in favor of someone who can.
Parents need to realize the same thing, plus the following: You are not your child. Their aspirations and accomplishments are not your aspirations and accomplishments. And they are very likely not going to make the NHL regardless of how much ice time they get, how many goals they score, what the referees do or don’t do, or how many minutes they spend in the box. Also, it is not all right for your child to hit another child in the head, or from behind, or in any illegal manner, no matter how spectacularly the other kid falls. One of these times he’s not going to get up.
Referees need to make the calls knowing enough to make the calls, and knowing there will be no repercussions from any quarter for making the calls.
Equipment manufacturers need to step it up. Protecting young hockey players is at least as important as protecting young football players.
Finally, the sanctioning bodies have to muzzle the red-bloods who don’t understand why squirts can’t body-check, show a little red blood of their own, and vow to eliminate head contact from the game, and do whatever – whatever—it takes to make that occur – up to and including removing checking from youth hockey.
If checking could be removed from the game for a time, all the people who play hockey simply for the violence might leave, and then if body contact were to be gradually reintroduced commensurate with improvements in equipment, the game might eventually become what it can be – a fast, free-flowing, beautiful sport that above all rewards speed and skill. But that’s not a guarantee. It’s a pipedream.
For my part, I’ll never be able to replace the thrill I got seeing my son charge like a stallion onto the ice to start his shift, the joy I felt seeing the joy he derived from the game. That’s gone forever, and whatever he does in any other sport will never replace that.
At the very end I come back to the story of another parent from Andy’s team, a tough little guy, brusque and abrasive but honest as the day is long, someone I like and respect.  In high school this guy was one of those types who was immediately good at any sport he picked up. Hockey was his favorite sport; he played it well and played hard. He couldn’t tell me how many concussions he sustained, but he assured me it was a big number.
He has a dead spot on his brain now from too many concussions, and Parkinson’s. His last five years have been a continual series of ER visits, tests at Mayo and near-death experiences, all traceable to concussions, all traceable to hockey.
He asked Andy, “How many concussions is this?”
“Three,” Andy answered.
“Take my word for it,” he replied. “The fourth one’s not worth it.”
It’s not worth it. And I can’t convince myself that a third is worth it, or a second, or even a first, and I can’t honestly tell parents or kids that it’s worth it.
So my son and I are walking away from hockey, for different reasons. I know my son’s future is bright, and I’ll be okay. I’m not so sure about the sport. 

Postscript: After I wrote this I shared it, as a whole or in condensed form, with many people whom I consider to be experts in sports medicine, hockey, or writing. Some disagreed with emphasis or wording, but no one disagreed substantially with anything presented in this piece. A hockey coach in Regina, Sask., who was one of Andy’s first coaches said “yep,” and sent me a link to a piece on young officials giving up officiating because of fan abuse. A veteran high-school and semipro hockey official said “yep.” A high-ranking official in minor-league hockey said “yep.” The local high-school hockey coach said “yep.” The former team doctor of the Boston Red Sox said “yep.” The parents of Andy’s former teammates said “yep.” A number of red-blooded hockey fans said “yep.” There’s obviously a problem. The question is whether enough people care sufficiently about a solution.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

You Deserve A Grimace Today

I hate when I’m reminded of things I’d forgotten about the Handful O’Landfill era, because then I’m reminded of things I’d forgotten about the Handful O’Landfill era.

Some people join the French Foreign Legion to forget. Me, I went into dental insurance. But only because the 401(k) was better.

The story behind this case of institutional remembering is that my lovely wife needed file folders, so I emptied out some of my voluminous chronicles of the Decline and Fall of the Trading-Card Business, mostly the stuff dealing with Collect-A-Card and its various products.

Collect-A-Card is interesting. It may not get its own chapter in the Decline and Fall etc., but it certainly merits several healthy paragraphs.

The short history of Collect-A-Card is this: It had one huge hit with Coca-Cola cards, came close with a couple other properties and bombed with the rest, and the bosses got out while the getting was good.

Put another way, if Collect-A-Card was a Cy Young Award winner it would have been Doug Drabek.

Collect-A-Card was out of Greenville, S.C., and had a whole mess of sly-foxy good-ol’-boyness about it, most of it emanating from the company’s president, Neil Connor. Neil had a swell gold pinky ring, a Sam Snead golf swing, a gold chain around his neck he got from doubling down on par-threes, and a taste for sippin’ liquor.

It was fun to watch dealers and distributors, guys who thought they knew their way around a sheepskin deal (read: fleece), think they had had really put one over on the Collect-A-Card boys, only to come away with 40 cases of Dinotopia, 10 cases of Campbell’s Soup, five cases of Coca-Cola Polar Bears, a couple of cases of metal cards, 500,000 assorted POGs, and only one case of the Coke cards they’d come for.

Connor’s right-hand man, Nelson Wheeler, was particularly sharp. He had a voice that sounded like a blue-tick hound gargling with Red Man chewing tobacco and spitting Southern Comfort, but he was nobody’s fool. He wasn’t even nobody’s court-appointed legal counsel. He could go into a knife fight with a vegetable peeler and come away with an order for a dozen more knives. The reason Collect-A-Card was able to turn one so-so property (as cardable licenses go, Coca-Cola was no Looney Tunes or Disney) into a decade of prosperity was because Neil and Nelson did a mess of deals sweeter than South Carolina iced tea.

Collect-A-Card had the original Power Rangers license (Connor still swears he did a better job with the property than Upper Deck, and that statement gets truer as the years go by), and made Corvette sets, about a dozen different varieties of Coke sets (base, POGs, premium, superpremium, superultrapremium, metal, Polar Bears, and business class), and a set of Olympic logos in addition to the aforementioned Dinotopia and Campbell’s Soup set.

And then, in a moment of weakness, Collect-A-Card did the McDonaldland 500 set.

I had remembered just about everything about Collect-A-Card except the McDonaldland 500. CAC called these “fantasy cards,” which is about right, since calling them collector cards was absolutely a flight of fancy.

Recalling now the circumstances around their creation, Connor wanted to do for McDonald’s what he had done for Coke – create a set showing old ads and memorabilia, maybe do some burger-shaped POGs, follow it up with some metal cards, and include a Fisher-Price Hamburglar in every pack.

McDonald’s either wasn’t buying the whole nostalgia trip or wanted Collect-A-Card to show its good faith, so it said, “Do a McDonaldland 500 set.”

At this point, anyone with lesser confidence in their ability to sell Bears jerseys to Packer fans would have bailed – but not Neil Connor. And this was one case where the good ol’ boy got his, because the McDonaldland 500 was a dogburger.

I’ll quote from the product description in all its grammatically incorrect glory and let you make your own conclusions: “Join the fun in this premier collection of ‘The Adventures of Ronald McDonald®’ characters in the most exciting stock car race of the year … ‘The McDonaldland® 500’!!! Hamburglar will be using every trick in the book to capture the beautiful winner’s trophy which is filled with the one thing he simply can’t resist … hamburgers! Ronald McDonald will be driving the ‘Ronald Rocket’ and pulling out the stops in an effort to overcome Hamburglars mischievous plans. Will Ronald be able to stop him? Grab a few packs and follow this exciting action adventure!”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t write that. I would have put four exclamation points after “McDonaldland® 500.”

Breaking it down as a marketer would (and I do that on occasion), the McDonaldland 500 set offered the Ronald McDonald characters[1], which taken as a group had less marketing oomph than the cast of Moesha, in a racing story – all you genuine stories out there, please don’t take it personally – unsupported by any other medium, with only the most tenuous connection to a Tier-1.5 NASCAR driver (Bill Elliott). Yeah, the packs were only 79 cents and included seven cards and a sticker, but seven cards of what and a sticker of what? Seven cards of five characters, with a sticker showing one of the selfsame five characters and maybe a car, all rendered with the same precision of line exhibited by Peter Max in kindergarten. They couldn’t even have Birdie autographed cards because she’s a bird. She can’t hold a pen. She doesn’t have fingers.

There were also reports of “three special insert cards featuring the real ‘McDonald’s® Racing team driver, Bill Elliott™’ plus other fun items,” but I never stuck around to learn what the fun items were, or why “Bill Elliott” is a trademarked phrase [2], or what the quotation marks meant. 

Here’s a contemporary analogy. The McDonaldland 500 set is like redoing Criminal Minds with the cows from the Chick-Fil-A ads, and making a trading-card set of that.

(You listening, Upper Deck?)

Contractual Obligation Set that it clearly seemed to be, the McDonaldland 500 set made a quick lap around the track and was gone. On one hand, that’s a blessing. The product died before parents could get up in arms over a set of trading cards that uses cartoon characters to sell fat- and sugar-laden fast food to kids. (After seeing what public opinion did to Coors Cards, never underestimate the American public’s ability to whack down any trading-card set with a loose association to life’s milder vices. Never mind the multitudinous sports cards of tokers, dopers, intravenous drug users, aggravated assaulters, and miscellaneous misogynists.)

On the other hand, Collect-A-Card never was able to make a regular McDonald’s set, more’s the pity. Ol’ Neil and Nelson might have done something with that.

[1]  Ronald, Grimace, Hamburglar, Birdie the Early Bird, and the Fry Kids, in case you’ve forgotten.
[2] Because if I’m trademarking the name of a Tier-1.5 NASCAR driver, I’m going Coo Coo Marlin all the way.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bored Game Theory

In the incomparable Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story Claudette Colbert wants a divorce, so she hops in a cab and asks the cab driver where he’d get a divorce. (They don’t call ‘em “screwball comedies” for nothing.) The cabbie looks at her and says, “Well, most people go to Reno, Nevada, but for my money, it's Palm Beach. This time of the year you've got the track, you've got the ocean, you've got the palm trees. Three months. You leave from Penn Station.”

I was thinking of that this morning as I was framing the lede to this column. Most people who want to seriously lose their shirt go to Vegas, but for my money, you invent a game. You got copyright costs, printing costs, marketing costs, shady middlemen, the evil Wal-Mart megalith, Third World knocker-offers, Toy Fair booths, licensing fees, legal fees, sales tax, cease-and-desist orders, and in the end nobody buys games anymore anyway. Three months. You leave from Penn Station.

Throughout the Handful O’Landfill era I was connected in some way with the creation of half a dozen games, some better than others. The collectible card game I created in a morning in a construction office in San Clemente, Calif., was not so good. The APBA sports-simulation games, particularly an incredible hockey sim Baron Bedesky and I cranked out over two days in a Buffalo hotel room preparatory to eating fried-baloney sandwiches at a Bisons game, were much better. The APBA board games were okay, the game-like things we did for SkyBox and Pinnacle were game-like, and today’s subjects are right in there.

And this doesn’t even cover all the other games that made it onto the garbage truck without my help, including Marvel Overpower and DC Whatever, countless reboots of the Cadaco All-Star Baseball game, MLB playing cards, Donruss’ ill-fated Top of the Order game which wasn’t really ill-fated because it got what it deserved, and the Topps MLB collectible-figurine game that I still claim was the greatest waste of a can’t-miss license this side of Comic Ball.

The facts were that APBA and Strat-O-Matic players didn’t want the purity of their cards sullied by non-necessities like pictures, nothing was more fun than a 1968 Topps baseball card game, virtually all game play came down to rolling dice and/or walking a pawn around a board, and how can that compete with a virtually realified first-person-shooter game where you steal zombies’ cars and kill pirates with nuclear missiles you fire out of your ... uh, nostrils?

It is into that environment that we chuck today’s game contestants, Spellcast and the Jim Thome Baseball Game.

We got to know the creators of Spellcast at the New York International Toy Fair. We were booth neighbors, back in the part of the exhibit hall otherwise inhabited by goldbricking janitors, union stewards, intravenous drug users, and our client’s accountant, who liked to hit on women. The exhibitionists didn’t even go back there because, hey, they’re not doing this just for their own gratification, you know.

Two Manitoban sisters, Nicole Rondeau and Karen Laboissoie, created the game as an alternative to knitting curling stones. (The nights get long and boring in Winnipeg, and yarn is cheap.) Spellcast deals with magic and witches and spells, obviously, it’s ostensibly for girls without being hopelessly girly, it’s designed beautifully but totally unprofessionally, in a way that torches as much money as possible, and it plays in a delightfully roundabout way. It also includes stones, which makes it pretty much unusable for anyone under the age of four, and all boys.

Its few flaws aside – nothing that couldn’t have been corrected by a major manufacturer with a little want-to – Spellcast is a fine game totally deserving of a larger audience, yet the game’s chances of going big were about as great as the accountant’s chances of getting to first base with the sisters. Dice and stones and want-to can only take you so far.

It was quite a trip to New York for Karen and Nicole nonetheless. They came to the city with a gross of sellsheets and a handful of clips from the Winnipeg Free Press and the Vicki Gabareau Show. They came away with a gross of sellsheets minus 17, a couple of presumptive wholesalers who were extremely excited but obviously worthless, and the memories of a mugging at the World Trade Center. (Pre-9/11, obviously.) I tried to help on all fronts but there wasn’t much to be done.

I lost track of Nicole several years ago, and Karen long before that. The printers were not being kind to Nicole, the sisters had split, and she was trying to go it alone. She was slowly, reluctantly coming around to the realization that despite all her best efforts, it wasn’t going to happen.

The part of the business that sucks the most is when good people with big dreams get whacked. It happened to Nicole and Karen, and it also happened to the people behind the Jim Thome Baseball Game.

“Nice” doesn’t begin to describe the JTBG people. They’re the people who would stop their car on a screaming freeway to free a butterfly from their windshield wipers, and they wouldn’t care if it wasn’t a butterfly anymore but a collection of butterfly parts. If they were soup they’d be homemade chicken dumpling, if they were power tools they would be an electric chainsaw with no chain, and if they were a TV show they would be Teletubbies.

And Jim Thome! Name a nicer 600-home-run hitter not named Henry Aaron. Name a nicer nearly active 500-home-run hitter who doesn’t walk around with a chemical cloud over his head. Name a nicer 400-home-run hitter who actually hit 600 home runs.

Naturally the JTBG people were from Wisconsin, some quaintly named southern-Wisconsin hamlet like Roche-A-Cri or Montello. They were led by a retired businessman named Bob Montminy, who had assembled an army of local investors around a concept that was going to revolutionize tabletop baseball games. There are these dice, you see, and these pawns that you move around the board, and this part of the box stands up so it looks like a stadium wall, and when you roll snake eyes it’s actually a “big double,” and that means everyone on base scores, and –

Listen: I’m not trying to mock these guys because they’re so doggone nice, and I know Bob Montminy dumped all his financial and personal capital into the project, but the Jim Thome Baseball Game is just another baseball game, no more or less playable than a score of similar games.[1] It is, however, the best baseball-simulation game with the picture of a really nice 600-home-run hitter on its box.

Not content with one unnecessary cash outlay, the JTBG folks quickly reskinned the game as “Ebbets Field Baseball,” and switched the JTBG’s generic wall for the legendary ballpark’s legendary wall, with similar results. The resale shops and five-and-dimes of south-central Wisconsin teem with these games the way Buzzfeed teems with literary Pixy Stix. It’s not an accident.

I wish I could write about how games were the Yellow Brick Road for Karen and Nicole and Bob Montminy, how they were better than a Palm Beach divorce for a screwball heroine. They weren’t, and we’re all a little worse off for that.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to dry my tears and fire a few more rounds out of my … nostrils. I love the smell of cordite in the morning.

[1] The rule of thumb with baseball board games is: The more realistic the game the more painful it is to play. The extreme example of this is Pursue the Pennant, which has been linked to more than 7,400 cases of OxyContin abuse.