Wizards of the Coast has launched an in-store organized play program for the board games of Avalon Hill.  Called Avalon Hill Frontline, the program kicks off this month with in-store tournament kits for Risk 2210.  Retailers can obtain the kits by contacting Wizards of the Coast directly; although the retailer does not have to buy its WotC merchandise directly from the company, it must set up a direct account to purchase the kits, which cost $5 each.  Each kit supports ten players, and each store may purchase up to four kits per month, allowing for weekly events. 


We spoke to Wizards of the Coast Mass Market Programs Manager Mike Gills about the program.  When asked which retail channel the program was designed for, he replied that it's directed 'primarily toward the hobby.'  'Certainly if a chain wanted to run it, they'd be welcome to,' he said, 'but it's much more for the hobby and core channels.'  He said that the program was based in part on conversations with game retailers at the GAMA Trade Show in March.  'They were very excited about this,' he said.  'It's another piece of the pie that they can sell, and there are a lot of growth opportunities with board games.' 


Season One

Gills told us that WotC has multiple goals for this program, which is in a trial phase until the end of the year.  First, it's to get new players and buyers for its board games; unlike CCG organized play programs, which are primarily 'retention' programs, this is a new player 'acquisition' program that works in part by demonstrating how to play.  Gills noted that board games actually work better for this purpose than CCGs because of the larger, colorful visuals that attract the attention of others in the store.  Using Wizards of the Coast's in-house expertise on organized play was one reason for the transfer of Avalon Hill to Wizards of the Coast's portfolio earlier this year (see 'Avalon Hill Under WotC Umbrella').


Second, Wizards of the Coast is producing its first board game expansions as part of this program.  The expansions, which are taken home by the winners of the event, will serve to alter play for experienced players, who have often figured out the strategies and counter-strategies that work best with the game as it came out of the box.  And they'll help WotC evaluate the concept of board game expansions as add-on products, which it's interested in as a way to expand sales of the Avalon Hill properties.  Gills said that the decision as to whether WotC would begin producing for-sale expansions of its board games was 'a brand manager decision,' and that he wasn't sure when it would be made.  He did note that there would be a new Axis and Allies game next year, as well as two to three other new Avalon Hill games. 


In-store tournaments will tie into the world-wide rankings already set up as part of the Risk 2210 championship program, which ran this year with events at the San Diego Comic Convention, Origins, GenCon, and the World Board Game Championships in Baltimore.  Next year, players will have to go through qualifying rounds to get into the world championships.


This first tournament kit, for which the terminology is 'the first Avalon Hill Frontline season of Risk 2210,' is the Mars season, which takes place in a future when Mars and its moons have been terra-formed.  The kit includes new maps, including a primary game map based on photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and additional rules, which are won by the top three players in the event. 


Two more Risk 2210 tournament kits will be released before the end of the year.  Gills emphasized that the game expansions that go into the kits will not all be structured the same. 'The next one deals with a brand new commander and a set of cards,' he said, 'and past that other rules expansions.'


Much effort is being put into gathering information about how these first board game events work out through on-line surveys and reporting forms in the kits.  This feedback will inform the expansion of the program next year. 


In 2004, the Frontline program will go to a monthly frequency for new kits, with three games involved -- Risk 2210, Axis and Allies, and Acquire.  Since new kits will be rotated between the games, there will be four different kits for each of the three games, coming out roughly on a quarterly schedule.