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Tabletop personality Tom Vasel apologizes for rant against independent retailers

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The Dice Tower network co-founder walks back statements made on YouTube

Tom Vasel, wearing a red fedora, rips into local game shops in a segment of an October video on YouTube.
Tom Vasel
The Dice Tower

Earlier this month, tabletop gaming personality Tom Vasel caused a bit of a stir. In a YouTube video, Vasel came down hard on brick-and-mortar retail game stores, impugning both the character of their clientele and the necessity that they exist at all. His statements prompted a formal response from the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and a lengthy apology from Vasel himself.

Vasel is the co-founder of The Dice Tower, an influential collection of video and audio shows dedicated exclusively to tabletop games. He’s widely regarded as a key tastemaker in the tabletop space. His reviews feature prominently on the Board Game Geek aggregation site, which deprecates written reviews from other outlets in favor of the kind of content he produces. The Dice Tower logo, and by extension Vasel’s personal recommendation, adorns the cover of many game boxes — including those found at big-box retail establishments like Target and Walmart.

It’s Vasel’s status as an authority figure within the tabletop gaming space that makes his statements, delivered as part of a series called Board Game Breakfast, all the more troubling.

There is a big push right now to save the local game stores. ... You know what? Local game stores have been around for decades and decades. When did board gaming explode? When the internet showed up.

Stop telling us people on the internet that we are ruining the hobby when the hobby is huge now. It’s garbage to say otherwise. [There’s] Meetup.com, Facebook.com, all sorts of different groups that you can find online, and you can get together and game because you find people with the same likes online. You can, oh, go to a store and get a demo of a game? You can do that, although I can list on my hand five local games stores that I’ve actually done that at in my life. Most of them have broken up games in the back. ... Local game stores are no longer needed to do demos. I can go to an online gaming thing, like Tabletopia and other places, and just play the game and figure it out. Or I download the app and that matches the game and learn about it that way.

Vasel then went on to vilify the kind of clientele that physical game stores attract, broadly stating that the interactions found there can be downright immoral.

“I may not necessarily want to play a game where there’s a bunch of people cursing up a storm at one table or speaking sexist, misogynistic talk at another table or treating me like scum because I just wanted to join their gaming group,” Vasel said. “I might not like the same games they do exactly or I just don’t fit in with them. The online community is much more welcoming.”

He concluded the video by saying that if local game stores are struggling, he’s not interested in helping rescue them. His nearly seven-minute rant prompted the following statement from GAMA, who provided it to Polygon on Oct. 11.

In recent media activity, there have been personal statements released that aren't conducive to our philosophy and do not align with GAMA’s mission. We value our retailer members and actively support their efforts for the hobby.

GAMA was very disappointed [in Vasel’s remarks]. To quote the mission statement, “The Game Manufacturers Association serves to promote its member’s common interest—to increase the adoption and engagement with hobby games.” We stand by that statement and encourage you, as a community, to support the industry and uphold this mission.

Our hobby industry has seen significant growth—much of that effort stems from the collaboration, efforts, strategies, and innovation put forth by professionals in our market.

It is crucial that we, as professionals, work together to continue the advancement of hobby gaming.

But the feedback from those in the industry and fans of The Dice Tower came long before GAMA made their statement. A visibly humbled Vasel broadcast a prepared set of remarks on Oct. 9.

“You know that on The Dice Tower that we call a spade a spade,” Vasel said. “But just as my putting a game down in front of people who are enjoying it is not constructive at the least, so were my mannerisms in my Tom Thinks segment last week. ... I stand by most of the statements that I made last week, but there’s a problem: I want to use The Dice Tower to be a constructive force in the hobby. ... There are good game stores out there, but my tone said otherwise.”

I spoke with Vasel by telephone shortly after that apology video aired, and offered him the opportunity to go further and set the record straight. He largely declined, choosing instead to let his second video stand on its own.

Vasel’s statements come at a time of upheaval in the tabletop industry. Board games have never been more popular, and that surge has largely been attributed to crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, which continue to see remarkable growth.

But those who follow crowdfunding campaigns in the tabletop space will tell you that Kickstarter and other platforms have transitioned from a speculative venue and morphed into a formalized vehicle for pre-orders and direct sales. Many brick-and-mortar stores are finding it hard to even get stock of the most popular games as small developers struggle to meet the demands of their most rabid fans.

Add to that the recent push by Target and Walmart to refresh their staid toy and games sections with unique and exclusive tabletop products, and you can begin to see the kind of pressures that are mounting on independent retailers. Margins are falling, and that’s a narrative shared by independent video game retailers.

Now is hardly the time for major voices like Vasel to begin punching down, and with his apology video, Vasel goes to great lengths to try and turn the conversation back around. He goes on to list many of the benefits that a strong, friendly local game store provide for their communities starting at the 5-minute mark. It’s a well-considered list, and worth your time.

If there’s a great independent game store near you, be sure to mention it in the comments below.