Gaming:

New table games have steep hurdles for success

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STEVE MARCUS

Gamblers play craps on the casino floor of the Cromwell on the Las Vegas Strip, Monday, April 21, 2014.

Wed, Jan 25, 2017 (2 a.m.)

When it comes to slots, new skill-based games have generated a lot of industry buzz. But in the world of table games, blackjack and baccarat (and to a lesser extent, craps and roulette) continue to dominate, and experts say that won’t change anytime soon.

When it comes to games played on green felt, innovation means adding features to existing games or inventing variations of existing casino stalwarts, not creating entirely new concepts.

“There have been completely new games, and we’ve tried them,” said Robert Cinelli, senior vice president of casino operations for Las Vegas Sands. “We liked them as gamblers and as casino people. But when you put them on the floor, the learning curve is difficult.”

“Today you still have people that walk onto the casino floor and are intimidated by craps,” Cinelli said. “But it’s one of the easier games on the floor. It’s something you can easily teach and afterward people say, ‘That’s it?’

“When you’re trying to teach something that’s a completely new game when you only have limited floor space, you have to ask is, ‘It worth it?’ I haven’t seen that game yet.”

It’s not that no one is trying to develop new games. According to Jonné Brunette, an agent with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, gaming regulators received 19 new game applications in 2016, of which 12 won final approval.

However, in the same time, 35 variations on existing games were approved.

The disparity makes sense when you consider how hard it is to get a new game in front of consumers and then to get them to actually play it.

“For any new game, you first have to create awareness of the game and you have to get people to try the game,” said Michael A. Meczka, president of Meczka Marketing Research Consulting. “And after they try it, you have to hope it’s successful and you can get a sufficient quantity of people playing to justify its position on the casino floor.

“It's very, very difficult, and in many cases the expenses associated are prohibitive even for a major developer. Even for the people who did EZ Baccarat, it took them over three years to get the game approved. Once it was, they were fine, but few people are willing to take three years. And that was only a variant.”

Those high hurdles are why table-game innovation typically means one of three things: adding a progressive jackpot to a game, creating an electronic version so more people can play at one time or offering a twist on the rules to liven things up while still keeping things familiar.

“There’s definitely a push for progressives and for higher-paying jackpots that are instantly life-changing,” said Chuck Estell, director of casino operations for both the Orleans and the Gold Coast.

“There are the megabucks-like quarter million pai gow tables. You see that happening and there’s also a strong push — although I don’t necessarily think it’s the right direction — for electronic table games.”

Electronic table games are seen as more cost-effective, because most don’t require a human to direct the play. However, it’s the personal interaction with a dealer and the other players, Estell says, that appeals to a certain segment of gamblers.

Still, he did concede that new electronic versions of blackjack and baccarat could make sense on the Strip, where they allow casinos to take lower initial bets.

Cinelli agreed. “For us, the big thing is the electronic table games,” he said. “What we’ve been able to do is use them to offer games at a lower price point and still be profitable.

“Yes, it takes a little bit of the social aspect out of it. But sometimes someone who’s new to the game likes that. They don’t feel the same pressure sitting at a terminal as they might sitting down at a table full of people.”

Sometimes, innovation takes the form of a revamp of a traditional game. That’s the case with Chinese War, a game undergoing field trials at the Gold Coast.

Chinese War was invented by Roberto Coppola, vice president of advanced products at gaming manufacturer Aristocrat Technologies. He is developing the game on his own time with former Gaming Control Board Chairman Mark Lipparelli.

“The game is very comparable to baccarat,” Coppola said. “It’s the same in some ways, but you bet on a dragon and tiger or a tie instead of on the banker or player.”

But despite that similarity, and even though his partner is a former gaming regulator, Coppola said the process of getting a new game to market has been challenging.

“At G2E (the Global Gaming Expo, a gambling industry convention in Las Vegas last year), I must have given 25 to 30 demos of the game,” Coppola said. “But getting someone to watch a demo and then finding someone willing to step up and do a field trial are two completely different things.”

After finding a location for the field trial, Coppola had to coordinate with gaming regulators. They had already reviewed the game’s rules and math, but they also need to review the location of the field trial and actually watch dealers deal a few games.

Coppola said even teaching dealers how to play the game was a bit of a challenge. Part of the play in baccarat involves adding the value of cards. But in Chinese War, game play also requires subtracting card values.

There’s more to the game than that, but It’s the main feature that separates it from baccarat. It’s also what confused most of the dealers.

“In my game you’re adding the first two cards and then subtracting the third card. Then the hand closer to zero wins,” Coppola said. "I trained the dealers myself and perhaps because the Gold Coast is so baccarat-focused some of them had issues with that. They didn’t like the fact that it’s different. And it’s new. It definitely takes time.”

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