Recently, a customer of ours from Mexico City added a comment in the notes section of his Wayne’s Books order:
Ahoy Wayne. Here’s a bit of obscure trivia: the very first sales of TTRPGs in Mexico began in the year 1990. I should know because I set up the very first distribution company (name of Ciclope Hobbies although you’re unlikely to find any reference to it on the interwebs). TSR were my principal provider but the other were FASA Corporation… However I have no business savvy and went broke in less than two years which explains why I became an academic.
Well, I couldn’t let that pass from Carlos Mondragon without asking further on the subject. He was happy to relate his (mis)adventures in starting an RPG import company in Mexico, and shared images from the Cíclope Hobbies business. Mondragon also wrote about the Mexican RPG Scene in the 80s and 90s. And gave me permission to share his stories here on the blog; all further text is from Carlos – as well as the photos of course – with layout and light editing by me.
Cíclope Hobbies: Inception
We originally began with TSR, whom I approached quite by accident during GenCon/Origins 1988 in Milwaukee. I approached their stand to ask when they might begin selling in Mexico, and they confused me for an investor and referred me to André Moullin.
He took me over to the Lake Geneva offices after the Con and set me up for an exclusive distribution contract.
I was totally overwhelmed. By the time I gathered investors and set up Ciclope it was late 1990 and André was twisting my arm to sell FASA materials (he lived in a nice pad in Santa Monica, and had me over for 3 days of intensive FASA-related conversation): so it was BattleTech, Shadowrun and Renegade Legion, in that order of priority. We also sold FASA’s budding line of supporting novels, which were more successful.
I became good friends with Mike Stackpole and Liz Danforth as a result; which is one of the things I treasure from back then. I visited the FASA offices once and got to hang out with the crew. They were really nice people. I especially remember the younger staff: Dana Knudson and a few others who started their careers then. FASA was a nice place to work, and several people got their entry into the gaming design world working with them. I recall that Jordan Weisman was already beginning to go all out for the video game side of the business while Ross Babcock was a more retiring guy. His Chicago flat was very minimalist, Japanese style décor.
Cíclope Hobbies: Operations
Ciclope Hobbies was in business, officially, from March 1991 to mid 1993. Our best months came during the first year.
We were not registered in Mexico City, but in León, Guanajuato, where I lived at the time. I had to jump on the bus up to four times a month to come to Mexico City, which is where we had our only sales.
Our best client at the time was the American Bookstore. They had three stores, one in the south of Mexico City, one in central DF, and one in the north of the City, in the suburb of Satélite. That northern one was our most promising retail outlet, because Satélite was an upper middle class borough with the largest concentration of people into wargaming. American Bookstore folded about 20 years ago, but if you mention it people here will definitely recognize what you’re talking about.
It was more than just TSR and FASA. We also took large orders from Chessex (including dozens of minis). Chessex was very good for intl deliveries on sundry but essential items.
We did think about translating some of basic gaming lines [into Spanish], but were immediately referred by André and his people to the Spanish guys at Diseños Orbitales [which sold Spanish-language editions, including Spanish Traveller and many FASA titles].
We even sussed out GDW at André’s urging, because of course he was representing Gary Gygax and was interested in getting us to sell the Dangerous Journeys products that they were beginning to roll out. And we did take one large order from them before going kaput.
Cíclope Hobbies: The End
As for how we went broke, I’m afraid the story is not a glamorous one: almost from the get-go we were blind-sided by the labyrinthine customs clearance process, which none of us had figured on in our foundational business plan.
The delays are what killed us.
Back in 1991 there was no NAFTA, and Mexico was only beginning to claw its way out of a centralized command economy. So international imports for non-basic stuff were unusual and a pain. Just imagine the first time I had to go to customs and explain what wargames were about. I was able to tag the accompanying novels as books, but the delays in clearance together with duties on boxed sets, minis and other items murdered our profit margins. That, together with the fact that we set up a distribution company, hence dedicated to distributing not to selling from a specific store front, meant that we had to go around trying to convince various bookstores and gift shops to buy into product lines for an almost non-existent market.
We folded in 1993, when we barely managed to pay back the initial start-up loans to the bank and declare bankruptcy.
Mexican Gaming Scene in the 80s and 90s
At the time the only prospective buyers were comic-book enthusiasts, some of whom also knew something about wargames and RPGs. But there weren’t any dedicated comic book shops in Mexico – those were just beginning to take shape, but only really came into their own about 3 to 4 years later.
AD&D was only just beginning to get translated, they were not online yet, but were about to be. We were told to wait and sell their stuff (ZINCO was the company) when it became available, in time for a 2nd Edition AD&D PHB.
Timun Más was the editorial in charge of previous Spanish translations of AD&D related novels and books (Choose Your Own Adventure), but no RPGs. CYOA was very successful here, even though sales were very limited. So we also got in a couple of orders from them. But the truth is that we were told to stick mainly to the English-language stock for both companies…and that dramatically reduced our market penetration: something of which we were painfully aware from the get-go.
It was only around 1994-95, that the market for RPGs and Wargaming managed began to develop on a more sustained footing. One of the very first major comic book franchises from the mid-90s was ComiCastle…but even they only sold a very limited amount of RPGs on the margins: Star Wars roleplaying, a bit of Dragonlance…no FASA, as I recall.
Ciclope was gone by then, having folded in 1993.
As an aside, in 2001, following some infighting, ComiCastle morphed into Fantástico Comics, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with 5 healthy stores across the country, although they no longer sell RPGs.
There are many dedicated shops today, and quite a large and growing fan base for RPGs and wargames. For which one can mainly thank 5th Edition D&D. But that’s another story.
About Carlos Mondragon
After Cíclope went broke I became a historian and anthropologist, with a PhD in SocAnth from Cambridge University. My interests in astronomy and navigation took me to the Pacific Islands and Tibet, where I have been carrying out research on environmental anthropology for the past 20 odd years. I’m now a recovering academic at the Centre for African and Asian Studies at El Colegio de México, in Mexico City.
With the advent of D&D 5E, which I tried and didn’t like, I rediscovered my real joys in life and am going back to my old school RPG and wargaming pursuits.
…and to a very recent blog in Spanish, about old school memories, directed at the younger folk around here who weren’t around in 1980s Mexico and which I’m writing for my own enjoyment
TRAVELLER (Spanish language edition; Diseños Orbitales 1989)
Dave Arneson’s Personal Woodgrain D&D set: A Fascinating Story from Brazil
Japanese Edition: Traveller Spinward Marches Map
BATTLETECH: The early FASA Scenario Packs: Who and What is in the Cover Art?