Mary Russell

We were interviewed recently by Peer Sylvester for the German-language gaming website Spielbar. Through the kind permission of Mr. Sylvester and Spielbar, we are presenting the interview with our original English language answers. 

1) Please introduce yourself and your company to our readers! 

Hollandspiele is a small publisher owned and operated in equal partnership by Mary Holland-Russell and her husband, Tom Russell.

2) Please tell us a bit about your games! 

Our products generally fall into two categories, wargames and weird games, and sometimes in both categories simultaneously. For example, Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 is both a wargame (you move and do battle) and also a bit of a weird one, in that it is also an extremely nerdy and somewhat dry logistics game. Our best-known title is likely Cole Wehrle's An Infamous Traffic, which is about opium smuggling in China, but more specifically it's about how upwardly mobile Englishmen used the wealth generated by their nefarious trade to purchase respectability, social status, and fancy hats back home. 

The other thing about our games is that there are a lot of them. We publish niche games in low volumes which are generally only available for order through our own website. Because of this, in order to make a living at it we need to publish about twenty games a year. We got seventeen out in our first year in business, which was close. We try to come up with a really diverse line-up, so that within our two niches, there's something for everyone.

3) What have you planned for the future? 

2018 looks like it's going to be a big year for us. We have a number of solitaire titles coming out; solo-only games sell well with our primary customer base of wargamers. The trick to a good solo game is making sure your decisions matter, and not just having the player be at the mercy of bad die rolls or card draws. We had one solo game come out in 2016, Agricola, Master of Britain, and the response to that was very positive. We have another one coming out in November, Charlemagne, Master of Europe, and it looks like it will be a very strong seller. So it makes sense to continue in that vein. 

On that same note, we'll be publishing a sequel to our popular Supply Lines of the American Revolution, this time set in the Southern theater of the war, as well as expansions to Table Battles. Table Battles is a very, very simple, very abstract sort of war-themed filler game that plays out in about fifteen or twenty minutes. We started taking orders for that game about a week ago, and sold all our copies on the first day. The game uses wood bits which we get from a supplier in Germany, and we ran out of wood bits and had to order more. We actually just finished boxing up the next batch to ship to our games printer, so we'll be taking orders for that again shortly, probably by the time your readers see this, unless we've sold out again. The game system is very conducive to expansion, and we're happy to give people what they seem to want. 

Tom does a number of designs for us, but this next year we're going to see games from a number of other designers. We're very excited to be working with Hermann Luttmann and Fred Manzo. There are two games we're looking at in the immediate term, and more down the pipeline. This is actually not the first time Mary has worked with Hermann and Fred, as she oversaw the publication of two science fiction games when she was working for another games publisher. She actually suggested the subject of the second game, based on her love of the classic giant ants movie Them! (She's big on sci-fi in general, and one of our goals for this next year is to get our feet wet with the genre in a way that makes sense for our budget and means.) So working with them again is really like working with old friends. 

We're also excited to be producing At All Costs! by Tim Taylor, the sequel to his popular WWI game To the Last Man! We think that as the company has grown over the last year, so has our ability to tackle more ambitious projects with definite commercial appeal. 

But we're not entirely focused on the commercial aspect. Part of the reason why we have the company is so that we can take a chance on weird games with "uncommercial" themes. Luckily they've usually paid off for us. We're not sure how many publishers would want to take a chance on a game about the opium trade, for example, but like we said, An Infamous Traffic was really well-received and sold well. Richard Berg had difficulty finding a home for Dynasty because folks kept telling him a game on ancient China wouldn't sell. But we think it's just a great game, and so we went ahead and did it! Before Hollandspiele, Tom tried like heck to sell Supply Lines, but no one else could see the appeal. We have a game coming out next month that's about as nerdy and as dry as a game can be, about trading currencies on the foreign exchange. No other publisher wanted to touch that. Even an 18XX publisher said it wouldn't sell. But the early buzz seems to be very, very positive, and we expect it to do very well for us. Sometimes we take a chance on a game and it doesn't quite pay off, but generally, people are looking for something really new and unusual, so it's paid off to fully embrace that. 

It's the success of these "weird" games that inspired Tom to start working on This Guilty Land, his game about the politics of slavery leading up to the American Civil War, based in part on his previous political game, Optimates et Populares. It's not only a topic that other publishers would likely steer far away from, but it's one that we wouldn't have thought of tackling even six months ago. But it's just very encouraging to do your own thing, something idiosyncratic, and to have others respond to that - it makes you want to do and to try to do more. 

4) The "weird games" are certainly something that sets your company apart! Do you think it's important that board games also leave the trodden paths or is it more something you are interest in personally?

Probably more something that we're just interested in personally. Board games can do more and be more, but we're not sure if it's super-important in the grand scheme of things. We make weird games and we play weird games, but we don't make and play them all the time, every time. Not everything can be butterfly effects and heavy and dripping with importance. Sometimes you need something light and fun and simple like Sushi Go or Cribbage. Or in a wargames context, sometimes you just want to push some counters around. It's like anything, really. Some movies are new and unusual and challenging, and sometimes you're in the mood for that, and sometimes you're really not in the mood for an hallucinatory black-and-white seven hour Hungarian movie about fruit brandy.

5) Themes like slavery in the US or the opium trade are also potentially offensive. How do you approach these somewhat delicate themes?

Well, we're of the opinion that a theme in and of itself cannot be offensive, especially a real-world theme. What makes a game offensive would have to do with how that theme is handled and explored, the tone of the game, and what point of view the game and its designer has on the topic. To use An Infamous Traffic as an example, if it was just a case where the game was about smuggling opium and exploiting the population, we probably wouldn't have touched that. But the game doesn't stop there. It's not a game about money. It's a game about status and upward mobility, and it's rather savagely, darkly funny. A biting satire made up of wooden cubes, counters, and a paper map. There's a thoughtfulness and a thoroughness to the design which we think is a hallmark of Cole Wehrle's work. 

But, you know, when the game was announced, it didn't really ruffle many feathers. There were people who didn't buy the game because it needs three to five players, there were people who didn't buy it because it's a very mean and cutthroat game and also very fragile, and there were people who didn't buy it because of the shipping costs to get the game from America to, say, Europe. But no one that we know of who said that they weren't buying it because of the theme. That's probably because it feels rather remote, at least to folks in the West. 


Compare that to This Guilty Land, where in America at least the issue of slavery does not feel quite so remote. Even though it's a thing in the past, its aftershocks are still felt in American life today. It's a wound that hasn't fully healed. So while many thought that this was a very interesting topic, and perhaps a brave thing to do, there were a handful of folks who reacted very negatively or worried about how the subject would be handled. 

Part of this is that they have very limited information to go on, because they were reacting to a cover reveal. They know the title, they've seen the cover, and they may or may not know Tom as a designer. Someone might see that title, This Guilty Land, and not be fully cognizant of what that title is. It's something that the abolitionist John Brown wrote. Brown had seized a federal armory in an attempt to liberate slaves. He was executed for treason, murder, and inciting a slave insurrection. He handed a note to his executioner which said that he believed that "the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but by blood." That is, that a peaceful resolution to the issue of slavery was impossible. And historically it did require a long, bloody war to end slavery. The game's starting point is the notion that the war was inevitable and unavoidable. In a way, Brown's words are the thesis of the game, and the three words excerpted for the title are a synecdoche for that thesis. 

The cover itself is confrontational, perhaps provocative. But we didn't see how it would make sense to tiptoe around it or to disguise the topic. We don't think a more genteel or euphemistic cover would do the game or its topic justice. This is what the game is about. The cover is intended to induce discomfort. The photograph itself is a rather famous one that was published in newspapers and did much to inflame public sentiment. The fact that it provokes a kind of reaction in some people on this box cover is a testament to the power of the photograph, and to the innate and unbroken dignity of the man being photographed. 

We had some folks suppose the game might be something like Twilight Struggle or 1960: Making of the President. And, no, it's not really like those games at all. In fact, we'd be very uncomfortable if we were to publish a game on this topic that felt like a re-theme of those games. It would feel frivolous. Not that those games are themselves necessarily frivolous, but this isn't a case where Tom just grabbed a theme at random so that he could do "his" version of one of those games. And it's not even that there's anything wrong with that, in most cases. But a game like this, about this subject, it needs to engage fully and seriously with the topic. 

The game it's closest to is one of Tom's previous designs, Optimates et Populares, which is also about legislative deadlock, also about two sides with mutually-exclusive viewpoints on whether or not all human beings deserve to be treated as such. Only there it was much more about social class and wealth. And people don't really seem to mind playing the Optimates side in that game, the side that's dedicated to keeping the underclass in their place. Partially that's a function of temporal distance. Partially it's because, while we do have distinctions and disparities in social classes today, some of which are quite pronounced, for the most part it's not something that's legally codified as it was in the Roman Republic, or in France prior to its revolution. Distinctions between social class are something that we're used to, because they've been part of the human story pretty much since the beginning. So we're used to it, and it's not that big of an imposition to ask one player to act like a wealthy elite. Social class is normalized. 

But in This Guilty Land, one player is working toward the abolition of slavery, and the other is fighting to maintain and even expand it. And because 150 odd years is a lot closer to today than a couple of thousand, and because slavery is something that's so completely and transparently evil, some players are going to be uncomfortable in adopting that role. Someone on twitter expressed hesitation with the game, and contrasted it to something like Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games, which is a cooperative game where all players are working together to end slavery. We haven't had the pleasure of playing that game, but it sounds like an optimistic game. Cooperative games, even the insanely difficult ones, are inherently optimistic, because victory if won is the result of cooperation, of our ability to coordinate and work together, of our best impulses as a human species - that together, we can achieve things that seem impossible. And we're generally optimistic people ourselves. 

But this is not an optimistic game, because regardless of who wins the game or how, the Civil War is begun and hundreds of thousands of people are going to die over the course of four years. And this game, like Optimates et Populares, is about frustration and deadlock, and progress being incremental and often stymied. That provides for a fascinating decision space, but doesn't really allow for the sense of triumph over adversity that would power a cooperative game. In part because of this, and also because of the type of game it is and what the game's model simulates, it of necessity has to be a two-player game and a competitive one.

6) Will you accept outside submissions from game designers? If yes: How best to approach you?

We definitely accept outside submissions. Sending us an email or a facebook message is the best way to get that ball rolling.

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