We didn't know Richard Berg very well, but we knew him well enough to know that we liked him.
This wasn't initially the case. For one thing, I didn't like any of Berg's games. For another, he had a reputation for being nasty and disagreeable. Early on, when Mary and I were drawing up a list of designers we wanted to work with, this was enough to keep him off it. And so, we didn't approach Richard. He approached us.
He called us Hollanders, and, after he got to know us better, Russelloids. He pitched us a number of "ready-to-roll die-rollers", "shlaboompas", and "neato bandito Bergies" - all of which were various words in Berg-ese for "games". With some trepidation, and with half of my brain already starting to compose polite rejection letters, we dug into them one-by-one. And then we got to Dynasty, and it sounded really compelling, and we thought it wouldn't hurt to print it up and give it a whirl. The map file was super low-res and too small to use, but Richard wasn't able to send us a better file; his ancient and seemingly malevolent computer barely functioned. (At one point, and for a few weeks, all of his email responses were done via word doc attachments as he couldn't type text directly into his email window.)
Richard's hand-drawn marker-colored map.
So instead Richard sent us a hand-drawn and marker-colored version in the mail, and we got that onto the table. (I still have that map.) As I've written about before, we fell in love with the game, and suddenly found ourselves working with Richard Berg. He was a joy to work with; he was protective of his work and his vision without being precious about it. When I suggested that we use a different title than Dynasty: Era of the Five Dynasties (particularly because the game was for four players!), he balked, and the name stayed. The name was important to him. But when we asked him to make cuts to the card mix to accommodate the card printer we were talking to at that time, he readily agreed. Likewise, he saw the utility of using euro-style wood bits instead of counters for the majority of the pieces.
Throughout the entire process, he was full of enthusiasm and energy. He was also a little impatient. Occasionally he would post on our Facebook page, asking us why Dynasty wasn't out yet, or telling us that the game we were advertising didn't look very good, so why weren't we talking about Dynasty instead. We weren't the only publisher working with Richard who went through this, and while others found it grating, for whatever reason I found it very funny and charming. At one point I said, you know, Richard, publishing this other game will get us the money we need to publish yours, and after that, he knocked it off. Well. Mostly.
Throughout the process, we had tried to manage his expectations: we're only a small company, after all, doing direct sales via print-on-demand. We don't have the reach of someone like GMT; the game is expensive by our standards, longer than what our customers are used to, not particularly solo-friendly. But he remained optimistic. Probably because it was a game he had been pitching without success for the better part of fifteen years, a game he had believed in even when no one else did. But Dynasty didn't sell as well as he had hoped, and let's just say that he was more than willing to voice his disapprobation.
Richard with some of his games. Photo by Carla Easter.
We assumed at that point that he wouldn't want anything more to do with us, but in a few months he started pitching us games again. He said that he understood that we couldn't promise the kind of numbers that he'd get with a larger publisher; he also understood that we might be an ideal home for weird, niche designs. One of these really caught our eye, for many of the same reasons that Dynasty did. And that made us a little trepidatious: if Dynasty didn't work out as well as we all had hoped, why would this other one fare any better? It's a ridiculously bad business decision, but if we were interested in sound decision-making we wouldn't be publishing weird games on demand. And so we offered to license it. Even announced it, and started pricing the bits.
Shortly after the announcement, we were contacted by a publisher who said they held the license to the game, but found it unplayable and had no interest in publishing it. Said publisher had been in business for five years at that time and had yet to ever publish anything. (They still haven't.) And, yes, that situation was as weird as it sounds. It turns out that many of the games that Berg had pitched to us, this publisher had played and found to be unplayable and half-baked. I didn't like every game he sent to us necessarily, but I can tell you, all of them that I looked at were finished. All of them were playable and coherent.
The guy who contacted us said that he would release it back to Richard after sorting out some contracts. We let Richard know about this, and he asked me to give him a call. Richard had documentation backing up his assertion that the rights to that particular game reverted back to him years ago. (The only reason we didn't go forward with that game is that, once we were done pricing the components, we realized that we wouldn't be able to offer the game at a price that made sense for the market: it was too expensive for us to produce on a print-on-demand basis.)
That was the only phone conversation I had with Richard. It began something like this:
"Is this Tom?"
"Yes. Hi Richard, how are you doing?"
"I'm doing well. I'm just leaving nasty comments to make people angry on Facebook. It's my hobby. You have to do what brings you joy."
And it's easy for me to say that I found this funny and charming because I wasn't on the receiving end. I know and am friendly with some folks who were, folks that liked Richard a lot less as a consequence, and I'm not trying to dismiss or diminish their experiences. And I'm not sure if the admission that he was consciously trolling people for giggles makes it better or worse. People are complicated; they can be many things to many people.
Richard doing something he loved, singing, this time in a theatrical production of "The Mikado".
But to me, on the phone, Richard was gregarious and warm. The reason for the call was dispensed with almost immediately; after that, Richard just told me stories. And of course they were good stories.
At one point we got talking about Hollandspiele's crazy business model, and the fact that, improbably, it had become a full-time job for Mary and me. And I freely admitted that there were easier ways to make money in board games than printing weird titles one at a time.
And Richard said to me that it didn't really matter how much or how little money someone made; the number itself doesn't matter. "If you have enough money so that you're comfortable, so that you can do some things that make you happy, go out to eat once in a while, that's all anyone ever needs. That's what it's for."I only spoke with Richard the one time, and we only published the one game. In both cases, I dearly wish there had been a second. As I said, we didn't really know Richard very well. We never met him, never got to game with him. But we knew him enough to know that we liked him, and to be saddened by the news of his passing.