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FROM THE ARCHIVES: BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FIRST TIME? PART 2 (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

So last time I wrote about how a bad first impression with a game can make folks unlikely to try it a second time. There might be great and hidden depths that reveal themselves after x number of plays, but many folks aren't going to ever get to x. Or, as John Brieger put it, "you have a problem if it requires weeks of playing constantly for players to achieve the level of knowledge to make the game balanced." The thing is, I don't know if that really is a problem.

I mean, yes, it is a problem, in the sense that there are plenty of folks who aren't going to ever play that game a second time. Especially as they've got plenty of other games on their shelves that don't have that problem. With so many games to play, and with less leisure time available, most people are going to shy away from a game with such a steep, difficult, and thorny learning curve. Such a game is a really tough sell, and is going to have difficulty finding an audience in an increasingly crowded marketplace. So, sure, that is a problem, but only if you're trying to sell a lot of games.

And that's certainly the goal for most publishers, and there's nothing wrong with that. After all, a company needs to stay in business if it wants to keep publishing games. If you print six thousand copies of a game and only one thousand sell, then you have five thousand copies sitting in a warehouse or ending up in a dollar bin. That's a pretty ruinous loss! For smaller companies especially, one flop can be catastrophic. Or, to put it another way:

The longer I do this publishing thing the more I realize the only real rating that matters is SALES. Publishers of "great" games that don't sell consistently won't survive. If you want to be a publisher then every decision should revolve around, "How will this impact sales?"

… As a businessman I'd rather have a "Munchkin" than your average hot for a few months title that rated well on BGG but no longer sells much.

That's coming from the twitter feed of Van Ryder Games, a publisher of thematic games like Hostage Negotiator and Detective: City of Angels. I disagree with the things they post on twitter pretty consistently - even small things like whether or not people should be allowed to pay for groceries with checks - but at the same time, I understand where they're coming from, and if we were publishing games in that style and with their model, we'd probably be approaching it much the same way.

Different kind of risk.

So, yes, from a business perspective, I absolutely agree that games that are going to turn off the vast majority of players aren't a great way to make money. But hey, printing games on demand - the most expensive and least efficient way to make games - isn't a great way to make money either! Yet it works out pretty good for us, precisely because that method neutralizes any financial risk. Our overhead is so low that even if we only sell a handful of copies, the game will pay for itself.

That puts us in the enviable position of being able to publish pretty much whatever the heck we want to publish. There's more to it than that; production cost factors highly into the MSRP given our absurdly low profit margin. For the average game, there is an indirect correlation between how low the MSRP is and how many copies it sells. That is, a $30 game is easier to sell than a $40 one. So while we'd love to publish something like an 18XX, it's so components-intensive that there's no way we could price it in a way that makes sense for consumers. But other than that, our decisions are mercifully free of the dreary, cold calculus that eats up the time of other successful publishers.

So at that point, the question isn't, is a game with a steep learning curve a problem from a business perspective?, because for us - and perhaps for us alone - it isn't. The question becomes, is a game with a steep learning curve a problem from a creative perspective?

Maybe not that steep.

And the answer to that question of course is going to vary from game to game. Our catalogue is pretty eclectic, and for intro-style hex-and-counter games like the Shields & Swords II series, a punishing learning curve would be counterintuitive. You absolutely don't want to risk turning players off the first time they take the field. For meatier and weirder games, though, it can often be part of the appeal. As I've mentioned before, many of my games are balanced on the point of a needle, and only need a slight push to become lopsided in your favor: the game, in a way, is about the players both pushing at the same time, searching for leverage and maintaining equal pressure until one of them breaks. It's hard to be good at Supply Lines. It's difficult to play Table Battles well. Even I have trouble wrapping my head around good play in Optimates et Populares, and I made the darn thing.

These games are interesting to me as a designer and as a player because of their underlying fragility, because of how easy they are to distort and how carefully you must protect against your opponent obtaining that distortion in their favor. A given play session can go wobbly in a dozen different and delicious ways. Does that mean that a player might hate the game the first time they play it? Sure. Does that keep me up at night? Not really. It's a risk I'm willing to take, because it results in a more interesting competitive experience.

In fact, sometimes I wonder if the opposite impulse - the need to ensure a good first impression - makes for a less interesting experience. In order to limit the game state to what is traditionally considered acceptable and palatable, you have to rein in all the lovely distortions, feedback loops, and asymmetries, sanding off the edges and softening the sharp elbows. If a strategy will win unless properly countered, and the proper counter requires some skill, then that counter needs to become easier to grasp, that strategy needs to be neutered. The game's balance isn't something fluid and in flux and transitory, but something rigid and resistant to change, always snapping back into place, always ensuring that everyone can mount a comeback when they fall behind.

It's a permanent game state in which players have no agency, and I can't really think of anything less interesting than that. It's one reason why the mid-weight, finely-balanced, point-salad Euro, once the mainstay of our gaming table, no longer holds the same magic for us that it once did. We still play them, especially in social settings, we just don't find them particularly compelling - they're too safe, too staid, too ordinary. And in today's crowded marketplace, with so many games sitting unplayed on people's shelves, why waste time playing yet another normal game?


2 comments

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  • My first impressions of two different Hollandspiele titles, the only ones I’ve played so far, were not great and full of frustration. I’ve set each title aside for a couple weeks. Yet, I really admire the philosophy you are outlining here. In fact, it encourages me to explore each title further. I’m kind of excited to get them back to the table now. Whether the games are for me, I don’t know. But I do know that I do not regret buying the games. I’m glad you’re doing your thing in your own way. It makes the hobby so much better.

    cory

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