Mary Russell

Many of the games we publish have a "small footprint". Partially this is because my own designs tend toward being compact, the result of working habits I developed over the course of a dozen-or-so games designed for magazines and ziplocks. I try to get as much game as possible out of as few components as possible. The venerable Bruce Geryk once said of The Grunwald Swords that it "punches above its weight", and that's a rather nice bit that I'm eager to use in our advertising copy. So for a long time, I've designed reasonably compact games, though of late I've been stretching my legs a bit; next year's The Heights of Alma will be my first game with a "full" 22" x 34" map. Hardly a multimap minimonster, and it would probably fit on a map half that size if we weren't using larger hexes for our Shot & Shell Battle Series, but be that as it may, it's still bigger than ninety percent of the games in our catalogue. 

That's including games from outside designers, which generally are likewise compact. Partially this is due to aligned game design philosophies - as publishers, we're drawn toward elegance. Partially there is an economic consideration: for a small, niche publisher like Hollandspiele, a small inexpensive game will usually sell in greater volume than a big pricey one. We'll get more sales at $30-$35 than we will at $40-$45, and more at $40-$45 than we will at $50+. So when evaluating a game, we do need to look at what kind of price point it's likely going to have, and if we think there's a market for that game at that price point. 

That makes us feel suspiciously like business people. One of the great things about our model is that we can publish a really weird game on a really obscure topic and be more-or-less guaranteed to make some kind of small profit. One of the examples I trot out every-so-often is House of Normandy, our quad game of twelfth-century battles that practically no one has heard of, a game which still made a small profit at a $30 MSRP. But if that game had larger maps, or more of them, and we priced it at say $40 or $45, I'm not sure if it would have made it into the black. A prospective customer will try something out for twenty-five or thirty bucks but is less likely to do so at higher price points. 

But beyond how the size of the game might effect our ability to sell the game, and beyond being generally attracted to games that are elegant and compact, there is one other consideration that factors into our decision to publish a game, and that is the game's ability to fit on our dining room table. If I can't put the game out on the table, we can't play it. We can't evaluate it, we can't test it, we can't develop it. And all of those things being crucial parts of the process, it means that, even if we think we might like the game and that it would be successful, we can't publish it. 

Now, said dining room table isn't teeny-tiny, but the most it can comfortably accommodate is one 22" x 34" map with perhaps a display sheet or two (and that's starting to push it). Hence the general preference for a 22" x 17", which has the added bonus of leaving enough room for the occasional bag of groceries. 

We recently had a "name" designer approach us with a two-map game on a fairly interesting topic, and we had to turn him down for the reasons outlined above. Another designer recently submitted a solitaire game for our consideration, using a 22" x 34" map and what seemed to be a dozen sheets of charts and display sheets. I quickly determined that there was no way all this was going to fit on our table, but being interested in the topic and being cognizant of the market for meaty solitaire games, I decided that I wanted to at least give the game a try. If it was something we were really interested in publishing, maybe we could find a way to streamline the thing, cutting down on the number of display sheets especially.

But, grandmother, what a big table you have!

So I went over to my grandmother's house and borrowed the table in her basement. This table previously had enjoyed a long and storied career at Easter and Thanksgiving every year, seating fifteen or sixteen people when all the leafs had been inserted. It was never used at Christmas; Christmas drew a bigger crowd once upon a time, and so all of us balanced paper plates on our laps as we sat in an assortment of folding chairs. As people passed away, and as familial bonds frayed, the gatherings grew smaller every year. Now all of us could fit at that table at Christmas, but it's still never used, perhaps out of deference for tradition. Easter and Thanksgiving got smaller, too, and soon I wonder if we'll need the leafs at all. 

But leafs or no, the table was more-or-less big enough for my purposes, and it was upon that noble and ancient surface that I splayed out the map with its myriad display sheets and six pages of charts. I shuffled the two decks of cards and placed them at one end of the table. The counters still needed sorting before I could play, and so I designated a small nearby coffee table for that task. Having nowhere to put the rulebook and the playbook, I decided to use the top of my grandmother's artificial fireplace.

And over the course of the next few hours, I came to the conclusion that, while the game had many admirable qualities, it wasn't really for us, and I'm not sure if it could be shrunk down without dramatically altering the game. Which makes sense. Making games is often very similar to making sentences, in that, per Strunk and White,

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

This is perhaps truer of games than it is of sentences. Every mechanism counts and touches every other mechanism, and if you try to alter a rule here, it will almost invariably reach out and touch this rule and that one. A game's size is as important and as impactful as any mechanism, and so in a well-designed game, it will touch all aspects of the game and inform all of the designer's decisions.

And this solitaire game was well-designed. But it was designed with a certain footprint in mind, and a certain level of complexity that was perhaps a bit beyond my abilities as a developer. If the game had been designed with a smaller footprint in mind, it may as a result have been a better fit, but it would have been a very different game - perhaps radically so.

Even if I had a big enough table, it was too big for my table, if you get my drift.

1 comment

  • I actually happen to like the smaller footprint games. In my home office/game room, I have three desks, all approximately 30″×50″. One I use for my laptop/32" monitor primarily for playing ASL online and for paying bills. The other two are for games — one currently holds NATO Air Commander and the other has Peloponnesian War and Brave Little Belgium on it. Hardest thing is to keep the cats off it.



    Mark Sockwell

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