Mary Russell

When Mary and I were working on getting Hollandspiele off the ground, we looked at several of my old designs to see if there were any I could brush off and, conceivably, sell to the wargamers who we figured would make up the bulk of our customer base. Agricola, Master of Britain was an obvious yes. So was my Crimea-set Blood in the Fog. One of our favorite games to play together was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777, and with just a little bit of prodding from Mary, I decided to hammer the game into shape. I didn't expect it to sell very well, but at least it would get the game out there and a handful of folks might appreciate it. And it actually became one of our fastest-selling titles, so boy, am I glad that I was wrong about that one! 

One of the other games Mary brought up was For-Ex. I was extremely hesitant and remained so for a good long while. I believed in the game as a game, as something that was an artistic success. I would love to see it go out into the world and agreed with Mary that it should be published. But I was less sure of its commercial potential, less sure of the game as a product

Now, usually this kind of thing doesn't bug me all that much. After all, I was unsure of Supply Lines as a product, but that didn't stop us from publishing it. The key strength of using a print-on-demand method of publishing games is that we don't pay for the game until after a customer orders it, and we only pay for as many as our customers order. It greatly reduces overhead and allows us to make a small profit even on games that underperform. By minimizing the financial risk, we're in a position where we can take artistic risks, which may or may not pay off commercially. 

Something like For-Ex, on the other hand, would have significant (for us) up-front costs because of the sheer number of cards - over two hundred in the final iteration. I couldn't see putting that kind of money down on something that was, from my point-of-view, so very, very ultra-niche. And especially since we were presenting ourselves explicitly as a wargames publisher, and had in the two years prior to launch learned a lot about how to sell games to a wargaming audience, doing an economics game that was too nerdy and opaque even for 18XX gamers sounded like a very expensive non-starter. 

Three things happened that led to me changing my mind. In order of importance: 

One: we found a cards supplier that was able to reliably but cheaply print cards in relatively low volume, which we used for Dynasty and Table Battles. Like, it would still be a lot of cards, and it would still be a lot of moolah, but it wasn’t like we were going to have to pay for a mass print-run of several thousand two-hundred card decks. 

Two: we published An Infamous Traffic, a cutthroat, heavy economics game that is gloriously weird, mean, and fragile. We figured that game would do well, but I don't think we anticipated how well it would do, or how well it would continue to do month-after-month and quarter-after-quarter. We knew there was a market for it, but I don't think we had fully conceptualized that there was a "heavy gamer" segment of the hobby, or rather that that segment extended beyond the 18XXers on one extreme and the World in Flames aficionados on the other. The success of Traffic gave us the first inkling that those people existed, and that games for those kinds of people could find an appreciative audience. After the success of Supply Lines and, to a lesser extent, Optimates et Populares, I started to feel that games of my own design might resonate with such folks. 

Three - and this is the most important: Mary kept bringing it up. Eventually, my "yes, we should publish it, but we can't afford all the cards and I don't know if anyone will buy it" became "yes, we should, and now we can afford all the cards but only if we think people will buy it" and then "yes, we should, it's doable and I think there's a market for it", which, for the sake of simplicity, we'll call "Yes." 

Redevelopment of the game went fairly quickly. Feeling that the previous iteration was perhaps too constrained, I decided to add more currencies to the mix. I initially thought that I'd double the number of currencies, but balked when I realized that this would increase the number of Currency Pairs to keep track of from ten to forty-five. So I ended up only adding two, which increased the number to a far more manageable twenty-one. Initially each pair was tracked on a separate track, as was the case with my original five currency version of the design, but Cole Wehrle and Brian Joughin helped me reduce it to only seven, tracking multiple relationships in each row. This made the game much more elegant and much less clumsy.

I thought that with two additional currencies in the mix that I might need to alter the game length, and so I experimented with adding another Dividend before game end. Playtesting confirmed that that didn't pan out, so I just went back to four paying Dividends.

In the previous article, I mentioned a rule about Chinese currency that saw its values artificially weakened in relation to other currencies. This was a point that may have been arguable six or seven years ago, but didn't really hold as much water today - at least not so much where it would make sense to saddle my fairly abstract currency-trading game with a somewhat fiddly special rule. 

I wasn't really sure how to make the game visually exciting, and while some of our regular wargame map artists might have done something unusual with it, Mary and I thought that Cole Wehrle's clean, distinctive graphic design sensibility would make him a good fit for the project. Cole agreed, and I'm so glad he did. Not only does the game look very handsome, but it felt very much like a sort of collaboration that extended beyond the art. His input on the rules, the pacing of the game, and the ergonomics of it helped the end product immeasurably. To the point where if someone else had done the honors, and somehow ended up with art that looked precisely the same as Cole's, the game would have been less than what it could be and what it is. 

And what is it? Well, that's for you to find out. Though the rules are extremely simple - probably my simplest besides Northern Pacific - it's a hard game to explain and a hard game to play well. I never in my life thought it would be seeing the light of day, nor did I think Mary and I would ever be putting up the cash on the off-chance that people respond to it. And yet here we are. The game seems to be very highly anticipated, which is a new experience for me!

I'm still not quite sure why I designed this game, or if I'll ever do another one like it. But I am so glad that I did.

See Part 1 of 2

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