Mary Russell

As I begin to write the thing you're presumably about to read, it's eight twenty-five post meridiem - eight twenty-six now, because it took me a moment to search for what "p.m." stood for, and another moment to decide whether or not I should use it, and yet another moment to decide if I should call attention to it or if that will come across as an affectation, and geez, now it's eight twenty-eight. The point is that it's late on Monday evening, and about twenty hours ago we started taking orders for my game For-Ex.

The game sold very well. Much better than I was expecting. We certainly anticipated the game doing good business, given the anticipation and attention that's been focused on the game in the last few weeks especially. But I always had my reservations. It was going to do well, sure, but was it going to do that well? Surely there's a ceiling on a game about such a niche subject, and I was worried that ceiling was lower than it appeared, that it of necessity had to be lower than it appeared. 

This was compounded by the fact that, financially, the game was a significant risk. Part of what makes our crazy little business work is that we have relatively low up-front costs for each project. Because of this, we only need to sell a handful of copies to put ourselves into the black, and are generally able to turn at least a small profit on even the most niche of games. But the upfront costs for For-Ex were much greater than for our average project - about twenty times greater, in fact. To put that in perspective, For-Ex is our twentieth release. It cost us more than all our previous games put together. If For-Ex turned out to be a flop, it would have been a disaster. 

Not a huge or irrecoverable one, mind you. Our whole business model is built around mitigating risk and being "flop-proof", as it were: a single disappointing game wouldn't kill us financially. It would, however, make us significantly more adverse to taking risks in the future, and it would have dealt a crushing blow to my self-esteem as a game designer. 

That's probably another reason why I was worried the game wouldn't really do as well as we were allowing ourselves to hope: it was my game. Before we started Hollandspiele, I had sixteen published games to my credit as a designer (plus a handful of others as a developer). Most of those games didn't garner a lot of attention upon their release. People who bought them and played them seemed to like them, but hardly anybody was buying or playing them. I was strongly encouraged to design games that were on less obscure topics, and would have broader, more popular appeal. I did two games specifically with that goal in mind - one a fantasy skirmish game, and the other a "beer-and-pretzels" science fiction game. Both games sold less than my obscure historical games, and given the much higher up-front art costs, they were costly failures. I still get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. At least the historical games made their money back, if little else, so I scurried back to that. 

And while that wasn't the reception I was hoping for, I had more-or-less made my peace with it. When we started Hollandspiele, it was with the knowledge, at least on my part, that my own designs had a limited market. Now, I thought they had a bigger market than what they enjoyed under previous publishers, and we thought that if the games were marketed and supported differently, that they would reach a wider audience, and that has certainly proven to be true. But I didn't go into it thinking any of my games would be huge hits. I went into it thinking that if we controlled the up-front costs that my games would be able to turn a modest profit while the games of other designers would prove more popular. And I was okay with that; it let me design the games I wanted to design, regardless of how many (or how few) people would appreciate them. 

I should say right off the bat that Mary didn't hold this somewhat pessimistic point-of-view. She always believed in and advocated for my designs, even before Hollandspiele, and is what kept me going in those years before Hollandspiele in which game after game failed to make much of an impression on the gaming populace. 

So here's the thing: right from the start, my designs for Hollandspiele were more popular than my games before Hollandspiele. The sales were stronger, the players more appreciative, the reviews more numerous and positive, the buzz louder. But that didn't change the way I saw my games, or the role I had assigned them in the Hollandspiele catalogue. I still thought of them as being somehow "less than" the games by other designers in our line-up. It made sense to me that their games were successful, but I had trouble conceiving of my own games in that light. And in fact, in the early days of the company, we were very aggressive about reaching out to established designers, in part because I figured that it was only through their games that we would be able to grow as a company, and hey, when someone bought one of theirs, maybe someone would pick up one of my games while they were at it. This conception remained in place even as my games started to sell better, and to garner more attention from gamers, than the games we were publishing from established designers.

The positive spin to this conception is that it kept me somewhat humble; rather than take success for granted, I was constantly surprised by it. People like Agricola, Master of Britain? The sales of Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 have remained strong from one month to the next instead of petering off? I was deeply grateful that something I had done had somehow, almost as if by accident, resonated with so many people. There wasn't (and hopefully isn't) any real danger of me getting a swelled head, because my default reaction is to constantly marvel at my good fortune. (Mary can tell you however that this is just as annoying.) 

The downside to the conception though is that it kept me in a sort of a little box. Many of my designs had and have a certain smallness to them that's been hard to shake off, retaining the cramped feel (and even some of the same constraints) from my time designing magazine and ziploc products. I didn't (and don't always) feel confident in my ability to design bigger and longer games that deliver a fuller and heavier experience. That's changing now, if very slowly; Charlemagne, Master of Europe feels positively epic in its sweep compared to its predecessor Agricola. And I'm getting more ambitious thematically as well. There's no way in heck I would have ever tried to do a game about the struggle to end American slavery; I wouldn’t have touched that with a ten foot pole. But it's now something I'm doing, apparently, with This Guilty Land, and sometimes I still wonder what possessed me to think this was a good idea. And I'm starting to convince myself that I should do a game called The Octopus, about the complicated and horrific history of the banana industry. 

And even as I start to think that, hey, maybe I'm actually good at this, the conception will reassert itself, and does so with enough frequency that I was legitimately surprised when we sold out of Table Battles on its first day. It sold more copies in one day than any of my other games, and was the second-best first-day sales overall. The champ of course was An Infamous Traffic, which had sold twice as many copies as Table Battles did in its first day. 

Traffic had indeed sold more copies overall than all my games put together, and again, that didn't bother me. For one thing, the money still spends the same. For another, I'm a great admirer of Cole Wehrle's, and of An Infamous Traffic in particular, and Mary and I were both extremely happy to have the honor of publishing that game. So it made perfect sense to me that Cole's game would have legs; here's someone who is a great and, I would go so far as to say, visionary designer. I'm a huge fan of Cole. 

What didn't make sense to me was that Cole professes to be a huge fan of me. In a couple of podcast interviews he's singled out some of my designs as having an influence on him, even naming me alongside Phil Eklund as one of his favorite designers, and said some very nice things about my work. It's difficult to explain just how deeply this moved me. Again, I'm not at all used to the idea that the things I put out into the world have value for others. As I mentioned above, for games specifically this has to do with having seen over a dozen pre-Hollandspiele games more-or-less die on the vine. But it also has to do with the fact that before I got into games, I tried and failed to engage an audience in various art forms, and more broadly and personally, with my childhood. I'm frequently overwhelmed by compliments and praise, and don't know quite what to do with it, in much the same way an animal raised in captivity doesn't know how to interact with its own species when reintroduced into the wild.

And so, of course, it's naturally just as overwhelming for me to have something be as successful as For-Ex. We put it up for sale shortly after midnight, and when we got out of bed on Monday morning, it had sold more copies than Table Battles had in its first day, taking second place right behind Traffic. Shortly after dinner, the total had doubled, taking the top slot. One of my games is responsible for our best one-day sales? And not just one of my games, but the weird boring one about currency trading? How on earth is that possible? 

I'm not writing this to crow about it; I'm too surprised to be crowing. It's more that I'm just trying to process it, and to come to grips with the sneaking suspicion that maybe, just maybe, I'm good at this after all. That people actually do like my games. That the things I say and do have value for others. And that makes me feel extraordinarily blessed, and also deeply grateful, to the point where, once again, I'm feeling quite overwhelmed by it all.

Thank you so much, everyone - and especially to Mary, who in addition to putting up with me and my neuroses, has always believed in these designs, and especially in For-Ex, one hundred percent. She also has the unenviable task of proofreading this blogpost that I'm finishing at quarter after ten the night before it's supposed to go live. Thank you, oh heart of my heart.


  • I’m genuinely happy for you. And yeah, us nerdy folk kinda dig your designs. Keep it up and many of us look forward to what you create.

    Edward Uhler

  • If someone is going to have to kick AIT off the leaderboard, I’m happy it’s you, Tom. Congrats on some well-deserved success.


  • You know – I had 6 designs ready to go when I started Blue Panther. Mostly abstract or thinly themed games that had all wood components. Six months later I had 6 designs for sale on the market, and let’s just say that they were not flying off the shelves. Then a friend of mine suggested that I make Piecepacks. This is a game system released into the public domain – so I asked myself why would someone pay me money to make something with artwork they could download and print out and glue onto wood or cardboard? One of the folks who made a more popular art set even approached me and we worked out a licensing deal.

    Well it turns out that while many people would download piecepacks and make their own sets, there were some who didn’t have the time to do that and that there were others who just wanted a nice looking engraved set. Sales soared, and I spent a very cold Michigan winter in my soon to be heated workshop laser engraving a bunch of sets. Piecepacks got us up on the shore,

    When that same friend suggested we try making dice towers, I didn’t really question the idea. Just started making them. Dice towers are what put us on the map and they continue to sell well almost a decade later. And today, when I go to local conventions I don’t bring alot of dice towers since they’re already on many of the gaming tables.

    Thanks to all so far, and especially to Clark Rodeffer, who suggested piecepacks and dice towers in the first place.

    Steve Jones

  • > about the complicated and horrific history of the banana industry
    Completely not my area. But I will buy it just out of curiosity :)
    On a side note. In 90th Russia, when every aspect of life was regulated by mafia more or less, when death of business owners were reported on daily bases, postcards and matches were real cutthroat areas. If you where going there – you have secured your assassination in the next several weeks.

    > That people actually do like my games
    Could not say for everyone. I personally do. A lot.

    Slava Zipp

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