Winsome Games recently announced (sort of) that one of my games would be coming out in this year's Essen Set. If you're a 100% grognard who has no time for trains unless they halve the cost of entering a hex, you might be only tangentially aware of Winsome and how they operate. The short version is that they release a handful of railroad games as a set each year at Essen. Winsome releases very little information about their games beforehand, and you basically need to commit to buying the set blind at 100 Euros. Said set comes in clamshells, with very basic components. A reviewer once compared them to prototypes, and John Bohrer, Winsome's head-honcho, wrote back that many prototypes have much nicer components. (Certainly, the eurogamers who didn't dig An Infamous Traffic's components should stay far away from a Winsome release.)
For Americans, a limited run of sets are announced in July, and are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis; you generally need to get your name in within a few hours of the announcement or you're out of luck. Prior to the July announcement, customers who purchased the previous year's set are given a hush-hush heads-up email. That email just went out, and normally I wouldn't be able to mention my new game until the official announcement. But John previously and publicly mentioned on the mailing list that I had a game in this year's set, so I figure I'm in the clear.
One of the recipients of that confidential email reached out to me to express his congratulations, among other very nice and very flattering things about my work and about Hollandspiele. He suggested that I write about what it was like to design a game for another publisher versus designing a game for Hollandspiele, and since I suddenly find myself in need of a blog article, here we are.
Taking the topic generally first (we'll get into specifics later), I would say that designing a game for another publisher is both easier and more difficult than designing a game for Hollandspiele. It's easier in that my development process is less extensive when working for another publisher. That's speaking relatively, of course. I had a game in the 2013, 2014, and 2015 Winsome sets, but none in 2016, because it took me an extra year to get the 2017 game to the point where I felt comfortable turning it over to Winsome for final development and more extensive playtesting.
That's the part that makes it easier, of course. With a Hollandspiele design, "final development and more extensive playtesting" is something that, of necessity, we handle in-house. When I do a game for Winsome, I know I can count on John and his team to put the game through its paces, and to make any changes they deem necessary. The reason why folks routinely plunk down a couple hundred dollars on the secondary market for a single game is because they're some of the best developers in the business.
So, designing a game for another publisher generally takes me less time, provided that I trust the publisher to do right by the game. (That's a key bit we'll come back to later.) And then of course there's the art, layout, production, and marketing of the game. I may be in the loop on these proceedings, but all that falls under the publisher's purview, and those are all things that I don't need to worry about.
Another thing that can be slotted into the "easy" column is that, when I'm designing a game specifically for another publisher, I'm designing with an eye toward certain parameters. If I'm doing a Winsome game, it's going to be about trains. It's probably going to have a stock element, and will either use a hex-grid map or point-to-point. The game will be for three or more players, it will feature emergent (and sometimes fleeting) alliances, the rules will be relatively sparse - usually only two pages - and the player with the most money will win the game. Components will be limited to some wood bits and some stock certificates. Randomness will be greatly diminished or non-existent.
All those ingredients are pretty easy to throw together in interesting ways. I know what kinds of games they're looking for, and I can make a game that fits rather neatly and easily into their wheelhouse. I don't need to sit on an idea for months and months while it percolates and my brain struggles to draw connections and come up with mechanisms. Irish Gauge, probably the most universally loved of my first three Winsomes, was basically designed over the course of an hour while I was commuting from work. Sure, there were months of playtesting and tweaking in my future, but the actual mechanisms were altered very little from first prototype to published product.
But as I said, in some ways, working for another firm is more difficult. For one thing, they can always turn you down. "No thanks, I don't really want to publish a game on currency trading" is a perfectly valid statement for a publisher to make, as is "Nope, I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass on this game about the role of supplies in the American Revolutionary War". Which are both statements that I heard before, and often. Supply Lines of the American Revolution is one of Hollandspiele's best-sellers, and we're releasing For-Ex (with art by Cole Wehrle) in a few months. If I want to do a weird game on an unusual topic - and some days, all I want to do are weird games on unusual topics - I just need to convince myself, and Mary, that it's worth doing, and if Mary isn't feeling it, I can always sweeten the deal with a foot massage. Sometimes my passion for a project is vindicated (cf. Supply Lines) and sometimes it isn't. But we're still able to make a profit when a game underperforms, no matter how small that profit might be, and so from our point-of-view, we're coming out ahead. Not having a gatekeeper, and having total control of how the game is presented and marketed, is a real boon, especially for unusual topics or approaches.
This does bring up another downside of designing for another publisher. What if they take a chance on my game, and it doesn't sell? On the surface, to some folks, this might seem like a non-problem, because it's not like I'm the one losing money in that scenario. I remember reading something that the director John Cassavetes said, which ran along the lines of, he'd gleefully lie about his movies to make them sound more marketable so as to secure funding, and didn't really care if they actually made money or not. I have a strong moral objection to that. I would be devastated if a game I designed lost someone else money. In fact, it's happened twice and I still feel awful about it. Oddly enough, both games were ones that catered pretty nakedly to what I thought would be popular tastes, and I remembered thinking beforehand, "What if this is the thing that takes off? What if no one wants these games I'm passionate about, and I'm stuck designing this kind of stuff for the rest of my life?" But obviously I needn't have worried!
I generally prefer publishing the games I design; these days, almost all of my designs are for Hollandspiele. Like many, I'm a creature of habit, and stubbornly set in my ways: I'm used to fully developing my games, to laying out the counters, to designing the box-top. I enjoy the work, and I enjoy reaping the benefits of that work, creatively and financially. I can't imagine doing a hex-and-counter game for another publisher. But I also can't imagine doing a straight-up trains-and-stock cube rails game for Hollandspiele, and I appreciate the outlet Winsome gives me to work in that design space.
Now, all that falls under "in general". When we get down to specifics, working with other publishers can be a mixed bag. I said up-top that I know I can trust Winsome's development team. That's not always true with other publishers. Sometimes, they do very little development or testing at all, or they only get the game on the table after it's gone out into the world and they discover something wrong with it. More often, they think they discovered something wrong with it, when the game is actually perfectly fine; when in the past I worked with a "hands-off" publisher, I had to do the sort of final development that I do for our Hollandspiele releases.
And sometimes, they do a little too much development. All too common is the story of a developer who radically redesigns the game, then blames the designer when everything's been thrown out of whack. I've had friends who this has happened to. It's also happened to me; I once had someone try to turn my heavy perfect-information economics game into a real-time blind-bluffing party game. My response to that was uncharacteristically virulent.
A good developer knows when to leave well enough alone, and understands that the designer has a particular (even a peculiar) vision, and that the developer and the publisher's job is to support and enhance that vision, not to alter it. Generally when we develop games by other designers we have a pretty light hand, making suggestions and seeking clarification. We playtest, playtest, playtest (as the saying goes) and always approach the rules from the point of view that it's that way for a specific reason, and that we need to understand that reason, and where the designer is coming from, before suggesting any alteration.
In this way, we somewhat consciously emulate Winsome's example. My first game for them, Northern Pacific, was very simple mechanically - as John told me once, "it has only two rules" - and they kept that core simplicity, kept those rules intact. Winsome came up with a completely different map that made better and fuller use of those mechanics: they supported and enhanced my concept to show it off in the best possible light. Whereas the next game, Irish Gauge, was published pretty much exactly as I turned it in - they knew it didn't need anything extra.
Of course, that sense of judgment and discernment doesn't just burst out of Zeus's forehead, fully formed. It's something that has to be honed and that gets easier with experience. And I would say that the primary benefit of working with other publishers is that it gave me, and Mary, that experience, which we apply daily to our own company.
Since I've talked about John Bohrer and Winsome at length here, I'll close by saying that, in addition to being a great developer and great publisher, John specifically is a generous, considerate, and utterly charming man. When he agreed to publish Northern Pacific, he told me that before doing so, he'd have to meet me in person, as he meets all the authors for the games he publishes. And so John, along with one of his associates - whose name, unfortunately, I've forgotten, but who was just as charming - drove up to Michigan and met us at an outdoor restaurant.
Now, prior to meeting John in person, I knew that he was a smoker - his "cigarette smoker" microbadge on BGG kinda gave it away - and that gave me some cause for worry. Neither Mary nor I smoke ourselves, and we find the smell of it to be extremely irritating. I particularly have a madeleine-in-tea association with the smell, as my father, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at age 38. I saw my father die - his body convulsed, and he vomited blood, bile, and excrement all over himself in his last moments - and the smell of cigarettes causes a vivid involuntary memory of that moment.
So, going into it, I was worried that I might give offense by asking him not to smoke, that I would come across as overly fussy or, if I had fully explained the reason for my aversion, that I would come across as overly dramatic. I wanted to make a good first impression, especially as, at least at that time, I was famous for making bad ones.
So, John was sitting in the outside dining area, and he was indeed smoking one cigarette after another. But I never smelled it. It never irritated my throat, it never attacked my nostrils, and it never brought back my father's dying moments. Partially, this was because of the way John smoked, holding the cigarette away from the table, blowing the smoke softly and gingerly upward and away. We didn't tell him that we had a problem with the smoke; he just politely and naturally directed the smoke away from everyone. I sat across from him, and Mary next to him, and when, on the way home, I marveled at how he smoked, and that I'd never encountered a smoker who was actually considerate of others, Mary expressed surprise that he was smoking at all. She hadn't noticed. (And man, let me tell you, Mary notices everything!)
But partially, it was because of how charming and down-to-earth John is. His stories that night were entertaining, his insights into various Eurogame publishers were acute, and even as he drove the conservation and had the best lines, he made you feel like you were the center of attention. Those are rare talents, and I think they've served him well. No one publishes games the way that Winsome does, and I don't think anyone else could do so successfully.