Mary Russell

Nearly all of my games are historical, but years ago I did two genre games for another publisher - one fantasy and one post-apocalyptic science fiction. I found the lack of historical scaffolding both very challenging and quite liberating. Both games had larger art budgets than was typical for the publisher, but not large enough; I had to make some rather severe cuts to reduce the number of illustrations needed. This greatly constrained the scope of both games, and the end result in both cases was something somewhat cramped and small.

Both games were flops. Over the years, and especially once the rights were returned to me - the publisher couldn't see any reason to keep them in stock since no one ever bought them anyway - I've spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what happened. For a long time I chalked it up to a mismatch of audience and format: hex-and-counter wargamers, who made up that publisher's base, probably weren't all that interested in sci-fi and fantasy, while the sci-fi and fantasy gamers probably weren't that interested in paper maps and counters: they want their plastic dolls.

But around the same there were a handful of hex-and-counter science fiction games released, any one of which sold loads better than my two games combined. Several of those were created by the team of Fred Manzo and Hermann Luttmann, who had by that time already established a reputation with hardcore grogs and casual gamers alike with a series of titles for Revolution and Victory Point. I didn't have any such reputation myself - at that time, I was best known (if at all) for the train games I had done for Winsome, and that was hardly an audience looking for a fantasy skirmish game.

More than that, though, Fred and Hermann's games felt big in a way that mine didn't. There was a sweep and a grandeur to the whole thing; it had scale. Part of this undoubtedly is that they made solitaire games: we had the same number of counters, but in the context of a two-player game, I needed to make sure the two players could be somewhat evenly matched. With a solo game, however, you can pit a handful of player counters against hordes of creepy-crawlies, and suddenly you've got this big crazy adventure unfolding on your table.

Mary actually worked with Fred and Hermann on two of those games in the days before Hollandspiele, and enjoyed working with them. Evidentially the feeling was mutual, because shortly after we started our own company, they approached us about a new sci-fi solo game called Escape From Hades, designed by Fred and developed by Hermann. They started testing the game in early 2017, and about a year later Fred sent us a copy.

The question was never really, were we going to publish the game?, because it's Fred and Herm, and a solo game, and I immediately fell in love with the thing, so of course we were going to publish it. The question was, how were we going to publish it?

So, quick detour for the uninitiated: our entire model works because we have basically no overhead. Usually the only real upfront cost we have is the art, and we control those art costs pretty rigorously in order to keep our break-even point so low that even a "flop" would be profitable. Most of our games use fairly standard NATO type symbols, and when we do spring for counter illustrations, we do it with an eye toward reusing that art in multiple games if possible. We're able to take significant creative risks because we don't really take financial ones.

But you can't do a science fiction game with NATO symbols, and the Roman Legionnaire illustrations that have been kicking around a couple of our games are going to be out of place over in Alpha Centauri. We would need a large number of new illustrations, which would require a large outlay of cash and a larger degree of financial risk. How large, exactly, was something Mary and I spent quite a lot of time talking about.

We could see ways to decrease the number. For example, the player controls five different types of squads (each with their own specialties), under the leadership of four named units. This is similar to Fred and Herm's other sci-fi games. In one of those previous ziplock games, one basic illustration was used for all these friendly units, with palette swaps to differentiate them from one another. So, we could very easily Ken-and-Ryu the thing: one illustration costs less than nine - nine times less, in fact! There were thirteen "one-off" counters representing different rooms within the game's titular space prison, and we could easily have made these text-only: zero illustrations cost less than thirteen - infinity times less, in fact!

But it's a big, thematic game, so we wanted it to feel big and thematic. Thirteen different text counters didn't feel big and thematic, and neither would five different unit types and four different leaders that all looked the same. If the game was worth doing, it was worth doing right, and so we commissioned what ultimately turned out to be more than forty pieces of art.

Which is probably peanuts for the folks who do sci-fi games on the regular, but is an awful lot for a small operation like ours. The final art budget is several times what we've paid for other games, and our break-even point is significantly higher. It also took significantly longer to get the completed art. It's not uncommon for games that need a lot of art to hire multiple artists each doing a handful of pieces, resulting in a quicker turnaround time. But we wanted a unified art style, which meant one artist.

That artist was Wil Alambre. Wil is an old internet friend of mine from way back - we first met on USENET, that's how way back it was - who we have worked with before on games such as Bitskrieg, Ribbit, and Absolutely Aces. Every time we've worked with Wil, it's been a treat. His process starts with a copious amount of reference material, exploratory sketches, and color tests to ensure we're on the same page regarding the style and tone. Then he gives us line art for approval, then moves onto coloring and finished art.

To speed things up, Wil hired a colorist, as that would allow him to focus on the drawing. That colorist proved to be unsuitable, and Wil ultimately had to color everything himself, which added to the time it took to complete the project. All told, from the start of the preliminary "pre-visualization" stage through to receiving the final files, it took roughly eight months.

I think the end result is gorgeous art with a lot of personality and character. In fact, one reason why I wrote this blog-thing was so that we'd have an excuse to show off as many of the illustrations as possible. We really wanted something that elevated and delivered on the promise of Fred's game, and that's what Wil gave us.

I'm generally risk-adverse when it comes to money. The idea of doing a game with an art budget this big, on a subject that's well outside our wheelhouse, has given me palpitations early and often. But, you know what, a funny thing happened as the finished art started to come in: I kinda stopped worrying about it. Partially it's a gut feeling that the game is going to be a huge hit right out of the gate - we've got a solo game from a proven design team with lots and lots of really appealing art, and also a counter that's shaped like a space ship.

And partially it's that I get absolutely over-the-moon gee-whiz giddy every time I look at it, and that feeling all by itself - regardless of how good the sales might end up being - is worth every penny we spent, every minute we waited, and every drop of sweat we poured into the thing. Because I'll let you in on a secret: we don't really do this for the money. I mean, okay, we do, it is absolutely what pays our bills, and we take our livelihood and its profitability rather seriously, but if all we wanted to do was make money, there are much, much easier ways to make much, much more of it than publishing weird board games in the most expensive and least efficient way possible. The reason why we do what we do the way we do it is that it lets us do what we want to do the way we want to do it.

We wanted to do this game, and we wanted to do it right, regardless of the cost, time, and risk involved. Putting this game together has been an absolute blast, and we're very much looking forward to getting it on your table.


  • This one has been on my list- looks awesome, sounds awesome. Just tell me when!

    J Miah

  • Given those involved and it being solo, this is a instabuy for me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and background. Can’t wait!

    Ken W

  • Looking forward to it! Great job!

    Ryan Heilman

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