We never know when something's gonna be a hit. We make the best games we can, we try our best to help them find their audience, but whether they find that audience is out of our hands. I generally try to manage my own expectations, as I'd rather be surprised when something takes off than dejected when it doesn't.
Going into last year's end-of-year Hollandays Sale, I suspected that we'd be giving away a large number of copies of Reign of Witches, the free promotional card game that got tossed in with every order of two or more games. And I even suspected that there would be some folks who bought their second game because they were interested in the freebie. After all, it had happened with The Toledo War in 2019. And the playtesters for Reign were quite enthusiastic, and were happy to tell their friends about it, and as a result, there was some early buzz around the game, which increased dramatically after Dan Thurot posted a very favorable review of the game shortly before the sale.
So, I had an inkling going in that, yeah, we're going to need to buy a lot of these little decks. But I wasn't expecting it to be one of our top ten all-time best sellers – if you can call a game that retails for $0 and has a negative profit margin a "seller". (It's a strange feeling, knowing that the more successful a game is, the more money you're going to lose.)
Of course, whether or not people would like the game was another matter entirely. And certainly we've had freebie games that did reasonably well in terms of "sales" - how much money they lost us - but which players were markedly less enthusiastic about once they actually got it on the table. (Here's to you, Absolutely Aces: your chivalric kitty-cat aviators were too perfect for this benighted age.)
That wasn't the case with Reign. Folks have been very enthusiastic about it – perhaps a little too enthusiastic? Don't get me wrong, it's a neat little game that fulfills the modest parameters I set for myself. And I'm certainly happy to hear that folks find it compelling. But when people say it's one of the best games of the year, or that it's the best design of my career, it feels a little like special pleading.
But, who knows, maybe I'm too close to the thing, or maybe there's part of me that over-values my own effort, time, and ambition. I spend months or years on a game that tries to push against the boundaries and limits of the art form – and, granted, people do seem to respond to and appreciate those games! – but it's something like this that I toss off kinda casually that people really go ga-ga over? It's nuts.
Also nuts are some of the prices for Reign on the secondary market! Again, I wasn't surprised folks are trying to make a quick buck selling a rare game that isn't produced anymore. Several copies of our previous freebie, The Toledo War, sold for $5 or $10 in the year following its release. But the cheapest copy of Reign is fifty bucks, and the most expensive a hundred-fifty. One-hundred fifty dollars for twenty-five cards. That's six bucks per card! At this rate, I shoulda made it a CCG!
Now, one of the key tenets of doing these freebie games every year is that they'll only ever be available during the two weeks of our sale, and only if you buy two games during that sale. I mean, sure, we eventually release a PNP version – and, yes, the PNP of Reign should be coming to Wargame Vault fairly soon – and one freebie, 2016's Christmas at White Mountain, gave birth to, and was repurposed as part of, a full boxed game (Table Battles), but essentially, if you don't get it during the sale, you don't get it. That's the whole point of the thing as an incentive to buy more of our games.
And I've always been pretty stubborn about that. Even when Mary's pushed for a freebie game to be re-released, I've resisted. Every year we'd get a handful of emails and messages from folks who missed out and want to find some way to get their hands on a physical copy of the previous year's freebie. And every year the answer has been sorry, but no can do. And that was certainly the case when the requests started coming in this year.
Only, there were a lot more requests this time around. And a greater swell of enthusiasm from folks who did manage to snag a copy of the game. And some guy trying to charge more for a fifteen minute game with a tiny deck of cards than most folks make in a day.
More, in fact, than we could afford to spend on board games annually for our first several years "in" the hobby.
I don't come from money. Neither does Mary. We both came from households that struggled to keep afloat, and when we first got together, that was our story, too. I remember once when a well-meaning friend of ours – his parents owned two houses, which seemed to me like an extravagant, unimaginable luxury - offered to help us with our budget. First, we went through all our of necessities – groceries, mortgage, utilities, and so on.
"Great," he said, "and this is surprisingly low! Now, we're going to subtract this total from how much you make every month, and see what we you have left, and then we can divvy that up into what you should be saving and what you can spend."
"Twelve hundred? That's – "
"No, twelve. Twelve dollars."
When we bought a new board game, it was a serious investment. When I went to a convention to pitch a publisher on a game – a lot of publishers insisted on a pitch at a convention – it put us into debt. Often, it was the only reason I went to a convention. We'd buy a day pass and not even bother getting lodging – we'd just drive to the con, pitch the game, then drive back. I remember one pitch very well, because the publisher cut me off half-way through my first sentence. "I'm not gonna say you have to shut up, but I'm not gonna buy this." It was crushing. Not because he turned it down, not because I had gotten my hopes up, but because I had wasted all that money, plunged us deeper into the hole that every day seemed like it was about to swallow us up.
Things are better now. We don't live high on the hog – for one thing, pigs are not known for being sturdy building materials – but we're doing comfortably enough that we can afford to blow a few thousand each year on our freebie game, something which would have seemed utterly bonkers ten years ago. No one knows the value of money like someone who knows the lack of it.
And I can tell you as the person who made it, who has played it more times than anyone, and who finds the game very charming and rather adores it, that Reign of Witches is not a $150 game. It is not even a $50 game. And I will tell you the gosh honest truth of the matter is, it made me so darn angry that people were trying to charge that much money for this cute little bauble they got for free. It flared up my class envy something fierce.And it made me change my mind. This summer, Mary and I will be re-releasing Reign of Witches, bundled together with The Toledo War, at a $20 pricepoint. A portion of the profits will be donated to the Morris Animal Foundation.