We started taking orders for our very first game (Brian Train's The Scheldt Campaign) on August 16, 2016. That means that we are rapidly approaching our two year anniversary.
Honestly, it feels like it should be longer. It's not just that we've put out an insane number of games in that short period of time (though, I mean, we absolutely have!). It's more that we've managed to increase our profile and grow our customer base at a frankly remarkable speed. When we started the business, we figured it would be a sideline for a while, and that somewhere down the road, years and years later, should the stars align, we might be able to talk about making it our full-time job. That was a lofty, pie-in-the-sky ambition, because we knew full well that the chances of turning board games (let alone wargames) into one's "real" job were pretty slender. But we did that, and we did it in six months. Halfway through our first year, I no longer needed to wear pants to go to work. I do wear pants, but it's my choice, and that's all the difference in the world.
I felt extremely lucky and privileged that things worked out the way they did. I still feel lucky, and I still can't quite believe that this is my life. I've now had a year and a half of playing board games for a living, and I still can't get over it. I hope I never do.
Around this time last year, I talked at length about our first year, including the rather frightening and tumultuous transition from working for my corporate masters to working for ourselves. Our second year was not nearly so dramatic or so fraught, and part of that is a function of the fact that our daily routine revolves around designing, developing, and publishing games. Life now has a pretty even and low-key tempo, and so this past year was less about "life events" and more about getting one game after another onto your table.
Speaking of: in our second year, we released fourteen boxed games and two expansion decks, for a total of sixteen designs. And from every one of them, we learned something - about our own capabilities and our limitations, about our audience and the market, about who we are as a company and who we want to be. In this series, I'm going to look at each game in turn, and at what we learned in the process.
18. Table Battles
When we started the company, while I knew that my own designs would make up a fair number of our products, I didn't really conceive of those games as being a huge draw. Basically, I figured that we'd make our "real" money publishing games by other, more established designers, and that we'd be able to use that money to subsidize my off-kilter designs. That was a conception that was slow to change, even as Agricola, Master of Britain and Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 garnered a lot of attention and healthy sales.
But it was Table Battles that really convinced me that there was an audience who was actually interested in my stuff, and gave me the confidence to pursue more unusual and idiosyncratic designs more aggressively. All of the stuff I'm doing now, I wouldn't be doing if Table Battles hadn't gotten such an overwhelmingly positive reception.
There's another lesson that the game's success didn't necessarily teach me so much as reinforce. Usually when we release a new game, there's a delay between people getting their games and the same folks getting it on the table. Wargames have sometimes pretty sizable learning curves, and it takes a while to punch out and sort all the counters, not to mention to read through the rulebook. But Table Battles often got played on the same day the game arrived at someone's doorstep, and I think the first video review was out before the end of the first week. There were no counters to punch and hardly any rules to learn; you could play the thing more-or-less right out of the box.
The less barriers you put between the game and the table, the more likely people are to play it, enjoy it, and talk it up. Not every game can or should be as light or as streamlined as Table Battles, but a definite market exists for thinky fillers that can be played immediately.
19. Objective Shreveport
This was our second time working with John Theissen, who, as of this writing, is the outside designer with the most games in our catalogue. His first title with us, More Aggressive Attitudes, very quickly convinced us that there was a desire for streamlined games at the operational level, and so we jumped at the chance to do another one.
One of the keys of John's designs are the presence of one-off Special Events. In the first game, we used Special Event Chits that corresponded to a list on each player's mat. For this one, we used a small deck of cards instead, having found a reliable cards manufacturer for Table Battles. This increased the cost of the game, but also increased usability, and the increased MSRP didn't noticeably impact sales.
Part of our pricing strategy in general has relied on the idea that the lower we priced the games, the more copies we would sell. And there's a certain truth to that, but with this one we also learned that folks don't mind paying a little extra if they're getting a little something extra in return.
In the months and weeks leading up to For-Ex, I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach. Partially this was because the game was significantly more expensive up-front than any of our games before or since, so if the thing flopped, we would actually lose a substantial amount of money. But there was an awful lot of buzz around it, an awful lot of people who seemed to be excited about it, so chances are, it wasn't going to flop.
And that actually was the other part of why I was worried about it: there were way too many people who wanted to buy the game. That sounds like a good problem to have, but this was a very weird, very off-putting game. The sort of game that most people would absolutely hate. The sort of game that would have a very hard time seeing a table with any regularity.
And, to a degree, that was okay. The whole point of putting out something like For-Ex was that we figured that there'd be a handful of people who would really dig it (after all, we really dug it, and we're not that weird); the game was for them. And we tried to say that, tried to explain what the game was, tried to tell people point blank that you probably don't want this game and are going to hate it, and that just made them want it all the more. When we said this isn't for everyone, what they heard was this is for me, and while that was true in some cases, it wasn't true in all cases.
When we released the game, it sold like gangbusters. It was the strongest day-one sales we had ever had. Having averted financial disaster, I was briefly elated. Then, folks started playing the game. Some loved it. Some were confused by it. And some absolutely, positively hated it. Most of that hatred revolved around the contract queue, and even some folks who love the game don't dig the way the contract queue is resolved. Folks say that the mechanism punishes "optimal play"; but if that's the case, then that move isn't really "optimal play", is it? I'm not going to rehash all the arguments here, but will only say that the game does what I intended it to do. It might not do what you want it to do, but that's okay.
I've had other games that got a mixed reception, and that didn't bother me in and of itself. What was intensely upsetting was that, after months of warning people about the game, not only did a whole bunch of them buy it, but they also felt cheated. Like we had lied to them or disguised what the game was. Like we weren't being honest and up-front with them. And part of me looks at the messaging prior to the game's release, and could see things we could have highlighted more effectively. But part of me keeps coming back to, no, we actually did warn them repeatedly. After the game came out, one guy groused that it turned out we weren't kidding. Which, no, we weren't!
To be honest, having people basically accuse us of pulling a fast one really hurt me on a deeply personal level. It made me depressed, it made me angry, it made me miserable, it made me bitter. Even now my relationship with For-Ex is extremely complicated. I'm proud of the game but it's tainted; some days I can't even stand to look at the box.
Going into it, we knew that the game had a limited audience, and like I said I was terrified that if a broader group of gamers got their hands on it and hated it, the bad buzz would scare off those few folks who would like it - the people who we made the game for. And, as we feared, once the arguments about the game started, sales dropped by over eighty percent. They've never really recovered. And we got to watch that happen in slow-motion, like a train wreck, utterly helpless to stop it.
In an alternate universe, we sold far less copies overall, but only to those folks who would really dig the game, and we'd have steady sales month after month. That said, in this universe, the game's mixed reception has still been largely positive; most people who own the game seem to enjoy it. Mary is convinced that the game will find its audience, and that sales will pick back up. The more distance I have from its initial release, the more at peace I am with it.
So it goes.