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OUR SECOND YEAR PART THREE OF THREE

Mary Russell

Concluding our look at the games we've released over the last year, and what we learned in the process.

25. Hood's Last Gamble

Our third John Theissen ACW operational level game, and also the largest. In this one, we changed the way step losses were tracked to cut down on the number of counters. That allowed us to add more cards and to utilize a larger map without significantly increasing the price.

In our last installment, I briefly touched on the fact that each game we release increases the general awareness of Hollandspiele as a company, making it easier to sell future games. This is also true of games that are in a series or share common DNA. Between More Aggressive Attitudes and Objective Shreveport, Mr. Theissen's design ethos garnered a following, and it made it much easier to sell folks on Hood's Last Gamble.

It'd be even easier, of course, if the games shared a series name to underline the family resemblance, and the plan is to do that with future ACW games utilizing this system. It will also make things a little easier on our end of things, because said series would have an overall series rulebook, as well as game-specific rules to handle differences in scale from game to game. If the bulk of the game's rules are in a series rulebook, we only need to lay it out the first time, and that will give us a much quicker turnaround.

26. The Great Heathen Army

This is the fourth game in our Shields & Swords II series, and it continued our tradition of experimenting with the format of the series. The first game (The Grunwald Swords) had one big battle with a little bit of chrome, the second game (House of Normandy) had four fairly small and vanilla battles, and the third (Battles on the Ice) had two battles that were roughly the size and complexity of Grunwald.

The reason for this experimentation is largely commercial; we're trying to figure out what would sell. And, don't get me wrong, the sales for the games have been good, and if we were super-concerned with profitability we probably wouldn't be publishing a series of medieval battle games in the first place, as the market for that is pretty small. It's more that, even with that audience being small, we felt that it was bigger than what we were currently selling.

And so, with The Great Heathen Army, we stuffed eight scenarios and three maps into that box, making it bigger than the previous three games combined. That also made it more expensive - it's a 40% jump in MSRP from the first two games in the series - and I was a little worried about that. A lot of our titles have historically hovered around the $30 or $35 mark, because at those prices, people are more likely to say "what the heck, I'll take a chance on this or that". While I think a $50 MSRP is entirely reasonable for what's in that box, it's less likely to get people off the fence, less likely to be a "what the heck" purchase.

But I needn't have worried. Great Heathen Army sold better in its first four months than any of the other titles in the series, and has almost sold as many copies in that time as Battles on the Ice has in a year and a half. Bigger certainly seems to be the way to go for future titles in the series (as well as the Shields & Swords Ancients spin-off), and this along with other success stories has me significantly less antsy about publishing more expensive games. We're at a point where our reputation is strong enough, and people trust us enough, that we don't have to worry so much about courting "what the heck" dollars.

27. Wars of Marcus Aurelius

We get a fair number of submissions, and an awful lot of those submissions have been State of Siege style games, to the point where our site's FAQ actually includes the words, for the love of God, stop sending us State of Siege games. I generally can't stand them, and so when this one came over the transom, I was really resistant. I figured that, like the previous SOS-style games we had been inundated with, I would get through a few rounds before I got irritated with it.

But, as it turned out, the thing really won me over, completely overcoming my inveterate dislike of that style of game. A lot of that has to do with the way Robert DeLeskie grafted a CDG hand-management engine into the State of Siege DNA, giving players actual decisions and agency (things I often find lacking in that style of game).

Which just goes to show you, it helps to keep an open mind about these things.

28. Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Southern Strategy

Doing a sequel to our popular Supply Lines game was pretty much a no-brainer, especially as the first game restricted itself to the first half of the war. In designing The Southern Strategy, I was trying to make the game less complicated and more complicated at the same time, smoothing out some of the original game's fiddly bits while layering on new systems to cover partisan warfare and naval affairs. I was also trying to take some things that were present in the original game - the operational cat-and-mouse dance, the extreme fragility - and to dial them up to eleven, making a game that's arguably more idiosyncratic.

I wasn't sure how people would react to the changes but overall the response has been fairly positive. One thing I wasn’t anticipating was the great number of people who wanted some way to "link" the two games into one big campaign. That's not really possible; if the British win the first game, there's not really any need to play the second! But I was legitimately surprised that this would be something that people would want, and now that I know, I might approach other projects differently.

Table Battles Expansion 2: Age of Alexander

Scenarios for Table Battles can vary wildly in size and emphasis, and in both the base set and the Wars of the Roses expansion, I aimed for a mix of small, simple battles and larger, knottier ones. But the battles fought by Alexander and his successors were all fairly large and major engagements, and so the scenarios in Age of Alexander were all big. I found that I really didn't miss the smaller scenarios that much, and neither did the players I've heard from. Particularly because the base game has several good introductory scenarios, I can probably get a little more baroque going forward.

29. The Big Push

The week before we released this one, we went to the CSW Expo, and our printing partner Blue Panther asked us if we wanted him to bring some copies to sell at the con. We shrugged and said sure, figuring we'd sell a copy or two while we were there. Two days later, we had sold them all. The idea of buying something before it was made widely available was like catnip to the con-goers, and neither Mary nor myself had really anticipated that. By the end, we even had to set aside the last copy for a gamer playing a monster game so that it would still be there for him to buy by the time he was done with his turn.

30. The Lost Provinces

Mary and I had worked with John Gorkowski previously, both on a series of games for another publisher, and on our Plan 1919, and were quite eager to do it again. John's a real joy to work with. He takes traditional mechanisms and ideas, but puts some subtle twists on them that result in some very knotty decisions without weighing the thing down with chrome and exceptions. 1919 had scared off some gamers with its size and playing time, and so we asked him if he could do something with a much smaller footprint. The result was The Lost Provinces, which so far has sold fairly well, especially compared to 1919. It reinforced in my mind that we are more successful with games that have smaller maps, shorter playing times, and fewer counters.

31. Campaign of Nations

By the time you read this blogpost, we will have released this game (that's assuming the card decks ship in a timely fashion). By the time that I'm writing this, however, I have no idea if that's happened or not, how the game sold, or how it's going to be received. As you might expect, it's kinda hard to extract a "lesson" from it at this point, and so…

Some Final Thoughts

It's been a good year. With each game, we've not only gotten better at our craft, but have gotten a better idea of our strengths, our audience, and our identity - of what makes a Hollandspiele game a Hollandspiele game. And we'll be able to play to that and focus on that as we enter our third year of being in business.

As I mentioned back in the first post, I still can't quite believe that this is my life, and I can't get over how profoundly lucky I am. Mary and I are deeply grateful for our customers and their patronage, which has made all this possible.

See Our Second Year Part One
See Our Second Year Part Two


5 comments

  • Hi Ron – I’m actually not sure why it was that the bigger one sold better, because in the past, our bigger (and thus more expensive) games don’t sell as well as our smaller (and less expensive ones). It might be that with this particular series, more battles has more appeal, or it might be because it’s being released later (games overall are selling better now than they were when we started). I’m really not sure, but hey, if we had all the answers, we wouldn’t need to try out new things. :-)

    Tom Russell

  • Do you have any theories why the bigger game sold better? Has this also been the case with other titles you’ve released, where the bigger games in the family sell better? Or is it a function of bigger games being released later and therefore taking advantage of a stronger publisher reputation?

    Ron

  • Thanks for the comments, Steve and Joseph.

    Touching (briefly) on SOS, I totally get why those games resonate with so many folks. It’s kinda like tactical WW2 games – I get it, I get why people like it, it’s just not for me personally. But I did like Robert’s take on that system, and enjoyed Cruel Necessity. And I’ve heard good things about “We Must Tell the Emperor”. :-)

    Tom Russell

  • Great set of articles Tom. It’s extremely interesting and insightful to hear your experience with each game and to hear a bit of the buissiness/financial side of how the games did. Something that can be guessed at but is not often shared by other publishers.
    The ‘Campaign of Nations’ box looks great by the way!
    Can’t wait for another sale, to make the European shipping bearable and make some more purchases.

    Keep up the good work.

    Joseph Bottoms

  • I really enjoyed this series of articles Tom, thanks for sharing thoughts on the individual games (many of which I own).

    No surprise re: being flooded with States-of-Siege designs; as is typical, VPG completely mismanaged the successful series (I differ with you in that I really enjoy the games, especially their narratives), plus a lot of hobby talent won’t work with VPG anymore (bridges burned). So having SOS designers look for other outlets is not unexpected, and we’re now seeing SOS-like titles starting to appear elsewhere (e.g., Gorbachev at White Dog).

    Steve Carey

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