Mary Russell

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

21. Bitskrieg

Perhaps even more-so than For-Ex, this one was an experiment. Bitskrieg is a semi-abstract "tank chess" game designed by a father and son team to be played by parents and kids. So, one of our questions going into this was, how much of a market is there for children's games produced using our model?

Because it's not like kids are going to grab it off the shelf at Target and scream for their parents to "buy me this!" We're really aiming the product at adults who already know about us and who think their kids will want to play the game with them, to the point where they're going to use some of their wargames budget to buy this one over something that's more firmly in their wheelhouse. So we weren't really sure what to expect.

It wasn't a huge blockbuster hit or anything, but sales were fairly strong. More than that, we heard from several folks who played the game with their kids, and who reported that said kids enjoyed the game. We actually got to see this in action at Origins where Bitskrieg featured in Grogheads' kids wargaming event. The little people were chucking dice, making explosion noises, and laughing hysterically: it was pretty great.

22. Charlemagne, Master of Europe

The success of my solo game Agricola, Master of Britain really took me by surprise, and it really shouldn't have; for years, publishers have been telling me that solo games sell. If I had known, I probably would have had Charlemagne waiting in the wings, ready to drop immediately after.

It's just as well that I didn't, however, because it was the feedback I got on Agricola - positive, negative, and in-between - that informed the design decisions and ambitions of Charlemagne. The result is a bigger, better, stronger, and more varied game. Many folks prefer Charlemagne to Agricola as a result. And then there's some that prefer Agricola, and at least partially this is because of its shorter playing time.

The solo game I'm working on now is about Aurelian, and I'm trying to split the difference between my two previous solo designs: something as short and as streamlined as Agricola, but with Charlemagne's focus on keeping multiple plates spinning in the air, and its higher degree of replayability. As much as I talk about following my own weird little muse down whatever bizarre paths it takes me, a big part of my process as a designer is about listening to feedback, and using that to make the next game even better.

2017 Holiday Game: Napgammon

Every year we do a free game that we give away during our holiday sale in December. The idea is, if you buy at least two games, we send you the freebie. Our first sale, in 2016, only a small handful of people got Christmas at White Mountain. Those that did seemed to like it, though, and it led directly to the creation of Table Battles, which included a slightly revised version of the White Mountain battle.

Our 2017 freebie was Napgammon. There were six times as many people who got that one, which really illustrated how much our audience had grown in just twelve months. I have tentative plans to repurpose Napgammon as I did with White Mountain, turning it into a larger boxed game, but that's probably going to be much further down the road.

23. Horse & Musket: Sport of Kings

The Horse & Musket base game, Dawn of an Era, is the most expensive game in our catalogue, for the simple reason that it's the most expensive game for us to produce. When there's a sale, the percentage of that money that goes into our pocket is pretty abysmal, and if the game was intended as a "one and done", we probably wouldn't have published it, at least not in that form.

But the intention was for the thing to always be a series, charting the course of linear combat over six volumes. So that first volume, as the base set, was always seen as a sort of "loss leader" that would enable us to price the expansion volumes more attractively to the customer and with a more favorable profit margin for us. Early on, Mary and I decided that we wouldn't be "linking" the expansions - someone could buy the base game (Volume I) and say Volume III without buying Volume II. That not only saves on the logistical headaches that can arise from those situations, but it also encourages more people to buy one of the expansions if they're interested in one but not another.

One thing we learned doing the first two volumes is that putting these things together is an awful lot of work. I'm not talking about the design and development, though that is intensive. I just mean proofing and laying out all the materials and making all the set-up diagrams; there's a lot of stuff to keep track of and to do! After the second volume, we started looking for ways to streamline the process as much as possible, and as a result the third volume has had a lot less headaches.

Table Battles Expansion 1: Wars of the Roses


My original plan for Table Battles was to release a new expansion every quarter. Partially this is because I wanted to strike while the iron was hot, but mostly it had to do with more practical motivations. Basically, before we went full-time, we crunched some numbers and determined that even if we had only minimal sales, we could stay in business and pay our bills if we released twenty games a year, or five per quarter. Now, having released seventeen in our first year and sixteen in our second, we've never actually hit that magic number, but the sales have been strong enough that we haven't had to (remember, that twenty a year assumes lukewarm sales).

Still, we have holes to fill in our production schedule, and it takes a lot of work to prep each game for publication. I do the counters and the covers, while Mary has the thankless task of laying out the rulebooks and PACs. Together we proof and edit said rulebooks and PACs. Sometimes the rulebooks are long, and sometimes there's more than one long rulebook (looking at you, Horse & Musket).

It's a lot of work, especially on Mary's end, so a product that's likely to have strong sales (say, an expansion to one of our flagship titles) that doesn't need a rulebook, a PAC, a box cover, or a countersheet? Something that doesn't even require an artist to do a map? That gives us both some much-needed breathing room. Bonus points of course if it's something that's relatively easy for me to design, and so you can see why the idea of doing four TB expansions a year appealed to me.

But as of this writing, I've only gotten two of them out the door, and there's a fifty-fifty chance the third will be pushed into next year. The reason for this is basically another version of what I said about Charlemagne up top; after releasing a TB set, I want to wait and see what people think of it, so I can make the next one even better. So I took the feedback I got from the base game and applied that to the design of this first expansion, and I took the feedback I got from this one and applied it to the next. And, with the realization that our sales are consistently strong enough that we don't actually need five a quarter, there's less pressure to crank out those expansions anyway.

24. Boom & Zoom

Like Bitskrieg, this one was an experiment, and an attempt to push into a new market, in this case, abstracts. We knew this was a small (but growing) niche in the hobby, and we knew it would be difficult to get much traction there right away. That's probably a good reason for a niche wargames publisher not to do a combinatorial abstract, but I was absolutely captivated by the game, and so we took a gamble.

Publishing our first abstract is a little like publishing our first wargame, in that we're basically trying to introduce ourselves to that audience. Now, there's some overlap between wargamers and abstract aficionados, and I think we've made some headway there, but the real tricky part is getting those abstract gamers who don't know a combat factor from a supply point to take a chance on us.

But, you know, each wargame we've published, more people become aware of us as a wargames publisher, and the better each subsequent title does (and, hey, we generally pick up sales for our older titles in the process). I think the same will be true with abstracts.

It's not a gigantic smash-hit, but, you know, it's a combinatorial abstract - no one's expecting it to be. We knew the game had a limited audience and we made that game for that audience. That's kinda our whole deal. That audience seems to be appreciating it, and that's very gratifying.

See Our Second Year Part One
See Our Second Year Part Three

1 comment

  • Thank you for taking a chance on BITSKRIEG.
    It was very gratifying to get a full, serious review in BATTLES magazine. We’re the little tank that could :)

    Scott Muldoon

Leave a Comment