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Owning It (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Before there was a Hollandspiele, there was a "Hollandspiele", the vague idea that Mary and I wanted to publish board games. We talked about it periodically for several years before we took the plunge, and there were a number of reasons for the delay. We needed some practical experience. I needed to learn my craft as a designer, and I wanted to develop some kind of reputation that could jump-start the proceedings.

And then, of course, there was the fact that we didn't have any money. For years we existed perpetually on the brink of financial collapse and disaster. Being poor is exhausting: you're constantly worried, constantly stressed out, constantly just-barely-holding-on. We managed to survive it, and then, eventually, we managed to climb out of it. Once we did, we had no desire to go back, and the specter of poverty, the fear of it, has made me extremely risk adverse. So there was no way we were going to take what meager savings we had just started to build up and pump it into a company. And having heard the story of the guy who ran a wildly successful kickstarter and still lost his house in the process, crowdfunding didn't exactly look attractive. (More than that, perhaps, there was the fact that we didn't think we had the skill-set to run that kind of campaign successfully.)

But print-on-demand mitigated that risk in a way that worked for us, and that allowed us to publish a large number of games fairly quickly. And so, more out of necessity than anything else, we grabbed on to print-on-demand, which is, as I like to say, the most expensive and least efficient way to publish board games. As an unintended side effect, it effectively cuts out any kind of traditional distribution in stores or overseas, which puts a certain ceiling on our sales and irritates gamers who live outside the United States.

And over the course of several blog-things, twitter-things, forum replies, podcasts, and emails, we've tried to communicate this as clearly and as honestly as possible. Look. We'd love to get our games in your friendly local game store, but either we'll take a loss or the distributor will, and it just doesn't make sense for either party. We'd love to have distribution in Europe and help you avoid the shipping and customs fees, but it has to get across that ocean somehow, and it costs what it costs, and someone needs to pay it.

There's often a certain air of haplessness and fatalism to these responses. We didn't choose to take distribution off the table; it's a side effect of our business model. We don't have mounted boards because they're too expensive to produce with that business model. And we chose that business model not because of any special preference, but because it was the only one that let two folks with limited financial resources and no significant social media game get into publishing. Beneath this logic runs an undercurrent of us being constrained by our circumstances, and the implication that, under different circumstances, we might publish games the "normal" way, and they might get into stores across the globe, with mounted boards and everything.

But here's the thing: we don't really have any desire to do that. Even if we could take on the risk of a traditional print run, we wouldn't. Given our current notoriety, if we ran a kickstarter it would likely be successful. But honestly? We're just not interested.

Our business model gives us what we want out of the business, which isn't always what every potential customer wants out of it. It gives us flexibility. It gives us speed. It gives us the freedom to do weird, noncommercial things - to take creative risks without also taking financial ones. It gives us the freedom to be us: it gives us our identity. We like doing things the way we do them, and since we're in charge, we're going to keep doing them that way.

And the more I reflect on the path that has led us here, and on the path that we see stretched out before us, the more I wish that I had been saying that all along, owning it, rather than apologetically blaming it on circumstances and necessity, some weird little corner we had found ourselves somehow painted into. It's our weird little corner, darn it, and we're happy with it.


5 comments

  • As a European Hollandspiele fan, I am delighted that you make your games available on Wargame Vault for print and play, at little or no profit to your business.

    If you stopped doing that I might be a little sad but I would not feel that I had been deprived of something to which I was entitled.

    Your business is producing games that are usually innovative and intriguing and very often excellent. There should be no question of apologising for success.

    Peter

    Peter

  • Of course your business model (using a POD printer) works very well with our business model (being your POD printer). A couple of things to point out. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a two-person publisher (the size of Hollandspiele) that has put out 30 titles in 20 months using the traditional printing model. There may be one or two out there, but I suspect they have alot of unsold games in storage somewhere. Eventually cash flow will become a problem. As one of the original management of Mayfair Games told me – the best way to make a small fortune in the gaming business is to start with a large one…

    On the subject of cost, yes POD will cost more per unit. On the other with POD we only make what you sell, As long as cost per unit remains under control, POD will make sense. Once you get to 2500 or 3000 copies, traditional printing is going to have a lower unit cost, assuming that you sell all or the vast majority of the units you buy.

    That being said there are things you can do to bring traditional volume costing to POD. For example, we use a standard box size. If we just made a few boxes, then our old method of laser cutting would work With Hollandspiele’s volume increases, and new clients coming on, it allowed us to go to a standard box we purchase in bulk, benefitting both Hollandspiele and our other POD customers on pricing. Same thing with maps – we were able to upgrade to one-piece maps with better graphic quality and paper quality too.

    There are those who say that you can’t do mounted boards POD. We can do any paper board in a mounted equivalent, but it is cost prohibitive. But there appears to be a way to print on wide materials (e.g. 22×34) that looks promising for much more reasonably priced boards. Looking at that now…

    There are those who say POD can’t be used for distribution. The answer to that is “it depends”. We have been doing dice towers and dice trays for a decade POD, and it works fine for us. On the other hand, dice towers are not games, and the only expense is the artwork and the material And of course you don’t need to explain the rules for a dice tower. Still, even given the typical margins in game distribution, it makes money consistently. To make money with a game in distribution it has to have a high enough MSRP to make a little bit of money for everyone in the chain. If the MSRP isn’t high enough stores and distributors won’t touch it – and rightly so. We have POD customers that have sold to European distributors consistently, so it does work for some. However, you may have noticed that Hollandspiele’s prices are pretty reasonable, especially when I compare them to similar products online or in stores. This is true price-wise and component-wise. In fact, there are some games out there that cost more and give you less in terms of components and replay value, including games made in low-cost countries.

    Compare to the auto industry – how much of the price of a car goes into the labor to make it, the components and the quality? How much goes into the benefits for the workers? the margin for the dealers? Hollandspiele has chosen to make their product available direct to you. This eliminates or minimizes some of the costs that you are paying when you buy a traditionally produced game. And the model also does not require them to make back a large investment, so they can take risks that traditional publishers can’t and shouldn’t take.

    If you want another deckbuilder/co-op/licensed game then there are plenty to choose from. If you want something different, challenging and on a subject not already covered ad nauseuam, try Hollandspiele.

    Steve

  • I understand where you’re coming from, Marc, but on the other hand, we’re just not super-interested in having our games available at retail. To the point that if we adopted traditional mass print runs as our business model, I frankly think we still would deal only/primarily in direct sales, and what we do/can offer to retailers would still be what we offer presently. If they want the games, they’ll accept our terms. If they don’t, well, it’s no skin off our nose.

    Stores that can make it work for them do; for example, Board Game Bliss in Canada accepts the terms that we can provide, and then sells them at a slight upcharge.

    Tom Russell

  • As much as I understand your business model, and it is good, the flip side for me is the impossibilty to sel the game at our store in Canada. Shipping cost are prohibitive for us, and with the added tax starting July 1st, it will be even mre frustrating. Your offer is quite unique, I’d like to have more of your games. I did buy one or two to mount them, in the process of completing For Ex :)

    Marc Guenette

  • I find it tiresome to read that you still have to explain your way of doing things.
    Any regular or even irregular visit to this site knows why your model is as it is.
    People (customers) seem possessed of a rather strange sense of entitlement.
    Your success and peace of mind is because of the way you do things.
    More power to you both.
    Keep the quirkiness coming, your loyal customers love it!

    P.

    Peter

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