Mary Russell

At CSW Expo in Tempe, we gave a seminar in which we previewed our next few releases and answered some questions about our games, our model, and our point of view. Figuring that a lot of people might not know much about us, Tom opened with a little speech. In retrospect, it probably wasn't the ideal audience for this particular speech, but hey, at least we got a blogpost out of it.

Tom Russell speechifies

I'm Tom Russell, one-half of Hollandspiele. The other half - the better half - is Mary Holland-Russell. She's also the smarter half, as evidenced by the fact that she's sitting over there and I'm up here probably making a fool of myself.

I've written something down, and am trying really hard to look like I'm not just reading it. The problem is that if it's not written down, I am almost certainly going to freeze and draw a blank. I learned this the first time I gave a speech. Most people, that's in school: you get up in front of the class and you give a presentation. I don't remember doing that. The first time I remember giving a speech, I was in my twenties, and I was running for mayor of my hometown.

The previous mayor had died, and they held a special election to fill out the term. The thing about the special election is that there was no primary, so anyone - and I mean anyone! - who could get a hundred signatures would end up on the ballot. And so I did it, mostly as a lark. I didn't have any expectation of winning. It's a little like playing wargames. I'm lousy at them, and I don't expect to win, but I play them anyway and I try my best.

So part of running for mayor is that I need to give a speech. Now, I'm a guy in my twenties who hasn't really accomplished much of anything, doesn't have any connections. All I've got are ideas. So I come up with a speech where I say, yeah, I don't have any qualifications, but what I'm running on are my ideas, and what are those ideas? And then I get really passionate and fiery when I tell them what those ideas are. That was the plan, anyway.

What happens is that I get to the part where I say, "What are those ideas?", and for the life of me, I can't remember a single one. Complete blank. Just staring out at the crowd. And that's when I realize that, oh, I'm a bad public speaker, and that also, politics would not be what I would be doing with the rest of my life.

So, the question was, what would I be doing with the rest of my life? What was my career going to be? I had a job, but there was no room for advancement. I tried different things. Some were "normal" day-jobs. A lot of them were creative things. Novels. Films, which Mary and I financed and made together. Comic books. Video games. Music. I'm tone-deaf, so that last one didn't really work.

I was better at the other stuff but it never seemed to resonate with an audience. A big part of my problem is that my stuff was very off-putting and idiosyncratic. I tried not to be, to create stuff with more universal appeal, but it just fell flat. I got no traction either way, and as you can imagine that was discouraging. Almost by accident, I stumbled into board games, started playing them, started designing them, and thought, this, at last, is what I'm good at. This is the thing I'm going to do with the rest of my life.

I'm going to design eurogames.

Because at the time, that was what I was playing. And those sorts of games played up my tendencies toward minimalism and obsession with structure without really giving me any room to be off-putting. I was going to make broad, popular, medium-weight eurogames. Now, Mary and I decided early on that we were going to get into publishing, because there's almost no money in being a freelance designer. But we also don't have the financial resources to start a publishing house, and I wanted to get a few of my games out there first, establish a reputation that we could trade on.

And we thought it'd be funny if we had a name that sounded like one of those European publishers. Mary's maiden name being Holland, we decided to call ourselves Hollandspiele. And we held on to that name and we set it aside, because first I had to get some games out there with other publishers.

Simultaneously, as a one-off, I say to myself, hey, it'd be fun to do one of those hex-and-counter wargames. As a lark. That game found a publisher. So I did another wargame. It found a publisher. My wargames get publishers and my eurogames don't, and it doesn't take a genius to see where I should be focusing my attention.

So I start thinking, how can I be successful at designing wargames? More specifically, how can I be more successful at designing wargames that a publisher would actually want to publish? And it occurs to me that rather than putting in months and months designing and developing a game, and risking it not selling, I could design a game specifically with a publisher in mind, to their specifications. If they went for it, great, and if they didn't, well, chances are the game would be marketable enough that another publisher would want to take a look at it. So I approach some publishers and I ask them, what kind of games are you looking for? Is there a topic that you want a game on? Tell me what kind of game you want, and I'll make it.

And one of these publishers gives me a call on the phone. And that was Dana Lombardy. It was the only contact I had with him, that one phone call. I have no idea if Dana remembers the conversation, but I do. Specifically I remember two things. First, he said that he wasn't looking for "one-and-dones", but for series and systems, which are easier to design and to sell. And if you know my work, you know that I'm fairly prolific, but a big part of that is that I do a lot of series, or I do games that borrow from my earlier designs. The advantage there is that I only need to bang my head against the wall once, for the first game. When I do the second, third, fourth, the hard stuff is out of the way, and I can concentrate on the cool stuff.

The second thing he said was that he didn't want to tell me what kind of game to make. He wanted my design, my passion, my point-of-view. I needed to figure out what made my game special, and what made me special as a designer.

Which was important for me to hear, but also very frustrating. Because I had this game, this passion project, about logistics during the American Revolution that everyone told me would never, ever sell, and that no gamer would ever want to play. And again, before the games, my big problem was that my stuff was unusual and didn't connect. But what Dana helped me realize is that if you go into it without a personal vision, with the goal of just making something that will sell, you won't get anywhere.

Shortly thereafter, I get an email from Mark Walker, who published my first game when he was with Lock N Load. He's starting up a new company, and he wants to publish a quarterly gaming magazine, with a pack-in game, which he insists on calling "Yaah!" Not what I would have called it. Anyway, Mark asks me if I want to be the editor of this magazine. Now, for the life of me, I've no idea why Mark thought of me for the job, since I had never done anything like that before. Maybe I wasn't his first choice. But I thought it sounded like fun and that I would learn something from it.

Sometimes it was fun. And yes, I did learn from it. I learned a lot of practical stuff about prepping files for printing, bleeds, templates, all very useful stuff.

A hop and a skip into my tenure, Mark decides to open a company that publishes ziploc games. Incidentally some of those games were originally slotted to appear in the magazine, which created these sudden holes in the schedule and I needed to scramble to get games ready in time to fill them. And in that scrambling, a couple of the games ended up being not quite as done as we thought they were. Which really gave me a lot of appreciation for the folks who produce magazines with insert games. It's a miracle the things exist at all.

Anyway, Mark starts this new company and he needs someone to run it, and he asks me if I know anyone. Well, I know Mary. And so that's how Tiny Battle Publishing gets started, and Mary oversees the production and development of their first fifteen releases. And just like I'm learning from working on the magazine, she's learning from working on these ziploc games, which are produced using a print-on-demand model.

Tom and Steve (Blue Panther) in the Dealer Room

I'm pretty sure Steve will have a lot more to say about that model in his seminar, but the short version is that when you the customer order a game, we have our printer make it and send it to you. So instead of paying for a whole print run at once, and hoping that they all sell, we pay for each game one at a time. It is, as I like to say, the most expensive and least efficient way to publish games, but the trade-off is that it almost completely eliminates financial risk.

So between the two of us, Mary and I get a lot of practical experience with producing games in general, and with that model in particular. And it dawns on Mary first - she's the smart one - that hey, the two of us can do this. She leaves Tiny Battle, I leave the magazine, and we start Hollandspiele.

And we did talk about whether or not we should keep the name, because it doesn't really sound like the name of a wargame company. But, you know, "GMT" doesn't really say "wargames" on the face of it, and neither does "Avalon Hill". We figure that if we publish wargames, people will associate us with wargames. And if we publish good games, people will associate us with good games.

And  when we started out, we consciously tried to have as diverse a line-up as possible (and we still do). We published some hex-and-counter games, and we published some more unusual, esoteric stuff. Because we didn't have that financial risk, I could work on topics that were obscure, I could do things that were off-putting and idiosyncratic. And I figured that those games probably wouldn't do very well, but again, there's no financial risk. As long as we're also publishing more traditional games, we're going to stay afloat.

So the thing that really surprised me is that our best-selling games, and the games that attract the most attention, are the weird ones. Like that logistics game that I could never find a publisher for. A game called Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 absolutely shouldn't be a hit, but it absolutely is. So much so that I did a sequel that is somehow even weirder and nerdier than the first one.

And you have to remember, before I got into games, I spent ten years making weird and idiosyncratic stuff that never got anywhere because it was too weird and idiosyncratic. Then I spent however many years operating under the delusion that I was a eurogame designer, trying like heck not to be weird or idiosyncratic, and it got nowhere. Then I get into wargames, and more specifically, Mary and I get into publishing wargames, and bam!, weird and idiosyncratic sells.

I think that's because, when you get right down to it, history is weird and idiosyncratic. Theme and narrative are often very important to us, sometimes the most important thing. Wargames communicate an experience. Eurogames above all else have to make sense, have to fit together. Wargames have to do that too, but they can also have a rule about generals who got drunk the night before the battle. You appreciate that. Wargamers are all about all the sheer lovely craziness in history.

You know, all that time, when I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, I was trying to change what I was doing so that it would resonate with an audience, when really I should have been looking for the audience that resonated with me. I was banging my head against the wall, trying to find myself. But it wasn't me I was looking for at all. It was you. And here we are.

Well, that's everything I wrote down. So let me tell you what games we have coming out for the next few months, then I'll open it up for questions.

1 comment

  • Tom, I loved. your speech. Very interesting story. As you probably know I buy many of your games. I really enjoy the less complex rules, more manageable number of counters, and the smaller map sizes ( rather than monster 2, 3, or more mappers other companies do..). But most of all, I like your more obscure topics. As a traditional wargamer for decades and decades , I mostly purchase only in your military topics, but occasionally I will get one of your non-military games as well

    You and Mary are doing a great job and I hope to continue to be a loyal customer for many many years to come.
    Thanks so much for all the great games! Looking forward to a lot more.


    Tony Pergolizzi

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