"The Battle of Grunwald” by Tadeusz Popiel and Zygmunt Rozwadowski, 1910, 10x5m
September's release The Grunwald Swords is the first entry in the Shields & Swords II series of medieval battle games. For most people, that "II" is going to stick out like a sore thumb, and you're going to wonder what it's doing there. So, here's that story.
Way, way, way back in 2011, I designed a very simple, straightforward game on the Battle of Stamford Bridge, with forty-odd counters and a single map. I approached a well-known publisher who specialized in those sorts of small footprint games, and they decided that they wanted to publish it. It waited in the publisher's queue for a developer to be assigned to the project, and it kept getting pushed back as higher profile games jumped to the head of the queue. More than once, the publisher apologized and said they understood if I wanted to take the game elsewhere, but I said no, that I was happy to wait, and that I kinda had designed the game with them in mind. So, it kinda sat in limbo for a few years, until late 2014, when Mark Walker asked me to start editing his magazine. We needed a pack-in game for the first issue, and so I got Stamford Bridge back.
As we were pressing on with the first issue, Mark realized that with only 40-ish counters that the game was a little too small, and would only be using half the countersheet. It was suggested that we scrap the game and push ahead the two games that were slated for number two (by Brian Train, coincidentally). There were two reasons I was against this, the first being that you really want a more traditional "wargame" as the pack-in for the first issue of a wargaming magazine. The two games that were eventually published in number two were much more abstract. Great games, by the way, and highly recommended, but I thought it was better to establish our hex-and-counter bonafides before coloring outside the lines, so to speak.
The second reason was the purely mercenary reason that I hadn't had a wargame published since 2012, and I was eager for it to see print. And, luckily, I had a solution that would make publishing Stamford Bridge in the first issue workable: I had a second game using the same system, which I had also designed back in 2011. This was a treatment of the Battle of Hastings, which made it an ideal companion piece for Stamford Bridge both historically and thematically. Now, for all its importance, Hastings is kind of a rubbish battle, in that one side is going to stand very still while the other side batters the hell out of it. Whereas Stamford Bridge, while often overlooked, is much more interesting for both sides, with a more compelling sense of narrative. I didn't bother trying to find a publisher for A Hill Near Hastings in 2011 because I didn't think it really stood on its own all that well. But I was happy to dust it off as a companion piece for Stamford Bridge.
Of course, with two games, that meant that I had an honest-to-goodness series, for which I needed an honest-to-goodness series name. I cast about somewhat aimlessly until I hit upon Shields & Swords. I ran it by some wargaming folks on Facebook and they seemed to dig it, so that was the name I used.
People seemed to enjoy the Stamford Bridge game especially, and the underlying series rules. Kev Sharp in particular was a big and early booster of the design. It seemed like it was going to be pretty popular, and so Mark asked me to design a boxed game of "twelve or so" Viking battles using the same engine. I ended up coming up with twenty-four scenarios, all historical, using a handful of geomorphic map boards. Hopefully that game will be coming out in the next year or so from Flying Pig Games.
In the meantime, Mark started up Flying Pig's sister company, Tiny Battle, which Mary ran the day-to-day operations of. This is in 2015. I saw that this would be the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, and suggested to Mark and Mary that I do a Shields & Swords game to tie in with the anniversary. This was We Happy Few, which used a heavily-modified version of the basic engine. The core alteration was the introduction of a sort of "automatic" opportunity fire mechanic, where French units moving within range of English archers automatically took a hit for each hex entered. This made the French advance a sort of puzzle. Kev Sharp picked up on this aspect, and the subtleties involved, in one of his videos on the game.
During the first month of sales, We Happy Few lagged well behind the other games in Tiny Battle's opening line-up. Eventually WHF crawled its way into the black, and though it never was a best-seller, it turned a respectable profit, particularly in digital/PNP sales to overseas customers. But that was a ways into the future. During the first few weeks, the game looked like a dud, so much so that Mark was a little upset that a second Shields & Swords folio game, Our Royal Bones, was already well underway, with maps and counters already completed by the artist.
If the sales for WHF were underwhelming, those for Our Royal Bones were anemic. That's not that the game didn't make a profit; it did, and pretty quickly. But it wasn't the same kind of income generator that the more popular Tiny Battle releases were. Mark felt that it wasn't worth the bother to continue with the series outside of the Viking boxed game for Flying Pig, and so after a reprint of the first two games in a folio edition, Shields & Swords got the axe.
And, you know, I'm not going to say Mark was wrong to want to drop the series. He wants games that will make Y amount of profit. If you have ten games, and nine make Y, and one doesn't come anywhere close, you're going to want to promote and emulate the nine that made their nut; you're not going to want to keep pumping money into the one that's underperforming. From a perspective of "replicate success, disregard failure", Mark's decision was the right one; Our Royal Bones just didn't sell enough.
But there's another way to look at Our Royal Bones, and that's the fact that it paid for itself almost immediately. This is because it reused the illustrations from WHF, which were already paid for. The art budget for ORB just needed to take into account the map and the layout of the new counters using those illustrations. Another Tiny Battle game that released around the same time as ORB had creative costs three times as much as ORB's, cost over twice as much per unit to produce, and required four times as many units be sold to break even. That other game sold a lot more copies, and made a lot more profit, but with more money on the line, and more sales needed before it got into the black, it posed a far greater risk. ORB made only a small profit, but did so almost instantaneously, and with basically zero risk.
Of course, that's because Our Royal Bones is reusing the unit art from We Happy Few. The risk and the costs for that original game in the folio line was much higher, and it took longer for WHF to make a profit, requiring about twice as many sales as ORB. Because I'm a nerd, I'm going to take this in a slightly mathy direction. Let's call the cost of the shared art assets S, the cost of the game-specific art assets O and W (respectively), and we'll use x to refer to the number of units ORB had to sell to get into the black.
So, let's say that x is "basically zero risk", we're 100% sure we will absolutely sell at least that many copies, and 2x is a "normal", acceptable amount of risk; the game will probably sell that many copies, but it's still capable of flopping, which of course we don't want. But if we look at the two games as a single unit, and spread the costs of their shared art assets between the two of them, then the risk for WHF goes down.
That's where the series ended, of course, but if it continued, then every subsequent game would have a cost equivalent to ORB's, and need to sell x to make a profit individually (x being a number it's more-or-less guaranteed to sell at a bare minimum); looking at the series as a whole, S would continue to be divided by each subsequent game, which would continue to reduce the risk. (This of course isn't taking into account the fact that new entries in a series tend to drive sales of earlier titles. Whenever Tiny Battle released a new one of my Blood Before Richmond games, the first game got a few more sales.)
So, looking at it from a point of view of "how many actual dollars of profit did WHF and ORB make", you could argue they weren't successful games. But if your litmus is "did it make any amount of profit, yes and no" versus "what was the risk it wouldn't make money", then they were successful, even if they were Tiny Battle's weakest sellers. It's kind of like investments. Some folks go in for high-risk, high-yield stuff where they might make beaucoup bucks. Others prefer a sure, stable thing like a fixed annuity or government savings bond, where it's never going to make a lot of money, but it's always going to make some money.
When Mary and I started talking seriously about Hollandspiele, one of the first topics of discussion was the Shields & Swords series, following a model similar to that proposed by WHF/ORB with shared art assets. From a business perspective, we saw it as a long-term, low-risk investment that would turn a modest profit over time. There would be a somewhat larger up-front cost associated with getting the new unit illustrations, which makes the first couple of games arguably "more" of a risk, and means it's going to take them longer to get into the black, but since these illustrations were intended to be used for several different games released over the course of the next few years, the "actual" cost per game would be minimal-- if you take a long view of the series as a whole. And while each game would need its own map or maps, these would generally be less expensive than a wargaming map for, say, a World War II game, because the latter typically has much more complicated and varied terrain. Eventually each new game in the series will be a zero-risk proposition, and will likely drive sales for earlier titles, increasing profitability.
That's all looking at it from the business end of things, of course. If you look at it from a creative perspective-- and we're really more creative people; if we were "business-business-business" people, well, there are lots of easier ways to make money than publishing niche board games-- but if you look at it from a creative perspective, I just plain really dig the Middle Ages. It's absolutely my favorite historical period. And I really dig my simple little system for gaming medieval battles; it's absolutely my favorite system. I think I get a bigger kick out of designing Shields & Swords battles than I do pretty much anything else. So I'm very happy we've found an approach where it makes sense for me to do that as often as I'd like.
Next time, we'll get into the creative guts of Shields & Swords, and the changes that led to me appending that II on the end.