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THE YEAR OF LIVING AWESOMELY PART 1 OF 4 (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

We have been in business for one year. We started taking orders for our first release, The Scheldt Campaign, on August 16, 2016, and a couple of weeks ago, we released our seventeenth title, Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks. Seventeen games in one year - that's not bad! In fact, that's more than we had originally intended. But Hollandspiele has had a way of defying, and exceeding, our expectations.

Seven years ago, give or take, Mary and I first started talking seriously about publishing board games. At that time, I was designing mostly euro-style games, and our intention was to publish games in that vein. We thought it'd be hilarious if we had a name that sounded snooty and European, and since her name was Mary Holland-Russell, we thought that Hollandspiele had the right ring to it. The plan was for me to sell some eurogames to other publishers, making a name for myself, and then we'd use that reputation to launch our little enterprise.

It didn't work out that way; I never could sell the eurogames (though I did sell a few train games to Winsome, which are at least euro-adjacent). The wargames are what took off. In 2014 I started working as Editor of Yaah! Magazine, staying on for seven issues, and the following year, Mary started running day-to-day operations of Tiny Battle Publishing, being responsible for the production of fifteen games. As we mentioned way back in our first blogpost, we learned a whole lot from the experience, and we thought, well, we can do this. And so the next year we did.

Our expectation was that Hollandspiele would be a sideline - some extra income to supplement what I was making professionally. The previous year, I had often put in 60-70 hours per week during the "busy season" that ran from spring through the late autumn, which had made it difficult for me to devote a whole lot of time to design and development. In early 2016, when we were starting to talk to artists and designers and filing the necessary paperwork to make the company official, we were anticipating a similar busy season, with similar demands on my schedule.

Mary and I decided that we should release two games in our first month, and then one game each month thereafter. We determined that we would be able to keep up that pace provided we had given ourselves enough of a head-start - say, four months worth. That meant we wouldn't open our digital doors until we had the first five games fully developed and ready for the printer. That was the plan in the short-term.

The long-term plan was to grow the business slowly and organically, until we got to the point where maybe we would be able to do it full-time. We figured that it might be some years down the road, if at all. That was okay, though. It'd be nice, but we weren't counting on it. At the day-job, I had been a manager for over a year, and was repeatedly hearing talk from my superiors of being moved into a directorship. I even began "grooming" one of my direct reports to take over for me when the move happened. Given the relative rapidity of my rise up the ranks, as well as my well-known ambition, I figured that after a few years in a directorship, I might be looking at a position in the halcyon halls of Upper Management.

Surprisingly, the extra hours I was anticipating come the busy season didn't materialize this time around. The industry collapsed in on itself, seemingly over-night, and a staff of over one thousand was reduced to about four hundred. I did not move into a directorship, but was moved laterally in a company-wide reorganization. I had been the manager of a high-performing, highly-effective team where I knew everything about the workflow like the back of my hand. I was to be moved into a department where I knew nothing, the kind of department whose mistakes had routinely cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars a month and that the other departments discussed in hushed, fearful tones. In that department, I was to be supervising the lowest-performing team with the highest error rate. In this new flattened, "non-hierarchal" structure, there were no directorships - the position I was in was as high as I could ever get, and I was near the top of my pay grade. (Which, um, was less than what the new people beneath me were making? So, that was swell.)

So, my professional aspirations very suddenly collapsed. It's probably not a coincidence that I got violently sick for two weeks straight shortly thereafter - the first two weeks of August. During those two weeks, in between sucking on cough drops and ralphing in a variety of disconcerting shapes and colors, Mary and I hammered out the final details of Hollandspiele, getting more done in that period than we had during the months previous.

This was actually something of a pattern in the first several months. We would strive and struggle to get things done in stolen weeknight hours, and to squeeze in Hollandspiele in between the week's worth of errands that we ran on the weekends. But then I would wind up staying home for an extended period of time: I got sick, the basement flooded, a tree fell on me, you know, normal stuff. And while I was home, we were able to get things done.

Of course, we didn't know that when we started taking orders for The Scheldt Campaign in mid-August. Sales were slightly better than we had anticipated - particularly with Canadians - but it wasn't anything that was going to get us out of the red. The Grunwald Swords sold slightly less but exceeded our expectations for a medieval battle game. Both games were very well-received by gamers and reviewers, which was gratifying. A persistent complaint was that our boxes were too small. That's something we eventually addressed by having our printer do some slight trimming of the components. (We'll continue to improve on that front once we make the transition to slightly larger boxes.)

Agricola, Master of Britain sold very well. Solitaire games usually do, but this one sold much better than we had anticipated, and that was very gratifying for me personally as the designer. Before Agricola, I had over a dozen games to my name, and none of them were anything close to what you could call a hit. But Agricola was, and continues to be, very popular, with a lot of lovely word-of-mouth.

But still, even that one wasn't enough to get us into the black, and House of Normandy, which under-performed, didn't exactly help.

But like I said, we weren't planning on Hollandspiele becoming anything more than a sideline, some extra money to help us out while I tried to figure out what the heck I was going to do professionally now that my entire career path had derailed. We hoped we might start making a profit sometime in 2017, but we weren't holding our breath.

Two things happened that changed all of those plans, and were in retrospect equally instrumental in Hollandspiele becoming a full-time endeavor. First, in November, we released Cole Wehrle's An Infamous Traffic. And then, in December, despite our best efforts, we didn't release a game at all.


2 comments

  • There are cliffhangers in every episode. :-) Hope you enjoy the ride. :-)

    Tom Russell

  • Reading this like a nail biting thriller. Not sure why. I really really hope that part 4 will be ending happily. You both holding hands in sunset and there will be cozy fireplace somewhere.

    Slava Zipp

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