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THE YEAR OF LIVING AWESOMELY PART 2 OF 4 (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

The first time I met Cole Wehrle, at Origins this year, I was somewhat startled by his appearance. Not that, mind you, there was anything wrong with his appearance; there wasn't. But for years, I had known of him mostly through his presence on Board Game Geek, where his avatar is a Winsor McCay drawing of Little Nemo in an admiral's uniform. I'm not saying that I expected him to look like that, any more than I would expect Charles Vasey to look like Charlie McCarthy, or that I would expect myself to look like a hexagon with an "H" plastered on top of it. But the "Little Nemo as admiral" thing dominated my conception of Mr. Wehrle, to the point that, even now, even when I know full well what he looks and sounds like, if he comes up in conversation the first image that comes up is a seafaring Little Nemo. 

While I didn't really interact with him, I had noticed Cole's writing on BGG for years, and always appreciated the thoughtfulness with which he approached games, and the stylishness of his prose. I certainly appreciated it when he wrote a rather lovely strategy piece about my game Northern Pacific. It is always exciting for a designer to have someone understand perfectly what the designer had in mind, someone who picks up on the nuances and subtleties that others missed. That's precisely what Cole did in that piece. (Kev Sharp is another gamer who has this talent.)

Now, fast-forward a few years, and I need an article for the magazine I'm editing, and the article needs to be on Mark Simonitch's The US Civil War. Not knowing anyone who had the game, I started looking through the comments and ratings for it on BGG, hoping I'd recognize someone who I knew could write. And there's Little Nemo, and he's rated the game quite highly. I asked him if he'd be interested in writing an article, and he was, and he did. The piece was something magical - maybe the best piece to ever run in the magazine. It was certainly one of the most distinctive, thoughtful, and well-written.

Around the same time, Roger Leroux turns in an article for the same issue, covering Cole's game Pax Pamir, and it sounds like exactly the sort of game I'd be interested in. After talking it over with Mary, we decided to approach Cole to see if he had anything else in the hamper that he might want to throw our way.

The result was An Infamous Traffic. It is, hands-down, our best-selling game. In fact, it became our best-selling game roughly twelve hours after we started taking orders. It was a very nice influx of capital that enabled us to lay the groundwork for the twelve games that have come out so far in 2017. It put us into the black and bought us some breathing room. It also increased our profile with gamers, as more and more people now know who we are as a result of Traffic and its continued critical success.

I don't want to overstate that last bit, however. Traffic appeals to a market segment that's very different than the rest of our products. Most of the people who bought Traffic have not purchased any of our other titles, and the grognards who make up part of our core customer base haven't bought Traffic. There is some crossover, but less than you'd think or than we hoped. Many of the Traffic customers are eurogamers, who have very different expectations about components than wargamers do or than is feasible for us as a print-on-demand publisher. We cringe every time a reviewer gets upset about the paper map, tells us that it costs too much, or wishes that a "real" publisher would take the title over. But as far as drawbacks go, that's pretty darn minimal.

Like I said, Traffic gave us an influx of capital that was badly needed. Our cash flow was not great previously - prior to, we were always threatening to dip into the black, but never quite getting there. We actually had delayed getting the art ready for several projects so that we could space out the payments accordingly. We had the art for December's game, Lou Coatney's Teutons!, but had just commissioned the work for January's game, Blood in the Fog.

While we had the art for Teutons!, we didn't quite have the game yet. Oh, the game was fully developed and had been tested, to be sure, but we were still working with Mr. Coatney on proofreading and laying out the rules. That process stretched out quite a bit longer than anticipated, and it became clear that we wouldn't have the game ready for a December release. We hadn't even started on the layout of Blood in the Fog yet, since we were working on getting Teutons! into shape first.

Luckily, our holiday sale that ran in the first half of December was profitable enough that we didn't really miss having a game out that month. During the holidays, we were able to get both Teutons! and Blood in the Fog ready. Sine our last new game had come out during the first week of November, we decided to release both games in January, two weeks apart, intending to return to our once-a-month schedule with February's game, Plan 1919.

This decision proved to be very consequential. January is traditionally a slow month - most folks get very tight with their wallets after over-spending during the holidays. But having two games out, our profit for that month was roughly equivalent to a month's pay at my increasingly unsatisfying day job. "It's too bad we can't publish two games a month every month," I said. "Even with a slow month, we're guaranteed to make a profit."

Okay, so it doesn't work quite this way.

Mary agreed that this was a promising sign. But publishing two games a month would of course be out of the question. We were sometimes struggling to accomplish everything we needed to do to put out even one game a month. Still, if we kept plugging away, releasing one new game a month, we might be in a position a year or so down the road where we could do it full-time. At that point, we could transition to two games a month - or more accurately and realistically, to five games every quarter. It was a nice dream to talk about, but it seemed very far-off, highly provisional, perhaps even unattainable.

We had this conversation on February 1 when we had finished crunching the numbers for January. On the next day, I was stopped in traffic when someone rear-ended me going sixty miles an hour.


2 comments

  • Agreed on all counts, Brian. I think he’s tied with a certain Canadian for my favorite designer to work with. :-)

    Thank you for the link!

    Tom Russell

  • Thinking people look like their avatars: yes, I do that too Tom, you’re not alone… and I do confess to a slight disappointment that I have never met a giant blue lobster in a schoolgirl uniform.
    Cole Wehrle is brilliant indeed. I first ran across his writing in The Journal of Analog Game Studies. This journal is small but it is something that deserves credit by simply existing and continuing to publish; the academic field is 99% devoted to digital thisandthat, to a ridiculous degree, and it discourages me to see a field so willfully and persistently ignorant of its history and origins.
    Cole had written a piece about player affect in Settlers of Catan, the COIN system games and The Quiet Year, an example of a genre of games I didn’t know anything about.

    http://analoggamestudies.org/2016/05/affective-networks-at-play-catan-coin-and-the-quiet-year/

    Anyway, as an owner of both Pax Pamir and An Infamous Traffic, I am looking forward to the rest of what he may accomplish as a designer.

    Brian Train

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