March of 2017 marked the first month in my adult life that I was voluntarily self-employed. The next few months would determine whether or not Hollandspiele could be a full-time endeavor. Mary and I spent many evenings and afternoons discussing our strategy.
One thing we definitely wanted to do was up our marketing game. This not only included the marketing for the individual games, but also the marketing of us as a "brand". As far as the latter was concerned, we hit upon the idea of starting a semi-weekly podcast, the Mary and Tom Show. In it, we would not only discuss game design, development, and publishing, but also chronicle our real-life misadventures. We try to keep it light and short, a little snack-sized bit of us that communicates something about us as people. I'm not sure if it's really increased our brand awareness or anything like that, but it's fun and folks seem to dig it.
March, like I said, was our first month doing this full-time, and that was terrifying for all the reasons you might expect. We were especially scared because of the relative obscurity of the games we were releasing that month. It's easy to talk about how you're going to do a game on the Barbary Wars and Jenkins' Ear when you're doing it as a sideline with hobby money and can absorb a loss. It's a whole 'nother thing when your ability to eat is directly proportionate to your ability to sell games. Briefly I wished that we had something nice and "traditional" and commercial, a sure thing, to peddle instead of the "weird" and risky games we had on offer.
The first of these was Brian Train's twofer Ukrainian Crisis & The Little War. These were aggressively (and charmingly) off-beat games on unusual, obscure topics. More than that, the product was more expensive for us than previous games due to increased up-front costs. It was our first game to utilize cards, which had to be bought in bulk from a different printer. And with two games to provide the art for, it also required double the usual expenditure. All that meant was that it'd take much longer for us to break even.
The other game for March was Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777, a dry, nerdy, abstract logistics wargame. I loved this game that I had designed, and so did Mary. It was an old friend. But I was under no delusions; there was no way a game like this was ever going to appeal to more than maybe four people. It wasn't going to make any money, and might even lose it, but so what? Part of the fun of owning a publishing company is that you get to publish things for the simple reason that you want to do it, and besides, it was just a sideline anyway, we had my "real" job to fall back on. Only of course by the time the game was coming out, the circumstances and the calculus had changed dramatically.
"...jumped in with both feet..."
So, yeah, we were more than a little worried, but having devoted ourselves full-time to the enterprise, we jumped in with both feet, making a concerted marketing push for both releases. We plugged them on our podcast, published articles on our blog, sent out review copies, published Facebook posts providing detailed explanations of the mechanisms and game play. Maybe if we were lucky, we'd be able to call March a wash; maybe April we could eke out some little profit and I wouldn't have to return to work with my hat in my hand. Heck, I didn't even own a hat.
But the sales for Ukrainian Crisis & The Little War were strong, especially considering the obscurity of the topics. We even had to briefly stop taking orders because we ran out of cards. That part actually wasn't entirely our fault. When we ordered the cards in bulk from the card printer (again, separate from our usual printer), we had ordered what we thought were enough to cover the first three months of sales. Well, he only sent half of that - after a delay of over a month - which we sold in about a week. Which tells you just how well the game was doing! We did get the second half of the shipment, and started taking orders again a week or so later.
That card printer was one of three we had been looking at, and he was by far the cheapest, and, well, we got what we paid for! We subsequently found a new and much more reliable card printer who is worth the extra expense. We learned our (in retrospect, rather obvious) lesson there.
Another obvious lesson we learned from publishing the twofer is that putting two unique games in one box makes it twice as expensive. (This wasn't a situation like Teutons!, where the "three" games all had the same ruleset and were played on the same map.) But the game itself wasn't selling for double the price of a single game. It required more than twice the usual number of games to break even. And it did do that, and it did it fairly quickly. But despite the success this time around, it's unlikely that we're going to package two games together like this in the future. The continued success of our model depends on keeping our overhead low to manage risk.
So, that one did well, but there was still the matter of our other March release, Supply Lines of the American Revolution. That one we were more apprehensive about. It did very brisk business, taking us more-or-less completely by surprise given how nerdy and abstract it is. Even more surprising is that the sales have continued to be very good, supported by strong word-of-mouth and a crossover appeal with non-wargamers that I didn't know it had. It's always great when a game is a success, and, yes, it's doubly so when it's something I designed.
That kind of led to me getting my hopes up for Optimates et Populares, our sole release for April. It wasn't a hit like Supply Lines, but the sales were pretty solid, and we're starting to see more word-of-mouth about the game, which is gratifying. Even though we only had one game come out in April, it was still a very good month for us, due in no small part to the spotlight that was cast on An Infamous Traffic. Cole's game was nominated for Heavy Cardboard's Golden Elephant Award for the Best Heavy Game of 2016. It ultimately lost out to an 18XX title, 1822, but the nomination itself was enough to kick up renewed interest in the game.
May saw the release of Sean Chick's Horse & Musket: Dawn of an Era. We were hoping for strong sales. I mean, we're always hoping for strong sales, but for something like say Battles on the Ice, our second game for May, we don't expect it to be a breakout hit. Horse & Musket, we had higher expectations for. It was our largest game to date. It was also the most expensive MSRP-wise, and one thing we had noticed is that our more expensive games tended not to sell as well as the smaller, cheaper ones. We were seriously wondering if publishing Horse & Musket might prove to be a costly mistake. I mean, we still would have published it - it's a great game, and the beauty of a print-on-demand method is that we can publish a game that's great regardless of whether or not it's going to sell all that well - but we didn't know if it would be profitable.
It was! Sales were very brisk, and together with the decent sales of Battles on the Ice and the continued Heavy Cardboard bump for Traffic, we ended up having our best month ever. So by the time we got into June, Mary and I both relaxed a bit. We were actually doing it. We were pulling it off. It was around this time that I wrote these words in "Time, Enough, At Last":
"It's a wonderful thing when your time belongs to yourself. A blessed thing, and a privilege for which we're deeply grateful. And we obtained it, in part through our own hard work, and in part because of the support we've had from you, our customers. Thank you."
If you had told me a year ago that Hollandspiele would have published seventeen games in its first year, I would have been surprised. If you told me it'd be our sole source of income and that I had quit my job, I'm not sure I would believe it.
But above all, I would not have been able to anticipate how happy we are. How much our lives have been changed by running this little business, and by the support we've had from the gaming community. These last twelve months have had ups and downs, to be sure. Much of it was tumultuous. But on the whole?
It's been the best year in my entire life.
Part 1 of The Year of Living Awesomely
Part 2 of The Year of Living Awesomely
Part 3 of The Year of Living Awesomely
I’m so happy to see you be able to create awesome games full time. Love your designs! I’m a long time gamer and wargamer, and really appreciate the smaller footprints and well designed titles you put out. I’m also an “indie” fantasy author, have an inkling how much work running your own company is—kudos to you and Mary for doing it, and doing it well.
Thanks, Marina! You keep buying ‘em, we’ll keep making ’em.
I enjoyed reading your story, and I wish you and Mary many more awesome years with Hollandspiele to come :)