YEAR FIVE (by Amabel Holland)

Mary Russell

As of last week, we've been in business now for five years, which means it's once again time for that blog-thing where I reflect on the last twelve months – what games we've released, how our business is growing, what's been going on in our lives. In that last department, this year has been pretty eventful for me. Finding out you've been a girl this whole time will do that. But that's a story for another time.

While all that was going on, we managed to release eight new games and three expansions, plus one thing that's neither.

Two of the new games were the last two titles in Brian Train's District Commander series, Kandahar and ZNO, covering operations in Afghanistan and Algeria, respectively. There are a lot of reasons why we love working with Brian. The designs are clever. The rules are clean – we never have to rewrite them the way we do with most of the games in our catalogue. And there's plenty of weird one-off counter illustrations, which keeps me on my toes. I had to do a donkey for ZNO, which I think turned out reasonably well.

White Eagle Defiant is the second game from Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw, who had done Brave Little Belgium for us the previous year. Like BLB, it's a game with strongly-defined attacker-defender roles, where the attacking invaders are racing against the clock, and the beleaguered defenders are stalling for time while looking for opportunities for counterattacks. This one's a bit more open than BLB, with victory conditions that support a wider variety of approaches. That gives it quite a bit more replayability, while still being approachable for new wargamers.

I had three releases in a row coming into the end of 2020. Aurelian, Restorer of the World is my long-delayed third solitaire game, building on the foundations of Agricola, Master of Britain and Charlemagne, Master of Europe. This one was kind of an odd duck, as it was finished fairly early in 2018. But we had a lot of games in the pipeline from other designers, and we wanted to wait for Ania B. Ziolkowska to be available for the art. And so the long and the short of it is, the game came out in the fall of 2020.

And, you know, I'm proud of it – it plays well, does what I intended it to do. Many folks seem to like it best of the three solo titles, especially as it does away with the set piece battles of Agricola and Charlemagne. But the me who designed it was unrecognizable to the me who existed when we released it. I think about games differently, design games differently. The me who was finishing Aurelian in early 2018 was also in the middle of grappling with This Guilty Land, just starting to grope towards the idea of games making cogent and coherent arguments. So by the time we published it, I felt oddly detached from it – almost like it had been another designer's game.

Speaking of This Guilty Land, 2020 also saw the release of a sorta-sequel, The Vote: Suffrage and Suppression in America. While I think TGL is the best thing I've ever done – will probably always be the best thing I've ever done – I think I like The Vote more. Its mechanics are simpler, its argument more nuanced, its arc more exhilarating. It's also in many ways more personal and immediate. Certainly the game's argument – that feminism must be intersectional and inclusive – is one that's particularly resonant for me as a trans woman. I think in retrospect that's one reason why I came out publicly shortly before the game's release.

We ended the year with the release of Dual Gauge, a multi-map train game system which has proven to be quite popular. Popular enough to support the release of an expansion, Honshu & Wisconsin, the following spring. I will admit that after 2018's The Soo Line and London & Northwestern, I had gotten somewhat tired of doing cube rail games. Dual Gauge gives me enough levers to play with however that I can't imagine getting bored of it any time soon.

It was released concurrent with our end of year Hollandays Sale. Now, every year, the sale has gotten bigger, but in 2020 it was something else entirely. We sold more on the first day than we had during the entire 2019 sale. What would have been more than enough wood bits for The Vote and Dual Gauge had they released in 2019 was not enough to get us through the sale, and in fact they spent a few months "out of print" while we patiently awaited our restock from Germany.

While we were expecting the sale to be bigger – it always is – we weren't sure how much bigger, exactly. To put it mildly, 2020 was a disruptive year across the industry. When the lockdowns started, we were wondering if we were going to make it month-to-month. We were not expecting record sales!

One of the drivers for those sales was that year's holiday freebie game, Reign of Witches. So strong was the demand for this deck of 25 cards that we took the unprecedented step of re-releasing it this summer, along with the 2019 freebie, The Toledo War, with the majority of the profits being donated to the Morris Animal Foundation. It's profoundly weird to me, and more than a little unsettling, that this little thing I casually threw together has been such a hit – especially as things that require a lot more effort sometimes fail to find their audience. Ah well.

Like I said, 2020 was pretty disruptive, so a couple of games that we had intended to release that year didn't see tables until early 2021. Those were Empire at Sunrise, designed by John Gorkowski, and Our God Was My Shield, designed by John Theissen. These were also the first new hex-and-counter games we had released since 2019.

You know, it's funny: when we started the business, we figured hex-and-counter wargames were gonna be our bread-and-butter. That the sales of those titles would be what allowed us to take chances on weirder and riskier approaches. But generally, the opposite has proven true: it's the weird stuff that makes the moolah, and that's what bankrolls the hex-and-counter stuff, which tends to underperform. So while our hopes for both of these titles were high, we also weren't holding our breath.

But both games far exceeded our expectations. People were really taken with Empire – it has a novel take on a unique subject (a lot of folks had no idea there was a Pacific Theater during World War One, let alone that it saw Japan fighting against Germany). It also has over thirty unique ship illustrations by yours truly. That's probably not something I would have done a couple years prior. But after I had figured myself out, I found I had a lot more energy and enthusiasm to pour into things. And I think Empire really benefited from that.

So did Our God Was My Shield. We've been doing promotional videos for our games for a long time, but for this game, I got a bit more ambitious, maybe even slightly lyrical – speaking less in the patter of "hey, here's why you should buy this" and more gently, more from the heart. The result is a video that I'm very proud of, and one that more than one customer cited as a reason for their purchase.

Finally, this year saw the release of two expansions in the Table Battles family. The Grand Alliance is an expansion for the core Table Battles line, with six battles from the time of Marlborough and Eugene. There's a couple of really clever bits that capture the nature of these battles – the shifting of forces to the areas where they're needed, the importance of a strong line – and I think it's my strongest work in the series.

I'm equally proud of the expansion for Dinosaur Table Battles. Mary asked me for more dinosaurs, and the result was More Dinosaurs, Please, which adds six new dinos. That's our most recent release, and so we're still waiting to see how it will be received. While I hope people dig it as much as I do – I had a blast putting these together – honestly, I didn't design it for them. I did it because Mary asked me to. So long as she was happy with it, that's all that mattered: everything else is gravy.


  • “I thought The Field of the Cloth of Gold was also a 2020 title. Surprised not to see it here.”

    Because we started the company in August 2016, these posts always cover August-to-August. Field came out in June 2020, so was discussed in last year’s post.

    Amabel Holland

  • I thought The Field of the Cloth of Gold was also a 2020 title. Surprised not to see it here.


  • I love working with you guys too! I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed working on the weird counter illustrations for District Commander, from Columbo to that donkey.
    2020 and 2021 have proven quite disruptive to me and my design work, but I hope to get back on the horse soon.
    Or even a donkey….

    Brian Train

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