Mary Russell

Our third year in business, ending August 2019, was one of the hardest. Much of it was dominated by the long illness and eventual passing of our beloved cat Claws. That was the main focus of our time and energy, and as a result, we didn't release very many games. This was a problem for two reasons.

One, our business model is centered around an aggressive release schedule, as the release of new titles remains our primary driver of sales. That model also depends on flexibility and relatively quick turnaround times. Early on, we could sign a game and expect it to be released six to nine months later. This left us room to be surprised. My go-to example of this is Erin Escobedo's Meltwater. When 2018 began, we had no idea this thing existed, and by the end of the year, it was one of our flagship titles. That would not have happened if we were saddled with a years-long production pipeline.

Which brings us to the second reason that our slower release schedule in year three was a problem. We had over the course of the two previous years committed to a large number of titles. As we began our third year, we knew that we already had enough games in the pipeline to see us to the end of our fourth - assuming our normal release schedule. Since we released a little over half the number of titles we had planned, that put us seriously behind, and that flexibility that meant so much to us seemed very far away.

But as we began our fourth year, we were optimistic. We were going to hit the ground running and get back on schedule. From August 2018 to August 2019, we had only managed to release eleven boxed games and three expansions. We were confident that we would easily surpass that, as we had in our first two years. I mean, after all, what could 2020 possibly throw at us?

Well, it turns out it could throw an awful lot at us. The elephant in the room is the global pandemic. Since we work from home, sheltering in place didn’t change our day-to-day very much, but we used to break up the monotony with spontaneous on-a-whim let's-do-something afternoon adventures, and we certainly feel the lack of that rather acutely. It's been more disruptive to us as a business. Some of our most popular games - both new and existing - have specialty bits or cards, and our manufacturers for those bits and cards were under mandatory closures. Once they were back up and running - using reduced staffing to maintain safe social distances - orders took longer to fulfill, and also longer to ship. To be very clear, this isn't us grousing about it. These disruptions were necessary.

More disruptive to me on a personal level was the death of my grandmother. She was the relative to whom I was closest - in many ways, she was more of a mother to me than my mother was. Her health had been declining for a while, and she required twenty-four hour supervision. My uncle moved in with her to provide this, but needed to leave for a few days at a time to visit and maintain his own home, which was about five hours north. Generally this involved a cousin and myself taking shifts, though that cousin's availability was limited due to her job and her child. Since my schedule was more flexible being that I play board games for a living, I was in a better position to take more and longer shifts, and often I would spend two or three days there in a solid block.

When I think of my grandmother, the first image that comes to mind is her in her minivan. She was always on the go, running errands, always doing something for somebody, picking somebody up or dropping them off. Also terrifying them. I loved my grandmother dearly, but she was not a great driver. Riding in her car for five minutes would shave a year off of your life.

When the Parkinson's and Alzheimer's robbed her of what ability she did have to operate the vehicle safely, it broke her heart. She treasured her mobility and her independence, and so she bristled at being stuck in her house, hated being watched and waited on. She was angry, she was depressed - often saying that there was nothing left for her to do but wait to die - and she was apologetic. Sorry that we had to sit with her. Sorry that she was being a "bother". The thing about my grandmother is that while she loved to help other people - practically every place she drove, she drove there for someone - she stubbornly refused any help for herself. Would never ask for it, would never accept it. "You don't owe me anything," she'd insist. She did the things out of love for you. So you could tell her, no, it's no bother. I'm happy to do this for you. Not because I owe you anything, but out of love for you, but it wouldn't change the way she felt.

That was how it went when she was lucid. At other times, the dementia took hold, and she would be gripped by paranoia and hallucinations, often vivid and violent. More than once she didn't recognize me, and would describe in detail how I had fallen into a thresher or been stabbed to death, which as you can imagine was rather unnerving. She was often tormented by robbers, doctors, and preachers who were all trying to murder her. Things took a turn for the worse this January, and over the next three months she had fewer and fewer lucid moments, until all that was left were the hallucinations and the anguish they caused her.

All the things that made her who she was fell away; my grandmother had died long before her body did. In a way, I had begun mourning her then, while the body she had left behind still breathed and trembled and ached. And so when my uncle called to let me know it had happened, and when I went over that morning to say goodbye, I didn't feel the intense ballooning of grief I had been expecting. What I felt most of all was relief that she was no longer in pain.

She was laid to rest just as face masks became a part of daily life. Her funeral was limited to ten people; only three were allowed at the gravesite. I watched from a distance of fifty feet as a trio of construction vehicles prepared the plot, lowered the casket, and covered it.

Between this, the pandemic, and a couple of other things, our fourth year has been tumultuous. As a result, we didn't release nearly as many games as we had intended. Now that we've gotten all that out of the way, I'm actually going to talk about what those games were.

Hex no. 43, District Commander: Maracas

This is the first of four games in Brian Train's District Commander series. The plan was to release two in 2019 and two in 2020, and we actually commissioned the mapsheets all at once to facilitate that. But this one didn't actually come out until September of 2019. Our thanks to Brian for being patience with us.

The game called for a variety of unit types and assets, with a wide variety of illustrations. If we were to commission an artist to provide all those illustrations, it would have been one of our most expensive games in terms of art budget. We knew that its appeal was somewhat niche, and that with that kind of budget it would take quite some time for it to get into the black. This realization is what led to us purchasing a drawing tablet for my computer, and District Commander: Maracas was the first game I did honest-to-gosh counter illustrations for. (But it was the third to be published, after Antony and Cleopatra and With It Or On It.)

Hex no. 44, Escape From Hades

Speaking of large art budgets, this is the most expensive game we have ever done - more expensive, in fact, than several of our other titles put together! There are something like forty different counter illustrations, not to mention the two mapsheets and the box cover illustration. My old friend Wil Alambre came to us with a very reasonable quote - I'm sure a lot of artists would have asked for that much for the box art alone - but it still made the game a significant financial risk. As I've said many times in the past, our whole model works because even if a game doesn't do well, it'll sell enough copies to pay for itself. With this one, its break-even point was significantly higher; if it flopped, it would remain deep in the red.

There were a few reasons why we took on that risk. First, of course, is the fact that we believed in the game and trusted in its pedigree - designer Fred Manzo and developer Hermann Luttmann had done titles in a similar vein that had proven very popular. Second, we felt strongly that if we were going to do this game, we would have to commit to it - we couldn't do it through half-measures or cutting corners, but needed to deliver on the experience.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both Mary and myself (but especially Mary) love science fiction. We wanted to do a science fiction game, and it didn't really matter to us how well it would sell - we were doing it for ourselves. If it loses money, who cares? We did what we wanted to do.

But fortunately, it proved to be very successful, and got into the black fairly quickly. Fred's game, and Wil's art, seemed to resonate with quite a few folks, and we're quite glad of that.

Hex no. 45, Horse & Matchlock

One of the most ambitious projects we took on in our first year was Sean Chick's Horse & Musket. Right from the start, it was intended to be a six volume series, with each volume having twenty scenarios. A major component of Sean's vision was that the game would be a sort of sandbox for enthusiasts of the period that they could customize to their own taste. (This has sometimes given the rules a slightly wiggly quality that makes me a little twitchy, but series developer Doug Miller is working with Sean to get things well in hand.)

Perhaps no other release encapsulates this better than Horse & Matchlock, an unplanned prelude volume that was suggested by series fan Johan Brattström, which he and Sean co-designed. This volume covers battles of the seventeenth century, and as someone with a considerable interest in the English Civil Wars and Thirty Years War, it was one I particularly enjoyed working on with Johan, Sean, and Doug. It's also paved the way for Doug to start preliminary work on a second prelude volume, this one dipping back into the tumultuous Italian Wars.

Hex no. 46, Westphalia

This was my big "prestige" game slotted for release during our end-of-year Hollandays Sale, and going into the sale, I had no clue if it was going to be a hit or a terrible mistake. The game's main selling point - this is an asymmetric negotiation game for six and only six players - is also its main un-selling point. I had many folks online tell me that the thing sounded interesting but they'd never be able to table it, because how are they going to find six people, let alone six people that like negotiation games, let alone six people that like negotiation games that are going to want to try and parse asymmetric win conditions.

And, I mean, that's absolutely fair. We talk about making niche, specific games for a niche, specific audience, but it doesn’t get more specifically niche than that, and we were fully prepared for the thing to drop like a lead balloon. But seemingly against all odds, the game sold really well, and people actually managed to get it to their tables. It probably helped that the game played fairly quickly - it's only about two hours - and that aside from victory conditions, the rules are actually dead simple. Because I was committing to certain barriers to entry (the fixed player count, the asymmetry, the wheeling-dealing nature of the thing) it was very important that I remove as many other barriers as possible, and it seems that I succeeded.

I am very lucky we released the game when we did, however. Once the pandemic hit, a six-player only game became a non-starter, and subsequent sales have dropped off a bit (and understandably!) as a result.

The Hollandays Sale

Our 2018 Hollandays Sale had been significantly bigger than the ones that came before it, leaving us drained and overwhelmed, so going in to the 2019 sale, we wondered how it would measure up. In terms of volume of sales, we essentially matched what we had done in 2018, but that's actually a sign of significant growth. During the 2018 sale, we accepted orders from all over the world, and got quite a few from Europe. In fact, it was the large number of European orders (and the logistical headaches that came with them) that led to us making an arrangement in January 2019 with Second Chance Games in the UK, whereby they would be the exclusive source of our games in the UK and on the continent. During the 2019 Hollandays Sale, we didn't sell to Europe at all, but managed to match the previous year's volume of sales - hence, we actually grew our customer base.

The same volume of sales meant of course that it was the same amount of work on our end, but for whatever reason it didn't take as much out of Mary this time around. A significant driver of those sales continued to be our annual holiday freebie promotional game. This time around, it was The Toledo War, a game about an obscure bit of Michigander and Ohioan history. It's the closest thing I've done to a "real" ops/events style CDG, and it's perhaps the most popular and best-received of my mini-game efforts.

That's where we'll cut things off for now; next week, we'll run through the remaining releases.

See Year Four, Part Two of Two

1 comment

  • Thank you Tom, you did a bang-up job of the counter illustrations for District Commander! (and even better, now that you have done them, they can be used for three other games)
    I’m very sorry to hear about your grandmother’s decline – I can’t imagine how hard it was for you to deal with.

    Brian Train

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