Mary Russell

Continuing and concluding our look at our fourth year in business. Last time, I gave a general overview of the year - spoiler alert, it wasn't exactly a fun year - and looked at our releases dating from August 2019 through our Hollandays Sale. This time, I'll be covering what we've released over the last eight months.

Kingdom of Dyflin

2020 started with this expansion to my 2018 design Great Heathen Army. This added four new battles to the boxed game's original eight, and consisted of only a scenario booklet - no extra counters or maps. Partially this was a sort of experiment, to see what kind of market there might be for something like this which was relatively inexpensive to produce. And partially this was because series artist Ania Ziolkowska had retired from doing wargame maps. Future games in the series would need a new artist - perhaps a whole new look - and might provide an opportunity for me as a designer to take a new approach. I decided to put that off for a bit, and to find a way to do one more outing in the traditional mold; this expansion project provided me with that.

The trickiest part of the whole thing was the fourth and final scenario in the set, the massive Battle of Clontarf. It wasn't tricky merely because it was big. If I had been doing the whole thing from scratch as a standalone game, it would have been a breeze. What made it difficult was trying to create the battle within the confines of the Great Heathen Army countermix. That mix had been carefully calibrated to suit the needs of the eight scenarios that came in that box, with no thought to any future expansions. The mix of units within a given color block were not at all symmetrical, which meant that using this color to represent these units meant that this other color had to be used for these other units, only it didn't quite work as well for those other units and - well, the long and short of it is, I had to spend a lot of time struggling with a straitjacket I had accidentally made for myself. I figured it out eventually, but it was a pain in the neck.

Hex no. 47, District Commander: Binh Dinh

The second game in Brian Train's series. The great thing about these games - about all of Brian's games, really - is that they don't require a whole lot of work on our part, because they're always so clean and so clearly realized. I mean, yes, there's certainly work involved, and a fair amount of it - those rulebooks and player aids don't lay out themselves (hi Mary!), and like its predecessor, this one called for a few one-off illustrations (I'm particularly proud of the puppy). But when working with Brian there's no need for the sort of intensive development we sometimes need to do with other titles.

Horse & Musket Annual no. 2

The second Horse & Musket fan annual. This one brings the total number of scenarios across the series so far to 122, which, wow, that's a lot of scenarios! By the time we publish the final volume, that number is going to be closer to 300 - we're not even halfway there yet. As always, I tip my hat to designer Sean Chick, developer Doug Miller, the scenario designers, and the fans of this popular sandbox system.

Hex no. 48, At All Costs!

We signed this game from designer Tim Taylor - a follow-up to their To The Last Man! - in early 2017, expecting to release early in 2018. It would be two more years before it was ready to hit tables. So, what the heck happened?

What happened is that this was a big game. It has a bigger map than most of our games, three times as many counters as most, multiple display sheets, custom-printed wooden pieces, not to mention two rulebooks with lots of optional rules and advanced rules and scenarios. And, you know, we knew that going in. Part of why we signed it, was because it was a big game. Which sounds atypical coming from a niche wargame company specializing in weird and eccentric small footprint games, and probably requires a little bit of unpacking. So: let's unpack.

In the beginning, it was our assumption based on our past experience in the wargames industry that our bread-and-butter would be games that looked a lot like what was already on the market. That could mean traditional hex-and-counter stuff on traditional topics, or big games with Lots of Stuff, or games from Name Designers. Those games would be what actually sold, and would subsidize small weird games like Supply Lines or Table Battles that no one would buy.

Of course, what happened is that it was titles like Supply Lines and Table Battles that were our huge hits, and our more traditional wares - even ones with name designers - didn't find the kind of audience we were expecting. By the end of 2017, we had a pretty clear idea of what "a Hollandspiele game" looked like, but prior to that point, we had signed some games that in retrospect were odd fits. One of these was At All Costs!

Which isn't to say that we in any way regret signing it - it's a phenomenal game. We're quite proud of both the game itself and the work we put into it! It just was an awful lot of work, and the sheer bigness of it required so much attention that it further delayed other projects. A similar sort of bottleneck was created by each new Horse & Musket title, especially before Doug came on board as developer - and in a way, that series is an odd fit for us too. If it came across the transom today, we'd probably turn it down for being too big and involved. I'm well aware however that it's one of our most popular series, with a very ardent fanbase, and so, in retrospect, I'm glad we didn't quite know who we were back then.

Similarly, I'm glad that we signed At All Costs! I doubt we'll ever do a game this big again, and it was a bit of a bear getting all its ducks in a row, but we're happy to have done it, and gotten it out into the world.

Hex no. 50, Dinosaur Table Battles

This is another game that was announced in 2017 but wasn't released until 2020. And by "announced", what I mean is, when we were recording an episode of our podcast, Mary asked me to do a dinosaur version of Table Battles, and I said yes.

I'm not going to say that this was the hardest game I ever worked on - This Guilty Land absolutely drained me - but I will say I felt a lot of pressure. Partially, this was because Mary seemed to ask me multiple times a day why I wasn't working on it and why wasn't it done yet, but mostly, it was because I wanted it to be good. Don't get me wrong: I want all my games to be good. I think all my games are good, otherwise we wouldn't put them out there.

But almost all of those games are games that I design for me. I know what I dig, and if other people don't dig it, I don't lose sleep over it. Heck, even Mary often doesn't dig everything I do.

But this game - alone among all my games - I wasn't designing for me. I was designing it for her. As a sort of very expensive present. As an expression of my love for her. And that carried with it a sort of internal pressure to deliver the goods that is hard for me to articulate. It had to be good, because she deserved something good. It had to be something she would enjoy playing, and it had to be something that would delight her.

And so it took me a while to figure the thing out, and to make a game that might, arguably, almost, possibly be some small and worthy token of my affection for my wife.

Hex no. 51, The Field of the Cloth of Gold

One thing I've been harping on these last couple years is wanting to get back to the sort of scrappy flexibility we had in the beginning. This game stole a little bit of that back. I had the idea in mid-February, pitched it to Mary as a June release to coincide with the five hundredth anniversary of the historical event, and the game was designed, tested, and the components finalized by April.

The game has been very well-received. I'm very glad of that, but also highly amused. There are games that I spent months and years wrestling with that sometimes go largely ignored, but it's this tossed-off little bauble that resonates? So it goes.

Hex no. 52, Stilicho: Last of the Romans

Our last release of our fourth year is this sequel to Robert DeLeskie's popular solo title Wars of Marcus Aurelius. Robert refined the fundamental mechanisms to create a more challenging, more nuanced, and smoother experience. For our part, we wanted to refine the physical presentation of the game. Marcus had gotten some flak for my utilitarian text-only cards, so I tried to have something with greater visual appeal for Stilicho. The first game's map felt small and cramped so as to accommodate the card display on the same sheet; with Stilicho, we let the map sprawl across the entire mapsheet and created a separate card display printed on premium canvas.

Part of this is responding to customer feedback, and part of this is recognizing the success of the first game. When we're publishing a game and we're not exactly sure how well it's going to sell, we're quite careful about controlling our production costs and art budgets so as to minimize financial risk. When we're doing a sequel or follow-up to a game that was a hit - when we're working in a proven system - we're more likely to relax a bit: okay, sure, let's do a separate display on canvas for Stilicho. More Aggressive Attitudes did well, so let's put cards in the sequel. Brave Little Belgium was a hit, let's put a few wood bits in the box for White Eagle Defiant. And so on.


During this last year, we released nine new boxed games and two expansions. Add that to our previous releases, and we have a catalogue of fifty-eight titles. Or we would, if we hadn't lost the license to four of them. These I'll be covering in reverse order for dramatic effect.

Richard Berg's Dynasty lapsed as, due to his passing, we were unable to renew the license. This is a game that didn't quite find the audience that we and Richard had hoped for, and if he had survived, we probably would have released the rights back to him so he could see if another publisher might not have better luck with it.

Ty Bomba's Operation Unthinkable was the sort of hex-and-counter game that we thought would be our bread-and-butter, but turned out not to be. It's a fine game that sold well enough, and we really enjoyed the experience of working with Ty. His designs are clean and professional - by which I mean, he provides very thorough and orderly technical documentation on things like map features, a list of city names, and hex numbers. Being that sometimes designers pass you the equivalent of scribbles on a napkin, this was really wonderful. Within a few weeks of the license lapsing, he had already found a new home for it; we wish him well.

Lou Coatney's Teutons! was a similar story: we signed it when we thought we'd mostly be publishing traditional fare. My favorite part of it, for better or for worse, remains my Avalon Hill pastiche cover.

Finally - or firstly - there is Cole Wehrle's An Infamous Traffic, which he'll eventually be reprinting through his own firm. This was our first big hit, and it brought us an audience we might not have had otherwise. It was by building on that audience that we were able to make this a full-time concern. The fact that Cole designed his second game for us - essentially a couple of complete strangers - is a stroke of luck and an act of kindness for which I'll always be deeply grateful.

See Year Four, Part One of Two

1 comment

  • Thanks Tom, I am glad you find my work easy to work with. And your art contributions are far superior to the rather schematic graphics I turn in!

    Brian Train

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