Mary Russell

It's hard to believe it, but August 16 will mark our third anniversary. Over the course of the last twelve months, we've published eleven boxed games (hexes number 32 through 42) and three non-boxed expansions, for a total of fourteen releases. That's two less than in year two, and quite a bit less than we had intended. There are reasons for that, which we'll get into next time. 

For now, as is tradition, let's start by taking a look at some of the games we published.

Hex no. 32, Ribbit

The first game to be released in our third year was Mark Herman's Ribbit. Mark, who I finally had the pleasure of meeting at WBC just a few weeks ago, is one of my favorite game designers. Playing Washington's War in particular was a Chapman's Homer kind of moment for me, so working with Mark was very much on our wish list. Scott Muldoon (Bitskrieg) told Mark of our interest, and soon enough we were corresponding with Mr. Herman, and agreeing to republish his abstract game Ribbit, which he had previously self-published.

In addition to allowing us to work with Mark for the first time, it gave us a second opportunity to work with artist Wil Alambre. Wil is an old friend of mine from my USENET days - we've known each other for fifteen years or more. His colorful, charming, and detailed illustrations really made the game into something sumptuous, something that we hoped would appeal to the family market as much as the abstract crowd.

Those markets proved to be tough nuts to crack. We're a weird niche company making weird niche games, and the people who buy our games tend to be people who are, you guessed it, into said weird niche games. Something that looks and feels more like a "family" game or a "kids" game isn't necessarily what they're looking for, and the folks who are looking for that sort of thing aren't necessarily looking at a weird niche company with a reputation for weird niche games. 

Am I bovvered though? I ain't bovvered. We got to publish the game we wanted the way we wanted, we got to work with Mark Herman, we got to work with Wil Alambre: part of the fun of this thing is getting to do what we want without consequences. 

Hex no. 33, Meltwater

The first time I played Erin Lee Escobedo's Meltwater, it hit me like a bolt of lightning. Here was something completely unlike anything else in our submission stack. It was clever, it was unique, and it was cohesive: every aspect of it pointed toward and supported its thesis. It communicated. I'd give anything to have my first published design be as thoughtful and accomplished as Erin's. 

Mary and I knew immediately that we wanted to publish it. We weren't sure whether or not it would sell; we wondered if it'd be too much like an abstract to appeal to wargamers, and too much of a wargame to appeal to non-wargamers. But like I said, the fun part is that we can publish something just because we want to without worrying about sustaining a loss. Because there's no financial risk, we can take creative risks.

We were delighted when this one paid off: it's gotten very favorable reviews and the sales have been very strong. It very quickly became identified as one of our "flagship" titles alongside An Infamous Traffic and Table Battles - one of the games that serves as a sort of "ambassador" for the entire catalogue. Like Table Battles, we initially had some difficulty keeping enough wooden pieces on hand to meet demand. A good problem to have. 

Hex no. 34, NATO Air Commander

I've been internet friends with Brad Smith for a few years, and he was one of the people that Mary and I told about Hollandspiele when it was still in the planning stages. During that period, he pitched us the idea of NATO Air Commander. Now, normally we don't express interest in a game before the designer has finished it, but we liked Brad and we liked the idea, and told him to keep us in the loop. Over the next couple of years, Brad would send us drafts of the rules and we would bounce ideas back and forth, eventually getting to the point where we made a formal offer and announced the game. 

And, hoo boy, was there a lot of interest in the game! I knew since it was a solo design that it would get a lot of folks excited, but the primary driver of this buzz was undoubtedly the theme. I'm going to sound like a complete idiot here, but I really had no idea that "World War III in the Eighties" was like catnip for so many wargamers. When we put out the initial call for playtesters, we were deluged - we easily had seven or eight times as many volunteers as we do normally. 

We got to work with Ania Ziolkowska on the map, which is always a treat. She purposefully mimicked the look of game maps from the 1980s, and when I did the box, I followed suit by paying homage to the look and feel of the period. The result has been very well received, and the game has been a huge honking hit. We're very excited to be publishing Brad's second design, That Others May Live, about combat search and rescue in Viet Nam, likely sometime in 2020. 

Hex no. 35, Horse & Musket III: Crucible of War

This one was the halfway mark as Horse & Musket was originally conceived: six volumes taking us from 1685 to 1867. By the time we were putting this one together, however, we had already agreed to expand the series to encompass a prelude volume (Horse & Matchlock, coming later in 2019) and an annual "fan scenario" book with twenty new battles. 

Making the overall project bigger also made us realize that we had bitten off slightly more than we could chew, at least in terms of personal bandwidth. Each of these games has twenty battles in it, which is over twice as many as we have in any other box. Each battle needs to conform to certain tile and unit limitations, and because we made a conscious decision not to "link" the games - you can play number three with just the base game, and won't need number two - we need to make sure that the countersheet for each new volume works with the countersheets for the base game. Each game has its own set of combat tables, with different combat tables for different scales of battle. 

It's just a lot to corral together, and each H&M release has created a chokepoint in our workflow that puts everything that's supposed to come after it behind schedule. It monopolizes all of our time and energy and starts to become a bit of a slog. 

Mary and I are very used to doing a lot of things ourselves, and generally prefer it that way. This is a habit we picked up back in our filmmaking days, because often when we depended on other people for something, they left us in the lurch. But if Mary and I were handling it, then when something went wrong we had no one to blame but ourselves, and when something went right, likewise, we owned that. As a result we try to do as much as we can ourselves, and it's difficult sometimes for us to depend on other people. 

But as we were finishing this third volume, we realized that we couldn't keep having this chokepoint occurring two or three times a year, and that we would need to take what was for us an extraordinary step, bringing on an outside developer to manage the project. Doug Miller readily agreed to serve as developer. He's an expert on the era, a fan of the series, and an absolutely joy to work with. 

It's difficult sometimes to admit your limitations, and so I'm oddly thankful that Crucible of War was such a pain in the tucchus. 

Hex no. 36, This Guilty Land

Designing and publishing This Guilty Land was a serious risk, and we knew that going in. It is such a difficult subject, and it would require very careful handling and sensitivity. There were so many ways to get it wrong, and the consequences for flubbing it could have been overwhelming. There was also the matter of controlling the "narrative" surrounding the game. There have been other games about difficult subjects released in the past - games that very well may have handled these subjects with a great deal of sensitivity and rigor - that were latched onto by outside groups (groups that might even have been acting in good faith with good intentions) who created a lot of controversy and negative attention, and then that became the story of the thing. Recently, another game on a difficult subject, from a different publisher, was hit with exactly this kind of backlash, attracting unfavorable coverage from major news outlets. That game didn't seem like it handled its subject as sensitively or as thoughtfully as it should have, but even if it had, the publisher frankly just plain dropped the ball when it came to controlling the narrative. 

For a couple of shy Midwesterners, that kind of thing would very much not be our jam, and when the idea of doing the game began to coalesce, I resisted it. No way am I going to play with that kind of fire. But I kept being drawn to This Guilty Land. It wasn't just a game I wanted to do; it was a game I needed to do. Mary and I spent a long time discussing the risks and how we would handle them, with a lot of attention paid to that need to control the narrative - to communicate consistently and effectively what the game was and what the game wasn't. 

There were two key components to this. First, we needed to be hyper-responsive to any questions or concerns that arose, answering them immediately and thoughtfully. If you leave people to draw their own conclusions, chances are they're going to draw the wrong and least charitable ones, and those are going to very quickly be amplified. Secondly, we needed a lot of lead time. We announced the game over a year before its release, and over the course of the months that followed we were able to establish and reinforce what we were on about, getting people used to the idea of the game. 

I think we succeeded there; other than a couple of small tempests in internet teapots (one when the game was announced, and one about a year later when the final cover was revealed), the project didn't garner any kind of significant outrage or calls for boycotts. When the game was released, people seemed to take the thing in the spirit in which it was offered. We got quite a bit of positive feedback both on the way the subject was handled, and on how well we communicated in the lead-up to the game's release. 

The game was a risk that paid off: it garnered very favorable reviews and comments, and it quickly established itself as one of our bestsellers. From my own perspective, it was not only the most ambitious thing I had done, but I also felt it was my most accomplished design on both a mechanical and thematic level. 

That's not to say that publishing the game didn't have consequences. We knew there would be people put off by the very idea of the game. Sometimes it's just because the thing is too close to home, and we completely understand that. The legacy of slavery is still deeply imbedded in American society, and for some people, even a game that is only about the political process surrounding it - even a game that doesn't attempt to replicate the lived experiences of its victims - is beyond the pale. And we respect that.

Others were upset about it for different reasons, and some of them have sworn off our products altogether, and my designs in particular. Some of those folks assumed the game had nothing more to say than "slavery was bad", which misunderstands the point of the game: the question isn't "was slavery bad?" (though, for the record, yes, it was) but "why did it take a war to abolish it?" I heard from someone who assumed that all my games were filled with didactic moralizing because they assumed that this one was. I don't even think that charge is true for This Guilty Land; while the game takes a clear and unambiguous stance in favor of human rights and against slavery, and while it leans into the didacticism of the period with labels like Justice and Oppression, all of that is the starting point for a game that seeks to explore the complicity of the middle, and asks players to confront mutually exclusive viewpoints about the role and utility of compromise in the political process.

Which just goes to show you, no matter how much you communicate and strive to control the narrative, some folks are just plain not going to read it, and will believe whatever they want to believe. I don't have any regrets. As a designer, it's the thing I'm proudest of.



  • Not sure why Ribbit appealed to me, but it did. Being one of Mr. Herman’s designs surely didn’t hurt.

    Meltwater is fantastic. Two plays so far, it will be seeing much more table time.

    “That Others May Live” is an insta-buy for me. Vietnam games are very much my jam.

    Looking forward to many more years.


  • I think you threaded the needle just right with This Guilty Land, Tom. In contrast, Gene/GMT completely dropped the ball in regards to the narrative of Struggle for Africa. What a difference a little (or lack of) perspective makes.

    Pleased that Horse & Musket is still on track, an ambitious series now being further expanded (Horse & Matchlock, yes!).

    As always, your games and thoughts continue to entertain…

    Steve Carey

  • Fantastic wrap-up! I had no idea that you guys were only a three-year-old company.

    Mark Sockwell

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