Continuing and concluding our look at what we've been up to over the course of our third year in business.
Hex no. 37, The Soo Line
So, this one turned out to be a "love it or hate it" sort of game, which didn't really surprise me. There's a reason, for example, why almost all stock-holding rail games have at least as many railroads in play as players: otherwise, one or more players are going to be doing a whole lot of nothing during the operating rounds. This game started with the question, what happens if there aren't enough railroads to go around? And some people, like me, are going to be fascinated by the result, and some people are going to be bored and angry.
In 1830 and some of its derivatives, the initial auction has outsized importance - it can decide the entire game - and there's been a concerted effort by some train game designers in the decades since to diminish its impact over the course of the game. I decided to lean into it, and as a result, some folks have said that the auction is 80% of the game's decision space, especially with new and inexperienced players - and I can't necessarily say they're wrong.
The Soo Line was a case of me deliberately playing against some of the fundamental assumptions of "good" train game design, to see if the end result would still be a good game. I figured that since I had more-or-less followed those assumptions when I designed the five titles I did for Winsome that I had "earned" the chance to do something more experimental and abrasive. That's one reason why this one wasn't submitted to Winsome; it felt very much like a Hollandspiele game.
And, like I said, people seem to either love it or hate it. It's a good game or it's terrible, it's interesting or it's hopelessly degenerate. Eh, so it goes.
The Hollandays Sale
The Soo Line was released concurrent with our big end-of-year Hollandays Sale, along with that year's holiday freebie game, Absolutely Aces. We expected the sale to be big. We even expected it to be bigger than the previous year's (just as that year's sale had been bigger than the first). But we weren't expecting to wake up on the first day of the sale with more orders than we had during last year's entire two week sale. And the orders kept coming in.
It took a few days just to enter the data from all the day one orders. By then of course we were a few days behind, and so it was nothing but entering orders for the better part of two weeks. And as is usually the case during the sale, there were a number of requests from folks who wanted parts of the orders changed after they had made them, so we had to double-check everything, notate everything, all that jazz. I helped Mary out a little when she would let me, but she did the brunt of it, and it really wrung her out.
We came into 2019 exhausted from the holiday sale. Just as we were starting to recover, our cat Claws was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, causing congestive heart failure. Our day-to-day life for the next several months revolved around that fact. We knew we would be losing him; we wanted to make sure the time he had left was as comfortable and fulfilling as possible. We gave him pills four times a day, monitored his food and water intake, cleaned up urine and feces when he didn't use the box, drove him to the cardiologist to have the fluid in his chest drained. One dreary day bled into the next. We said good-bye to him in July, and the grief is still fresh and raw; if anything, the world feels drearier, the days even less distinct.
It was and frankly still is hard to find the time, energy, and motivation to work. Our projects took longer and longer to complete, throwing us further and further behind schedule. And who could blame us? None of that was as important to us as he was.
At the same time, the feasibility of Hollandspiele as our full-time gig is built around the idea that we'll publish about four or five games each quarter. It's not quite "publish or perish", but our ability to keep the lights on is tied to our ability to put out new games on the regular. With only five new games and three expansions released in the last eight months, it's been a little tight, though the massive increase in sales to Europe through Second Chance Games, who became our exclusive European retailer early in 2019, has offset that.
Which is to say that we're getting by, and hey, if we were in this to make boucoup bucks, we wouldn't be making niche board games. Probably the worst effect this slowdown has had on the business hasn't been on our bank account, but on the length of our production pipeline. We went into 2019 with a list of twenty-plus games we wanted to publish - enough games to take us into early 2020. We much prefer having a quicker turnaround time, and the flexibility that comes with it. Well over half of the games that we were definitely going to release in 2019 we definitely won't be releasing until 2020, and now we've got enough games scheduled to take us into 2021.
That pipeline will only get longer if we continue to sign new games, and so for the moment, with very rare exceptions, we've stopped doing that.
Hex no. 38, The Heights of Alma
Speaking of our pipeline, The Heights of Alma was a game that was intended to be released in 2018, but was pushed along with some of my other designs into 2019 (and some of them now into 2020) to allow us to publish games by outside designers that we had signed. This one had sentimental value for me, as it was a redesign of my very first published game, 2012's Blood on the Alma (Lock N Load Publishing), with said redesign made possible through the kindness of David Heath at Lock N Load.
This is also the second game in our Shot & Shell Battle Series. The series isn't as big a seller for us as Shields & Swords or Table Battles, but they're fun for me to do, they're not quite as taxing as something like This Guilty Land, and it has an audience. I'm going to try to get another out next year, but 2021 might be more likely given the length of that pesky pipeline.
Hex no. 39, Brave Little Belgium
This delightful little game designed by the team of Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw garnered a considerable amount of buzz in the months leading up to its release (due in large part to Ryan's tireless social media efforts). I'm fond of reiterating William Goldman's old chestnut about the movie business - nobody knows anything - but we knew almost immediately that this would be a hit with experienced wargamers and newbies alike. And it was!
Table Battles Expansion 3: Gettysburg
Here's the beautiful thing about doing expansions for Table Battles: there's no art budget, there's no countersheet, there's no rulebook, there's no map. Production-wise, all I have to do is layout a deck of cards and voila!, we have a new release, one that sells better than some of our boxed games, and one that drives sales for the base game and the other expansions. The turnaround time for design, development, and testing is significantly shorter than for a new boxed game as well.
Especially during this period where things were slowing to a crawl, being able to do this expansion was a lifesaver.
Hex no. 40, Antony and Cleopatra
This is the fifth time that we've worked with John Theissen, which officially makes him the outside designer we've published the most (though Sean Chick and Brian Train are hot on his heels). Antony and Cleopatra is a very different game than his operational ACW/Napoleonic period games, but it has a similar philosophy of streamlining everything to focus on maneuver. This one was a little more complicated, and had the charts to prove it, requiring a four page gatefold player aid.
One thing that compounded our ability to get projects completed this year is that so many of them were bigger and more ambitious games, with longer rulebooks and more player aid materials, all of which required more time in layout.
Horse & Musket Annual # 1
Speaking of which, the first "fan annual" for Horse & Musket had, like its predecessors, a twenty-eight page book. Thanks to the work of David Fagnand on the Vassal module, and new series developer Doug Miller, this was less of a bottleneck for us than previous H&M titles had been, though twenty-eight pages is still twenty-eight pages, and assuring concordance - that the units listed in each scenario all existed in the extant countermix - was trickier given that this one, unlike a boxed expansion, used counters from multiple volumes. It was less work than before, but it was still quite an undertaking, especially coming right after a bigger game like Antony and Cleopatra.
Hex no. 41, With It Or On It
The first game in my Shields & Swords Ancients series deviated in pretty substantial ways both from its medieval cousin and from other takes on hoplite warfare in general, so I wasn't sure if anyone but me and my playtesters would find it appealing. I mean, that's kinda the story of half the things I design: here's this weird thing, maybe some people will like it, but I'm still surprised and astonished when people do like it. The game sold well compared to the medieval series and a number of people have told us that they prefer the ancients iteration.
My plan right now is to do a new medieval game in 2020, and the next ancients game in 2021, just because again we're trying to get through the games that are already in the pipeline.
Hex no. 42, Siege of Izmail
As that pipeline has continued to get longer over the last couple of years, one of the things Mary and I like to do is to find a small game with a quick turnaround time that gives us a sort of break between larger projects. That's how we got Meltwater into the world, and that was also the case for Siege of Izmail. The turnaround time for this one was even shorter, because all the art and counters were done before the game was even pitched to us by designer Ilya Kudriashov. Ilya did the map, counters, and charts himself. We just needed to massage the rules a bit, lay 'em out, come up with a cover, and bam!, we had a new game to release.
Ilya of course is someone we had worked with many times before as an artist. Publishing his first design was a real treat.
Table Battles Expansion 4: English Civil War
After Izmail though we had scheduled five large, complicated projects in a row, and we knew there would be a gap in our production schedule. Anticipating this, I fastracked development on the next Table Battles expansion, which we released the week after I'm writing this but the week before we're posting it. So maybe it sold really well! Maybe people like it! I have no way of knowing. I like it; I think it's some of my finest work in that series. I'm particularly proud of the narrative elements in each battle - the big dynamic chromey pivots around which the battles turn - as well as the new Tactical Victory condition and the "hits reduced by dice on card" Absorb/Counterattack condition.
I'd like to say our third year has had a lot of ups and downs, but if I'm being honest, it's been mostly downs. Losing Claws - not just having lost him, but the hopeless months of providing palliative care and living with it every day - took a toll on us personally. That in turn impacted our ability to get new games out the door.
But: we're still here, still making a living in this most improbable and wonderful of ways, thanks to you most improbable and wonderful of people.