In a recent post I talked about board game prices, how they are constructed and who retains part of the value of these games. In the comments section there were a few requests about a breakdown of the pricing of Kickstarter games, so that's what I am trying to do here today. But I must start with a disclaimer...
Disclaimer: Board&Dice has run more than 20 crowd-funding campaigns, over 7 years, however none of our campaigns have reached more than 0.5M USD. Companies like CMON Global Limited or Awaken Realms would probably be able to offer a different perspective on how profitable a multi-million-dollar campaign can get. All that I can cover is "regular" campaigns, which raise between $100K and $500K, with no more than 5000 backers. The principles remain the same, but the advantages of really large campaign are there, undeniable. I'll get back to that towards the end of the post.
To make the numbers look easy, I will use a model based on a $100 game, this way the math will look clean and clear. To back up my assumptions, I will use real like examples of Snowdonia: Deluxe Master Set, Yedo: Deluxe Master Set, Dark Ages: Holy Roman Empire, and other titles - games which we wither crowd-funded ourselves or have direct knowledge of.
My theoretical model starts from a simple assumption: a publisher raised funds via Kickstarter for a game with a listed price of $100. The MSRP will be bigger - as backers always rightfully expect a discount - and there will be no addons, just to keep math simple enough.
From the overall funds raised, Kickstarter retains a fee of 5%, which accounts for the first $5 collected from every $100 game box. On top of that, the fee processor - Stripe - retains 2.9% + $0.3, for a grand total of another $3.2.
These fees are identical whether the creator uses Kickstarter or Gamefound. I will not discuss other crowd-funding platforms, as the overwhelming majority of board games which go through this process do not use another platform. However, for everyone's piece of mind, Indiegogo has very similar fees.
After drawing the line: from your $100 game (that's as much as backers pay) the creator retains $91.8 after fees.
Since any game has a designer (or a group of designers, which I will henceforth still name "a designer"), that designer needs to be compensated for their work. A typical designer fee is 6% to 10% of the net sales of the publisher. Most designers we work with have their royalty level set between 7% and 9%, but this covers the classic distribution + retail model. For crowd-funded games, designer's royalties can be set differently, usually as a percentage of the funds raised, but publishers (us included) have also used more complicated approaches, like simulating the classic model.
I will analyze two scenarios: one with royalties set at a percentage of funds raised, and a second using a simulation of the distribution model.
In the first scenario (percentage), designers will usually get between 3% and 6% of the raised funds. Assuming the average of the two (4.5%), the overall cost for the publisher per copy is $4.5.
In the second scenario, the math is a bit more complicated, but not a lot more. We assume that, if that $100 Kickstarter game had an MSRP, it would be about 6 times its production cost (and I have to anticipate here, the production cost is going to be $25), so $150. From that, the publisher retains 35% (with a usual 65% discount), from which the designer gets a royalty of 8%. The overall formula becomes: Prod_cost x 6 x 0.35 x 0.08, in our case $25 x 6 x 0.35 x 0.08 = $4.2.
The difference to the percentage model is not large, so for simplicity sake, we will assume that a royalty level of $4.5 from a $100 game is realistic. So, after deducting the designer's royalties, the publisher still holds $87.3.
Kickstarter offers the possibility to collect backer's delivery data free of charge, but their surveys are still rather basic, thus a lot of projects use an additional platform called a pledge manager to collect addresses, while offering various add-ons and charging for shipping (collecting shipping fees outside Kickstarter is one way to minimize the fees paid, but not a reason in itself to use a pledge manager). Pledge managers are not a must, but for anything but the simplest campaigns, are an incredible tool to keep track of shipped pledges, provide tracking numbers to backers and even communicate. As of today, the last 10 projects run by Board&Dice have used BackerKit and, honestly, I cannot imagine running a project without this tool.
Pledge managers also must make a living and thus collect a fee for services provided. The usual rate varies depending on multiple factors between 1% and 3% of the value of funds raised. For us the average we paid in fees was 2.5%, so I will use this value for calculations. For our $100 game, $2.5 are spent in pledge manager fees. Drawing the line again, the publisher still has $84.8 left.
We've just entered the heavy weight category. So far, the other costs seemed meager, and now we're hitting perhaps the biggest one of all. How much should a game prices at $100 on Kickstarter cost to manufacture?
For a game sold in retail, the rule of thumb is production cost:MSRP = 1:6. Since crowd0funding allows us - publishers - to cut off the middlemen, like distributors and retailers, we should also reduce the amount of burden on our backers, who provide us funds in advance to produce the game. A fair ratio in this case would be 1:4. So, for a $100 game, the production cost should be $25. Let's fact check this!
Snowdonia: Deluxe Master Set had a price point of $88 on Kickstarter, with a manufacturing cost of $24. The ratio is 1:3.67. We planned it to be 1:4 but... stretch goals.
Yedo: Deluxe Master Set had a Kickstarter price point of $71 on Kickstarter, had a price point of $16.38 (planned at $18 initially, but our manufacturer made us a nice surprise) so, our ratio was 1:4.33, above expectations.
The average of the two comes up with a ration of exactly 1:4.
When we crowdfunded Dark Ages, the situation was a little bit different. The game was priced at $88 on Kickstarter, but our cost estimation was far off, so we ended up with a manufacturing cost of $33 per copy, for a ratio of 1:2.67. But we'll assume that publishers are infallible and make no such mistakes. We'll stick to our 1:4 ratio, in which case our virtual publisher pays in manufacturing costs $25 for their virtual game. Drawing the line, the publisher still have $84.8-$25=$59.8 left. Not bad after having paid all the fees and producing your games.
Overseas shipping costs
Most Kickstarter creators use fulfillment centers on multiple continents to send rewards to their backers, so that their cost structure if efficient and that backer do not have to pay import tax, customs, VAT/GST, etc.
But how does one decide where to ship stuff from? We need to take a look at the spread of backers throughout the world to make such a decision.
This is a print screen for the Dark Ages campaign page, and the next one is from Etherfields.
While there is huge discrepancy in backer numbers, the countries listed are pretty much the same. Most backers come from the United States, followed by the European Union, and then, in much smaller percentages: Canada, UK, Australia.
I've made a breakdown by region using 3 projects run by Board&Dice and I've used a project of another publisher to validate the data. Here is where we stand:
*Asia: Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines.
**Oceania: Australia, New Zealand
*** North America's 58% of copies are split: 51% USA, 7% Canada
So, fulfillment centers in USA, Europe, Canada, and Asia+Australia make the most sense, so that 95% or more of backers get their games worries-free. I mention Asia and Australia together because there are dedicated fulfillment centers that cover the aforementioned Asian countries as well as Australia and New Zealand.
To continue we must make another set of assumptions: the size and weight of the game, and the overall number of copies. Since this is a game worth $100, a safe assumption is that the size of the game is roughly twice the size of a Ticket-to-Ride box. This assumption is needed to figure out what is the best way to ship to fulfillment centers. The second assumption is the number of copies printed. A successful campaign (not a record breaking one) should allow the printing of 4000 copies. So, let's distribute those copies between the fulfillment centers, proportional to the numbers in the graphic above:
- USA: 51% x 4000 = 2040
- Europe: 32% x 4000 = 1280
- Asia + Oceania: 8% x 4000 = 320 copies
- Canada: 7% x 4000 = 280 copies
- remaining copies for all other regions can be added to the shipment to USA or Europe (we choose Europe) and shipped from there.
For a game of the mentioned size, it's safe to pack up to 3500 in a 40ft container, up to 2200 in a 20ft container and about 100 games per pallet. So the shipments are shipped as follows:
- USA: 1x 40ft container
- Europe: 1x 20ft container
- Asia + Oceania: 4 pallets
- Canada: 3 pallets
With current prices (as of 29-Sep-2021), the costs are as follows:
- USA (assuming fulfillment center on the West Coast): $21500
- Europe (assuming Germany or Poland): $19000
- Canada (fulfillment center in Toronto): $2200
- Asia+Oceania (fulfillment center in China): $600
The total cost of overseas shipping: $43300. Passing shipments through customs, any physical checks by the customs authorities, and associated fees, will most likely drive this grand total to $44000 (and that's still a bit optimistic). Dividing the total cost by the number of games shipped, the average per copy is $11.
After factoring in overseas shipping cost, a publisher will still hold $48.8.
The majority of Kickstarter projects charge separately for shipping, so this amount should not put a serious dent into the collected amount, however most publishers subsidize a part of that cost, so that shipping costs do not appear completely unreasonable. I could go into a lot of details here, but that would be really boring math, a lot of tables and a lot of averaging. The policy we adopted at Board&Dice is simple, and we share this with a lot of other publishers: we subsidize in average the first $10 from the overall fulfillment cost (which in EU for example cover the picking, packing, shipping costs and VAT). Therefore, to keep calculations simple, we will continue with this assumption: $10 is the amount that publisher subsidize from the actual shipping cost.
We draw the line again and we're left with $38.8.
I am not a marketing specialist myself, so I can't go into many details, but I am a big fan of numbers, so I looked at our past campaigns, and I also chatted often with other publishers about this, so I have an idea how much money must go into marketing to make a campaign as successful as we previously assumed. We talked about 4000 copies (so $400K raised through crowd-funding), which would require a marketing effort of $25K (unless someone's a marketing genius and has some totally out of the box ideas). Of course, this amount invested can raise a lot more awareness or it can simply not help at all. We're looking at an average case scenario. We're down to $6.25 per copy in marketing and drawing the line again, we're left with: $32.55.
Nowadays, ugly or average-looking games are hardly material for crowd-funding. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to make a successful product, you need to invest in quality artwork. Knowing how much a few publishers put in art, it is a safe assumption to say that a hundred-dollar game would require at least $15K investment in artwork. Dividing this by 4000 copies, we get $3.75 per copy. We're left with $28.8.
Development and running costs
Again, I will not go into all the grueling details that no one wants to know about. Instead, I will use the data we've collected over the last couple of years, for games like Snowdonia: Deluxe Master Set, Yedo: Deluxe Master Set, or Dark Ages. Each of these games needed about 1800 hours of work invested in them, spread over game development* and testing, art direction, marketing, sales, administration, etc.
*To develop a game it's safe to assume that you're going to spend at least 500 hours of work. To develop a big game, you'd need twice as much time. This includes internal and external testing, rules creation and proofing, blind tests, adjustment, etc. But a publishing company has a bunch of other costs, which I simply accounted for in working hours spent.
The second factor is the cost of an hour of work, and this depends a lot on your place of business. This can vary between under $7 in Bulgaria to over $45 in Denmark.
The official hourly cost of labor in the European Union is €32.5= $37.6 and in USA it is $36.5. But we'll use a more conservative estimation of $25. With 1500 hours spent, the total is $37.5K, and spread per game box accounts for $9.375.
We draw the line again and we're left with: $19.425.
Returns, replacement parts, currency conversion are some of the few obvious other costs that are almost inevitable. You only get to learn about these costs a few years after a crowdfunding campaign ends, and we've only learned to account for them after several years of practice. An low estimation is $1 per copy, while a high one is $2 per copy. Let's take a number in between and go with $1.4. We draw the line one final time, as we're left with $18.025, rounding it down to $18.
The game cost on Kickstarter/Gamefound (without shipping): $100
- KS/GF fees: $5
- Stripe: $3.2
- designer royalties: $4.5
- pledge manager fees: $2.5
- production: $25
- shipping to fulfillment centers: $11
- fulfillment (subsidized cost): $10
- marketing: $6.25
- artwork: $3.75
- game development and company running costs: $9.375
- others: $1.4
Left after all costs: $18 (in fact $18.025, but we'll round down).
Taxes do kick in, and in Poland we'd pay 19% profit tax, leaving us with $14.6, for an effective profitability of 14.6%.
All the costs which do not scale up with the number of copies (art, development, molds for minis, etc.) are significantly diluted if your campaign gains more backers than you originally assumed. We've been fortunate to meet our internally set limits on almost every campaign, and we've had a campaign or two which exceeded our potential best outcome, but we've need be in the realm of tens of thousands of backers. I can only assume that profitability increases, but so does the effort of fulfillment, and other costs may arise.
This is a theoretical model, and I've heard of campaigns with a profitability rate of 30%, but I've also heard of campaigns with more than $1M raised which ended up losing money. Stretch goals are the usual culprit in the later case, but soaring shipping costs have also made a few victims lately.
There is no certain success recipe, but crowd funding can be fairly profitable when done well, and it can allow small publishers to make a huge leap forward.
When one designs and published board games for a living, one tends to rant a lot about it. This is where we do that, the folks involved with Board & Dice and our special friends and supporters. We'll post here our ideas about gaming, about life, about gaming more often than not, about the specific challenges of making a business out of a hobby and... did we mention games?
Archive for Andrei Novac
08 Nov 2021
- [+] Dice rolls
My previous post contained a pricing breakdown for a board game and how that affects the overall cost for the final customer. And I made a promise to discuss the possibility to produce games locally, closer to the customers, in Europe and USA respectively. But before we go into details about what local production of board games means, let's take a quick look at a few facts about where our customers are based.
Location, location, location
In the board game industry there are two major business models when it comes to reaching our customers: direct sales (usually represented by crowd funding) and the classic model. In the classic model, games make their way from the publisher, to distributors, from there to retailers and finally to the gamers.
In the first model - in my case Kickstarter - it is really easy to make a breakdown of where all the pledges go. To have an accurate view (least biased by campaign specifics) I used 3 campaigns made by Board&Dice and one by another publisher (which I used simply as a threshold for eliminating bias).
To reduce shipping costs and minimize environmental impact, from the crowdfunding model it would seem best to manufacture in North America and/or Europe. But before we draw any conclusions, let's have a look at another set of data: how does the classic mode do in comparison. To have a good overview, I used the data from all games published by Board&Dice in 2020 and 2021, as I do not have data from another publisher (and I would speculate that no one would share their whole business model with me ). Games are once again grouped by the region where we delivered them, regardless of the language edition (for example in the Middle East and Asia we also see English copies on top of localized ones).
With the crowdfunding model, Europe and North America together represent 90% of our customers. When we look at the games sold through distribution, these two regions combined represent only 83%, Asia and South America are growing (this is not represented in the charts above) but they still make up a rather small piece of our revenue. And yet, all our games are made in Asia. Let's analyze why!
Initially I wanted to share a bit of the history of our own path through European and Chinese manufacturing partners, but then I decided to stick to raw data. I needed an example, but one that would not distort the results, that would not introduce a bias. We'll go back to this, turns out that history is needed
Everyone knows that all games containing plastic miniatures are made in China. Well... almost everyone. When we first started in this industry and we made Exodus: Proxima Centauri, we made it in Poland, even though it had plastic minis. I had searched for 2 years some European manufacturers of plastic minis, I talked to a few dozen companies, and even though Exodus (revised edition) is made by Granna in Poland, its minis and dice are made in China. That's when I joined the community of people who know that minis are made in China! Why? Simply because either no one would even consider production runs of under 1M piece, or because those who did offered prices that were off the charts (up to 25 times what we expected to pay).
That's when I also understood the process of making plastic miniatures and why it is so expensive to make them in Europe. But the reality is that very few games contain indeed plastic pieces. In fact, my estimation is that less than 15% of games have miniatures inside (probably a realistic number is 5%, and only thanks to publishers like CMON or Awaken Realms).
Detour is over. To keep the comparison fair, I had to take a look at a game that was made mostly of paper/cardboard components and some wooden pieces. But since not all wood is the same... let's take another small detour.
Custom wooden pieces
If you've played (or, at least, seen) Yedo: Deluxe Master Set or Snowdonia: Deluxe Master Set, you must have noticed that there are a lot of wooden pieces which have custom shapes and/or high quality printing on them. While none are manually painted, they do not use the classic way to print on wood which is silk screening, but rather a more modern technology which factories in China call (or used to call) plastic printing or hot printing. While this technology does not use plastic, it does provide a long lasting print, almost as good and as colorful as an image on paper. We used it before for the pyramid tiles in Teotihuacan: City of Gods and we were impressed with the quality.
Board game factories in Europe can source wooden pieces at a competitive price, they can even customize to some extent the wooden pieces, but the moment we (publishers) request either complex wooden pieces, or with high quality full color printing, they - the European manufacturers - cannot provide a local solution, which means that they have to outsource this to a factory in China.
Later edit: I compared prices for 8mm wooden cubes in Europe and China. Turns out that wood in China is at least 25% cheaper than in Europe.
So, my choice of games would exclude games with any sort of fancy pieces, like Teotihuacan: City of Gods, Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun, Origins: First Builders, or Tabannusi: Builders of Ur. But fortunately not all games made by Board&Dice cross that threshold, so my weapon of choice is Founders of Teotihuacan, a game that we will release next year, but which has been in the works for the past 2 years.
In the spring of 2021 (which now seems like a lifetime ago), when shipping from China had first become a nuisance (and has since turned into an actual nigthmare), we though of it as an opportunity to bring production closer to home, namely in Europe. We had manufactured games in Europe in the past (2012-2015)and the quality was OK-ish, costs were in the acceptable range, and since then more factories have appeared. My colleagues and I reached out to 11 factories which were not located in Asia: most from Poland, but also from Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Czech Republic. We have heard back from many of them (but not all) and instead of telling you a story, let's have a look at the actual offers (with any potentially sensitive data being blurred). I won't even show the most ridiculous one for almost $30 a piece, but the rest are from serious, established factories:
And then the same factory - a revised offer:
And more offers...
Now, these are simple facts and I do not intend to shame anyone by publicly showing these prices. This is just a piece of the reality we (board game publishers) are living in. Now, let's have a look at a single offer from China, which is NOT the cheapest by far, but it does provide the guarantee of quality:
So, a quick summary:
- best offer from Europe is for $6.83 vs 4.73 in China
- at shipping prices from the spring, the average cost to ship from China to all destinations was $1.85, and from Europe, $1.15
- the factory in China could produce exactly as we wanted the game to look like, producing in Europe would require some compromise on our side
- in Europe we'd have to choose the lowest price, and accept a longer lead time (by 30 days)
And this is the price story of one of the simples possible games. The differences grow deeper with every components that is not strictly made of paper or cardboard, and it can get sky high.
I won't go to conclusions just yet, as there are a few more key aspects.
Some weeks ago, in the summer, I had the chance to chat with a few friends from the industry, and we shared stories. I was, of course, complaining about shipping from China, whereas they had some different issues, funny ones when you look from the outside. One of the bigger factories in Poland had run out of cardboard, effectively delaying all board games in their production pipeline by 1-3 months. They were smaller and thus among the unlucky ones. Another had a contract with a different factory which post signing increase the price with a significant amount, as raw materials became more expensive. And there's a third one whose games got both delayed and more expensive.
This things happen not because the manufacturers in Europe are evil - in fact almost everyone I've met was an amazing person, and I loved working with them - it is simply their effort to remain in business. A lot of the raw materials are made in China, and the same issues that affects us also affect them, just in their case this is opaque for the publishers who are their customers. Chinese manufacturers sometime also source materials from other parts of the world (e.g. plastic foil from Middle East, linen paper from Germany) but pricing for shipping into China is quite decent. Some of the Chinese manufacturers are also quite big, and potentially richer, thus able to create stock of raw materials to cover more than their immediate needs. More importantly, they source a majority of raw materials from less than 1000 km away.
But, in my opinion, this is not the end of the story.
I must admit that the last time I stepped into a factory in Europe was 5 years ago, so I may not have the exact latest information. Here is how things looked back then...
The factories I visited operated in fairly new buildings, offering good working conditions to their employees, but the technology I have seen was already old-ish. A lot of the processes were manual or semi-automated. Moreover, the actual print (done on an offset printer such as Heidelberg Cx104) was outsourced to a subcontractor, as having a printer of that size (and this is a big-ass monster) and not using it all the time would not justify the investment. Around the same time, I also visited 8 factories in China. The top 3 factories that I've seen had state of the art technology and good working conditions.
Is technology the main advantage of Chinese factories? I cannot answer that with a fair degree of certainty, but it feels like that's relevant, because salaries are similar between Shanghai (where most factories I've seen are located) and Eastern Europe.
Technology allows us - publishers - good choices. In China we can actually produce the board games that we imagine, with needed plastic inserts, fancy wooden pieces, plastic miniatures, and even crazier stuff. Can you imagine 7 Wonders with all the components lying in the box flat, no insert? For me, as a young(er) gamer, that fairly basic but useful insert made an impression. Or Lords of Hellas without the miniatures? Or Teotihuacan: City of Gods without the fancy pyramid tiles?
What about producing in North America
The reason I did not mention any factory from USA or Canada is that I do not know of any that can make a modern board game. There is a list that some kind soul shared at some point (sadly I do not remember who) with almost all relevant game manufacturers in the world:
I know of a few board games with a "proudly made in the USA" big logo on their boxes (like Roll for the Galaxy). I suspect that board game is not made in its entirety in the US, but since I have no ties to the original publisher, I cannot confirm that theory. But I do know of another game featuring a similar quote on its box which should in fact say "assembled in the USA".
We do care about the environment and we'd love to be able to ship less in general. A game only assembled locally reduces its footprint only in part, IMO not justifying the increase in cost.
In the present, it is not realistically possible to make more than simple* board and card games in Europe, and almost nothing beyond Monopoly level in North America, while offering competitive prices. For example, Tawantinsuyu: The Inca Empire would have to have a price point of $80 if we made it in Europe. Teotihuacan: City of Gods would be almost $90 in the same conditions. The offer from China for Founders of Teotihuacan allowed us an amazing choice: have a decent margin, or introduce a few fancier components, or a bit of both - which is what we did.
(*) Simple does not mean a light game, or a game with just cards or a few tokens. It means that it does not have heavily customized wood, or printed wood, or a fancy insert, or miniatures.
As long as our industry follows current trends, with more customized components, and games looking far better than a decade ago, and with rather tight margins, manufacturing will mainly remain in Asia, simply because no one is ready to accept much higher prices for their favorite games. At the same time, European factories can still produce at full speed card games and simpler board games, being as busy as they can handle.
I would love to hear someone prove me wrong, to see an example of a complex board game made entirely in Europe or North America, close to its final customers. We would immediately try to follow suit: we could still serve Asia from China, we would like to also produce in Poland or Germany or Romania for the European market, and to print in US or Canada as well. So, if you know of any such possibility please share!
- [+] Dice rolls
09 Sep 2021
Last month I talked about how the current shipping situation in the world affects the cost (and thus the price) of board games, but I feel that for a lot of people this is a merely theoretical issue, as long as you do not have a clear insight of what is the actual cost of a game. So, today, let's try to rectify this, and break apart the cost of a game, looking really into details. I hope that my colleagues won't kill me for disclosing this information, but I guess that's a risk I am going to take anyway
To do this breakdown effectively, I need to choose a title, and my weapon of choice is Origins: First Builders, a game that Board&Dice is releasing this year. But I must also acknowledge that countries have various way of taxing products, so I will try to also account for that, but since I don't work in world finances, it may not be 100% accurate.
This is the easiest part... in a way. Origins: First Builders is made in China, and our production cost per unit is $11. I know, it does not seem like a lot, for a game that will end up priced around $70, so please bare with me... This is the cost per copy for a first print run amounting to 22000 copies, spread over 10 languages. This is a lot for most small and medium publishers. But there is a trap along the way.
In future prints (if any), we need to assume that the total amount printed drops sharply, with a realistic number per print of 5000 copies. Even this is a bit optimistic. Why? Let's assume that Origins: First Builders will be a hit in Germany and Poland, but not so popular elsewhere. This means that our German and Polish partners can reorder, while no other partners join. We'd have three choices:
- do this print of let's say 3000 copies with a higher price per copy,
- add 2000 English copies, hoping that they will sell,
- or ask partners to wait until the time when someone else can join for a total of 5000 copies.
For simplicity sake, let's assume that we choose option 2 or 3, so we will end up printing no less than 5000 copies. In this case, while we do not have to pay again the fixed costs (printing plates, molds for plastics, etc), we'd still end up paying a higher price per copy, which is $12.5.
On the other hand, for these additional copies, we will no longer account for development or art costs, and marketing costs will be decreased, so we can assume that in the end the overall impact in our costs remains at the same level: $11.
Shipping used to be a straightforward business: we'd assume that for a Ticket-to-Ride size box we'd have to pay $1 per copy, and for a smaller box $0.5. The new reality looks like this: $3 per copy, with a high chance that would increase to $4, for various reasons:
- we asked for a shipping quote without guaranteed space on a vessel, which then falls apart, so we must accept a higher price or start paying port storage costs
- vessels are delayed at destination (see this article: A record-breaking 44 container ships are stuck off the coast of California) which means not only delays, but added costs (shipping companies will move that costs to customers one way or another)
- shipping is unavailable to Europe, which means we need to ship by train
So, to be on the safe side, we'll work with a shipping cost of $3.5, which should suffice (unless something really bad happens).
Art & Development cost
For Origins: First Builders we had a rather modest art budget, mostly because we have 3 people in house who are actively involved in this process, but accounting for their hours spent, we're looking at an overall cost of $8000.
But this game required a lot of development work, despite the fact that when we received it from Adam Kwapiński it was in a very advanced state. Still, we put in over 1000 hours of game development, rules writing, testing internally and externally, etc. This amounts to over $13000, and please bear in mind that our main office is in Poland, where salaries are still lower than in Western Europe or the United States.
Drawing the line, the art and development costs amount for a single dollar ($1) per copy, which is pretty amazing.
This is the only part I must admit I do now know by heart, it is outside my field of expertise, but since I deal with financial planning I know the overall amount, which is again $1 per copy (if our marketing department did not go rogue ).
Designers get a percentage of our net sales as royalties, and this is a percentage ranging from 7% to 9%, depending on the game genre, on the designer's experience and state of the game, and on a few other factors. But since we cannot disclose the details of an ongoing contract, we'll just assume that the amount is always 8%. This is what we know at this time, but I will go back to that after we look on the revenue side of things.
So... we work using computers, in an office which requires us to pay rent and get certain supplies . This also affects the cost of each of our games, but in a limited way. When we made the financial forecast for the next year, we simply divide our fixed costs among planned products, and without going into the really boring details, we end up with $0.25 per copy. It's not a lot, but it adds up.
Art + development: $1
Royalties: 8% of net sales (we'll come back to that)
Taxes (how could I forget about them?): 20% of profit
The supply chain
You, as the gamer and final customer, pay a price for a board game which is usually the MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price), and you buy it from a retailer. That MSRP includes the VAT (if you're in Europe), GST or sales tax (North America), which is a tax that your government collects from all sales. The average VAT is 20% in the EU and the average sales tax is 10%. The retailer has its own costs as well, and they buy from distributors with an average discount of 50% of MSRP. The, distributors buy (or take under consignment) games from publishers with an average discount of 60% (in which case the publisher pays for shipping) or 65% (shipping is split). This would be the end of it, unless the publisher selling to the distributor is a localizing partner, in which case they would but from the original publisher (that would be us, Board&Dice) with a discount ranging from 70% to 75%. We will assume an average discount of 72.5% and co-publishers paying half of the cost of transport.
Yep, you're probably a little lost, unless you work in the industry, so let's switch to an image, assuming an MSRP of $70.
The first refers to the localization model: we - the original publisher - work with localization partners who translate and, later, sell the games. They get a high discount, but take all the risk, as they pay on delivery for all their games.
The second model is the classic distribution model: we - the original publisher - sell English copies to distributors. We get paid for half of the copies sent, while the other half remains under consignment, which means that we get paid if they get sold.
I know, a lot of people retain small pieces of the pie. There are a lot of conclusions to be drawn from these charts, for example that retailers retain more profit than it is shown because they can offer sometimes deep discounts. That is rarely the situation, and in most cases retails offer deeply discounted products that don't sell anymore to minimize loss (I know that there are exceptions). What we know for a fact is that in 2021 the shipping industry has made record profits, supported by price increasing 6 to 15 fold. Not knowing the exact details of every business down the "food chain" besides our own, it is hard to make more than educated guesses, so I will limit myself to talk about our own piece of the pie.
So, what's our profit in the end?
For Origins we made 7000 English copies and 15000 localized copied. With a weighted average, our profitability per copy would be $4.8. This is, of course, if:
- all English language copies are sold (remember, this is partially a consignment model)
- no copies are damaged in transport (we do not get paid for those)
- there are no significant defects, which would make us send an unusual amount of replacements
- the exchange rates between US dollars, Euro, and Polish zloty remain fairly constant.
But $70 was not the plan
We had originally planned Origins to be a $60 game. Going through the same model, our average profitability for a localized copy would be $0.4 and for an English copy $2, with a weighted average of $0.9, again under the same assumptions as before (the most relevant one being that all consignment copies get sold).
So, what changed?
Two important things changes: the shipping cost increased from under $1 to more than $3 per copy, and for this there are no smart(er) shipping strategies... because there is simply no cheaper shipping option. So, this cost had to be accounted for. The second one is a consequence of the first: raw materials became more expensive, because in a globalized economy nothing get sourced only from local suppliers (most of the time because there are not enough local suppliers). So, our manufacturing partners increased the costs only slightly, but enough to make a difference. Well, perhaps I should list a third: the pandemic increased the cost of risk, by a lot. What does that mean? Every time we publish a game (or, in general, an enterprise decides to invest in a new product) we are taking a risk: we invest in development, in people, in processes, etc. But the market and the supply chain come with bigger threats, which means that the outcome of failing is more costly. The cost of risk must be factored in, otherwise we'd have to either stop making new products, or accept that the first time we fail it will also be the last, as our business would no longer be viable.
Within the last 12 months, I noticed that a lot of successful games have an increased price point, among them I can count Terraforming Mars, Terra Mystica, or Maracaibo to name a few of my favorite titles. In Poland at least, Terraforming Mars
is about 1.5x more expensive than it was a few years back when I got my copy. In my opinion, neither of these publishers, distributors or retailers increased the prices because they wanted a bigger margin, but rather out of necessity and desire to remain in business.
Why not manufacture locally?
If we had a penny for every instance I've heard this, we would... have been able to keep the MSRP lower
This is an entirely new, long discussion, and I promise I will comment on this soon. In anticipation, what I can say now is that we tried. For the kind of games we make, there are no viable options to produce in US or Europe... yet!
- [+] Dice rolls
15 Aug 2021
I have to start my story in November 2019, a time I can now fondly call... normal. It did not seem like it back then, with lots of work and not enough time to prepare for the winter holidays. As responsible for production and logistics (and many more) at Board&Dice I had to make sure that some 50,000 copies of various games got picked up from our factory in China and shipped to various warehouses in USA, Europe and East Asia. That used to be a time consuming, yet routine job. It was as simple as asking for offers from a single logistics partners (FedEx), confirming them, and putting FedEx in touch with our factory (plus a bunch of documents, but that's besides the point). Bored yet? Well you should be, because that story is in no way exciting.
The special thing that happened in 2020 was, unfortunately, a pandemic. I won't dare discuss the social or personal impact of COVID, as I am far from an expect, and also luck enough to have my family and close friends alive and well. But the pandemic also affected almost every aspect of our lives, and it heavily still influences the economy. Board games are part of the aforementioned economy, and that's what I plan to write about.
Let's compare the situation from November 2019 to August 2021 and look at some data:
In Nov 2019, the cost of shipping by sea for 40ft container from Shanghai, China to Oakland, CA, USA (on the West coast) was $2900. On top of this amount, there are other charges (port, loading, unloading, customs, insurance, etc), but we're not going to talk about this part, as this pretty much remained unchanged.
Today, as I write this piece of text, I am able to check the cost of shipping for the same route live on www.freightos.com, which is an aggregator much like booking.com but for sea shipping. Even the largest suppliers of logistic services have integrated it into their quotation system, so that they can provide pricing to clients on the spot. Why the rant about freightos.com? Simple to underline that rates found there are totally realistic. Coming back to the main topic, today, the cost for the same service, on the same route is $18,000!
Let's make the same comparison for a different route, from Shanghai, China to Hamburg, Germany, which is one of the largest ports in Europe and the gateway to at least one third of the board games arriving on this continent.
In 2019, the cost is $1600...
...while today, in the summer of 2021 it is $16,500!
But why should anyone care about this surge in sea shipping prices? The obvious answer is that logistics cost is embedded in the overall pricing structure of products, and board game are... products. So, let's dive into a little more details, and for that we'll need a few titles to use as examples. To see how the container shipping price affects the price of a game, we need to look at its size (and thus how many games fit in a container) and its MSRP.
First, let's take a look at big (Ticket-to-Ride) box size games: Teotihuacan: City of Gods, with an MSRP of $50 is a good example. In one 40ft container, one can fit roughly 6000 copies of this sort of games, so the overall shipping cost per copy would be that of the container divided by 6000. Before we dig into the math, a few industry facts: a publisher offer distributors an average discount of 60% to 65%, so we (the publishers) retain 35% to 40% of the MSRP. We also cover a part of or the whole of the shipping cost to the distributor. Let's use an average scenario, in which the discount is 65% but the distributor covers the cost of shipping.
For Teotihuacan: City of Gods, in 2019, the publisher retains 35% of $50, which is $17.5. This $17.5 covers the production cost, marketing, designer royalties, etc. The distributor includes the shipping cost in the own price structure, but this shipping cost per copy is based on 2019 shipping prices (China to USA), so $2900/6000 = $0.48 per copy. Looking at 2021 shipping prices, this cost suddenly jumps to 18000/6000 = $3, so an increase of $2.52. In 2021 the distributor can no longer afford to cover the shipping cost, and asks the publisher to cover the difference, of $2.52 (let's say $2.5 for ease of calculations) per copy. The publisher has no choice but to accept, or lose the distribution deal, and this is in the end a fair request, since distributors take a fair amount of risk and retail a small margin. However, the publisher may not afford this reduction of profitability. Let's see why, looking at the usual costs for publishing a game:
- manufacturing (1/6 to 1/5 of MSRP, we take the average): $9
- marketing: $1
- designer royalties (usually 7% to 9%): $1.4
- operational costs (salaries, office, development costs, etc): $2
Subtracting all of these from $17.5 (see above, what a publisher retains from a $50 game), we have $4.1 left, which is the profit before taxes. You can see now that the extra $2.5 to be covered with the hike in shipping prices is a pill rather hard to swallow. Since manufacturers are also affected by the increase of cost of shipping raw materials, it is unlikely that they can lower the production cost, instead that cost is likely to grow.
Let's have a look at another game, 7 Wonders Duel, which has a smaller box, fitting 18,000 copies in one container. Based on 2019 shipping prices the cost of sea shipping per copy is 2900/18000 = $0.16 and in 2021 this is $1, an increase of $0.84.
Following the same logic as above, from an MSRP of $30 the publisher retains $10.5, from which production, marketing, royalties, and operational costs are covered. I expect that covering an additional $0.84 in shipping costs is nowhere near realistic (but that's an educated guess, since Board&Dice does not publish that game). However, after discussing the matter of increased shipping costs with other publishers, it is safe to assume that almost no one in the board games industry is able to simply assume these costs and carry on with their business as if nothing happened.
So, if I were you right now, I'd have a few questions (and concerns), like "Why did shippers increase their prices?", "When did this happen?", and "When is this going to go back to normal?".
Let's start with WHY?. After the first months of the pandemic when China has been pretty much shut down, their manufacturing sector picked up, based on an increase of demand from... everywhere in the world. (People under lock down buy instead of travel.)
When the demand exceeds the offer, prices grow until there is an equilibrium. With a massive shortage of containers in China and a backlog of hundreds of thousands of TEU worth of products ot be shipped out of China to North America and Europe especially, shipping prices went up, by a lot.
WHEN? We felt the first surge in shipping prices in November 2020, by January 2021 the price from China to USA (West coast) had already reached $11K, and then we got the good news: the situation should return to normal by May 2021. But it didn't. So let's go to the second WHEN?
According to industry experts (shipping, not board games), the prices should return to normal by Q2 of 2022, however back to normal means back to the prices of Jan 2021, which were already 3x higher than what we used to pay prior to the pandemic. Also, one extra thing is worth mentioning here: even at the ridiculous rates that shipping companies are asking nowadays, the space is severely limited. For our latest container to USA (containing Teotihuacan: City of Gods, Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun, and Tawantinsuyu: The Inca Empire) we had to wait for 85 days to find a free spot on a vessel, after paying a high-season fee of 50% of the shipping cost on top.
While I do not feel qualified to make prediction about the evolution of inflation worldwide, one thing seems to be certain: the price of board games is going to grow, because publisher simply won't be able to afford to bring their games from China otherwise. We (Board&Dice) have tried to wait it out without increasing the MSRP, and have been able to do that until this summer, hoping that shipping would again become business as usual. It looks like we will have no choice in the very near future.
There's another legitimate question to be asked here: "Why not manufacture locally in Europe or North America?". Without developing much, there simply aren't enough board game factories on those continents ready and able to produce modern board games (but that's a topic for another time).
- [+] Dice rolls
24 Sep 2018
Spiel Essen is about a month away and every true gamer has already prepared a list of their most wanted titles. Thus, we have a bunch of Geek lists dealing with the hottest titles for Essen. Probably the most popular one of these lists is the Essen preview curated by W. Eric Martin himself, followed by SPIEL'18 Most Wanted Games Tracker.
We (NSKN Games) are fortunate enough to have not one, but two games on these geek lists, very close to the top. This is a first for us, and we want to think this is a result of: our hard work over the past 8 years, famous designers added into the mix, good artwork, marketing effort and a bit of luck.
But this is not really about us or our games. If you look at the hottest games from past years - 2015 through 2017 - you will discover that Spiel's most anticipated games ended up being retail hits, with very few exceptions. More than 80% of the games listed in each year's top 25 most desired games before Essen came through and made the Essen hot list and later made a splash in retail, with numbers in the thousands (most of them) or even the tens of thousands (e.g. Terraforming Mars).
Quite recently, I have had the chance to speak face to face with one of the buyers of a major distributors, so I asked the following question: "what are, in your opinion, the most anticipated board games of the fall of 2018?". I expected an answer looking like a small subset of the games listed in the aforementioned geek lists. I did not expect to hear one of our titles listed in there, but latest games from Stefan Feld and Uwe Rosenberg should have made it to the list. Well, if not that, how about Newton made by CMON Global Limited? It turns out my expectations were completely out of line. The hottest titles from where they stand are: latest release of Magic: The Gathering and whatever Asmodee and WizKids have up their sleeve, for example the new Star Wars: X-Wing (Second Edition).
In fact, even after a few follow-up questions like "Is Spiel Essen affecting the way you look at hot titles at all?", no new games made it to the list. The reality for small and medium publishers is that huge marketing budgets are dwarfing any other effort to promote board games. Carpe Diem, Teotihuacan: City of Gods, Architects of the West Kingdom, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game or Reykholt are apparently not on the watch list of relevant buyers from the key distributors.
The effect of this affects everyone on the distribution chain: hot Essen titles will be stocked in very limited quantities by retailers, thus small/medium publishers are keeping print runs short to avoid over stocking (which can have really bad effects on cash flow and can lead even to bankruptcy) and gamers end up buying games on eBay at ridiculous prices.
Is there anything we can do - and I use "we" here to define all of us board game publishers who do not have hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing budgets - anything at all we can come up with to compete?
My only thought is that more of us should put forces together, not in a large, fragile alliance, but rather properly consolidating, putting forces together and forming larger companies, which can start having at least a tenth of the marketing budgets of large publishers.
What do you think about this?
- [+] Dice rolls
13 Jan 2017
A few days ago I had a very interesting conversation about cheating and cheaters in board games which made me think a lot more (than needed probably) about this topic. As it turns out, there are people who cheat while playing board games… and I am not talking here about poker for money or Russian roulette, the events in question are plain ol’ euro games, like Agricola and its kind. I must admit that it felt like a surprise to hear that, so I decided to internalize this idea and figure out exactly where I stand.
First of all, let’s take a look at why do people cheat:
- they do not know how to lose or they want to make sure they win,
- they have no moral compass and therefore do not care how they win,
- they want to win so badly that cheating seems the right path to take,
- they’re afraid of social exclusion because they cannot win and thus they cheat to improve their chances, etc.
I believe that most people have a moral compass and that they see cheating in games as acceptable because the stakes are low… at least the official ones. You play a game which is just a game, it does not come with any financial gain or punishment, it does not affect your future and it will most likely be forgotten in a matter of days, if not hours. Our morality mechanism doesn’t really engulf board games properly and thus it keeps some of us in not-so-tight ropes and we allow ourselves to cheat. Well, that was my first thought, but them I took some more time to look into that.
Why do people really cheat in a game with literally no stakes? First of all, that’s not true, there are stakes, even though it’s they do not seem life changing or material. It’s players’ self worth. Here’s what I think makes people cheat in board games and other low stakes endeavors:
- they associate winning with higher intelligence,
- they need social recognition as they believe others see winners in board games as smarter that people who do not win so often.
Ask people not why they cheat, but what does their performance at board games tell about them and you will most likely get at least a few awkward answers, you’ll find some people who dodge the question and try to escape with a joke. I cannot say how do these people really feel, but I suspect that they suffer from low self esteem, they want to prove themselves in your (the smart gal/guy who does not cheat) eyes and they have no idea of how to deal with losing.
In my opinion, your ability to win specific games or your ability to do well in certain genres tells this about you: you are good at that. There are things I noticed in my still rather short years of experience with board games:
- genius level IQ does not necessarily make one good at board games, it might but it doesn’t have to,
- being very good at one game (I have a friend who won 9 Terra Mystica games out of the 10 he played) does not make you good at all games (the same friend is not winning many games which have negative interaction),
- people with below average IQ and real problems in their day to day life can be brilliant at one or more games (my parents have a friend who can barely manage at his easy job, but he is one of the best bridge players I have ever encountered).
Losing and dealing gracefully with it is a matter of education and knowing your self worth. Cheating is the way of people to circumvent life questions such as “Who am I really?”, “Am I a smart person?”, “How do others see me and what do I do with their opinions?”. My only advice for those who cheat at board games is to… not. If you cheat, you will always know you did that, it will lower your self esteem ever further because you will never know if you could have done it without cheating. Even if you’re not caught (ever) and you get to win, people will only see you as a person who has a way with board games, but life is more complicated and cheating is not an option. You’re only cheating yourself.
As for how to deal with people who cheat… that’s the real question. A few years ago I would have simply said take them out completely of your lives, what’s the purpose of having cheaters around? Today, I believe there’s a better way:
- first off, catch them and expose them, but…
- do not make them feel ashamed and small (they probably do that already),
- explain to them that winning is not everything, losing is OK, the experience matters and it is about having fun, learning and spending time with friends and family, make them feel human again and give them another chance. Show them that you do not think less of them if they lose, but you will think less of them if they’re cheating again.
How would you deal with people who cheat?
- [+] Dice rolls
04 Nov 2016
Spiel Essen is once again behind us. It’s been crazier than ever, but this is not the reason you’re reading these lines. We’re gamers at heart and even though our daily effort is allocated mostly to publishing, we like to take time off and enjoy opening games, punching our tokens and inhale the smell of freshly printed cardboard. It is also becoming a tradition to have a weekend long gathering of friends and play as many Essen titles as we can.
This year, our board games party coincided with a local bank holiday, so instead of some mean 48 hours of non-stop gaming, we were able to extend the event to four full days and expand our range from strategy to kids games, enjoying, talking about and criticizing a whole trunk full of games, out of which a few were absolutely amazing. To top this, the setting – a wooden house in the middle of the lake district of Poland, surrounded by trees and serenity, made it into an unforgettable experience.
Without any chronological order, here’s what I played and what I am left with…
Terraforming Mars was by far the most hyped game over the summer and the first autumn months, so I was obviously very curious about it, especially since my friends advertised it as “better than Through the Ages” which is one of my favorite all-time games. I played a Polish copy which got me a bit worried at first, but the symbols on the cards made the game almost language independent. The game play is rock solid, the decisions are right where they should be, there’s fierce competition for prime spots on Mars as well as for the best or rather most suitable cards. The artwork blends perfectly with the theme, giving this game the epic feel I was expecting. For me this is the first straight 10 of the year and by far the best game of 2016!
Another game which came with high hopes was The Colonists. The price point, heavy box and the promise of a very solid euro, bordering a civilization game made me want to play it almost as badly as the aforementioned Terraforming Mars. The game plays through four ages, taking 5+ hours and huge space on the table. Sadly, that’s about all it does. By the end of age I it seemed like a very cool game, with meaningful decisions and a strong preparation for age II. In age II we were all able to create combos, little working ‘industries’ of resources and points, but the game started feeling samey. Age III was the last we played as we were approaching the 6-hour mark and the game felt already stripped of meaningful decisions. A good game creates complexity through smart mechanisms, while this one does it by adding more and more components. It’s not a bad game, but it does not live up to its promise.
Then came Islebound, a game we managed to get at Gen Con but did not have time to play until last weekend. It is an excellent game, walking well in the footsteps of Above and Below, with the same thematic feel and sharing some game mechanics, yet fresh and immersive. The fact that a 10-year old was able to play and be competitive made an even stronger impression. All I can add is that I enjoyed every minute of the game and I am very happy that it made it into our collection.
Stefan Feld’s The Oracle of Delphi also came with great expectations. Unlike many of my friends, I am not a Feld fan and while I usually enjoy his games, I do not find them unique or special enough to make into my top ten. I am happy to report that in this case the game play exceeded the already high expectations. The Oracle of Delphi is an excellent dice + racing game. The luck factor is limited by mitigating factors, the player powers are small but meaningful, encouraging diverse strategies, the iconography is good and for a race game I cannot see how it could be better. The dice manipulation is implemented in a smart way, so the point to point movement and the pick-up-and-delivery is complex enough to generate a wide range of approaches. The game offers an epic feeling and the satisfaction to have raced, whether you win or not.
ICECOOL is a completely different dish. First, I must complement the publisher for making a smart and ergonomic game box/board. The box-in-a-box-in-a-box is very effective, the game is easy to set up and even easier to play. It’s a flicking game, so you’d think not my cup of tea… yet I enjoyed it enough to play it several times, with a mixed group of kids and self-respecting adults, having loads of fun. I must admit that I would not play it again and again as my fingers hurt and I find it a bit repetitive, but it’s a challenge to defeat a bunch of 10-year old kids at a game they have been ‘built’ to play.
So, how about some Adrenaline? In my opinion, this is a Euro disguised under a shoot-em-up coat, ready to entertain players who enjoy a healthy victory point competition as well as Doom/Quake/Counterstrike nostalgics. I must admit that when I was a kid I was pretty terrible at first person shooters, so I had the chance tp redeem myself and kill a bunch of misfits in Adrenaline. Even though I did not win, I came close enough. The cool part of the game is the presence of the negative interaction (shooting at and killing other characters) which does not bother anyone at all. It is a game about shooting in the end, but as you die and re-spawn immediately, you’re totally OK with this, sometime even asking players “shoot me, shoot me!”. Overall, Adrenaline offers a fresh playing experience and it should soon find a place in our collection.
Eurogames are the most popular in our group, so we could not go through a long playing weekend without at least a few proper euros. Ulm was the first on the list and it is a solid game. We played with the full array of components for the expert variant and it was worth it. The game play flows well, with very little down time, it allows different strategies, there is even a race component to the game which makes it more attractive and the worker placement mechanism is replaced by a push mechanic which adds an element of randomness to manage.
In the break from mind twisters, we focused a little on race and party games. Chariot Race is a good racing game, spoiled by the quality of components and the lack of artwork. It is still fun to roll the dice, race and deal a bit of damage to the other competitors, while leaving behind traps… even if you’re the one falling in them. HOP! is the opposite side of the spectrum, with amazing components, but lacking in game play. The game look gorgeous and if it were just a toy I would happily rate it a 9, but for a game – even a children game – it is underwhelming to say the least. The beautiful minis could be simple wooden cubes, the 3D board could be a single card scoring track and the game play would be exactly the same.
The last game worth mentioning is Bohemian Villages. It’s a small and rather simple dice game, which promises very little and delivers so much more! You roll your dice and assign your subjects to various buildings in several towns. Every building scores differently and you can make as many dice combinations as you can imagine. A low roll is not a bad roll and the designers have clearly done their research, because the most probable rolls are assigned to building which score throughout the game, while the least probable outcomes for those to be scored at the end, giving everyone a chance to get back in the game even after a slow start.
- [+] Dice rolls
Is there any real innovation in board games lately? I've heard opinions in both directions and the truth lies somewhere in the middle... or does it?
Let's start with a bit of background, and take a look at the truly innovative board games which were also commercially successful. First on the list is Catan, the father of modern German-style board gaming, still a best seller after more than a decade, a game with player interaction, light enough to entice casual players and strategic enough to attract a more demanding community. Carcassonne followed introducing tile-laying as a core mechanism, Ticket to Ride was another huge hit which still sells well today and the last two I can think of are Dominion, famous for establishing deck building as a genre of its own, and 7 Wonders for making card drafting a relevant and wide spread core mechanic and shortening the length of a complex game to 30 minutes.
Although this isn't necessarily my personal opinion, most gamers I spoke to acknowledge these titles as innovative and trend making in the board games industry. But 7 Wonders was published in 2010 and we're now at the end of 2015 and most people I asked failed to see any other big title as a candidate for trendsetting and eternal fame. More than this, every year upon returning from Spiel Essen, people I talk to are saying the same thing over and over again: this Essen was not as good as last year, we found some interesting titles but none I couldn't live without. So, more often than not, frequent Essen attendees tend to come back rather disappointed.
So, what are the big hits of last years and why have they failed to become "the new Catan"?
2011 - the biggest hit I remember was Eclipse. The game is brilliant, it gather a lot of fans and it revived the 4x genre, but as far as I know it did not come close to selling 100,000 copies, thus it cannot qualify as a great commercial success, although from the innovation stand point it ... something.
2012 - Terra Mystica is now on the second place on Board Game Geek with a (small) chance of gaining the crown. In my opinion it is one of the best games I've ever played and yet I fail to see how Terra Mystica is an innovative game. There is no new mechanic and all it does is bind together a bunch of existing ideas in an almost perfect way. Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar is only innovative in the way it displays its concepts, while the latter are still the same, worker placement and action selection.
2013 - Caverna: The Cave Farmers made it highest in the BGG rankings from all 2013 releases and yet it is still the same old worker placement game (Agricola) made a bit better , Eldritch Horror is a new and better Arkham Horror and Russian Railroads is a solid yet in no way innovative title.
2014 - Star Wars: Imperial Assault sold very well but with a Star Wars license behind almost anything sells well and it's not too different from Descent to call this game innovative, Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game is seen as quite innovative by many, yet I fail to see this as a trendsetting game and Five Tribes or Istanbul are very solid designs without reaching that critical mass to make them huge. Alchemists had the innovation element is introducing successfully a mobile app in a board game, but the game itself was simply not good enough to be placed in the same category as Dominion or 7 Wonders.
Is 2015 the same? Full of solid games which will be easily forgotten is 3-5 years? I hope not. Codenames has already impressed me through its simplicity which makes it a great game for casual players, yet attractive enough for my gaming group which is quite demanding. 7 Wonders Duel is also a jewel, it makes a 2-player draft not only possible, but interesting and demanding, making it my option for this year's top hit. But will they make the bif step into history? I surely hope so, because back in my home country, Romania, the sales are still driven by Catan, Carcassone, Dominion or Ticket to Ride and I would love to see people going to game stores for something new.
- [+] Dice rolls
27 Oct 2015
With Essen fading slowly from memory, it was high-time to switch off the publishing/designing mind for a weekend and simply play games. So we did! We happily accepted the invitation to join the board games party organized by the amazing people behind BoardGameGirl.pl and drove 2 hours north of Warsaw to an idyllic region, set camp in a gorgeous wooden house and... stayed in for the next 48 hours playing games almost non-stop.
It's hard to put the games we played in chronological order, so let's just go through them as I remember them, leaving the best for last:
New York 1901 is a city building, tile-laying gateway game. Most of us liked it, but it is not one of my favorites of this year, perhaps a bit too light for my taste.
Skyliners (in the back) is load of fun, quick and innovative, also a bit too light for my taste, but I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Every time people played it they had fun and their laughter was disturbing our "serious" quest to become a Food Chain Magnate. The game from Splotter Spellen which generated huge queues at Spiel does not disappoint. After 3 hours of playing, I must admit that I came last by a long shot and yet this is one of the games I enjoyed the most. Neatly constructed game mechanisms combine euro mechanics with a race element making this game cutthroat in a very good way.
Grand Austria Hotel and Porta Nigra are other euro games fresh from Essen which left me high and dry. They are both very solid designs, with perfectly constructed game mechanisms, but they lack the wow factor. With two players they would probably feel more engaging because the down time between turns would be shorter.
Nippon on the other hand is one of the best euros of 2015. At first we were a bit overwhelmed by the iconography, thus my expectations were lowered. But with the quick and thorough explanations of Błażej Kubacki, we powered through the game and it suddenly felt a lot more fun. And the compliments won't stop here. This worker placement game which gave me the impression that it will be completely dry and disconnected from its theme managed to surprise us all once again. It actually felt like we're trying to industrialize the early 20th century Japan and our efforts were rewarded by plenty of victory points (that was only half true in my case, I would have to leave the word plenty aside).
In the back side My Village was just being set up and in the end felt like a solid game, nothing less than we had expected.
Curse of the Black Dice stirred quite a controversy. A semi-cooperative game in which players lose together or win alone made a split impression. Love by a few and hated by others, it gave the overall feeling that it could be more than it is, which the production quality is on par with more established titles.
2-player games had a special place in our weekend getaway. The series was opened by Kune v. Lakia, a small cutthroat head-to-head between a princess and a duke splitting bunny possessions in a royal divorce. The princess seems to always emerge victorious. And after the yelling and screaming of a divorce, what can be better than to hold hands? ...and then, we held hands. was quite a controversial title as two player games are usually war games, not mind twisting cooperative games.
But the jewel of the crown was 7 Wonders Duel, by far the best game of this event in the opinion of the majority of the participants. I must admit my initial skepticism - I was simply not sold on the idea of a 2-player drafting game and I could simply not see how a best seller like 7 Wonders can be perfectly adapted to be played with less than 3 players. I am happy to admit that I was wrong. The game is great, if not perfect, highly competitive and still quite short, with several paths to victory and huge replay value - basically everything a gamer could wish for.
Not to make anyone jealous, but I simply have to add that all of the above took place in the middle of the nature, surrounded by lakes and forest, in the amazing company of friends, children and cute medium-sized dogs. What more can one wish for?
- [+] Dice rolls
02 Oct 2015
On Wednesday I started telling you the story of how Simurgh became I game we wanted to publish. It's time I tell you the rest - as we are nerely days before the game officially launches.
In 2013, with a cool name, dragons and a designer on the rise, Simurgh seemed ready to “go to Essen”, and have its first encounter with the general public. But before we present a game to such a demanding audience, we usually take the game through a stress test – those of you working in the banking system should know exactly what it means.
So, just a month before Spiel 2013 we organize a large play-testing session of Simurgh with heavy gamers hellbent on breaking the game. Let me alleviate your concerns: the game almost came out on top. It was not broken in any way, it was simply too long even for experienced players. And what do you do when you have some great design concepts, a theme you believe in, consistent rules and yet a game isn’t quite ready for the market? The simple answer is: you develop.
Simurgh as you see it today (or you will see very soon in Essen) is the same game it used to be two years ago – but with a few tweaks. The biggest change was the elimination of elements generating the most Analysis Paralysis, which reduced the game length from over 2 hours (sometimes even 3 hours) to 45-75 minutes.
The first step was the reworking of the dragons. Dragons in Simurgh are represented by tiles with special abilities ranging from simply gaining resources to interrupt abilities able to create quite intricate combos. This part was taken care of by the designer himself, who brought us a lighter, faster version of the dragons roughly one year ago. The abilities became easier to understand, combo-making became really straightforward.
Simurgh was originally structured to play out in 5-7 turns, each of them consisting of players taking 4 to 9 actions. While the first two turns were short and somewhat scripted, with players collecting and stockpiling resources, the last two turns were lasting around 45 minutes each, as everyone was trying to gain the most victory points in the very last moment. This made the ending so prolonged that really made us want to rethink the whole system. And so we did!
The core mechanisms of board building and worker placement are still parts of the game, but the turn system has since been radically altered. Simurgh is now played over a variable number of turns, until a game end condition is triggered, and each turn a player takes exactly one action, making the game streamlined and leaving each other player just enough time between turns to plan their next move.
Our first play with the new system made us go “wow” because the time to set up, play, and then remove Simurgh from the table was just a little over one hour. The next plays simply confirmed our assumption that Simurgh had evolved past its prototype stage and became a finished board game.
The story does not really end here, although the rest is not something I can simply relay to you in writing. It's something you need to experience as you sit down to play a game.
So, are you ready to follow in the footsteps of the Dragonlord?
- [+] Dice rolls