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Spiel 2011: Another Disaster in the Making, or Business as Usual?

W. Eric Martin
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While gamers tend to be anxious in the weeks leading up to Spiel – "Will I get a copy of that game in time?" "Will the promos be given out before I get there?" "Will the game even be at the show?!" – think about the situation from the publisher's point of view. Whereas you're worried about getting (or not getting) a single copy of a game, a publisher is fretting over the delivery of hundreds, even thousands, of copies of one or more titles, with the risk of a huge financial hit if the games don't arrive in time.

After all, sales at a convention – while often discounted from a game's retail price – put a much larger percentage of the money spent into the publisher's pocket, thereby allowing a publisher to recover the cost of a game's printing more quickly (not to mention paying for all the costs associated with a convention appearance).

On top of the usual worries over game production for Spiel, game publishers also have to contend with the fallout of Scheer Spiele's bankruptcy declaration in May 2011. For those who don't recall, in the weeks and months prior to Spiel 2010 Scheer had promised to produce games for Queen Games, What's Your Game? and a number of other companies – but despite constant assurances that production would take place as scheduled, Scheer failed to deliver thousands of copies of games, such as Vinhos and almost the entire line of new titles from Queen.

In a note to me about game production in the run-up to Spiel 2011, Frank Jäger, Head of Export for the German game manufacturer Ludo Fact, explained the fallout from the Scheer situation in some detail:

Quote:
We all have a vivid memory of Essen 2010, when games manufactured by Ludo Fact's main competitor in Germany did not make it to the show. The company Scheer had problems – I don't want to go into detail here – and finally during April 2011 it became apparent that the end was nigh. Effective May 1st, Scheer declared bankruptcy. After some negotiations Altenburger Spielkarten, a subsidiary of Carta Mundi, bought the production tech from Scheer and hauled everything to Altenburg. The transition phase and the new setup meant that this production capacity was not and still is not completely available at all in the second half of the year so far – or to put it in better terms that may explain the scope of the problem: Several million games were looking for a new production facility.

Of course, with this capacity not being available any more, all other European manufacturers received a fair share of new business – to the point where every machine and every factory is filled to capacity. (If any factory still has capacity, it would be a miracle, and I would wonder why that is and definitely NOT produce there ;-) )

Producing games is an industry, just like many others. It involves a lot of careful planning and logistics. For weeks and months after May 1st it was still calm; publishers were looking for new facilities to produce their games. I understand that one doesn't want to put all one's business into one account, only after a while companies realized that there were no additional capacities to be had, as nobody – neither us nor any of our competitors – could just increase their output, especially not when all publishers were still working on the same tight schedule they always had done. Yes, Essen always means some crazy weeks, but this year was different. It was crazy squared!

Jäger first contacted me after I heard reports directly from more than one publisher that Ludo Fact was behind on its promised print dates, and I started asking for updates from several dozen publishers to find out where they stand in terms of delivering games to Spiel 2011. (More on those updates in a bit.) Jäger clarified the current production situation at Ludo Fact and corrected some of my assumptions:

Quote:
Based on over twenty years of experience producing games, we have a yearly plan for raw materials. We know roughly what we need in which month, and have that produced and delivered to us, plus a little more for safety. Now all of a sudden we received so many orders that we ran out of paper for over two weeks. (For several reasons I will not go into right now to keep this to a reasonable length, we cannot just take any other paper from some other factory.) That became the problem we still suffer from. ...

As for contracts: We do not have contracts with delivery dates. Generally, that would be possible, but we would only agree on that when we have all files approved for production at the time of ordering. I'd say that about 10% of the orders placed fall under the category "ready to print", and those are 100% reprints. But usually, our relationship with our customers is not of the nature where we throw contract excerpts at each other. That leads to nothing good.
Despite being incredibly busy with his regular job and additional work on the production line (as described below) Jäger went into a fair amount of detail about what's going on behind the scenes at Ludo Fact and how much is going out the door:

WEM: What's the current status of Ludo Fact's production schedule? How many clients is Ludo Fact producing games for in regard to Spiel 2011? What percentage of clients have had their deadlines met for game production for titles to be released at Spiel 2011?

Frank Jäger: The current status is that we are absolutely full. When you focus on games for Essen, it is probably not much worse than it was the years before – I remember with some shock still lingering in the back of my head when two years ago one publisher uploaded the files for a rulebook on Thursday before Essen Fair and we printed, assembled and delivered his games to the show. Something like that is absolutley impossible this year!

We have been pushing our customers to deliver files earlier, and I can say that everybody who did so giving us a reasonable time to produce will not likely face a problem and have his games in Essen. But yes: We are still waiting for print approvals for a few games; even some files for rulebooks have not yet been delivered; and two containers with components from China (plastic figures mainly) are running two weeks behind schedule for some reason; so it is just like every other year, only a bit more stressful. Having said that, I think we will have 95% of all games for Essen ready, at least with enough games to not run out of it during the show, even though we will have to produce the remaining games during and after Essen Fair.

The bigger problem for us at this time is to keep up with the continuous big orders for games like Ubongo, Halli Galli, Ticket To Ride or Ni Oui Ni Non, plus we have two of the three German "Games Of The Year" – Da ist der Wurm drin and 7 Wonders - plus big projects like Discworld or The Hobbit in more than a half-dozen languages, and gigantic discounter orders, and an unusual amount of games with lots and lots of big components.

WEM: Of those clients whose deadlines have not been met, what is the status of their orders in terms of production delay? To what can the delays be attributed? (Materials shortage, client issues, equipment issues, etc.?)

FJ: We are trying to fulfil everybody's orders. It may well be that a few cannot be met, as last minute changes may prohibit a timely production, but hey, that is the industry! Every year there are some games that are just presold at Essen, to be shipped later. That will be the case again, and not only with a game or two that comes out of our factory, but most of the companies that will have to endure that already know and adjusted their planning. But yes, there will be some. I can say that there is one that I was personally looking forward to, but I will have to wait until November, just like everbody else. But: no surprises! Or I should say hardly any surprises. Still things can go wrong, and any misprinted sheet or component can lead to a disaster as we have no tolerance for mistakes right now, but as stated before: That is just the usual time of the year craziness.

Generally, the bottleneck mentioned with missing raw materials in paper, cardboard and playing card paper, all nicely one after the other – plus certain issues with too many components of too many games having to run on the same machine – has been agressively addressed with extra shifts and longer working hours. We have been working all Saturdays in September, we worked on October 3rd (Reunification day - something like the 4th of July in the U.S.), and we work all Sundays in October. In fact, with the exception of the Essen Sunday, my shift on Sundays this month starts at 6 AM and ends at 2 PM, as staff from administration also tries to help the factory workers who work incredible hours already for many weeks. Now keep in mind European labour laws and the fact that we cannot just hire new people as with a 2.6 percent unemployment rate we practically have full employment in the region where our factory is located, then you will understand that we do everything we can to get all the games to Essen and into the stores in time.

WEM: For reference, and to give a better idea of what's involved in game production in the weeks prior to Spiel, what is the volume of game production at Ludo Fact in the week or weeks prior to Spiel? How does the volume of production in 2011 compare to that of earlier years, taking into account the fallout of Scheer and the general growth of the games industry?

FJ: We produce between 10 and 12 million games per year; now before Essen fair we produce an average 350,000 games per week. We have a steep increase in orders which is mainly due to Scheer's demise. From what I hear from our competitors, most of them share our "problem" of increased orders and difficulties to keep up with production.

But Scheer is not the only reason for the increase: Lately many publishers turned their back on China, and the U.S. publishers are leading the way here. It seems that the increase in quality does justify the increased cost of production in Europe more and more, and I can say that I am very proud to see so many games with fantastic quality make their way onto the shelves of the world. The battle between nice European dispersion varnish and cheap Chinese glossy UV varnish turns in our favour! ;-)

•••

So to answer my provocative question in the subject line, Spiel 2011 is both business as usual and a disaster in the making – but a disaster only for particular publishers for all the usual reasons and not for all the clients of one manufacturer for reasons unexpected to them. Games that won't be at Spiel 2011, for example, include Reiner Stockhausen's Siberia from his own dlp games (which is a shame as it sounds like a nice resource/action management mix) and Mac Gerdts' Casus Belli from PD-Verlag.

Says Gerdts, "Like others, we won't be ready for Essen this year (which is the first time for me, a new experience...), but there will be enough prototypes to play and explain the game." In addition Gerdts says, "We will offer copies of the game for sale (as was the case with Lisboa), and this special and limited edition will contain the board, the necessary event-cards, and the rules. It will be playable with the game material from the original Antike. (For instance, the grey disks can be used as town walls.)"

Other publishers have confirmed that they are waiting for games they expected to be produced (both from Ludo Fact and from other production houses) with delays of up to four weeks being reported, but delivery still expected in time for Spiel in some cases. (How does delayed production jibe with Jäger's statement that "We do not have contracts with delivery dates"? While Ludo Fact doesn't promise delivery dates, it does present an anticipated production schedule to its clients – then adjust that schedule as needed based on circumstances.)

At least one publisher got around the Spiel production bottleneck by pushing for release dates in Q3 2011. While the production of its games was still delayed, it was completed well in advance of Spiel, so now that publisher has no worries about its games being ready. (Given that possibility, why do many publishers wait until weeks or days before Spiel to produce games? Because doing so lowers their storage costs, which lowers their overall cost of production, in addition to potentially decreasing the turnaround time needed to sell inventory for a return on investment.)

Still other publishers have said that they delivered files (card images, game boards, rules, etc.) to Ludo Fact later than they would have hoped, and Ludo Fact has essentially said it will do the best it can to get the games to Spiel, but nothing is guaranteed. Fingers crossed...

•••

A few publishers went on the record with the state of their production schedule:

• Sébastien Dujardin at Pearl Games said that Tournay wasn't ready yet, but "it's promised for Essen." He added, "I'm happy to work in Germany because the quality is even better. But things change quickly and others are catching up slowly behind them."

• Another Sébastien – this one being S. Pauchon from GameWorks – seconds that sentiment, saying "Ludo Fact has been a solid and trustworthy partner over the years for us; we certainly can't complain. There are other manufacturers, and there also is China, but we're very happy with the production quality we get with them, so I don't see a reason to change. In French there is a saying that goes more or less: 'You don't change a winning team.'" As for game production in 2011, Pauchon says that Ludo Fact has always met its production schedule previously. "I've been assured TSCHAK! and Bonbons will be ready according to schedule, so I'm very confident they will indeed."

• Stefan Brück at alea said that "we are 'on line' so far" for production of Puerto Rico: Die Jubiläumsausgabe, the deluxe tenth anniversary edition of the Andreas Seyfarth design.

• Dani Val at Gen X Games says that they've been working with a Madrid-based printer, Priority, and while the games are still in the process of being produced, he's "pretty confident" that they'll be ready in time for Spiel 2011. Says Val, "We've been working with this Spanish printer for quite a while and they've always delivered. This year we're going to have four new games released, a real challenge for a small company like Gen X games, yet I believe they will have the best production quality so far. Come check us out in Essen in hall 4."

• Ignacy Trzewiczek says that Portal, which uses printers in Poland, is nearly ready. "We wait only for wooden components, and we should have them in a few days," he says. "If nothing bad happens, we will have our games in Essen." Trzewiczek adds, "This is the most stressful period of every year: waiting to see whether your games will meet Essen or if unexpected printer delays screw things up and you miss Essen."

• While pointing out that she speaks only of her own company's productions and not any titles that distributed by its partner Hutter Trade, Katril Reil at HUCH & friends! says, "At this point, almost all of our new games are produced and ready for sale in Essen. There is one exception, which has yet to be produced in the course of next week. This is not due to a delay, however, but perfectly in line with the original schedule. The respective game is made at Ludo Fact (a lot, if not most, of our games are) and we're more than confident that it will be on stock in Essen, as we personally have never had any problems with Ludo finishing our orders on time."

• Petr Murmak at Czech Games Edition says that the 2011 line-up is currently in production and expect the games to be ready just before Spiel, although CGE has already announced that Galaxy Trucker: Another Big Expansion won't be available until just after the convention. Says Murmak, "We produce our games at a Czech company which is half-owned by Ludo Fact, and we are quite happy with this Czech producer as they are very flexible and close, so we can closely observe quality of production of our games. I know that we had some quality problems in the past, but we were able to overcome them as we are working very closely with the printer, and cards (which were the most problematic) are now done directly in the printer. Previously they used another company to produce them."

• Matthias Wagner at ABACUSSPIELE says, "Although our games are not produced yet, we are very confident that they will be produced in time. Anno Domini Süden should be ready this week and Spiel and the goodies will be ready in week 41."

• Bart Nijssen at White Goblin Games says, "The line-up – consisting of Dragon's Gold, Panic Station, Revolver, Singapore, Rattus Africanus and Lost Temple, including all free game bonuses – is fully produced and on its way to our warehouse."

I asked Nijssen about other issues relating to production, and he mentioned this quasi-production related "problem": "We highly recommend everyone who is planning on buying our brand new title Panic Station at Spiel in Essen to come to our booth early or place a pre-order on our website (chosing the option 'pick-up the game at Spiel'). The demand for this game is so incredibly high that we expect this game to be sold out during one of the first days of Spiel, or even before Spiel has officially started!" I'm sure all publishers wish for such production problems – not having enough games on hand to meet demand.

• On October 4, Toni Niittymäki at Lautapelit.fi said, "Our 450 Eclipses and Supernova expansions were shipped last weekend. Today's tracking says the games will land at Cologne/Bonn airport tonight. I'd be very surprised if they didn't make it to Essen as we have two weeks left to move them within Germany." As for where Lautapelit produces games, Niittymäki said, "Well, we're mostly co-publisher, so we pretty much go where the original publisher chooses to produce the game. With Eclipse, we will stay at Panda Game Manufacturing as they've done a good job and held their schedule."

• Arno Quispel at Quined Games says that Alba Longa is ready and will arrive in Essen shortly before Spiel opens. "Last year our game was manufactured by Ludo Fact, this year not," says Quispel, but not because of any problems with the manufacturer. "We have in general a very good relationship with Ludo Fact. Almost no complaints here."

• Harald Mücke at Mücke Spiele says that his company's 2011 line-up isn't ready yet, but "all deadlines are met, and I already received corresponding materials (such as additional rulebooks)".

"Before, I worked with Scheer Spiele. Because of their bankrupcy, the current situation is as it is: Too few producing capacities for too many games. It must be hard for Ludo Fact to work them all through. I believe that the publishers have not worked out that such things must happen when one big producer is out of the game," he adds. "Do not put it all on the producers. Point out that the publishers have their part of the blame because they tend to go into prodcution much too short before Essen. Me included..."
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