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Z-Man Games Acquires Love Letter from Alderac

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Seiji Kanai's Love Letter hit the U.S. market like a bomb in 2012, having an unexpectedly huge impact for a game that consists of only sixteen cards. As the story goes, Kanai taught the game to Alderac Entertainment Group's John Zinser in an elevator, pitching and playing the game in a few minutes. (I can believe it since AEG's Ed Bolme played the game with me and someone else at Gen Con 2012 while we were walking across the exhibit hall.)

The success of Love Letter led to AEG creating its "Big in Japan" line, then a "5 Minute Fun" line, while also shining a spotlight on Japanese designs in general, with the subsequent release of Machi Koro at SPIEL 2013 turning Game Market into the place for publishers from the U.S. and elsewhere to scout for new designs. I just completed my fifth trip to the Game Market in Tokyo, for example, and I doubt that I would have made those trips without the spark of Love Letter back in 2012.

Since late 2012, AEG has released multiple versions of Love Letter — a version in a drawstring bag, a boxed version, a version with the original art by Noboru Sugiura, a Christmas-themed version, a version to give to people getting married, and crossover versions that merged the original gameplay with characters and settings from Munchkin, Batman comics, Archer, Adventure Time, Lord of the Rings, Legend of the Five Rings, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

And now all of that is gone.

Well, not gone completely, but gone from AEG. If you visit the Love Letter page on the AEG website, you see only this note: "As of May 1, 2018, ownership of Love Letter and Lovecraft Letter has passed to Asmodee." More specifically, those two games will join the Z-Man Games brand owned by The Asmodee Group, with Z-Man announcing that it will distribute AEG's remaining inventory for these two games, along with Love Letter Premium, before reprinting them with the Z-Man logo. Quotes from that announcement:

"We are thrilled to have Love Letter join Z-Man's diverse catalog," says Steve Kimball, Head of Studio at Z-Man Games. "This gem of a card game packs a lot of fun in a tiny box (or velvet bag) and fits perfectly with the many other acclaimed card games that have been a hallmark of the Z-Man brand. I'm excited to work closely with Seiji Kanai to help Love Letter reach new audiences and realize its full potential."

"Love Letter and Lovecraft Letter have been a pure joy to develop and share with our customers," says John Zinser, CEO of Alderac Entertainment Group. "We would like to thank Seiji Kanai and our partners at Japon Brand for entrusting us with the smallest but most valuable of treasures. Our friends at Asmodee have the capability to take Love Letter and Lovecraft Letter to even greater heights and we are excited to watch the games make this transition. We are sure that everyone who has sought the favor of the Princess will be delighted with Asmodee's stewardship of these great games."

On Facebook, AEG director Ryan Scott Dancey wrote, "Our strategy to withstand the coming storm is to become laser focused on the kinds of games we think we can achieve 'AAA' levels of fun and quality with, and keep our powder dry. This deal creates more dry powder and improves our focus." This comment led to a comparison of the tabletop game and video game markets, and Dancey added this:

At least in videogames only the largest companies can compete at the AAA level and even they can only make a couple of games a year, and almost always as line extensions to enormous franchises.

In tabletop publishing a mid-sized company like AEG can make a game that is as technically challenging as anything the largest companies can make, easily 5-10 times a year, and there are at least 20 mid-sized companies. Worse, a small 1-5 person company can make a range of games that are as technically challenging as anything AEG and its near-peers can make too.

So there are newly released "AAA" games(*) in many categories that are literally 100 games deep before you get to the first AA game.

Fantastic for gamers, challenging for retailers, existential problem for publishers.

(*) In 2016 this was "scores 7 or higher on BGG". Now I think this is "scores 8 or higher on BGG".
From my perspective, while AEG has placed some of its titles in mainstream outlets, at heart the company seems focused on hobby games and the hobby game market. Having now saturated that market with multiple versions of Love Letter, AEG is happy to take a final payout for all the work that it put into the game while letting someone else worry about how to transform Love Letter into an evergreen title that you will see on peg hooks in every U.S. retail outlet that carries $10 games. If nothing else, I would now expect to see a version of Love Letter: Star Wars in English instead of only in Russian...
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