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Placing Farmers in Poland: The History of Rolnicy and a Lesson for Designers

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Rolnicy
With the final twelfth of 2018 starting soon, I'm embarking on the annual challenge of voiding my inbox. Messages pile up in the weeks ahead of a con when I'm trying to push through whatever is most critical, then more messages hit while I'm away at the show, then I get back home and I'm on to whatever is next, with older email left to compost underneath whatever has been sent most recently. Each month I send myself dozens of notes about games that I see in passing, but since many of those games aren't time-sensitive or relevant to whatever convention is coming, I might not write about those games for months — or ever.

One such game I saw in passing was Rolnicy, with "rolnicy" being the Polish word for "farmers". Rolnicy is a card game version of Jeffrey D. Allers' 2009 board game Heartland, with this new game — released in Q3 2018 — existing solely in a Polish edition from Nasza Księgarnia, which until 2016 published only children's literature. Here's a summary of the gameplay:

In Rolnicy, you and your fellow farmers are cultivating five types of crops: potatoes, grain, lavender, sunflowers, and pumpkins. You use your cards to work in the collective farm shared by all, but you also have a private plot of land that no one else can touch. By harvesting crops from both fields (adding them together), you can win valuable production cards. You can score each crop only once during the game, so timing is important!

In more detail, each turn you must plant two domino-style land cards from your hand, then draw two cards from the deck to refill your hand. During your turn, you may also be able to harvest fields in order to take one production card. Plant the first card in front of you on your private plot so that it forms a grid of square fields. You can place it next to a previously placed card or cover one or two fields of any previously placed cards. However, your private plot can be a maximum of three fields in each direction (3x3). Plant the second card in the central collective farm, with exactly one field of this card covering a previously played field.

You may then harvest one of the crops on the card placed in the collective farm. To harvest a field, count the number of orthogonally connected fields of the same crop that are also connected with the crop you just planted.

When the deck is exhausted, play continues until all hand cards have been played. Alternatively, when a player takes their fifth production card — that is, has collect each type of crop once — the game ends at the end of the round. Each player then sums the points on the production cards in front of them, and the player with the most points wins!
I know little about the Polish game market beyond what I've seen from Polish publishers in the German and U.S. markets, so I asked Allers how this game made its way onto that market:

Board Game: Jedzie pociąg z daleka
Q: What led you to contact Nasza Księgarnia? Did you show them other prototypes as well?

A: They actually contacted me. Nasza Księgarnia is the oldest children's book publisher in Poland, and a few years ago, they decided to begin publishing games as well. Naturally, they started out by licensing Polish editions of their favorite games from other countries.

One of the games they wanted was Piece o' Cake, but I had just signed with Bézier Games for the worldwide rights (and the new pizza-themed version, New York Slice). I told them they would have to talk to Bézier Games if they wanted that game, but I also mentioned that I had many other great prototypes that I would be happy to show them.

We met in Essen, and they tested several of my prototypes later and offered contracts for three games that had never been published by anyone else. The first was Jedzie pociąg z daleka ("The Train Travels from Afar"), which was published in 2017 and is already in its second printing, including a Japanese sublicense. Rolnicy is the second game, and in 2019 they will publish my first game aimed primarily at children.

Board Game: Heartland
Q: Does it strike you as odd to have a Heartland card game only in Polish when no Polish version of Heartland exists?

A: Not really as Rolnicy has become its own game and plays very differently than the board game. I worked on it shortly after Heartland was released to good reviews, thinking that original publisher Pegasus Spiele might want a follow-up game, but that never materialized.

Nevertheless, I continued to refine the card game version, which was an interesting challenge as I had to find an alternative to the barn point tracks that worked with cards. I wanted to maintain the interaction (some call it "nasty") of Heartland, but I also added a private farm for each player to cultivate that no opponent could mess with. The larger "communal farm" still has all the blocking and piggy-backing for points that Heartland does, but Rolnicy combines that with what we call a "sandbox game" in which everyone has their own "safe space" to puzzle their cards unhindered. This led to the theme of "Kolkhozes" (the name of my prototype), which were the collective farms that existed in the Soviet Union and in other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Players combined their harvest from these communal farms where everyone works together with the harvest from their private plots.

I also didn't want to have to write down points scored every turn, so in Rolnicy there are harvest cards for each crop, and players can score each crop only once during the game. This makes timing even more important than in the board game, and once you've scored a crop, you can try to block that for the other players — but only in the communal farm, of course!

Board Game: Rolnicy
Production cards up for grabs

Q: Given this success in an unexpected market, does it make sense for game designers to shake every bush, as it were?

Board Game Publisher: Nasza Księgarnia
A: It's been ten years now since my first game was published, so I suppose that makes me a "veteran" game designer now, and I've had many non-German publishers contact me, as Nasza Księgarnia did.

Although in the past I mostly focused on the German publishers that I have known from the beginning, I have naturally tried to expand my network of contacts when I can. I have a lot of prototypes, and just because the handful of publishers I have known for ten years are not interested in backing them, it does not mean that they are not good games. So it then becomes my task to find the right publisher for each game, and that means I have to make new contacts. This year in Essen I actually made quite a few appointments with publishers from outside Germany. This was my first time pitching to them, so yes, you could say that I have been "shaking more bushes" lately.

Q: We're in a "hungry" market for games right now. We are all looking around and wondering how many more titles can be released, then the next year we see even more games being published. You have to ask where did they all come from and what's going to happen to them?

A: I think a lot of designers who have been around at least ten years have been wondering the same thing. It does seem that many types of games are going on the clearance pile earlier than ever, especially the types of "family strategy" games I like to design. Perhaps the big, campaign-style games like Gloomhaven are able to avoid this as they require multiple plays in order to explore the story of the game. With the traditional German-style game, each play is a self-contained story, and it might not be as obvious to the players that they may need to have multiple sessions in order to explore all the game has to offer. They think that after one play, they are done with the game, and it's off to the next one.

I was thinking of "fast fashion" last week and wondering whether we are now experiencing a similar problem in the board game industry. I want people to see board games as cultural assets, not simply as products for quick consumption.

This is also a good reason to pitch to smaller publishers and publishers who focus on local markets. Companies like Nasza Księgarnia take the time to produce the games well, and they promote the games over a longer period of time. They've advertised Jedzie pociąg z daleka on electronic billboards in Warsaw two years in a row now! That kind of commitment is attractive to a game designer.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Q: How has the change in a game's life cycle affected you as a designer? You already mentioned above your effort to reach out to non-German publishers this SPIEL, so I guess that's part of the change.

A: I think things were already starting to move in this direction when my first games were published, so it does not feel like a big shift for me. I have always designed games first and then looked for the right publisher for each game, wherever that may be. Now that I've been doing this longer, I naturally developed a wider network and am continuing to do so intentionally, so that each game has a greater chance of finding the right publisher. Local (German) publishers are those I have known the longest, so I will always start with them as long as I live in Germany.

It is disappointing, though, when I put a lot of effort into a design and into finding a publisher for it, but then it is released alongside at least a half-dozen other games from that same publisher. Then they stop marketing it after a year or less, while they move on to the next half-dozen new titles. For those hobbyists getting their first game published, it might be exciting enough just to have their game finally on the market in some form, even if it's only a brief time, but I'm not willing to sell myself so cheaply anymore.

The biggest change for me, then, has been my own attitude when looking for the "right" publisher. I'm much more careful, and I look for publishers who can commit — preferably in writing — to supporting the game over a longer time span. I'm not afraid to negotiate contracts, as I was when I first started out. What the publisher is willing to offer in writing is a clear sign of how much they truly intend to support the games they publish.

Q: Are you also designing different types of games? Looking to revise or reprint older releases over designing new games? What do you think the changes today portend for you three or five years from now, if anything?

A: I design all types of games because I love to play different types of games and I enjoy new challenges. There are enough publishers that I don't feel constrained into a certain type, although I still prefer games that can be learned quickly, but have interesting choices.

Board Game: Pandoria
That said, I'm sure I am sometimes influenced by other games that are popular. For example, one of my goals with Pandoria, my new game co-designed with Bernd Eisenstein, was to have a lot of variability, and we used some popular mechanisms such as engine-building, tableau-building, card combinations, and asymmetrical starting positions and powers. And, of course, Bernd liked it enough that he offered to publish it himself.

As far as my older games, I noticed that many of them were well-received, often after going out of print, so I have had a lot of success in getting many of those reprinted, and naturally, I've used it as an opportunity to tweak them and add some nice things to them. It does take a little time from designing new games, but it's worth it to work a bit more on something you know is already good.

I don't know what will happen in 3-5 years, but I think that if I relied on game design — or publishing — to support my family, I would definitely be looking for a second job.

As it is for me, though, game design has become what playing games was for me twelve years ago, when Bernd and I started our game designer's meet-up at the newly-opened Spielwiese board game cafe. I enjoy just playing prototypes with other designers and how that creative process builds community. I don't buy many games anymore, so if the bubble burst and it were next to impossible to get another game published, I think I would still meet every week with my friends and play the games we make together. And maybe events like Tokyo Game Market are the future, where lots of local designers each bring a hundred hand-made copies of a game to sell.

Eric, an interesting thought and question on which to close: While the Spiel des Jahres award has been instrumental in challenging publishers to come up with original designs instead of relying on games everyone has always known, has the SdJ also played a part in pushing publishers in Germany to rush out several "possible" candidates for the award, then dropping the ones that don't receive a mention from the jury? Possibly a downside to what you and I usually see as a big positive for the industry and hobby.
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