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Reiner Knizia's Quest for The Quest for El Dorado

W. Eric Martin
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On July 8, 2019, designer Reiner Knizia caused a stir in the game industry when he tweeted the following:


Wait a minute? A new edition of The Quest for El Dorado, for which Knizia and Ravensburger received a Spiel des Jahres nomination in 2017? It's being released with new artwork by Vincent Dutrait while the original version with Franz Vohwinkel's iconic artwork is still on print? Large format cards wouldn't match the original, which means that the existing Heroes & Hexes expansion wouldn't be compatible — and what about The Golden Temples standalone expansion that Ravensburger teased at Spielwarenmesse 2019 ahead of a late 2019 release? Is Knizia talking about those expansions — or something else?

People started speculating what this announcement might entail for the future compatibility of base games and expansions, not to mention their availability. After seeing this new version listed on the Lautapelit.fi website — a listing removed almost immediately — I contacted Toni Niittymäki from Lautapelit.fi, who suggested that I contact lead publisher 999 Games, the representative of which gave me additional information while also suggesting that I contact Reiner Knizia himself, which is perhaps what I should have done in the first place since he's the one who kicked off this hullabaloo, so I did.

In this article, I might not answer all of your questions about this new edition, but I will address them as best as I can. As you'll see, though, answers might not come for a year or more — and in many cases, the answers will depend on you.

•••


I've spoken with Knizia many times since I started covering the game industry full time in 2006, including an hour-long retrospective in 2015 of his thirty-year career as a game designer that remains my favorite interview to date. I've spoken of my love for Knizia designs many times, most recently in my video overview of LAMA, and aside from being a fan of his designs, I'm also a fan of his business practices. More than anyone else I've encountered, Knizia merges the art of design with the business of ensuring that those designs get into print and stay there, and that's where this story begins.

"The first challenge is to find a publisher interested in the game," says Knizia. "Ideally that would be a publisher who is willing and able to take the game and market it to its largest potential worldwide. No publisher can do that by themselves, but many publishers have built up networks that extend their reach. I would like to work with a publisher who can do that because I'd give the game to one publisher, deal only with them, then everyone would work from the same template, which leads to bigger co-publications, which is more cost effective."

Learning about a publisher's plans for a design before you sign a contract with them is crucial. After all, if a publisher doesn't have a network of licensees or doesn't plan to market your game to others, then you don't want to give away rights that you could sell to others — and even if a publisher does have such a network, Knizia says that his contracts for worldwide rights typically contain a clause that allows unused languages or territories to come back under his control. "Publishers might want to try to make something happen, and in two or three years, if it doesn't work, then we might want to give it a try ourselves."

Knizia and Ravensburger have worked together on dozens of releases over the past two decades, with their first such collaboration being in 1995 (as best as I can determine) on the classic auction game High Society. Regarding The Quest for El Dorado, Knizia says, "Ravensburger has contributed an enormous amount to the success of the game. They've put their heart into it, and the game wouldn't be where it is today without them. That is clear. There is no rift with Ravensburger."

Interestingly, Ravensburger initially had no plans to release expansions for The Quest for El Dorado, but if you look at the company's publication history, that decision wouldn't be a surprise given that almost no expansions have been released for any of its titles. (The alea brand stands apart here as many expansions exist for The Castles of Burgundy, Puerto Rico, and other titles in that line, but for Ravensburger proper, I'm aware only of expansions for Verflixxt, Asara, Abluxxen, and now The Quest for El Dorado. Instead of expansions, Ravensburger releases spin-off standalone games, as with its Labyrinth and Make 'n' Break game lines.) Says Knizia, "I was surprised by how much convincing it took to make expansions for a deck-building game, but the editorial department was on my side, and we finally convinced management that this was ideal."

Since the game's debut in 2017, Ravensburger has released versions of The Quest for El Dorado in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian — and that was it as far as the company was concerned. Says Knizia, "Ravensburger did not want to cover the other territories, which meant that I had all the other territories to cover myself. This game is too close to my heart, and if they didn't want to cover it, then I wanted to do it myself."

There was one complication to this plan, however: Ravensburger didn't want to allow its graphics for the game to be used by other publishers. Publishing partnerships exist in many different formats, and while you might have a straight co-publication — with publisher B paying publisher A a licensing fee to be part of the same print run with only the text translated into a different language — you might instead have publisher B paying solely for the use of the artwork owned by publisher A and handling the manufacturing on its own.

Sometimes publishers go their own way, of course, using a different theme or art from the original publication because they think it will be a better fit for their market or the game design itself. (When I brought up Lato z Komarami, Egmont Polska's edition of LAMA, as an example of this, Knizia said that actually the Egmont version of that game matches his prototype as he had called the game "Mosquito" to highlight the annoying nature of them being left in your hand at the end of a round. "For AMIGO, the mosquito wasn't the most sympathetic character", says Knizia, so that publisher swapped the mosquito for a llama. Given the Spiel des Jahres nomination for that game, AMIGO might have made the right call...)

Knizia emphasizes that Ravensburger is perfectly within its rights not to license its art for whatever reasons it wants, but this decision made things difficult for his licensing efforts given that Ravensburger was already covering the largest markets — North America and much of Europe — on its own. "For smaller publishers with smaller markets, they might have a harder time paying for new art and graphics given how much is needed for this game," he says.

As a result, says Knizia, "For the first time in my career, I've financed and commissioned artwork for a game. I decided to step in and make sure that we would have unifying graphics. It cost me a lot of time, but that's what I had to invest to ensure that the game would exist in many countries." That said, Knizia knows that despite all of his years in the industry, his expertise is not in publishing and game production, so he went looking for someone who could handle all of the artwork, graphic design, and pre-production work.

He found Vincent Dutrait.

"He had done my Medici for Grail Games, along with other titles for them, and he's very experienced in multiple areas," says Knizia. "When he told me that The Quest for El Dorado was his favorite game, we had a deal."

At this point, Knizia says they have the graphics, a working template of the game in the English language, and the ability to license the game in territories or language/territory combinations not covered by Ravensburger. When publishers want to join the project, they need only to replace the English in the master template with a translation of the text into the language(s) specified in their license with Knizia.

In a tweet on July 9, Knizia had stated that the game would appear in eleven languages not covered by Ravensburger, but following the publicity of his original announcement, a twelfth language edition has been signed. Those languages are Dutch (from 999 Games); Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish (from Lautapelit.fi); and (from publishers still to be announced) Chinese, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, and Russian. (The Lautapelit.fi edition will include components and rules in English, but it cannot be sold by the publisher outside of Finland and Scandinavia.)

Knizia declined to name the other publishers so that they could make announcements on their own schedule, although he chose to announce the existence of this edition himself in order to bring awareness of it to game markets worldwide because at this point he's still looking for a Baltic publisher, a publisher for a Portuguese edition, and a publisher able to cover New Zealand and Australia. During our call, he referenced a map with pins in countries around the world. Not every country has a pin, of course, so he's open to hearing from publishers in other areas as well...




In terms of the actual manufacturing of the game, that's another area outside of Knizia's expertise. Dutch publisher 999 Games is overseeing production of the base game — getting costs to licensees, ensuring that they submit translations for their part of the production line, etc. — for those publishers that want to sign up, which so far consists of 999 Games and Lautapelit.fi, as well as the publishers of the Hungarian, Japanese, and Korean versions. Eduard van Buggenum from 999 Games told me that "the coordinated production" of these games will allow for their release in early 2020.

Knizia notes that some of the licensees have their own production facilities, so they have decided to produce the game themselves with the new Dutrait graphics under the license with Knizia, and some of these versions will be on the market before the end of 2019.


The large cards in this edition are intended to highlight Dutrait's artwork


As for the aforementioned expansions, Knizia says, "Being able to control doing the graphics, it gives me freedom to do expansions myself for different territories. There are lots of expansion opportunities in El Dorado, and the advantage now is that I don't have to convince an individual publisher. I discuss it with Vincent, and we do it."

That said, this doesn't mean that expansions for The Quest for El Dorado will appear for this version of the base game right away. "It's a bit too early for us to talk about those", says van Buggenum. "Speaking for 999 Games, usually a board game first has to 'prove itself' in our market before we print an expansion. For now, the currently planned production of the Vincent Dutrait version is for the base game only."

Knizia says that Dutrait has completed artwork for the cards in the promo pack for The Quest for El Dorado that was released in Spielbox and at Gen Con 2018. (The "Binoculars" card in the Twitter image at top is from the promo pack.) "Some publishers will include this in the box, and some will give it away as a promotional item."


The hat serves as a first-player marker


"We have many ideas", continues Knizia. "They are in development, and it depends on individual publishers what we will do with them. For some publishers, it's important to have ideas of expansions, and others focus solely on the base game. The publishers will decide what they want to do. I will build the world, then the publishers can take one thing or another from it."

Admittedly, says Knizia, the situation is unusual compared to what existed before. "Now we have two arms, two different worlds: the Vohwinkel world and the Dutrait world. What is important to me is that Ravensburger has their market, their channels, and I'm now covering different channels, different markets. For many people in those markets, the game is brand new, which will create a drive for new expansions." Speaking of which, Knizia confirms that The Quest for El Dorado: The Golden Temples is on track for release from Ravensburger at SPIEL '19 in October.

As for what follows after that, it largely depends on the market — by which I mean "markets", specifically the seventeen language-based markets that currently exist or will exist within the next twelve months for The Quest for El Dorado. People might be frustrated that the new Dutrait version of the game won't be sold in their country or their language, but keep in mind that the Heroes & Hexes expansion from Ravensburger currently exists solely in a dual English/German edition. Perhaps French, Spanish, and Italian versions will exist in the future, and perhaps not.

Publishers produce games because they think they can sell them, so you can't be assured that a Dutrait version of Heroes & Hexes or The Golden Temples will ever exist until you see them announced — and if everyone holds off from buying the Dutrait base game because they want to know first whether they can get the "whole" line, then poor sales will doom any chances of that. That situation can be frustrating, yes, but the alternative would be for not even the base game to exist in these languages. Knizia thought he could do more with his creation, so he created his own opportunities to do more. As for what treasure we'll find next in this line of games, we'll all find out together in the years to come.


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