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Interviews by an Optimist # 10 - John Bohrer
Tom: John, can you start us out with a little background on yourself?
John: I am just another board gamer. I consider myself a well rounded gamer, though, as I played a role playing game once, a miniatures game twice and have seen people playing collectable card games. Aside from chess, I started with Diplomacy in '65 and moved on to other A-H and SPI games until I entered Carnegie Mellon after my sophomore year in high school, '73. Like a lot of guys I know, there I discovered women and a totally different sort of game. I didn't get back to boardgaming until '88. I am an engineer and scientist and can't discuss my work. I live in Pittsburgh and started Winsome Games in '94. I can't remember why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I must have been crazy; I think I was unduly influenced by Barbie Baruth back then.
Well anyway, Winsome has published, what, some 30 board games since then. Almost all of them have been games having something to do railroads or trains. And no, I can't remember why about that one either; it just is. Look, I like trains. Most men like trains; I know some women who like trains. Don't you like trains? Of course, you do.
Anyway, in the spring of '95 I was ready to give up the game business, having given up Barbie; but I started getting all these game orders from Germany. It turned out that the Germans liked board games a lot and had several board game magazines - real, independent, consumer driven magazines; and somehow they had managed to get a hold of my game and they loved it. Who knew? Not me, so I took the money they all sent me and flew off to this place called Essen. It was great; most of them spoke English, smoked, ate braunschweiger and drank beer. There were lots of good-looking female board gamers! I resolved at that moment to stay in the game business, learn German and return to every Essen for the rest of my life.
On my third day of wandering around this huge place (kind of like 10 GenCons) I heard some people speaking English to each other. I was exhausted and asked them if I could sit down and relax in their booth for a bit. They were very nice people, gave me a comfy chair, some pizza and some beer. We talked and talked; they were another tiny firm whose first game had also had rave reviews in the German board game mags. They were Brits, charming and funny, and were interested in exhibiting at GenCon and Origins. Winsome had done both Cons, so I invited them to share Winsome's booth at the next Origins and GenCon, gratis. They offered to let Winsome share their Warfrog booth at the next Essen. We have been helping each other ever since.
I don't design games anymore. I prefer development, and my authors seem to appreciate my efforts. All of Winsome's authors are very nice, really smart, talented guys. They don't submit games to Winsome for the money, because we don't make any! Han Heidema is a retired mathematician who recently became the editor of the big Dutch game magazine. Max Michael is an American biologist in charge of environmental disasters in Indiana. Benno Delonge is the German equivalent of a state supreme court judge. Dieter Danziger manages an injection molding plant in Bremen. Mike Schacht was already a famous author before I met him. Austrian Tom Huttner works on smart cards; Franky Bayer owns a ski resort in the Alps. And Martin Wallace is a teacher in one of the toughest schools in England. Have you seen the movie "To Sir, With Love"? Martin has Sidney Poitier's job and does it well, being both gentle and tough as nails. He can invoke a Command Voice that rivals that of a US Marine Drill Sergeant.
I am always interested in submissions from new authors. If any of your readers have created a game with any connection to trains or railroads, I would enjoy the submission. Don't expect to get rich, though. Don't quit your day job! With the exception of Klaus Teuber, I don't know any game designer who makes more money with game designing than with their old day job. This includes such prolific and successful authors as Reiner Knizia and Alan Moon. Klaus, whose TM Spiele firm licensed Volldampf from Winsome, makes enough because he owns the Settlers of Catan franchise, a phenomenon in itself.
Tom: John, what philosophy does Winsome take when it comes to publishing games? Or more specifically, what kind of games do you seek to produce?
John: Well, first of all, the game has to have something to do with trains or railroads. This pre-condition is a lifesaver for me 'cause it cuts the number of submissions way, way down. My buddies Bernd, Stefan and Wolfgang are inundated every year with tons of submissions. They have to look at 'em all, fool around with 'em to figure out if there is anything there worth having; and, if there is, they have to figure out a setting and theme for the thing. Then they consider doing development on it! What a rat race! It is no wonder that they all have gray hair. Nope, the submission has to have something to do with trains or railroads, or I just ship it right back to the author. Makes my life a whole lot easier, yes sir, it does indeed. Note that a rummy game called "Big Train" doesn't count as a game that has something to do with trains or railroads. Changing "Park Place" to "Pennsylvania Railroad" will not get you anywhere here, either.
When we do get a valid submission, I first determine if it has at least one fresh, new mechanism. If it does, I put it on the fast track. The majority of Winsome's games have innovative mechanisms. For example, each of the three games in the Prairie Railroads series has a fresh, new, innovative action selection mechanism. A completely themed submission is always in. An example is Union vs. Central. UvC was a two player, 8-16 hour train game, actually a train gamer's train game, simply a masterpiece of railroad theme, setting, mood, pacing, style. Not many folks are going to buy such a game, but Winsome had to make it; there was no doubt about it. None.
A finely crafted game is worth careful consideration. The Riding series games are a definitive example of a finely crafted game. I have never won a Riding series game, by the way. I think it requires a finely crafted brain! A simple, elegant game always gets my attention. Examples are the TrainSport series games and Iron Road, which most folks know as TransAmerica.
If a game is just too much fun, we will make it. Heck, we can't even tell if PanzerZug is a train game or a war game. I just know that my gamers, both the Americans and the Germans, loved playing it. Still do, after all these years.
Winsome customers already know that I produce these games on an ancient steam powered Mac: Harold, the low hummer. After producing less than ten Age of Steam games, I told Martin that there was no way I was going to cut 100,000 hex tiles. Nope, Warfrog (Jim Hamilton, actually) would have to pony up the big bucks and let one of the German contract game manufacturing shops crank 'em out. So even if I like a game, develop it, create the mapboard, write the rulebook and manufacture some advance copies, there are just some games Winsome can't produce.
Tom: What game have you produced that you're most proud of?
John: That is like asking a father which of his children he loves the most! I am proud of them all, equally.
Tom: Okay, are there any games that you wish you had produced? i.e. favorite games?
John: Given the context of games concerning railroads or trains, Railroad Dice is an excellent game with some fresh, new mechanisms that Winsome could not produce. I think all your readers should go out and buy a copy today!
Tom: I'm still looking for a copy myself! When it comes to games, what mechanics do you think have been ground-breaking, especially in the context of train games?
John: Shoot, Tom, I was enjoying this interview and now you have opened up a huge can of worms.
I don't think a board game mechanism by itself can be ground breaking. Is my mechanism the same as your mechanics? I view the former as an arbitrary artistic construction that appeals to different people in different ways; the latter as a natural physical implementation that performs a specific function with a repeatable efficiency.
This underscores a big difference in cultural perception that I see on either side of the Atlantic. North Americans refer to 'game designers', as if the creator pieced together bits of building materials like a civil engineer designing a bridge. The physics of mechanics of the cantilever or arch makes perfect contextual sense, and the history of civil engineering consists of ground-breaking mechanics. Over here folks say that a game 'works' or is 'broken'; the bridge either supports the rated load or it falls down.
The Germanic society is full of engineers. In English, you ask your friend, "What have you done today?" (Was hast du heute getan?). No one ever says that in Germany; they say, "What have you made today?" (Was hast du heute gemacht?). They don't view game creation in the context of an engineering project or scientific research, rather as an artistic endeavor like chiseling a sculpture, painting a landscape, composing an opera or writing a play. Germans refer to 'game authors', as if the creator was writing a novel. Here the analogous mechanisms of voice, narrative, mood, etc. are employed but none of these mechanisms themselves can be ground breaking. Games are discussed in the context of how much pleasure they bring the player: pleasing, grating, boring, exciting, surprising, predictable. Properly employed fresh, new mechanisms will substantially increase the player's enjoyment.
I rarely have any real success explaining this difference in cultural perception to North Americans, so maybe I just ought to shut up about it.
Tom: No need to shut up, John, I find this very interesting. If mechanics are not ground breaking, then what about a game is? Haven't some games, such as Settlers of Catan and a few others, dramatically changed the board gaming scene, as we know it?
John: Well, die Siedler von Catan was important because it appealed so widely, not because of any new mechanism. A successful German family board game must be playable by the kids with a parent and grandparent after dinner and before bedtime. It should have simple rules, be easily explained; incorporate some personal interaction, such as trading; offer variability in the game, such as a random map setup. It should not last too long as the kids must go to bed for school, and grandpa gets tired easily. dSvC filled the bill perfectly in this, the largest market niche in Germany.
When dSvC first came out, the reviews were not stellar. Even the venerable Siggins found it lacking in Sumo! The German public found it to fit well, though, so the phenomenon was launched. Once folks know a game and like it, they will buy the follow on expansions; as they already have an investment in having learned the base game. Kosmos was the first German firm to fully exploit this concept, and their dedicated execution of this plan helps explain the longevity of the dSvC phenomena. dSvC in itself didn't change anything in Germany, neither has Carcassonne or any number of popular
I think the 'dramatic change' to which you refer is the one that took place in North America when Mayfair reprinted dSvC as SoC in English. Mayfair's introduction of German family games fully reprinted in English opened the eyes of many US board gamers in '97-98. It was a smart move by Darwin Bromley, and it opened the door for other importing reprinters like Rio Grande.
Unfortunately, Americans still miss out on a huge number of very interesting German games like Railroad Dice and those from small single man firms like H Georg Rausch and Jean du Poel. Splotter, a small Dutch firm, makes some excellent games with really first-rate components; but they are very difficult to get in the US. Our market is just too small and insignificant with which to bother. Remember that the German (Austrian, Swiss) market is easily 20 times our own English language (US, Canada, UK, Australia, NZ) market for these games. Perhaps 50 times the size. Sure, we have a lot more people in our market, but they have a lot more board gamers. It is an important component in their culture, a tool for raising smart, well-adjusted kids. I think it admirable.
Intrepid little American firms have attempted to bring some very good but largely unknown German games into the American market. Angela Gaalema's Plenary Press did a very nice job reprinting Friedemann Friese's Frisch Fisch (Fresh Fish) in English, but discovered that our market is indeed small. I hope she makes her money back; all your readers should run out today and buy this game!
Tom: Do you feel that the market is growing in America? Just how hard would it be for someone to start up a board game company and make a profit?
John: I have seen a bunch of industry data that supports the contention that the English language market for non-war board games is indeed growing. The Marketing types tell me that the Boomers have more money and free time, want to raise smart kids and just enjoy these games. I hope it is true.
As for starting up a board game company, I shall just quote my dear friend, Maureen Hiron, who has more games in print (about 10 million Continuo games, for example) than any other author and actually makes a living doing games: "One may easily make a small fortune in board games by starting with a large fortune and producing a game". It is easier if you are just an importing reprinter, as you just pay a licensing fee and for English language rules. The key is that you already know how well the game is received from the reviews and sales in Germany, you save all the costs of selection, development and artwork; and your English language print run is just jobbed on with the original German run so your costs are very low. Rio Grande does this that is why the picture of the game on the back of the box has German words on the game. But still there are risks, as Jay must be feeling the rise of the Euro against the Dollar eat into his profits. I hope he doesn't go under, getting games over here is a good thing for US gamers. It is a simple fact that the German firms like Kosmos and Ravensburger are not going to waste their time selling games over here.
If you are going to produce original games, you had better have a ton of bucks and be prepared to lose some. Getting a German partner to sell your games in Germany is key. The Germans don't have a distribution system like the US and UK; they use a list system, kind of a retailer's buying club. Vedes is the biggest of the lists; getting your games on the Vedes list is critically important. Spiel und Idee is the second largest.
But my advice is suspect, Tom, because Winsome doesn't make any money. We do it because, well, the Germans love our games, I like developing games, etc. Ask the big boys like Jay, or the folks at Uberplay, DoW or Eagle about making money; they have your answers.
Tom: I know that a lot of the little companies make little, or no money. What exactly, then, is your motivation for continually producing more games?
John: Well, the motivation for single author companies is obvious. As for Winsome...
I know a lot of train gamers; they are great folks, and I get a lot of pleasure when they write me about their enjoyment of our games. I always enjoy the very nice reviews Winsome receives in the German mags, much more attention and praise than is possibly due us, given our small size and specialist work. I like our authors, all great guys, and I enjoy developing games. Sometimes I get game submissions that need little or no development; that is marvelous. The best development is sometimes none at all!
Over the years I have gotten to know most of the folks in the German game industry, very pleasant people that I enjoy spending time with at Nuremberg, Essen and various other venues. So why not continue to serve train gamers, see these colleagues in the German game industry, spend time with my German friends, playtesters, developers, authors, fans? After ten years, it has kind of become a habit. Anyway, going to Germany four or five times a year gives me a chance to practice my German!
Tom: Okay, I'll ask you this. Are there any genres besides trains that you really enjoy?
I really enjoy games with substantial discovery elements. Good examples are Merchants of Venus, The Awful Green Things from Outer Space and an in-house variant of New World that I play with a friend. Meaningful discovery is an element missing from the Rail game genre, so one of the last games I created (Gold Train, out of print for years now) incorporated a big dose of discovery, with locating engineers scouting terrain for the railroads and prospectors finding mines.
I really enjoy unit co-sims with single man detail, like Sniper, Patrol, Ambush and Shell Shock. Coping with the fog of war, jammed weapons, panic, all sorts of random obstacles and hurdles is fun for me - kind of like flying on US Air out of Greater Pitt!
Tom: John, I really appreciate the time you've taken to do this interview. I wish you and Winsome great success and look forward to playing a large variety of train games! Any last words for our readers?
John: It was a pleasure talking with you.
- Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”
For an excellent list of AoS expansions see Cortex Bombs exhuastive list
Great and insightful interview-thanks guys