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Interviews by an Optimist # 82 - Uli Blennemann
Here’s a short bio Uli provided for me:
Ulrich (Uli) Blennemann, age 40. I live in Duelmen, Germany with my much better half Marion.
I studied History, Eastern European History, and Politics at the Ruhr-University Bochum. I founded Moments in History in 1993 and published about 14 products; 2 winning Charles S. Roberts Awards as best wargames. I sold the company to Critical Hit, Inc. in early 1999. After working for a book and magazine publisher I returned to the game publishing business in 2001 with the newly founded Phalanx Games. Here I´m working as Brand Manager.
Hobbies (besides gaming): soccer, reading, trekking
Tom Vasel: What exactly does brand manager mean at Phalanx Games?
Uli Blennemann: Brand Manager means “all and nothing”. I got this title when Phalanx only consisted of two people - so you were wearing several hats.
Now I try to focus on game development - this is my most important function.
I also do:
finding international partners or staying in touch with existing national and international partners
doing part of the press work
preparing some of the conventions and Phalanx´ coverage
staying in touch with designers and artists
thinking ahead about Phalanx´ future and our future releases
Tom Vasel: How exactly does game development work? Or rather, how much time does it take from receiving a game from a designer to seeing the final product?
Uli Blennemann: This is tough to answer. Sometimes a game is basically “ready to go” - like Wolfgang Kramer´s & Michael Kiesling´s Maharaja. It took very little time from receiving the prototype till the release of the game (about six months?).
However, sometimes it will take years. The prototype is received, tested, changes are made and recommended to the author, he makes more changes, the game is tested again etc.
Sometimes the theme isn´t fitting or Phalanx does not like it - then there are even more changes that have to be conducted.
Development: This includes testing, introducing small changes, working with the author & the graphic artist and test groups.
Tom Vasel: Are game designers always happy with the changes you make to their games?
Uli Blennemann: I do not think so...but I try to talk with the designers about changes. In adddition, I listen - if a Wolfgang Kramer says something, it is best to listen…
Tom Vasel: What kind of games does Phalanx seek to publish? What kind of war games, and Eurogames?
Uli Blennemann: We try to publish “good games” - boardgames and cardgames. In the future, our main emphasis will be on Euro type games because we are reaching a much broader base with this type of games. There will be the occasional wargame from Phalanx but it won´t be the norm.
Tom Vasel: How do you decide what games to produce? Following that, how do you choose the components?
Uli Blennemann: We have and get a lot of prototypes which we test. Among the ones that we think are “very good” (whatever that means...) we see if they fit within our line, when we could release them, etc.
Components: It depends on the price of the materials (wood vs. cardboard), the time to manufacture them and the feel of them (wood has a higher perceived value feel than cardboard). In the end, we try to have the highest possible quality in a game; e.g. our cards are professional poker quality cards from Carta Mundi.
Tom Vasel: How do you decide how many of a certain game to produce?
Uli Blennemann: There are several factors: Based on experience of a “similiar” title from us or another manufacturer, our perceived sales potential of the game and the number of copies ordered by our international partners at the same time.
Tom Vasel: Of all the games Phalanx has produced, which has been the most popular? Have any games disappointed you (i.e. you thought that they would sell well, but they didn’t)?
Uli Blennemann: The most popular game so far is the award winning Maharaja. However, I have a feeling that both new games (Mesopotamia and Hey! That´s my fish!) may become as popular as these games.
Disappointing in sales: The Prince.
Tom Vasel: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming games?
Uli Blennemann: Bison, a new game for 2-4 players, playing time 90 minutes by Wolfgang Kramer & Michael Kiesling. This is a strategy game where players, as Indians, try to catch fish, eagles and bison. It will be released in our medium-sized box.
Seraglio: The Woman´s Choice, a game for 3-5 players, playing time is 75 minutes by Liesbeth Vanzier & Paul van Howe. This game won the Hippodice tournament in 2003 under the name of Harem. It is a wonderful game with great artwork and will be released in our big box.
For our small box we have 2 new entries: NoNo by Michael Schacht is a word-finding game with a twist for 3-8 players; Inferno is a quick cardgame where you try to bag the worst people of history.
Tom Vasel: Phalanx has always been known for superior components. Does using such nice components drive the cost of the game up much, and is it worth it?
Uli Blennemann: Of course the costs are higher when you are using high quality components. Our cards are 305 gr Corona quality with a linen finish that is professional Poker quality, made by Carta Mundi in Belgium. In Mesopotamia our tiles are 900gr/sqm - Settlers uses 500 gr/sqm.
However, I think it is worth it to do so. There are dozens of game manufacturers these days and you have to distinguish yourself - otherwise you are one of many.
Tom Vasel: What have you found to be the best way to advertise your games in a market that is crowded with board game publishers?
Uli Blennemann: In my opinion the best way by far to advertise is word of mouth and attending conventions. I´m not sure if print ads are really useful these days…
Tom Vasel: What conventions have you found to be the best, and why?
Uli Blennemann: In Germany Essen (Spiel) is most important; it is simply the biggest gaming convention in the world.
Nuernberg in February is also very important but is a pure trade fair.
In the US GenCon and Origins are important.
For us, a Dutch publisher, Spellenspektakel in October in Eindhoven is also very important (this year about 12.000 people attended in two and a half days). And we recently attended the Vienna Fair for the first time – a very nice experience as well.
Tom Vasel: What advice would you give to an aspiring game designer?
Uli Blennemann: Hmm...several things...do not look too hard for a trend...if your game is good, you will find a publisher.
For several years now German publishers tell you that a game can only sell if it is inexpensive, simple and plays in 60 minutes maximum. However, our Herr der Ringe: Der Ringkrieg is selling very well - although it is complex, expensive and has a long playing time.
Moreover, test, test, test your game before you turn it in.
Finally, try to have a prototype that looks good. While it is not really important it will make the testers want to play it - which is important. I have a pile of about 25 prototypes here so this factor should not be underestimated.
Tom Vasel: On the other hand, what advice would you have for someone starting their own board game business?
Uli Blennemann: Well, this is like in most other fields...you need knowledge, patience and money. Do not think success will come instantly.
Especially important is a good distribution network and knowledge of several international markets.
Do not believe that a good game will sell itself. There are plenty of great games out there that are not selling. Distribution is much more important.
Tom Vasel: What’s it like to work with other publishers, such as Mayfair, to produce your games in other languages? What are the disadvantages and advantages?
Uli Blennemann: It is very good to work together with other professionals, like Mayfair. This is an outstanding game company!
Advantages: They know the target market, and they are a known force in that market.
Tom Vasel: Has the board game community changed over the past ten years? What things do you do now that you wouldn’t have even thought of five years ago?
Uli Blennemann: Yes, I think it has changed. More and more people want games with meat that nevertheless have short rules. However, apart from the great majority there are smaller groups who would like to play more complex games or games with a playing time of 3+ hours.
Five years ago I would not have thought that we have published games by Wolfgang Kramer, Leo Colovini or Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and winning several awards or nominations.
Tom Vasel: When receiving submissions, do you give more credence to a famous designer, such as Kramer?
Uli Blennemann: Well, of course you think everyone is treated equally (and that is what you try to do). However, in reality, “famous” authors (if book or game) have it easier...you know that their name will sell a certain number of copies alone.
This is life…
Tom Vasel: Phalanx has produced its share of war games. How have war games changed over the past ten years?
Uli Blennemann: Wargames have changed a lot - your “standard” wargame got more and more complex because the audience got more and more experienced with only few new players entering this hobby. A game with 16 pages of rules that would have been considered medium to high complexity in the 80ties is now considered a simple wargame.
On the other hand, some games, like our Waterloo, Battle Cry by AH or Memoir´44 by Days of Wonder have tried news ways - simple rules but much better components. These games were designed for a crossover audience (with Euro type gamers).
Tom Vasel: What about you, personally? What games are your favorites to play?
Uli Blennemann: This really depends...on my mood, my time and the people I play with.
Among board wargames, my favourite games right now are Empire of the Sun, Age of Napoleon, For the People II, and St. Lo. Among Euro type games I love Puerto Rico, Maharaja, Java, and Mesopotamia.
Among the lighter games I like Take 5, Hey! That´s my Fish!, and Geschenkt a lot.
On the PC I regularly play pbem matches of Combat Mission.
Tom Vasel: When marketing your games, what countries are the most receptive? What kind of gamers typically enjoy your games the most?
Uli Blennemann: This is tough to say - so far Germany, the Netherlands and the United States are our most successful countries. However, we publish our games in 3 languages (German, Dutch, English), so this is no surprise. For Maharaja, Who´s the Ass?, FBI, and Go West! we have an Italian language edition as well, for Hector & Achilles we have a Greek language edition in addition.
We started as a historical games company so our main target group were male adults. Success with Maharaja, Mesopotamia and other games meant that in addition to core gamers family type gamers became interested in our products. We also have some “lighter” games like Hey! That´s my Fish! (although this is a great game for core gamers, too) and our range of small card games.
Tom Vasel: What are the best things about running a board game company? The worst?
Uli Blennemann: The creativity, working on several different products at the same time, working with interesting and creative people (designers, artists, layout, marketing people, etc.).
The worst: Dealing with internet forums…
Tom Vasel: What problems do you have with forums?
Uli Blennemann: “Problem” is too big a word. However, I have noticed that sometimes it brings out the worst in people. Very few guys are downright nasty when posting…
Tom Vasel: Ulrich, thanks for all of your comments and answers! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Uli Blennemann: Final thoughts? Not really...enjoy the games!
Edited by Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
December 19, 2005
Tom - nice job, again, as usual.
I must say I am somewhat disappointed to hear Mr. Blennemann say that Phalanx is going to concentrate on Euros at the expense of future wargame production (he didn't say they would stop completely, but definitely indicated wargames will be a distant second to Euros). I own and greatly enjoy Age of Napoleon, A House Divided, The First World War, Naval Battles, and War of the Ring. These are all gems and I was hoping to see Phalanx continue this string of high quality, easy to learn, fun wargames. As a business person, I can understand their desire to concentrate on penetrating a larger market, but it's also a crowded market - the grass may not necessarily be greener. I just hope they don't forget us light wargame fans that essentially provided Phalanx with their initial customer base.
I think the 'problem' is with the company belonging to 999Games. 999Games publishes games off the German market (HiG, Kosmos) and not on his own. So all the 'new' games (wich aren't published by HiG or Kosmos) and the wargamey games are going to Phalanx. That's what I think it was.
It doesn't matter to me, as long as they keep publishing the bigger/heavier games and all the games in their great quality.