I'm clearing house in the wake of SPIEL '18 as many things were pushed into a bucket labeled "later" while I tried to keep up with everything related to that show. Thus, the items below might not be recent, but I still think they're of interest:
• On his blog Go Play Listen, designer Chris Marling advises us that "variability doesn't equal replayability", pointing out that "[d]esigners and developers are flogging themselves to death creating variants which can be set up 'X' different ways for games which will likely sell a maximum of 5,000 copies and be played once or twice by each purchaser". An excerpt:
If you look at the games that have stood the test of time, they haven't needed this kind of variety to make their reputation. Poker, Chess and Go – or modern classics Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne – couldn't be simpler on setup and components. They rely on simplicity, randomness and interaction rather than powers, variable setups or asymmetry. Even Catan, with variable setup, uses everything in the box. Classic modern war and board games that have been in print for decades are usually similarly unburdened. Most games don't need it to be successful.
• In an article on Opinionated Gamers, Chris Wray introduced the concept of the Rule Quality Index (RQI). Says Wray, "RQI is simply the number of ratings a board game has [on BGG] divided by the number of rules threads a game has inspired. It's a crude way to evaluate the problem, but it's the best method I could think of." The problem to which Wray refers is one of rulebooks that make it difficult for one to play the game, something that seems antithetical to what a rulebook should do. An excerpt:
I was recently chatting with some fellow game reviewers about Charterstone, a game I gave a negative review after struggling to figure out how to even play parts of it. They seemed skeptical of my criticism, so I pointed out that, despite it having only about 5,600 ratings on BGG, it already had more than 740 rules threads. That's shockingly bad: there's a rules thread for about every 7.5 ratings.
Wray included all types of caveats for his measuring system since not every player rates their games on BGG. He also noted that legacy games seem particularly prone to rule questions, possibly because each playing of such a game has more relevance and consequence than something that's a one-off experience.
• The graph above comes from Reddit user Shepperstein, who downloaded BGG data for board games released between 1990 and 2018 that have at least twenty ratings in order to visualize how board game categories on BGG relate to one another. The graph below indicates how games within categories relate to one another in complexity (with larger nodes indicating a higher average complexity) and in ratings (with redder nodes indicating a higher average rating).
Designer Oliver Kileyriffed on Shepperstein's work to create a relationship chart of his own that merges information related to both categories and mechanisms to see how these overlap and get a better understanding of how such things could be reorganized. An excerpt:
In the dead center are a few big communities, including card games and the obviously associated hand management, along with Dice and press your luck type systems. Some of these, like cards and dice are so ubiquitous across domains of games that it's not at all surprising to see them in the middle of the graph with connections to just about everywhere. I tried excluding them from graph and it basically had no structural impact at all, more or less confirming this assessment. Of course you get things like "take that" games and "trick-taking" games [that] are very closely associated with card games, so I left it in for clarity and completeness.
I also thought it was interesting to compare opposite sides of the graph. Wargames are directly opposite to Children's games. Highly thematic games in the Fantasy/Fighting, Science fiction, and Cooperative realms are all opposite to Economic (euro-style) games and abstract games. Likewise, games that focus on area control/majority elements and derive much of their deep strategic play from spatial positioning and the like are opposite to party and deduction style games, which emphasize an entirely different sort of player-to-player interactions.
Two bits of news have emerged about the industry's largest hobby game publisher ahead of the SPIEL '18 game fair in Essen, Germany.
First, in July 2018 I had noted that Eurazeo, the private equity firm based in Paris that owns game publisher Asmodee, had entered "exclusive discussions" with PAI Partners, another Paris-based private equity house. On October 23, 2018, Eurazeo announced (PDF) that it had completed the sale of its stake in Asmodee to PAI Partners. A translation of the press release:
This operation is a perfect illustration of the profound transformation carried out in recent years by Stéphane Carville and his team with the support of Eurazeo. Asmodee has seen in four years its turnover increase from €125 million to €442 million, 75% of which is international, an annual growth rate average of 37%. At the same time, its share of publishing has reached about 2/3 of game sales. The group has also completed twenty acquisitions, representing more than 140 million sales. Proceeds from the sale of this transaction amounted to €565 million for Eurazeo and its investors, including €426 million for the Eurazeo share, a multiple of almost 4x its initial investment and an Internal Rate of Return (IRR) of about 35%.
Second, Asmodee has entered exclusive discussions to acquire ADC Blackfire Entertainment, which has worked with Asmodee for many years. Here's the press release announcing this development:
Founded in 1999, Blackfire is present in 3 markets and distributes collectible card games, toys, boardgames and pop culture products.
The synergy between Asmodee's catalogue and Blackfire's operations in Czech Republic and Romania creates a great opportunity to improve the supply of games, from the Asmodee Group studios and from all Asmodee partners, directly into these markets.
The acquisition of the newly developed, high-quality operations of Blackfire Germany will allow Asmodee to offer an even better service to vendors and customers in Germany and all over Europe.
"We are delighted to welcome Blackfire to the Asmodee Group. We have been working with them as partners for many years. We have always shared the same passion to provide our audiences with great games and entertainment experiences. Today the combination of Asmodee's and Blackfire's highly seasoned and professional teams will enable us to strengthen our operations and presence in Europe. Our key objective is to continuously offer the best products and services to our communities, consumers and retail partners", said Stéphane Carville CEO of Asmodee Group.
"We have been successfully building Blackfire for almost 20 years and a good part of this path has been with Asmodee as a great partner. We are now happy to announce the next step in our relationship, a merger which I have no doubt saying will create an awesome synergy of experience, brands and products. Our ultimate goal and vision to deliver the best entertainment to kids, families and fans of games is going to be much easier to fulfill. We are looking forward to write the next great chapter of our story", said Martin Polak, CEO of Blackfire Czech Republic.
"Over the years both companies have become key players in their segments of the games industry — and now we are taking the next step forward to grow best in class, combining a comprehensive assortment of distributed titles and owned intellectual properties with state-of-the-art logistics and customer service. I am sure this will create game-changing synergies from which customers will benefit greatly", said Alexander Dubynski, CEO of Blackfire Germany.
"I am thrilled that over just a couple of years Blackfire Romania, our youngest branch, has become one of the biggest distributors of toys and games in Romania and the preferred partner for major manufacturers and licensors. This merger will yield great synergies and benefits in the years ahead", said Loredana Orzață (Dobraniș), CEO of Blackfire Romania.
One thing to note about the DSP voting process this year: Normally the voting period runs from May 1 through July 31, but as Dominique Metzler of DSP organizer Friedhelm Merz Verlag explained in late July 2018, they stopped accepting votes on July 27 and they threw out all the votes submitted between July 23-27.
Why? On July 23, 2018, vlogger Stephan Gust asked fans of his channel to vote for Clank! for the DSP, claiming that if the game ranked first in the DSP, then all fans of his channel would receive an exclusive promo card courtesy of Schwerkraft Verlag, publisher of the German edition of the game. Writes Metzler (in my translation):
We considered this process a clear attempt at manipulation, and I communicated this to Mr. Gust that same evening, because the tenor of the video is simply this: Whether you like Clank! or not, vote for it so that I and you, my fanbase, receive this card. Among other things, this video called for people to vote for only Clank! and no other games. The next day, a second video was added to this channel which in its entirety once again seemed very strange to us.
After these calls, about one hundred votes for Clank! came in, about half of which did not vote for another game, with the other half voting for Clank! in first place but also voting for other games.
We feel we have a duty to you, the gamers, but also to Schwerkraft Verlag. Although Clank! didn't reach first place thanks to this unambiguous manipulation, the game would probably have moved up a place in the top 10 list. Many people would have wondered after the announcement of the voting result, whether Schwerkraft Verlag would have placed X in the ranking for Clank! without the questionable tactics used by Mr. Gust.
To avoid any question about which game might have deserved which place in the rankings, Merz Verlag ended the DSP voting immediately and threw out all votes after July 23. The organization apologized to those who might have voted during that time given that their votes were also discarded, but in the interest of fairness that's the course they thought best.
As of the end of September 2018, Tom Felber is stepping down from his role as chairman of the Spiel des Jahres jury, a position he's held since 2011. A press release on the SdJ website notes that during Felber's time as chairman, the jury introduced a third award (Kennerspiel des Jahres, or "Connoisseur's Game of the Year"), set up an annual sponsorship program that would support game-related activities and projects of individuals and institutions, and helped the jury establish the "Spiel des Jahres" brand beyond German-speaking countries. To quote from the press release, with any translation errors being my own:
The internationalization of the "Spiel des Jahres" brand was Tom Felber's hobby. He made numerous contacts around the world, initiated communication and co-operation with foreign-language players and groups, and became the face of the critics' panel internationally. Tom Felber was present at various fairs and other events worldwide for Spiel des Jahres. As a speaker and representative, he always sought direct contact.
Many projects would not have been possible — or at least not to the same extent — without the highly personal commitment of Tom Felber. Every year at the "Suisse Toy" event in Bern, he organized a huge game-of-the-year playing area for visitors, tirelessly explaining games one after another from morning to night. As co-initiator of the project "Spielend gesund werden" ["Health Through Play"], he visited hospitals and played with sick children. As part of a project with the Bundeswehr [Germany's unified armed forces], he took part in many playful foreign assignments.
Like no one else, Tom Felber has dedicated his life to promoting games, and like no one else, he has put himself in the service of the jury. Spiel des Jahres loses not only a big role model in terms of work ethic, but also a role model as a game critic. The name "Tom Felber" stands for critical, honest, unbiased game criticism. Felber's code of honor and his practiced morality guarantee that his texts are always concerned with the thing and criticism of it, not with the care of personal vanities. That's why even for criticized authors and editors, Felber remains a highly prestigious and respected authority. Despite his prominent position with the Spiel des Jahres, he always remained at eye level with everyone.
Tom Felber leaves the club at his own request because after years of responsibility and the limelight, he has the need to be responsible only for himself and to represent only himself — and because he wants time to play Gloomhaven.
We had received advance word of Felber's impending retirement from the Spiel des Jahres jury at Gen Con 2018, so once we ended our livestream game coverage at the event on Sunday, we convinced him to take a few questions in the BGG booth about his time with the jury, his view of what he had achieved, and what he plans to do next. I wish that I had had more advance notice so that I could have better prepared questions, but sometimes you get what you get, so here we go:
I don't normally post about most of the awards given in the game industry, but given the repeated suggestions by BGG users following the Spiel des Jahres nominations, including those in 2018, that the SdJ jury pay attention to heavier games, I thought I'd highlight one set of awards that does feature such titles: the International Gamers Awards.
The IGA was founded in 1999, and it's run by long-time game reviewer Greg Schloesser. Games released between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018 were eligible for consideration for the 2018 IGA, although the 27 jury members are free to nominate whichever titles they want during the nomination window, and if enough jurists vote for a particular game, then it's in! Jury members submit their nomination lists in secret, and whichever ten titles receive the most nominations make the cut — although when a tie exists for tenth place, then the nomination expands to meet that cut-off, as is the case in 2018. In alphabetical order, the nominees for the 2018 multiplayer IGA are:
• Agra, by Michael Keller and Quined Games • Altiplano, by Reiner Stockhausen and dlp games • Azul, by Michael Kiesling and Plan B Games • Clans of Caledonia, by Juma Al-Jou Jou and Karma Games • Decrypto, by Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance and Le Scorpion Masqué • Gaia Project, by Jens Drögemüller, Helge Ostertag, and Feuerland Spiele • Gentes, by Stefan Risthaus and Spielworxx • Heaven & Ale, by Michael Kiesling, Andreas Schmidt, and eggertspiele • Nusfjord, by Uwe Rosenberg and Lookout Games • Pulsar 2849, by Vladimir Suchy and Czech Games Edition • Rajas of the Ganges, by Inka & Markus Brand and HUCH! • Santa Maria, by Eilif Svensson, Kristian Amundsen Ostby, and Aporta Games • Transatlantic, by Mac Gerdts and PD-Verlag
For the two-player IGA, the top five vote-getters are nominated, except in the case of a tie. In alphabetical order, the nominees for the 2018 two-player IGA are:
I'll note that both BGG owner Scott Alden and I are IGA jurists. I became a jurist in the mid-2000s before I joined BGG, but I haven't nominated games or voted for a winner in roughly a decade, so I'm an IGA jurist in name only — which is good since I wouldn't have time to play the fifteen games that I've never played before final voting is due on the nominees...
• I missed a lot while I was at Gen Con 2018, and what I didn't miss, I mostly didn't have time to write about. Too much work in too little time, followed by a week of crunching SPIEL '18 info for that convention preview.
In any case, let's get to some of the industry news that emerged from Gen Con 2018, starting with the merger of Stronghold Games and Indie Boards & Cards to form Indie Game Studios, self-described in the press release as "one of the largest hobby board game companies in the world". Travis Worthington of IBC will become CEO of Indie Game Studios and oversee the operations of all three studios within this new entity — and I say three studios because Stronghold Games, Indie Boards & Cards, and Action Phase Games (which IBC bought in 2016) will each maintain their own brands, with Worthington continuing to serve as President of IBC and Action Phase and Stephen Buonocore continuing as President of Stronghold Games. Why merge if brand are remaining distinct? To quote from the press release:
"I am delighted to join forces with Stronghold Games," said Travis Worthington, CEO of Indie Game Studios. "Stephen is a tremendous individual that has grown a loyal following over the past decade and we've had a long running relationship of working together over the years. Our skill sets are very complementary, and I look forward to even greater growth as we work together as one team in the future. The timing was critical for both our companies. As the industry consolidates around a few major corporate players, we needed to get bigger in order to compete as an independently owned creator of the world's best board games."
"We have entered a new era in the hobby board game industry," said Stephen M. Buonocore, President of Stronghold Games. "We cannot simply operate as we did 10 years ago. To grow our business, we must acquire 'mindshare' via increasing visibility of our brands, additional customer focus, and hiring new talent. This merger will do exactly this. Indie Game Studios will allow us to increase our global reach, better fulfill gamer needs, and enhance our product development efforts throughout all of our brands. Indie Game Studios is uniquely positioned as an independent entity, ready to battle the giant corporate owned conglomerates of the hobby board game industry."
Buonocore will now serve as spokesperson for all Indie Game Studios brands, while Nick Little of IBC is being promoted to Vice President of Game Development and Manufacturing. A final bit from the press release: "There will be no changes to the Distributor or Retailer terms and conditions for any product lines as a result of this merger."
• In less publicized merger news, during Gen Con 2018 Greater Than Games announced that it would acquire Cheapass Games, with the merger likely being completed in early 2019. I haven't seen a press release from either company yet about the merger, but rather I ran into people during the show who had been authorized to release news about this acquisition. No details yet about whether the Cheapass Games brand will remain active in the GTG catalog, but I've previously spoken with GTG personnel about them trying to consolidate their BGG publisher pages to emphasize the company as a whole, so we'll see.
Galápagos Jogos was founded in 2009, and its press release announcing the impending acquisition notes that it's Brazil's largest modern board game company, with a product line that already includes many titles released by Asmodee-owned and -distributed brands, such as Star Wars: X-Wing, Ticket to Ride, Dobble, Dixit, and 7 Wonders. To quote more from the translate press release:
Since 2013, when [Galápagos Jogos] started to market its first international games titles, the company had an increase of 800%.
With more than 60 lines of board and card games, the company's success follows the industry's global advancement, which is considered one of the fastest growing segments in the entertainment industry.
"Our purpose of bringing people together through a fantastic entertainment experience is strengthened even further now that we are part of Asmodee. The passion for telling incredible stories is the main factor that unites us. We are very proud to join such an experienced and capable team, "said Yuri Fang, president of Galápagos Jogos.
Interest in Brazil is part of the French group's strategy to consolidate its global presence. This will be its first operation in Latin America. Asmodee has offices in 14 countries: the United States, Canada, Spain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and China. In addition, there are 13 game development studios around the world. Currently, the company distributes its products to more than 50 countries in the world.
The group, established in 1995, sells 34 million games a year, launches 300 new products, and recorded a turnover of €442 million in 2017.
"After five years of a successful partnership with Galápagos in the distribution of our games in Brazil, we are very happy to have them in the Asmodee family. We fully rely on the Galápagos team to further increase our presence in the market and build our platform in the country, "said Stéphane Carville, president of the Asmodee Group.
Azul is a beautifully produced strategy game that can be fantastically cutthroat with two players and equally challenging with four players. The game has also won the As d'Or award in France, the Origins award for best family game, and a Mensa Select winner, so the SdJ award is only the latest recognition of this game's excellence.
North Star Games plans to release an English-language version of the game for those who don't want to struggle through translating the cards from German, and the company now anticipates this version being available in November 2018.
If you want to know more about this highly variable bag-building game, check out this long overview video that I posted in June 2018.
Wolfgang Warsch (l) with jury member Bernhard Löhlein
Designers Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau received a special award ("sonderpreis") for Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 from Z-Man Games, with Leacock thanking multiple co-designers in countries all over the world after ten years of work on the Pandemic game system. In jury member Tom Felber's words:
In Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, the already ingenious gameplay was developed at a top level. The authors not only value a functioning game system, but also put on an interesting background story. The legacy principle changes the game board, game components, and rules in an exciting and sometimes surprising way. Against this game, all future legacy games will have to be measured.
Eurazeo, the private equity firm based in Paris that owns game publisher Asmodee, has entered "exclusive discussions" with PAI Partners, another Paris-based private equity house. ("Exclusive discussions" means that PAI Partners is competing with no other buyers at this time.) From the Eurazeo website (PDF):
Paris, July 20, 2018 - Eurazeo is pleased to announce the launch of exclusive discussions with PAI Partners for the sale of its stake in Asmodee, a leading international games publisher and distributor, based on an enterprise value of €1.2 billion.
As the publisher of some of the best known franchises internationally, such as Catan, Ticket to Ride,Splendor and Dobble/Spot it!, and a distributor of Pokémon and Magic trading cards, Asmodee has emerged in recent years as one of the highest performing and most innovative players in its market, globally.
Driven by Stéphane Carville and his teams and supported by Eurazeo, the company has transformed substantially, from a Franco-European distributor in 2013 to a global publisher today, capitalizing on the value of its intellectual property. In four years, revenue grew from €125 million, generated 48% in France, to €442 million, generated 75% internationally, representing an average annual growth rate of 37%. At the same time, publishing revenues increased to nearly two-thirds of games sales. The Group completed 20 acquisitions during this period, representing over €140 million in revenue.
Eurazeo's sales proceeds from this transaction could total around €580 million for Eurazeo and its investment partners, and €435 million for Eurazeo's stake representing a return on its initial investment of 4.0x and an IRR of 35%.
Under French law, the signature of a purchase agreement is subject to a preliminary information and consultation process involving employee representatives. The disposal is could be finalized by Q4 2018, following the completion of this process and supervisory authority approval.
• For its Batman: Gotham City Chronicles Kickstarter in early 2018, French publisher Monolith decided to make the game exclusively available through Kickstarter (and perhaps at conventions direct from the publisher) because it said that the distribution costs associated with its 2016 release of Conan led to the publisher essentially breaking even.
At the moment we are using our cash flow to not only develop, but also to produce and deliver boxes of Claustrophobia 1643 to our hubs (5000 to our US hub and 5000 to our European hub), without any backer or distributer having previously ordered them (so without the guarantee of selling them as is usually the case in a classic circuit or on Kickstarter). Obviously we have met with the Kickstarter officials to make sure that this is not a problem for the platform. As such, our pledgers will neither have to advance cash nor wait a long time before being delivered, or even fear that there will be a difference between what is being shown during the campaign and what they will get once they are delivered… because all the games will already be waiting for their future owners in the warehouses of our local partners. Many of our supporters will be able to play and manipulate the final product even before the campaign and all will be delivered within the six weeks that follow. There will be no post-campaign pledge manager and we will just use a KS online survey to collect pledger details.
You might recall that in September 2012 Kickstarter posted its "Kickstarter Is Not a Store" decree that didn't stop anyone from thinking that Kickstarter is indeed a store, just one in which you preorder products that don't yet exist and might never be delivered. This latest move by Monolith puts the lie to that statement even further, and with no post-campaign pledge manager, people have an additional incentive to lay the money out early. Get it now, or miss out!
Don't get me wrong — I understand why Monolith wants to do this. You don't have to mess around with distribution, but instead simply (or rather "simply") deliver product directly to individuals, then be done with the whole thing. This change from distribution to direct sales also provides a selling hook for buyers that rings true: "Today, in the traditional market, more than 60% of the value of a game is retained by intermediation (distributors + stores). We simply propose to our pledgers to equitably distribute this value between them and us. By doing so, we will be able to consolidate our margins, control our prices and ensure that we can continue to invest heavily in the development of our projects. At the same time, without having to wait or take any risk, you will get, each time, a much better bargain than anything you would get in a store."
Monolith notes in the comments that if more than five thousand people want the game in the U.S. or Europe, or more than ten thousand overall, then it will run a traditional KS campaign later.
• I haven't posted a crowdfunding round-up in a couple of months as I have plenty of material on hand related to games that are more immediately pending, but I did want to highlight this interesting and unexpected item on KS right now: Edible Games Cookbook, by Jenn Sandercock. (KS link)
This book contains recipes for a dozen games in which you create the pieces, game board, and whatever else you need to play, then you eat everything while you play. From the KS description: "You might be required to crack a secret code that's baked into cream puffs; keep a straight face while eating something gross; conjure up a delectable morsel from a mishmash of ingredients; perform "sacred", food-related rituals; test your memory and taste buds; or even eat your vegetables!"
• In June 2018, Magic: The Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater wrote a column outlining his definition of a game: "A game is a thing with a goal (or goals), restrictions, agency, and a lack of real-world relevance." He describes what he has in mind by those four categories as well as what you have if something has three of those categories, but not all four, with my favorite example being this one:
Goal (or goals), restrictions, and agency, but no lack of real-world of relevance
I refer to this as life. Let's take packing suitcases for a plane trip. Most airlines will charge you per suitcase and will charge you extra if the bag weighs more than 50 pounds (a little under 23 kilograms). There is a goal: pack everything you need for the trip. There are restrictions: use the fewest pieces of luggage while making sure no one piece weighs more than 50 pounds. There is agency: you have total control of what you do and don't pack and what piece of luggage each item goes into. But you don't lack real-world relevance. This is not being done for entertainment or education, it's being done because you have to do it.
Candy Land doesn't qualify as a game under Rosewater's definition since it lacks agency, and I've seen plenty of other complaints about his definition on Twitter, but it's fun to try to square your perspective of what a game is with others so that everything you think is a game fits inside the borders you establish.
• On his blog, designer Daniel Solisriffs on a design lesson from Paul Peterson: "Don't stop players from playing the game." In Rosewater's terms, don't remove agency from the game because then you have only an event that's taking place in front of you.
• Designer Adam Porter, whose trick-taking game Pikoko from Brain Games debuted at UK Games Expo and the Origins Game Fair in mid-2018, created an informative video that explores ten types of trick-taking games, including short overviews of more than a dozen games along the way:
SdJ jury member Tom Felber notes that the Pandemic gaming system has been nominated three times over the years — Pandemic in 2009, Forbidden Island in 2011, and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 in 2016 — and while "the already ingenious gameplay was developed at a top level", now the authors have paired this with an interesting background story. "All future legacy games will have to be measured" against this title, which is why the jury is awarding the authors this special prize.