Archive for Eric Hanuise
Part 1: From Porto Seguro to Robin
The next title from Flatlined Games is Robin, by Fréderic Moyersoen. This series of articles will tell you the tale of making Robin from the initial idea to the finished product.
The current Flatlined Games range is made of four games: Dragon Rage, an old-school wargame for hobbyists; Rumble In the House and Rumble In The Dungeon, two simple and zany party-games with bluffing and deduction; and Twin Tin Bots, our robot programming game by Philippe Keyaerts. Flatlined Games is still a small publishing house. I am alone and cannot afford to release a big box game like Twin Tin Bots every year. I have therefore decided to publish a few smaller games in order to be able to make other big box games later on.
I met Fréderic Moyersoen several years ago before I even knew I would start a boardgame publishing business. He attended local events, always carrying a couple of prototypes. We had a few interesting discussions and ended up designing a game together, Batt'l Kha'os, that was published in 2009 by Z-Man Games. After I became a boardgame publisher we kept in touch, often meeting at local events, gaming weekends, Belgian boardgame clubs, and game fairs. The professional world of boardgaming is quite small, so most pros know each other and stay in regular contact.
I usually discover new prototypes during boardgame events, at gaming weekends, or by designers contacting me out of the blue via email. For this project, I took a different approach. Fréderic jokingly mentioned at a gaming weekend that we had known each other for a while but I hadn't yet published any of his games. I was actively looking for small games, so I browsed his catalogue of games. (Fréderic has an online catalogue of unpublished games that he makes accessible to publishers. The format is quite simple: one page per game with a small photograph of the game materials, a short description of the theme and game idea, and a technical summary with age, number of players, duration, and a list of the components. This makes it easy to browse the whole list of unpublished games and select a few for further evaluation.)
Over time, I have played a lot of Fréderic's prototypes, many of which were eventually published. I therefore had a good idea of most of the games in his catalog already. There were a few games matching the format I was looking for, some that I had played already, so I asked him to bring a few to an event we were both attending. I played each one once again and eventually selected one, which was named "Guilds" at the time.
Guilds is a card game with a small story of its own: Fréderic was commissioned to create a game by an insurance company. They wanted a game that modeled a healthcare insurance system to be distributed to employees of the company. The game was published as Porto Seguro by the client. After that, Fréderic decided to continue working on the game to take it further and rethemed it to medieval guilds.
At the heart of the game is a central track with one pawn for each player. Their position on the track dictates the income they will receive. They must then contribute to a common fund according to their income: If they receive much, they contribute more, and if they received nothing, they get an allocation from the common fund.
Income is made of cards, which are exchanged by the players during the course of the game. Cards belong to several types and the goal of the game is to gather a set of cards of the same type, as in the classic Happy Families game.
During exchanges, pawns are moved on the track according to the exchanged cards. This allows careful players to improve their income and reduce other players' income in order to be the first to collect a winning set.
The game system is therefore very simple and can be played with the whole family. The game is fun and quite interactive, and the exchange system keeps all players in the game each turn with little downtime. It is also important to keep track of who exchanges what in order to guess the sets that players are collecting and avoid giving them an easy victory.
Medieval guilds was working as a theme, but that was too plain for my tastes. Not only did it not fit well in Flatlined Games' editorial line as we privilege fantastic and popular culture themes, but it was also set in a very crowded setting. (Medieval commerce has been used in hundreds if not thousands of games already.) I asked Fréderic to explore other themes, and he was enthusiastic.
We needed a theme that matched the "mutual insurance fund" mechanism as it is central to the game and that fit naturally and didn't feel artificial or pasted-on. Transposing medieval guilds to a futuristic space opera setting with space guilds would have been too easy, of course, and pretty transparent.
We explored a few themes that could more or less fit the game engine and eventually decided for Robin Hood. The theme change felt natural and was coherent with the game engine: Instead of moving from floor to floor in the guildhouse, players would roam the road from Sherwood Forest to Nottingham Castle. Spaces near the castle would bring more rich passersby to rob but at a higher risk, and spaces near the forest would bring less or no loot but the merry men would compensate for the difference in income as you work to help at the camp. The whole Merry Men thing of stealing from the rich to give to the poor somehow works as a mutual insurance fund — only deposits are not always voluntarily made...
Part 2: Game Development and Playtesting
Once the contract for publication of Robin was signed, we started working on the game development. The game had already been published in limited quantities by an insurance company, but it's always a good thing to review all aspects of a game before publishing it: This allows you to find any remaining issues and to further polish the game before publication.
«A game is never really done; at some point of its life, it just gets published.» (Jim Dunnigan)
I started to get the Guilds prototype played at game nights, weekends and events, and it was overall well-received. The game engine ran smoothly and play was around 20 minutes. At some point, players found a problem in the game engine where it was possible to empty the community pool and to progressively empty all player's hands. Fréderic quickly found a solution to this and modified the game accordingly. Guilds was now more solid and polished.
Once the game had been re-themed to Robin, I put together a new prototype with that theme and proceeded to playtest it again. Even if you change nothing to the rules and the retheming is only cosmetic, each modification done must be checked. For instance, in Guilds players go up and down in the guild house on the game board, and in Robin they go from left to right on the road from Sherwood Forest to Nottingham Castle. I wanted to make sure the arrows were still clear for all players, even on a big table, and that the direction of the arrows could not be confused. Playtesting also allowed us to make sure that during rules explanation the new theme matched the game engine, helped rules comprehension, and made a coherent whole for the players. We quickly realized that the new theme worked very well, even better by some aspects than the guilds theme.
We playtest a lot, and it happens that other publishers and designers participate in these playtests. This usually is very interesting as they have different views on what a game should be like and offer constructive criticism during the playtesting debriefings. This happened also with Robin. During an event in Brussels, Sébastien Dujardin (from Pearl Games) suggested adding a small mechanism to the game to make player position on the road track more important. We tested that immediately and it was added to the core game as it worked really well with the rest.
Goodie or No Goodie?
Fréderic also had designed a small set of special cards for the game, which could be used as a promotional goodie upon the game release.
During playtests, we decided to add these to the main game. These added a few interesting effects to the game engine, and it would have been a bit sad to only allow the lucky few who could get ahold of the goodie set to benefit from these cards. As time goes by, I'm growing more and more convinced that goodies that change or add to the actual gameplay should not be limited to a select few players who just happened to be lucky enough to get them.
Over a year and a half, Robin was playtested dozens of time. Although the resulting changes were minor overall, they have allowed us to further polish the game and to make sure players would play it over and again before getting tired of it.
Part 3: An Interview With Fréderic Moyersoen
Fréderic Moyersoen agreed to a session of questions and answers, a good opportunity to learn more about this prolific but discreet designer.
Q: Robin started as a commissioned work for an insurance company. Is this a common occurrence, or is it the exception?
It is rather exceptional, but it happens. In 2004 I was hired to design a game for a magazine. I had one month to design the concept. It was eventually republished in 2009 under the name Van Helsing.
More recently, I was contacted by a publisher from the Netherlands for a very ambitious project. Unfortunately the whole project went tits up and the game was never published. The normal process is rather that I create games and then look for a publisher.
Q: Was the requirement set provided by the client very specific or rather large?
A business usually has little knowledge of board games, so it was rather large. The key aspect was that it had to be a small game, simple, and of course fun to play.
Q: Creating for a commission implies a set of constraints. Is this a difficulty, or do these constraints help kickstart creativity?
This is an interesting question. I'll say that all games are created around constraints. When you freely create, you set yourself arbitrary constraints because you want to fit the range of such or such publisher.
If you use too much material or it is too costly, the game will be difficult to sell. Also, a game that is too original, too different, can be tough to sell.
With a commission, constraints help to focus your imagination, not unlike the kind of canvas a painter uses will change the way he works. A smaller painting works differently than a big one. Watercolors will lead him to a different place than oils.
Q: What are the pros and cons of such a commission work ?
First, for a commission there is a deadline to meet. Time is scarce so you must quickly find a concept that works. It's a real challenge.
Then, you need to get a good grip of the client's decision process. For Porto Seguro, which was the name of the commissioned game, the contact person had no decision power. I had to also sell the idea to his superior, then I was summoned before a panel of about twenty people to defend the idea before a final decision. This was quite trying, but the game was strong enough to pass these obstacles.
The prototype for Porto Seguro, which later became Robin
Q: Have other paths been explored, or were the central mechanisms already set from the beginning ?
Time was too limited to explore various paths. From the start, the game engine has not been changed a lot; it was only development, tweaks and ameliorations to balance all aspects of the game.
Q: Porto Seguro was created a few years ago. Today, would you accept that kind of commission work ?
It depends. Now that there was this failed project I would be much more cautious before taking on such a new commission work.
Q: After the client for Porto Seguro printed the game and distributed it to its employees, what made you bring the design back to the drawing board and work on it for a new version?
With Porto Seguro, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of any distribution plan. The client company printed the game internally and had no plans to distribute it outside the company. There may very well still be stacks of unused boxes in their warehouse. A game is created to be played, so it's sad to see it gathering dust, unplayed. This was a very strong motivation to start working again on this game.
Q: It's a game built closely around a very specific theme. Was it difficult to change the theme from Porto Seguro to guilds?
All my games are built around the theme, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this game could easily be adapted to another theme such as medieval guilds or later on Robin hood.
The commissioned theme was social security, so I researched the origins of social welfare and ended up on medieval guilds. Robin Hood's Merry Men most probably had a similarly geared organization to support each other.
Q: Work on the game was completed and it was fully developed when Flatlined Games picked it up for publication, yet they wanted to bring it back to the drawing board, develop it yet further again, and re-test everything. Is this common for a publisher?
Most publishers want a game that is ready for publication. This allows them to invest less time for a maximum return over time invested, or so they seem to think. I am very happy that Flatlined Games wanted to push development further, well beyond the point I thought the game was completed. It is rather rare that a publisher will invest so much time, expertise and imagination to further polish a concept that is supposed to already be ready for publication.
Q: Was this third development phase not somehow redundant ?
No. Without hesitation I can say that the game was good, but Flatlined Games made it excellent.
Q: Flatlined Games kept you in the loop during the whole process: playtest reports, choice of materials and packaging, illustrations from the first sketches to the final rendered art... This requires a lot of implication whereas some publishers will just stay silent once the contract is signed until they come up with the finished product ready to be put on the shelves. Did you enjoy this level of implication?
This is by far the best way to see a project evolve. Creating a new game is a bit like parenthood. As the father, you want to be there when the mother delivers, and then see how the kid grows. With some games, I felt like a sailor that knocks up the mother, sets sail, and only comes back ashore to a kid he did not see grow up.
Q: What do you think of the final product that Robin is? (packaging, art, ...)
It's all excellent. The artist is talented and did a great job. The publisher made interesting choices and assessed all options to only retain the best ones.
3D rendering of the components; cards are 100% plastic
Q: Robin hosts 2-6 players, like many of your creations. Is it important for you to allow for more than two or four players, or is this a market-related constraint?
As a player, I often have to pick a game according to the number of players around the table. Even if most want to play a given game we sometimes have to pick another game because the numbers don't fit. By creating games for two to six players, I can avoid this dilemma.
Q: You are known for several games, but the most famous is Saboteur, which is nearing a million copies sold. Does this help your other games, or do they have to somehow live in the shadows of your best-seller?
Unlike writers, game designers are not well known and advertised. In a library, books are sorted according to writer name, not by publisher. With games it is different. Publishers put forward a range of games with a visible and recognizable brand. Having the designer's name on game boxes is by the way a recent trend. So all in all I think the Saboteur effect is minimal on my other games.
Q: From 1998, it's now sixteen years that designing board games has been your only profession. What are the big changes you've witnessed in the game industry over that time?
The number of new publishers never stopped growing, and neither did the number of new titles published. I witnessed a real boom in the boardgames market. If you take into account the fact that gamers represent only about 2-3% of the population, we could still be far from saturation. At the same time, I saw the shelf life of games diminish and that's something quite bad. Too many publishers release new games to then just forget about them and turn on something else. I am quite happy that Flatlined Games works on a longer scope and wants to keep their games available on the market for a long time.
Q: If you had to start over now, would it still be possible? Harder or easier than in 1998?
Well, in 1998 I wrote letters to contact publishers. Most of them never even bothered to reply, by the way. With the Internet and all the modern communication channels it's easier to get in touch with publishers. The quantity of designers also rose in the same proportion, so I guess it's about as hard today as it was in 1998 to get started in this business.
Q: What changes did you find the most promising these last few years?
I feel the world shrunk. Sixteen years ago each publisher was selling games in his local market: Germans in Germany, French in France. This has changed a lot, and top of the line publishers now all have a global market strategy.
Q: And which changes were the least positive?
I did not see notably bad changes happening.
Q: A few years back, the designer's name was not on the game box. Now, they are more and more placed in the spotlight and actively take part in promoting the games as in the book business: biography, signings, videos, interviews,... What do you think of this evolution?
It's positive and normal, and long term it is a requirement. This means the board game business becomes more mature and professional. There is a huge amount of games being released each year, and the publisher must find ways to stand out in this crowded marketplace. Using the designer as a star and putting him in the spotlight helps sell the games.
Q: You're one of the few full-time game designers. How many of your games have been published, and how many prototypes still sleep on your shelves?
Now about twenty titles have been published. About ten more are being worked on by publishers as we speak, and about a hundred are available for publication. As I create about eight new titles every year, my shelves fill up faster than I can sell my games to publishers.
Q: You create games for a wide audience, from children's games to historical wargames. Is this a professional approach to cover various areas of the market, or has this grown over time according to your whims?
I hold a fondness for historical wargames, but these have become unsellable nowadays. Over time we also grow lazy and reading sixty pages of rules before starting a set-up session of over one hour does not attract me so much anymore. The market clearly evolves towards simpler and lighter games. As a professional, you must adapt to the market and follow the trend.
Q: The design process is quite different from designer to designer. What is your criteria to decide whether an idea is worth pursuing, to the point of making a prototype and starting to develop it?
The theme I chose must engage me enough to go all the way in the creative process. I often will read a book after I pick the theme to get some ideas and get my teeth into the theme.
Q: Some designers have started self-publishing, especially with platforms such as Kickstarter. Do you think this challenges the role of publishers and distributors, or do you see that as a new market, complimentary to the current one?
It's obvious that publishers and distributors must take into account this new phenomenon, which challenges their traditional work methods. Some publishers also use Kickstarter as a promotional platform, but where will that lead us in the long term? Will gamers eventually need to preorder all their games before they are released? I am convinced most players want to see and hold the game box before they open their wallet and consider making a purchase.
Q: Each year, hundreds of new games are released and it's harder and harder for a new game to get noticed. What do you make of this?
I try not to worry too much about it because it could block my creativity. On the other hand, I always check whether an idea has already been released in the recent past. There is no use creating a game that already exists. As a game designer, I try to get noticed by creating new concepts. A publisher once told me: We are looking for a game idea that will have us say "Wow!" This is obviously easier said than done.
Part 4: Graphic Design
During the whole development work, prototypes are usually quite ugly, using clip-art, hand drawn sketches, and pictures from the Internet. We need only enough elements to play and test the game engine. This is also where the rough layout of the game gels in place: board, tokens, cards, etc.
A card from the Robin prototype; the background illustration was a first sketch from artist Quentin Ghion
Once development work is done — or at least when it's far enough that the layout will not change anymore — a proper artist needs to step in and start graphic design for the game.
I started by discussing with Fréderic the overall style for the game's art. Once we agreed on the art style and tone we wanted, I wrote a graphical brief document that summarizes the game, explains the style we are looking for, and details all elements that need be illustrated. Such documents also have examples of images in the required style and sometimes a mood-board, a series of unrelated illustrations in different styles that's put together to help define the overall atmosphere for the project.
This graphical brief has several uses. First, I use it to confirm with the designer that we are on the same page with regard to the graphic design for the game. Then, I use it to contact artists, as a reference allowing them to assess the work required and provide a quotation. Then during the production of the art it will serve as a reference to make sure no item was forgotten and that we are still in line with what was commissioned.
I keep the portfolio addresses and contact info of artists I have been in contact with over time, and when I start a new project I browse these portfolios to find the artist best suited to the project. I then contact them with the graphical brief asking whether they are interested and available and what their fees would be.
For this project, I hesitated for a while between working with an established artist or with a newcomer. A few months ago, Quentin Ghion contacted me, fresh out of school. His portfolio, under the alias "LopSkull", had lots of potential, even though his style was different than what we were looking for — but that was also an opportunity as bringing an artist out of his comfort zone, to explore new territories, often brings interesting and original results. Furthermore constraints can springboard artistic talent and creativity.
A portfolio illustration from Quentin "Lopskull" Ghion
I was won over by his sense of light and details and eventually decided to trust him with illustrating Robin, and he luckily was still available. This was me taking a risk, as not only his style was different and he would need to be guided through the whole process, but also this is a card game with lots of illustrations to create. And to make it all even more fun the available time was short if we wanted to finish in time to have the game produced before October 2014. A big project on a limited time — what better challenge is there to get started with board game art?
Another portfolio illustration
Quentin lives in Belgium, so we could afford a rare luxury: We sat down together — designer, artist and publisher — and played the prototype for Robin before starting work on the art. This is quite rare as all parties usually live far from each other. This is, of course, a real plus for the game as it allows the artist to get a good grip of the game and easily understand which information is important and which is secondary.
We followed a stepped path to manage the amount of work to be done: first pencil sketches and doodles to quickly define each illustration and allow for easy changes or variations. Then roughs, quick sketches to define the color palette and overall placement of light. Only then was each illustration rendered in full color and detail. This breakdown makes it easy to do changes if an illustration doesn't work well or doesn't match our expectations.
It is usually the publisher that is in charge with regards to the graphic design and marketing of a game, and the designer for all matters that relate to gameplay. I, however, kept Fréderic in the loop at each stage, asking his feedback and sometimes asking changes of Quentin based on it. I also included the team at IELLO and some retailers I know well in the loop for more feedback. They really helped me make Robin a better game.
As soon as I saw the first sketches, I knew that hiring Quentin was a good decision. He was able to fit the style we wanted while bringing his own style to it and made the game a homogenous whole. He was also very quick, creating most of the art for the game in under a month, which is no small feat. I would not be surprised to see his name on more game boxes in the future.
Part 5: Quentin "LopSkull" Ghion in His Own Words
The English lop is a breed of domestic rabbit with long hair and long lop ears, so my artist name is the skull of a lop-eared rabbit, which defines me quite well as I like dark settings, humor, and of course rabbits.
So where are the blue skies, chlorophyll, and warm smiles ?
They are quite rare in my portfolio where I rather travel in dark places with brutes and ugly monsters, which I have a lot of sympathy for — and it works quite well when you have to create art for video games.
It doesn't come very handy, however, when you want to take on a family theme such as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, with their bright smiles. That is the challenge that Eric and Fréderic brought to me with their new game Robin.
And I gladly took them on, even if they had to put me back every now and then on the path to joy and colors, to fight some entrenched habits. I kind of had forgotten that a sky is blue, and when I checked through the window it was indeed bright blue. I was eventually quick at home with the characters, giving them each a personality of their own. Taking on a classic theme is interesting as you easily reach people, while still being able to integrate your personal touch to it.
The most difficult aspect may have been the background for each series. We needed each family to be easy to recognize, while still integrating well with the illustration. Eric trusted me on my approach, and I am glad of the results we got.
The experience was overall very positive, with an efficient production workflow, a great first experience with boardgame illustration.
The most difficult series was the places. They had to be part of a whole, while having very different settings and moods. The common trait of the places is a bright blue sky, but how should I integrate the castle's jail or the farm in that series? Eventually, the compositions were enough to link the series together, and the pictograms would further help.
Production was quite efficient, starting with doodles and sketches, a few changes, then rough light and color placement, and a last step with details and rendering. I also had to correct some anachronistic details as Robin Hood is set in a well-defined historical context.
Most of the work was to create the cards, but the box cover, board and box itself were also quite a challenge. I designed several covers, including one I liked a lot as it was more dynamic, but which was deemed too aggressive in the end.
Using the game box as game board was an interesting idea, but playtest showed us that players didn't like it during play as it got in the way, so it was dropped. The box will be a very nice object, however, which I am impatient to hold in my hands.
As for all parts of the game, actually. It's quite a thing to see your work made into a real object, to hold the cards in hand, move on the board, and win the game, of course.
Thanks to Eric and Fréderic for their trust, and for offering me a first opportunity in the magical world of boardgame illustration.
Hi! I am Eric Hanuise from Flatlined Games and 2012 was our second year of attendance at Spiel. Following Spiel 2011 I provided a report on the fair from an exhibitor's point of view and it was well received, so I'm at it again for 2012.
What Happened at Flatlined Games between Spiel 2011 and Spiel 2012?
Following the Spiel 2011 fair, Rumble in the House proved a success, with the 3,000 copies of the original print run selling out in less than three months. My French distributor IELLO did wonders with the game over the whole year and netted me a deal with Canadian distributor Le Valet d'Couer. Sales in UK, Holland and Belgium were dwarfed by theirs, but still added to the total, so things have been good.
My strategy is to print small runs, usually 3,000 copies, and reprint as needed. I could get a lower per unit cost by printing 5,000 or 10,000 copies at once, but at the cost of a higher financial risk and lesser flexibility for changes between reprints.
The initial print run was 3,000 copies with five languages: French, Dutch, German, English and Spanish. When I reprinted after the fair, my German printing partner Ludo Fact told me I had to change the box format for the game because the box didn't close well which led to a slower assembly line (so more costs) and problems for packing (ten units per box instead of twelve due to lost space). I upgraded the box while keeping the same components for the game, and released two versions: one with Dutch and French language, and the other with English, German and Spanish. The upgrade also allowed for a nicer box back with a picture of the product, a very important feature for retailers who need to explain the game to customers, but can't always open a box to do so. The FR/NL version also sold out during the summer and a third reprint was needed – 5,000 copies sold already!
My contacts with U.S. distributors at Spiel 2011 didn't result in a deal, but I kept looking for a solution for the U.S. market. I eventually heard about Game Salute, which looked promising, and signed a deal in August 2012 with them for all our products. Game Salute offers a platform of services that makes them somewhere between a distributor, a fulfilment and logistics company, a publisher and author agent, an actual publisher, and more. What they do for me is get my game shipments and warehouse them, then sell them to U.S. retailers with a margin, and promote them in the U.S. I shipped them the thousand EN/DE/ES Rumble in the House that were produced earlier as well as about five hundred copies of Dragon Rage, most of the remaining stock from the 1,500 copies printed. (I still had 144 in Brussels.)
Dragon Rage has sold better than expected. There were 1,500 copies printed with a target of five years to sell out, so we're ahead of schedule and we've only started to tap the U.S. market. I was actually surprised by the success of the game in Belgium and France, as I expected to make most of my sales in the U.S. When this sells out, we might see a reprint, which is great. The author's working on a follow-up, too.
The Spiel 2012 Line-up
For Spiel 2012, I decided to put the focus on two games: Rumble in the Dungeon, a new release that is a standalone expansion to Rumble in the House, and the prototype of Twin Tin Bots, a game by Philippe Keyaerts that we launched on both Kickstarter and Ulule to fund.
Rumble in the Dungeon is pretty much the same game as Rumble in the House with two key differences: the dungeon setting, and a new rule for a treasure chest. Of course the two games can be combined, with the dungeon becoming the house's cellar, so that more people can participate.
Twin Tin Bots is a robot-programming game from Keyaerts, author of Vinci, Evo, Olympos, and Small World. It's a game of perfect information with no luck in which each player controls two robots and programs them to harvest gems on the board and bring them back to his base. The twist is that each robot has three programming slots but each turn only a single instruction on one of the two robots can be changed; the rest of the instructions must remain as is. Robots then dutifully perform their programmed instructions, in sequence, at the end of the player's turn. This limited control is what Philippe Keyarts wanted to experiment with in the game, and the result is an interesting brain burner that manages to stay fast-paced and has lots of player interaction.
At the end of the summer, I ordered a print run of 6,000 Rumbles from Ludo Fact: 3,000 FR/NL Rumble in the House, 1,000 EN/DE/ES Rumble in the Dungeon, and 2,000 FR/NL Rumble in the Dungeon. Numbers add up real quick at that pace! The good news is that since the games are similar, they can be produced and priced as a single batch.
I then made a projection on royalty payments and tax payments that I would have to make at the end of the year, and it became obvious that I could afford to go to Essen, but could not print Twin Tin Bots right away. Twin Tin Bots is a game with 36 plastic miniatures and lots of components, which mean it's expensive to produce.
One of the reasons I was happy to make a deal with Game Salute for U.S. distribution is that they also sometimes agree to run a Kickstarter campaign for non-U.S. based publishers through their Springboard program. (Starting a project on Kickstarter requires that you have a U.S. address and a U.S.-based credit card for Amazon payments.) Philippe Keyaerts agreed to let me crowdfund the printing of his game, so I soldiered on to set up the campaign. The plan was to have it start just before the fair in order to get good media exposure.
As the days passed, bringing us nearer to Spiel 2012, I realized that I might have bitten a bit more than I could chew by working on the Kickstarter campaign and the fair preparations. Setting up a Kickstarter campaign takes a lot of work, and running it once started is even more work.
Pierre and Mark volunteered for a second tour of duty at Spiel, while Stéphane could not join us this year. I had met with Cedric and Stéphanie at the Paris est Ludique! fair in mid-2012, and while they usually volunteer for Cocktail Games at fairs and events, they told me they would be available to help us in the booth, meaning that Flatlined Team 2012 would be four volunteers plus me. I knew from last year that I needed more people, so this was perfect!
I also changed hotels in 2012 as last year's hotel was cheap, which is good, but felt very cheap, which isn't. The accommodation budget nearly doubled due to the hotel change and more staff, but after a hard day's work at the fair, the least I can offer my volunteers is a good night's rest.
For the booth, I opted again for a "standard" 5x2 meter corner booth, again in hall 4. This time, however, I ordered carpet along with the booth as last year we spent way too much time laying, then removing the chequered vinyl flooring for not much added value to the booth. The custom wooden table for Rumble in the House was there again, as were the two shelves and the TV. I added a couple of folding tables and a set of garden chairs as I wanted visitors to be able to sit down for a demo this year. And I kept the vinyl banners, the pinewood structure, and the lamps from 2011.
Last year, I had my games stored in Brussels and we trucked them to Essen for the fair. This year was different: Rumble in the House was sold out, and I was waiting for the reprint and the Rumble in the Dungeon print from Ludo Fact. I received confirmation that they would indeed be able to produce the games in time for the fair only a few weeks before Spiel 2012. This meant the games would be delivered on the fair premises. I arranged for Ludo Fact to deliver the 1000 EN/DE/ES Rumble in the Dungeon to the fair, as well as 300 each of FR/NL Rumble in the House and Rumble in the Dungeon, which I would then bring back to my Belgian distributor.
I can tell you that no matter how much you trust your supplier, as long as you haven't seen the pallets actually delivered, you keep expecting the worst to happen. In 2011, many publishers were not supplied in time for the fair, and to a lesser extent, every year some publishers miss the deadline. Many issues can crop up: production delays, logistics errors or problems, customs withholding the goods for clearance, etc.
I also made some changes to our in-booth stationary supplies and workflow in order to be able to create invoices on the fairground, as it proved inconvenient last year to generate and send invoices to customers who needed one after the show. I kept it all paper-based, however, as having no computer and printer in the booth means fewer set-up hassles, less opportunity for devices to fail, and less worry about having them stolen. Low-tech stuff like a self-copying invoice book works wonders in such a setting. The same went for sales: Each staffer had a pen and notepad, and manually tracked daily sales. At the end of each day we did a short staff meeting and summed up the sales so we could track how we were doing. It also built some emulation as everyone wanted to have the most sales for the day...
So we were to go to Essen with a mostly empty truck and come back with some remaining product. (And possibly a huge stack of new games to play!)
I also printed rules sheets for Rumble in the House in German and English as all copies we would have in the booth would be FR/NL, which isn't a big deal as the game is totally language independent and the rules are very short.
David MacKenzie from Clever Mojo Games, who recently joined Game Salute as Springboard Officer, helped me shape the Kickstarter campaign and provided lots of interesting feedback and insight. It's been a real boon to have someone with so much experience helping out.
I also ordered 3D-printed playing pieces and assembled three working prototypes of Twin Tin Bots that are very close to what the finished game will be – a very important prop for the fair!
While preparing all of this, I was working my day job as consultant, and preparing the Kickstarter for Twin Tin Bots. There's only so long you can go on sleeping five hours a night before your work quality starts to suffer, so eventually I had to pace things down a bit. The victim was communication as I couldn't devote as much time and energy to promoting the Kickstarter before the fair as I would have liked. This would end up affecting the campaign as the early days are very important. Well, another lesson learned: Don't try to do too much at once. Make bold plans, but not too bold.
In 2011, we all met in Brussels and drove together: two in the truck and two in my car. This year, it was not possible to all arrive at the same time in Essen. Mark joined me on Tuesday in Brussels, and we loaded the furniture for the booth in the truck and drove to Essen. The only games I picked up were 72 copies of Dragon Rage and a measly five copies of Rumble in the House I had left – at least I would be able to run demos in the booth. Cedric and Stéphanie live in France and were to join us in Essen by train on Wednesday afternoon. Pierre wasn't able to join us before Friday noon as he had work obligations during the week.
I set up the booth with Mark on Tuesday afternoon, but we couldn't set up the press display as the games were not there yet. I got news from Ludo Fact that they'd be delivered Wednesday in the morning, and that they would have a few copies available early on Wednesday morning in order to be able to set up the press display. Again, the wonders of German efficiency at work...
We had no car this year and the truck was parked within the fair walls, so we had to commute by the Metro to go to the hotel. After a good meal, we went to rest – that is, I spent a few hours checking on the Kickstarter and answering emails before crashing on my bed, as I would do every night during the fair. Mark had already picked up a few preorders and already had some rules reading to do.
I picked up the advance copies of Rumble in the Dungeon and went to set up the press display while Mark waited at the booth to receive the pallets when they'd arrive. I just set up the display and didn't attend the press show this year as I didn't want to let Mark do all the heavy lifting alone.
I heaved a big sigh of relief when I saw the pallets; as I mentioned before, no matter how much you trust your supplier, you have no peace of mind as long as the product is not in hand. The added tables and chairs in the booth meant we would have less storage space, so we moved most of the games to the truck. I noticed a production error in Rumble in the Dungeon, and my heart missed a couple of pulses. Thankfully it was a minor problem: The game was supposed to have the stackable plastic scoring pegs in different colors than Rumble in the House to make it easy to play with up to twelve players when using both games. Since each game has a scoring track, it was still possible to combine two boxes and use the two tracks together, so it's really a minor annoyance – yet it needed to be addressed. I quickly notified my contact at Ludo Fact, and he told me that they would send replacement parts at their expense to all customers affected. That's the kind of great service you get from a reputable company. (Affected customers can request a replacement set of counters from our website through the end of January 2013.)
We finished setting up early and had some time to greet friendly faces from last year, and fellow publishers from all around the world. We wanted to leave early on Wednesday to be able to greet Cédric and Stéphanie on arrival in Essen, and also because there was something special planned for the evening:
Essen Warm-up Day
I had learned about the Warm-up Day on Facebook, and it seemed a promising and intriguing idea. SpieleGilde, a "gaming industry association", was organizing through the concerted efforts of Roland Weiniger from Germany's Game Engineers and Kim Fjeld from Norway an event called "Essen Warm-up Day" and inviting players who were coming to visit the Spiel fair to gather the day before the fair and play from 10:00 to 22:00.
The event was held at the Unperfekt Haus, an interesting local place to Essen with a small theater, several conference rooms, and lots of arts and crafts workplaces in the upper floors (knitting, LEGO-building, painting, local maker-space, computer lab, ...). Obviously a focus point for the local cultural events. Entrance was not free, but it included access to an all-you-can-eat buffet and free soft drinks, so the €23/person cost was not all that bad.
I saw the Warm-up Day as an interesting opportunity: First, it would obviously attract keen gamers willing to discover and play a lot of new games. That is a perfect opportunity to showcase our games before the fair and maybe generate some pre-buzz. Second, as Cédric and Stéphanie live in France and joined us only just before the event, they had not had the time yet to learn the rules of Twin Tin Bots. This would be a perfect opportunity for quality team-building while making sure they could learn the game that they would demo in the booth during the fair.
It was also there that I fully realized the extent of the stress and hard work that had preceded that moment, and I could eventually start to relax: The booth was set up, the games had arrived, the press display was okay, and most of the team was up and running. Time for a pat on the back. So we first treated ourselves to the excellent cooking of the Unperfekt Haus' buffet, then we set up on a free table and quickly found players to join us.
I ran the rules explanation for the first demo, and the team picked up from there and ran several demos during the evening. Needing to relax, I wandered around after the first game in order to schmooze with the people in attendance and visit the place. We were not the only ones who noticed the interest and potential of the Warm-up Day. Around 80 players were present, and some notable publishers, too: Uwe Eickert was demoing Conflict of Heroes, and Ted Alspach was running Suburbia and Mutuant Meeples demos. Also present were Piotr Burzykowski from LocWorks and designer Frederic Moyersoen, who I had notified of the event. Piotr was demoing Alien Frontiers, and Frederic was making a last-minute playtest of some variants for the prototype he would pitch to publishers during the fair.
I also took the time to thank Roland Weiniger for organizing the event, which was a great way to start the fair! I'm sure next year they will have to limit attendance as the capacity is 170 persons.
Tuesday to Sunday – The Fair!
Pierre eventually joined us Friday morning, so the team could now turn at full speed – and yet each one of us could spare some time to actually visit the fair. He had already played all our games before and had been in the booth last year, so he could hit the ground running, so to speak.
In 2012, I had lots of meeting planned before the fair. Most of them would be in our booth, which was convenient. I once again used foldable chairs to meet my appointees near the booth, in the galleria, away from the constant flux of visitors and somewhat shielded from the noise of the demos. Spiel is a great opportunity to meet other professionals who would otherwise be reachable only through phone, Skype or email.
This year was great as I could finally meet the staff from my Canadian distributor, Le Valet d'Coeur. They told me that Rumble in the House (which is called "Chicane dans la Cabane" in Canada) just won the award of the country's main consumer association, "Protégez-vous". It actually made the front page of the biggest Canadian-French language paper! They had big expectations for Rumble in the Dungeon and wanted to see what Twin Tin Bot was like, ahead of it being produced. This also meant that between their needs – two thousand Rumble in the House to be flown to Canada right after the fair so they would be available for end-of-year sales – and the ongoing strong sales in France, the new print run would sell out before the end of the year. That'll be about 11,000 copies of Rumble in the House – who would have thought?
Another important meeting was with Dan Yarrington from Game Salute, who was attending Spiel for the first time in order to develop business opportunities with European publishers. Since we had started working together only a couple of months ago, it was a good opportunity to meet face-to-face and discuss our business, and I also made sure to put him in touch with the publishers I knew who would be interested in Game Salute's services. We met several times during the fair and had a great time. I also met with several authors, artists, distributors, store owners, and (most importantly) journalists and bloggers from all around the planet.
Pre-production version of Twin Tin Robots at Spiel 2012 (Image: Ann Therle)
Journalists and bloggers were especially important this year as we were demoing Twin Tin Bots and trying to get a lot of coverage of the Kickstarter campaign to fund it. We had one table running demos of Rumble in the Dungeon and two running demos of Twin Tin Bots. I also had signs in the booth with QR codes leading to the project page on Kickstarter, and we regularly saw visitors pointing their smartphone to scan these codes. I gave several podcast interviews, while the team had a few video crews stopping by to film demos of Twin Tin Bots.
This year was quite different from 2011. Having found a distribution solution for France, Belgium, Holland, UK, and now the U.S., I could afford to have lower sales at the booth and put the focus on Twin Tin Bots. As a result, this year the fair actually cost me money, but I knew I would make it up in distribution sales afterwards, so I could accept that expense.
My goals for the fair were to first demo and promote Twin Tin Bots, then launch Rumble in the Dungeon, and then if possible find new distribution deals for areas where I was not yet present. Another goal was to understand what happened last year with an Asian distributor that was interested in Rumble in the House and bought several copies to test it on their market – after which I received no feedback whatsoever. I arranged a meeting with them at the fair this year and we discussed the matter. It was quite constructive, and I expect will lead to a distribution deal later on.
As in 2011, Saturday and Sunday were slower, with more families and casual visitors. Sunday was again the day of last-minute decisions for some buyers, and the day in which retailers and distributors bought some boxes.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Another interesting aspect of the fair is the events that happen around it. We couldn't attend Ludo Fact's booth party, but we were able to attend Repos Production's, which was a hoot.
The evenings were also full of opportunities, like joining the big crowd at the Hotel Ibis in Essen center to test new games in the evenings, the "French evening" at the Atlantic hotel just next to the fairgrounds, and the various meals with friends. The weather was exceptionally nice this year; one evening we even sat for an outside drink on a terrace at 10:00 p.m. – not something you usually do in October in Germany.
All these evening activities were of course followed by a quick Internet session to catch up on the Kickstarter before crashing on the bed.
On Sunday evening, there is a bell sound and an announcement on the P.A. at the end of the fair asking visitors to kindly leave the premises. It's spontaneously followed by a big "Hurray!" and cheers by all the fair exhibitors – it's over!
We dismantled the press display and booth on Sunday evening and packed everything in the truck. I had arranged with Ludo Packt to leave a pallet of unsold games (850 EN/DE/ES) that they would pick up and send to Game Salute in the U.S. right after the fair. Many publishers who receive their games at the fair and don't sell out arrange for the leftover games to be picked up and warehoused at Ludo Packt; it seems most of the profession somehow works with them. The service is usually excellent, so it's no wonder they are so pervasive. I heard 1,500 pallets were picked up after the fair – that's no small logistics feat.
Dismantling was faster than last year, thanks to the carpet decision. That meant more time left for a final meal with the team on Sunday evening. We all left on Monday after a good night's rest.
Once back in Belgium, the couple of weeks after the fair are of course very busy, too, getting back in touch with most contacts from the fair, making sure the logistics follow as the bulk of the new print run is delivered to my distributors, and of course tending to the Kickstarter campaign by posting updates and videos from the fair.
To be continued in 2013...
Eric Hanuise and Philippe Keyaerts present Twin Tin Bots at the BGG stand during Spiel 2012
Eric Hanuise goes solo to talk about Rumble in the Dungeon at the BGG stand
Hi, everybody! I'm Eric Hanuise, founder and "the guy" at Flatlined Games, publisher of Dragon Rage and Rumble in the House. Flatlined Games is a one-man business, which I run aside my "real" day job as a business analyst consultant in Belgium.
This year was the first time Flatlined Games was present at the Spiel game fair, and while there are lots of articles on the new games released, not so much is written about the organization of the fair itself, so I thought some of you might be interested in an insider's report, especially from a first-time exhibitor.
Spiel 2011 ran from Thursday, October 20 to Sunday, Oct. 23, but preparations for attending the fair began way earlier, around March 2011.
Having attended the fair as a visitor for the previous eight years, I had some knowledge of the game fair's infrastructure and rhythm. Also, Belgium is a small country where most game designers and game publishing companies know each other, so I asked a lot of questions to the nice people at Repos Production (makers of 7 Wonders, Ghost Stories, Time's Up and many other fine games) and Pearl Games (makers of Troyes and Tournay), who kindly shared their knowledge of the previous years attending the fair as exhibitors.
Spiel is a very special game fair because it's simultaneously a public event where exhibitors sell their wares to "regular" people (lots of people, with an attendance of about 150,000 for the four days of the fair) and a professional event where all players of the boardgaming industry meet, greet and deal: designers, publishers, distributors, manufacturers, agents, fullfilment agencies, amateur designers, self-publishers, and some weird people with green hair or a suit and bow tie.
Preparing for the Fair
The first order of business was to secure a place on the fairgrounds, which involves dealing with the Spiel organizers – Friedhelm Merz Verlag – several months before the event, the sooner the better.
The fairgrounds are huge, but most exhibitors ask to stay at the same place from year to year, which makes it easier for fair regulars to locate them. Of course some exhibitors come for only one year, and new exhibitors arrive each year so the overall fair map changes every year but only so much. Each hall has its atmosphere, so getting your booth in the "right" hall is quite important. Halls 12 and 5 are near the main entrances of the fair and guarantee a lot of visitors; Hall 9 is the historical home of Heidelberger Spieleverlag (which carries the German line of Fantasy Flight Games' products among other things), Z-Man Games, Lookout Games, Fragor Games, and a few others; Hall 6 is the place to be for role-playing (tabletop and larp), miniatures and wargaming; Hall 4 is home of the Asian publishers (Korea, Japan, Hong-Kong, ...) and the new publishers; and in 2011 a new hall, Hall 7, opened to allow for the massive arrival of the Russian and eastern European publishers.
I asked to be placed in Hall 9 but it was sold out already, so I opted for Hall 4. You can have worse neighbors than the fine folks of CBG and Rebel, those from Japan Brand, and the Belgian fellows from Pearl Games!
There are several kind of booths you can get when attending the fair as exhibitor. They have a "standard" starter booth of 5x2 meters in a U-shape, with a fixed price that's expensive, but yet affordable for small companies and even self-publishers. For 50% more, you can get a 5x2 meter L-shaped booth at the end of a row – a bit more expensive, but there is a gain in visibility as you have two sides of the booth open to the public. Beyond the basic "standard" starter booths, any other size is possible but you are billed by the square meter at a price that is double the "standard" starter's booths.
The German efficiency does wonders here as Merz Verlag sends you a catalog listing all the possible options for your booth. You can rent furniture, of course, as well as appliances (Fridge? Beer tap? Plasma screen? Name it, they've got it); running water, electricity, compressed air, and sewer connection for the booth; carpeting; ceiling suspensions (and heavy-lift devices); and a huge lot of nifty options. The catalog also has a plan of all the halls, with the sizes and weight allowances of all doors, passages, and lifts so that you can plan your set-up and dismantling in excruciating detail. All these options cost a little fortune, of course, so you better be very conservative unless you're named Hasbro or LEGO.
I booked an L-shaped "starter booth", with electricity in the booth for our lamps and TV display.
Setting up prior to the start of Spiel 2011
After that, I spent a lot of time planning as many details about the set-up, fair, and dismantling as I could. ("A plan is just a list of things that don't happen." — The Way of the Gun) However, the more you plan, the more time you have to deal with problems as they occur.
We had two games on display for this first attendance: Dragon Rage, a fantasy wargame from Lewis Pulsipher in which dragons and mythical monsters attack walled cities, and Rumble in the House, from Olivier Saffre (aka, Ken Rush), which is a silly and frantic party game in which tenants battle in an overcrowded house to throw others out and keep the house. This meant organizing the booth as two separate booths in order to give each game a fair space.
Furniture was limited to the bare minimum: two plastic shelves attached together to make a counter, and one plastic shelf in the back to display our wares; a couple of foldable chairs, and a demo-table for Rumble in the House which I crafted and painted. The demo-table is held together by bolts and wing-nuts to make it easy to assemble and disassemble without requiring tools. This minimal setup would allow us to stock a good supply of games in the booth and work conveniently during the fair.
I also ordered vinyl-printed banners from a printing company to decorate the booth and T-Shirts with the company logo to give the team an uniform look.
Last but not least, I bought a small television to display slideshow images from a USB key and created slides to display in the booth during the fair. The thinking was that so many people attend the fair that while you're demoing the game to one group, lots of other people pass by and just glance at your booth, see that you're busy, and move on. If they see a TV showing info, it may catch their attention long enough that you can eventually include them in a demo. It's hard to tell whether this was efficient or not, but I remember seeing people watching the screen quite often during the fair, so I guess it's a good thing to have.
I hired a small team of volunteers: Mark, Stéphane and Pierre, three fellow gamers from Brussels whom I know and whom have been supportive of my game publishing efforts since the beginning. It was a real blessing to have them, as you'll see later on.
Other preparations included booking the accommodation and a small truck to drive all our stuff and merchandise from Brussels, Belgium to Essen, Germany. (Only 220 Kms as we're blessed to be relatively close to Essen.)
The last few days before the departure were frantic, checking and rechecking lists. It's important to keep a running total of your expenses in such times as it's easy to lose track of that. If attending the fair costs more than it brings, you have a problem.
On the Way to the Fair
Loading the van highlighted the first omission in my preparations: While the van was big enough to hold most of my stock of games, I hadn't checked the overall weight. A quick calculation revealed that we had stuffed 2.2 tons of materials in the van, while its max weight allowance was 1.2 tons, so we had to offload product before we could start. Eventually we took 504 copies of Dragon Rage and 1,890 copies of Rumble in the House, still way more than what could be expected to sell to visitors at the fair. However, distributors and corporate buyers are also present so there's always the possibility of selling a good chunk of it during the fair. My reasoning was that it's better to bring some stock back than to miss sales for lack of product!
The lesson learned here: When you use something bigger than a car, you must think in terms of weight, not volume.
Tuesday – Travelling to Essen and Setting Up
We departed on Tuesday, two days before the actual fair opening. Set-up starts as soon as Monday for some of the biggest exhibitors, who have lots of things to set up before the fair.
A press conference takes place on Wednesday morning during which all journalists are presented the new releases for the year. This happens in the upper floors of the cafeteria hall (Hall 11) in a space reserved for press members. Retailers and professionals can also access that space during the whole fair, so it seemed important to be present with our products, and this is why we departed one day earlier than we could have.
Access to the press room for set-up is allowed only on Tuesday afternoon from 15:00 to 16:00 and on Wednesday from 09:30 to 10:30, so you better not miss these slots. (And the German security guards have a strict sense of time. We missed the Tuesday slot by a few minutes and were told to come back Wednesday morning.)
I planned a light structure for the stand – basically a couple of pine beams assembled with bolts and wing-nuts to which we could attach the banners and lights) – so we set up shop fast once on the premises.
I learned that it's possible to park the truck near the halls, which makes it convenient to move product from the truck to the booth and vice versa, but also quite expensive. There was some budget left and it was quite convenient, so I went for it. This proved useful during the whole fair and was well worth the expense.
Last but not least, we packed a few foldable chairs and drinks for the team at the booth.
Monday and Tuesday are special days as the biggest booths are built by contractors, so the halls are full of a strange mix of board game professionals and hard hat-wearing construction workers, pallet-pulling logistics agents, painters, electricians, and security guards.
Once the booth setup was complete, we headed to the hotel for a good night of rest...
Display in the press room
Wednesday – Press Conference and Early Beginnings
Wednesday morning, we got up early and arrived on the fairgrounds to set up the press room display, which went quickly as this was a simple arrangement: a couple of wood rods supporting a vinyl printed banner used as background, and a copy of our games on it with a stack of business cards. I realized that most other displays prominently featured the booth location, so I jotted that down on a business card back and added it to the display.
The press show started at 11:30 in another hall, then journalists proceeded to the press rooms where most publishers were present to answer their questions and hand over press review copies to some of the journalists. I expected this to last about an hour, but it lasted a bit under three hours in all. I manned the press display with two volunteers, while the third one watched the booth.
The rest of Wednesday was spent fixing minor details on the booth, reviewing the organization for the coming four days with the team, meeting and greeting several friends from other booths at the fair, and distributing review copies of Rumble in the House to selected persons already present: distributors, press members, playtesters, and some fellow authors and publishers I knew would like the game and speak about it. With only two pages of rules, it's a good candidate for a late-night-at-the-hotel gaming fix, so I hoped to generate buzz that way. It worked well as over the next few days we had people coming to the booth and telling us, 'Oh, I played that with other people at the hotel/restaurant. It's fun and I want one."
We also sold a few copies on Wednesday, as other exhibitors having finished their set-up were shopping around, and we traded a few copies of Dragon Rage and Rumble in the House with other publishers for copies of their games, something I already knew was common between publishers: We're all gamers, after all.
Thursday to Sunday – the Actual Fair
Thursday morning, we arrived early at the fairgrounds. (Exhibitors are allowed in one hour earlier than the visitors in order to be able to set up shop.) As soon as we had readied everything, I left the booth to my volunteers' capable hands and dashed through the mostly quiet halls. My goals were to get a quick overview of the fair – before the visitors are allowed in, you can visit a whole hall in only a few minutes, making mental notes of the places you need to visit later on – and to secure business contacts, making the most of the fair's opportunities.
Big companies often have a second booth at the fair, completely closed with a small door, that they use as a business office for meetings. Some companies even have nothing more than that small closed booth as they have no goods to sell but hold lots of meetings. Two such examples are the guys from Alliance and ACD, two of the main U.S. wholesale boardgame distributors. These booths are unmarked, and unless you are invited or have some business there, you're not welcome. The fair organizers sell a catalog of all booths and the companies who hired them, so if you know what you're looking for they're easy to locate. I did, of course, purchase a copy of the catalog right away to know where to head.
Throughout the fair, I visited several of these closed offices, either waiting at the door to grab someone going in or out to briefly introduce myself, give a thirty-second elevator pitch, and set up an appointment for later during the fair, or taking a chance and knocking at the door for a brief interruption.
All professionals present at the fair are very busy as there are lots of opportunities, most industry "players" are present, and you have only four days. Therefore it's important to be considerate of other people's time, and to be quick and to the point when they allow you time. Haste is usually appreciated and allows you to get the ball rolling on deals that will actually be closed by email after the fair.
My main goals were to establish contacts with distributors in the U.S. for Dragon Rage, and in Europe for Rumble in the House. My secondary goals were to find new games from authors to publish, and from other publishers to license. I also contacted some publishers active in other regions – as they might be willing to license our games for a local version – as well as press members, and so on.
After a while I saw the people density rising in the halls, and a quick look at my watch showed the main gates were now opened. I went back to our booth, and shortly after that, the first visitors arrived at Hall 4. I repeated this morning exploration every day of the show, and it proved quite efficient.
We demoed our games a lot, but between the appointments arranged before the fair and the numerous ad-hoc encounters, I realized that I wouldn't be very present on the booth. I was fortunate to have my volunteers manning the booth as otherwise I'd have missed a huge number of opportunities during the fair, and that was the big lesson here: There is no way you can man your booth and attend to business at the same time. Some people will come to your booth for business, but you have to go and meet the others, so you do need help in the booth.
Regarding sales at the booth, I needed an exact count of merchandise sold and stock status from day to day, so we used a simple system: Each man had a small notepad and pen and tracked his sales during the day. At the end of the day, we tallied the counts to get a status. This worked quite well overall.
Another thing that I knew would happen a lot at the booth is press members requesting review copies. Yes, it's important to give some away to get coverage, but you have to be tight, too, as with over 700 card-bearing press members at the fair, you cannot afford to hand a copy to each and every requester. To manage that, I had a stack of "press review copy request" forms at the booth and briefed my staff that only I could decide on review copies. The requesters were asked to complete a form and either come back to the booth later or wait to see whether they'd be sent a copy by mail after the fair if their request was accepted. This process also worked well, although I still have to process some of the requests and get in touch with the requesters after the show.
At the end of Thursday, we had made good sales of Rumble in the House, but had sold only five copies of Dragon Rage. This got me quite worried, as although it's a niche game, it should have much better sales at such an event where most of the visitors are core gamers looking for all kinds of games. Five copies was way below my expectations for the game.
The wonderful article from Ted Alspach on BGG News – "Seven Years of Spiel for Bézier Games" – explains that each day of the fair has a different mix of visitors, and I'm glad I read that before the fair as otherwise I'd have been much more worried after that first day.
I had a chat with my German distributor, Brave New World, on Friday morning and asked him whether his Dragon Rage sales were better. He made a big smile and told me, "Oh, yes, we sold a lot yesterday." It turned out that visitors came to our booth for a demo and explanation, but eventually went to buy the German version at their booth. (The German version is limited to 200 copies and was sold at the same price.)
Friday was better in terms of sales for both games, and we had the nice surprise of seeing Dragon Rage soar at the top of the BoardGame Geek "Geekbuzz" chart for most of the day.
We saw some visitors from Thursday who had attended demos and jotted down notes on a piece of paper come back to buy the games, as well as new visitors. The overall crowd was similar in kind as Thursday's, mostly gamers looking for specific games or browsing the new releases.
I had the pleasant surprise of seeing Friedemann Friese, author of the well-known Power Grid game, stop by our booth because "Rumble in the House in on my list". It's always nice to know established authors have some interest in the games you publish.
Saturday was quite different from the previous days: fewer gamers, more families. You see parents and their children wandering down the halls as if they were visiting a museum, only seeming remotely interested in the games on display. We made more demos, but sold a lot less than the previous days.
Sunday was even worse: mostly families, with the gamers becoming scarce in the mix. That said, a lot of retailers and distributors came to buy tens or dozens of games directly from us, so sales-wise Sunday turned out to be the best day overall.
During the whole four days of the fair, I ended up being present at our booth for only one full day at the most, spending all the remaining time chasing deals and contacting business leads. This was eventually fruitful as I found a deal for distribution in the French speaking markets with French publisher/distributor IELLO, and contacts for distribution in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark/Sweden/Finland/Norway, Israel, and the U.S. which might later on turn in done deals. I also had interesting contact with Asian and Eastern European publishers interested in our games, as well as with some authors and publishers of other games I might want to license. We joked about this with the team: "You sell individual games at the booth while I try to sell pallets of games on the fairgrounds."
The foldable chairs proved to be a great idea: Whenever I met a business contact on or near the booth, I grabbed a couple of chairs and we headed to an empty space in the nearby galleria hall. That way we could discuss matters in a quiet surrounding without eating up valuable demo-space from the team, and my visitors were grateful for the opportunity to sit down for a short while – not as good as a private office-booth, of course, but yet much appreciated.
I also had interviews for podcasts such as The Little Metal Dog Show, made a nice video appearance at the BGG booth (videos of Dragon Rage and Rumble in the House), and managed to snatch a few games to bring back home. (Who am I kidding? Lots of games!)
I learned some amusing factoids during the event, too. For instance, one of my appointments was with a group of professionals representing a company. They had bought passes to access the business lounge during the fair, a quiet and cosy place that is accessible only to people who bought access. However, the guards were so strict that they were not allowed to access the business lounge with the various exhibitors and professionals with whom they had made appointments, so it was useless! Quite a bummer if you ask me. I also learned that Wifi access at the halls is possible for a daily fee – a fee that costs more than two new games at the fair! After that I won't complain about the prices charged for food and drinks any more...
The booth has been dismantled and everything cleaned. Dinnertime?
Sunday evening, once the visitors started to go away, we dismantled the booth, packed everything in the truck, and headed to a restaurant for a well-deserved meal with the whole team to celebrate the successful event.
We shared some stories, then went back to the hotel for a last night in Essen before returning to Brussels, unloading the truck, and going back to our normal lives.
All in all, this first time was successful, thanks to the great help of my three volunteers. Without them the fair would have been hell for me as everything gets much more difficult when you're alone. Thanks, guys!