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Interviews by an Optimist #3 - Eric Hautemont

Eric Hautemont gives this mini-autobiography...
“Born playing "Risk" when it was still sub-titled 'La Conquete du Monde" and came with cool, oblong wooden armies, I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, France.

When, in early 1980, the first-ever Dungeons & Dragons club sprang upon French territory, a short ten-minute drive from my parents' house, I quickly started brushing up my then (some would argue still) non-existent English skills. Within a few years, I was on the streets of Paris, peddling home-grown D&D modules to the first hobby gaming stores I discovered, the now famous l'Oeuf Cube and Jeux Descartes.

In between two game nights, I somehow got a MS in Artificial Intelligence, flew to Silicon Valley where I raised money from the Rockefeller family and started a lucrative 3D software company, Ray Dream, later selling it to (and running) publicly-traded Fractal Design. Missing by a few months the opportunity to buy TSR (a good thing for D&D players, given the remarkable job of Peter Adkison, Ryan Dancey & al. did on 3e), I then erred into the no-fun but even more lucrative land of venture capital, running my own fund throughout the late 90s.

With two young, growing gamers at home, I finally realized the error of my ways ;-), and in late 2003 went back to my roots, launching Days of Wonder with several long-time friends. I've been gaming on ever since then!”


Tom: Eric, you're the head honcho of Days of Wonder, a shooting star in the board game business right now. With two extremely popular games this year, Ticket to Ride and Memoir '44, your company is the very model of success. But before we talk about that success, could you give us some background on how Days of Wonder came into being?

Eric: Hi, Tom! It has been quite a rocket ride so far indeed, but I don't know that we're the very model of success quite yet . In any event, I sure hope we last a bit longer than a shooting star,

Anyway, on with your question!

In the winter of 2000/2001, while skiing in the French Alps, I rediscovered Gang of Four, a Chinese card game I had played for hours on end years earlier (and of which there is a great, detailed history in this month's issue of the Games Journal at http://www.thegamesjournal.com/reviews/GangOfFour.shtml)

Published under license by Dargaud, a French publisher better known for its Asterix comic books, this little card game quickly became a mainstay of my regular game diet. I soon made a habit of picking up copies of Gang of Four each time I was in Paris and offering them to friends and family. I wasn't thinking much of it, busy that I was running my own private venture fund in Silicon Valley, until one day the game ran out of print! For the next several months, each new trip to Paris would bring promises from my favorite game stores that the game "would soon be back in print". To no avail.

In early 2002, while googling for some leftover inventories of it, I inadvertently ran into the game's designer e-mail address. A few mails and a check later, I had acquired the rights to this out-of-print little gem of a card game. Now that I owned it, I figured I'd better find a way to get it back in print! One thing soon led to another and I rapidly stumbled onto Bruno Faidutti's fabulous web site, and then onto the BGG. That same month, Bruno graciously offered to meet me for an afternoon of discussion in his Parisian flat, where I got a crash course on the industry's trends for the past decade. While I had years of heavy D&D experiences, I had abandoned the gaming scene in the mid-80s, as I embarked on my first high-tech venture. From there, I went to Bruno's excellent Ludopathic days and on to an eye-opening trade show (GAMA in Las Vegas).

I soon discovered an industry full of passionate people, which offered a very different change of pace from the daily rat-race of Silicon Valley. In the process, I also became convinced there might be a real, enduring business opportunity lying in the rough. I convinced a few of my former colleagues from my high-tech days to join in, and in late October 2002, we attended our first Essen fair (as visitors, not exhibitors!).

A month later, we were delivering our first copies of Gang of Four and Fist of Dragonstones (a game we had licensed from Bruno following his Ludopathic days) to customers in Europe, and another 30 days later in the US.

Tom: Can you tell us a bit more about Days of Wonder? How many employees do you have? Where are you based? Etc.

Eric: We currently have offices in Los Altos, California, from where we manage the
Americas and Asia-Pacific, and in Paris, France, from where we run all of Europe and the rest of the world. In addition, we have warehouses and distribution centers in South Dakota, in the US, as well as in Orleans, France, and Ulm, Germany. We publish our games in up to 9 different languages and distribute them in a growing number of countries (24 at the last count, I believe).

From the get go, we set up the company to be truly global. Like any publishing business, we rely on the economies of scale that come from large print runs to turn a profit. Being able to distribute the games widely is essential and allows us to minimize currency fluctuations.

Tom: Many large publishing houses produce dozens of games each year. Days of Wonder produces only a few, although truly excellent games. Can you tell us a bit about this philosophy?

Eric: It is a combination of practical constraints (we simply do not know how to put out more games without sacrificing quality) and business realities (it is more profitable - and, to some extent, easier - for us and our resellers and distributors to market one well-polished title rather than a handful of soon-forgotten ones).

Our self-imposed limit of two to three new titles each year allows us to be more picky in selecting the games we want to publish and to ensure that each of them meets our gameplay, target audience, and business criteria. It also gives us more time to polish each game and support them adequately once launched. The downside is the added pressure on making sure we pick the right ones; or at least, not too many wrong ones!

Tom: Obviously Ticket to Ride has become a huge success, selling a multitude of copies. You won the Spiel des Jahres (despite your protests ahead of time that you wouldn't), and praise for the game has been high across the internet. Does that and the fact that Memoir '44 is so highly recieved, put a lot of pressure upon your company to produce a game that's even better? And what game have you produced do you feel has been overlooked and underrated?

Eric: We have been very fortunate indeed, in that our large format games have all been well received. While it does raise the bar, it also opens up tremendous new opportunities.

To some extent, each new game we release could not have been produced without the lessons we learned from the previous ones. There is no way, for instance, we could have crafted the 35-40 mm minis in our newest upcoming title, Shadows over Camelot, without the knowledge we first acquired producing the Memoir '44 minis.

It is also obvious that few of our titles, if any, can hope to match the success of a Spiel des Jahres' win. And for the record, I wasn't protesting ;-), but simply hedging my bets on the $ 40,000 we had spent making additional molds to ramp up the trains production fast enough in the event we won, lol. A good thing, all considered, as these molds would have arguably ended up holding the dubious distinction of being the world's most expensive press-papers otherwise!

Because such success is difficult if not impossible to duplicate, we try to find a balance between games with a large sales breadth potential (ie. games with a quasi-universal appeal, a la Ticket to Ride) and games with a more vertical sales potential (like our scenario-driven Memoir '44, for which we plan to release a slew of expansions later this year).

Likewise, from a gameplay standpoint, we try to find a balance between games that offer an instant, easily-repeatable gratification (a la Ticket to Ride or Gang of Four) and games that, while maybe played more occasionally, offer a truly memorable game experience (a la Mystery of the Abbey or Pirate's Cove). I suspect many, 6 months after their first game of Shadows over Camelot, will still remember that first time the Traitor revealed himself .

One thing we bet on early, and that has paid off, is the truism that "the more people play (a given game), the more people play (and buy it)". This explains why we invested so much time and effort early on, in developing our own online versions of the games. It has paid off a hundred fold with Gang of Four and with Ticket to Ride Online, where we now have an average of a new game being created every 18 seconds!

Not so with Queen's Necklace, which probably remains my largest personal disappointment sales-wise. Despite being (in my own biased personal opinion ;-)) a terrific card game with a wonderful online implementation, the game never really quite reached critical mass. It won last year's Card Game of the Year award from Games Magazine, but only attracted a small if dedicated gamers' community. It likely suffered from a number of errors we made, among which:

1. a mistake in packaging and positioning the product to a female audience, even though female gamers do not constitute the majority of game stores customers (and those that do are possibly already used to and/or attracted to the more testosterone driven covers of various RPG and boardgames); naming and portraying it after the Three Musketeers, like many a reseller suggested to us since, would likely have been a better choice;

The game also suffered from a number of other, difficult-to-overcome issues, namely:

2. the "narrow ideal # of gamers" syndrome: I truly believe it is one of the best 3 player card games ever, the experience is very different and arguably less interesting with 2 or 4 players. Marketing it solely as a 3 player game would be an interesting experiment, but not one we were brave enough to underwrite at that point in our company's history;

3. the "overcome the first play" syndrome: Because the game is character-driven (and includes many of them) and because the game involves some mildly heavy mid-game score computation, the first time play experience is not as gratifying as it could be otherwise. It is easy for first-time players to gloss over many of the game's subtleties and end up with an impression of little control. Though that is not the case (as ranking in the
online version has proved, time and again), it is always difficult to "undo" a first play experience, in this game like in any other.

This being said, hindsight is a 20/20. It could simply be that Queen's Necklace did not have has much mass appeal as some of our other titles, or that the game is more tightly linked to some of my own personal tastes. The good news is that we learned as much, if not more, from the mistakes we made (and undoubtedly will continue to make) releasing it, than we might learn from the successes we've had. The variety of experience and challenges each new game published brings on is part of what makes this industry so enjoyable!


Tom: Well, Eric, I agree with you on Queen's Necklace - I think it's a woefully under-appreciated game. But look now, you've got me quite excited when you mentioned those expansions to Memoir '44! Most everyone has heard about Ticket to Ride Europe coming out this year, and now you mention these expansions. Can you give us more detail on both?

Eric: Alan (R. Moon, the game's designer) has done a much better job than I could ever hope to in describing (and designing!) Ticket to Ride Europe in his recent entry on the boardgamegeek, so I encourage all interested parties to check it out here directly http://boardgamegeek.com/article/72355. I'll simply add that, having just seen the final cover art and the new train station pieces (oops, did I mention these?!), I can hardly wait to get the final game in hands! With any luck, it will reach our shores in late March, simultaneously, even possibly a few days ahead of its release in Europe.

As for the Memoir '44 expansions, Richard and several of us here are working on them at this very minute, in between your various questions! The concepts behind them really coalesced earlier this winter, during a marathon session in San Francisco. While details are currently SHAEF clearance only ;-), I can reveal there will be at least three in rapid fire:
- The first one will give Memoir '44 players the chance to cover a lot of new ground (literally!);
- The second a reason for them to revise their knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet while keeping an eye on that darn Political Commissar in their back;
- And the third one should prove to be a tinkering engineer's dream!
Look for some Q2 releases, at least for the first of them.

While it took (and will still take) us a while to figure out how to get those expansions into production the way we want, it should pave the way for many more to follow. We are also spending a lot of effort ramping up tournaments, conventions and in-store events for the Memoir '44 community of gamers, including devising ways to run a global, year-long, around-the-world Memoir '44 Overlord - Team Tournament. More info on this by Origins hopefully.

Since we are on the subject of current titles' support, we have a few other goodies in the works... A significant new deck for Pirate's Cove and a supplement a la Mystery Train for Mystery of the Abbey are both on tab for release later this fall.

And for those lucky enough to attend upcoming conventions or meet our itinerating Days of Wonder Game Bus, here is a very early preview of things to come: Truly large scale formats of all our big games! and no, don't ask where you can buy those quite yet - it is doubtful we will ever produce enough of them, even if for sale in a Neimann Marcus catalog, lol!

Tom: All these exciting new products are expansions or variations on current games. Are there any brand new games in the works for 2005?

Eric: Arghh, sorry, Tom, I am running out of time and cannot answer this questiondevil!

Well, since the cat (or is it an unladen African swallow?) is out of the bag, I can speak briefly about Shadows over Camelot. It is a truly evil - in a good sense - collaborative game, in some ways reminiscent of Republic of Rome, albeit set in the lands and times of King Arthur and quite a bit simpler.

The players play the role of various knights of the round table and for the most daring among them, of young squires trying to collectively protect Camelot from ever-gathering dangers. All would be swell and peaceful if it wasn't for the potential (but never certain) traitor-in-waiting, whose objective is to sow chaos and destruction among the group and make Camelot fall.

The game should be in the US in mid-Q2 this year.

In the fall, we will likely have yet another new title linked to a very famous British band (and no, it has nothing to do with Trains nor the Beatles!). But this will have to wait for another time ;-).

Tom: Eric, is Shadows over Camelot going to be one of your "big-box" games? And who is the designer of the game?

Eric: Yes, Shadows over Camelot is one of our "big-box" games. The designers are Serge Laget (Mystery of the Abbey, Mare Nostrum) and Bruno Cathala (Queen's Necklace, BoomTown), and it is fair to say this is probably their most ambitious game design yet! So much so, that we hesitated a long while before feeling capable to publish it properly.

Tom: Memoir '44 has been a huge success - being Richard Borg's highest rated game, and "wowing" quite a few people. Is Memoir the limit of Days of Wonder's entry into the "war" genre, or might we see some deeper war games from you in the future?

Eric: It's funny, but I don't think of Memoir '44 as being a departure from our other games, or the herald of a hypothetical entry of Days of Wonder into the "war" genre. I instead think of it as a quick, fun, highly-enjoyable boardgame that happens to have a WWII theme.

Part of the appeal of this game to the grognards (and to the gamers in general in my opinion), is that it is a tinkerer's dream for anyone who has ever wanted to play with plastic soldiers. The different units, terrains, scenarios and theater of operations it can support are only limited by your imagination! So rather than see us foray into longer/more elaborate wargame titles, you might expect to see us working on additional products, events and expansions that will boost the "toolbox" potential of Richard's brilliant game system.

It would have been impossible for us to release Memoir '44 as our first game, given the sheer volume of editorial work that had to go into it (both from a production standpoint, with all its minis & al., and from a rules editing standpoint - the rule book is probably the single piece we are the most proud of ). Now that the production is behind us, we plan to use it as a stepping stone to even more ambitious plans for additional games in the series, but I'm afraid you will have to wait at least another year before we can discuss this in further detail!

Tom: Eric, thank you for taking the time to tell us a little about Days of Wonder, etc. We appreciate your hard work in presenting games of top quality to the American public, as well as the world. Any final thoughts or comments?

Eric: Tom, thank you for this fun interview, and to the entire board games community for making this such a nice industry to be in. We still have a lot to accomplish; all I hope is that we can continue to publish games that people will enjoy for many years to come.
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