Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!

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Through the Ages: A four-sided game review

Through the Ages boxThrough the Ages is a civilisation building card game by Vlaada Chvatil that takes players on an epic ride from antiquity to the present day.

While war plays a large and important part in the game* there is no actual map, or dice – interaction is instead played out through card play.

There are three versions of the game in the rulebook, ranging from simple through to full, but the first two are really just warming you up (in terms of understanding the rules) for the main event. Through the Ages is a serious time investment (four-plus hours, even two-player) but if you’re willing to give it a try you’ll find a hugely rewarding tactical and strategic gem waiting for you.

While it’s not the biggest game box in the world, there’s a ton of game packed into it: there are more than 340 small-sized cards, 300 small wooden counters and cubes, plus boards and reference cards. It will set you back £45+, but I think it’s a fair price both in terms of components and play value. The art is pretty poor, but the card stock is great and the graphic design efficient and simple to understand.

It’s not for the feint of heart, but nor is it a war game – you’ll draft leader, wonder, building, government, technology, military and action cards and manage your resources as you advance your civilisation; all the time trying to score points while keeping your opponents in check by staying close to them in the race for military domination. It’s an impossible balancing act, giving the game a marvellous ebb and flow.

Teaching

TTA allAs mentioned earlier, the game has three versions which slowly introduce different rules and card types as you move forward. This makes it easy to teach experienced gamers, especially as the game concepts are pretty familiar.

Each round (after the first) players may use their political action to play a ‘future event’ for later, triggering a current event which will reward and/or punish players who are doing well/poorly in a particular way – for example the player with the strongest civilisation may get to produce extra goods. They can also use the political action to start an aggression or war, or offer a pact.

Players then use ‘civil’ actions to advance mining, science, farming and religion to increase building materials and technology (allowing building upgrades), population size and happiness (allowing population growth) and military might. Governments give extra actions, while leaders, technologies, ‘action’ cards and wonders give a variety of bonuses.

Civil actions are also used to increase population, lay technology, wonder and leader cards, put your population to work or upgrade them. Military actions – you guessed it – do the same with your military units.

TTA tracksEverything to do with civil and military actions is done openly, so it’s simple to watch and help new players through their turns.

Through the Ages has relatively little hidden information, so its simple for the teacher to explain cards as they come up.

New cards are ‘bought’ (with actions) from a shared conveyor belt-style track, with newly added cards costing more actions (from one to three). Military cards do go straight into your hand blind, but aren’t terribly varied and can be roughly explained before you begin.

Game concepts fit well into the theme, while the central game board lets you keep information on your military strength, science (for advancing technologies) and culture (victory) points. Each player also has a player aid listing all of the actions available in each phase of each round.

Player boards are well set out, and the wording on the cards leads to very few grey areas. The only real problem area is the Territory cards, which tend to contain rather obscure icons which aren’t explained in the rulebook. However there is a good Excel doc available from Board Game Geek which explains them in plain English.

The four sides

TTA eventsThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Through the Ages is the board gaming equivalent of spinning plates; just as you get your science points going, you realise you’re running out of food – but by the time you have that back on track you’re falling behind on military – but getting that up to speed means you have to forgo a materials upgrade. It’s a delicious, epic and challenging balancing act that tells a different story every time.
  • The thinker: Its rare you find a game that has the perfect mix of tactics and strategy, but this is one of them. You’d think it impossible to create a ‘civ’ game without a board, but Vlada has managed it with aplomb. Specialise at your peril, but spread the wealth at your peril too – your long term plans are constantly being altered by both the actions of your competitors and the run of available cards.
  • The trasher: Through the Ages is a bit much for me, but is clearly a great game. I love the future events: you play cards, predicting the later game state and hoping you can be in the right position when they’re triggered. So satisfying when it works, but devastating when your own cards blow up in your face! But overall, the short game doesn’t offer enough military fun and the long game is simply too long for me.
  • The dabbler: no way! No no no. I tried it once – you can’t make me play it again! It has great flavour, carries the theme well, but I am not playing a game that takes longer than the entire games evening on its own!

Key observations

TTA player boardOf well over 3,000 Board Game Geek comments, Through the Ages has 500+ perfect 10 scores – which should be enough to convince you its a great game. Even by half way through the comments, people are still rating it 8. However, it’s certainly not for everyone. Not by a long chalk!

Game length is clearly an issue for many, but another problem is downtime – especially in a four-player game (which I wouldn’t attempt again). I enjoy a two-player game but three is definitely the sweet spot, which adds quite a bit to the play time. One plus side is the fantastic Through the Ages online version. Initially the layout looks troublesome and weak, but it actually plays really smoothly once you get to grips with it.

Another problem is the importance of the military aspect of the game*. Players who aren’t keen on confrontation need not apply, but its not just them: others think the military aspect is either tacked on as a balancing mechanism or is overpowered. It’s true that if someone falls behind on military and is picked on by the other players, it can be impossible for them to recover – particularly punishing in such a long game.

Finally, some describe Through the Ages as nothing more than  a spread sheet rather than a game – a dry, themeless affair that is way too fiddly for its own good. The fiddly criticism is true, and there is a lot of bookkeeping, but this can be done by a player at the end of their turn while the next player gets on with theirs, so it’s not so bad. But again, if you don’t like fiddly bookkeeping games you may want to avoid it.

Conclusion

TTA card trackThrough the Ages is the last game in my all-time top 10 that I’ve tackled for review and I’ve definitely been reluctant to do so.

It feels impossible to do such an epic game justice in 1,500 words – especially when you know many people simply won’t like it.

But if you like civ and/or engine building games – or more specifically ‘engine building and then maintaining aggh god I can’t do everything at once’ games – and are happy to be in for the long haul, this is a must-try.

I definitely lose more games of TtA than I win and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a good player. There’s so much to think about, so much to plan, so many options – and that’s before you’ve even started to think about what your opponents have planned for you. But even in defeat I tend to walk away from the table thoroughly gamed-out and satisfied.

Is downtime an issue? Sure, a bit. Is military overpowered? Probably. Are some combos simply too good to stop? Sometimes. Will this game be staying on my shelves for the foreseeable future, even if I only get to play once or twice a year and I lose every time?

Absolutely.

* There is a ‘peaceful’ variant of the game some people play, but personally I can’t see the point. It’s such a huge part of Through the Ages that to take it out seems ridiculous – if you don’t want any player conflict in your games, I’d highly advise you to look elsewhere.

Game design: In search of a half decent football (‘soccer’) game concept, Part 1

SubbuteoBeyond the flicking genius of Subbuteo (pictured), the collective game design minds of the world have so far failed to create a compelling football game. But it must be possible.

The reason oft trotted out is that its impossible to emulate the excitement and energy of a team sport in which so much individual flair and energy is played out; while retaining the higher level of strategic thought that pre-match planning and management bring to each match.

But computer games have got around both of these issues, making either football management sims or fast-paced action games such as FIFA. But we have nothing of either that have made a splash in the board and card game arena. And what about skirmish board games and battle card games? How are they not emulating an exciting tactical situation with an underlying strategic edge?

Then there are commercial concerns. Hobby gamers have for years been earmarked as nerds and geeks only interested in basement games of fantasy battles and space ship combat. But the hobby is throwing off those shackles at a pretty decent rate now; surely there would be a big publisher ready to take a punt on a game with such huge crossover potential into the mainstream?

Football simulation problems: The pitch

sensible soccerAny sensible (pun intended) design conversation needs to start with the ground itself.

Minds immediately turn to hexes or quadrants, with each player represented with a meeple, card, detailed plastic minis (Kickstarted, natch) etc.

And so we run into our first problem: 22 players on the pitch. Controlling 11 people seems too many – especially when you take into consideration that only two or maybe three people will ever be directly affecting play. Positioning will become way too much of the game, making this very much a manager-level sim and losing too much of that all important feeling of energy.

Designers have of course gotten around this but tend to do so in one of two ways (and often both); which I have dubbed the Nintendo and Dilithium approaches:

  • The Nintendo way: Chibify the game, set it in the ‘street’ or the jungle or a school playground, and make it five-a-side – immediately alienating the vast majority of your original target audience and losing any semblance of ‘proper’ football in the process.
  • The Dilithium way: Give them swords! Make them robots! We can set it in the future or the past to get around those awkward offside rules and allow full body contact to make it exciting!! And then add EVEN MORE EXCITEMENT!!!

Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things – it’s just not football.

In my mind, this situation harkens back to my original analogy of squad combat. That tends to have fewer than 11 pieces per side, and they can of course interact with each other far more often: that damnable ball is the problem. For me, this rules out the idea of a pitch, or board, or minis – sorry (we shall briefly pause to let the Kickstarter publishers slope out of the room).

Football simulation problems: The players vs the manager

BergkampThe real joy of football – as with many team sports – is that while both teams head out onto the pitch with a plan, set out by the manager and coaches, this needs to be executed by human beings: and with another bunch of human being trying to stop them.

Football is a chaotic sporting mash up of strategy and tactics defined by flawed individuals: and fans have an opinion on every single one of them. Players have strengths and weaknesses, both physical and mental, which are the absolute essence of the game. You can’t have a ‘proper’ football game without them.

It’s not easy to create a game system where 22 individuals will be different enough on paper to have a significantly varied effect on the outcome of the game. Where do you draw the line with stats? You can have attack, defence, midfield, goalkeeping – but what about stamina, temperament, ‘special powers’ – free kicks, penalties, leadership, flair…?

And that’s just two teams. Any football game worth its salt will want a good 8 teams to start with – and if things went well, more like 20+. That’s more than 200 players now. And what about referees, linesmen, pitch conditions, the effect of the fans?

And of course the manager. Beyond picking the team the manager should be having an effect on the pitch – will they encourage long ball, wing play, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 – and what about substitutions, or reshaping the team after a sending off, or an injury? Oh yeah, I forgot about injuries. And can we really give up on the pitch idea completely?

Football simulation ideas (so far)

Brady top trumpA card game seems the obvious way forward. While dice feel like a good idea, the idea of random on top of random always turns me off in a game that should be at least 30 minutes long – and I feel a proper football game should go that distance or more.

To take it one more step, a collectible/living card game again seems obvious. Building a deck of 11 players chosen from a larger pool (perhaps 20 for a squad) would give the individuality required. Attack and defence stats may well be enough, with individual player ‘powers’ adding the all-important individuality.

These player cards would be bolstered with manager cards: tactics and special plays learnt on the training ground. And finally there can be situation cards, used to represent those moments you just can’t legislate for: the terrible tackle, the ‘bobble’, the amazing drive from 30 yards. And of course those contentious refereeing decisions.

I’m aware these three types of card are falling easily into stereotypes made so popular by the hugely successful Magic: The Gathering card game: the players are the ‘creatures’, manager cards the ‘enchantments’ and situation cards the ‘instants’. Frankly I’m comfortable with that, as I feel there will be divergence enough from this starting point.

The real challenge will be the elephant in the room: that bloody pitch. I’m thinking it could be represented by a single card or play matt, split into three simple areas – the two ends and midfield. A marker will show where the game is currently being played, with each turn ending with a battle for supremacy in the current area: a midfield or defensive win moves you forwards, while a win at your opponent’s end results in a chance.

But how will chances be resolved? Will there be some kind of cost to put cards out? And once out, how will they be removed from play – if at all? How about weather, or home advantage? All decision for another day.

Kickstart me baby! (sorry, no minies)

uncle moneybagsI’m putting myself on Kickstarter*. I reckon a £20,000 target should do it. And you’re all going to back me. Why? Because I’ve got a plan.

About 90 per cent of the games you’ve bought on Kickstarter are crap. And worse they have no resell value, because everyone knows they’re crap. So what’s the solution to all this wastage? It’s not as if you can STOP spending money on Kickstarter now is it?

That’s where I come in. For a mere £20,000 I could, just about, give up the day job. Sure, I’d be on the poverty line, but maybe things such as ‘food’ and ‘clothing’ could be bought if stretch goals were reached. Not that there would be any stretch goal rewards.

So what’s in it for you, I hear you ask? Because that’s what board game related Kickstarters are about, right? They’re not about taking a risk and helping someone try and fulfil their dream (and who might possibly fail). No. They’re about cold. Hard. Gain. But let’s for one minute pretend we’re not board game Kickstarter people – let’s pretend we’re normal Kickstarter people, who see the potential in something and take a (cheap) punt.

Here’s the deal. For just £20,000 (one 73rd of what Zombicide 2 made on Kickstarter, or one 31st of Sedition Wars) I could become a full-time game designer for a year. Instead of spending a few tired evenings each week after work trying to work on prototypes I could spend 40 or 50 (maybe more) hours each week dedicating everything I’ve got to design.

Of course I’ve not got much in the way of credentials to back me up right now. I’ve got one published game, Empire Engine, which has been pretty well received (well, it’s currently ranked higher that Sedition Wars on Board Game Geek); and another game is with a published and should be out in 2016 (too early for more details, sorry). But that’s one or two more games than many of the designers you backed on Kickstarter had, right?

The games I design will be put in front or real publishers with genuine track records in getting high quality games to market; publishers with experienced rules writers, graphic designers, game developers and playtesters – as well as strong relationships with manufacturers and distributors. And while some may take the games to Kickstarter anyway, at least they’ll be companies you know you can trust.

Of course there’s a risk that none of the games I design within the year get publishing deals: I’m not arrogant enough to guarantee success, but I could guarantee that I’d put everything I’ve got into making it work – my heart and soul. If you go in knowing that, so not expecting a physical product, how could you be disappointed if I give my all?

I’d be happy to blog regularly on my progress, the process and involve people in testing. I could even put questions out to backers when I had interesting problems or decisions to make. And imagine how great you would feel if I did get some games published: you’d really be a part of it, rather than just backing a game that’s already (allegedly) finished.

I expect I could even sort our some sort of discount on the games that did (in theory) make it to stores: I could probably sell them at little over cost to backers. But then I wouldn’t want to guarantee that, because then it’s all slipping back to commerce; about expecting results; about capitalism over creativity. Which is why this will stay a dream, rather than a reality. And that’s a shame.

I genuinely think this could work. I think it would take a designer with more clout than me to pull it off, and I think it would need cast iron guarantees of physical results for backers if it games were published. But as the success of Patrion, and Kickstarters for publishers such as The Dice Tower have shown, paying creatives a monthly wage is something some people are willing to do (for an end result).

As there’s little money in it for the average board game designer, people who want to make a living from it are essentially forced into making their own company and self-publishing – that’s where the most potential profit is. I doubt most of these people want to be dealing with manufacturers in China and shipping games out of their garages, while trying to price cards and chits and dice. They want to design; they have to sell.

Maybe in a generation or so the hobby will be popular enough to sustain the full-time development of game designers – either through increased revenue through higher royalties on sales, or from game publishers becoming cash-rich enough to take more designers onto staff (as Plaid Hat is now successfully doing). Until then, I guess I’ll stick with the day job.

* I’m not really.

For Sale: A four-sided game review

For Sale boxFor Sale is a light family card game designer by Stefan Dorra. It takes 20-30 minutes to play, accommodates three to six players well and can be picked up for well under £20.

As the name and box suggest this a game about buying and selling properties but don’t worry – there’s nothing to be scared of here, even if you don’t usually like auction/bidding games. As the game length suggests it’s not a brain burner: instead it’s light, fun and fast.

Inside the box you’ll find two decks of cards (properties and cash) and a set of coin tokens. Everything is high quality, the cards linen-finish and the tokens chunky, while the cartoon art on the property cards is really charming.

Teaching

For Sale round 1For Sale is a game of two halves, but both are simple to teach and learn. Even better you can teach each half when you get to it, giving players less to process and remember.

Everyone starts with a handful of coins and during round one these are spent to buy properties. Once all properties have been bought (every one will finish with the same amount) they’re sold for money in round two. The aim is to finish with as much money as possible.

Before each turn of round one a number of properties equal to the number of players is placed face up on the table. From their secret stash of coins players choose in turn to either up the current bid or take the lowest value card on show (and taking back half of any coins they’d bid so far). The ‘winning’ bid pays full price, but gets the best card.

Once all properties are bought, round two begins. This time a number of money cards equal to the number of players is placed face up on the table; players bid for them with the properties bought in round one. There is an identical number of property and money cards; each round players bid one of their properties and everyone flips them over at once (called a ‘blind bid’). You take a money card in ascending order, the best property taking the highest value money card.

The system is extremely elegant. All the property cards are valued differently (1-30) and there are two of each money card (two of each valued $0-15), meaning there is never any confusion over bids – while all the players get something each round. When all the properties are spent, you add up your money cards and see who won.

The four sides

For Sale componentsThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While this may look like an overly simplistic game with an uninspiring theme (pretending to be an estate agent isn’t my idea of fun), For Sale is actually one of the best ‘filler’ games I’ve played. It ticks all the boxes: good player range, easy to teach, plays fast and keeps everyone involved throughout.
  • The thinker: I’m not prone to enjoying filler games as by their nature they tend to lack depth and strategy. If it were my choice I’d play something a more challenging, such as Hive or Blokus, but there’s no escaping the fact this is a well designed game and I’m happy to play when the occasion arises.
  • The trasher: You mean I get to buy and sell houses?! Goodie! But seriously there is some fun to be had with For Sale, as any bidding game is an opportunity for table talk. You can also try and psyche people out a bit in the second half and I’ve seen some real silly card-slapping-the-table action when the mood is good.
  • The dabbler: While I don’t like auction games, I do quite like this one as it has a few things going for it. First it’s great that you get something every round so never feel out of it or under pressure. Also the art is cute and for a game that plays ages 8+ that’s important – they’ve even gone the extra mile adding a different animal to each card for the younger ones (and the young at heart!) to find and talk about as you go.

Key observations

The most important thing to note is  this is an extremely highly regarded game. With more than 3,300 players giving this a comment and an ‘out of 10′ rating on Board Game Geek you have to get past 3,150 before you find rankings below 6.

Criticisms from those who really don’t like it label For Sale as “too simple” or “uninteresting” with “no hard decisions”; “too light”, or as just a “simple auction game”. To the wrong player For Sale will be all of these things, but as the numbers above show these people are the minority. I’d suggest avoiding this game only if you have a very severe reaction to one of these gaming ailments!

My only real issue, and it’s a small one, is price. The current edition is well produced and nicely packaged, but at 60 cards and 72 cardboard coins the price tag seems a little steep. It has been put in quite a large box to fit into Gryphon Games’ ‘Bookshelf Series’ but could live in a box half the size (and has previously). However similar games (such as recent release Diamonds) have a similar price point and I don’t see it as a barrier to entry.

Conclusion

For Sale round 2I was introduced to For Sale at a London on Board gaming meetup and fell for it on my first play. It went into my collection soon after and had regular plays for a long time after.

But in 2013 it didn’t see a single play, as my regular gaming groups didn’t really do old fillers; then in 2014 it returned to the table with a bang when I got involved in a local group which includes a lot of less rabid gamers. It has gone down a storm with gamers and newbies alike, rekindling my own enthusiasm for the game.

No game is truly a ‘must have’, as opinions and tastes vary so much, but For Sale would certainly be a contender for a top 10 ‘Swiss army knife’ of titles that would meet all your gaming needs. I’ve played a lot of fillers before and after, but very few have the staying power of this classic.

For more filler and family games check out my board game ‘Where to start‘ guide.

Designer and critic: Does one have to give?

reality checkAs a journalist and all-round gobshite I’ve spent my career (and social life) ‘generously’ giving my opinion to anyone who would listen.

This is fine when you’re a third party; when I was reviewing music, for example, all I had to worry about after writing a scathing review was the occasional poorly spelt threat from the bass player. I wasn’t in a band, so reputation wasn’t an issue. If anything, writing something controversial was likely to get you noticed – often a good thing.

Of course nowadays I’m all about the board games. I’m 30+ reviews and lots of opinion pieces in; but now my first game design is out there, with hopefully more to come. So should I draw the line on reviews? Or what might I lose by carrying on?

Taking it on the chin

I was chatting with the Cardboard Console guys the other day (check them out of you like board and computer games) and they asked about reading the comments made about our game, Empire Engine, on Board Game Geek. They said, if it were them, bad reviews would make them super angry: did I read them all?

The truth is yes, I read them all – good and bad. and I watch the videos and listen to all the audio (which is tricky, as it might be a two-minute brush off in the middle of a poorly edited three-hour podcast). And do they make me mad? Nope, not at all.*

It would be contrary of me to criticise others for having an opinion when I’ve earned a living out of spouting mine; and having spent my working life in creative environments, I’m used to criticism. But any design process can be a hard, long and personal and its easy to see why some people find it hard to separate emotionally from that.

So lets say someone has a bad review and they’re pissed. Some will internalise it and have hurt feelings; but others will take that anger and run with it. This can take us back to our angry bass player, threatening scenarios you can just laugh off; but its the smart ones you have to worry about – especially when you’re starting to put some tentative paws into the very industry you’re biting the hand of.

There is no law

You’d think a well balanced review, explaining its reasoning while critiquing opposite opinions, would put you on safe ground. Don’t kid yourself. There are some vindictive, nasty bastards out there. I’ve seen people go on personal crusades to rubbish someone they’d heard criticise them, even if it was an unarguable truth.

One bad review can see you struck off the mailing list of a PR company or manufacturer. You’re then left with the dilemma of integrity versus acceptance; the right versus the easy way out. As a new member of the designers club, this comes even more into focus.

Let’s get hypothetical. I criticise Game A by Designer A, from publisher A – and both take vindictive exception. Designer A goes and gives all my games a 2 out of 10, writes bad reviews and starts to bad mouth me to his designer friends. Publisher A refuses any meetings with me to see my prototypes, while suggesting to other publishers I’m trouble. A bad rep can spread like wildfire in a small community; soon I’m pariah number one.

I’ve seen how friendly this industry is – and it genuinely is exceptional. But then I also listen when people have a few beers, and read between some of the 140 characters on Twitter. Yes it’s a nice industry, but the people in it are only human.

Right and wrong

So what of the moral side? Forget personal consequences – what’s the right thing to do? I mean, why would you want to upset someone in the first place? Especially your piers.

I’m probably not the right person to ask, as my moral compass has been called into question on occasion, but I believe if you think something sucks and people listen to you, you have a duty to say so. Alternatively, you can simply bow gracefully out of the game.

Personally I’m going to stick to writing nice reviews here, while writing pithy 20-word criticisms on BGG when something gets my goat. As I do about one review per month and haven’t been sent a single freebie (bastards) its hard to write a bad review – I don’t buy games blind and if I do play a crap game I tend to play it once then run for the hills.

But if free games start turning up (please!) I’d feel duty bound to review them all – and honestly. At that point, I’d have to think again; do I really want to be that guy?

* OK, maybe they do a bit; but ironically it’s only really the rating number that annoys me, not the words: every 3 or 4 rating brings the average down significantly right now and is hindering the game rising up the rankings. So stop it. Please 🙂

What does the rise and rise of Asmodee mean for the board game industry?

Logo_AsmodéeI listened to board game industry commentators largely gloss over the recent acquisitions of Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight by Asmodee Group with interest.

The vast majority of responses seemed to be, “Well that’s good huh?” with very little actual thought put into the topic. Naysayers tended to be brushed off as fear mongers, seemingly due to the fact Asmodee is seen in the industry as a good egg.

On a superficial level, you can simply read the press release and agree with the publishers that this is purely a US/EU buyer/gamer win/win – everyone will benefit from increased resources, distribution channels etc etc on their opposite side of the pond.

Now I’m no expert, but I’d like to put a few things out there for debate. I don’t think this is something we should just accept and move along from without digging a little deeper into the possible ramifications.

Euraze-who?

While everyone and his meeple announced this as the gaming news story of 2014, very few spoke about the fact 2014 also saw French private equity firm Eurazeo buy an 83.5% stake in Asmodee for €98m – making it just another portfolio company in its €6bn stable of assets. While we were innocently talking about the possibility of slightly cheaper Star Wars minis on our local games store, the business press were talking about a possible new contender on the high street for Hasbro and Mattel.

I recently read an old article from the Harvard Business Review titled The Consolidation Curve. It looks at new or deregulated industries and how they have a “clear consolidation life cycle” with your average successful industry taking around 25 years to move through it fully. And this is every every industry, so there is no reason to suggest board (or should I say hobby) games will be any different.

Very briefly (I’m no business grad), this curve moves through four stages:

  1. Opening: After one or a few companies start the industry, their market share quickly drops to between 10-30% of the market as competitors arise – start-ups and spin-offs, plus consolidating companies from other industries.
  2. Scale: Major players emerge and buy competitors. The top three grow back to 15-45% market share as the industry consolidates. It’s all about protecting a core culture while taking and keeping the best people and products in the industry.
  3. Focus: Aggressive expansion sees the top three empires grow to control 35-70% of the industry, while there will generally be 5-12 players in the market. It’s now about global deals, profitability and the eradication of under performers.
  4. Balance and alliance: The big three now have 70-90% of the profit and concentrate on alliances, as there’s nothing left to grow into. It’s about defending their position, while looking for areas to branch out into – while avoiding regulation.

I think there’s an argument that says we have just moved into phase 2, ‘Scale’, and that our third industry ‘major player’ has begun to put its stall out.

Is it fair to say we now have Mattel, Hasbro and Asmodee?

The wrinkle point in these four stages, in terms of hobby games, is it was very much a cottage industry – but it has always been a little brother to a giant: high street toys and games. But now we can see the rising tide in terms of sales, boosted by a mainstream media softening towards nerds thanks to smartphones and tablets. It was only a matter of time before a big investment firm took a punt on the industry – and is it any surprise 2014 was also the year we saw Mattel dipping its toe back into euros at Essen with Bania?

Using the UK as an example, where Mattel and Hasbro had things sewn up was the high street; but even this has started to change. Non-traditional stores such as book shops have started to take hobby games seriously, while board game cafes and bars are starting to appear – let alone booming online sales. So where are people getting these games from? Well the UK hobby games distribution market has been sewn up by Esdevium, but don’t worry – it’s in safe hands of its owner, Asmodee.

The quote you hear all the time from the board game media is “you don’t go into the board game industry to make money” – but what they don’t add on the end is, “unless you’re going into manufacturing or distribution”. These firms employ creative people, of course, but they’re first and foremost businesses: just like film studios or record companies, they rely on exploiting (as in – making full use of) the talents they sign to make profit.

Mattel and Hasbro work in the same way. Designers are employees, not people worthy of having their names on game boxes. They work within the confines of a business remit for a product, rather than having total creative control, and work to deadlines. None of these things are intrinsically bad; they’re just not ideal for free spirited hobbyists, or people doing these things for the love rather than to pay the mortgage.

When will me move from ‘scale’ to ‘focus’?

There are so many questions. Will Asmodee work towards a similar structure to compete with these two gaming behemoths on an even footing? Will other conglomerates of gaming companies form to try and compete with them on a global distribution scale, creating the 5-12 ‘focus’ stage players? Is the upward trend of hobby games too slow to see this happen in the next five years – or is it actually a blip, that will see sales decline and enthusiasm wane from such big investors (which could of course have its own ramifications)?

From both a designer and customer perspective, these will be interesting times. An obvious move would be to see a smaller range of games being released each year from a shrinking number of players, but these games being released in bigger volumes as the popularity of the hobby increases.

This would drive price-per-unit down and force games on lower print runs into niches or bankruptcy – which, judging on the quality of many one-and-done Kickstarter projects, wouldn’t be a problem and will probably happen anyway as people come to their senses. But then of course there is the rise of the digital space and the possible love-love relationship that should blossom between 3D printing and print-and-play. There are just so many possibilities!

Of course I’m sure this article will be labelled naive, and I’ve already admitted I’m no expert – but if helps create a bit of debate on the subject that goes beyond giving this news a ‘Story of the Year’ award then I’m happy with that. I’m keen to learn more on the topic, and about the industry, so here’s to healthy debate.