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.

Infiltration: A four-sided game review

Infiltration boxInfiltration is a simple push-your-luck card game with a strongly thematic character-driven adventure cleverly woven in.

It was designed by Donald X Vaccarino, the man behind way more abstract classics Dominion and Kingdom Builder. But the thematic side works very well here.

The game plays out in less than an hour and is relatively simple to set up and play, while nicely building tension throughout.

Infiltration is set in the same ‘Android’ universe as the highly successful Netrunner card game and has the high production values you’d expect from publisher Fantasy Flight. It comes with 38 standard cards (a random 13 of which make up the place you’ll be infiltrating); 76 small cards (Ticket to Ride/Arkham Horror sized) which are mostly item/action cards you’ll have in your hand; plus a bunch of cardboard chits and a dice.

There are also character cards and standees (purely for theme), plus the dreaded security tracker (more of which later). At around £20, it’s good value for money.

Teaching

Infiltration in playThematically a game of Infiltration sees you leading a hacker each (or two each in a two-player game*) room to room through an office building, trying to steal as much data and as many useful items and weapons as possible; then getting out before the cops arrive.

In reality you move your player piece from face-down card to face-down card, revealing them as you go and (hopefully) collecting one-time bonus actions and victory point chips. I’m not denigrating the theme – just showing how simple it is. It’s only really the thematic chrome that adds any complication, but even this is minor.

Each player has a hand of cards. Four are the same for everyone and you’ll have them all game: advance, retreat, interface, extract/download. Each room is unique. Some will be basic, usually having an item to interface with for a bonus plus data to extract for points; others will house NPCs that help ratchet up the tension/mayhem.

You also get four random equipment cards which are used instead of the standard cards to do better, often one time actions. At the start of each round, players simultaneously choose a card then take it in turns to do their action – they hope.

Here’s where things get interesting. The chance to be first player moves clockwise each round. Locations have limited resources and you choose actions simultaneously; so if you begin in the same location as other players, will there be anything left to interface with/extract by the time it gets to your turn? Should you move instead?

Infiltration play areaIn addition, each round the chance of the police arriving increases. It’s not purely random, but nasty locations can see your best laid (risky) plans go to pot.

So collecting lots of booty is great, but at some point you gotta run or go to jail (AKA lose). This simple push-your-luck mechanism isn’t big or clever but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The only thing you may have trouble with is the equipment cards, as these need to be kept secret by players but are all different – making teaching a tough ask. My advise would be to go through the basics then play through a quick game, explaining clearly it’s a training game that doesn’t count. People can try to win on the second run through!

*Note: I’ve only played two-player once as neither myself or Zoe enjoyed it that way; the dynamic didn’t feel right. I don’t have the experience to go into more detail, but I’d suggest reading some two-player reviews if that’s how you expect to play the game.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Infiltration is basically classic game ‘Incan Gold’ with a huge dollop of chrome plastered on top. But importantly the luck is moved away from the flip of a single card to the flipping of many. One bit of bad luck won’t ruin you here, but a run of it can. If you get a bunch of rubbish equipment, for example, winning (and the chance of having much fun) can be taken out of your hands very early. But in a thematic 45-minute game which usually works well, I think this can be forgiven.
  • The thinker: There really isn’t much to think about here, unless the odds go one way (towards likely failure) and your opponents do the same for the sake of theme – but where’s the fun in that victory? Trying to second guess opponents during action selection is pleasing, while the more rooms are revealed the more strategy takes over from tactics; but by then your fate can already be sealed. Good strategic play is likely to place you in the top few, but luck will decide the winner.
  • The trasher: Now this is a game! Infiltration has it all: screwage, story, character, push your luck, stand up moments, rising tension – everything: and it all plays out before anyone can get bored. The decision space is great most rounds, as you weigh up the odds while also having to factor in the great (and often lethal, gun-totting) unknown. You have a bag of data, the police may arrive in a few rounds, but there’s a good chance the next few rooms may house even more loot – and an executive lift out of the building to freedom! What do do? You know the answer!
  • The dabbler: While the sci-fi theme and little cards full of text don’t really do it for me, I was actually quite surprised by this one. Turns are fast and the reveal leads to lots of oohs and aahs. and while there seems to be more exceptions than rules, the rules are at least straightforward. There’s also very little downtime as you really want to know what everyone is doing, while turns are usually very fast. So despite my misgivings, I’d have to a credit this one with being a surprise hit – as long as its played with the right group and in the right spirit.

Key observations

Infiltration characterThe most common issue, unsurprisingly, is that Infiltration is too random. While it may seem an odd complaint to make about a push-your-luck game I do have sympathy with it. There are a lot of cards and items so you’d think they’d give you a bit more control over your destiny than a straight dice or random draw fest – but no.

A related issue is how different each game is – and not in a good way. As is often the way with thematic games relying on random factors, you can have an edge of the seat experience one game and a borefest the next. In Infiltration’s defence, it lasts less than an hour and you know what you’re going into from the start. No, it’s not for everyone.

One big issue here is equipment cards. These go from uber to situational (so may never be useful), and if you get a handful of the latter you’re unlikely to be in for a fun time. In the game’s defince it does include both a set equipment variant (based on which character you get) and a drafting variant. Why these are buried at the back of the book under ‘advanced’ rules is beyond me; some set equipment should’ve been standard.

Finally, both the fiddly nature of all the bits and the cyber-fi theme aren’t exactly universally popular. If you like the idea of the game but want something more traditionally ‘euro’ it is definitely worth exploring Incan Gold – although that works better with a higher player count.

Conclusion

Infiltration characterI’m very happy I own Infiltration and while I don’t want to play it every week it’s a fun one to get to the table now and again when in the right mood. It’s a shame the two-player version didn’t work for us, but it’s fun with three or four.

If you are happy with sci-fi/cyberpunk, like a lot of theme in your games and are also happy with a strong element of randomness I recommend it. It has the trappings of much longer games such as Arkham Horror or Descent but in a nifty one-hour time frame, which is sure to fill a gap in many a gamer’s collection.

This is not a game I’m good at. I’ve only won once, having lost horribly on several occasions, but I’ve really enjoyed all but one of those experiences: one was really predictable, and that was the one I won! It’s the nature of the beast – and I think Infiltration is fun enough to suffer the odd below average experience.