Tag Archives: 18xx

Boardgames in the News: Is Rapid Market Growth a Good Thing?

The way boardgames are published and sold has changed massively over the last few years.  The development of Asmodee is one of the main stories of the last decade:  it has grown from a small company (primarily known for clever little kids games like Dobble), into an industrial conglomerate swallowing up the likes of Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Z-man Games, Mayfair, Lookout Spiele and most recently, Repos Production.  There have been other significant shifts too however. Changes in the way “hobby gamers” learn about and acquire games has been hugely influenced by the internet and with it, the rise of crowdfunding, in particular, KickStarter.

KickStarter Logo
– Image from
kickstarter.com

To give an idea of the impact KickStarter has had:  last Easter, they announced that more than one billion US dollars had been pledged by over three million backers, funding nearly seventeen thousand games projects since the platform started a decade earlier.  This growth occurred in tandem with a huge expansion in the hobby which has seen modern boardgaming move from the shadows of a dingy corner of geekdom towards the sunny uplands of the mainstream.  For the last five years, there have been more games released than any year previously.  Despite this growth, the dominance of Asmodee and KickStarter, have increased the squeeze on the smaller players in a relatively niche market.

Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) Logo
– Image from alderac.com

These smaller players also flourished as the market grew, but maybe a corner is now being turned.  Last year, Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), producers of games including Smash Up, Love Letter, Cat Lady, Dice City, Thunderstone, and more recently, Ecos: First Continent, announced that after twenty-seven years in the industry, they will be making fewer games.  From their press release:

“There is a reason why there are so many games coming. It is a great time to be making games, maybe the best ever. That does not mean it is easy. In fact, it is also the most challenging time to be making games that I can remember. The bar to get noticed and have any kind of staying power is higher than it has ever been.”

AEG are not the only company affected.  US Publishers, Winsome Games (producers of train games like TransAmerica, Chicago Express, Age of Steam, Railways of the World and the 18xx family of games) have announced they will no longer be presenting new games at Essen.  Part of this is due to owner and developer John Bohrer “aging (dis)gracefully”, but changes in the market have also no doubt taken their toll.

Steve Jackson Games Logo
– Image from sjgames.com

Other companies also seem to be feeling the pinch; last year, Steve Jackson Games (perhaps best known for games like Munchkin, Ogre and Cthulhu Dice) reported that gross income for 2018 was slightly down, the fourth year in a row.  In their 2017 report, they stated that “the current market is more a periodicals business than one that encourages growing and nurturing single games”.  In the 2018 report they observe that “things only got worse … as fewer and fewer copies of new titles were sold into distribution” and as a result, they “were forced to let some talented and hardworking staff go”.  As a company, they have expanded their use of KickStarter, observing that “over the last few years, our core hobby market has changed dramatically”.

Fantasy Flight Games Logo
– Image from
fantasyflightgames.com

Even the massive behemoth that is Asmodee is not unaffected.  About eighteen months ago, Asmodee was bought from Eurazeo by PAI Partners, a European private equity company, and  it seems they are now consolidating and streamlining their assets.  Earlier this month, Timothy Gerritsen, Head of Studio announced the closure of Fantasy Flight Interactive (FFI).  FFI was an independent subsidiary within Asmodee Digital with the remit of adapting tabletop games and creating new digital experiences based on Fantasy Flight Games’s best loved brands.  One of the highest profile of these was the Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game, but unfortunately it was not as successful as the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game it was based on.

Asmodee USA Logo
– Image from asmodeena.com

The cuts at Asmodee were wider reaching though, with the initial closure of the Fantasy Flight Customer Service department followed by reports of redundancies elsewhere in the company.  This has been more recently followed by a withdrawal of Customer Services for products all products from Asmodee, Fantasy Flight Games, Days of Wonder, Catan, Plaid Hat Games and Z-Man.  This change in policy is apparently due to “the number of quality titles in Asmodee USA’s growing library” which is making “maintaining an independent stock of elements of each game … more difficult”.  This may, or may not be true, but it is clear that as the market is growing, things are changing for everyone:  gamers and publishers, both big and small.

Boardgames in the News: The Consequences of Losing Catan—The Demise of Mayfair

The dramatic growth of Asmodee has been the subject of much comment over the last few years, but more recently it appeared to have slowed a little.  It would seem that perhaps the consequences are now beginning to kick in though.  Nearly two years ago, Asmodee acquired the rights to the English Language edition of the Catan series of games from Mayfair Games.  At the time there was some speculation as to the effect this would have on Mayfair as the Catan range had dominated their catalogue and provided a high proportion of their revenue.  The loss of such a large part of their portfolio inevitably led to major restructuring particularly as the then CEO of Mayfair, Pete Fenlon, left to become the CEO of the new Asmodee owned “Catan Studio” taking a bunch of other people with him.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image by boardGOATS

Thus, Mayfair not only lost the Catan franchise, but also their entire development team and graphics department. Essentially, they were left with Alex Yeager as lead developer, head of acquisitions, and marketing manager and a catalogue of about a hundred games including some of the popular 18xx series, Martin Wallace’s Steam, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Lords of Vegas and Nuns on the Run.  Mayfair also had a controlling influence in the German company, Lookout Games which they had acquired back in 2013, and this partnership had produced games like Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, Costa Rica and Patchwork. The Mayfair strategy was primarily to focus on the partnership with Lookout while continuing to support their existing catalogue, and then, once that was stable, further develop the Mayfair-exclusive products.

Mayfair
– Image from twitter.com

Questions were first asked when Mayfair didn’t exhibit at PAX West or PAX Unplugged, despite featuring in the exhibitor list, though they did present as usual at BGG.CONAt the beginning of November, however, Alex Yeager announced that he had left Mayfair, and this, together with the earlier departure of Julie Yeager and Chuck Rice indicated that the chairs were being shifted on the deck of the Titanic, and there were rumours that Mayfair was in trouble.  Mayfair had not independently produced a new title since the loss of the Catan franchise, but they still had their controlling stake in Lookout Games and producing the English language version of the popular Lookout range of games seemed like the basis for a strong partnership.

Lookout Spiel
– Image from lookout-spiele.de

Lookout Spiele was a highly successful German company responsible for developing games like Agricola, and more recently Bärenpark and Grand Austria Hotel.  At Spiel in October, Mayfair and Lookout shared an extremely popular booth, and it seemed so successful that there were rumours that another merger was on the cards. Sadly however, this was not the case, and on Friday it was announced that Mayfair had sold its three remaining assets (their games inventory, the IP, and their 74% stake in Lookout GmbH) and was closing their doors after thirty-six years.  Simultaneously, Asmodee acquired the remaining 26% of Lookout from the original owner, Hanno Girk and on Friday announced their take-over of Lookout.  With that, one of the most productive and popular of the German board game companies joined the likes of Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Space Cowboys, Z-man Games, Pearl Games, Ystari, Plaid Hat Games and of course Catan as yet another “Studio” in the great Asmodee Empire.

Asmodee
– Image from lookout-spiele.de

Boardgames in the News: Mayfair Games – Is there a Future without Catan?

Mayfair Games began in 1981 as a small US games company based in Illinois. One of their first games was Empire Builder, their first and now the flagship of their “crayon-rails” series of games where players, using washable crayons, draw their train routes over a map of North America.  Building on this success, Mayfair then went on to play a pivotal role in bringing Euro games to the US and wider English speaking markets.

Empire Builder
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Billythehut

In 1996, Mayfair Games picked up the license to produce an English edition of Die Siedler von Catan, The Settlers of Catan (now known simply as “Catan”).  With the huge success of the game world-wide, over the next twenty years, Mayfair brought out multiple new editions of the base game modernising and updating it, English editions of all the expansions, variants and spin-offs.  Mayfair (with Kosmos) were also behind the release of Star Trek: Catan in 2012, the first Catan game with a licensed theme.  For many, Mayfair Games has become synonymous with Catan, in the English speaking world in any case.  As such, the news yesterday that Asmodee has acquired the rights to produce the English language version of everything “Catan”, has left a lot of people wondering where that now leaves Mayfair Games.

Star Trek Catan
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor henk.rolleman

With the shear quantity and popularity of the Catan games it was inevitable that Catan would dominate the catalogue of Mayfair, but is this the beginning of the end for Mayfair Games?  Well, it’s true that no company can take such a major amputation and come out unscathed, so the loss of this part of their portfolio has inevitably led to major restructuring.  The former CEO of Mayfair, Pete Fenlon left to become the CEO of the new Asmodee owned “Catan Studio” taking a bunch of other people with him including the Director of Marketing,.  This left a hole that will be filled by a the current President, Larry Roznai; the head of Acquisition & Development, Alex Yeager; and a lot of chair shuffling.  Aside from that, shareholders received healthy payouts and there’s been a major contraction in the size of the company, to something similar to where it was in 2007-2008.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image by boardGOATS

It may be that the fact that Asmodee only took the rights to the Catan empire rather than buying the company out wholesale is indicative, and could be viewed as asset-stripping.  In which case, there is probably little hope for what remains of Mayfair Games.  If the whole-sale purchase scenario had played out, it is almost certain that the rest of the Mayfair catalogue would have been shelved and the company would have de facto become “Studio Catan” by another name.  The fact that this has not come to pass suggests that the personnel remaining believe there is more to the Mayfair than just “Catan”.

1830: Railways & Robber Barons
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Zoroastro

So, what is Mayfair left with?  Well, there are a hundred odd games currently produced by Mayfair including some of the popular 18xx series, Martin Wallace’s Steam, the massive Caverna: The Cave Farmers and Nuns on the Run.  In 2013 Mayfair also acquired a controlling interest in the German company, Lookout Games, who historically have produced some fantastic games (including Agricola).  This partnership has already produced Grand Austria Hotel; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King; and Patchwork.  This suggests that where the “Old Mayfair” had stagnated a little, becoming somewhat dependent on the Catan franchise, the New Mayfair might be forced to change direction for the better, forming a leaner, more innovative company producing exciting new games.  Perhaps the future is not so bleak for Mayfair after all, but only time will really tell.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor henk.rolleman

Boardgames in the News: The Hobby Grows and Grows

In the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, boardgames were only available from toy shops, and the range was limited to a relatively small number of “traditional” games, like Chess, Monopoly, Game of Life or Cluedo.  With the appearance of bigger, supermarket-like stores like Toys “R” Us in the 1980s and 1990s, a wider range became available and, occasionally, games like the early Spiel des Jahres winner, Rummikub, made their way onto our shelves.  As children grew up, they might graduate into playing Risk and eventually move onto longer, more complex games like those produced by Avalon Hill.  However, if you liked playing games, but war themes were not for you, it was quite difficult to find good alternative games to play.  They were there though:  games like Acquire and the 18xx railway games had been about for a long time, but these were the exception rather than the rule and were still an acquired taste.

Rummikub
– Image by BGG contributor OldestManOnMySpace

In contrast, in Germany, games like Scotland Yard were starting to become readily available and genuinely very popular.  The success of the Spiel des Jahres, which rewarded good games like Ra, El Grande, Tikal, and the 1995 winner, The Settlers of Catan, meant that boardgames were receiving a lot of publicity in Continental Europe.  The characteristics of these “German Games” (or “Euro Games”) typically include balance, with only a small amount of luck, and lack of player elimination.  As the market developed, beautiful boards and lots of wooden pieces also became an essential component.  Unlike war games, “Euro Games” tend to be less confrontational and much more suitable for family gaming.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

In the 1990s, UK designers like Alan R. Moon and Richard Breese started publishing small numbers of “designer games”.  These were often largely assembled by hand and generally had a limited print run.  For example, only 1,200 copies of Elfenroads (precursor to the later, Spiel des Jahres winner Elfenland) were ever made and Keywood, the first of the highly acclaimed “Key Series“, was hand-made and had a print-run of just 200.  Given the exclusive nature of these games, it was not surprising then, that many teenagers either gave up on boardgames or moved on to collectable card games, like Magic: The Gathering or Role-Playing Games.

Elfenroads
– Image by BGG contributor dougadamsau

So it was with the growth of the internet that “Euro Games”, or designer boardgames became available to people in the UK.  Firstly, this was because it enabled people to find out about the games that were available, with sites like UseNet and eventually BoardGameGeek in 2000, providing a valuable source of information.  Secondly, internet shopping made “German Games” much more accessible.  The growth of the hobby meant an increase in boardgame publishers, and the appearance of designers like Reiner Knizia who were sufficiently prolific and successful to make a living from designing games.  Over the last fifteen years or so, the hobby has grown and grown and games like Carcassonne and The Settlers of Catan are now available in Waterstones and WHSmith, there are regular comments in The Guardian, there are repeatedly TV appearances, and boardgame cafés are sprouting up all over the place.  The question is, will it continue to grow, or have we reached a high water line?

Ernie
– Image from boardgamegeek.com