Jan 16 2020
As a company making fewer new games I also felt that I should also talk about expansions to those games. I personally love a good new expansion for my games. It is a great reason to bring the game back to table for a fresh and interesting play.
I also understand that expansions were a big part of AEG’s business plan for many years. CCGs and RPGs are built to be expanded and that is often how the long tail money is made and also how you keep players engaged in those games. As we transitioned into card games the expansions continued. Thunderstone, Smash-Up, and even Mystic Vale all IMO benefited from expansions.
We also tried to expand some games that did not need it like Fantahzee.
Many retailers are now saying that they do not love games with lots of expansions. The expansions are harder to keep stocked in stores. There is the fact that an expansion is targeted at a smaller audience of people who already own the base game so the market for an expansion, even a great one, is determined by size of the active customer base.
So where have we landed on expansions as we grow and change as a company?
We currently have quite a few expansions into development. But only about 50% are making the final cut. We are not automatically assuming a game will get expansions before it is published. We are also not putting expansions on a timeline-based development schedule. Anyone who follows AEG knows that Smash Up expansions have come out every spring and fall for quite a few years, and internally we normally set a release date and work backwards from that date.
That has changed. We now have a target date for completion of development for expansions but it is not tied to a release date. This gives the designers and developers a date to hit without it being etched in stone and also without the company counting on that expansion for cash flow projections purposes.
Our track record for making great expansions is very good so I am not saying that we have made these changes because we feel our products were not great. They are great. Our goal is to alleviate some of the bad stress associated with developing on a schedule and replace it with good stress based on quality of work.
We could have rushed out the Tiny Towns expansion so that it hit in time for Holiday sales last year but it was not quite ready so it is releasing in February. It is awesome BTW. There is no spring expansion for Smash-Up which means we are shaking up that release schedule as well. (News about Smash Up in 2020 is coming in March). I am desperate for another Space Base expansion but the gears have not clicked together yet and so we continue to work and play. (It’s tough work but someone has to do it)
I have also approved the idea of micro expansions. We have some very cool ideas that don’t require a full expansion so look for these in the future.
The funny thing is that we have published fewer games, but made more hits, which means that there are better opportunities for exansions. It is wonderfully chaotic and fun and hard to balance but we are loving it.
I know we have officially announced expansions for Tiny Towns, Mystic Vale, and Cat Lady coming in the next few months and I have approved final game play for expansions for a number of other projects. Just know that when you see expansions on our schedule they are under the same watchful eye as our new games.
Dec 18 2019
It’s 5:30 AM and I just dropped off the last visitor to the Larkstone house for 2019 at the Airport. I know I have talked a lot about Larkstone this year but there is a good reason. Setting up this house has been one of the best decisions we have ever made. We had a ton of fun, our games are better because of it, we have been able to remain a virtual company but spend quality time together, and it has given us the opportunity to connect with designers like never before.
I want to thank everyone that visited and shared games, food and fun with us.
Special thanks to the 2019 Larkstone demo crew Neil Kimball, Taylor Shuss, and Rob Watkins
Coming in 2020 ( A quick snapshot of just a few of the games and prototypes tested and developed for 2020 at Larkstone)
We hope you can join us for games, friendship and fun in 2020!!!
Dec 16 2019
The Day of Thunder was the Gencon 1997 storyline tournament. It was the culmination of the Imperial Edition story arc. The story resolved around The Seven Thunders, (Champions) one from each major clan and Fu Leng the evil god who had taken over the body of the dying emperor. Emperor Fu Leng had turned the empire and clans against each other and what was amazing to us is that going into this final battle there was really no knowing how the tale would end. If good triumphed over evil there would still be a matter of finding a new Emperor and dealing with the traitors but if Fu Leng won….. He had promised the empire 1000 years of Darkness. Our team was committed to delivering either outcome depending on the events that unfolded at the tournament.
CCG communities are amazing. The core connection in a CCG style game is competition and you cannot have competition without floor rules, reasonable players, and judges to make calls when necessary. Players end up forming the major part of event staff and as others are eliminated from events they pitch in to help make sure that rules are followed. Without these people these stories I am sharing would not be possible and I want to thank everyone who has ever run an event or supported us in this way.
We had our largest event space ever and we created amazing T-Shirts for the event. Clan colors with a big clan mon right on the chest. They were simple and quite simply the best shirts we ever made for any of our games or events. Everyone in the event received the shirt that matched the clan they were going to play and as Gen Con progressed these shirts seemed to appear everywhere. This was the biggest L5R event we had run but thankfully we had an amazing crew and they had things well under control.
On day one players started gathering in the event hall wearing their T-shirts and standing with groups of friends and other clan members. You have to understand, back then an L5R event was like no other event at a convention. It was like a sports event with players chanting and cheering for their clans and before every event we would do a battle cry that shook the event space. The Day of Thunder was even more electric. Before the events started the players were gathered into their clans and speeches were made. Then a roll call of clans was made. “Lions let me hear your roar!!” and the Lion Clan players roared and yelled and slapped high fives. “Crab defenders of the Empire” Another cheer “The Shadowlands followers of Fu Leng” Boos mixed with cheers from the grey-shirt wearing Shadowlands players. And so the roll call went on until it reached the smallest of the Clans. A new faction not yet a major clan, Yoritomo’s Army, wearing Dark Green shirts with a Mantis Logo. The herald from the chair called. “Mantis Clan!!” there was silence in the room. No one screamed. He called again “Mantis” One small player in dark green shirt stepped through a crowd and threw up his arms. “YORITOMO!!!!” Silence for a second and then… the whole room erupted and cheered. I cried. I’m crying now. It was amazing and so perfect since Yoritomo was known as the baddest man in the empire an army of one and here was this guy having his moment.
The room died down and pairings for the first round were posted. L5R events are run in two phases. During the first phase you play multiple matches and the players with the best win loss victory move on to the brackets. During the first round as I was walking around I noticed the Steve Swarner, runner up the year before, was playing against the Mantis Clan player. He had a concerned and serious look on his face. I thought maybe he was losing. During a break in the action I leaned over and said “How is it going?” He said “fine I’m winning.” I said “what wrong then?” and he said, and this has stuck with me. “I don’t want to be the guy responsible for knocking THIS guy out of the tournament.” WOW. He had felt the moment and did not want to play spoiler. L5R players were just a different breed. The story mattered. Two Dragon Clan players were also paired against each other in the first round. They would not lift a card. And played to a draw because “Dragon do night fight Dragon and we settle our differences in the mountains in private.” Wow again the first round of the biggest event ever and you won’t play against someone in your clan. Crazy… but sooo cool.
There were many memorable moments from the weekend, most of which were created by the players within the framework we had provided them. If nothing else of note had happened it would already have been an amazing end to the story but it was The Day of Thunder and the players had a few surprises up their sleeves.
Dec 13 2019
The final show of the year is behind us and as with every year we need to be thinking about the year ahead. At PAX Unplugged this year I had about 10 conversations with near-peer companies and start-ups about convention planning. There are so many shows now you could attend one nearly every week if you wanted and show planning is a big deal.
A company convention plan will fall somewhere in between attend no shows and attend as many as you possibly can. Attending no shows likely means that you have other marketing plans for your games because even a one man, low sales company can attend a local convention. Attend as many shows as possible likely means that this is your primary plan to acquire new customers and build brand awareness.
There is no 100% correct path. Many companies do however fall into the habit of attending shows because they think they have to attend. You start with regional shows and maybe a 10 by 10 booth at a major show like Gen Con (if you can get one) and then over time add shows that you and your company attend.
Some companies look at shows as a breakeven marketing expense. You sell enough product at the show to pay for the travel, volunteers, and hotels. The true cost of convention attendance is almost never factored into the equation. If you sell inventory at a show you do not have it to sell at a profit later. So almost every copy sold at a break even show is essentially a marketing expense. Then there is the lost time. Shows are exhausting and take a toll. Most companies send marketing and sales people first, but then you also send creatives for other reasons. We calculate the lost time for a 3-day show as 10 working days. You prepare for the show, early travel, time at the show, travel home, and finally recovery. People may go right back to work after a show; I am writing this blog Tuesday after PAX Unplugged but I am struggling a bit and it is likely the only thing I will do today.
So how do you decide how to approach a convention?
First, if you are a consumer of games and love people I HIGHLY recommend that you go to game shows. They are awesome!!!! If it is in your budget and you have vacation time I cannot think of a better way to enjoy this hobby.
If, however, you are a game company and want to attend shows for business here are some rules we follow.
- As noted above, there is NO such thing as a break-even show.
- When considering show expenses, always ask yourself how many more games will I sell if I spend this money. A penny saved is a penny earned in this business.
- Sponsorships are NOT Super Bowl Ads. They will not make you an overnight name. Leave the sponsorships to the big companies. If you think by spending $$ on sponsorships and extra signage at shows will sell more product in my opinion it does not.
- Parties are fun but they do not sell product. Don’t get caught up in sponsoring and throwing parties at bars and convention halls. It feels good to have a bunch of people show up and celebrate with you but if you are going to do it know that it is just that a celebration not marketing.
- Don’t try to keep up with what other companies are doing. Often times they are overspending and in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar “It’s a trap.”
- Compensate volunteers. Try not to over work them. Give them time to enjoy the show. Think about sleeping arrangements in a way that all volunteers are comfortable with whom they must spend this time with.
- No show is a must attend. Autopsy your show results every year and adjust your schedule accordingly.
- Staff who are behind on deadlines should never be allowed to attend a show. It only makes things worse. We break this rule too often and always regret it.
My Thoughts on Current Show Options
The Top Tier Gen Con and Essen
Gen Con – Gen Con has been the keystone to our marketing since day 1 when we handed out those 10,000 Shadis magazines and it continues to be the most important show on our schedule. It’s huge but that does not mean it is easy. I think even the smaller booths are beneficial at this show and it is still the one show I would make every effort to attend and build a launch plan around.
Essen – The other top tier show. AEG has been attending for 10 or so years now. We started in a small back room booth and worked our way up. It took a number of years to get to a place where the show actually made sense for us but now customers are looking for us and it has been both a marketing boon and profitable sales show for us. I am surprised more US companies do not have booths. 90% of attendees are still looking for German games so having a German Edition of something hot is the best way to do this show but English edition titles do sell. We do most of our international partnership meetings here and we also see a ton of international designers.
The Second Tier (By Attendance and Engagement) Origins, PAX Unplugged, UKGE
Each of these three shows is likely a show where you need to decide how it fits into your needs. We make all decisions each year about these shows based on what marketing advantage we think we will get by attending. We do know that for new companies and small footprint publishers these shows are often profit centers and sales equal what they get at a major event. So we do recommend them especially if you feel like you are getting lost in the back at Gen Con or Essen.
The Influencer Shows
BGG, DiceTower, Shux, etc. These are our favorite shows to attend and our hardest shows to justify in terms of setting up a booth and sending a staff to run the booth. For us booths at these shows are a bonus and a way for us to say thank you to the people who spread the word about our games and who have now become our friends. Buying a booth at these shows is not a way to curry favor with someone you want to talk about your games. You do that by making great games. If you have the budget I suggest you spread the love from year to year. For game playing and fun these shows are the best and you should put one on your schedule a year to just have fun and play other peoples’ games.
Toy Fair, Nurenberg, GAMA, Distributor Open Houses
With these shows you get out as much as you put in and if you don’t have a way to stand out and follow-up your time with potential buyers will be lost. I suggest attending Toy Fair once or twice before deciding to get a booth. It is a hard show to monetize. I feel that most companies should be able to get all the international work they want done at Essen but if you are serious about partnerships, companies have more time to talk at Nuremberg. GAMA is a great networking event and GAMA along with the Distributor Open Houses are great ways to meet retailers. The game nights at these events are fun and you do see a few retailers but for the most part if 400 retailers attend you might see 20 at your game table. Use these shows to build a retailer mailing list and then use it.
Comic Conventions and Computer Gaming Shows
Yes, these are huge but they are not set up for board gaming companies. At best, it feels like an “Oh by the way we have board games.” I have yet to find year over year value in these shows and I think PAX Unplugged sort of proves this point. It is a board gaming show and may grow into a major show in the next 5 years.
Shows of Special Note
I would be remiss if I did not mention Game Market in Japan and Lucca in Italy. The game boom in Japan is something everyone knows about. We discovered this show years ago when it was 1000 people and a bunch of tiny booths. It has grown in attendance to something like 20K people for a weekend but has kept some of it’s charm since self-published games are big in Japan and so many 5 by 5 booths are a thing. We love this show and try to attend as often as possible but signing new games is much harder since it is no longer a secret. Lucca is something that every geek should see once. I do not recommend getting a booth. If you are in Europe or at Essen and the dates are close enough, spend some time in Italy for vacation and then check out this show. The ancient walled city becomes a tent city showing off fandom of all kinds. Epic cosplay, Star Wars marching bands, great food, and strange weather from year to year. When it rains the city becomes a sloppy mess but it is still packed.
Remember these are my opinions and I am sure other publishers have different views. My advice is don’t just go to shows because you think you have to. You don’t. Go because it makes sense, because it is connected to your game marketing and branding plan. Go because it is fun, because you get to see friends, and meet people who have inspired you. Go because it’s good for your business or good for your soul, not because you think you have to.
I hope this helps. We built AEG by attending as many shows as possible in the early years. I often fantasize when building the plan for the year of going back to hard core grass roots marketing. Hitting the road, sleeping on couches, driving from local show to show and stopping at retailers on the way. It does work and is very satisfying but I also think that it is built for young people with few attachments and the freedom to travel without worrying about what is back home. I also think that it would be even more powerful now especially with the ability to update folks with social media and how connected people are. I’d love to see more companies do this.
Nov 23 2019
Show Me Your Stance
At AEG, our role-playing roots are deep and we always intended to do RPG’s as supplemental material to our storyline worlds. In the case of Legend of the Five Rings, the RPG material strengthened the connection players had to the story.
The core L5R RPG book was an opus and it was birthed in the same way the CCG was. Lots of healthy debates and teamwork.
I was a Dungeons and Dragons player so when I was introduced to our first RPG I expected to sit down, roll up a character, go kill some monsters, and steal some stuff. Life in the Emerald Empire was not about that and the way you played the game reflected that. The team led by John Wick delivered a nuanced and thematic game that captured life in the Emerald Empire better than we ever could have hoped. Less dice chucking, more role playing. We would play sessions where Great Clan emissaries debated land holdings and more often we would not be fighting the NPC’s we would be talking to them. Heresy. When we did finally fight it was dangerous and deadly. It turns out if you get sliced in half by a katana, you die. You don’t fight on for another 50 hit points and then have a cleric sew you up.
I still use the phrase “Show me your stance,” which in L5R was the less deadly way for two samurai to fight. You could tell from the stance of two samurai who was likely to win the battle so instead of fighting they would face off and the samurai who knew he was outmatched would concede. So cool.
The thing we did not expect to have happen is that RPG’s became a stable source of income for AEG. We got into the cycle of doing 3-6 books a year for the L5R RPG which meant we built up the company around that. It helped the CCG because we had quality story people doing work they could get paid for, and it did much more than help AEG stay afloat between CCG expansions.
I am scanning the internet and looking at the lists of L5R RPG products we published and to be honest I am bit astounded. Over 100 books through 4 Editions, and we haven’t started talking about the other RPG’s yet. When people ask how AEG got started, I tend to focus on the CCG story but it is very apparent that we were a CCG and RPG company. I will amend that as I describe us in the future.
There was some crossover between players of the CCG and RPG, but there were more players who did one or the other. The big thing that happened is that players of the RPG became invested in results of the CCG storyline events. In the beginning that was the only way to affect the storyline, and so having the same loyalties as many CCG players, the RPG players rooted for, advised on story decisions, and followed players who played for their same Clan. By Gencon 2017 the clans had become the teams of Rokugan and loyalty and excitement was running deeper than we could ever hope.
In 1998, the Legend of the Five Rings RPG won the Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Game of 1997.
Oct 3 2019
We have been incredibly happy with War Chest’s reception over the last year. Following the reviews, the comments, and the discussions has been a real treat. One thing that came up again and again was how expandable people thought the game was. Of course we agreed—we had lots of different ideas rattling around in our heads—but we had to wait to see how well the game did. When AEG gave us the official thumbs, we couldn’t have been happier. This diary explores the design and development of Nobility, War Chest’s first expansion.
Of course Nobility would add new units. That much was obvious. But we really wanted it to include something else—some new element which would add additional choices and texture through its interactions with the existing content. Our starting point for this was the Royal Coin.
In War Chest, each player’s bag starts with a slew of Unit Coins (Archers, Cavalry, etc.) and a single Royal Coin. Despite its flashy name, the Royal Coin is strictly inferior to the others. You can’t place it onto the board and you can’t use it to maneuver your units. Like the Estates in Dominion, the Royal Coin’s sole purpose is to encourage you to build your bag. The more coins in your bag, the less often you have to draw it. While this is an important function, it’s not a particularly fun one. With Nobility, we set out to change this. We wanted players to be excited to draw the Royal Coin. This would only happen, though, if the Royal Coin created choices, rather than removing them. Enter the Royal Decrees…
Royal Decrees are a new type of card, which introduce generic (non-unit specific) powers into the game. Three of them are dealt face up during set up and each player (or team) gets to use each one once during the game. To do this, you discard your Royal Coin face up, and then place a Royal Seal onto the Decree. So three times in the game, your Royal Coin gets to do something cool. The king say-eth, the people do-eth!
The core mechanics for the Decrees came quickly, but it took us quite some time to get the powers right. On the one hand, we wanted them to be as varied as possible, interacting with each other and with the units in interesting ways. On the other hand, we had to ensure that the Decrees weren’t too powerful, either individually or in the aggregate. The Royal Coin still needed to promote bag building, and this simply wouldn’t happen if the Decrees were too strong. Our solution was to create powers that were situational, and more powerful in the mid and late game than the beginning.
So the Royal Decrees achieved what we wanted. They made the Royal Coin interesting, while also giving us a mechanical and thematic hook for the expansion. The next step was to design some units to run with this.
Nobility includes four new units. The Earl and the Herald have abilities that interact directly with the Decrees. The Bishop and the Bannerman are thematically linked, but explore other types of abilities. Along the way, we tried out lots of different ideas that just didn’t make the cut. Inspired by the Royal Guard, for example, we tried out a variety of units which had Tactics powered by the Royal Coin (“Discard the Royal Coin to do X”). These “Royal Tactics” were a great fit thematically, but they caused some pretty severe issues. First, they competed directly with our new Decree Cards. If you were using your Royal Coin for a Royal Tactic, you weren’t using it for a Decree (and vice versa). Second, there were power issues. The stronger the Royal Tactics, the less likely you were encouraged to build your bag. This was much worse than what we encountered with the Decree powers, as Tactics can be used again and again. Speaking of which…
Confession time. While certainly not unbeatable, we felt that the Royal Guard as it appears in the base set is something of a problem. We knew it was a strong unit, but we didn’t realize just how strong until after the game was released, and people started posting strategies and discussions of those strategies to various threads. The problem is that its Tactic—Discard the Royal Coin to move—is too versatile. Moving a unit is something you can always do, and something you pretty much always want to do. This makes “small bagging” with the Royal Guard extremely effective, particularly given the nature of its attribute (When attacked, you can remove a coin from the supply rather than the unit). In a small bag, a Royal Guard becomes a tank that can move fast!
In turn this reduces the variety of game play that is on offer when the Royal Guard is in the draft mix, as its tactic dominates the game flow. We pride ourselves on how differently the game plays with different units, and different army composition, and we felt it was important to get back to that feel.
To address this, the Nobility expansion includes a new version of the Royal Guard card. The attribute is the same as before, but the Tactic now reads: Discard the Royal Coin to move the Royal coin up to 2 spaces to a location that you control. So its effect is larger (you can move two spaces), but more limited (you have to move to a location you control). This resolves the issue with small bagging, while also making much more sense thematically (The Royal Guard should be running around to guard your locations, not to cause general havoc and destruction!)
The Royal Coin and the Royal Guard aren’t the only things that we’ve “upgraded” in Nobility. While overall people have been extremely happy with the production of the game (how couldn’t they be!), there have been a lot of comments that the Control Markers were the same size as, and hence got covered up by, the Unit Coins. Some people forged their own DIY solutions (gotta love gamers!) but for those of you didn’t, we’ve included a set of hexagonal Control Markers. Hope this helps!
We’re so excited about the Nobility expansion and the future of War Chest. One of the greatest things about the experience was getting the whole team back together to work on this project. Mark Wootton served as the lead developer for the project and always pushed us to make the expansion the best it could be. And we are thrilled that Bridgette Indelicato was able to bring Nobility to life with her graphic design and artistic skills. And now let’s go play Nobility!
Sep 25 2019
- L5R Story, Game of Thrones, and Dragonlance story spoilers in this post.
Running a storyline CCG the way AEG did it is not an easy task. As I had mentioned earlier we looked at our storyline games as a hybrid card game/rpg. We created factions for players to identify with, and while there were thousands of characters over the life of the product the story revolved around the factions. In L5R these factions were the Clans of the Empire.
A lot went into building a clan that players might identify with. In this area, game play, story, and art played an equal role. L5R was a war game and each of the factions had a play style. The Lion were attackers, The Crab were defenders, The Crane were politicians and the empires best duelists etc etc. The clan colors acted as a uniform of sorts and the graphic design and art for each faction was unique. If you showed up at an L5R event wearing red everyone knew you were a Phoenix. The characters we introduced players to from each clan were reflections of our vision for that clan.
And then we layered in the storyline. The storyline was a framework of what could happen but how things would play out was left to the players as much as possible. The L5R story began with the Emperor of Rokugan being possessed by the dark god Fu Leng. The emperor’s word in all situations is law and to be Samurai means that you must show loyalty to The Empire and the Emperor above all else. This created a very tenuous situation in the Empire right out the gate.
Samurai stories are hard to tell. Everyone knows that Samurai and Ninja are super cool but the things that drive a Samurai to make the decisions they make are very different than in western fiction. To a samurai honor is the most important part of their lives. This is where the L5R tag line “Honor is a force more powerful than steel.” comes from. The emperor being possessed drove the entire Imperial Edition story arc and would put honor and what it meant to the test for all of the clans.
There are so many amazing moments in each arc of L5R fiction but for me the moment that stands out in the Imperial Arc (before the Day of Thunder of course) is the death of Matsu Tsuko. Lion Clan champion. The Lion clan had been split into two factions. The traditional Lion lead by champion Matsu Tsuko who had chosen to follow their ancient vow to the Emperor to the letter and serve him even though he may be possessed, and the rogue faction Toturi’s Army lead by disgraced Lion Clan champion Akodo Toturi who was fighting against the Emperor.
The L5R team were not just working on the game. They were fans and we all identified with the different clans and it was no secret that the lead Dave Williams was a huge Lion clan fan and Matsu Tsuko was HIS champion. Before we would begin work on each new set we would have a big meeting and discuss what was happening with the story, game play, etc. In one particular meeting we were discussing the marketing moments that were upcoming in the story. There was some cool stuff but nothing that really made us stand up and say wow and so we brainstormed more ideas. At one point in the meeting. I believe John Wick said. “We could kill Matsu Tsuko. She could commit seppuku to restore her honor and reunite the broken Lion clan.”
Seppuku is a ritual suicide performed by Samurai for multiple reasons but the most compelling is the idea of restoring one’s honor. It is a very delicate subject and was something I told the L5R team from the beginning that we would not throw around lightly.
When this was suggested. Dave went red in the face and just stared at us for a second and then he blurted something to the effect of. “No you won’t, NO you won’t!!!” For me that was enough to seal the deal. My understanding of samurai fiction was still in its infancy but I fully understand the reaction that we wanted players to have and this felt like the perfect penultimate moment to lead us into the Day of Thunder. For those of you not familiar with the L5R I would compare this to the death of Sturm from Dragon Lance or Ned Stark from Game of Thrones.
While that clans battled each other and Fu Leng for control of Rokugan an even bigger battle for the fate of the Empire was being fought back at our offices.
The first ad we ever ran for L5R had the headline: “The story ends at Gen Con 1997”. It was a bold statement and our intention when we started L5R was to build multiple storyline CCG’s and release them in story arcs. When one would end we would begin another. First L5R was just starting to gain momentum and second, we were having trouble designing the second CCG. Turns out that designing a CCG from the ground up is hard work and we were in no position to promise delivery of a replacement for L5R.
The options were: Keep the promise and end L5R as scheduled, or break the promise and keep making new L5R content after the end of the Clan War storyline.
The battle that ensued between Ryan and I was a knock down drag out affair that lasted weeks. We wanted to stay on plan and a lot of topics were discussed but the big reasons we decided to continue publishing L5R were, first L5R was just starting to gain momentum and second, we were having trouble designing the second CCG. Turns out that designing a CCG from the ground up is hard work and we were in no position to promise delivery of a replacement for L5R. Ryan finally conceded but it would not be until The Day of Thunder that he felt it was actually the right decision.
I think all of us that were involved with L5R in its early days would love to go back to the alternate universe where we shelve L5R after the Imperial story and do Doomtown or another game and sell the players on the idea of arcs like movies. Having done so many CCG’s I can see that players not only fell in love with the story but also the mechanics. We did get crossover from one CCG to the next but not as much as would have been necessary to make the original idea work. I guess we will never know but what we do know is that the decision to keep going lead to so many amazing moments and a lot of joy for a lot of people. We have 20 years of memories and I am only on year two as I write this.
Sep 18 2019
Anyone close to me knows how excited I am for this release. Ecos is a John D Clair design that brings together a unique combination of mechanics so that up to 6 players can play simultaneous turns building the world and populating it with mountains, forests, and animals.
I first played Ecos in late 2017. At that time the prototype name was Pangea and like all of John’s games the prototype was polished and the game play was very close to what we have now in the final game. We liked it instantly. I have decided that I really like games with simultaneous actions, my least favorite part of gaming is waiting for my next turn and in Ecos you never have to do that. I also liked that the game was driven by a simple mechanic (Bingo) but the way you use your resources and cards creates an interesting dynamic during game play. You are building a living world. The plains you are playing for your Antelope to roam are likely hunting grounds for someone with a Lion. Scoring depends on how you manipulate the world’s terrain, or how large a herd you can create, or how many of those animals your predators can eat.
You know a game is good when everyone wants to work on the development team and we had plenty of volunteers for Ecos. Once you start to work on a new game the debates about art and how it will look begin almost immediately. Mark Wootton was selected as project lead. That was a no brainier since in his life before AEG he was a ranger in Scotland.
We knew we wanted the terrain to have three dimensional and so over time.
and finally ended up as this.
The art and graphics for the cards fell into place quickly. Josh Wood, the art director on this project, had the clever idea of using petroglyphs as inspiration for the icons and since you rotate the cards to show they have been used we ended up using square cards.
You need a lot of different animal tokens to play Ecos and so we have provided double sided tokens and cool punch board holders to organize them for play.
Once completed we made a few big choices about how we would release the game. We always knew we wanted it to be our Essen release but unlike other games we did not want to wait a year or more for the German edition and so we jumped ahead and worked with a team so we could launch a German Edition at this year’s Essen show.
We also knew that the best marketing for this game would be showing it to gamers so we pushed the print button well in advance of the release date. We debuted the game by previewing it for a full day in our booth at Gencon. It was as expected a hit.
We provided samples to reviewers and the reviews have been great!
Today we are releasing a limited number of copies direct to gamers as a pre-release promotion.
You have two options to order Ecos today:
Order a pre-release of Ecos (USA ONLY) $49.99 – save $10! plus free delivery in 2-3 weeks! (Limited time offer, quantities are limited, 1 per household please!)
Ecos – First Continent from John D Clair is our major fall release. We believe it is going to appeal to a huge audience. The game can be played by 2 to 6 players. The ecosystem theme and gorgeous African-inspired art and graphic design look amazing on the table. And the fun and excitement of the core Bingo-style mechanic means that every player is engaged in every play of the game.
Order now and be the first in your game group to shout ECOS!
Sep 14 2019
Ryan and I had a plan, and we thought it was a good one. Five Rings Publishing would grow by finding multiple CCGs to run at the same time. We believed, from our limited experience with L5R, that we could find similar themes and segments that could be at least the size of L5R. We had already talked about the idea for a western CCG and a pirate-themed game, and we had become friends with multiple other talented small development houses looking for a publisher.
Bob had arranged a meeting with potential angel investors in Seattle, so Ryan and I polished up the pitch package and I headed up for the meeting. Bob gave us the rundown on the potential investors, most had made their money in the Seattle tech market and the amount we were asking for was not a huge sum. Show them what we have and we will close this deal. So Ryan and I hit them with our pitch. We outlined a three- and five-year plan to grow AEG into the publisher of multiple CCGs each year, adding more new games than we retired and growing the business exponentially. When we were done, both of us were sure we had hit the mark . . . then when the lights came on, Bob took over.
It was kind of a blur, but HIS pitch to the investors went something like this:
“Didn’t I tell you, these are two smart kids. That is why I decided to help them and why we invited you here to hear our plan. And it is a good plan, but there is another option . . . Here is what I suggest: We are going to take their plan and your money and we are going to start running towards a cliff as fast as we can.”
What did Bob just say?
He then turned to Ryan and me and said, “There is no reason we can’t take this five-year plan and do it in much less time; right? We have the contacts and already have a plan for the games we will do.”
Back to the investors now. “Like I said, we will take this plan and condense it and we will run as fast as we can towards that cliff. And when we get there, we are going to jump off.” Dramatic pause. “And we are either going to crash and burn or we are going to soar like an eagle and take this industry by storm.” He added a soaring eagle arm movement for effect.
Ryan and I stood there with our mouths open. The investors looked at Bob and said, “Yes, let’s do that.”
And that was pretty much it. We learned a quick lesson that day. People with a little money to invest want it protected and want to make a decent return. Some people want high risk, high reward. I was a little shell-shocked, but we had just locked down enough significant investment to move forward. Ryan had shifted gears before we left the room and was already altering the plan from what I considered reasonable to blitz. Ryan would start locking down deals and I would continue selling and developing L5R.
Back at the AEG offices our main focus was Samurai. AEG had grown and we had added staff. We were still publishing Shadis, and all through 1996 we were enjoying growing the magazine. Marcello Figuroa came in and took over advertising sales, and he immediately crushed all my sales records. Wizards of the Coast was buying up 8 to 12 ad spaces an issue——which was great—but Marcello had a real connection with other games and game companies. He could find something great in every game he looked at, no matter how bad they were. He would find bizarre compliments for games about obscure rules and absolutely mean it. It was genuine. And people loved it, so they advertised in Shadis.
We were also deep into the first story arc of the L5R CCG. By mid-1996 FRPG had sold through all of the Imperial Edition print run and had a second printing (Emerald) of the Base Set coming in August. FRPG released the Shadowlands, Forbidden Knowledge, and Anvil of Despair expansions in 1996. AEG’s team was not only developing the game, but also managing the storyline and running events. As the year ended we could now see the end of the L5R storyline coming and we had a big decision to make.
Next week: A fight about ending the story or ending the game. And the biggest Lion Clan fan kills his champion and favorite character.
Sep 13 2019
Yes, I do wake up every day with doubts about our plan to do fewer games. It has been over a year since we started down this path and it has been exactly as hard as we expected, but it has also been very rewarding. It is time for us to start talking about our plans for 2020, and so before we do that I felt it would be a good time to update everyone on our progress so far.
When I have doubts, I can always cue up Moneyball. Sure, we are putting it all on the line. If we weren’t, what fun would that be?
SO, HOW ARE WE DOING?
We are just a bit behind where we expected to be at this point in the process. We have not yet replaced the income from cutting back on the number of games we publish and selling Love Letter, but almost all of our releases this year have out-performed our projections and are individually more profitable than past games.
The plan to give each game more attention at launch is working. From last year, Space Base and War Chest have continued to be strong sellers. From this year, Tiny Towns has been a mega hit, Point Salad is a treat that sold out in one day, and early buzz and pre-orders on Ecos: First Continent tells us that it will also be a winner.
Our choice to move a few key titles to crowdfunding has been great. Thunderstone Quest continues to rock. We were able to relaunch Valley of the Kings, thanks to Kickstarter, and we are preparing the next milestone for Edge of Darkness after successfully delivering the first campaign, to great acclaim.
Our international partnership business is growing rapidly. That is due in small part to the games and in large part to hiring the right person for that crucial position. For the first time in a long time, our international licensing process is being well managed – we’re fortunate that two of our key team members live in Europe and are able to operate locally in that market on our behalf!
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED SO FAR
- Hitting your schedule is even more important when doing fewer games, especially with Kickstarter. We continue to learn the hard lesson that weeks matter. Our schedule slides have cost us more in cash flow than any other mistake this year.
- We are our best first customer. We are publishing games we like to play and that has always been a great benchmark for us. We make games, not products.
- Marketing matters, but boilerplate marketing plans do not. There is no set playbook. Every game must be treated as a unique opportunity. Just sending out copies to reviewers and running a few ads on BGG and in distributor magazines does not work. We would like to have a special promotion to help drive awareness for each new game and give it a chance to grab a part of the spotlight, and that means doing more than basic marketing.
- Even when doing fewer games it is very hard to have two games in the spotlight at the same time. It’s crazy, but true. There can be 15 games in the spotlight in the industry from different companies, but put two games from the same company on that list and they almost always split mindshare. Also crazy, really good games can get lost in the buzz of other games. Take Big Game Night this year. All three games (Curios, Walking Burano, and Point Salad) are doing great but Point Salad is just going ballistic, so even when people talk about the other games (and they are) the sheer volume of voices for Point Salad are drowning out the message. * NOTE: I am keenly aware that by pointing this out I am adding to the problem. Right now you are thinking “what is this Point Salad he is talking about” and not thinking “I should look at all three of these games.” Nathan from Pandasaurus Games wrote a timely blog about this subject last week. The-Super-Star-Problem
- New game selection is even harder than expected. I knew when we chose to do fewer games that it would make final decisions about what to publish even harder. We continue to attack this with a PLAY MORE mentality and we continue to cultivate new ways of working with designers.
SO WHAT IS NEXT?
We are about to unveil many of our plans for 2020 over the next two months. As we do so, I will try and point out the things we are doing differently from past years and why we chose to make the changes.
Ecos: First Continent Launch Plan – (Week of Sept 16) Coming next week our launch plan for our third FLGS core release this year.This is our major release for the holiday season that begins with the Essen show in Germany.
Edge of Darkness Kickstarter 2 – (Week of Sept 23) Announced last week, it is launching September 23 and we are preparing for this now. The new content is amazing and we have added some upgrades to the base game. Due to the size and production cost of this game, it had a very limited retail release. The best way to guarantee receiving a copy is to support this second Kickstarter.
Larkstone Phase 2- (Week of Sept 30) It is the first anniversary of the AEG gaming house. We have have doubled down and renewed the lease for another year and we are upgrading the house and inviting you in. Upgrades, new programs, play days.
Big Game Night 2020 (Week of October 7) BGN continues to grow, and after 12 months of game pitches we have our scheduled games for BGN release under development and will roll out the plan to grow this event in 2020.
Kickstarter 2020 (Week of October 14) New Games, New Ideas, New Worlds. AEG will be leveling up your KS experience, searching for lost treasures and setting sail for new adventures.
Find your Inner Compass (Week of October 21) Just in time for Essen, AEG will show off the first games from our 2020 Brick and Mortar release schedule.
As you can see, doing fewer games does not mean doing less work. I will also continue my Sunday history series where I wax poetic about the fun we’ve had over the last 28 years.