The Tuesday Interview – Tom Russell of Hollandspiele

Hollandspiele has joined the ranks of wargame publishers.  Tom stops by for a chat ~

Brant Guillory, 25 April 2017

So… another game company, eh?  Why break off and start your own publishing house instead of just bringing your games to an existing publisher?

Well, as far as my own designs go, I’ve done that. Of the twenty-five games I’ve had published, only six have come out through Hollandspiele. So, that’s nineteen times someone else has put up their money and said, okay, let’s have a go at this. And that’s satisfying and gratifying, but it has three real disadvantages.

Of the twenty-five games I’ve had published, only six have come out through Hollandspiele.

First, as far as monetary compensation goes, the designer really gets the short-end of the stick a lot of the time. This isn’t true all the time– I’ve had publishers that gave very generous royalties, and publishers that were a lot stingier. Now, I’m talking about wargames specifically here, because in the euro market, the designer gets better pay. I have a couple of euro-style games coming out in the next year or so from a certain publisher that I’m contractually unable to mention by name at this time, and my advance for that was more than the royalties on all my previous (non-Hollandspiele) games combined. So, with wargames, it’s a much smaller piece of the pie, though again, it varies. I was talking with a designer who is working with us on a game, and also has worked with GMT, and was surprised to hear that, in terms of royalty-per-copy, Hollandspiele pays better than GMT. Now, GMT has the volume, so they’re getting more money from GMT than they are from us, because they’re selling an order of magnitude more copies than we are. But still, I thought that was interesting, because while the royalties we give are more than what I got for most of my wargame designs, I didn’t think that our royalty rate was necessarily all that generous. I just thought it was equitable.

And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that necessarily, that the publisher gets more money than the designer, because the publisher, after all, is the one that’s taking the financial risk. And because of that, a lot of publishers can be very cautious, very careful about what they put on the market, because if a game flops, they’ve just lost money, perhaps even a lot of money. So there’s a hesitancy to take a risk on an unusual topic or an unusual approach. And this is the second of those three disadvantages to pitching your games to other publishers, if you happen to be a designer who is attracted to unusual, perhaps even un-commercial topics, as I am. Like, Supply Lines of the American Revolution, that’s a weird game, and I must’ve pitched it to half-a-dozen publishers who all just kind of scratched their head. It’s a game that’s sold very well for us, much better than we had expected, but it’s a game that nobody else really wanted to touch.

And, again, I don’t blame them, because there was no guarantee it would sell! Very easily, they could have published that and lost money. I’ve had games published by other publishers that lost money, and I felt terrible about it. The worst part of it was, those were my most “commercial” games – that was me trying to cater pretty nakedly to what I thought, and the publisher thought, were popular tastes. The idea of someone else being hurt, financially, because my game didn’t connect with people – that’s anathema to me. So I feel kind of uncomfortable asking someone else to take that risk on my behalf.

And the third thing has to do with control over the game, its image, its marketing. Now, again, this varies from publisher to publisher, but generally, the publisher is going to have the last say on what the box looks like, what the game’s called, and how the game is marketed. Which, again, is perfectly fine, perfectly reasonable. It’s the publisher’s money. And as publisher, we maintain that control ourselves. But, as a designer, I had situations where I was pretty deeply unhappy with some of the publisher’s choices, and I really wanted to have more control over it.

And being a publisher would solve all three of those problems, and more-or-less, it has. Now, that’s just from my perspective as a designer. Because I’ve also done work as a developer, as has my wife, Mary. Before starting Hollandspiele, I had worked, in some capacity or another, on preparing for publication six games by other designers, and Mary had worked on nineteen. And we enjoyed the work, and enjoyed working with certain designers. And as a publisher, we’re able to work with them at our own pace and in our own way, and basically to treat them the way that I always wished I had been treated.

And we’re also able to bring more unusual games from those designers to market, and while we do factor in, “how many of these do we think we can sell?”, it’s not the be-all or the end-all. I’ve had discussions with publishers, when I was pitching games, where they said, basically, “this is great and I’d love to play it but there’s no way I can justify printing it”, which to me is nuts. If we love the game and we’re passionate about it, we’ll print it, end of story. It’s our money; it’s our company; so we have the freedom to do what we want. And that freedom is kind of intoxicating. Every once in a while, it’s vindicating, too – like Supply Lines. And sometimes, it’s disappointing – House of Normandy, for example, didn’t sell as well as we hoped. But, you know what? It paid for itself, and the people who bought it and played it, they enjoyed it. So, for me, that’s not a problem.

 

We’ve seen some different game announcements floating around social media.  What’s the current pipeline of games that are available, games that are getting printed, and games that are announced and getting ready?

You know, it’s just for this reason – to help me keep track of all we’ve got going on – that we have the little hex numbers on the side of our boxes. So, we’ve had eleven games released over the course of the last eight months, and in order, they are: (1) The Scheldt Campaign by Brian Train, (2) The Grunwald Swords and (3) Agricola, Master of Britain by me, (4) An Infamous Traffic by Cole Wehrle, (5) House of Normandy by me, (6) Teutons! by Lou Coatney, (7) Blood in the Fog by me, (8) Plan 1919 by John Gorkowski, (9) Ukrainian Crisis & The Little War by Brian Train, and then two more by that Russell guy, (10) Supply Lines of the American Revolution and (11) Optimates et Populares. Over the course of the next three months we’ll be releasing six more games:

  1. Horse and Musket by Sean Chick collects twenty battles from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century – War of the Grand Alliance, Jacobite uprisings, War of the Spanish Succession, lots of dudes in cool wigs to go around. It has terrain tiles that are placed on the map to build the scenario, and is our biggest game to date.
  2. More Aggressive Attitudes by John Theissen is an operational-level game about the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Second Bull Run. Five miles to a hex, one-day turns. Rules are pretty simple but there’s a lot of nuance and crunch to them. Small footprint game.
  3. Battles on the Ice is my third entry in the Shields & Swords II series. It collects two battles that were fought on ice: Lake Peipus and Karuse. Both were humiliating defeats for the Livonian Order – an autonomous branch of the Teutonic Knights. These are larger battles, more like The Grunwald Swords, rather than the smaller battles we featured in the House of Normandy quad.
  4. Operation Unthinkable is a Ty Bomba design about a WWII battle plan hatched by the British to attack the Soviets at the end of the war, basically launching into WWIII. I’ve wanted the chance to work with Ty for a long time and I’m glad things have worked out to let me do that. Now I think I just need to get my hands on a Frank Chadwick design and I’ll have accomplished all of my life goals. This game is very elegant, very playable, but there’s a lot of options for both players that really change how the game plays from one sitting to another.
  5. Dynasty is a Richard Berg multiplayer game, with cards and lots of wooden bits, about power politics in China in the tenth century. It has a lovely asymmetry to it, in that one player, the Emperor, plays the game completely differently than his opponents, and of course the opponents are trying to topple the Emperor, at which point the role switches. Every action creates a vulnerability elsewhere that can be exploited, which gives it a really elegant balance. We’re waiting for the cards and the last of the wood bits to arrive, and then we’ve got to assemble it all together. At which point we’re going to hand them off to our printing partner, Blue Panther, so that when the time comes he can print the game and toss the cards and the wood bits in the box.
  6. Seven Pines; or, Fair Oaks is the first game in my Shot & Shell Battle Series, which is an evolution of my “Blood” designs. I dropped “blood” from the title because whenever Mary mentions the title for those games, she says it in a Dracula voice. So, we now have the Shot & Shell Battle Series of brigade-level games set in the ACW and other conflicts of that era.

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And of course there’s other things in the pipeline in various stages of development. Sean Chick is working on a WWII game for us, we’ve got Hermann Luttmann working on a solo ACW game, we’re looking at a couple of sci-fi games from other designers. And I’m keeping busy; I just finished primary testing for Charlemagne, Master of Europe, a sequel of sorts to my popular Agricola game, and am currently working on an age of sail game, the Shot & Shell series, a redesign of Blood on the Alma, the next Shields & Swords II game, my currency-trading game, and a couple of other things I’m not ready to mention yet.

Can you give a sneak peek of something that’s imminent but not yet officially announced?

Generally, as soon as we’re sure we’re doing something, we announce it, so anything beyond the above I can’t really speculate on just yet.

 

 

As you were setting up Hollandspiele, what’s the one thing that another publisher does that you said “we gotta do that, just like those guys?”

Well, from having worked with and for other publishers, we saw stuff that we liked, and stuff that we didn’t like, and we kind of drew our lessons from there in figuring out how we wanted to approach it. And there are a number of smaller publishers which are run by passionate, smart, friendly folks, and who put out dynamite games with care and with love. Which is what we endeavor to do. Legion, Revolution, White Dog, Lock N Load, these are all great folks who make great games, and who get a reputation for that, and don’t squander that reputation. Which is what we’re trying to emulate to a certain degree, in general principle.

Really, if I had to single out a publisher and an approach that we’re deliberately emulating, it’s actually the boutique DVD label The Criterion Collection. You have an eclectic range of interesting titles both popular and obscure, you have attractive packaging, you have a sort of an auteurist focus.

Really, if I had to single out a publisher and an approach that we’re deliberately emulating, it’s actually the boutique DVD label The Criterion Collection. You have an eclectic range of interesting titles both popular and obscure, you have attractive packaging, you have a sort of an auteurist focus. You have each title having its own number, which encourages you to collect them, which we mimicked with our hex numbers on the side of our boxes. Which has proven pretty successful; we had at least one customer who realized he didn’t have a game because there was a gap in the numbering.

And we kind of focus on the designer as an auteur, on trying to support and realize the designer’s vision and point-of-view. Which hopefully encourages that designer to work with us again. But beyond that, it’s just that golden rule again, just treating them the way we want to be treated. We feel pretty passionately about the designer’s rights to their own intellectual property. And so we never “buy” a game from someone, or expect them to sign it over to us, or publish a game without a contract in place and then tell the designer that we have the rights – all of which are things that have either happened to me, or that happened to other designers I’ve spoken to. We only ever license the rights to the game for a limited window, paying an equitable royalty per copy sold – the same royalty regardless if it is a digital or a physical copy.

 

Who are some of the folks you’re working with, beyond just the designers?  Who’s working on the graphics for you?  Developing the games?  Who are the behind-the-scenes folks that should be getting more applause?

The two map artists we’ve worked with the most frequently are Ania B. Ziolkowska and Ilya Kudriashov. The two of them just do gorgeous, beautiful work, but each has a distinct style that’s very much their own. Additionally, we’ve worked with, and will continue to work with, artists such as Jose Ramon Faura and Patrick Tremoureux. Cole Wehrle did the art on his own An Infamous Traffic, and I suspect he’ll do the same on his second Hollandspiele title, which I’m not supposed to talk about yet, so this is me not talking about it.

Many of our designers either develop themselves or have regular developers that they work with. That said, we do playtest the games, re-word the rules, and do some development ourselves. In the sense of “things that were changed”, usually it’s relatively minor stuff, which takes the form of us saying “what if this happened instead?”, and the designer will either say “yeah, let’s do that” or “no, this is why this is the way it is”. And from our point of view, good development is contingent on understanding that everything in the game is in there for a reason. We don’t feel compelled to change things just because, or to suit our own tastes – it’s just about realizing that designer’s vision and point-of-view, and making sure the end product works and is fun. Our job is to support the designer.

That doesn’t mean we don’t make changes, because again, we do. We’re working with Richard Berg, for example, on creating a “short version” of Dynasty to better hit that euro-crossover sweet-spot. We also had to institute a new tie-breaker in a particular situation, as his original rules dictated that the players should fight it out with longswords. Which was wonderful, and very emblematic of his sense of humor, and is still in there, but with the caveat that if you’re in a jurisdiction where that sort of thing is frowned upon, that you should resolve the tie by X, Y, and Z.

 

Are you guys hitting the convention circuit any time soon?  Where are we going to be able to catch up with you guys and when are we going to see y’all at Origins with us?

We missed the convention season when we started last year, so this year will be our first at a convention. We’ll be at the CSW Expo this year but probably not at Origins (although you never know). We’re actually very shy people, so those times we’ve been to conventions in the past have been a little overwhelming. But part of that was me being an aspiring designer trying to pitch things and being awful at that. I think we’re going to be much more relaxed coming at it from the angle of being a publisher, and also just being gamers and people. So I’m hoping we’ll both just unclench this time around. If not, I’ll be the guy panicking in the corner.

 

Give us a prediction – where’s Hollandspiele in 5 years?

Still in business, still publishing games. If we keep up our current pace, then five years from now we’ll be having to use triple digits for our hex numbers.

When you’re not working on games for Hollandspiele, what games are on the table back at the house?  And what’s in the glass next to you while you’re playing?

It’s been a while since we had a non-Hollandspiele game on the table, but I was playing Frank Chadwick’s Beda Fomm not too long ago. Mary and I play a fair number of Euro-style games – in fact, we probably still have more Euro-style games than we have wargames!

As for what’s in the glass, it’s either going to be water or tea. I’ve never touched a drop of alcohol in my life. Life is weird and wonderful enough without any chemical filters.

 

What should we have ask y’all, if we’d known what to ask you?

Hmm, I dunno – probably “do you guys have a podcast” or “are you guys on Twitter and Facebook”, to which I would answer yes, yes, and yes:

 

Thanks for joining us!


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