Producing Fun is a podcast about making tabletop games from a product perspective.
Uli is a publisher from Germany and the proprietor of indie label: Spielworxx. Specializing in challenging boutique games and German language versions of bigger commercial hits, Spielworxx has been delighting gamers since 2010. With almost 30 years of experience in the industry, Uli is an expert in running indie publishing businesses.
In this episode, we talk about how he selects games for localization, how his business model works, and more.
Uli’s website: https://www.spielworxx.de/
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I'm James, and this is producing fun, a podcast about making games from a product perspective.
Welcome to Producing fun. My guest this week is Uli Blennamann, a German publisher and proprietor of independent label Spielworxx. Since 2010, he's been delighting gamers with an incredibly eclectic range of themes. Occasionally exploring difficult subject matters, from battles for power and fantasy worlds, to Louisiana fishermen, and even to the morality of asbestos manufacturing. With Spielworxx, he aims to give gamers, by his own websites description, the tabletop version of the foodie experience, with a wealth of releases behind him, he's an experienced publisher who still does a huge amount of work himself, choosing to operate on a model that keeps things simple and doesn't require him to have any permanent staff. As someone with so much experience, indeed, Uli has been in the industry in various roles since the 90s, I was keen to mine his brain for as many insights about the publishing business as possible, not least when it comes to localising games into different languages. As a partner of Naylor games, he's actually producing the German language version of Magnate, putting us in the company of Oath and Root, to name but two of the huge English language hits being brought to Germany by Speilworxx. As you might imagine, we tackled a wide variety of topics this week, really getting into the weeds of making publishing businesses work, from how his business model operates, and the role of the secondary market and Spielworxx's success, to how he selects titles and what he would do if he were starting a business today. If you're interested in getting your game design acquired by a publisher, or you want to make a living actually publishing games, this is sure to be of interest. We join just as I've asked Uli, what he was up to the day we recorded in hopes of learning a little bit something more about the real daily life of a publisher.
Ulrich Blennemann 2:06
So you see, this is very good, because you know this, in a tiny company, you are wearing so many hats. So what did I do? I answered a ton of emails, especially regarding the ongoing crowdfunding campaigns. There are two again found in German Speil media. Then the usual business stuff you're doing by mainly by email, I answered a couple of Twitter questions and put up some Twitter marketing very small, of course, because it's Speilworxx. And I looked at the upcoming schedule of Speilworxx, I looked at possible so a cover draft for a new game. I looked at some rules, and I added, did a little bit of rules editing. So you see, it was a day. And this is often on Fridays, where there is, where I tried to do some stuff that I'm not doing on the other days. So on other days, I prefer let's say to have two or three hours for rules or for other stuff. And here it is getting this done getting this done getting this done. I wrote some invoices, too. So yeah, administrative stuff as well. So yeah.
So that seems to be the Friday's you're kind of almost like your cleanup day, where you're doing lots of random bits and bobs.
Ulrich Blennemann 3:38
Ah yes absolutely. Normally, it's actually weekends. Yeah, you should take a break on weekends, and I'm working less on weekends. But tomorrow, I'm at a regional convention. So I can't do any work here at home. So I said, Well, let's move that stuff to Friday.
Yeah, makes sense. That I mean, that's a that's a kind of classic thing, isn't it having to at least sometimes work at the weekend. That's something I'm really familiar with as a, as a publisher, because there's just so many things, I think that just that list of that you've just given me is so familiar in terms of all those very random selection things, whether it be finance related, whether it be related to as you said, but a little bit of rules editing alongside some marketing and and tweeting people and replying to them. That's a huge amount. Would you say that most weekends you end up doing most of your Saturday then or even a Sunday as well to get going to get everything done?
Ulrich Blennemann 4:36
Yes, I basically I work every day of the year. This sounds terrible. And sometimes it's terrible. But it doesn't mean that I'm working each Sunday for eight hours, it's, it can be still just an hour could be two hours can be sometimes four hours when it's necessary. Most of the time I'm enjoying it. Sometimes it's a little bit too much. And you obviously know this, gaming is never totally gone or thoughts about it. I'm thinking about games projects all of the time. And sometimes it's a little bit too much, but sometimes I'm really enjoying it. So yeah. But weekends are needed. And each new year, I'm saying, Well, this year, this year, it will change. I am going now to 40 hours a week, and it will happen. Three days later, I know could be a problem.
Yeah. The New Year's resolution doesn't really last very long. Do you think it would be easier if you had sort of like a team of 10 at Speilworxx HQ? And is or is that even desirable for you to grow it to that size?
Ulrich Blennemann 5:51
Excellent, excellent question. So I don't think I would enjoy to really run a larger team, even a smaller team, let's say of five people would be too much. For me, I'm not a person would like to do this, it is possible. But then Speilworxx will have to change in a big, big way, doing more projects, going for larger print runs, and all this and there is sceptical of the distribution system of social media and other stuff. So and of course, you know this, and if you are going for larger print runs, you need to go into distribution. If you want to be sell more numbers, you have to have somebody doing your marketing. And I don't want to see this. So this is very much my nature. But in the end, it means that I'm working a little bit too much at this moment. But I guess this is true for everyone, not only in the gaming industry, but who runs a company of one we plus freelancers or a company of two plus, freelancers. Yeah,
Yeah. I mean, I think this this is such a difficult challenge. I think a lot of startup businesses, of course, will they will they all face this challenge of kind of when did they start scaling, but obviously, a lot of those feel like a VC backed startup in something in software, for example, even just to kind of seed funding kind of level, then people will give you a lot more money than you can actually realistically make in the hopes of future gain. Whereas if you've got something that's completely self funded, and actually, it's because you do it more for the joy of doing it, then obviously there's there's just not that possibility to raise additional finance. And as that means you're funding everything out of your own revenue. Yeah. And of course, then that becomes, as you said, difficult because suddenly, the thing I think about a lot with physical games as well, in terms of scaling up, what I'm trying to do with Naylor games, is that you you buying a lot of stock upfront, and then you're then taking a financial risk on that. And in fact, in the last podcast, I was talking to Jackson Pope of well formally Reiver Games and now Eurydice games. And they're really interesting because they are a company that do their own manufacturing, as well as publishing the game. And what's so interesting is that he was telling me about how in his previous company he had such an enormous amount of stock that he wasn't able to then sell and that ultimately potentially sank it so I can understand why you know you don't want to get to those bigger revenue numbers that you need to for the team. You need to take quite big financial risks right on like on products potentially.
Ulrich Blennemann 8:40
Yes, absolutely. You're correct and I'm a person who has to sleep well. And if I see this burden if I know there is stock which I need to sell it it has to go now if I need to pay paychecks for my team and of course they deserve it and you know there's in the gaming in the tabletop gaming industry there is not a lot of money, so most people are not even paid well but if I know what I mean now it's the first of the month I need to pay people this would really cost me my sleep so I try to keep it very very small. But of course it means there is also this ceiling you can only sell that amount of games and that is mainly the flip side but for me it will it is working very well if you if you want to get rich quickly don't go don't do this so do something different.
Yeah, I think that's that's very true that's very important thing to keep in mind is that if you ever want to get rich quick Just don't touch board games I think like that's go into finance do something with this huge amounts of money swishing around and even then that's not exactly like that's a walk in the park but it is at least somewhat possible to make larger sums of money somewhat easily, then games is not the place to start with that at all. I think that's that seems like very, very sound advice. How much do you think in the future, you would be able potentially to make use of extending what freelancers do, because one thing that I would say, has been really interesting for me running this business. And I think about how things, you know, could have worked even, let's say 20 or 30 years ago, it would have been very difficult to imagine before the internet, that I would be able to outsource as much as I do. Like, I think about things like even though I do, I think I did about 50% of the graphic design for Magnate myself, the other 50% was various other very talented people contributing to the process that I would not have been able to do that without. And even now also, you know, I outsource bits of more core functions as well, like, fulfilment, there are some of that admin, and now I've got someone doing actually the same for marketing. Could you imagine that? Something where you would gradually outsource chunks at least? Because that seems at least that seems more possible than maybe it once did?
Ulrich Blennemann 10:59
Yeah, I think this is actually very possible. But I'm thinking of this for for quite some time, I just need to make that move to outsource a little bit. But I have my own fulfilment. So I'm not sending boxes of games myself. I'm not doing this. But this can be even done, I think a little bit better with less work for me it can be more automated, because right now I have to send in the orders. So to the fulfiller, and they are doing the shaping of the games. So I think it can be done more efficiently. Also in marketing I can be there's there are certainly in all areas, I can entropy works can improve. The question is, how much do I want to see this? And I'm not doing everything because it is possible. So of course I, I left Facebook and all. I was never Instagram, never WhatsApp, but I left. I don't want to touch a Zuckerberg product at all. So I'm not doing this, although, of course, it would have advantages. Economically, most probably. But I don't want to do this. I was there. I don't want to touch it. Yeah, it is always a difficult question. But I don't want to seem morally superior by not using Zuckerberg, everybody has to see what is best for them. I'm using Twitter, which is not really a lot better. It's easier for me to use, because it's just scrolling by. And it's not at Facebook, war stories. And so and that, of course, Speilworxx could outsource more, maybe it will outsource more.
The thing about the social media thing I find really fascinating. I mean, certainly my personal experience is that I think if I hadn't done this, I was off in, let's say, carried on my career in software, where I was, and maybe gone to work as I don't know, head of product at a advertising company, I actually think there's a good chance that I would have come off all social media platforms. Because for me, I think there's a big question about, I think the thing that it does to people isn't always great. And there's parts of it that are great. And I think it's been really nice. For example, certainly several years ago, I felt very welcomed into kind of the boardgame, Twitter space. And there's still lots of people there that I really like and get on with. And I think that can be a powerful support system. And that's really awesome. But I also think about how much that it kind of pushes everything towards people spending all day getting very upset often about things that they have, like no control over. And to me, this seems like the most damaging thing about social media on the one hand is this amazing transformative tool, because we've basically put a kind of printing press in everyone's pocket, right? We've made everyone into a broadcaster and a publisher now, but at the other hand, it means people get you're scrolling through so much stuff that is not I think psychologically very good for people. And I have this belief that actually maybe this is quite extreme. Are you familiar with the kind of, I don't know if this happened in Germany in quite the same way. But in Britain in the 18th century, there was a kind of gin panic. I don't know if you know about about this.
Ulrich Blennemann 13:01
No, I haven't heard about this but a gin panic sounds awful.
Yeah it does, doesn't it? But basically what happened was was this was that there was like a vast amount of I think people started the technology developed for people to start distilling their own gin. And they were doing in such vast quantities. And this this period was kind of called There's a famous, there's a famous Hogarth painting about this called gin lane, about people just drunk on gin and it became this huge public health problem where there was just people who were just drinking hard spirits all the time from across society and it was a massive public drunkenness, violence, etc. And it was partly this that encouraged lots of laws in Britain to come about around, limiting, distilling your own alcohol, closing hours for pubs, all the kinds of things that in Britain, we now think about are things that were kind of moderating forces on alcohol use. And this, this period was kind of managed as a kind of public health problem effectively. And I can feel a little bit like that about social media at times. You can't uninvent it, but I think we're gonna have to become a little bit more mindful about how it's used. Because I think it yeah, presents some risks.
Ulrich Blennemann 15:36
Yeah, I agree. 100%. And some regulations will be now done in the EU, that is probable, but of course, it's also dangerous, because everybody needs their own privacy. And if a state or, or an organisation can look in your chat protocols, this is also on the other end, it's also dangerous, but moderation at most social media sites is either non existent, or in my opinion, too lax. And of course, at Twitter, as you said, initially, there is a very large or pretty large and very nice and very welcoming board gaming, bubble group, whatever it is, and I feel really welcome. And it's nice
Ulrich Blennemann 16:26
But we are we are having the privilege that we are white, and male. And I've heard so many stories of women or people of colour, who are really, in board gaming, at Twitter, who were harrassed, and this is, of course, also happening. I'm just, as a white male, I'm not feeling it myself. And this is, I think, different. And, yeah, very difficult. And as you said, you can't stop it at this moment. The only thing would be probably to really destroy the Zuckerberg empire and have smaller sites. But will this be the cure? Probably not. So very difficult to turn the wheel back.
Oh, yeah, I feel really sure that the technology just can't be uninvented. And actually, and maybe in the long run, when we find a new equilibrium perhaps is a good way to describe it. Maybe eventually, they'll we'll kind of find our way through it. I mean, that's kind of something that's happened with several new disruptive technologies. I mean, we can't forget that as much as the, for example, the printing press itself is an incredible invention. And it's suddenly put a kind of like a at the time was welcomed by, you know, lots of church leaders, because it put a Bible in everyone's hand. But that, of course, itself, then led to the Reformation, which had incredibly again, some very positive effects, but some very, very negative, short to medium term effects. So it's just one of those things I think is difficult to do. I kind of with you a bit, definitely about the Zuckerberg companies, I almost feel like it needs a kind of 1920s sort of standard oil treatment, maybe being broken up into multiple different companies that doesn't, that's not currently something that can work in American kind of competition, or I think that's really interesting in terms of how that affects the bringing it back to games more more concretely about access to platforms and well and to market because this is a big problem is I think, even if one doesn't want to use it, it's such a big, powerful commercial instruments that I know that from if I wasn't using it, I'm leaving on the table, so much potential to reach potential customers. And so it's that thing of like, Ah, weighing up, you know, those those issues. And I can see why it's just such a difficult one to make a to make a call on, isn't it?
Ulrich Blennemann 18:40
Right? Absolutely. And I once talked a couple of years ago, one or two years ago, I talked to the CEO of a larger board gaming company are named a year. And that company was suddenly for no reason banned from Facebook. And for six or eight weeks, and of course, trying to get back. And I talked to him and I said, Well, let let it go, let let Facebook go. And don't don't worry about this anymore. If they don't want to see you, then then don't be there anymore. But he said, Well, no, I've built my audience there. It's so important for my company, I need to get back although and he said I hate Facebook deeply. It's very, it's a very, very difficult decision and yah, And we cannot really only take a view from a moral point of view. It's there are so many different aspects. It's difficult.
Yeah, very, very difficult. So that kind of then raises brings me on to another kind of question, which I'm really intrigued by, which is, how does Speilworxx find its audience, because it's a very unique company in many ways. I think about the kinds of games that you produce. I think about on your website, the way you describe the company as the English, the automatic Google English translation, I'm sure it's not quite capturing it. But you have this kind of notion of the idea that there are these sort of positively difficult games. And since they're a bit challenging, they're like, describe them a little bit like it from memory, being like the equivalent of fine dining in the sense of like, it's a, it's a foodie experience, where it's maybe a bit challenging, but it's very rewarding. So I think this is a really cool way to talk about a more niche games. And I'm really interested to know, like, how you find that audience that want the foodie experience, especially given the fact that you know, you deliberately said, look, there are certain platforms I just don't want to work with? How does that audience come about?
Ulrich Blennemann 20:40
Yeah, I think I'm lucky in here that I'm in this gaming industry, already since 1993. So I know a lot of people, so professionally since 1993, and I already founded Speilworxx in 2010. And so that's also 12 years now. And at that time, you know, this, the gaming market was so much smaller. So I was able that let's simply stay with Speilworxx since 2010. At that time, it was so much easier to get some feedback to get known among people and gamers, because there were a lot fewer companies and a lot fewer games. Actually, if let's say it's 2022. And I'm sitting here and I would say are we I'm I was never professional in gaming, and let's do a small game company. Actually, I would not do it, I would not dare it. Because with this model, if nobody knows you, if you are new, I think it can work. So I'm really lucky that I have people who know Speilworxx website, who simply buy my stuff, and I'm really, really, this is so much appreciated. I'm really grateful for this, that I have these people, and that they come to me. But for a newcomer these days, it's so much harder to be hunted to make a splash or to even get any attention these days.
Yeah, yeah, that's really interesting. So you regard that I guess, then, because you had that early involvement, you were able to build that audience. You've kind of grown a bit, I guess, with the market effectively.
Ulrich Blennemann 22:33
Yeah. Yeah. And this is a good description. And of course, you see, as a small company, you cannot say, Well, I did in, let's say, 2015. In this way, it worked. So let's do it. Today. In the same way. No, Speilworxx, in a way is evolving I started with a German edition of US war games. Then I did some original games, also 500 copies, and I said, Well, let's move to 1000 copies, and both English and German rules included. And then at a certain point, I said, well, and this is getting back to your question, how do I find an audience? I said, Well, let's go to crowdfunding. And you know this. Of course, neither game founder nor Speilish media nor Kickstarter are charity events, they want their market they want their market share. So of course for the service, they get a certain amount of money a certain percentage, this is absolutely fine. But so you could say well, Uli before you have your games and people could preorder them from your website. So you're getting 100% of this money. Why are you doing this? Yeah, because I will reach at games on Kickstarter speed, which means that people who will who haven't heard ever of Speilworxx so it's also for me, it's a marketing thing to be at these platforms in a very limited way. Right now there is a crowdfunding campaign and if you compare my campaign how it looks on the side again for to more professional to larger companies who have their own staff who is just who are just doing the crowdfunding campaigns. It's still small, but at least people are seeing me people who would never ever why will look at my website, they will never find it. So So you need to evolve but maybe two years from now I'm saying, James, I'm now in distribution with all my games. So it is what is now necessary. Asmodee Ivan's Braga, other companies, they are like a supertanker. On the ocean, they go their way straight. And that's what they are doing. Of course, they are changing the course when needed when there is an island, but they go their route, whereas Speilworxx, it's a tiny boat. And if the waves are too big, if there are tankers left and right, I have to try and change my course otherwise, I will go down. So I cannot say what will happen two years from now, if somebody had asked me five years ago, will you do crowdfunding? I'd say, No, I'm not. I'm not doing it for sure. So you can't be sure what will happen.
Yeah, I think I'd seems like very good advice, I think for anyone to consider that is particularly this issue that past successes can't just be copied and replicated, because the environment has changed very substantially. And so for example, what worked on Kickstarter, let's say, in 2016, kind of in the early days of boardgame crowdfunding relatively, it's just not going to work today, you just look at the distribution of the number that the sheer number of projects that you're up against, for example, and what the expectations that backers have, you know, it still quite recently, I was still seeing projects where people would often do a lot of merchandise and stuff alongside things. And maybe it didn't really contribute much to the revenue because it was really that, you know, that was that was from an early an earlier iteration of Kickstarter, where people were thinking, well, it's like a reward things like to offer lots of stuff, rather than today, where it's like, well, this is almost dare I say, become a preorder platform. Yeah. And so really, it's instant crowd, preorder is really what's going on rather than like, Oh, I've got this speculative project, and I'm just hoping some good people out there will give me some money to make it happen. So you're right, it makes total sense. So in terms of terms of that today, so that raises you about distribution. And if it's possible for you to say this, I would really love to know. And I think what the listeners would love to know, is about, for example, how your revenue mix works. So I know that Speilworxx is famous for producing sort of short runs of these of these rather boutique-y kind of games. Is most of that therefore being sold direct at conventions? Or is that most again, distribution? How does your revenue kind of model work?
Ulrich Blennemann 27:09
Yeah, you know, so so let's get one step back. So recently, I, so I think two years ago, I really started doing some German language editions only. So I restarted with Pax Pamir because I love that game , Cole Wehrle is a good friend and all this. And this worked out and now I'm doing a certain Magnate, Oh, I haven't I haven't heard about much about this game.
I wonder who!
Ulrich Blennemann 27:44
Now Magnate, of course, is a wonderful game. So when it really fits, Speilworxx very much. But here, my module model is different. So in order, because, of course, there is also at least an English language addition of that title, maybe in other languages, as well could be Spanish could be Italian, Korean, Japanese, whatever. So my market here is a lot smaller, I can just sell the game in Germany, in Austria, and in the tiny German speaking parts of Switzerland. So here, I need a partner. And I'm looking for partners of these editions. So yes, the game can be purchased direct from my website. Of course, this is my preferred method for it because I get the full amount of money minus shipping and all this stuff, but I need a partner. And so here and these with these German language titles, I'm also in a limited way in distribution, retail and distribution. So of course, you know, this, you are losing quite a bit of money by sending games into distribution, but also it allows you larger numbers. So the it's advantage and disadvantage, but for my own games that are original from Speilworxx, so I try to have worldwide rights, and I will release them in English. And so new language edition in English and German and in one package so that I can sell it worldwide. I can sell such again to Serbia, there may be just two Speilworxx fans in Serbia, but at least they are able if they are gamers to read English language rules. They don't read any German so but as in this way, I can sell it to them. I can sell three copies to Greece, five copies to to Finland, maybe, direct and this all is nice for me with limited runs and I also try to only do a single print run so that people know, ah, there is a certain value in this game. So some loyal customers, they order all Speilworxx titles, and I'm 100% sure that they don't like all of them. So let's say you like, only every other Speilworxx game, but still, you know, this game, if I don't like it, I can still sell it on the second hand market for a good amount of money. Often for this, even if played for the same amount, or for a higher amount, when it's already gone from me. So they are not really are in risk of losing money. Although my games are pretty expensive. That's what it is low print runs, and all that. And these days anyway, with the costs of resources, and paper and everything, games are still under price, but it's still an expensive hobby. So here, my main revenue, of course, is from selling direct. And for me, it's also quite important to sell as fast as possible. If I sell out of a title in 18 months, that's fine. But if I sell out in three months, that's much, much better. Because I can already use that, than money, the income, the profits to pre purchase from the manufacturer on my next game. Yeah, and this is my stupid model. And there are so many more and better models. So at least, it seems so in the EU, that the rates are increasing again. But in the last couple of years, if you would like to borrow money from the bank, the rates were very, very low. But I was never, I never ever I ever went to a bank to ask for money, I could always finance my projects from the money that is inside the company. And I prefer and I hope to stick to this. But again, who knows what will happen in two years, maybe I'm saying I needed to do this, I needed to hire these people. Yeah, but only you, you told me you don't want to hire five. You never know what will happen.
I'm trying to just imagine that in two years time, you're going to have 30 staff, and you're going to be using lots of complex debt products that you would have bought leverage 100 to one on capital, something like that, going completely the reverse of what you say, though, who knows, maybe I think that's really interesting, particularly what you say about your model, in terms of effectively what you're doing by having those limited print runs of your own titles, rather than the localizations is that you are guaranteeing the secondary market value. That's really interesting, because I was reading a very interesting article by Charlie Thiel recently, and he was talking about Kickstarter and the crowdfunding platforms as as having a little bit of similarity to the kind of pay to play models in online gaming. And he was drawing some particularly I think, to the kind of loot boxes, that you find the digital games and saying, Look, is there a bit of casino going on here? Yeah. Which is that the same kind of dopamine reward loop things that that are designed into those digital products. So in some ways, what Kickstarter does, and I won't go in the whole arguments, a really interesting piece, I recommend anyone read it. I love his writing in general, it's brilliant on games, and I would definitely, strongly recommend it. One of the things that came out of it was I kind of hadn't twigged that, for lots of people with Kickstarters, they can sometimes particularly when they have exclusive elements, they can be quite sure that they're all or have a good chance that the product would have a secondary market value. That means they don't actually lose money by backing it. Which is kind of true very big Kickstarters they have lots of Kickstarter exclusive stuff. And then that suddenly made me realise I was like, ah, that's interesting. That's very much not how we approached it because I was very against having any exclusives on the Kickstarter. And what was interesting was was amazing Oh, right. So this this audience of people, some of whom are just going to be huge fans, I think probably for you. It sounds to me based on what I know so far, that they're going to be people who are Spielworxx fans maybe don't love every game, but they want to support Speilworxx in general. But I can imagine the people backing things like a CMON campaign, not because they're like, Oh, I've got I've got such love for this Hong Kong listed public company. But because they're thinking, Oh, this is pretty much a no lose situation because I will at least get the money back on it. And then potentially if I'm selling the Kickstarter exclusives more and I've my first taste of this actually came with Magnate where we saw that some of the versions of it trading secondhand that kept the kicks to offer exclusive back notes in it were commanding prices on the BGG marketplace and eBay that was higher than the price I was charging for a new copy. That was the same for everything except those banknotes. And that I thought was fascinating that that is a part of this market. So, I don't know, it sounds like the it's quite a smart model in some ways.
Ulrich Blennemann 35:19
Yeah. But it's, there are quite a few collectors also, in our hobby in our market, who will who will buy and who will keep it. But for all of us, I think you are absolutely right. For some Kickstarter, or crowdfunding exclusives are very important, I think you can, if you do this, you can make more money. So it's not my model. I don't want to do this. Not Not, not at all. But I think for somebody, it is really important. There and and another thing is what what I missed to mention, I'm not saying if I'm only doing a single print one of each edition, that the game cannot reappear in a second edition, but not from me, I will licence my games, if there is demand for it, it has happened, it will happen in the future. For some games, it can be also that it's not an English or German language, could be just Chinese could be just Koreans around floor didn't have I think that's from 2017. Could be 18. I'm not sure 17 I guess, the game was quite popular. And I've had so many talks to English language publishers, but in the end, no deal came through. But this year, a couple of weeks ago, there is a new edition, but just the Korean edition. So it can also happen but and you also know this was a huge amount of new games, publishers and I would do the same thing. We're into licencing games from other companies, they are very much cherry picking. So they look at BGG. Anything below 7.5 is not good enough, or whatever and forever. So there are so many reasons for it. So it's not that easy. But I cannot guarantee if you are buying a Speilworxx game that in last three years afterwards, there is a new edition of that game. And of course, it may also mean that a new edition is more for lack of better term more modern, because you know this, no book, and no game is ever finished. And no matter how hard you look into it, if you revisit a game or a book, you will find out this is a stupid mistake, or could be our on second thinking, I think we should change this tiny rule a little bit, tweak it a little bit. So the new edition, maybe even in a way I use the term modern or it may be actually better than your Speilworxx addition. But what I can guarantee on this whole planet, there are not more than 1000 copies of this game. And so you have a special game, at least and yeah,
I mean, that's that's, that's very useful. I think that makes tremendous sense that even if it reappears, it will never reappear in quite the same way. So it has the sort of original Speilworxx one. And the thing about the secondary market pricing is really interesting, because that's exactly what happened with me with Captains of the Gulf because I think I played that at a convention in 2018. And really enjoyed it very much wanted to get my hands on a copy. And you were just completely sold out a long time by the time that I managed to. I was looking to buy one. And so I ended up buying a secondhand one I think it was slightly more expensive than the original RRP to get hold of it because again, well it's it's a limited supply. It's a special version of that of that particular game. Well I think that's great, isn't it because and this is how I feel about all those kind of things. It feels like it's the best of both worlds in many ways because if they back it and they join in early on, then they're going to get a special first edition of it. But if it's if it's really popular and it's something which is has has a real potential for a life much beyond the 1000 copies, someone licences again they produce it and it's still possible for other people to enjoy that game as well.
Ulrich Blennemann 39:14
Yes, yeah, maybe you shouldn't close the door completely. I don't like this at all. So why shouldn't product again book reappear if it proves to be popular, it's just not Speilworxx I would do this addition but of course people can if they like, use my graphics, they I will gladly point them to the printer I'm using if they want to have different graphics, different printers, they can do so but you know this. It's more difficult, especially if you need to redo all graphics from scratch again, this costs a lot of money. Yeah, but anything is possible. If parties are, are talking so yeah.
Yeah, that's really interesting. So speaking of localization let's talk about that because you're someone who's worked on both sides of it. So you've you've made German local editions of games like Pax Pamir, like Magnate, which will be appearing later this year. But you've also licenced your games to other people as well. So that's really interesting to have those both of those perspectives on it. Let's talk about the German localization first, how do you go about picking a game to localise? How would you do that cherry picking? What are you looking for? When you're going to localise a title?
Ulrich Blennemann 40:36
Yeah, maybe one of the few advantages of being a tiny publisher is that I can do whatever I want. So I'm looking at Speilworxx is publishing games that I like, and Speilworxx is licencing games that I like, so I'm looking for games that I like to play. That's Pax Pamir and everything that is done by Cole, Cole Wehrle, I'd love to see in a German Edition because these are my favourite games, same to Magnate. In Magnate you could say we talked about this earlier. Of course, James, you could say well, another city builder, ah but why, and it's just an economic game, and at the end you count your money and gone. So yeah. But this game also fits a Speilworxx. The label, I think it very well. Because I love how the game develops. Yes, during the game, you're making more money and you're the prices get higher, it feels great. But you already know, that's a crash is coming is looming. And I love it. It's also, in my opinion, a critique on capitalism, in some ways. And so this is why I liked the game. But if somebody would ask me to licence a game for the German market, and I, and even if it's very popular game, a very popular game. And if I don't like it, I am not doing it. This is one of the few advantages of course, in a large company, you have to see, you have to think in numbers. This is important. And if then somebody offers you a very popular game, you would probably say yes, I'm doing this. I can do a ton of money with this. But yeah, this is one of the advantages I'm having. So that's why I love to do the German Edition of Magnate. Yes.
Well, thank you. Well, thank you so much. That's very kind of you. And I'm yeah, I'm so excited to see it. To see the German one. It's going to be absolutely amazing. I've recently been looking at proofs of the Korean language one. And there's just something completely wild and awesome about suddenly seeing this same cover. Now with in Hangul, on the front, I'm feeling like wow, wow, this is amazing. Like this is this is this is incredible, like and seeing, I think the the currency in the game has been changed to Won. And as a result, the numbers are now in the billions, which is great. So it's like the I think the main bank name is 5 billion Won. Like 5 billion. No, I love this. So really, really amazingly cool to see that. So yeah, I'm really looking forward to that for the same reason to sing with the German one. So it sounds to me like really the primary principle actually ahead of everything else. And this is, again, this advantage against being small of not having like, a huge number of employees on your books. And now you're like, Oh, my God, I'm gonna pay all these salaries, is that you can just choose, Well, actually, the most important first criteria is that this game is something I really like. And then after that, you can go well, presumably, though, and I'm guessing this is also really important. You also have to believe I like this, but it also has to have commercial potential because it does still need to be profitable. But you don't have to be driven by that as your very first instinct because you don't have this vast overhead.
Ulrich Blennemann 43:59
Yes, absolutely. totally correct. And, yes, if I had some games I was interested in on my table, I liked them, but I couldn't make the numbers work. So if I'm losing money, doing it, or the chances to lose money are high, I won't touch the game. I can still play the English language edition. I probably have it down here at home, and that's fine, but it's just not a commercial thing to do. So um, yeah, both things have to come together. And I don't need to do 10 games a year so I can be very picky here too.
Makes sense. Has your output, however, increased quite a bit because it seems like when I'm scrolling through this Speilworxx website now it feels like the pace at which when you add the localised versions of new games together seems quite solid.
Ulrich Blennemann 44:55
Yeah. Yeah, I think the the output has that increase because of the localised versions. Again, this is one thing, but it's a different model. And I'm not really doing that much work on them. So I'm developing a game as you know, it's very time consuming. So from early tests to bring the game to market, of course, I'm not doing this alone. I have freelance people. But still it's a lot of work. In a localised version, the huge advantage is that the original publisher has already done this. And so that makes it easier to do it and this year, I had and they will appear late this year, I had to cold publishing games. So with New Middle Industries that was London Necropolis Railway by Daniel Newman, and recently a case of Amusement Inc. I did Pilgrim. But these are not really Speilworxx games. Yes, Speilworxx is a publishing partner. But New Middle and Amusement, they did the majority of the work. So that was also easier for me to do. And next year, if everything goes according to plan, I will do NES games. But again, let's look at the new year a year resolution and see what will truly happen.
Yes, absolutely. That doesn't have a great track record of coming true. So actually, can you talk a bit about that? Because I find that really interesting as part of a general trend that I'm starting to see. So the company is called New Mill is that I get that right. Yeah, New Mill industries, New Mill Industries, and are they kind of like a design studio then? Or are they a publisher in their own right?
Ulrich Blennemann 46:44
Yeah, yeah, yes and no. So New Mill is, again, is a company it is also very small company. And it's run by Daniel Newman, who's also the designer of London Necropolis Railway,
Oh right, okay.
Ulrich Blennemann 46:59
And of Tony Miller. So they formed a company. And at first they released a few games. All of them were crowdfunded. And late this year, there will be a new game crowdfunded just by them. And all of them are small games, small boxes, one is even a trick taking card game, and so they could handle this by themselves. But London Necropolis Railway, which by the way, is a very interesting story. It's about the the railway that connects London after the cholera Academy in the 1840s, to the new necropolis, which is 40 kilometres or 14 miles away from from London. And so the game is about all this. So the mourners and the coffins you transport them from London to this new graveyard. But this is a much larger game. This is typical Speilworxx stuff, and it has a deck of cards. For four players. It has a play, it has player boards, it has wooden pieces, it has cardboard pieces. So Daniel and Tony didn't want to do it alone, because they have no experience doing this. But I liked the game, because first I think it has a very cool action selection mechanic. And second, it's fitting Speilworxx so well. The theme is is pretty dark with this because you have coffins there, and you have all the the dead people and the mourners who are travelling there. But I think it's it's fascinating story. And this is why this is a Speilworxx game.
So that's really interesting. So you've got a company that's producing kind of lighter games by itself, but they're working as designers, because I know both Daniel and Tony, and they've been working together, they're working on more complex project, they can come to you because I guess you have the kind of experience and I guess the track record through Speilworxx, that means that you can produce that for them in a way that probably they wouldn't ideally want to themselves because, well, I think we both know very well the amount of work as you start making a game more complex purely from things like the art direction of the game and managing all the separate pieces. And then there's the obviously the input financial implications of component cost risk, all the extra project management overhead that starts coming in. I mean, that was something with Magnate. It's a brutal number of components. And it's definitely one of those situations where on some level, I could look back and go Well, that wasn't an ideal first project in many, in many ways to do we could have done something a bit simpler. But hey, for me making Magnate was a bucket list item. That was something I had to do and if there's been a terrible flop, I still would have gone no that was important that I did that. So I think it even though it was on some level bonkers to choose a game with that many components as the first project I had to do anyway, I had no choice I was compelled by my own desire to make that game. But, but it's really interesting that there is just a lot more work. So it's interesting that they should they partner with you to do that? And that that's quite it's kind of like an interesting model, I think.
Ulrich Blennemann 50:04
Yeah, it is an interesting model. And you see for their Kickstarters for their small scale, the Kickstarters. They did the games and the assembly in the US themselves. So let's say at Kickstarter, there were 500 orders for a game. Then they did 550. And they ordered the world, the carts, the small boxes, and they home assembled the games and sent everything out. So they could manage this, but not for a large game. And at first we Daniel and I, we said, well, let's crowdfund this game. But you know, crowdfunding campaigns can be also very time consuming. And I said, Danny, let's look into a 1000 copy print run for this game. And we looked at the numbers, and we sold out already in, I think, three or four weeks, so the game will appear this fall. And it's, it's done, then. Neither Daniel, New Mill industries nor me become rich because of this. But I think it will be a very nice game on a very, very interesting topic. And maybe there's a different publisher afterwards, who will say, Well, this was sold out quickly. We liked the game. Let's do a new edition. And yeah, maybe but if not done and fine. Everything great.
Do you think they'll they'll take it and say, Look, we love the gameplay, but we would like to re-theme it. And now it's going to be about My Little Pony.
Ulrich Blennemann 51:37
That would be nice, but because it's Daniel's game, I would be really surprised if he would agree to this. But if he wants to do this, ya.
No, it's interesting, because I think about his other game. There's a Dead Man's Cabal is another one. So part of the sort of like, it's kind of like, almost like a meditations on death trilogy. I think it's an amazing subject matter. The London Necropolis railway is something I knew about before the game appeared. And I think, I think it did have a special platform. So that Waterloo, I believe, where the where the trains would go,
Ulrich Blennemann 52:19
It is a special platform. Yes, you're right. But you know this better than then, then me bloody German.
Yeah, I've amazing a really cool theme. I mean, that's something else I wanted to talk about briefly is about, I guess, your model lets you do also some slightly more difficult themes. The big thing on my list of Speilworxx games that I really want to play I've not yet played is absolutely The Cost, that I've got, wow, what a subject matter your, as I understand it, make sure I've understood the game correctly, you are an Asbestos manufacturer. And you play over I think a lot quite a long period of time that it represents.
Ulrich Blennemann 53:00
It is it's abstract, the timescale is abstract, but you're right, you and asbestos company, although I get to this later. So The Cost is, in my opinion, maybe my all time favourite, Speilworxx working because on one hand, I think it's mechanically it's brilliant. So Moe Canalis. And his team they they did a tremendously well done mechanically sound game. That is one part. But the other part is topic matter. Asbestos, and you mine asbestos, you redo it, and then you are selling it, and you're selling it also to other countries. And even if your country where you mined and milled it is saying, Well, we are not doing this anymore, because we now know that asbestos is very unhealthy, you can still sell it to other countries who are still taking it, which is in at this moment of time, if I'm not totally mistaken. But two years ago, it was the case, you could sell it to India, you could sell it to China to lots of spaces. And asbestos is still done these days, but most probably not in the country where you are finding it. And you can do so. And on top of that in the game, you can say well, I want to make a profit, because in the end of the game, it's who has most money, is the winner. And what you can do in the game, you can say wow, my miners knows they are quite useful. So I better have some safety regulations in the game. But of course safety regulations will cost money. At the end of the game. As I said, most money you You're winning. So you could also say, Well, I find other workers. So let's do mine and mill unsafely, it's a lot cheaper. And then you pile up the wooden worker pieces at your player mat that workers and you see them. And I can guarantee you the first dead worker, Oh, what did I do? So second one, I don't care profits. And there are people. And this is why I love this game why I think it's so good because the game tells you a lot of stories at the end. It's a game about modern capitalism. And these are now getting back to asbestos. Asbestos is just the hook. Here. It could be almost all kinds of it could be also board gaming. We don't know how the companies or the companies we are using how they work. Is it maybe before a large convention, if you need the game that they are having seven days a week, 14 hour shifts? Are their children working? Of course, they say, well, in our plants they are not doing but we don't know. But asbestos is a hook here. It tells you a lot of stories in the game, and people are talking after a game about this. Some people won't ever mill and mine unsafely, they're saying I'm not doing this. But then they see. I'm not competitive anymore. The others are doing it. I will do the same thing. And the game. It is cheaper. You can win the game by mining and milling safely, but it's a lot harder. So and I got some questions, oh this game is broken, because there is no mechanic in the game, which makes mining and milling safely easier gives you a bonus in terms of money. no because it would be unrealistic.
Ulrich Blennemann 57:08
I and if this wouldn't be in the game, I would not I wouldn't have done the game, I wouldn't have done the game. Because this game is making an important statement. In my opinion, it is serious gaming at its best. And there are other excellent Serious Games For example, there is by Amabel Holland, from Hollandspiele, is Guilty Land, which is about slavery in the US it's a two play again. And but some people and I can understand have commented, and as I love the game that is saying, Well, I totally got to detach from the topic matter in this Guilty Land, I was looking at an area majority type game. And that's what it is. And with some cards, and I can understand, and a game, has to be a serious game especially has to be mechanically sound, if otherwise, it would be just a study. So people would play The Cost once maybe would say, Yeah, I got this. Milling safely is better. You're not losing people, but you're maybe not making more money, but The Cost is mechanically very good. So you are engaged. And this helps you to maybe say, wow, oh, I don't care for my workers. And this is how, of course the economy is working in a lot of ways. So if you get a chance to play The Cost by Mo, it's it's really a wonderful experience. And it's not a game for everybody, if you want to have a fun evening, with some people who normally play lighter stuff. No, it's not the game for them. And again, it's one of the advantages of a tiny publisher, I could do the game. And the game is in quite demand quite a bit of demand. But other publishers haven't touched this so far. Because oh topic matter. We can't do this. Yes, we can do so. Video games, they are so far ahead of board games, because they are touching these topics. And larger publishers should also do this. But it's but it's a great game.
It's it. It sounds absolutely fascinating. I want to play it even more now. It's really sounds really interesting. What you also raise those I think are the fascinating things to sort of just finish on this design point, I guess, about trying to create games that do have something of this in them. It's incredibly hard balance because you need to create a game which is mechanically satisfying that explores the subject matter, but remains very entertaining. And a lot of attempts at satirical gaming, I think often fail because you've got to incentivize the player in a certain way to do certain sorts of things.
Ulrich Blennemann 1:00:10
But if you incentivize them very obviously, to have no to be like, right, you're the bad guy. You're incentivized just to do terrible things constantly. Without anything else going on. People will just reject that hard and have little interest in playing it. So you have this interesting thing where you have to make this kind of engaging. And, and I think it's very clever that there is a system you can win by doing things safely. But obviously, of course, it's harder. But absolutely, it couldn't be in any other way. And it's funny to hear people complain about that, because I'm thinking, but that is, that's the point.
Ulrich Blennemann 1:00:42
This game is broken. It's so much easier to do that in this way. Why should I ever do so? Yeah, maybe you think, think about this? Or would it maybe even more satisfying in a four player game? If you have no dead workers, but you still had a pretty good score and came in third? Isn't this more satisfying? And
Ulrich Blennemann 1:01:06
After at the end of the game of of The Cost, there will be talks at the table. And this is what is also in my opinion in such a way important. And I'm not saying all games should be like The Cost, not at all. We need lots of really fun, quick games, we need family type games, where the whole family can get in for 30 minutes, 45 minutes and have a great, fun time. Playing The Cost can be fun from a mechanical point of view, again, as you said, they need to be engaging. But it's also a serious topic matter. But we have these probably met us in books, we have them in movies, why not in games.
I mean, I couldn't agree with you more. I think it's just one of those things that I guess is still on the frontier of the art form in a way that you said in video games, we've already been exploring this sort of thing much more concretely. So I noticed we're coming a little bit short of time here. So I want to make sure that I've covered everything that that was kind of key, what would be your top three tips for a new publisher who's starting out? Now you said that well, you probably wouldn't necessarily even start out yourself in this environment, given how challenging and saturated things are, if someone says, doesn't matter, I like the sound of that. Actually, I like the variety of the work in publishing. I actually think that the stuff around managing the art, the project management, some of the other administration that goes around bringing a game to life alongside those, that lovely fun product development stuff. If I still really want to do that, what are the top three piece of advice you would give someone in that situation?
Yeah, it's difficult to say. But if you really want to do this, I think earlier this came, maybe this came in too negative. So working as a small publisher is very rewarding job, or spending just time it can be very rewarding, because you are working with so many creative people. And this is just wonderful. So my three tips. So hints. First is to if you want to now start your company, think about it well in advance, a good game that you may have or a friend has given you is not enough. Have a clear vision, what do you want to achieve with this product. And secondly, probably is have as much money for the first 12 months, for one year, that even if you lose 100% of the money, so you're not making a single euro, dollar, pound, sterling, that you are not broke that you can still, so, so in a way you have this money. And if it's gone, it's gone. This is definitely helpful but have a clear vision. And again, be be very flexible. And don't think in terms of Gloomhaven and Frosthaven of the wonderful Isaac Childres who made millions with both games at Kickstarter, and I think quite a few younger people new publisher are I think I have a game that is as good. It's just in a different genre. I put it to Kickstarters and two Kickstarters, and I would get rich quick. No. For every success story that is there, there are 50 games and publishers and companies that are not really breakeven and for a larger publisher, this is not that difficult. It's the usual thing you have 10 projects and you know that eight of them you will be really happy if they break even, but two of them most probably hopefully, they will make a lot of money, you just do not know which two of the 10 projects will bring you the money. And this makes it so difficult. So if you have just a single egg in the basket, chances are that this game won't be that game that that title that makes a lot of money. Yeah.
That makes a tremendous amount of sense, isn't it? Keeping that in mind? I mean, I think as you said that, the problem is, they're the stories that we tend to hear about, because it's been so hugely successful, something like Gloomhaven, but they are also very much the exception to what happens, I kind of feel like a slightly better model. For me personally, if I look at a company that actually the one that I think inspires me the most personally, is actually Stonemaier games. Because when I look at what Jamey Stegmaier has done, what I think so fascinating is that he reveals his numbers of units that his lifetime has he sold, which is almost unprecedented anywhere, pretty much I've seen. And what's so interesting about it is it follows the classic distribution, but he's just done them all pretty well, like it was really missing see as the recent numbers that there wasn't a single game he'd made that had sold less than 30,000 units. But it still was the case that more than half of all the games he has ever sold were Wingspan. And I just thought like, if you want an example of how powerful the Pareto principle holds for everything in games, that's such a good example. I mean, he's crushing it on numbers of his other games, anyone would be happy with the other numbers he's doing in this space. But but it's still the case that only one of those 10 titles dramatically leads all of the others in terms of sales. And I think that's something as you said that, yeah, it makes total sense, we have to kind of keep that in mind that, that if unless you want doing it more as a question of just as a hobby and as self expression, if you want to turn it into your it's, paying your bills, it's your salary, at least, you've got to be thinking I guess longer term.
Ulrich Blennemann 1:05:20
Yeah, if you just want to do it as a hobby, or I want to get the I think this game is great. Let's publish it. And then it's done. Then, of course, if you have that money, do so but but this is a different thing. If you want to make a living long, longer term, you should be more careful. And Jamey, of course, is also in my opinion exception. Not only that he that his numbers are public, but he's so Sorrell in what he's doing in how he's doing and modelling the company and growing the company. I think this is outstanding and amazing. But I think most people are simply not as good in this regard as Jamie is. And you have to also see that his company is still very small, there are lots of companies who have more people there who would love to sell a fraction of the head copies that they are doing so so wonderful stuff.
Yeah, completely makes a tremendous amount of sense. I think that's really important to bear in mind, he's an exception himself, he's very good at a lot of different things. And that gives puts it and I think he happens to have just pretty much perfect skill set for the job. He takes the attention to detail on the product execution is just amazing. And as you say, like actually, what I think is really cool about him as well as that I like he's obviously quite sensible and cost control because he doesn't have an enormous team actually, like his team is I think, only two or three full time employees, even though he's got $27 million last year in revenue. And I think that's such a good sign of like, yeah, that's quite, that's very typically sensible, basically, rather than like, right, we've had two successful games, let's take on 100 people, you know, let's to the moon kind of thing, which is what some people do, and then I'm not going to name any of them. But I can think of a couple of high profile examples of companies that have rapidly expanded their workforce massively beyond what they really need to be honest, and then paid the price for that. So.
Ulrich Blennemann 1:08:55
I agree 100%. And then, of course, money advantages, or it's simply a fact if you have reached a level of Stegmaier games, Stonemaier Games, no matter what he will do next, people will buy. The distribution retail will buy. Of course, if he would now do crap games two or three in a row, which I'm 100% sure they won't do, then of course at a certain point people won't order, but he has reached now plateau, that people will confidently buy the new games. And of course if you have a classic game, a real classic games, because the term Classic is being used too often in our pretty much new industry. But if you have a classic like Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and now Wingspan, or Wingspan also and Azul, and a few others, I forgot that, but then you know, at the end of the year I will make money I will make money unless the market is crashing. But these evergreens is classic gaming say, we'll make sure that you will earn money. And Jamey again, his company is so small. So he, I bet he knows, on the first of January that he will have profits in December no matter what will work will happen it simply even if he's not doing in your day.
Yeah, I mean, that's the power of momentum, isn't it? Like once you have that going, and you've got an evergreen cash cow like that, that makes such a difference? Really, thank you so much for this. This has been absolutely fascinating. I found this a such interesting conversation. I feel like I've learned loads of things today. And hopefully listeners feel the same.
Ulrich Blennemann 1:10:46
Yeah, my pleasure, James. It's always good talking to you. I tremendously enjoyed this. And yeah, thanks a lot.
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