Saturday, January 9, 2016

Thoughts on Catan, Asmodee, Fantasy Flight & Origins

Hey all.  Sorry for the lack of bloginess lately, raising a kid and all that.  At any rate, I saw a few articles in the past month and had some thoughts I wanted to get down.

While most of you came here for painting/terrain making tutorials, you know I occasionally feature a board game review.  In reality, for a long, long time, board games were a much bigger part of my gaming than anything else.  In fact, while I was dating my future wife, she introduced me to The Settlers of Catan.  Most of you, even if you don't particularly care for board games, have probably heard of it.  It was the game responsible for introducing most people to the concept of "Eurogames", games that are very different than the type we grew up with (Monopoly, Scrabble, etc).  Although it's been a couple of years since I've played a game of Catan or any of it's variants, it still has a special place in my heart.

It's also no secret that boardgames have exploded in popularity in the past several years, especially among millennials. This trend is so prevalent that my city has had several new stores open that deal almost exclusively in board games, and even supports a dedicated board game parlour. The popularity of Catan means you can even buy gaming tables that are made just for playing Catan.  A few years ago, there was a glut of articles talking about how Silicon Valley had been overtaken by Catan-mania.

So imagine my surprise when I read that Asmodee had acquired the rights for Catan from Mayfair Games.

See, board games are handled similarly to books - the publishing rights can be bought or sold (and in fact are all the time).  And the rights are usually separate for each language/country.

But the English-language rights for Catan are arguably the most valuable cash cow in the entire gaming industry.  This is the board game industry equivalent of J.K. Rowling selling the rights to all the Harry Potter books, or George Lucas selling off Star Wars.

The rights were bought by Asmodee, a french company that also recently merged with one of my favorite publishers, Fantasy Flight, and just a couple of months before that, bought another of my favorite publishers, Days of Wonder.

While this undoubtedly makes Asmodee the new 800-pound-gorilla of the board game industry, what does it mean?  Is it a good deal? Will Mayfair survive?

I don't know.

It's impossible to say without knowing what Asmodee paid for the rights to Catan, and even then, I probably don't know enough to speak with any authority on the subject.

A lot of those articles about the "board game craze" are five or six years old at this point.  One point of view is that Mayfair made a fortune, and was smart to get out before the bubble popped.  The other side could say that Catan is a cash cow that hasn't even begun to be milked, and Asmodee made a smart buy.  Like I said, without in-depth info about the financials, it's all speculation.

One of my main concerns is a bit more personal - Mayfair Games was the premiere sponsor of my favorite annual convention, Origins Game Fair.  Will Mayfair still take this role at Origins?  And will the fans respond to them if they don't have Catan in their portfolio anymore?  This article says:

Catan Studios, Inc. is the name being given to the team that is part of Asmodee. Mayfair isn’t just cutting all ties, though, as they will still help with the coordination of all official events listed for Catan this year, as well as CatanDay, and the Catan World Championship.
This change is part of a management change happening at Mayfair. Such changes include Larry Roznai becoming both President (which he already was) and CEO (formerly held by Pete Fenlon). Alex Yeager will now be the VP of Acquisition & Development, which had been done by S. Coleman Charlton. Various other VP and Director positions have new people in charge of them as well.
A lot of Mayfair's involvement with Origins will probably hinge on Larry Roznai - he's kind of a fixture at Origins.  I have to admit I've talked with him, attended seminars led by him, and always found him to be a pleasant guy.  But, apparently he's been at odds with Origins: a couple of years ago a well-liked member of the GAMA (the company that puts on Origins every year) staff was let go, and he shared a lot of info on Facebook:

(Names and pics obscured to protect the innocent, blah blah blah).  

I'd hate to see Origins move from Columbus, as it's local to me - it's my annual vacation, and I do the bulk of my gaming purchases every year there and at Adepticon.  It's an interesting idea presented by the former employee that Mayfair pulling out of Origins would be a non-issue - I'm not so sure that's true, simply because I don't know who would pick up the slack.  Fantasy Flight hasn't attended Origins in several years.  Rio Grande had a good showing 4 or 5 years ago, but seems to have scaled back their presence in favor of GenCon.  Queen Games has stepped up quite a bit in the past couple of years, but I don't think they have the titles or fan following to be the "major" sponsor.  Looney Labs used to be a major sponsor several years ago but stopped attending due to scheduling issues (and other unspoken but implied reasons). 

Another interesting piece of the puzzle was a recent Asmodee's announcement:

The marketplace has long been distorted by providing one-size-fits-all sales terms to every retail account, regardless of its channel of sale. The growth in demand for games over the last decade, in our view, has been fueled not only by fantastic product, but by the support of specialty retailers who incubate personal connections between players, facilitate tournaments and leagues, provide instant product availability, and increasingly provide a “third place” that is instrumental for so many gamers to enjoy and discover our products. The retailer cost of providing such channel services is significant, and so we’re now making policy changes to ensure that the sales terms provided to those retailers, relative to other channels, are positively reflective of the value they add to our distribution chain. - See more at:

What does the above marketing-speak mean?  Short short answer: no more cheap online sales of games.  While I'm more willing than a lot of people to spend a little bit more to support my local retailer or vendor at a convention, it's nice to have the option to get stuff online.  What this means as far as going up against Amazon will be an interesting scenario as well.