I've decided that I am tired of seeing games produced by faceless companies and that I have a duty, as a journalist and gaming enthusiast, to bring you something you don't customarily see: In depth, conversational interviews with innovators in the industy. These are the designers, small-press publishers, and the owners of small companies that provide us with the games we love and enjoy. This will be an ongoing series, so keep an eye out for more interviews with industry leaders and innovators. This, as all of my interviews are, was by phone as I think sending email questions is simply impersonal and you get a filtered response where as with speaking with someone, you get the true feel for the person and get more of who they are.
I'm a sucker for a rags-to-riches story, and although this innovator isn't rich, yet, he is certainly a guy who started out in the industry as a relative unknown and has managed to carve out a respectable niche in the industry, going from designer to successful self-publisher and making critically acclaimed games. This man is none other than John Clowdus, owner of Small Box Games (www.smallboxgames.com), the company that brought you such games as Seii Taishogun, Politico, and Elemental Rift. Of late, he's released a card game that I, myself, own, Irondale, as well as a slew of other games that if you don't already own, you probably should.
SFC: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, John!
JC: No problem, Pete, and I appreciate you taking an interest in Small Box Games and myself.
SFC: Well, let's begin, then. Basically, what I'd like to know is what got you thinking that starting a company as a small-press publisher would be a good idea, and something that you could be successful at? What made you get into the business?
JC: Well, you know, I just, you know, started out because I've always done something creative. I used to, actually, produce music and some alternative art a bit, and just really wanted some kind of creative outlet. I got into games, I've played Magic pretty much since I was a kid. I'm kind of a weird mix of different cliques, but I've always liked Magic and, uh, picked up Heroscape and started playing it, and I saw that you can make custom figures so I started messing with that, and of course Heroscape opened up more games to me, and as I started to play more and more games I started getting ideas, probably like anybody else who plays games, and I have a supportive wife and luckily I'm pretty creative, and anything I don't know how to do, if I put my mind to it, I can figure out how to do it at least average, if not a little better than most. So, I started to make some games and submitted them to publishers, but got some mixed reviews from companies. You know, they liked it, didn't like it, would publish it but it'd be two or three years, so I started looking at doing it myself, and what was feasible and what wasn't.
SFC: So you just decided that the best way to get started was to try to get into the business yourself rather than waiting for an established company to take on your games?
JC: Yeah, and I heard horror stories about people having 20,000 copies of games in their garage, and just stuff like that. I'm a really, really careful person, you know, and my family comes first, and our financial stability, so I started looking. At this time, POD printers just weren't there yet, you know, you could do POD books and that was about it.
SFC: So the technology and market for Print On Demand just hadn't matured yet?
JC: Yeah, you'd be amazed at how much the technology has come around in the last three years. I found an actual offset playing card company that would do as low as 100 copies, so I started looking at my designs that I had, and what could I feasibly do with my limited art capabilities, and you know, graphics. At this point, I hadn't graphically designed anything and if you look at Politico, and look at my later designs, you can see how far I've come as a graphic designer. Poitico was the easiest one to do, and, uh, I did it, and it did alright, so I did some more. So my business model is totally different than it was three years ago.
SFC: Just because you've learnedwhat you do well and what you don't do well? What caused you to change?
JC: Well, I got to thinking, you know, as far as one of the reasons is taxes and whatnot, carrying inventory. I've always done limited print runs, I mean the most I've ever done of a single print run is 100 of a game. Even when you only print 100, it's hard to sell 100 copies of a game, even if it's a good game. I think, you know, with Politico which is a great game, it took seven or eight months to sell out of it, even when it had overwhelmingly positive reviews. Then Elemental Rift came out, and it sold a little bit quicker. It's my most printed game, I think about 300 copies are out floating around, in various forms.
JC:If you don't have money to go to all the conventions, where you're seen, it's hard to get new business. So that's really the only advertising outlet that's left, besides BoardGameGeek. It's actually making face-time at a Con,
SFC: Yeah, there's not a lot of exposure opportunity in this industry, I'm seeing, unless you have deep, deep pockets.
JC: Right! There's print advertising, but I think there's only Spielbox, I think it's in English now, and Games Magazine. But Games caters not just to board games, but to word games, mindbenders, and other types of shit, so that's not really, you know, that's like a really big publication that goes to Barnes and Noble, and advertising in that, you know for a quarter of an inch, black and white at the back of it....
SFC: Yeah, probably like $4800.00 a run or something, I'm sure...
JC: So, I mean, that's just not realistic for a small publisher. And, you know, then another company came out offering print-on-demand playing cards, and, I won't mention their name, but they were OK, but they weren't that good.
JC: Yeah, but they were what I had, and I started using them, and I did a little smaller print runs, to try to sell out of those and create a little demand. So then I got the idea for the Pure Card Line, doing everything as cards...
SFC: So let me ask you a little about that, specifically. You've had some really good games, that have gotten, y'know, great reviews, Seii Taishogun, Dirge, Politico, and those had a lot more components. What made you make the decision, as a publisher, as a gamer, and as a designer, to make the transition to a Pure Card Line concept?
JC: It kind of goes back to what I said before. There's like 50 copies of Dirge in existence. Well, maybe 40 copies of the first edition and 30 of the second edition, that's it. For as popular and as good as the reviews of the game are, that's all that got pre-ordered.
JC: My old system, was that I would set up preorders, and set to sell, and if I got 25 preorders, I'd have 50 made, you know, double the preorder. Okay? But, then they would just sit.So with Dirge, I said I was making 50 games, and that's it. Then I did the same with the second edition, so I guess there's actually 50 copies of the second edition out there.
SFC: I know I got one! I bought that from you at Gencon, the first time we met.
JC: Yep, you got one of 'em, They're kind of, you know, that's the main reason I pulled away from that is that as a small publisher, there's some things I can do that look really, really, really good, and there's some things that how hard I try, I can never compete. Dirge is one of those games. The paper map doesn't work. On that same note, I can't charge what it would cost me to sit down and manually make a board for that game and expect people to pay for it. I think that game would make the right company a lot of money.
SFC: I agree!
JC:Well, I say a lot of money, but there's really not a lot of money to be made in this industry unless you just have a smash hit.
SFC: Unless your name is Hasbro (laughing)
JC: Right. I mean, even Fantasy Flight, is probably the largest printer, you know, in America if you don't count the big box stores, those companies that would be in the big box stores.
SFC: So, do you think it's a quality of game issue, or do you think it's a sales channel issue? Seems to me that the names you shot out there, like Fantasy Flight, the thing that makes them different, is not that they make such vastly superior games than other people, it's that they've got a far better sales channel. Do you think the problem is that as a small publisher you just don't have the same access to the sales and distribution channel resources?
JC: Well, I mean, look at like, well what you said is kind of true, but on the other hand it's not. There's nobody, even AEG who I think is giving Fantasy Flight a run for their money as far as components go, have not come close to touching what FFG can do when they decide to produce a game. As a small publisher, you know, Dirge, I think, is more focussed more towards people who like combat in their games. You know, they're not looking to build a city, they're looking to, you know, slit each other's throats. They're looking for a certain look and feel in a game. Dirge, as I can make it, doesn't have that look and feel. No matter how hard I try to make it have that look and feel, it never would.
SFC: Yeah, just because the economy of scale isn't there when you're printing 50, each component costs you a buck and nobody's going to spend $90.00 on a game.
JC: Right. Even if I went reasonable, you know, to some of the midrange printers like Z-Man or Rio Grande, and Mayfair, when they do a game in English, 2000 to 5000 copies, at that price range, with the plastics I would need, I just can't compete. There's just no way. I took a step back and looked at what I can do and what I couldn't do, and right now Dirge is just kind of sitting there. At one point, I looked at the files, and I mean, I had a bunch of new creatures, and I was planning on doing an expansion every three months, which is one of the reasons I switched to the tiles from the figures, aside from the figures just a nightmare to assemble, for me, and it didn't look that good for my most important asset, the customers. You look at what the big publishers can do, and you just can't beat that. Hey, ask me some more questions, I've been talking for like seventeen minutes straight!
SFC: That's kind of the point, man. (laughs) They don't want to hear from me, I'm just some douchebag. You're the guy who makes these things. You're the guy that Bruno Faidutti called a genius, and said that Seii Taishogun was a better game than some of Reiner Knizia's poker-based games. So, OK, well, let's move onto some of your past games like Seii Taishogun. That game was brilliant, and seems like it was one of the big winners, critically lauded, and it just seemed to have died on the vine. Was it just too hard to compete with the big-boxes?
JC: I don't know, I mean, as a small publisher, the only real feedback I can take in from people, you know, if I'm not at a Con in a booth, is what I get via email, and what I can get on Boardgamegeek. You know, I go onto the 'Geek and look at Seii Taishogun, and it's got overwhelmingly great reviews, great ratings, is one of my higher selling games, but then on the want list there's only ten people who have it on their want list, I can take that as who really wants this game.
SFC: Oh, so you, as a publisher, use the want lists as an indicator, sort of like a projected customer base?
JC: Oh yeah, sure, absolutely. If someone takes the time to click through, look at the game and make the decision that they want it, whether they said they want to buy it or trade for it, or whatever, they want it.
SFC: So you use that to measure demand then?
JC: Sure! And emails, at the height I get one or two emails a week wanting to know when I will publish it again, but at the same time, I can't go and take out a home equity line of credit to have 2000 copies of Seii Taishogun made because one guy in Canada wants a copy.
SFC: (laughing) Understandable!
JC: You know, it's just hard to do. Seii Taishogun, once I started doing this on my own, was the first game I tried to shop out to somebody else. I have another publisher, who says they are going to publish it, but then it never happens.
SFC: Yeah, money talks and bullshit walks!
JC: I don't know if you don't know or not, I put out a Pure Card Line version of Seii Taishogun. It's called Sengoku Karuto. A little clever Japanese name, but the publisher didn't want me to publish it because it would compete with their version of Seii. It's kind of rock-and-a-hard-place. I want the company to publish the game, but I want to make a couple hundred bucks now. It's what makes it hard to sleep at night.
SFC: It must be maddening. Well, I have one last question for you. What's coming up?
JC: (laughing) Uh...
SFC: Shit, you knew I was going to ask it! Let's rephrase. If there's one thing you want my readers to take away from this when they're making a buying decision, what game do you think they should take a look at that's coming out?
JC: Heh, I have a game called October that's coming out. I don't know how soon, some months I do a bunch of games, but some months I do none. Because I do this part time, I really never know. My time really allows only what it allows.
SFC: No, that's OK, but what I'm really asking here is which game is coming out, or an existing game, that you think readers should really know about and you think is one of the best of what you offer that is currently available?
JC: Let me take a step back then. Irondale is the game I think is some of my best work. I don't know, maybe I'm being too forward, but I know the game has a whole lot to offer. People can sit down and say that it looks complex, but at the end of the day it's really not complex at all. They should really give it a shot, because I think it's the best looking game I've made. Looking out, it's highly expandible, it's really easy to learn and play, and with each expansion that comes out you can make the game as deep as you want or as light as you want by taking out any cards. Shit, for 13 bucks it's a lot of game, I think.
SFC: I agree wholeheartedly, remember that I have it and reviewed it. Like I said, in the review that I did, I expected to play it a couple of times. I don't review a game unless I've played it at least 3 times. The first time you play it, you're learning it, the second time, you're kind-of getting it, and the third time you're dead-nuts on it and each time you've played it you get a different experience, and a different level of enjoyment, so it kind of gives you different perspectives each time you play. Now, I took it to my game night on Friday, and one of the people is a "meh" gamer, one is a hardcore gamer but not immersed in the "geek culture", and the rest are varying degrees within. Surprisingly, they wanted to play it again, and again, and again. I mean, it struck me as, uh, I mean we just don't get a whole lot of games like that. We just don't get a lot of games where a bunch of people all get a hard-on for it, that quick, and they really liked it. So, good job!
JC: Thanks, man, I really appreciate it. See, I mean, Irondale doesn't have gorgeous art, but it's, you know, and I hate to compare the two because they're aesthetically similar, but Irondale doesn't look any worse than San Juan does.
SFC: And it's no worse, probably better, than Carcassonne.
JC: You know what I mean, it's just...it's there. The art's subtle, but the buildings match what they do.
SFC: Yeah, that's one of the things we liked about it, that it was pretty simple to get the iconography down since everything made sense. We had it down and it was cake to play. Everyone got it instantly, and in fact I think that these were the best rules you've done.
JC: Well thanks, man, I appreciate it. I'm 12 credits from an english degree, and sometimes it's easy to check something for grammar and spelling, and, you know, I can write, but it's totally different proofreading for grammar than it is for content. But I'm always trying to think about these things and I've gotten a lot better at it.
SFC: Well, keep up the good work, and I'm sure we'll be seeing a ton of your work in the future. I wish you all the success in the world and keep it up, man!
JC: Thanks, and thanks for the opportunity.
John's games can be found at www.smallboxgames.com and on BoardGameGeek.com via username "Justjohn".