Interview with Pierre Gaubil

Days of wonder has had quite an impact on the board game market over the last couple of years, mainly due to very good titles like Ticket to ride, Memoir ’44 and Shadows over Camelot. How were you able to more or less come from nowhere and deliver such amazing titles?

You are right to say that we are coming from nowhere, at least in regards to the board game market. However Days of Wonder has assembled a team of individuals with a lot of experience mainly from the high tech sector. The team quality is the number one reason why we have been able to do so much in such a small time. Obviously the talent of the different game designers, Alan Moon or Richard Borg to name a few, has also a lot to do with our current success. Without a good game design it remains quite difficult to make a good product. You also have the feeling that Days of Wonder has gone fast because of our international presence. We consider the market globally and we’ve done that from the company inception. So even though it is a young player, Days of Wonder has established distribution in 35 countries with offices in North America and Europe. Another element of our growth is the fact that we incorporated a well-funded company with enough cash to sustain our ambitions.
Finally and it is a major factor we have been lucky. Winning the Spiel des Jahres has been a tremendous boost for us and it has changed our perspective. So if you combine the right people with good game designers acting globally with enough cash and a slice of luck you got a pretty good recipe.

Few can argue about that. But you must also have a solid financial backing to take on such a strategy. Good games, and designers, go without saying.
But even with a good start up team, you have also been able to spread out across the globe. As an economist with a MSc in strategy and management, I find this growth intriguing. In most cases such rapid company growth is usually accompanied with some problems. Has there been any crucial situations or dilemmas so far?

I will again say the same, but the team we have assembled is truly different. We have 4 ex CEO in the executive team that have managed public companies, gone through mergers and acquisitions and run companies much bigger than what Days of Wonder is today. So we have some ideas on how to handle rapid growth. Running a small fast growing company is something you learn by experience more than anything else.
Usually growing fast means cash problems. We are fully conscious of it, and have the right level of capital and put in place the right processes to avoid any issues.
Growing fast also triggers ambitions and most people lose perspective and start investing without the proper analysis. We run the company in a very conservative manner in that regards. For example we do not get carried over by the expending success of our games. We still today manufacture what we know we can sell being conservative. One of the consequences is that we are sold-out really fast, but we’d rather learn slowly than be stuck with a pricey inventory.
Another “growing” mistake is to throw people at problems. You end up with a large headcount and your exposure in case of a turn down is important. We have just hired 3 additional people since winning the Spiel des Jahres. We externalize everything possible to keep the company reactive and dynamic.
So at this point we did not encounter dilemmas or crucial situation, we try to anticipate as much as possible.

This was maybe more of a personal interest than for the regular gamer, but it’s nice to get a glimpse of the business side of things as well. You started out with Fist of Dragonstones and then following up with Queen’s necklace and Mystery of the Abby. Where it looks like the latter became a
gamer’s favourite. Any comments on these games?

These games where our very first and I once again would want to thank Bruno Faidutti, who was kind enough to give us a chance at the very start of the adventure. All I want to say is that everything we do is part of the learning curve especially with our first games. Mystery of the Abbey is still today a great seller with bigger volumes years after years.
Fist of Dragonstones and Queen’s Necklace did not perform as well. It is important to realize that what matters in the end, is what the public is going to say. Nobody can predict what will be a success. If it was the case we would not exist, Hasbro would do it all.

Absolutely understandable. And I think every gamer in the world appreciate both the ambition and competition of publishers like yourselves. Not to discredit Hasbro, but in every industry there needs to be a good level of competition in order for the games to evolve. In that regard, your written mission states a bold goal – making games as popular as movies! That should be the goal of the whole industry… How did this goal materialize?
In large parts of the world I would believe this to a million miles apart. I mean, just look at my own country: Not 1 of the media channels has any form of regular columns on board games!

You can look at the glass half empty or half full. It is true to say that on a large scale, board gaming remains a German phenomenon. However I’d like to make a parallel with comic books. You take France, comics 15 years ago where as known as board games today. Everybody would assimilate comics with books for children, pretty much what’s happening today with board games. Today comics represent 25% of the total book business. Music, comics, books or movies consumers follow the same pattern as board games consumers. It is simply a matter of initiation. The public exists but remains passive. Take games like the Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride and you have gateways to making a wide public engage into board gaming again. If we start reaching the occasional player we have a chance to grow the market tremendously. The media coverage will follow. Journalists have a tendency to follow the trend; once board games will start popularizing articles will flourish, it is matter of time.

I both understand and believe that this is true, but it feels like fighting windmills from time to time. So in your opinion board games should be having the same level of coverage as for instance the number one parallel, at least here in Norway, consol games? You also make a point for me to ask about Ticket to ride. You surly found something unique there. What attribute do you think is the most appealing to the public in this game?

As far as coverage, success will tell; in Germany for instance we can identify over 700 journalists that are somehow board game related. Ticket to Ride’s appeal lies into few things. First, I guess, the simplicity of the rule helps. Most occasional players refrain from reading a lengthy and complex rule. So if you want your game to cross over a wider audience it has to be somehow accessible. However simple rules often go with simple game play. Here most of the rule is on the board and the game play is very pure and creates the right level of tension to keep everyone engaged.
Ticket to Ride is also a multi level game play where people can play casual or play strategic. I know some players believe it is a “family” game, meaning simple and luck driven, however if you need to be convinced go to our web site and try yourself against the very best players. I’ll say this; if you play against a top ranked player your chances to win are close to zero. This simple fact, meaning the ability to engage core and occasional players is very unique. The two things combined being easy rules and deep game play is extremely unusual.

Let’s hope these words come true. What I find interesting with Ticket to Ride is exactly what you state. And it is a rare occurrence. There seems to be few titles that fulfil both sides of the table. A genre of games that should be satisfying to both camps is abstract strategy. But there is, at least nowadays, very little enthusiasm for them. How do you regard these games? And do you have any other reason for this than that they lack a theme?

I’ve read somewhere that 33% of the players are attracted to abstract games. This makes the target market smaller but still reasonable. On the other side when abstract games become popular they encounter a very large success, maybe larger than theme based board games. Take Abalone or recently Blokus and look at their sales numbers, it is very impressive. I am no expert on it, however most abstract games have common characteristics. They are for the most part beautiful, meaning it can be an object not just a game, they are very strategic and by consequence require a more intellectual play, and finally most of them are 2 players game. As you can see this creates a very specific segment in many ways very different from regular board games.
We look at these games as being a significant segment of the game business, but different from your current positioning, but we never know maybe one day…

I will be looking forward to that day, but getting back to Ticket to Ride, Mr Moon seems to have been working a lot with developing a good mechanic for transport themed games for quite some time. He has touched the theme before with Elfenland and Union Pacific, although with different mechanics. At what level was Ticket to Ride finished when it was presented to you?

Ticket to Ride was completely finished. Alan had a clear inspiration and designed and tested the game in no time. The game play is very pure and necessitated no changes. From a publishing stand point Ticket to Ride was a smooth ride.

To what I hear Alan Moon is quite a knowledgeable man when it comes to the gaming industry, but did he also have strong opinions on the actual box design and such as well? This is of course an important issue, since packaging is the presentation of the game to most buyers. Your games have clear flair and am I mistaken if I believe you are aiming at some kind of recognizable profile in this regard?

As far as designing our games we take the lead completely. Everyone has a role and brings different expertise to the table. As a publisher although we obviously listen to all suggestions coming from the game designer, however we follow our own path when it comes to designing and manufacturing the game. It is not our business to invent game play it is our business to transform a prototype to a manufactured product. I am not sure I understand your last point, however if you are referring to our upcoming projects, you are correct to say that we will work with a highly recognizable profile.

Yes, I was hinting at the freshness and likeliness of the package design on most of your titles. Mystery of the Abby, Pirate’s cove and Shadows over Camelot have a familiarity to them, although they are very different games. Which brings me over to the game that we at BSG have spent the most time on lately; Shadows over Camelot. Camelot is really intriguing and has a nice twist with the possibility of a traitor. There are not too many cooperative games around, but both Lord of the Rings and Camelot really works as such. How did it come about?

Well it is indeed a very long story. We played the game back in 2003 in Essen with both game designers. We had a very enjoyable game, however Days of Wonder was just getting started and we did not feel up to the task for publishing such a game. At the time our editorial line was being constructed as well as our manufacturing abilities.
Few months later, Descartes signed the game. It took them quite sometime to start working on it, and it was right when Descartes was not doing so well. So the game designers started to get a bit nervous and we got more and more interested as we felt that Days of Wonder was about ready for such a game. I contacted the president of Descartes to see if he was open to letting it go; I did not succeed.
Then Descartes became officially for sale and Asmodée purchased the company. It was then a much easier task for me to convince Asmodée to let Days of Wonder publish the game, as they are our distributor in France. That’s in essence a short version of the story. We are delighted to have published Shadows over Camelot, as it is a very unique and very successful game.

You definitely found a gem there. There is something especially interesting about trying to outsmart a game mechanic while at the same time be on the lookout for backstabbing amongst the players. Maybe it’s due to the novelty of these designs. Is there any truth to the rumours of an expansion?

The rumour is absolutely correct. As you might have noticed we want our games to have a long life cycle. If a game is successful it should be successful for many years. So we always consider doing additional expansions to bring fresh perspective and encourage players to revisit playing the game again. We’ve done small expansions for Mystery of the Abbey -Pilgrims Chronicle- or the classic Ticket to Ride – Mystery Train- , we have a lot going on with Memoir’44, the Pacific Theater will be our 4th expansion, we published painted knights for Shadows and we are currently working on a much ambitious expansion for Shadows over Camelot that should please our current players. This is core to the Days of Wonder strategy, as we publish very few games every year with a long term objective in mind. Each game as a dedicated web site, for some of them an internet implementation, and expansions whenever possible. The consequence is that our old games keep selling and for the most part with bigger volumes years after years.

Exactly what I was getting to. You are really backing your releases, and giving the customers a lot of additional value when they buy your games.
Both by providing a mutual forum for the gamers and giving new scenarios, rules variations and meeting place. In addition to that you are also keeping, as you state, the games alive by expansions.
This certainly rings true with Memoir ’44, which is one of the best war games that have been made in quite awhile. Although one may argue that the game is just a rethemed version of Battle Cry. Personally I love the quick game play (for a war game that is) and also support the views of a more reality in the game that some with less enthusiasm calls high luck factor. When it come these expansions, I have to disagree with one of them. Why releasing just a board as an expansion?

We do not expect everyone to agree with our decisions and we do not make always the best decisions. However if we had released more than just a board, we would have need to package everything into a real box. The cost of the box and what goes with it, such as a vacuum tray, is a significant factor and we believed, and still do, that there are certain price point that you cannot cross. For the board we did not want to get over €10, and adding a box would have compromised it. In addition we did not want to force people, and we thought we should segment the expansions as much as possible. I think the real problem with the board expansion is that we did not do enough of it. We got sold-out in 2 weeks.

That is a nice problem, Pierre. And, naturally, we will not agree on everything. The board is no necessity, but still gives the game a better feel when you play the Eastern Front. Anyway, I guess congratulations are in order, as Memoir 44 won the first Strategy award here in Norway. What are your thoughts on all the new awards popping up these days?

I believe that everything that contributes to increasing the awareness of board games is a good thing. The expanding number of awards is a sign of a growing and healthy market. There is a large chunk of the population that does know that the board game industry has evolved tremendously, and proposes very entertaining products. Awards help diffuse the message to a wider audience. Given that our best marketing is the viral aspect of our games, every new customer is a chance to convince many more. Awards, if they are legitimate, meaning independent, can help occasional gamers pick the right games that can turn them up into more active players.
Awards are of course not all the same, the Spiel des Jahres being the one with the most commercial impact. However winning a award is always rewarding for the publisher but also for the game designer. We were extremely pleased to have won the award in Norway with Memoir’44, and by the way it had a real impact on our sales.

Thanks a lot for the kind words. I think everybody who takes the trouble of organizing an award or making any other effort is for the common good for us all. Also, I believe it is important in order to stimulate local designers and publishers. It may also help games from smaller markets into the bigger ones. I like to think that least, for instance the Swedish developed Pentago, got some help with intering this year’s Mensa Mind Sport competition after the nomination last year. Then we are getting towards the end of this little chat, but what does Days of Wonder hold in store for us gamers in the future?

We have a discipline in the company where we refrain from talking about things that do not exist. We usually start talking about our new games when they are well advanced and almost ready to go to production. All I can say is that we are all at Days of Wonder super enthusiastic about our upcoming games. Aside from the Pacific Theatre coming in June we will release a new game in Essen. More than a game it is a game system that we are hopeful can become a huge best seller for us. I can also say that our editorial line is full until the end of 2007 and we will work with new game designers some of them being super stars.

I was not expecting the details for next 10 titles 🙂 but one may always fish a little bit… Sounds like we have something to look forward to. Last rumour is the Memoir bag, which to me, sounds like a great treat. Being able to have it all in the same place and even easy to bring along!

Instead of a Memoir bag I would rather say a Memoir case. So your sources are again correct, the case should be released this year with some little surprises inside :-).

Ok, Pierre, I think we should stop on this cue for nice expectations. Thank you so much for your time, and the good games you provide.

Thank you Remo, for the time, and for being an important promoter of board gaming in Norway.