Interview with Zev Shlasinger

So, Zev, congratulations on securing distribution for the Scandinavian markets. That’s a good thing for both you and us gamers. To most of us here in Norway, you seem to be a recent addition to the publishing world, so how did you get started in this industry?

I’ve been a gamer all my life, but I actually started getting involved in the industry when CCGs began to get serious. I became a judge for "Magic:The Gathering" in 1994, but then I started playing many CCGs in 1995 and was part of a demo team that taught how to play and ran tournaments for many different CCGs. In 1997 I worked for Demonblade Games and their "Shock Force" miniature line for a year. But it was in 2000 when I first published under my own company, Z-Man Games, and the product was the "Shadowfist CCG". You could say I was the ultimate fanboy for this game, since I resurrected this game after the company that previously produced it went out of business.

Ok, so you were also smitten by the "MTG" wave! That actually also brought us back into board gaming. We never went past "MTG", but the board game interest was rekindled. Did you enjoy other games or was it mainly CCGs? What made you take the step into regular board games?

Well, actually, I have been playing boardgames since I was around 8. I played "Stratego", then "Risk", then "Axis and Allies". I played many Avalon Hill titles and I was a big "Starfleet Battles" fan as well. Also, I played "Dungeon and Dragons" and other role-playing games. So you see, I’ve been into boardgaming, in particular wargaming for a long time. What CCGs did to me was get me more involved in the industry: going to conventions, meeting people in the industry, etc. So CCGs got me into the industry – but I’ve been a player for most of my life.

Once I got Z-Man Games started and achieved some success with the "Shadowfist CCG", I was able to bring my love of all gaming into my business model. And I’m wexcited to be bringing some wargames to the market as well ("The End of the Triumvirate" and the soon-to-be-released "Duel in the Dark").

It looks like all of us thirtysomethings have had our period of Avalon Hill. What titles bring back fond memories? And why?

Well, I played such games as "War and Piece", "Enemy in Sight", "1776", "Squad Leader", and several others. I had a lot more Avalon Hill games that I didn’t play because I had no one to play with. I kept a few of them, including Flat Top – that game just looks so cool. Of the ones I played I like War and Piece and still have that game. I guess I like the Napoleonic Era and why I enjoy GMT’s Napoleonic Wars. (Upon reflection, I don’t think I’m enamored of the era, but the games themselves are good).

Wow! Somebody else that mentions "Enemy in Sight"! A lot of my friends and I loved this game (I’m actually on my 3rd copy)… Maybe it’s time to write a review… Anyway, I believe most of us had the same experience after awhile with the Avalon Hill titles; many games – no takers. I’m not familiar with "War and Piece", what’s the attraction? What makes it a good game?

It’s been so long since I played it but I like games that immerse you in the game and I think that game did – it better with all those rules! 🙂 It just had a lot of good play value – it was fun, made you think, required a lot of strategy, etc. Regarding "Enemy in Sight", I think I saw a company that re-released it recently.

What?! A re-release of "Enemy in Sight". Amazing. How do you regard these titles compared to today’s gaming scene?

I think I saw a new version – it was a brief glimpse while walking by their booth on my way to get food at a convention. Nostalgia clouds many a memory but I bet I would still enjoy many of the games. But also, I still have the same problem: finding opponents. Probably even more so than years ago. What I need to do is find some time at a convention to sit down and play – unfortunately I’m always working a con and so have little time for leisure gaming.

There’s rarely time to play the ”big” games at conventions, at least if you’re there on business. But, what I was trying to ask was how the old titles fit with today’s gamers. I would argue there are several reasons why these kinds of games are rare in today’s market, and it also gave way to eurogames.

Ah, I see. I think that is a tough question to answer. I would say those titles are only remembered by those who were around playing them back in the days and very few "new" people are able to play those types of games (either for lack of wanting or for lack of others wanting). In the States you have the Eurogamer movement and those old AH games are not appealing to them because of the long play, complicated rules, high luck factor, etc. Of course there are those who never really stopped playing those games and you see them at every convention getting together to play with practically the same group they’ve been playing with for years.

I do think there has been a resurgence in the wargames, but I don’t think many of the old AH titles appeal to today’s market.

Although you are an old wargamer, that does not seem to reflect too much on your catalogue. From the beginning you seemed to go for another niche; catering the B-movie/comics enthusiasts. How come?

I’m not a designer so I can only do what comes to me. Sure, I could have asked specifically for a wargame, but I never really received any prototypes of this nature. I think it is perhaps what we have been speaking about – since the Euro-style games have been the rising star in the States, that’s what designers are designing. However, we have published "The End of the Triumvirate" and that is a wargame. Before that, we did "Warchon", a portable wargame. In June we are going to release "Duel in the Dark", a WW2 air combat game. And I have tow or three other wargames that we are developing or waiting to see prototypes on.

It was no critique, Zev, just stating an observation, and I’m not complaining as I usually enjoy the eurogames a lot more these days. An interesting title you released last year was "Gheos", how did that happen?

I have been hanging out at the BGDF – Board Game Designer Forum and I found out that "Gheos" had become a finalist in the upcoming Hippodice contest. I decided to ask for a prototype and I tried it and liked it. You see, I don’t always wait for someone to contact me with their games – I actively seek out other games through various channels.

In order to get good new games, if not to license, I assume building a network of designers are important. "Gheos" seems to fulfil that. Do you keep in touch with Rene Wiersma? I’m really looking forward to see what he might come up with next. Personally, I really like the game mostly due to the conflict side of the game. Wargames usually take too long and have too many rules in order to keep them realistic, but I love games with conflict and a lot of interaction.

I have spoken with Rene and asked him what he has in the works. I think when he is happy with a design he will show it to me and I look forward to it. I favor publishing a game from a designer I have worked with: look how games of Andrew Parks I have done.

But building a network is important – I need to work with more than one designer! And this network grows as my name gets out there in the marketplace. In the beginning, when I published only "Shadowfist", I never got any submissions. "Grave Robbers" was a fluke, but after about a year or two in the business I started getting submissions around once every few weeks or so. Now, I get an average of 5 a week. This is definitely a function of the awareness of my company – especially outside the States. My appearing at Essen for 7 years hasn’t hurt either and has allowed me to partner with some well-known German publishers (Amigo, Kosmos, etc.). Also, I have been bringing many Japanese designs to the English-speaking market.

I think the combination of being on the look out on your own and at the same time building up a reputation through licensing, your profile also get easier to understand and consequently designers and prototypes of games ”in your alley” will start arriving. We have yet to test any of Andrew Parks’ titles, but I guess we will in due course 😉 At least to me, there are some similarities for the games you have picked up lately; "Feudo", "Siena", "Triumvirat", "Scepter" and "Principe". They are all on the more complex side of the scale when it comes to eurogames. Is this a profile you want to expand? Your Japanese link has in away passed under my radar, but I see you will be releasing "Gra-Gra". That’s a different and interesting design.

I always look for good and I look for unique. I don’t specifically look for complex and if you look at the card games and games like "Santiago", they are not complex at all. I think I have a very nice mixed bag of games running from very simple like "No Thanks!" to very complex like "Scepter of Zavandor" (and even on a complexity scale this would not rank too high – think of some of the old wargames with 48+ pages of rules)!

The Japanese designs are unique, especially "Gra Gra Company" (which we are renaming to "Stack Market"), and that really appeals to me. And it’s nice to bring a game to another audience that might never have had such a chance to see it.

Finally, if you look at my catalogue of games, I try to go for imports as well as original games. I try to forge an ice balance between the two. In the next few months I will release 6 games, 3 of which are imports and 3 of which are original.

I didn’t mean the titles that you have picked in any way are too complex, it’s just that some of them are on the heavier side of the traditional eurogames. Anyway, we are more than happy that these titles get a release in a language we can understand! Personally, I have yet to win at "Scepter", but still really enjoy the game 😉 6 new titles sounds interesting, are they board or card? What is your opinion on abstracts?

The new titles are a combination of card and board games. "Ubongo", "Feudo", "Dragon Parade" are board games, but "Escalation" and "Arne Junior" are card games. I like abstracts but am not what you would call a fan of them. But if an abstract is good, I’ll play it. I do favor theme in my games. And if the theme ties well into the mechanics, I’m in heaven (assuming the gameplay is good, too). I would classify "Dune" as a good game with theme tying into mechanics fantastically. Thus, I enjoy that game a great deal.

I believe most gamers share your view on theme/mechanics. Interesting that you mention Dune as an example, I’m assuming you mean another AH classic. Of your new titles I know "Ubongo", which is a very interesting family game, that have a rather original mechanic. "Arne jr", is a good children’s card game in the vein of "Uno". But of your recent titles I really find "Lifeboats" and "Midgard" fascinating. How did you come across these titles?

As I said earlier, I do look for games to publish and I have brought several titles to the English language. I had heard about "Rette Sich Wer Kann" from some friends who recommended I try to bring that title to the States. When I finally made inquiry, it was being produced by Argentum. I spoke with Roman Mather of Argentum and we made a deal to do it together. So many titles I get because people recommend them to me.

"Midgard" came about because I have known Eric Lang for many years and I know he designs many different games. He showed me some games and one of them was "Midgard". We playtested it several times and each group was positive about the game (except for a few members of one group). But it was enough for me to pursue it through to publication.

You have also picked up 2 Reiner Knizia’s designs. Are they both light fillers?

Yes. One is very light – "Escalation" is more along the lines of "No Thanks!" Very simple, but fun and I think it will appeal to non-gamers as well. Basically players play cards and try to play a higher value than the previous player. If you can’t or won’t you take the cards and then start a new pile of cards. The twist is that you can play the same value cards added together to help increase the value of your play. At the end, the player with the least amount of cards in front of them wins.

Dragon Parade"Dragon Parade" is a board game that uses cards to move a dragon pawn around a city and you are trying to guess where it will end up after 4 card plays. You place street vendor pawns in the first three rounds of play, and the 4th round gives everyone one more chance to get the pawn where they want it. It’s fun and plays in under 30 minutes.

What do you think are the major differences in the European vs American markets regarding popular titles?

The major difference is that in America even the best titles have lower sales volume because we don’t get these games in our mass market stores. These games are confined to the brick and mortar stores or online shops that cater to a small segment of the population. It’s a small market despite our population – and it’s tough, sometimes, to explain that to a European publisher when you are trying to make a license deal.

That’s very similar to the Scandinavian markets. But, there seems to be a slow change, especially in the bookstores which is the main source for family and adult games. To clarify; adult meaning games for adults, but nothing erotic 🙂 The outlets for games are generally divided into 4 segments; bookstores, toystores, specialized and online. Today, games like "Settlers", "Carcassonne", "Metro", "Alhambra" and "Elasund" might be found in the bookstores, but the toystores are totally dominated by Hasbro, Mattel and a local brand. The interesting thing is that it has to be a growing market where the specialized stores are establishing themselves in new towns and there’s a steady increase in both the volume in sales and numbers of online stores. That has to encouraging! And, to you and publishers like Rio Grande and Mayfair, I assume a good portion of your sales go back to Europe?

In the US it is roughly the same: Mattel and Hasbro have the lion’s share of market penetration at the mass market level. In book stores you find party games or movie/literary licensed games. Once in a while they buy into hobby games but then they blow them out at ridiculously reduced prices.

My sales in Europe have increased dramatically. I think this is mainly due to my going to Essen for the past 7 years. Also, publishing well-reviewed games and bringing well-known and respected European (and Japanese) games to the English-language market. I guess I’ve done a good job of it: here I am being interviewed for a Norwegian site! 🙂

Exactly! 🙂 Having some kind of presence in a market, and working through the grapevine and the online communities is absolutely a way forward for ”smaller” publishers. In difference to earlier times, there are lots of new possibilities and also the gamers are more connected throughout the world through sites like BGG, BGN and others. How do you use sites like these and do you follow up various sites?

BoardgameGeekI use BGG a lot. I look up ratings only to get a general feeling of people’s reaction to a game. I especially go to BGG to get information on a game I don’t know that someone recommends to me. If I end up publishing a game, I’ll read the comments of players where they indicate if something could be made better or a game or needs to be changed – if feasible I apply those changes. For example, when we put up the rules to "Gheos", we had a lot of positive reaction. One person said it would be better if victory chips could come with the game. I thought about how one would need pen and paper and that it would be cooler to have chits. So I was able to get a price that worked and it was designed. Of course, not everything could be done so fast, but for a game that is already out that I’m considering, I can fix things during the redesign (if I’m allowed to redesign).

I also read BGN for the industry news, the Essen previews, etc. Find out which companies are publishing which games. I know there are European sites that would probably benefit me but since they are not in English….

BGG and BGN are great resources to have also because there aren’t that many board/card game resources in the States.

Funny, but to a lot of us Europeans the same sites are invaluable. Both because we are not fluent in the 5-6 languages needed to stay updated, but also because there are a lot of smaller publishers in the US/Canada that releases good games that has a hard time reaching these shores. But, don’t you use GAMA and the Game Publisher’s Association? I thought they were important for industry news within the US, but maybe they are dominated by the large companies.

Those are not news sites – they are organizations for publishers. The Game Publisher’s Association (GPA) is a collective of publishers (mostly) that give each other advice, help consolidate work at conventions, etc. It mainly for the small publisher but you’ll find some mid-tier companies there.

GAMA runs the GAMA Trade Show and the Origins convention: both are valuable shows for the industry.

I see. I thought GAMA also did some news coverage at some level. Anyway, speaking of conventions; which do you reckon are the best ones? There is, naturally, a huge difference in on what grounds you attend, but I’m primarily thinking for you as a publisher.

The biggest in the US are Origins and Gen Con Indianapolis. I do this. I do Euroquest and BGG.con because they focus on the games I publish. Other conventions worth going to because of the people who attend and the number of attendees: World Boardgaming Championships and Kublacon are two such cons. I go to Dreamation and Dexcon because they are relatively local and fun to participate in. Outside the US there is Essen – a big show for me. I might try Lucca this year if I can swing the time away. I will be going to the Australian Games Expo this year – I need to have a bigger presence in Australia.

There are other cons of course, none that are significantly large and focused on gaming that are close to me – so I’m sure I’m missing some other regional shows that have the audience I seek but are farther away. I hope to give them a try one day.

You really get around! Almost a travelling salesman 😉 I have yet to attend a convention in the States, but was on a 14 day tour with an artist on the east coast a couple of years back. Essen is the premiere show for us, both because of the possibility to meet the publishers, but also hook up with gamers from other parts of Europe. That’s also the main reason for me to include Luca this year. Oh, and as you have already discovered; new and interesting designers and publishers. Do you see any new parts of the world bringing something new to the table? Last year at Essen, the Czechs got quite a lot of attention.

Sure – I think you see a lot of different perspectives depending on the country of the designer. I do think many try to come close to the German-style of design but they put their own unique twist it. I think you do see that with the Czechs. The Italians also have a close tie to German-styling but offer some different mechanics. The Japanese have a wonderful view, doing really unique stuff ("Gra Gra Company"). In 2005 Essen had a nice showing from Singapore and I was completely surprised to not see them at all in 2006. The Koreans, too, have a different perspective in gaming. It’s great to see other country’s presence at these shows to see their take on the board or card game.

I guess you’re hinting at VanderVeer games. I was missing them as well last year. Anyway, I had a couple of long chats with some of the Japanese, and was really enthusiastic about trying some 10 games or so. But, I have to say I was not that amazed. I don’t know maybe my expectations were too high. Not to say it was all bad; I truly enjoyed "Gra-gra" and "Warumono2". A couple of others looked promising, but I need to try them more. But to get back to the conventions; which do you recommend as a gamer?

Yeah, VanderVeer was one – and there was another company next to them and I can’t seem to remember the name – wait, Fun Factory – see, I went to BGG and looked it up. They did Giza.

As a gamer, I recommend any convention that has lots of events. Basically any convention for consumers would be great for gamers. If you just want to play most conventions can fit your needs.

Without thinking of commercial success, what games do you wish you had released?

That’s a tough question. And we’d have to go back many years to start. But basically any game that I enjoyed would have been something I wish I was involved in. I guess I wished that I was in the industry in the 70s and 80s – heck, even the 90s.

Heheh, so no mentioning of any titles then. Do you have any favourite designers? Or do you judge them on their individual games? A lot of gamers have designers they follow almost like authors or actors.

Yeah there are no titles that jump up at me. As for designers, no, I don’t have one I’m a fan of: I like the games not necessarily the designer. Well, I do like Andrew Parks – that’s why I do a lot of his games 🙂

Ok, Zev, I think we have covered most of the issues, so I guess we’ll end by wishing you good luck with the new games and thank you so much for a nice talk.

Yeah, that was cool.