Friday, 7 December 2007

Interview with a Game Publisher: Kevin Nesbitt (Valley Games)

I have been a little busy with the typical end of the year stuff that tends to get in the way of my normal slacker self at work. As a result this post took a lot longer to come together, but finally i had some time to post this interview I conducted with Kevin Nesbitt of Valley Games.

ENJOY!



Malloc: Lets start this with the usual questions about your formative years. How did you get into gaming?

Kevin: Like most kids, I started out with some classic children's games. I can remember playing "Pay Day" with my siblings, for example. When I was still quite young, my uncle bought me a copy of "Panzergruppe Guderian" which I loved to play. It was then that I knew boardgames
were for me.


Malloc : What types of games do you currently enjoy playing? Any favorite titles, or game you think.. "man I wish we had been able to do this."?

Kevin: It's a bit funny; since Valley Games began, I've found my boardgaming time reduced to a large degree. Often when I do have time to play, it will be for playtesting or trying out a new prototype.

Of the games that I do get to play, I'd have to say that I like Card-Driven Games most. Specifically, I enjoy 1960: The Making of the President (Z-Man), Barbarossa to Berlin (GMT), and Liberte (formerly Warfrog, soon to be reprinted by Valley Games!). Yes, Liberte isn't generally considered a card-driven game, but I consider it a somewhat "euroized" version of the same mechanic.

I would have liked to have seen Valley Games do "1960: The Making of the President". Z-Man did a wonderful job producing that game. Overall, I think that's a very pleasing game from both a production and design standpoint, and your readers should consider purchasing the game if they enjoy the CDG's as much as I do.

Malloc: Who are the folks involved with Valley Games? How did you get involved with them?

Kevin: The other two guys at Valley Games are Rik Falch and Torben Sherwood, also known as the "Hardest-working-guys-in-the-game-business". How I became involved is actually a very interesting story. Rik and Torben owned a game store before opening Valley Games. One day I called in looking to purchase a *lot* of games for my game group, and I spoke to Rik. After several months of purchasing games, I suggested to Rik that they should consider printing games as well, and I knew of one such game worthy of a reprint: Die Macher. It just so happened that a friend of mine in Germany was a friend of Karl-Heinz Schmiel (the designer of Die Macher), so the situation was a somewhat favourable one. Honestly, I have no idea why Rik and Torben listened to advice from a person they had never met, but within a few weeks Die Macher had been secured and Valley Games Inc. was born. Rik and Torben requested that I help out with some of the details of the print run, and I was happy to assist.

In starting Valley Games, it was important to us that it needed to be a company run by gamers. Because of this, our attention has always been focused on quality: both in production and design. It simply followed logic then, that we wanted to seek out games that had a proven track record for quality in design.

Malloc: What games does Valley Games Currently have in production?

Kevin: At the time of this answer we have 3 of our own products for sale: Hannibal, Die Macher, and Container, though Container is technically a week or two away. In production we have more than a half dozen, each at varying stages of production. The four that are the closest to "finished" are Titan, Municipium, Big City, and Such a Thing.

Malloc: What process does Valley Games follow when making the decision about what games to produce?

Kevin: This is the really fun part; there are no set rules for production. The general principle is that if all three of us like a game, it will be produced. This is true of both our reprints and our new games. Of course, it doesn't hurt that our reprints are already popular with gamers. That makes our decisions much easier, generally.

Malloc: Valley Games separates their products into a few different "lines", please talk about these lines and what the reasons for the separation are.

Kevin:
We have three basic lines: Modern, Classic, and Tactics. There's no real secret formula here; if a game is a reprint it goes into the "Classic Line". If it's a new game, or a game that was only available in extremely limited quantity previously, it goes into the "Modern Line". If the game is generally considered a wargame, or has elements of a wargame, it goes into our "Tactics Line".
The reason we split our games up like this is to allow our customers to differentiate our games for our customers. Certainly there will be some people who simply want our products regardless of their designated line. But for customers who want to find a way to quickly sort through what will eventually become a plethora of different titles, these line designations are meant to make finding that perfect game a little bit easier. Plus, because the games in each series are bookshelf-numbered, it's an easy way to track just which games you're missing.

Malloc: Your company is publishing older reprinted games in addition to new titles. How does the development process differ when reissuing a game compared to doing development for a new game.

Kevin: It's not all that different. In both cases, we have to put in the same amount of production effort and time. The only real difference is that the expectations for a reprint game are higher, especially from fans of the original edition(s). Because of this, we do need to research the previous editions, and then make certain that we make a product that we feel is better than the original, whether that be higher production values, or even a ruleset that benefits from years of critique from veteran players.

Malloc: What are some common challenges that VG confronts when it starts a new project?

Kevin: The biggest challenge is time. We have to make sure that we have room on our calendar to make the project happen. The next biggest is simply logistics: Who will do the artwork? Which factory will print the game? How will we get it from the factory to our customers? These questions all seem easy to answer, until you actually have to answer them yourself. In our experience, the "grand vision" for the project is actually the easiest thing to accomplish. Making it all happen is another matter.

Malloc: Valley Games has made a name for itself in obtaining the rights to reprint games that were thought unobtainable. Describe how you managed to get a hold of the license for Hannibal.

Kevin: Hannibal was a tricky game to obtain. As many people know, Hannibal was seemingly lost to the "sands of time" because of some issues with the company it was formerly licensed to.
When we first looked at this problem, we ran into the same stone wall that I'm certain other companies did; a flat out "NO!" from the previous publisher. It wasn't that they were dead set against the project necessarily, just that there were some legal barriers that appeared unbridgeable. But we went back and did our research, consulted some professional advice, and found out that a loophole existed which allowed for us to go ahead with the licensing. In the end, it was a real joy and privelege for us to be able to inform the designer that we could print his game, rather than the other way around. By comparison to Die Macher, well, there simply is no comparison. Karl-Heinz Schmiel welcomed our reprint and went out of his way to make it happen for us. It just goes to show that there's no one way to license a game, I guess.


Malloc: Can you Give me more info about the loophole that let you reprint Hannibal? Was this some sort of legal lawyering, or a unexplored contract provision... blackmail, extortion... anything?

Kevin : Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot that I can talk about here. Let's just say that perhaps Valley Games was willing to be a little bit more aggressive in our pursuit of Hannibal than other companies may have been in the past.


Malloc: How have the customers reacted to the game? Does VG consider it a success?

Kevin: Absolutely, we're thrilled the way Hannibal has turned out and is being received. We've received many happy emails from people that have the game, or have seen it at their local store, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the game has received so much attention that we're already very nearly sold out (a little "inside information" for your readers)!. Who knew a game could go back out of print so fast?

Malloc: Valley Games has promised to supply a set of plastic Generals to use instead of the stand up cardboard generals that come in Hannibal to all the gamers who per-ordered the game. Any updates on when these generals will be available?

Kevin: Yes, our latest report from our factory tells us that we should have them to our customers in January. This has slipped just a little bit, unfortunately, but we're confident that the generals themselves will justify the added wait.





The first thing I'd like to point out is that the version the customer's receive will not be in green. They will be a more neutral color. In addition, this sample picture does not include the stickers for the base, which will be one "wrap" sticker for the bottom, and two smaller stickers for the general's stats on the small square placards at his feet.

Also, as is evident from the picture, yes, there is some assembly required. The headdress of one of the Roman generals needs to be put in place (and glued), and each general needs to be mounted onto his base by gluing his feet onto the respective pegs of the base. The only things that will be needed to complete this assembly is some glue and a few minutes of time. The assembly of these figures was a production necessity, as the figures are very complex in their creation. It is very unusual to have a figure with a base that visually overlaps the feet of the figure, and this was what created the need for the separate base production.

I think our customers will love these generals. The chess-like look of the generals was important to us, because it conveys the scale and importance of the topic and gives a "grand strategy" feel to the game.

Malloc: Can we comment a bit on the whole Essen/Shipping controversy that blew up on BGG. Personally I feel you did the right thing, but I think I would be missing something if i didn't ask about it. If you would rather skip this, thats fine too.

Kevin : There has been a lot said about this issue, so I won't go into too great of detail here.

It is important that our customers understand that Valley Games is a small company. Because we are such a small company, each expenditure we make needs to be done with careful consideration. In planning our Essen show (back in January 2007) we expected that our copies of Container and Hannibal would be done and already delivered to our preorder customers before the Essen show. When this proved to be unlikely, we faced a decision: Sell the games and cover the cost of our Essen show, or don't sell the games and take our chances financially. In the end, we had to make the small company decision and sell our games. Our company has always been about being "gamers first", but to make the decison not to sell our product at the show would have been the same as making the decision to close our doors. Certainly in this context I'm sure our customers would agree that we made the right choice.


Malloc: What has the process of development for Titan been like. Are there lessons learned from doing Die Macher/Hannibal that you are deploying for the release of Titan?

Kevin: Titan has been a little bit more slow-and-steady in the development stage. The reason is that the game is quite old, and so we are forced to ask ourselves what we can improve on without damaging the classic Titan that everyone knows and loves. Additionally, some comments from "veterans" of the game gives us pause while we think about the validity and practicality of the advice. Of course, just the fact that we're reprinting TITAN is enough to ensure that we take very careful steps in the development stage.

But our lessons from Hannibal have been learned in regards to the production process itself, and this is where Titan should pick up a lot of time savings. We've worked with our printing facilities to streamline and improve the way we interact, meaning that the delays from Hannibal should be largely a thing of the past. Chalk it up to a little more experience on our part, I guess.

Malloc: How do you guys go about establishing relationships with Game Designers and Artists.. How did you get together with Mike Doyle/Kurt Miller. What about the relationship with WarFrog and Martin Wallace?

Kevin: It's quite a mixed bag of experiences. Often designers will approach us, and sometimes we will approach them. It's really like any other business in that regard, I think. It just depends who knows who, and just how willing they are to talk to us. In my experience in talking with designers and artists, though, these are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet.

We met Mike Doyle after seeing his Die Macher box he posted online. I pointed it out to Rik and Torben, and Rik contacted him immediately. It was a pretty funny situation; Mike felt bad about posting alternate artwork for a game that we had just published, and we were wanting to ask him to do some artwork for our future projects. Despite the unusual situation, Mike was more than happy to take on many of our projects, and has been invaluable in offering us creative and challenging ideas for our artwork.

Kurt Miller has been a real workhorse for us. We contacted him after seeing some of his earlier work, and we liked what we saw immediately. He is able to do some pretty amazing things, and I can't even begin to understand how he produces some of the images that he does; they're simply awesome.

Martin Wallace has been a good friend to Valley Games since the start. We formally met him when we sent Torben to the Essen show in 2006, and he helped us out a great deal. Agreeing to reprint Liberte has been personally very satisfying for me. In my opinion, it's one of the finest games ever made, so to be allowed to print it again is a real treat.

Malloc: What about finding a printing company? Are there lots to choose from, or is it a small set of companies that do this type of thing?

There are lots of printing companies to pick from, with more breaking into the business each year. Generally speaking, we ask for the printer to show us what they can do before we accomodate them with a print run. In the end, it's Valley Games who receives the criticism if something has gone wrong, so we are very careful when going somewhere new.


Malloc: How does the process go after a product returns from the printer? Who assembles the games, shrink wraps them and ships them all of the world?

Kevin: When we get a product shipped from our factories, it goes straight to our fulfillment company in Stone Mountain, Georgia (USA). They unpack everything and dispatch a small shipment of the game to us here in Canada, so that we can serve our Canadian preorder customers. Then, with exceptional efficiency, our fulfillment company begins shipping to all of our preorder customers wordwide, except for European-produced games which are shipped from within Europe.

Once all this is complete, we begin shipping the games to our distribution partners, and then on to retail stores from there.

Assembly, shrinkwrapping, and all our other production-based concerns are normally taken care of at our factories.


Malloc: Is there any news about future VG titles that you would like the F:AT readers to hear?

Kevin: Despite all the attention we've generated over the last few months from our signings of hard-to-find classics, Valley Games will remain committed to seeking out titles that are in demand by fellow gamers. Expect to see a couple more big announcements in the coming weeks!

Malloc: Kevin, thank you very much for your time.


18 comments:

mtlawson said...

Very good interview, Malloc.

I guess they really can't divulge what they really did to get Hannibal, but the fact that they apparently went ahead and used it for Titan and Republic of Rome means that the loophole is still active. (Sorry VG, but I already have RoR.)

--Mike L.

Anonymous said...

good job guys

the red phantom said...

Great interview, Malloc! Keep'em coming!

Michael Barnes said...

Nice work, Mal- now if Kevin and Co. would just send me replacement counter sheets for HANNIBAL- all mine were printed way off center so the names/numbers were cut off. Aye yie yie. At least I finally have it!

mtlawson said...

Wow. My copy came out perfect. Unlike, say, Battlelore, where I spent an afternoon doing the bendy twisty thing.

--Mike L.

Mark said...

I think Doyle is a good artist who is learning to be a good GAME artist--i.e. making things cool looking *and* functional. He's just going to get better.

Gary Sax said...

Quick, let's trash Valley Games because they shipped slightly late and didn' meet my incredibly unrealistic expectations!

Hancock.Tom said...

Great interview. For the record my Hannibal was perfect.

Michael Barnes said...

Point of record- everything else about my copy of HANNIBAL was perfect and let me tell you folks- this is a very classy, very nicely framed edition of the game. I'm extremely impressed, and at a $65 retail price I think it really ought to make GMT take notice of what's possible in terms of wargame production.

It was just the countersheets that were misprinted but I don't think it's a function of Valley Games- I've had similar trouble with Mayfair, RGG, and other titles in the past. But I am anxious to hear back from them since this is the first time I've had to deal with them in this capacity.

gary sax said...

The components on the current edition (I don't own it, wish I could afford, very nervous about hearing it almost OOP again!) looked *solid.* The counters were thick as heck in all the pictures I saw, way thicker than my GMT games.

Michel said...

Not a single question in regard to Valley Games' sponsorship of Miss Canada International and her impressive appearance in Essen? Or did I "Miss" it?

Bad research, I'd say ;)

Malloc said...

Not a single question in regard to Valley Games' sponsorship of Miss Canada International and her impressive appearance in Essen? Or did I "Miss" it?

Bad research, I'd say ;)


I was saving that for my interview with her.....

-M

Michael Barnes said...

Make sure you ask her detailed rules questions and get her to describe her gaming experience.

Ken B. said...

Malloc is quickly becoming F:AT's MVP. Well done, great read!

Surya said...

"I think it really ought to make GMT take notice of what's possible in terms of wargame production"
Yes, Hannibal is top notch. It's been printed by one of Germany's best factories, and it shows. Great colors, thick cardboard, nice linen finish. Like it should be.

But GMT's print runs are way lower than VG's, making it too expensive for them, I think.

Mark Simonitch already said he's very impressed and hopes to see his new games at the same quality level.

kriz said...

Hannibal looks beautiful, and those general pics look amazing, can't wait to see them in person. I wonder how I'll fit them in the box...probably will have to chuck that plastic insert.

I'd also like to give some kudos to Valley Games for printing in Germany, a country that has at least some labor standards.

Michael Barnes said...

That's partially true, Surya- some of GMT's games have very high print runs (like CC:A, TWILIGHT STRUGGLE, WILDERNESS WAR) and could likely support better production. I wouldn't expect that ROADS TO LENINGRAD or DOWNTOWN would though.

Anonymous said...

If the principle of a group network is to bolt with other people, you difficulty a communal network that has masses of members. And Facebook once has lavishness of members, notwithstanding all the adversative publicity it has received lately give its clandestineness problems. force all 500 million Facebook users resettle to Google Me? I fear it -- and those 500 million members are what makes Facebook so attractive.