There are a LOT of game publishers out there (and some wag commented a while back that Reiner Knizia’s life ambition was to have a game published with all of ‘em, but I digress). No, not ‘quite a few’. A lot. A whole lot. So many, in fact, that I thought I’d try and spend a little time making sense of it all. Subgroups? Who owns what? Who publishes what? Who distributes what? Read on…
In order to make this task just a little more manageable, I’m concentrating on the German publishers this time around. They tend to be the largest group in Europe anyway, so I’m not oversimplifying too much. Future articles will look at France, Poland, etc., along with that long-awaited US review (not looking forward to finishing the research on that one, mind you – it’s kind of a big project).
In order to make this somewhat manageable, I’m splitting the list into three categories, cleverly named ‘large’, ‘medium’ and ‘small’. I know, I’m a genius. Today’s instalment will cover the ‘large’ companies, while the next one will deal with ‘medium’ and ‘small’, along with a few other small bits and pieces I thought were worth passing on.
First up are what I call the ‘large’ companies. These are the publishing houses that typically garner the most press, and are the ones responsible for the bulk of the new releases. They have different styles of lines (some concentrate on ‘gamer’ games while others deal mostly in family fare), but their offerings usually make the gaming world sit up and take notice. Their Essen booths are always the most elaborate, with huge square footage and plenty of volunteers to explain the new games. Print runs are often in the tens of thousands, and the production values are always first-rate. The list of ‘larger’ German game companies looks a little like this: Abacus, Amigo, Goldsieber, Haba, Kosmos, Queen, Ravensburger, Schmidt, Selecta, Zoch. I need to mention that these publishers all concentrate on the German “mass market”. That means that while any of these guys (well, apart from Haba and Selecta, who deal only in kid’s games) have it in them to release a true ‘gamer’s game’, most of their efforts are spent chasing the elusive ‘family game’ that will be worthy of Spiel des Jahres nomination (or better yet, victory).
Starting at the top of the list we have Abacus. Abacus is owned by Joe Nikisch, formerly of Goldsieber. They are an independent company, formed in 1989 (as best as I can tell). The first Abacus game I am aware of was Käp’ten Buddel, designed by Nikisch himself and released in a very limited quantity of only 100 copies. The fledgling company’s first big hit came in 1990 with the release of Alan R. Moon’s Airlines, a title whose “shares and routes” mechanism has seen multiple revisions and iterations over the years (as Union Pacific from Amigo, for example). It is fitting that Abacus’ next big release is none other than Airlines once again – the game has been reworked and tweaked and will see re-release in 2011 and the Nuremberg Game Fair.
Abacus has a close working relationship with well-known German designer Michael Schacht, which is why there are often freebies / add-ons to Schacht designs included in the Abacus catalogues. Abacus has also become a self-styled champion of the vintage game, dusting off and re-releasing classics such as Hare & Tortoise and Das Spiel. Abacus is also often a German partner for Rio Grande Games, releasing the German co-productions of original Rio Grande titles such as Race for the Galaxy as well as Rio Grande reprints like Taj Mahal. Abacus’ best known game is the Spiel des Jahres winner Zooloretto, which has become their ‘franchise’ title, spawning numerous expansions and spin-offs.
Amigo is another independent publisher who also happens to be a distributor (that is, they distribute games that were not designed in-house). Amigo was founded in 1980 and hit the big time in 1992, when they distributed the venerable card game UNO in Germany. Amigo’s primary focus (some would say love) has always been card games, and so it comes as no surprise that Amigo’s primary distribution focus is on collectible card games – mostly Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh as well as World of Warcraft. After a hiatus of several years (during which time Wizards of the Coast did it themselves), Amigo once again handles distribution and organized play for Magic: The Gathering as well. Amigo’s best-known (and arguably most successful) release is Bohnanza, that wacky and hugely entertaining Uwe Rosenberg game about bean farming. Over the years, several expansions to the game have also been released, typically re-releases of limited-edition runs released by Lookout Games (look for more on them in the ‘medium’ group). Amigo last won the Spiel des Jahres in 1998 with Elfenland.
In recent years, it seems that the traditional model of US publishers picking up German designs for domestic release has been turned upside down by Amigo – their recent releases (particularly their card game line) features several games that were released in the US first: Wizard, Poison, Rage, just to name a few.
Goldsieber is where the list starts getting a little more complicated. Goldsieber started out in 1995 as a product line within the enormous Simba Dickie group, but is now a subsidiary of Noris Spiele after that company was also acquired by Simba in 2002. Simba is one of the five largest toy and game manufacturers in the world, running a number of other lines in addition to Noris: Simba, Dickie, Eichhorn, Tamiya and Schuco, spanning the entire spectrum of toy and game products. Goldsieber has, in the past, licensed a number of their titles for publication in France by Asmodee as well.
Goldsieber rapidly made a name for themselves by publishing high-quality big-box games with sumptuous components. Several of their early releases are held in high regard, most notably 1996’s Carabande (since re-released as Pitchcar by Ferti), 1999’s Big City and 2000’s Web of Power (later re-released by Abacus as China). For a while, the anticipation of what the latest Goldsieber game would be rivalled that of other, now better known, publishers such as Hans im Gluck, as a steady stream of quality games were added to the stable. Mississippi Queen (also the company’s only Spiel des Jahres winner) and Lowenherz in 1997, Medieval Merchant in 1998, Big City in 1999, Web of Power in 2000, Goldland in 2002 – and then it all stopped.
It is clear to me that the Noris merge resulted in more than just a change in the way the company was run. After New England’s release in 2003, it seems the cupboard was bare, as that release ended up being the last in the venerable big-box line. The only post 2003 Goldsieber game to come close to the appeal of the earlier ones is 2005’s Kreta, by Stefan Dorra – released in a smaller, slimmed-down box rather than the massive boxes of old. Otherwise, it’s been an infrequent stream of B-grade titles, mostly designed by the team of Knut Happel and Christian Fiore. Today, the vast majority of Goldsieber’s releases are children’s games.
Haba is chiefly a children’s game manufacturer, and is well-known in the industry for their environmentally-friendly stance. Hence the paucity of non-wooden bits in their games, something that makes them usually quite pretty to look at, too! Haba’s other instantly-recognizable trait is their bright yellow boxes – it’s easy to see where the Haba games are when you enter the game aisle.
Haba is an independently owned company, formed in 1938 (making it one of the older companies on the list). Astoundingly, it has been family-owned the entire time – first by Eugen Habermaaß, then later by his wife Luise and his son Klaus. Haba started out as the Anton Engel Company (named after an early business partner), a manufacturer of polished wooden toys. Later, changes in the partnership left Eugen as sole owner; at this point the name was changed to Habermaaß Co. and later to Haba. The company today, in addition to games, also publishes books as well as manufactures other toys and puzzles.
The Haba family of companies actually extends beyond just Haba: Also included in the group are Wehrfritz (which makes playground equipment), Jako-O (children’s clothing and accessories), Fit-Z (teen clothing and accessories) and Qiero! (women’s clothing and accessories). All companies are managed out of Bad Rodach, the same town where the company was founded all those years ago.
Haba has never won the Spiel des Jahres, nor are they expecting to any time soon. The company’s focus on children’s games means that the Kinderspiel des Jahres award is of far greater importance to them, and this award they have won several times: Klondike (2001), Der Schwarze Pirat (2006) and Diego Drachenzahn (2010). Considering that the award has only been given out since 2001, this is a highly successful run. Other than the award winners, the company’s best-known game is Obstgarten (a perennial children’s favourite in Germany with hundreds of thousands of copies sold since its release in 1986).
Kosmos started out life as Franckh-Kosmos (and Franckh before that) and are known in Germany for more than just games: They are also a well-respected book publishing house, and produce a wide line of children’s experiment kits as well. CDs, videos, calendars and other assorted products round out the line. I was unable to confirm this 100%, but it appears that Kosmos also owns the Klee brand.
Franckh was formed in Stuttgart in 1822 (making them the oldest company on the list) and was initially solely a publisher of books. The company’s first forays into non-fiction were all in the science and nature realm, and so it seems only natural that science experiment kits would follow – the first of which was published in 1922. With such an emphasis on the natural world, a name change seemed in order as well, and so Franckh became Franckh-Kosmos.
Games came along significantly later – the first Franckh-Kosmos title was released in 1984 (a German edition of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective). Several of the early Franckh-Kosmos games are worth noting, especially Black Vienna (1987), an outstanding deduction game and Big Boss (1994), Wolfgang Kramer’s homage to Acquire.
Between 1995 and 1997, the Franckh-Kosmos name gradually vanished, so that by the time 1997 rolled around the company was Kosmos Verlag, as it is today. Interestingly, Kosmos’ biggest and best-known hit came out in 1995, just around the time the name change was taking place: The Settlers of Catan. If Carcassonne is big, then Settlers is enormous. The game that single-handedly put ‘German Games’ on the map and is responsible for legions of new fans discovering board games as a hobby. And, I suspect, responsible for games becoming a much bigger part of Kosmos’ business plan than previously!
Settlers won the Spiel des Jahres award in 1995, but Kosmos also took the trophy home in 2008 for Keltis (interestingly enough, Dr. Reiner Knizia’s first ever SdJ win after years of trying). Kosmos also won the Kinderspiel des Jahres in 2005 for Das Kleine Gespenst (The Little Ghost).
Queen is an independent company that got its start as an importer of wooden Carrom sets before turning its attention to board games. One of the earliest games this Troisdorf-based company produced was Timber, in 1986, which bears some resemblance to Jenga. Board games proper started appearing in the early 1990’s, with some notable hits appearing during this time: Expedition in 1996 and Showmanager in 1997. Queen games often published Dirk Henn designs, as the company has had a long-standing relationship with him. Carat, Timbuktu, Metro, Showmanager and many others – all told, Henn has had 24 different games or expansions published by Queen. One of the most highly regarded: Wallenstein (2002), famous for being a German game that included war and dice, both normally alien to the genre.
Beginning in around 2000, Queen Games struck out from the publishing norms and decided to start releasing their games in their own unique boxes. These boxes were rather taller than most, making up for that volume increase by also having a somewhat smaller footprint overall. I am not sure exactly why this change was made, although it certainly does allow Queen’s games to stand out from the crowd! Unfortunately, it also allows Queen games to include a lot more useless space than most, since there are few components that can make proper use of such a box. They have gotten better over the years, but the joke used to be that Queen games gave you the most high-quality German air they could possibly fit inside the box.
In 2003, Queen finally struck Spiel des Jahres gold with Alhambra (designed by Dirk Henn to nobody’s surprise). Several expansions and thematically associated games have been released since then, including a dice game, a card game and a few that take Alhambra’s basic gameplay and retheme it to other cities / areas. A few of those new games are actually reworked versions of earlier efforts – Alhambra: The Card Game came out as Stimmt So! In 1992, while The Gardens of Alhambra was initially released as Carat in 1993.
Lately, Queen has been involved in licensing several train games originally developed / released by Winsome Games, marking a bit of a departure from the normal ‘family games’ genre. They have also started releasing a line of children’s games.
Ravensburger is probably the biggest company on the list. You know you’re big when even non-gamers have heard of you. You know you’re big when your company figures look like this: 1,400 employees, 8,000 different products in your line-up and annual sales of over 293 Million Euros. Where some of the other companies on this list consider 5,000 to be a large print run, Ravensburger prefers to think in terms of 50,000.
Ravensburger was initially founded in 1883 by Otto Maier (whose name now graces their book publishing arm) as a book publisher. The first game, Voyage around the World, appeared in 1884 – clearly Herr Maier knew there was a future to games! The “Ravensburger” name was trademarked in 1900 and a legend was born. Over the years, nearly every classic board game has been published by Ravensburger in one form or another. They have also had significant success with the Spiel des Jahres award, winning it an impressive five times: Hare & Tortoise (1979), Enchanted Forest (1982), Scotland Yard (1983), Heimlich & Co. (1986), and Tikal (1999).
It’s worth noting that the FX Schmid line was bought out by Ravensburger around the turn of the century, too – not to be confused with Schmidt, below! FX themselves won the Spiel des Jahres four times: Auf Achse (1987), Adel Verflichtet (1990), Bluff (1993), and Torres (2000).
In addition to their gaming arm (which also includes the alea brand I deal with separately in the ‘medium’ category below), Ravensburger also produces a full line of toys and puzzles, runs a book publishing arm (Otto Maier GmbH), a full-service advertising and distribution arm (Ravensburger Freizeit und Promotion Service), and, believe it or not, an amusement park (Spieleland). Add in an in-house video game design studio (Ravensburger Digital GmbH) and subsidiaries in Belgium, France, England, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Spain, Hong Kong and the USA and you have one truly enormous undertaking. Other publishers send their print files to common producers like Scheer or Ludofact – Ravensburger simply built their own facility in the Czech Republic.
Schmidt Spiele is one of the best-known and oldest game brands in Germany – unlike Kosmos and Ravensburger, above, Schmidt started out first and foremost as a games company. Founded by Josef Friedrich Schmidt in the early 1900’s, their first (and likely still best-known) game was Mensch Argere Dich Nicht, a variant of Parcheesi developed by Schmidt himself. Today, over 70 million copies of this game have been sold. With Mensch Argere Dich Nicht’s distinctive bright red box as the foundation, Schmidt gradually widened their game catalogue, which eventually included several German versions of US games (most notably Acquire, along with several other old 3M titles) as well as their own in-house productions.
It’s worth noting that Schmidt’s son Franz also founded his own games company, the aptly named Schmidt Spiele, in Nurnberg before WWII. For years, the two entities shared distribution channels (not to mention some name confusion) until they merged in 1970.
Schmidt is not without Spiel des Jahres success, chalking up a win in 1984 with Dampfross. Unfortunately, this was their one and only win, which may or may not have led to declining company fortunes. Schmidt was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1997 and was bought out by Blatz, which promptly ditched all of its own board gaming operations and rolled them into the far more recognisable Schmidt line.
Schmidt today publishes mostly family-friendly fare, including a well-received “Easy Play” line whose games feature simple rules and engaging gameplay for a relatively low price. They have also picked up a few games originally published by Gamewright in the US, including Forbidden Island and Tiki Topple. The company also produces other toys and puzzles, including stuffed animals.
Schmidt is also a game distributor, handling the games of Hans im Gluck (see below). Up until 2010, they also distributed Adlung, a small publisher who specializes in card games.
Schmidt used to also distribute the games of Drei Magier (beginning in 2003), but as of 2008 Drei Magier was folded into Schmidt completely as Drei Magier’s founders wanted to return to the less-stressful world of children’s book writing and illustrating. It now serves as the children’s game brand for the company. Drei Magier has won the Kinderspiel des Jahres twice: Once for Geistertreppe (2004) and once for Das Magische Labyrinth (2009).
Selecta is the other publisher on the list who concentrates on children’s games. Just like Haba, most if not all of Selecta’s games are made of wood. Unlike Haba, however, Selecta’s boxes aren’t a bright primary colour – they’re white and blue. Selecta’s ‘hook’? That nearly all of their game names end in vowels, with lots of vaguely Italian / Spanish-sounding words in the mix. If you hear of a game called Nino Conillo, you can bet it’s a Selecta.
Selecta was founded in 1968 by Tilmann Fortsch and Gunter Menzel, who had visions of creating toys and games that would stimulate children’s development. Right from the very beginning, wood was always on the menu – in this respect, Selecta has stayed true to their roots throughout their history. Selecta’s best-known games are Maskenball der Kafer (2002) and Viva Topo! (2003), both of which won the Kinderspiel des Jahres.
In addition to games, Selecta makes a wide variety of other wooden products, including various toys and puzzles. For a short while, the company made products aimed at seniors under the brand “Selecta Nobile”, but this initiative has since been abandoned.
Zoch, previously independent, is now also part of the Noris group, having been acquired in 2010. The company likes to make sure that they have a little something for everyone in their release line-up. They are probably best known for their dexterity games, which include Spiel des Jahres winner Villa Paletti (2002) as well as Bamboleo, Bausack and Hamsterrolle, but the company has also released a wide variety of other games, including Spiel des Jahres winner Niagara (2005).
Zoch was co-founded by Klaus Zoch in 1987 and made a big splash right out of the gate – the company’s first release, Bausack (designed by Zoch himself), made it onto the 1988 Spiel des Jahres shortlist. Unlike many comparable publishers, Klaus Zoch has continued to publish his own designs alongside those of others; since 1987, over a dozen of his efforts have seen light of day.
Zoch games are known for their whimsical (and often animal-themed) artwork, several of which were illustrated by Doris Matthaus. Additionally, Zoch has released at least one game each year with a geographic tie-in, often with some kind of fundraising / charity effort associated with it.
Zoch also makes giant-sized versions of some of its games, perfect for use in Kindergartens or other more public settings.
So, that brings us to the end of Part I of this magical mystery tour (hmm, hope I don’t get sued for using that phrase!). Next time: ‘medium’ publishers and some extras!