Welcome back! Last time, I spent some time looking at the various ‘large’ game companies in Germany. Today, the plan is to look at the ‘medium’ ones, along with ‘small’ and a few other bits and pieces. What constitutes a ‘medium’ publisher? Why the distinction? Is asking rhetorical questions a sign of excessive pomposity? Excellent questions one and all. Onwards!
It is a testament to the way the hobby has grown that I need to include an extra category between ‘large’ and ‘small’ – the ‘medium’ publishers. This is where the print runs are still measured in the thousands, where the quality is still top-notch, and where the occasional ‘family’ title still sees light of day. But the real raison d’etre for publishers in this class are the gamer’s games. More and more, this is where the hardcore gamer looks to when looking for a new fix, as these publishers have neatly filled the gap left in the marketplace when the ‘large’ guys all started releasing lighter and shorter fare. The list of ‘medium’ German game companies looks like this: alea, Eggertspiele, Hans im Gluck, Lookout, as well as several non-German publishers such as Czech Games Edition (who will have to be patient and wait for a Czech publishers roundup, should I ever get around to it).
Generally, the production slate for a ‘medium’ company is considerably smaller than for a ‘large’ company. These guys might only release 1-2 games at Essen, while the ‘large’ ones might release 5-10. ‘Medium’ publishers often have distribution deals with ‘large’ ones or distributors, freeing them up to make more games instead of worrying how to get them into eager gamers’ hands.
Alea is actually part of the Ravensburger family, and is their ‘boutique’ game line aimed at more ‘advanced’ players (although they’ve broadened their mandate in recent years with a couple more ‘family-friendly’ releases). Stefan Bruck is the chief editor and guiding force behind the line best known for Puerto Rico, winner of the 2002 Deutscher Spielepreis and widely viewed as one of the best ‘heavy’ German games ever.
The first alea release came in 1999 with Ra, the now-classic Knizia auction game. What followed was, for a while, a veritable avalanche of classic games – Chinatown, Taj Mahal, Traders of Genoa, Princes of Florence, Puerto Rico. After Puerto Rico, the publisher seemed to have lost its way a little, as the games that followed weren’t as meaty (nor well-received) as those that had come before. In 2005, however, the first Stefan Feld release, Rum & Pirates, was released. While the game itself was not that highly regarded, it served as an appetizer to a feast of Feld: The next four big-box games (Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Macao and the upcoming Princes of Burgundy) are all by him. While there is no formal ongoing ‘partnership’ between alea and Feld, it seems clear that Feld and Bruck make a good team!
In recent years, alea has tightened its ties with the mother company a little more – the iconic triangular blue Ravensburger logo shows up on their boxes a lot more than it used to.
Hans im Gluck
Hans im Gluck is also independent, and is the company that is usually viewed as the leader when it comes to good, solid gamer-friendly games. Bernd Brunnhofer is the man behind the scenes, although Karl-Heinz Schmiel used to be on board as well before leaving the firm to run his own company (Moskito). Relations between Brunnhofer and Schmiel are still very friendly, and Moskito’s Essen booth each year is always right next to Hans im Gluck’s.
Hans in Gluck was formed in 1983 and initially the company only produced games designed by Brunnhofer, Schmiel, or both. Dodge City (1983) and Dippi Totale (1985) have long since been forgotten by most of the gaming world, but in 1986 Schmiel would release a masterpiece: Die Macher. This long and tense game about German politics (no, really) seems to have put the company’s ascendancy on to the fast track, as subsequent Hans im Gluck games featured new authors and an ever-expanding release schedule.
Hans im Gluck has won the Spiel des Jahres an astounding six times, including 1991 (Drunter & Druber), 1994 (Manhattan), 1996 (El Grande), 2001 (Carcassonne), 2006 (Thurn und Taxis) and most recently 2009 (Dominion). The biggest success in the group is undoubtedly Carcassonne, which has spawned an entire industry of expansions and other games along the same vein.
Hans im Gluck has a distribution deal with Schmidt, meaning that Schmidt takes care of the logistics end of the business for them.
Lookout games is the brainchild of Hanno Girke and has been releasing games since 2000. Initially, the company released mostly small card games, in particular expansions to Uwe Rosenberg’s huge hit Bohnanza. Between now and then, some nine bean expansions and one revised edition (with new artwork) have been released. Each edition is numbered, and some customers have specific numbers pre-reserved for them, so as to have a complete matching set.
In 2004, Lookout released their first big-box game: The Scepter of Zavandor, a deep, thinky game based on the venerable Outpost. The game’s success let Lookout continue publishing bigger games, and in 2007 Agricola was released. The game, again an Uwe Rosenberg design, was a massive success, winning numerous awards and spawning an entire cottage industry of sorts, with multiple small expansions, extra wooden bits to spiff up the game, etc.
Agricola’s success was, amazingly enough, repeated a year later when another Rosenberg design, Le Havre, was released. This fall, the third Lookout/Rosenberg effort, Merkator, was released, again to positive reviews. It seems clear that the “bean farmer” is far more than a one-trick pony!
Lookout also publishes some train-themed games, including some 18xx variants.
Hamburg-based Eggertspiele has been publishing since 1996, initially releasing only games designed by principal Peter Eggert. Not many of these games were released in larger quantities. In 2004, Eggert’s first big ‘hit’, Neuland, was released. A challenging resource-tree game with a strong spatial element, it sold out relatively quickly.
In 2005, though, the real breakthrough game: Antike, the first Mac Gerdts game featuring a rondel was released. In the years that followed, Imperial and then Hamburgum were added to the line, both of which were well received. Antike and Imperial, in particular, are interesting: Antike is like a streamlined version of Civilization, while Imperial does the same to Diplomacy. It is worth noting that several of the ‘rondel’ games were co-productions with PD-Verlag, a publisher who normally specializes in books, not games.
Eggert has released at least one big-box game each year since then, with gamers often looking forward to them as they promise something more than just a ‘family’ game. 2010 release Grand Cru, in particular, is noteworthy as being difficult to play well, even with a relatively simple set of rules.
Eggert had a distribution arrangement with Hutter Trade, but as of the beginning of 2010, they are now affiliated with Amigo. Amigo purchased some of the company’s equity, although the details of the arrangement were naturally not made fully public. In future, though, Amigo will benefit from having access to Eggert’s line-up of more ‘gamer-friendly’ titles while Eggert will benefit by having Amigo handle the distribution and logistics.
This latest development points to a gradually increasing trend among the German gaming industry: ‘Large’ companies, rather than spend their own time and effort developing ‘gamer’ games, are happier to partner with an established ‘medium’ company and serve the extreme end of the games market that way. Schmidt with Hans im Gluck, Amigo with Eggert, Ravensburger with alea – my only question is when Kosmos will follow suit.
There is another sub-set of companies in the German game industry, one that has a little overlap with the companies described above: the distributors. I’ve indicated which of the publishers above have distribution arms, but there are also a few dedicated distribution companies who make the ‘boxes onto shelves’ end of the business their primary mandate. Largest among them is Heidelberger, which literally distributes just about everyone from Abacus to Zoch. Yes, Heidelberger even distributes some of the distributors, including Schmidt and Ravensburger.
In recent years, Heidelberger has trended more and more into the world of publishing, mostly as a publisher of German-language editions of Fantasy Flight Games products. They have also picked up the occasional title from a small German publisher, such as Planet Steam.
Another bigger distributor worth mentioning is Hutter Trade. As noted above, they share roots with HUCH & Friends in that Klaus Zoch is a common thread. Hutter distributes several foreign publisher’s games in Germany, including Ystari and Blue Orange.
Finally, we have Pegasus Spiele, who don’t really fit the mold of a distributor but don’t really fit the mold of a ‘large’ or ‘medium’ company either. So, knowing full well that it’s a bit of a misnomer to label them as ‘just’ a distributor, I’ve included them here. Pegasus does a few in-house productions (most notably 2003’s Return of the Heroes), but their primary focus is on German-language versions of games previously released in English (such as Munchkin, Pandemic, Roll through the Ages, Junta, etc.) as well as maintaining German distribution / production of various fantasy RPG and card games. Pegasus also distributes Out of the Box and Z-Man games in Germany.
After the ‘medium companies come the ‘small’ houses. There are a ton of smaller publishers out there, but there’s a fairly sure-fire way to tell if a company counts as ‘small’ or ‘large’: if it produces games that are almost exclusively by one author (typically the owner), then it’s a small company. Examples include 2F (Friedemann Friese), Bambus (Gunter Cornett), BeWitched (Andrea Meyer), Erlkonig (Heinrich Glumpler), Dutch companies like Cwali (Corne van Moorsel), etc. A few ‘design collectives’ are in the mix, too, like Splotter in the Netherlands. These days, a lot of the ‘niche’ games are being released by this lot: the games that are deemed too ‘challenging’ for the broader market, and games that might be a little too abstract for one of the larger companies to take a chance on. Production runs are often small (much more than 1000 copies is almost unheard-of), and production values can range from the professional to the home-made, depending on the company.
Small publishers are difficult to address in homogenous terms since there is such variety among them. Take 2F, for instance. Founded by Friedemann Friese (whose love for F words (no, not that one) and green make his games highly distinctive), 2F has been publishing since 1992. Well, technically since 1994, since the label was actually first called “Spiele-Bau-Stelle” (Game Construction Site). But in any case, 2F’s been around for nearly two decades. 2F’s best known game is Power Grid (2004), a very challenging economic game about building power plants and using them to power cities with electricity. Power Grid has been released in multiple nations and has had multiple expansion maps released – in short, a real success story.
Under the same ‘small’ umbrella you’ll find HiKu spiele, a publisher that most people have never heard of. HiKu first arrived on the scene with Bao, a Mancala-based game released in 1994. Since then, they have flown under the radar, making gorgeous small-print-run games that feature only natural-source game components. Leather boards and semi-precious stones as playing pieces are the norm here – indeed, when you buy a HiKu game at Essen, you can usually choose your own stones from a wide assortment (which also means that nearly every copy of the game sold at Essen is more or less unique). Most, if not all, of the games are abstract as well.
Obviously there’s nearly nothing in common between those two publishers. And yet even they aren’t representative of the true width and breadth you’ll find in the ‘small’ category. So instead of trying to cover them all (or even half), I’ll leave them alone for now and look to do feature articles on this or the other publisher at various points down the road. Keeps me sane and keeps you coming back for more – what’s not to love?
And there you have it. The German game industry in a nutshell. A rather large nutshell, but a nutshell nonetheless. Why? Because I said it’s a nutshell, that’s why. Feel free to let me know where I’ve made an error or if I’ve left anything out.