On the 21st of April this year NSKN Games will turn 5 years old. It seems like yesterday we were working on Warriors & Traders, cutting pieces of paper, borrowing miniatures from long forgotten games, testing day and night and looking to make a great start in the world of board games publishing. 5 years and 10 titles later, it’s time to shed some light on some funny/interesting/strange moments, look back and analyze successes and failures, and, perhaps, draw some conclusions.
Since the official history of NSKN Games is not so hard to track down, I decided to share with you some less known moments of our brief history, which also represent some key moments in our path to becoming an established publishing house, and the lessons we learned from each of them. So… I will simply dig in and start by telling you how it actually all started.
Moment zero – 2011
When I designed Warriors & Traders I was deeply convinced that it would be a great game, one that would mark the history of board gaming at least in my home country. Little did I know when I assumed that Romania had an established board games market, with a tremendous potential for growth. Mistake number one was my market research strategy. With help from some local stores, I tried to evaluate the number of copies we could sell on the Romanian market, using Settlers of Catan as model. Back in 2011, there were about 7 game stores in the whole country and yet I was led to believe (by my own ignorance and some “field data”) that 500 copies of Warriors & Traders is a conservative estimation for the Romanian market. Boy, was I wrong!
The local “market research” and some encouraging numbers from the media made me think that a first print run of almost 5000 copies of a rather complex and heavy game was a great idea. With that in mind, I went on to look for a manufacturing company which could deliver all these game boxes in time for our first presence at an international fair – Spiel 2011 Essen. 2 months, 1000 phone calls and 35 meeting later, I discovered that there was no board game manufacturer in Romania!
Fast forward to the future. We printed the game with Ludo Fact in Germany and had a quite successful first Essen. But by the end of 2011, less than half of the first and only print run of Warriors & Traders was sold and our estimations for the return of investment and growth went down the drain. But we were still optimistic, ready to learn from our mistakes and move on.
Conclusion: NSKN Games avoided disaster because we had been surrounded by a lot of good will and people – both gamers and distributors – were willing to help us succeed. Our first product was not all bad, but there was a lot of room for improvement. We had not run out of money, but we knew we dodged a bullet and had to step up our game by an order of magnitude.
The biggest predicament – 2012
My vision of NSKN Games involved accelerated growth, doubling our portfolio every year for the first four years, so in 2012 we were supposed to publish two titles: Exodus: Proxima Centauri and Wild Fun West. Since our financial results in 2011 had been below expectation, we had to look for a cheaper solution for printing both new titles. Months of research led us to a few manufacturers in China who claimed they can deliver the same quality as Ludo Fact but at a fraction of the price. I must admit that I’ve always had doubts, but having the sword of bankruptcy over my head, I pushed the decision to move forward and print.
2 weeks before the files delivery deadline, our artists bailed out leaving us with a bunch of incomplete pieces and a huge problem. They waived any payment from us, offering all completed art for free, but refusing to finalize the rest. The whole NSKN team had to work day and night to finalize the files on time (I will get back to my “on time” obsession a few paragraph later) so that we could still have games ready for Spiel 2012. The look and feel of the final files was not as good as we had hoped for, but still acceptable. We were only a few days late, enough however for our manufacturer to push back the delivery deadline with two weeks.
60 days before Spiel we received the color proofs and it all seemed in order.
Side story: Being quite a geek ever since I was little (I was spending most of my time reading while other kids my age were playing soccer in the garden) my parents had certain expectations of me, so when I ran into trouble I would take care of it on my own, waiting 5 to 7 years until I made my “adventures” public. Having a fix was always my thing and it had usually worked out for the best, at least most of the time.
No one except our accountant and myself knew that we stretched our cash to the limit to produce these games and by the end of the manufacturing and shipping process we would have ended up with a combined sum of 8 (eight) dollars in our accounts! I could not share this with my colleagues because they put even their souls into this business and the perspective of no jobs in the near future could lead to a big drop in our already shaken morale.
Fast forward to the future. 4 days before Essen we received a container of full games (both Exodus and Wild Fun West) and eagerly opened the first case and then the first game box. It looked good! Having already learned how difficult is to deal with the local customs and shipping companies both on the Chinese and Romanian side, we had finally had the first reason to be genuinely happy. We quickly shipped off games to our Indiegogo backers and drove away to Spiel with a minivan full of our new games.
During Spiel we had already notices that customers were coming back to ask for various replacements because the quality of their copies was below expectations. Yet the open copies were almost perfect. Soon after Essen, we had shipped off almost the whole production run to distributors, a sales run boosted by a stellar review of Exodus by Tom Vasel. The dire times seemed to have ended and the sun was soon to shine on our street, also because we managed to move good steps away from going under.
As pallets of games were shipped by trucks, containers or the local post, we started receiving an avalanche of complaints about the quality of components in Exodus. We quickly opened 2 cases of game boxes and discovered an unpleasant truth: the quality was all over the place, ranging from abysmal to outstanding. With the number of requests for replacements increasing by a factor of 100, we had to sacrifice the left over production run for replacements and figure out a solution for this problem.
With zero help from the manufacturer, we focused our efforts on customer support, sending hundreds of letters and small packages with replacements, which had another deep impact on our finances.
Conclusion: It’s a miracle we survived. It was probably our attitude which kept us in business and the huge wave of support and understanding from our customers and fans. Also a lot of cost cutting kept us financially afloat. We were definitely not doing well, but we did not get discouraged. I was doing something I loved for a living and as long as NSKN Games was still standing I was not going to quit. Better times had to be ahead of us.
(part 2 coming up next week)