Thursday, June 29, 2006

Upcoming Companies, Part One: Atlas, Cafe, Cheapass

Early this month I talked about Hasbro, the megagoliath that has eaten the gaming world, sucking up an amazing 80% of the tabletop game trade. As I said in that article, they have the ability to do a lot of damage to our industry. But, for now at least, there's room for the smaller guys to get into the biz.

This week I want to turn that around, and talk about some of the up-and-coming game companies. These guys aren't necessarily small (though none are huge), and they aren't necessarily new (though some are). Instead, they're companies that are working on publishing new sorts of games, be that because they're just getting into the biz or because they're dramatically changing their focus.

Together these companies offer an insight into trends at the opposite side of the gaming industry from Hasbro: the companies who may be on the list of notable publishers in our niche in a few years.

I've got six companies scheduled for this series. They're all publishing at least a few interesting games this year, and they're all people that I haven't really talked about in this column before. This week I have up Atlas, Cafe, and Cheapass, and next week I have Face 2 Face, Jolly Rogers, and Your Move. In each case I've tried to get some personal insight from the publishers and owners as well.

Atlas Games

Traditionally Atlas is primarily a roleplaying publisher. It was founded by John Nephew in 1990. Their first publications, from 1990-1993, were all licensed RPG supplements, including a single Vampire adventure, a series of adventures and campaigns for Ars Magica, and some Cyberpunk 2020 supplements, which were their most successful of the period. Nowadays they own Ars Magica (and Feng Shui and Unknown Armies and a few others, but Ars Magica seems to be the one getting support).

Atlas experimented with card games pretty early on. One of their earlier releases was Once Upon a Time (1993), a card-based storytelling game that reflected Atlas' roleplaying origins. In 1994 they jumped on the collectible bandwagon and produced On the Edge, a CCG based on their innovative Over the Edge RPG. It changed things at Atlas. John Nephew says, "It was a fast and furious boom-and-bust period, but involvement in CCG publication gave us a lot of experience in the card medium (and a great working relationship with a specialty playing card printer), which paved the way for the new (1995) edition of Once Upon A Time, then Lunch Money in '96, and then the other card games leading up to today."

Lunch Money (1996), a schoolyard-brawl card game that's best known for its disturbing artwork, was another hit. Cults Across America (1998), Spammers (1998), and Corruption (1999) are a few other Atlas games from this period that still grace my own shelves. For the most part, Atlas was producing very American games. Cults was a humorous wargame while Spammers was a typical take-that card game that could easily have been published by Steve Jackson. However, Corruption, a clever card game by Bruno Faidutti, was an early move toward Eurogames.

Despite the successes of On the Edge and Lunch Money, Atlas averaged less than one card or board game from 1990-2002.

In the last few years this has changed, and Atlas has really been pushing card games in particular. Nephew says that there are sound business reasons for this new direction: "The simple reality is that an RPG book's sales drop very sharply soon after it is released (and if anything this has gotten worse in recent years), but card and board games have much better prospects for continuing sales over a long period of time. Also, card games have more potential sales outlets -- we have picked up an increasing number of new distributors in recent years who don't carry RPGs at all. It makes sense that board games and card games are more accessible to a wider audience than RPGs, and that means more commercial potential, especially in a market where more people in retail and distribution have become aware of that potential thanks to the big board game successes of recent years."

Atlas' new focus began with the acquisition of Dungeoneer (2003), a fantasy adventure card game, from the now-defunct Citizen Games. The game has (rightfully) been followed by a half-dozen expansions. They very successfully followed that up with Gloom (2004), a thematic take-that card game with transparent cards. These last few years have also seen expansions for Once Upon a Time, Gloom, and Lunch Money, as well as a few rereleases. What's even more impressive is Atlas' 2006 schedule. There's more Dungeoneer, but also an expansion into less card-oriented board games, including Recess (another school-yard brawl), Grand Tribunal (a card/board game based on Ars Magica), and Seismic (a tile-laying game).

For the future, Nephew says, "If anything, I expect the card and board games (and similar but harder to classify things, like the Pieces of Eight coin game that should be appearing at GenCon) will be an even bigger part of our future. We have numerous projects in the pipeline, and we're on the lookout for more -- whether original games or existing games to buy and re-issue (like Dungeoneer and Let's Kill!)."

My Reviews: Corruption (B-), Cthulhu 500 (B+), Dungeoneer: Tomb of the Lich Lord (C+, the Citzen Games edition), Gloom (B)

Cafe Games

Cafe Games is a bit more of a mystery to me because they have somewhat limited Internet presence. They've been around since 1998 and in that time they've mainly been a jobber, a distributor of other peoples' games. Currently they represent a lot of very small presses, including Pro Ludo (until recently a jobber itself, for the German market), lui-meme and Martin Wallace's Warfrog. In 2005 they also briefly held the rights to the Descartes Games (now owned by Asmodee) and appear to have been involved in the publication of the Mare Nostrum Mythology Expansion.

In 2006 Cafe Games seems to be spreading its wings and becoming a publisher in their own right. They have three games lined up for publication, the original Spectral Rails (by Morgan Dontanville, who also designed Recess for Atlas), a reprint of Ave Caesar, and the much-delayed Tempus. I have some concerns about their releases because their price-points seem about $10 high, and the publication of Tempus has been a multi-year marathon, but beyond that Cafe's first three games look like a strong start, and if they're able to follow it up, Cafe could be a strong contender as a new game publisher in the coming years.

I tried to get a quote from Cafe for this article, but owner Ron Magin is very busy. I kind of get the impression that Cafe is a sidelight, which may limit its eventually growth. On the other hand word from Europe says that Tempus is finally appearing. I guess we'll see where Cafe Games goes in the next couple of years.

Although Cafe Games was listed as a copublisher on some games prior to this new set of three, they were a pretty scattered set that I doubt has much bearing on their new, original publications.

Cheapass Games

Cheapass Games is in no way new or untried. James Ernest founded the company in 1996 based on the ideas that games were too expensive and that they tended to reuse the same pieces. So he started putting out black and white games in plain white envelopes, with minimal components. Players got to supply dice, pawns, and other necessities. Since then Cheapass has published about 100 titles.

The core line of Cheapass Games is pretty American in style. They've heavily thematic, and often that theming is pretty silly. The mechanics tend to be mostly simulationistic and often pretty forgetable besides. In more recent years some of Cheapass' core games have been published in color rather than black & white.

Besides their core lines, Cheapass has also put out a few smaller lines that I've found more notable. Their "hip pocket" games have been fairly elegant abstracts. They're purely card based, and they use many European mechanics, including majority control and tile laying. The Diceland line, meanwhile, is a fun system where you throw huge dice around a table in a head-to-head combat. My only complaint is that it's a pain in the neck to store because it's so big. Fightball and Brawl are a few real-time card games that James Ernest put out, the first with Mike Selinker, to generally good response.

Cheapass seems poised to continue putting out more of the same.

Cheapass' interesting growth is coming through Lone Shark Games, a design studio formed by James Ernest and Mike Selinker in 2003. Since then they've been collaborating on games that tend to be deeper than Cheapass' core offerings. In addition the styling of the games spans from American to European. Pirates of the Spanish Main (2004) and Dungeonville (2005) are a few of their games that have been released thus far, from WizKids and Z-Man Games, respectively. Upcoming are Cowpoker (2006) from Steve Jackson, which is just hitting stores now, and Gloria Mundi (2006) from Rio Grande, which made my ten-games-to-watch-for from Nurnberg list. They've got more coming out from Rio Grandes and from Titanic Games in the future.

Titanic Games is another up-and-coming game company with close ties to Cheapass. It was founded by James Ernest, Mike Selinker, Lisa Stevens, and Bob Watts. Stevens is offering the publication and distribution know-how from her position as CEO of Paizo Publishing, while Ernest and Selinker are offering the design know-how of Lone Shark Games. Titanic's first publication was a high-end version of Kill Doctor Lucky, a popular Cheapass title. One of the followups is Stonehenge, a very interesting "anthology" game design. There's one set of components in the box, but five different games. Two of them are, of course, designed by Selinker and Ernest. The other three come from Richard Borg, Richard Garfield, and Bruno Faidutti.

James Ernest sees Stonehenge as part of a strategy for the future. He says, "This industry is always changing, and our biggest challenge is always to invent something new. The anthology board game is our latest experiment, and I'm excited to see whether Stonehenge will be a success. In a sense, it's a continuation of the Cheapass model, because it uses the same components for several different games. On the other hand, the components will be excellent (and included), and the games will be designed by a collection of gifted designers. And me."

My Reviews: Agora (A-), Diceland: Deep White Sea (A-), Diceland: Ogre (B), Diceland: Space (A-), Dungeonville (C), Light Speed (A-), Nexus (C), Safari Jack (C), Steam Tunnel (C), TimeLine (B-)


Anonymous said...

You said that Atlas "rightfully" put out 6 sequels to Dungeoneer, but then you gave it a C+; is it me, or is that somewhat confusing?

Shannon Appelcline said...

That's a pretty old review. I'm going to go back and play it again soon to see what I think now.

However my point was really that it's a game that really is expandable. There's so much color and theming that the variability of new expansions really adds to the game. If you like Dungeoneer you'll be thrilled by the expansions, and as long as there's an audience they could keep expanding it forever, and each new expansion would be enjoyed by the players.

huzonfirst said...

Shannon, is the exclusion of Uberplay from your list an indication of how far they've fallen from grace, or did you just not have a contact there? I guess you could lump them in with the "big boys", like Days of Wonder, but they haven't had nearly the success that DoW has had (to be fair, few companies have). I'd classify them as more of a peer of Face2Face Games.

Kimbo said...

The silliness of most Cheapass titles is certainly a turn-off for me. I don't mind humor in a game, but I really do take my gaming seriously... I have a hard time getting into silly games, no matter how good they may be.

Shannon Appelcline said...

Good question on Uberplay. I was trying to highlight people who weren't on my RADAR and that I wanted to know more about.

Uberplay is in a weird position because a year or two ago they were one of the companies that I was the most aware of and that was getting real attention, and now they're practically gone.

If I do this again, I'll definitely talk to them.

Anonymous said...

A quick plug for Atlas Games' customer support - they entirely replaced my sets of Gloom and Gloom:Unhappy Families when I had some problems with the card printing. I was impressed.