In this extra-special article, I’ve gone and done something a little out of my normal comfort zone. Back when I was looking for a sponsor for my 4th anniversary contest, Zev Shlasinger of Z-Man games was generous enough to offer up a copy of his hit game Merchants & Marauders as my prize. At that time, I also asked if he would be willing to give me an interview, and even though both of us have drug our feet at times, I’ve finally managed to put it all together.
So, here’s a little conversation that I had with Zev back and forth over email about his company, his ideas concerning the hobby itself, and some of his upcoming games…
[Zev] They all have such different appeal. I like their portability, their price and the fact that some pack a lot of game into such a small package. Plus they are relatively easy to do!
[GamerChris] So then, would you say that you’re more willing to “take a chance” on a card game than you would for a full-fledged board game? Do you think that designing a small card game would be the best way for a new designer to break into the industry (since the barrier to getting it published seems to be a little smaller)?
[Zev] Card games are produced cheaper so that is a good way to break in. But I take a chances on both card and board games. I have no preference.
[GamerChris] You publish a lot of games. Do you have any objective criteria for choosing which games you will import or pick up?
[Zev] Intuition and experience are the answers most of the time. Sometimes I do things to establish a relationship with a company or designer. But I try to do things I like – which means it has some cool hook or is just different.
[GamerChris] I’d like to focus a little more on how you decide how many copies of a game to print. Do you have a standard flat number of copies for all games, or do you apply some formula or (alternatively) apply your extensive experience and intuition to estimate how many to print based on how well you think it will do or (for reprints) how well it’s already done in another market?
[Zev] I do have a standard or two and then I consider hype, subject matter, my gut instinct, etc to increase the run.
[GamerChris] Speaking as someone with the dream of designing a game someday, what kinds of things do you look for in game submissions? What makes one game look more attractive to you than another?
[Zev] Rules clarity would be awesome. Nice-looking [prototypes] are a plus but not necessary – I’ve played things on index cards. The main thing is if the game is good.
[GamerChris] Just for my curiosity, what percentage of the games you publish are original productions (versus reprints/imports)?
[Zev] I try to do 50/50 original/imports. However, that 50% original is broken down further (in my estimation) by truly original or co-publishing. So for example, Pandemic was originally mine, but Yggdrasil is an original game made by another company but we co-published it together: i.e.. it was not released previously and I’m just getting the English language license.
[GamerChris] I’ve heard you say before that you don’t really have the time or staff to do a lot of game development. But with your original productions, have you started to take on more of this role? Do you have playtesters and developers that you work with, or does the game designer have to do most or all of that development work?
[Zev] My hope is that the designer gives me something that has been playtested and the designer feels is ready to be looked at. Then I gather friends to play these games and sometimes I like and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like the game, but its components make it impossible to produce.
[GamerChris] So it sounds like you still don’t have the manpower/infrastructure to do a lot of game development yourself. When working towards publication, do you go back and forth with the designer about making changes and have them continue to do their own playtesting and development? How much work (as in, how many rounds of changes) do you do on an original game before publishing it?
[Zev] Since I am by myself, I set up playtest sessions with friends. Usually I have one set of feedback to give to the designer – whether I accept the game or not. If I accept, then I ask the designer to look into the feedback. I rarely go back and forth unless it is a game that I was there for from scratch. So normally there are 0-1 round of changes.
[GamerChris] One of the things that I most consistently hear about you, Zev, is what a nice guy you are. Specifically, I can remember the guys from Stronghold Games talking in a number of interviews about how helpful you were to them in getting their business started and sharing important information with them regarding the ins and outs of the industry. But, just to be clear, they were starting a business to be in direct competition to yours, right? So why do it? What is your overall worldview and philosophy of the boardgame hobby and publishing industry that would compel you do such a thing?
[Zev] Cause I’m a nice guy!
Honestly, because there is room for new games to come out and while I do a lot of games I can’t do them all! (Though sometimes I feel like I am.   I feel that the industry can support new companies and if the make it or not it won’t be because of me but ultimately on whether they have products that customers want. I can help a company save money, save time, and steer them clear of certain bad things, but I’m not producing or designing or laying out their games, so it falls on their shoulders to succeed – and if they do, cool. I’m cool with it. I just isn’t in my nature to hold back info.
[GamerChris] The idea that boardgame companies are not really competing against each other, but rather are fighting for entertainment time and money against things like movies, TV, and video games is something I hear a lot and which resonates a lot with me. So, how do you think we’re doing in that fight? Do you have any ideas about what publishers, hobby game media (bloggers, podcasters, etc.) and just general game players could do to make a bigger difference?
[Zev] I think we are doing fine but compared to other forms of entertainment we do not generate as much revenue as movies, video games, etc. I don’t think there is anything gamers can do to grow the hobby significantly, but they can ce
rtainly help sustain it by buying games.
[GamerChris] I don’t know that I necessarily agree with you, but we don’t need to get into that now. Switching gears a little bit, let’s talk about my favorite game, Pandemic. I’ve heard some of Matt Leacock’s comments on designing it, but I’d love to hear more about how you found it and how it came into print.
[Zev] I met Matt at the Gathering of Friends and I playtested a different game of his. I almost finished it but had to leave to catch a plane home. He mentioned that he had a couple of other games and sent them to me. I wasn’t enamored with the game I had tested at the Gathering. But when we playtested Pandemic, and I saw the players getting up in anticipation of where an infection was going to come; I thought this was very, very cool. I also liked that it really was a cooperative game: you cannot win if you do not work together. Other coop games do have a common goal but I see players doing their own thing to achieve it and not worry as much as what the other players are doing: this one required everyone to work together.
[GamerChris] Did you know right off that it was going to be a hit?
[Zev] Nope. I had people tell me not to do it, that coop games don’t sell. I knew it was a hit when it sold out in less than 3 weeks and people were clamoring for more.
[GamerChris] I know it’s being sold in Barnes & Noble stores locally, but I was wondering if you were trying to get it placed into any other more mainstream stores? And I’ve seen that it’s also on the top 10 list of best-selling boardgames, so how many copies sold does that translate to?
[Zev] I never considered the game for outside the hobby market until it was selling lots of copies. I do not know the exact number of copies sold, but it is over 100K taking into consideration foreign editions.
[GamerChris] Most importantly, I understand that Matt Leacock and Tom Lehmann are working on a second expansion for Pandemic. Can you give me any secret information about what will be in it? Is there a timeline for release yet?
[Zev] Tom is heading it more since Matt’s day job is consuming much of his time. There is no timeline for it: when we feel it is great, we will publish it. I hope that it will be 2012 as I do not think it can be done this year. As to what it is about, not much to tell beyond extra roles, special events, and doing work in a lab.
[GamerChris] As usual, you’ve got a lot of games slated for release this year. I’ve already picked up Troyes, and The Ares Project, Yggdrasil, and Ascending Empires have caught my full attention. Is there anything that you want to say about these or the other games coming out soon, either regarding release timelines or to give a little bit of a sales pitch?
[Zev] MY games do not have a set theme, so each will appeal differently. I would say watch out for Yggdrasil (which just shipped) and Ares Project, but keep an eye out for The Doom that Came to Atlantic City – Cthulhu and pals destroying houses in Atlantic City, and Quest: A Time of Heroes – which is an rpg but plays like a board game, which is the best way I can describe it and even that is not totally accurate. There are many other games slated like a new Pocket Battles (Macedonians vs. Persians) and..well, with nearly 35 games coming out I don’t think there is room to write about them all.
[GamerChris] Is there anything else that you want my readers to know about you, your company, or your games?
[Zev] Keep supporting me and I’ll keep producing games that don’t suck… mostly.
I really want to thank Zev for his time, and once again, for supporting my anniversary contest. Be sure to buy lots of games from Z-Man, because he’s such a nice guy, and of course, he really does make some freaking amazing games!