David Hanaček is an analyst in the IT industry who has managed what many only dream of: to turn their hobby into a side-business. An avid board gamer, Hanáček created his own one-man publishing house Fox in the Box for largely one reason: to bring celebrated designer Phil Eklund’s excellent if very niche games to the Czech market. Eklund, the man behind Sierra Madre Games, has published some very challenging titles over his career, from Origins – How We Became Human to Pax Renaissance to High Frontier.
“I always compare the hobby with computer games. When I was a kid my friends and I all played computer games a lot and we were nerds, I think. After that, computer games caught on with the broader public and today they are considered regular entertainment. The same is true of board games.”
They became mainstream.
“Much more so now. Maybe not as much in the Czech Republic as some countries but that time will come.”
Right next to the Czech Republic is one of the biggest markets for board games, Germany, so I expect that has had an influence at least in part. Of course, there are many different genres of games as well as different games players, from casual to hardcore. Someone plays games with their kids, someone else likes party games in a social context… it is up to you how deep you want to go…
“Certainly the hobby is such that there are casual games and families and then more hardcore gamers. I consider myself the latter. My focus is on the hardcore gaming community. But of course there is nothing wrong with more casual games. I play them with my wife or kids too. Games which take an hour or less.”
“I prefer quite heavy board games and I wanted to bring games like that to the Czech market.”
How did you get into heavier games? In the Czech Republic you have a number of bigger publishers like Mindok or Albi and they license and publish all kinds of games. But even their more complex or convoluted games are still fairly well-known. But you chose a niche within a niche: games that are really quite specific. Tell me about that.
“The parallel with computer games applies here as well: when I began playing it was a lot of first-person shooters like Doom, stuff like that. But gradually, I got more and more interested in more complex games with more difficult decisions to take and a lot more strategy. This is the same. After some time, I wanted to try something more complex.
I started with some casual games but the more I learned about the board game industry, the more I learned there were titles which were fairly heavy and which I felt needed to be represented on the Czech market. I wanted Czech players to be able to play some of these games, in their own language. That was the goal I wanted to achieve.”
Concretely, we are talking about a designer named Phil Eklund and his company Sierra Madre Games. If there was this or that trend over the last 20 years, with companies like FFG (now part of Asmodee and others), Eklund was really blazing his own trail, wasn’t he? He was designing games about the origins of humankind, about the Mexican Revolution in 1910 or how to launch a rocket into space.
And he has been very successful, in terms of that kind of a company. His games are now ‘well-known’ within a larger segment of the gaming community…What was the first game of his that you played?
“High Frontier. I saw it online and looked at the board and got a headache from how complicated it appeared, in a good way. It is a representation of the solar system and there are all kinds of charts and trajectories and it was all very complex. I fell in love with it right away.”
And when you play this game, High Frontier, someone who has never gotten into board games will picture you rolling a six-sided die and moving a little rocket. But we are a universe away from that, right? You are micromanaging all kinds of decisions based on real-world technology and limitations.
“It is a hardcore simulation. You are building using parts which really exist, as Phil was a NASA engineer. So the game is designed according to real factors. The goal is get your rocket to reach a far-off destination, to exploit local resources such as minerals and so on. And eventually to build colonies.”
And there are no short-cuts, no ‘magic solutions’…
“No. There are all kinds of things you have to prepare for and watch, such as your fuel chart. And if you run out of fuel, that’s it, it’s over.”
What did you feel after you played it the first time and the game ended? Did your head hurt? Or was it exhilarating?
“The first Phil Eklund game I played was High Frontier with an unbelievable map of the galaxy which got my attention from the start.”
“All of the above. It was overwhelming, even: I had never played a board game like that before.”
You named your company Fox in the Box: at what point did you realize that you had to put out games by Eklund?
“I had wanted to do something within the board game community for some time. The first idea is often, I want to design a game. But that is a very, very time-consuming process and I am afraid I am not smart enough for that. But this was something I felt I could manage: to put out these very interesting games for the Czech market. So I contacted him to see if he would be interested.”
And was he open to the idea?
“Yes, absolutely. He was very kind to me. I think it wasn’t hard for him to imagine his games being in German, in Spanish, but that Czech was a bit of a surprise.”
That leads into my next question: obviously the German or Spanish-speaking markets are much bigger. How did you gauge whether there would be enough a market for these games in Czech here?
“It was absolutely a shot in the dark.”
“I wanted to fulfill my dream, to publish a game. But nothing was certain, no sales numbers, no advance info. I told myself, we’ll see.”
Were you conservative in terms of the first print-run? And what was the first Eklund game you put out?
“It was his game Neanderthal and the print-run was 500 units or copies. So relatively small.”
I guess it was a calculated risk? You figured that you could sell 500 units.
What is the most difficult thing about publish a game?
“Well, the money, of course! When you talk about possibilities, it costs nothing but then when you have to get it off the ground… when you have to choose whether to invest money or not, that is the break point.”
It is the money, I see. In my mind’s eye, I was thinking ahead, to technical aspects: printing quality, component quality and so on…
“Eklund’s games known for ‘writing’ stories; even after a week you’re still talking about them in the pub.”
“That process was fun for me. I like that. I visited the factory to see for myself the process and I learned where the wooden components are made and the plastic ones and I think it was an advantage over the big companies.
“Big publishers just send the Czech text which someone implements into the graphics and the game then gets printed in China. Having hands-on knowledge of the possibilities here allows me different opportunities and in fact I try to have all the games I publish produced here.”
What was the response from gamers here? I mean, the games seem to be selling well, so I imagine that your entry onto the market was most welcomed.
"Yes, the response has been great, I think. The community welcomed these kinds of games and the community has also been very helpful to me, especially when it came to difficult translations from history which were needed for the games Pax Renaissance and Bios: Genesis.”
To come back to the experience: are Eklund’s designs social games? Or are players hunkered over their own mini-board or tableau concentrating on what their next move will be?
Are these the kinds of games where there are memorable moments? A moment when everything turns on a dime and you think about it long after the game has ended? Where you rerun the processes in your head and decisions you took to get there? And which make you want to play again?
“Absolutely, absolutely. Phil’s games are known for ‘writing’ stories, they tell stories. So even a week or two later you’ll be sitting in the pub and you’ll find yourself talking about the experience and something which happened and everyone will remember at that moment.”