Grail Games Grows Up!
G’day My name’s David and I run Grail Games out of Sydney, Australia.
This past week my 20th Kickstarter campaign ended with over 3500 backers and a funding total that I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams. Well, maybe in my WILDEST dreams, but those are dreams I never allow myself to ever have. Fjords blew up! and while some may see its success as expected or even “below par” for a Kickstarter campaign, I never will. It was the culmination of 7 years of hard, hard work. I thank everyone for their support and I hope you love the game once it arrives… but the campaign’s success has caused me to pause, take stock and reflect.
What follows is a brief outline of where Grail Games was, is (and I think) will be…
2014-2017: Young at heart
I began Grail Games in mid-2014. I had seen my brother self-publish his own board and card games for a number of years, and while I knew I had the experience and skill-set required of a publisher, I wasn’t going to do it his way (cutting the corners off 1000s of cards printed down the road and assembled into decks at home)… but when Kickstarter announced Australian projects could be created in 2014 I saw a window and I jumped through it, full of energy.
I named my company “Grail Games” for three reasons: It had not been used; was simple and clear – a name that could be understood and/or explained to anyone; and it explained what I wanted to do with the company: bring terrific games back into print and license games from Asia into English.
Love Letter had just happened and I (in Sydney) was relatively close to the gaming scene in Japan, having many of those quaint and creative indie creations sent home to me every six months. I loved them and knew some should be more widely played. On top of this, some games that were already known in my language were clearly out of print and clamouring for new editions. I needed a plan – a way to stand out in a crowded market, and so… reprints and licenses would be it!
I started by producing a line of small card games. I began with a game that was only a deck of cards (One Zero One), then in each following release, added one or two components (Elevenses, Matcha, Too Many Cinderellas, Cat Box, etc.). I cut my teeth on these productions, starting with my own designs so that if I damaged a baby in my first attempts, it would be my baby and no one else would be upset. It was a great pathway.
But then I got the itch. After I had released a few games and had something of a track record, I eventually got the guts to email one of my oldest design heroes: Reiner Knizia. I introduced myself and listed some of the games I would like to pursue. This first conversation resulted in Grail publishing Circus Flohcati, and then Medici – my first full board game. I was immensely flattered that I was working with Knizia, and so, wanted to marry his design with the best artist in the industry (in my opinion) – Vincent Dutrait. I didn’t want to do anything half-heartedly. I wanted to make the product the designs deserved. I did it for love and not to make a fortune. Soon after this my pursuit of games from Asia fell away and I bought a one-way ticket on the reprint train.
I don’t know if the community would say these first Knizia releases put Grail on the map, but internally I felt it was a culmination – Grail had arrived.
2018: Digging a hole
That’s when things got a little tricky financially.
I just couldn’t continue and still afford the artists, designs and production standards I desired. Grail Games would not exist without Kickstarter, and while I am thankful and flattered whenever anyone clicks “pledge now” on a Grail campaign, looking back, none of my campaigns prior to 2020/2021 were ever big enough successes to warrant (from a business standpoint) the follow-up release (or two) that I produced.
This has been my downfall: I know what games I love and I want everyone to have a chance to love them, so I kept churning them out 🙂 On average, I released 5 titles a year – mostly working on my own at nights and on weekends. If a Kickstarter campaign allowed me to print 2000-3000 copies I was excited as I was able to fulfil my dreams. Unfortunately, printing that number of copies each time does not offer a publisher the best cost-per-copy rates, nor will it give a publisher enough profits to make a living. Short of striking lightning in a bottle, a small publisher will almost never make enough to pay the bills. Grail had no marketing department, no advertising budget. Being in Australia there’s almost no conventions to attend, and flying to Essen or Indy is SO freaking expensive. I was just happy when one copy sold somewhere! And each time one copy was sold I wrapped and packed it with care, or took note of it on the distributor’s sale sheet. I never took that single sale for granted.
2019: The end
By the end of 2019, I had run out of steam. I had to decide whether to keep going or not. And it was hard. I was barely making ends meet and that was taking a toll on my personal life. It had to stop right away. Only through help from my friends at Matagot did we manage to close on the projects that were very advanced.
2020: The new beginning
To cut a long story short, in 2020 Grail formally joined the Matagot & Friends group of companies. The support that got me through 2020 got even greater, and together we now support one another! And while I remain in control of all Grail’s games, I can count on the entire group’s support in production follow-up. Now I get marketing support, and they help my international sales. AND on the back of Fjords, Boomerang, etc., I will be full time (for the first time) with Grail from June. With a superb team of hard working gamers and creators behind it, Grail Games (to my mind) has finally grown up.
I am forever thankful. Thankful for the reviewer who chose to cover one of my games, thankful for the board game blogger who chatted about playing one of my games, thankful for the backers who chose to support one of my campaigns, and thankful for the shopper who bought one. Thank you. Grail would not exist without any of you – and that’s the truth.
I have always seen it as a group effort – the “group” meaning both myself and the people who play a Grail game. And while I don’t expect any gamer to feel inclined to buy or play anything, I feel absolutely chuffed when anyone does. It’s full-on fantastic!
The Reiner Knizia question
I said before that I was thankful to Reiner Knizia as well – thankful for his readiness to work with a “nobody” with a vision.
In the Fjords campaign a number of backers asked if Grail was considering picking up any of the Knizia titles that Asmodee had recently announced they were letting go, and I have to say the answer is “no.”
I am immensely proud of Grail’s editions of Yellow & Yangtze, Medici and Stephenson’s Rocket, but these reprints and revisions, while great at getting BGGers to notice what one is doing, just… haven’t sold well. And not only are we not going to take over any of the games Asmodee let go, but our Medici Reformation project (although it was almost ready to go) is now cancelled. The 10 games by Renier Knizia that Grail released (Criss Cross, Medici, Medici the Card Game, Medici the Dice Game, Yellow & Yangtze, Circus Flohcati, King’s Road, Stephenson’s Rocket, Whale Riders, and Whale Riders the Card Game) will not be printed again by us and will be leaving our catalogue at the end of 2021. Allow me to say it: Grab those leftover copies while you can 😊
I personally hope that Reiner Knizia will find publishers for these games that suit him better and sell more copies.
2021: The future is now
Let’s look at the future now! Crystal balls ready? Just check our last two Kickstarters – Hibachi and Fjords – and you will have a clearer picture of where I feel Grail is heading. We still want to reprint classics and games that feel like classics, but these two games (and the ones coming up) are all games that I have been able to put a ton of myself into. We were free to make these games according to my vision. In this new chapter that is about to open for Grail, I will be moving forwards by selecting games that I both love personally, and that I can work on freely. I’ll always have my Palastgefluster, my Finca, my Thurn & Taxis and my scuffed copies of Carcassonne and Catan. But as a publisher, while I’ve loved giving older games a fresh coat of paint, I have learned that I enjoy even more when the canvas is bare, or can be stripped bare before I get to work.
Moving forward, with the support of a team of helpers, you will see me have a hand in games more like Hibachi where (dare I say it) a dry game about trading spices with an amazingly fun dexterity element may actually end up on a game table down the road from your house. I mean, just look at that cat chef 😀 The same goes for Fjords. I’m really hopeful that this classic has been re-envisioned in a way that the gamers of 2021 will find it a pleasure to play. I’m getting better at picking and producing titles (I think), so it’s onwards and upwards from here.
That’s my hope anyway 🙂 Gaming is an amazing past-time. It brings people together. Whether the game they play is 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years old, magic happens around that table and I have been so excited to (perhaps) have been a small part of your own gaming nights over the past 7 years.
Oh, just one last thing… Thanks to all my experiences and hardships running a publishing house, I felt the urge to give back to the community and we’ll soon share news about how Grail will be helping another small publisher’s beloved titles to carry on… It will be a fantastic project 😉
All the best,