This week's Next of Ken, I'm speaking with Roberto Di Meglio of Ares Games, formerly of Nexus Games, one of the co-designers of AT games such as War of the Ring, Marvel Heroes, and Age of Conan. With the recent news of Nexus going under and the founding of Ares Games, I took the time to catch up with him and get some answers about Nexus' downfall, the genesis of Ares, and future plans for many of Nexus' more popular titles.
Ken B.: Roberto, I'm not going to beat around the bush. What exactly happened to Nexus?
Roberto Di Meglio:It's not so easy to explain briefly. I have been affiliated with the Nexus brand for 20 years of my life! The short story is that Nexus Games had new owners since 2008, when NG International was founded and it acquired the "Nexus Games" brand and original products from my former company, Nexus Editrice.
While NG International created some great games from 2008 to 2011, the company has not been very profitable, for several reasons.
At the core, my analysis is that the commercial model we used was faulty - relying on very few international customers, one for each major language, is a model which might work for a design studio, but not for a full publisher.
To set fire to the fuel, in 2010, there was a major shift in the board of directors of Italeri, our owner. The new directors considered that Italeri needed to keep the focus on their core business of model-making, and leave out the rest- which unfortunately, included us. There were a few attempts to find somebody who could buy the company, and after they failed, they decided to start the liquidation.
That's it, in a nutshell. At the end of June, all what was left of the production staff was fired, and I decided to resign on the same day. After that, I started to look for a new job...
KB: Of course, the rumors were two-fold: that either tepid response to a couple of games (Age of Conan, for example) or the shift to Nexus doing its own distribution were what brought the company down. It sounds like it was something of a mixture of both, plus a shift in priorities from a parent company. Is that correct?
RDM: In fact, even some games which were less successful, like Age of Conan, still did bring a moderate profit. And theshift to self-distribution in the US actually improved the financial situation of the company - but too little and too late.
Definitely the shift in priorities from our parent company has been a big part of it, of course combined with a situation of a company which was not so profitable. The problem is that our commercial model, relying on very few customers each bringing a significant share of business, as a distributor for a major language area, has a significant financial risk (even asingle customer who does not pay brings you great problems) and leaves a lot of the profit on the products. Most international game companies are rooted in a country with a very good internal business, like France, Germany, or the USA. Life is quite tougher if you are not, unless you're a very small company.
KB: It couldn't have helped that arguably one of the biggest titles of your catalog, War of the Ring, was unavailable in its 'standard' form for so long. Was this due to the cost of plastic, the focus on the deluxe edition, or development on a second edition?
RDM: The main reason was that there was a big investment done on the Collector's Edition, and it did not look a wise choice to produce at the same time the Collector's Edition and a Revised Edition, which at some level would be competing with each other. The Collector's Edition took more time to develop than expected, and this had a "domino effect" on delaying the War of the Ring 2nd Edition. When we could actually start to work on the 2nd Edition, the company was already beginning to be in a problematic situation.
KB: Speaking of the Collector's Edition, that sold out rapidly and has been demanding three times it retail price or more on the aftermarket. It seems an influx of cash like that would have cured a lot of woes. Were the margins on it what Nexus had hoped?
RDM: The WOTR CE was definitely a good thing, but the profitability of the project was quite damaged by the troubles of our German partner, Phalanx. I won't go too much in the details, but definitely a good portion of the profit was lost or delayed due to this.
Of course, NG did't benefit from secondary market pricing - the profit margin was there, but nothing out of scale, as anybody who compares content to price can clearly see.
KB: I think it’s safe to say we may never see as lavish and deluxe a treatment of a boardgame ever again; it is simply gorgeous. How much work went into bringing that to the market? Did Nexus ever feel like a game with that high of a price tag posed a risk?
RDM: It was indeed a lot of work - there were certain items, like the wooden box, and such an extensive range of painted figures, which I never handled before in mass production, or not at this scale! The project presented a lot of challenges, and proved to be a veritable ostacle race.
There was a point, in early summer 2009, where the project was almost on the verge of failing, twice - because our factory had trouble with the mass production of the painted figures, and because of QC problems on the wooden box. But in the end we overcame these challenges. As for risk... yes, of course every project brings risk with it, but we were confident enough that the limited quantity balanced out with the high cost, to make the project feasible.
The Limited Edition of Catan had a similar price, and there are gamers spend hundreds of dollars on their favored card game or miniature game. The only issue was to give the right product for the money we asked for, and I think in the end the WOTR Collector's Edition has been more than a fair deal for anybody who got one at its initial selling price.
KB: It is definitely a drop-dead gorgeous production! There were definitely a lot of great titles from Nexus, this one included; I know a lot of gamers were saddened to hear that they were going under. For me, it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Let’s fast-forward now to your resignation from Nexus as it crumbled down. How did the genesis for Ares Games begin?
RDM: In the final weeks, before the owners decided for the liquidation of NG International, there were discussions with various interested parties about selling the company. This subject came across in conversation with some friends, who expressed an interest in founding a new company to present the owners with a proposal.
However it soon become clear that purchasing NG International was not a realistic option, due to the distance between the expectations of the owners and what my friends were willing to offer. Fortunately, my friends decided to go ahead and start the company anyway - so Ares Games was born.
After everybody in production was fired, and I resigned, at the end of June, the founders of Ares Games asked me and Christoph Cianci - formerly the Director of Sales at Nexus Editrice, and CEO of Giochi Uniti - if we were interested to support their project - and so we did, as soon as we were in a position to do so, at the end of July.
KB: Did you immediately seek to acquire as many of the existing Nexus properties as possible?
RDM: Yes and no. I had some very good relationships with many of the authors I worked with in the past 20 years, people like Francesco Nepitello, Marco Maggi, Andrea Angiolino. I was aware that some of them were breaking their ties with Nexus due to the problems you might expect an author could have with a publisher in trouble. This was leaving some of the key games that Nexus previously published available to be put under a new contract, and of course Ares was interested in making an offer. Some of them accepted, some are thinking about it, we'll see! But we also have some new great ideas we're working on!
KB: As a big fan of several of these designs, I know there are great things in store. I do have to ask, though--how complicated were the negotiations with the Tolkien estate to transfer the War of the Ring license to Ares?
RDM: Our license does not come from Tolkien Estate, to be precise. It comes from Middle Earth Enterprises, through Sophisticated Games, who is the master licensor for the games based on The Lord of the Rings.
That said - we definitely had competition on that license, because of course War of the Ring is a great game and there were other companies wanting it.
But in the end, Ares' offer was clearly at least on a par as everybody else's, and as the authors (including myself, of course) were all convinced that Ares was the choice, that was sure an element that shifted the balance in our favor. While Ares is a newborn company, we know this game very well and care about the way it will be developed as I think nobody else does, and I am sure that the licensor understood this.
So, the negotiations were quite easy overall - definitely much easier than the first time I signed that license in 2004...!
KB: There was much discussion and many rumors about what a 2nd edition War of the Ring would contain. From a new Collector's Edition-inspired map, to larger cards, to individual colors for the different nations in the game. Now that we're nearing the release becoming a reality, what can you tell us about what changes made it into the 2nd edition printing?
RDM: Well, most of what you mention will be there!
We will have beautiful cards as big as those in the Collector's Edition, new graphics for the board to improve its usability, and a revamped 48-pages rulebook which was revised together with some of the top WOTR players in the world.
Unfortunately we will not have painted miniatures - just to have them painted in one color would have increased the SRP of the game over $ 100 and we don't think it would have been a wise choice. Unfortunately there are a lot of miniatures and even a super-simple paint job comes out to be very costly.
Talking of WOTR, I should also mention the Card Box and the Upgrade Kit - the card box provides a storage solution including sleeves, which takes into account the unusual size of the cards. It's also a beautiful WOTR-themed tin, which does not hurt! The Upgrade Kit adds to the tin box and the sleeves the deck of the cards included in the new edition, which together with downloadable rules, will enable 1st edition owners who wants to save their money to properly play according to 2nd edition rules.
KB: That is great news! As a fan of the expansion, can you tell me what elements, if any, made it to 2nd edition? Will we see Galadriel, Smeagol, or the Ents in there, for example?
RDM: The 2nd Edition will not include any element from the Expansion. We definitely want to have new expansions for the 2nd edition, which will incorporate new versions of those elements. But we're not ready to announce anything final on the WOTR expansions yet!
KB: Arrrrgh! Waiting is the hardest part! I see that pre-orders for War of the Ring 2nd edition just opened on one of the on-line vendors. Will gamers see Middle-Earth goodness under their Christmas trees this year?
RDM: That's definitely our goal. I will let you know when the boxes are on the boat!
KB: When I interviewed you a few years ago, I asked how you packed so much goodness into the box for that price. Yet here we are a few years later, and your re-release is only $10 more! There are games on the market right now, with far less stuff in the box, retailing for $100 or more. How on earth do you guys do it?
RDM: Thanks for saying that! To be honest, we're cutting our margins a little on this product because we want to keep the game popular, and a fair price helps to do that. With that in mind, we also thought it was fair to give to the owners of the 1st edition a way to play the new edition without paying the full price of a new game, hence our project of the Upgrade Kit.
KB: Okay, so let's talk about some of Ares other releases. It was announced quite recently that Ares had reached an agreement with Andrea Angiolino to re-launch Wings of War. What can you tell me about that?
RDM: Well, I have been working for years to develop the Wings of War range, from the first card prototype that Andrea brought to me in 2002, up to the beautiful miniatures which make the range popular all around the world, so I was very happy that he and Giorgio decided to grant the rights of their game to Ares. There was some concern about brand identity, as the Wings of War game was registered as a trademark by Take2 Interactive, and there was a clause in their previous contract which might create some doubt about the ownership. So we decided to play it safe and change the name. In any case, the game mechanics are going to remain mostly the same, but we're considering some improvements.
KB: Were either you or Andrea upset to learn that Fantasy Flight Games was developing a Star Wars re-theme of the Wings of War engine without Andrea's involvement?
RDM: Who said it's a Wings of War re-theme? ;-)
"Upset" may not be the right word, but I think definitely it's not a good move for FFG. Looking at the prototypes, it's difficult not to think that that the game was developed with the Wings of War mechanics in mind, and this should have been acknowledged properly by FFG.
I think that being unfair to authors is one of the worst mistakes that a publisher can make. A publisher is only as good as the people that bring him their creative talent, and I am sure that such behavior brings collateral effects.
KB: That's a good point about the minis--the Wings of War prepainted planes were easily some of the best prepaints in the business. Will we see a new line that will get some of the out-of-print stuff back in stores? Will folks with the old stuff be able to hop right in and re-integrate with the new?
RDM: We definitely want to include certain iconic airplanes in the Wings of Glory range.
The first step will be to bring back the airplanes which were originally published as the first series of WW1 "Wings of War" - the Fokker Dr.I, Albatros D.V, Sopwith Camel, Spad XIII. We are creating a new mould for the production, which will also correct certain small mistakes in the models. We will bring these airplanes back with some "classical" color schemes - you can't miss the Red Baron! - but also with new paint jobs which were never seen before in the Wings of War products. We have planned this release for Spring 2012.
Before this, we have plans to release two WW1 Bombers, and about at the same time as this re-release of the "core" set of WW1 planes, we will release more new WW1 airplanes.
We are not forgetting WW2, of course, and after the first airplanes and Starter Set there will be more goodies to come!
In any case, people who already own Wings of War airplanes and Wings of War Starters can just buy the new planes, and will be perfectly able to merge them with the airplanes they previously bought.
KB: Again, great news for both older players and potentially new players like. Are there any plans to reproduce the deluxe Wings of War starters? Those were a great way to dive into the game.
RDM: Yes, we will! We wanted a new Starter Set as soon as possible, so with the first 4 WW2 planes ready we will also create a starter kit, including one of each airplane and the full set of rules and counters to start (and continue!) playing.
With WW1, we will release a rules set specific for the bombers, to support the release of the Gotha and Caproni. This expansion, however, will be targeted to existing Wings of War players, who want to add bombers to their game. New players interested in WW1 will have to wait a little more, as we will release a new Starter set together with the re-release of the "core" group of WW1 airplanes that I mentioned before.
KB: Are there any other games coming down the pipeline from Ares that you can talk about yet? Either new stuff or other Nexus properties that you were able to acquire and bring with you?
RDM: There is a very cool project that we'll be announcing soon. It's a completely new game based upon the Wings of War/Wings of Glory mechanics, created by Andrea Angiolino together with Andrea Mainini, which will also features painted models. In a few days you'll know more about it...
Regarding other Nexus games, I have most of them very close to my heart - quite naturally, as I picked them up for publication before, so I'd like to see them back in print as soon as possible. But it's to be seen what we can bring back and when, and it also depends upon the choices the authors will made, and sometimes upon choices that Nexus itself will make regarding the related assets and the stock. Letters of Whitechapel, Battles of Napoleon, Magestorm... but there were also games which were just ready to be published, like the small and funny Micro Monsters.
And I also have a lot of prototypes, on my shelf- with a fresh new start ahead, we're now looking at some of them with much attention. They include games from some of the most interesting authors on the international scence, like Leo Colovini, Emanuele Ornella, Paolo Mori, David Ausloos, Bruno Faidutti, as well as other less well-known designers. We'll see!
KB: Roberto, I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to seeing what Ares can do. I'd like to thank you not only for your time, but for publishing my favorite board game of all time, and for bringing it back into print! I can't wait to see the new edition of War of the Ring and all the other great games you guys have in the pipeline. Best of luck to you and all the folks at Ares Games.
RDM: Thank you Ken, and thanks to F:AT for the great feedback you gave to our games in the past! With Ares, we definitely want to bring to the market the kind of games that you guys here want to play. Let's loose the rage of the God of War!
And that brings this week's column to a close. As always, feedback and comments are welcome. Roberto has indicated he will be happy to stop by the Fort and answer YOUR questions, so if you've got 'em, put 'em out there! Until then, I'll see ya in seven.