Greetings from Baltics

Our friends from Brain Games operates in all three Baltics countries. So it is interesting to see a different approach by these countries to the current situation:

Brain Games handles distribution and retail in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Each morning all our team leaders meet for a video chat to update on the local happenings and learn from the shared experiences. Everyone who can is working from home and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Each country has different regulations in effect, but in many terms, we feel united, and our company tries to use the same practices with all our employees and partners no matter the country. Still, it’s easier to talk about each country on its own.

Lithuania had the slowest start regarding Covid-19 spread. Still, it was the first Baltic country to close all non-essential shops for over a month. It was challenging to transfer sales and customer support to online channels. A week ago, the Lithuanian government decided to reduce restrictions, and shops were allowed to re-open again. Now there is an obligation for customers to wear face masks, and there can be only one customer inside a shop at any time. The consumer traffic is obviously not the same as it was last year and the shopping habits have changed.

After Lithuania decided to close all the shops, Estonia did the same. Currently, the latest decision is that all shops will re-open next week. During this period, Estonia as well tried to transfer all sales online. Estonia has the most total cases from all three Baltic countries, so they are even more cautious. It will definitely take a while for things to get back to a more normal state, but it will not be as it was for sure.

Latvia was the only Baltic country that decided not to close shops fully. Currently, shops are not working at weekends, and there are reduced working ours for other days. Brain Games did decide on their own to close its retail shops for a while to make sure that we can provide a safe environment for our employees and customers. We re-opened our shops with rules that there can be only one customer at a time in the store, no cash payments are processed, and customers cannot touch any games. In Latvia, we have experimented the most with how we tackle this situation, e.g., now we even have our top games available in what was normally only a food delivery app. We have tried some online plays, RPG sessions, rules teachings, and created or shared various content for those who are staying at home.

Overall in distribution, we see that the biggest struggle has been for our partners who have big retail chains. They had difficulties in transferring everything to the online environment, and it has been impossible to keep the same consumer traffic. Small stores, however, are doing okay. Interest for the games, jigsaw puzzles, and activities to perform home with your family have increased in this period. In all countries, kids are learning from home, and their teachers are encouraging parents to spend more time with their kids playing games, so they are not outside with friends. We see that everyone is missing gatherings with friends and other public events. Most likely public events will not be back this summer, but small gatherings will happen, and games will be one of the best ways to spend time in a narrow circle.

Facing summer with social distancing will be a challenge. Still, we feel like Baltics have been doing well so far. The increase of total case count in our region is slowing at the moment with only ~21 new cases each day based on the last 7 day average for all 3 countries combined. It is impossible to say if, by people starting to get less cautious, this will not cause a big spike. Still, we can only hope that the general public will continue to practice all government requirements to keep this number as low as possible.

What about Canada?

One of our partners in Canada, Lion Rampant Imports (recently acquired by Asmodee), sent us their view of the current situation:

Like most countries across the globe, Canada hasn’t been spared from COVID-19 and in early March, both federal and provincial governments put in place safety measures to minimize the spread of the disease as much as possible. As a result, for over a month now, Canadians have been actively practicing social distancing by staying home. Schools and most public spaces have been closed since mid-March, public gatherings are banned, and nonessential businesses have had to adapt how they operate in order to keep everyone as safe as possible.

How have Asmodee Canada and Lion Rampant Imports responded to this unprecedented situation? The same way we respond to any circumstance that is beyond our control—with compassion, flexibility, and resilience. We recently appointed Kevin Ratko as General Manager, under whose guidance we are committed to supporting our retail partners offering e-commerce, or whose brick and mortar stores are permitted to remain open. We are also committed to retaining as many jobs as possible in the face of the crisis. That said, our number one priority is the health and safety of all our employees and partners. As such, we have established a “work-from-home” policy wherever possible and have implemented strict safety protocols – as outlined by the Government of Canada – for all on-site staff members.

We are impressed by the tolerance and patience shown by Canadians during this difficult situation. We know that many have turned to tabletop games and puzzles to provide a bit of fun, connection, and normalcy at a time when the world seems to have been turned upside down. We are proud of and impressed by the resilience of the entire Lion Rampant team, as well as that of our partners and we’re confident that together we’ll get through this.

How it is in Germany

Our dear friends in HeidelBÄR Games wrote to us how is current situation in Germany:

Covid19 caused a similar dramatic situation in Germany, as in many other countries. As a freshly restored publisher, the situation is challenging for us, too. But being a smaller and more flexible company has its benefits in this situation. Miltenberg, where we are located, is close to Frankfurt/Main, but in Bavaria. It is a beautiful small city, which is very quiet now. No tourists and the shops are closed. A small part of our team comes into the office every day, limiting the contact. The rest works from home – which is a major change for us. Teamwork is our strength, and it is different not to discuss at the same table while playtesting. Technology allows the basic work with file sharing, but direct contact is missing. This is a change in company culture, but we believe we are doing okay, others have it worse. Our sales got slow – no surprise – and we feel the pressure on our business. We went into so-called short-work (like a lot of other businesses in Germany), which allows German companies to reduce working hours for its employees under special circumstances. The government then compensates for a significant part of this for the employees.

Acceptance for the active restrictions (shops closed, no contact with others, etc.) in Germany is still surprisingly high. A step-by-step lockdown exit strategy for May is upcoming. Of course, we have our share of issues, complainers, stupid politicians, etc. Stability seems to work best, as it seems. Considering that we have a federal system, the different states have managed okay, but the rules vary from state to state. For now, Covid19 deaths seem to be in control, at least. Of course, nothing is safe, and more is to come upon us. Nothing will be as it was before. Everybody’s life has changed, easy to see when buying food at a grocery store: wearing gloves and face mask, using disinfection, blenders for the cashiers, and more.

After many weeks, retailers are reopening these days again, though under restrictions. Bavaria is the most strict, so we will not open before May. Face masks could become mandatory, the distance will be required. We are very happy with our retailers. Stationary German game retailers suffered a lot, and they are the backbone of our strong gaming market. We hope … players/customers will come back, too.

HeidelBÄR Games tried to support our beloved hobby as well in the last difficult weeks, similar to others, with downloads for playing at home, etc. We sent hundreds of free word games to teachers. Their hardest time is about to come, as we fear. We don’t do face masks after all!

In the motherland of the SPIEL, where Germans appear to be grumpy, our spirit as HeidelBÄR’s is not broken. We are even more dedicated to overcome the obstacle of this global crisis and try to make the best for everyone wherever and whenever possible. Gaming is a great social experience, and the last weeks have told us how important it is for all of us. Game on!

Situation in Greece

Our friends from Kaissa sent us how the situation in Greece is:

The situation in Greece seems a little bit better than the situation in Western Europe. Our government was really cautious from the beginning, afraid that our weak medical system wouldn’t be able to accommodate enough ill people. It took some early and harsh measures to stop the virus from spreading fast, like closing the schools and most of the shops, which aren’t selling food or medicine.

For the last 4 weeks, all citizens have to stay in their homes unless they send SMS to the government with the reason why they need to leave their homes. That can be either go to work, supermarket, pharmacy, or to take a short walk outside.

Right now, since most of the shops in Greece are closed, our company is only able to sell to online shops and Supermarkets. Even though we have fewer selling points, the demand for board games is high; therefore, we haven’t been affected as much as other companies in Greece. Our

Our number 1 income-producing industry in Greece is tourism. We are hoping that the situation with the virus will be much better by June, not only in Greece but also in all countries. Otherwise, the effect on our economy will be big.

Under Falling Skies – free print and play game

As I mentioned in last week’s post, How to play Codenames over the internet, we are working on several things for you to survive social distancing more enjoyably. Today I have a pleasure to present the second one. Before we get to it, though, let me tell you a story about it.

For several years we have been organizing playtesting events in the former Czechoslovakia. They are usually focused on testing our prototypes. Still, we encourage participants to bring their own creations and get both feedback from other testers and from us. A frequent participant was Tomáš Uhlíř (and you thought that Vlaada Chvatil’s name was hard to pronounce). He brought one prototype, which was later published as Spring on a String. Besides that, he helped us several times with the organization of several events, and his observations from playtesting prototypes were always constructive.

So, when we were looking for a colleague to join our team in Prague, he was our first choice. Fortunately, he agreed to our proposal and started working with us. From the very beginning, he was very involved with the development of Sanctum, and later, he even became a lead developer. Independently to this, he submitted his prototype Under Falling Skies into BGG’s 2019 9 Card Game Print and Play Design Contest.

His game won the contest in several categories: Best Solitaire Game, Most Thematic Game, Most Innovative Mechanic, and even Best Overall Game. But even before this happened, he showed us the game. We were skeptical first, as we never imagined we would publish a solo game, but we were astonished by how much we liked the game. And we enjoyed not only playing the game, but also watching other people play the game. This is always a sign to us that we would enjoy working on the game. So we will be able to spend many hours playtesting it ourselves, but also closely looking at how others are playing the game.

But we wanted to be sure that we will be able to enhance the game, so it will become more than just a nicely produced version with better graphics and components. Together with Tomáš, we found the way, but that is a story for another day. We, obviously, started with that print and play version and playtested it and changing it towards the new version.

Once the coronavirus situation happened and we were thinking about how we can help, we realized that we can improve that print and play version. Since we were playtesting it a lot, we knew that there are a few little details that could make print and play version better and easier to grasp. We started working on it, and besides gameplay changes, we updated the rulebook, to make it more clear.

You can download this new version here:

We hope that you will have fun with the game as much as we do. And here is a small tip: Even though it is a solo game, we found that we enjoy it a lot as a two-player coop game where you are consulting together what to do and how to defeat those pesky aliens.

If you already have the old version, you don’t need to print new cards, only the rules were changed. Here is a summary of all the changes we made to this new version:

ENERGY

Many players tend to play this rule wrong, so we decided to make it much more intuitive.

  • Don’t set the energy to the room’s value, but you add it instead. 

ROBOTS

Robots are probably the most challenging concept in the game, so we decided to make them less unforgiving. 

  • Place a robot immediately after resolving the blue (robot) room. (But you can still use it only from the next round.)
  • Lower its value only when you decide to use it.
  • You can choose to remove the robot at any time.
  • When you use a robot, you can mark it by rotating the die 45° to make sure you don’t use it more than once per round.

RESPAWNING ENEMY SHIPS

Respawning enemy ships was the least exciting part of the round. And since a player usually had more options where to place them, he needed to go through quite a lot of calculations for a decision that, in most cases, didn’t matter that much. So we decided to automate this part as much as possible, speeding up the game and allowing the player to focus on the more important and more exciting stuff. 

  • Place all the green (respawning) ships first and only after that, place the red (one-life) ships.
  • The ships are placed in empty columns, if possible.
  • But if every column has a ship, choose a starting spot with the most empty spaces between it and the column’s top ship. 
  • Only when there are more possibilities where to place the ship, you can choose.

Some of the above changes make the game slightly easier, and that’s actually great because it allows the players who struggled even with the lowest difficulty to explore more of the game’s variability. 

COVID situation in Poland

I still have a backlog of reports from our partners from last week. So without further ado, here is today’s dose of COVID stories around the board gaming world. This time from our partner Rebel.pl from Poland:

It is probably more or less similar to Czech. In essence, schools and shopping malls are closed for 3 weeks, a lot of our customers are not operating at all or operating 20-30% regular turnover. On the other hand, online stores are very, very active right now, and they have more audiences than ever. So overall our sales were quite similar to sales last year (however channels are different).
Of course, in shopping malls, our stock is not rotating, so we don’t expect any orders from them in the nearest future.
We change our marketing powers from events (obviously) to online, and this is something already with some effects.

For now, our situation is not bad. If it does not stay too long (ends in the nearest 4-8 weeks), we assume our sales will be similar to last year. If it will get worse, who knows? It can crush the whole economy of the country, and this is something challenging to plan.

Slovenia and France

Slovenia, a small country in southern Europe, is not hit as hard as it’s neighbor Italy. But still, even there situation is not easy, as our partner Ponva wrote to us:

It has been almost a month, and now we are reaching 1200 infected (this is week old info, sorry for posting this a bit late). It may not seem much, but bear in mind, we have a population of 2 million. Shops are mostly closed, international shipments are complicated, and anyway, the warehouses are closed, domestic traffic is jammed (a lot of internet shopping), social gatherings and crossing of municipal borders are restricted, we are trying to keep as much to ourselves as we can… But we have slowly got used to the new ‘normal’ of days. And then the first death in the circle of friends comes, and everything is strange again.

France, on the contrary, is one of the worst-hit countries in Europe. So it is totally understandable what our partner Iello is doing:

On the IELLO side, it was decided to cut back at the beginning of the crisis, mainly to protect the employees.
We have decided to suspend the shipment of our games, not to penalize the shops forced to close.
Our teams are now teleworking, and the logistics service is, of course, very reduced.
Each department is permanently on duty to answer the most urgent questions and to continue the development of the games.
We, of course, continue the development of the games since the beginning of the crisis. We also continue to translate/distribute Print ‘n’ Play games, stand-alone where possible, and we publish guides to light content games: What’s… Deckbuilding? And Play with others… from home!
Activity continues despite all the constraints, the teams are teleworking, to be able to survive to the end of the crisis in the best possible way.

How to play Codenames over the internet

Over the last several weeks, we were working on many things that might help people to survive social distancing more enjoyably. Most of them are still being worked on, but I am glad that we have the first one ready. Tony Gullotti, our PR manager for North America, prepared a video showing how to play Codenames with friends over the internet.

He is showing some neat set up with Skype and cool Codenames Gadget app (iOS, Android). Pieces of information in this video can be used for other board games as well. But he will not stop there, and he will prepare instructions for more of our games with another videoconferencing software.

Spain with a bit of music

Spain is one of the worst-hit countries in Europe. But the board gaming market is not that bad, as our partner Devir wrote:

Things in the Spanish market were going extremely well. The sales were booming so much that even the lockout issued by the Spanish government on the 12th of March did not affect the growth of the turnover for that month. Then everything stopped, but online sales.

Curiously enough, Spanish game publishers were able to confine the online below the red line of a 25% market share. Nowadays, it’s 100%, and thanks to the gods of trade, almost doubled its sales. Family games are being continuously played all over the Spanish geography.

The consequences of the confination and the lockout of all the brick and mortar stores can be devastating for the distribution. In Devir, we are working on setting up the best conditions for our clients and friends to recover as fast as possible. This is going to be our priority, together with the planning of a safe OP System.

The situation in the country is very Spanish. A combination of heroic behavior of our medical and health professionals, unprepared politicians acting like apes handling a shotgun, military personnel addressing patriotic, overacted motivational coaching as spokesmen of the government (!), and the highest rate of deaths per capita in all the world.

People take this situation as the Spanish normally take this kind of situation: a combination of fatality acceptance, banalization through humor, and harmless revolutionary domestic rage.

It seems that the impact of the crisis is going to be enormous. Tourism is vital for the Spanish economy, and this will not be over for months, affecting income, unemployment, families, politics, and trade. Maybe someone will think it would be a good idea to produce something valuable instead of selling sun and sangria.

I do not see any purpose of amendment from the country ruling elite, and the EU is missing in action, as usual. The future looks dark, but somehow, the people will get over it, as it always did in the past with sacrifice and finding strange ways to justify its misfortune. Help!

The good part is, as always, our people. Just listen to these guys from my home town Barcelona! Stay home! And enjoy this confination!

Japan from a business and personal perspective

When I launched this blog to inform about the COVID-19 situation, I did not expect that something like this would happen at all. Not only did we receive how it looks like from a business perspective, but one friend of ours also sent us his personal perspective. It’s fascinating to read and watch…

Let’s start with our partner, Hobby Japan:

Firstly, we thank all the carers in the medical frontier and ones who are struggling to support our daily life in this difficult time all over the world.

The number of infected cases was fewer in Japan compared with other countries at first. But the schools were closed from the beginning of March. No logistics issues and hobby shops were still open without change, so we had no impact affected by the coronavirus epidemic. Instead, the sales of games were increased by over 50% in March compared with the month of the previous year.

The needs for family games were increased during the schools’ temporary shutdown. The situation changed at the end of March. The number of infected cases is rising sharply in the big cities, and the government finally declared a State of Emergency on 7th April. Department stores, major retailers (GMS), and most of the game shops in the big cities will be closed for a month. Amazon and other major online shopping companies are also facing a difficulty to manage the high increase in delivery volume and might prioritize selling daily essentials for now.

Our company has also decided not to release any new titles for the next month. We hope things will improve soon and be able to bring a lot of new titles to people who are staying at home patiently now.

Lastly, stay healthy all!

And here is the promised personal view from a friend who wanted to remain anonymous:

This week, the PM Abe declared the “State of Emergency” effective as of yesterday until 6th May, and it can be extended with advance notice if necessary. It’s not strict compared with European countries or the US, and it applies only to the big cities such as Tokyo and its neighbor area, Osaka, Fukuoka.

We can come to the office as I am at the office right now. No permission is required to go outside, and no fine. But non-essential facilities like Karaoke and amusement center are strongly requested to shutdown. Shopping malls and department centers are listed in it. Some are already closed from today according to the declaration.

We are in short of masks and hand sanitizers the same as other countries and in danger of medical care overflow. We are getting realized that we have to take it seriously and do what we can do now, at least, “stay at home.”

Thanks to the declaration, the number of commuters are reduced this morning but still far from keeping “social distance” between people. When we shop for groceries, no social distancing is practiced yet in Japan. Time to change, we know.

Actually, I want to finish for the day right now. It’s already over 21:30 in Tokyo, and I skipped lunch. No time to break. I think the restaurants have already closed today. We are requested to go back home earlier, so do the shops and restaurants. Basically, I work from home but come to the office as necessary. I have to take care of so many paper works when I come to the office.

Okay, I am done. I will be taking off soon.

PS: The famous Japanese comedian delivers his message “Stay at home” on YouTube. He influences young people, and young people listen to him.