At Work and At Leisure, Part II: Board Games
9 July 2018
This time, in Hannes Snellman’s summer series “At Work and At Leisure”, Partner Markus Bremer from our Finance team talks about his passion, board games. Markus is one of the two founders and owners of a significant Finnish operator in the field, Lautapelit.fi, and works in the company as a side job and a hobby.
How did you end up establishing Lautapelit.fi?
Playing games has been my hobby since I was a child. Then, when I went to study in England, I got to know a card game called Magic: The Gathering, which was the foundation of everything for me. Magic was extremely popular in England, but people in Finland had not really found it yet. When I brought the game with me from England, my friend Toni, who I knew from upper secondary school, fell in love with it. In 1996, we established a company, at the time called Safe Haven, and originally the only focus was to import and sell Magic. Since we did not have money to establish a company, we got share capital by investing our own card collections as a capital contribution into the company.
At some point, we conducted a risk analysis on the company and noticed that it may not be wise to rely on just one product whose IP rights and distribution one operator regulates. In addition to Magic, our group of friends played other games as well. Around that time, the first German-style board games started emerging, such as Modern Art, Carcassonne, and Catan. We thought perhaps there was a demand for these games as well, so we included them in the selection alongside with Magic, in English at first. Later, we understood that there may be a market for Finnish versions too, and so Carcassonne became our first translated game.
When it comes to Magic, sales margins dropped in the course of time, especially with regard to single card sales. Certain private sellers became our competitors, and they did not have fixed costs, so we figured it was best to leave Magic to others. Therefore, we changed our company name from Safe Haven to Lautapelit.fi. My heart still beats for Magic because it is where everything began; however, unfortunately, its commercial potential is limited.
Lautapelit.fi has published around 200 game publications of its own. In many ways, publishing games is very similar to publishing books. There are translations from abroad and originals from authors and game designers in Finland. We sell translation rights to operators abroad and distribute our games in English around the world. We have also published Finnish games that have later succeeded around the world. The first one was Eclipse, which sold very well in the US. Our newest success, cycling game Flamme Rouge, was nominated for “Game of the Year” in France. The topic of the game naturally sparks interest there.
Do you have time to play yourself?
Saturday is the day of the week I have time. Almost every Saturday night, we sit together at home playing. I have played around 2,000 to 3,000 different games, hundreds every year.
I like games where the significance of luck is as small as possible but still exists. I do not like completely deterministic games such as chess; I prefer games that have a small chance of coincidence and the element of risk. Games based on resource management, economy, or building are close to my heart. The way some people have their favourite authors, I have favourite game designers whose new progeny I wait.
I used to like complicated and large-scale games where one round could last a whole Sunday. However, after having kids, my preference for games has changed, and these days my ‘sweet spot’ is games that last around two hours and preferably so that there is time to play more than one game a night.
The mechanics of games are much more important for me than the theme. However, the games with good mechanics that I like tend to be medieval trading games.
I rarely play any game more than once or twice, simply because I need to test out new games for the company and try to find new gems.
I have scarcely played computer or console games, apart from sometimes playing with my kids. I am sure they would be interesting, but I simply do not have the time. Perhaps once I have retired.
What do you think makes board games so popular?
Board games may be even more popular elsewhere than they are in Finland. I often say that the Finnish Helsinki Book Fair is itty-bitty compared to the Essen Game Fair, which I attend every year. It seems like the number of games, publishers, and visitors just keeps growing.
I believe two factors can explain the popularity of board games. Firstly, amongst the previous generations, playing board games was considered an activity for children, but now it is more socially acceptable for adults as well. My generation may be the first that has grown up playing board games and as an adult realised there is no reason to abandon this great pastime.
Secondly, digital games are often played alone or on the internet, and a lot of people already work on a computer every day. Many who are interested in playing may want to spend their leisure time with their friends rather than sitting in front of a computer.
Do you manage your company’s legal matters yourself?
Luckily, we do not have many legal matters, but when we do, I take care of them at weekends. In a company like this, a board meeting means ringing a friend on the phone. If a transaction lawyer performed DD on our company, they would probably be shocked. Administration does not really exist, which means it does not really take time. In our company, I focus more on testing the products.
It is a shame how little time I am able to use on the company’s matters. We would have potential to expand if we had the time for that. Luckily, our family’s representation in the company is strong, because my wife works in the company and is responsible for Lautapelit.fi’s store in Helsinki.
Did you ever think it was possible that you would end up in the game industry full time?
There has not been a day I did not think it was possible. For me, Lautapelit.fi is a so-called Plan B, and I think it is a possibility that I will work there when I retire from the legal world.
Nonetheless, law school and the MBA I did later were such big investments that it has alwayd been clear to me that working as a lawyer will be my career and day job.
On the other hand, games may have been the reason I became a lawyer. In upper secondary school, I used to play very complex strategic games made by a company called Avalon Hill. The rulebooks of the games were written like law books. It seemed like a lawyer had written them, which most probably is the case. After spending a few years reading rulebooks such as these, reading contracts or laws did not really differ from it, and law school felt like a natural next step in life.
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