Here it is, here it is, the 5th Year-End Review of Scorpion Masqué, in words, thoughts, and numbers!
For newcomers, my name is Christian Lemay, and I founded Scorpion Masqué in 2006. Every year since 2016 I have put together an overview of our previous 12 months of activity, and I give my thoughts on the boardgame industry, and how it has evolved over this time. In addition to this, I also offer up some nice and crunchy financial details.
Scorpion Masqué is a boardgame publisher. Our job consists of…
1. Choosing the games we will publish.
2. Developing and improving these games.
3. Giving them a physical form (box format, illustrations…)
4. Having them produced.
5. Making sure that they are promoted amongst boardgaming consumers (and more and more amongst game stores themselves) and finding distribution for them all over the planet.
Scorpion Masqué is six full-time employees: Christian Lemay (that’s me!), President-Founder and Grand Poobah; Manuel Sanchez, Creative Director and project manager; Hélène Vigneault, in charge of events, marketing, and logistics; Carl Brière, Sales Director; Sébastien Bizos, Motion and Graphic Designer; and finally Matthew Legault in communications, translation, and playtest coordination. We also work with numerous freelancers, such as game designers, illustrators, and demo staff at the festivals and conventions where we come to meet you all.
We published 6 games this year. 2 English versions of existing French-language games (Stay Cool and Flash 8), one 2nd Edition of a French-language-only game (J’te gage que), and 3 new titles. And this was too much. Yet again, the team had to burn the midnight oil in the spring to deliver all of our projects on time (read: we were unable to deliver all our projects on time) and this created stresses that I would never wish to impose on my team ever again.
1. Mia London and the Case of the 625 Scoundrels
Designers: Antoine Bauza & Corentin Lebrat
It took us just over 3 years to put out this little game, which we signed at the end of 2016. When it was released we wondered how it would be received, being the first in the ‘Little Monsters’ line of games since the phenomenal success of Zombie Kidz. Well I can tell you that Mia London isn’t afraid of anything, and she rises to every challenge. Yes, even that of being released in French on Friday the 13th (yes, I’m well aware of the significance of that date…) of March, 2020, the day before the first lockdown in France and Quebec. To be honest, I was afraid that she wouldn’t make it. A game has only one chance to succeed, and if it falls at the first hurdle, there is no way we’d be able to draw the public’s eyes back onto Mia again once the game stores reopened. It really bothered me, especially considering the work that Antoine and Corentin put into this brilliant little observation game, and the patience they had shown us. This disappointment was compounded by the game’s excellent intrinsic qualities, the wonderful illustrations, a unique and unforgettable title, its quick, intuitive nature that brings kids back for more, its original components, its humour… Luckily for us, Mia held the course and she was very warmly received, carving out a place for herself in game stores and in people’s homes. You have no idea how glad I am for this.
2. Master Word
Designer: Gérald Cattiaux
In January of 2019, when we decided to publish this little gem from Gérald Cattiaux, the entire Scorpion Masqué team told each other what a relief it would be to be able to bury their noses in a project that wasn’t as colossal as Decrypto, Stay Cool (1,500 questions, don’t forget!) or Zombie Kidz Evolution… It will be a nice change to make a less time consuming game! In reality it took us a year and a half of full-time work to bring the project to fruition. Even though Master Word’s base structure is super simple, all the micro-adjustments took an enormous amount of time to put in place and to make work. The number of rounds, the number of players, the way the Joker worked, the Clue cards vs the Solution cards, the sudden-death element, the time players have to discuss…
And I haven’t even started discussing the creation of the ‘challenges’. The challenges are essentially formed by the word the Seekers have to find (the ‘Master Word’ of the title) and the starting hint. You’d think that there was nothing easier in the world than sticking ‘Animal’ together with ‘Platypus’... but, no.
a) We didn’t want 300 animal challenges, we wanted variety! But it turns out that in the Internet Age, the range of cultural ‘elements’ that we were once able to assume everyone knew (and could answer questions about) has shrunk to the relative dimensions of a pea.
b) Too few paths lead to a Platypus. We therefore needed Master Words that could be reached numerous different ways, by different paths, and coming to this conclusion took some time.
c) The starting hint had to put the Seekers on the right track, but without giving them the answer right away. This is a delicate balance to attain.
d) What might be super-easy for one group may not be quite so simple for another. We therefore conducted over 1,000 playtests, to attain two objectives: Firstly, UNDERSTANDING what makes a good challenge. For example, we established that guessing expressions, as popular as they might be, was not a good idea. And secondly, to test the Master Words themselves…
On top of its qualities as a game, Master Word has been a success because we started working with game stores, reviewers, and other content creators all the way back in February 2019. At the Cannes festival in France, we played the prototype with as many people as we could. We not only received feedback from these people; we also planted a seed of interest in them. This can be a risky gambit. If the game isn’t fun or has significant problems, the first impression of a game store owner or a content creator can persist, despite significant improvements to the game between their test and the game’s eventual release 18 months later. Luckily for us, the game stores loved Master Word, and took it under their wing. We thank them wholeheartedly for this. Master Word’s initial in-store placement, by the way, of around 6,000 units in the first weeks surpassed that of Decrypto by a long shot! Mission Accomplished!
3. Zombie Teenz Evolution
Designer: Annick Lobet
We submitted the final files for Zombie Teez Evolution in June, and I’m still exhausted from the work that this enormous undertaking required. Exhausted, but proud. I turn the box over and over in my hands, and I can only find good things. Annick, Nikao, and the Scorpion Masqué team put everything they had into it. The time, the energy, the money, our silliness, our experience, our knowledge. What a great satisfaction it is, therefore, to see fans of Zombie Kidz Evolution declaring that this is their new favourite! It’s much more common for fans to idealize the object of their affection to a point where it’s practically impossible to offer them something similar, but new, that will satisfy them. And yet we see the opposite happening over and over again… Zombie Teenz has eclipsed its predecessor in the hearts of the public.
Seeing as how Zombie Teenz was so hotly anticipated we knew that we could allow ourselves a few little eccentricities, such as a comic strip!! Thanks to Remy Tornoir for having accepted the challenge! I have a strong feeling that it’s an element of the game that the public has fallen in love with.
We made 18,000 copies in French in the first print-run, and 10,000 in English. That is huge. We’ve already ordered a second… and third print-run in French (for a total of 36,000 units produced or in production). Already 10 languages carry the game in translation. Zombie Kidz and Zombie Teenz have become our locomotives for finding new distributors on the international market… Hats off to the game’s designer and to the team!
How do I start talking about the pandemic that has touched us all, and about which it seems everything has already been said? I guess by talking about the imperceptible impacts. I’ve often heard the comment “Things must be great for you. People are buying tons of games during these lockdowns; you must be making a fortune!”
Let’s look at the facts. Did the market grow during these lockdowns? In France, a statistic provided by Asmodee for the first lockdown period indicated a phenomenal growth rate of 40%. But for whom and for what? Clearly the independent game stores where most of our games are sold didn’t profit from this growth, because they were closed. Even though many of them claim to have seen an explosion of sales on their online platforms, there is no way that this was enough to compensate for the lack of human traffic! A game store can probably multiply its online sales by a factor of 5, but because they only represented 10% of their overall sales to begin with, they still are still losing. This means that if there was growth it was profitable for the mass-market stores, who only sell the Monopoly- and Uno-style games of this world. And yes, I know there are exceptions. 7 Wonders Duel, for example, seems to have blown up, and has caught up in sales to the original 7 Wonders, which was released 5 years earlier (in 2010).
It’s also important to note that lockdowns and isolation haven’t been great for party games, which make up a significant portion of our catalogue.
Lastly, people don’t buy the same things online as they do in stores. I don’t have any serious studies to back up this claim, but the inquiries I made to numerous game stores were useful in confirming what Manuel (our Creative Director) and I had suspected at the beginning of the current crisis. Generally speaking (and yes, there are exceptions as always) consumers will buy a product online that they already know. You already know what game you want to buy when you go online, instead of walking into a brick-and-mortar store looking to poke around a bit, to discover new things, to be reminded of games you’ve heard of, or to get the recommendations from a well-informed staff member who will confidently place a copy of Master Word into your hands. Online, consumers will buy something they know; a classic like Uno, Sorry, or Monopoly; or a game that has created enormous buzz, like Azul, The Crew, Pandemic, Codenames… On our side, only Zombie Kids Evolution can come close to that rarefied air, in the ‘Family Games’ section. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we’ve sold a lot of Decrypto and Stay Cool this year, but I’m convinced that we would have sold more… if it weren’t for that pesky virus.
For our English-language readers, you will probably remember that we hired Matthew Legault last year to help us make greater headway into that market. We sent him to Pax Unplugged in December 2019, and then to the GAMA Trade Show in March 2020 to meet content-creators face-to-face and spread the word about all things Scorpion Masqué. We put together some wonderful collaborations and built some relationships that meant that our wonderful, hilarious, real-time party game Stay Cool was guaranteed to make a huge splash when it released… in mid-March… ughh...
Now, I don’t want to leave this section on a note of doom and gloom. I repeat, and you will see this further on, we had an excellent year overall. But, as always, I try to give as clear and honest a summary as possible, including our challenges as well as our successes. And I really really want to separate myth from reality.
Thoughts About Self-Promotion
The Scorpion Masqué team impresses me every year with their ideas for how to promote our games, to get the word out about them. I’m thinking of the variants to make Mia London easier or tougher, the Stay Cool Challenge, the promo packs for Decrypto… However, sharing these wonderful ideas (once they’ve been created) is actually extremely difficult. It’s a bit like investing a ton of money in an incredible TV ad, but no big chain wants to broadcast it. This is why, in the future, we will have to better analyse our ability to make these initiatives known to the general public before charging head-first into projects that consume not only time and energy, but sometimes even money.
This shouldn’t stop us from taking risks, however. Not taking risks is actually the riskiest thing you can do! This past year we did a Quebec-only re-edition of our first-ever game, released in 2006, J’te gage que… (I Betcha…) which is a party game… to be played at an actual party. This had been in the works since before Covid hit, so we didn’t have a choice but to see it through. The game consists of challenges that have to be done during a gathering without people knowing you’re doing them. We decided that the best way to promote the game was to create a mini-version of it that could be played online at work or family Christmas parties over Zoom. And it’s this kind of crazy idea that meant we got coverage on traditional media channels! Our game was featured on the biggest breakfast-TV show in Quebec, and we were talked about on Quebec’s most popular radio station by a celebrity who followed up with two very flattering blog posts! It’s hard to do better than getting coverage like that!
Games of the Year
Because Scorpion Masqué doesn’t have the monopoly on great games - far from it - here are a few discoveries of mine from 2020 that stood out for me.
I generally play ‘big games’ at conventions, particularly at Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends. Seeing how these events didn’t take place this year, and my Friday night gaming group has morphed into an online RPG group (on the Roll20 platform), I didn’t get much of a chance to play some of the ‘heavier’ titles I enjoy. So there haven’t been that many discoveries of these types of games this year. There was, however, Underwater Cities. This is a curious mix of worker placement, “action cards”, and city-building. As is usually the case with Euro-style games, the theme (constructing underwater cities) doesn’t really come through in the mechanisms, but if you like the three mechanisms I mentioned above, go for it! It makes for an excellent cocktail.
What a delight it is to recommend this title from Tiki Editions, a company run by one of the nicest guys in the boardgaming world: David Duperret. I have something to admit: I would have refused to publish Lucky Numbers if it had been proposed to me. And yet, Lucky Numbers reminds us of the simple pleasure of PLAYING. Playing for fun. Without worrying about performing. Without stress. Without pressure. Playing while chatting with your friends, with your son and your daughter. Lucky Numbers is a little bit like playing the lottery, or playing bingo… but not exactly. Because you can still play ‘well’ or badly. The goal? Fill in your 16-space board by drawing numbers and placing them in ascending order from top to bottom, AND from left to right. That’s it, that’s all. And to be honest, that’s more than enough. And we play game after game after game...
Dracula’s Feast: New Blood
I dreamed about this kind of game a few years back: a hidden identity game that works better by deduction than by bluffing. A game where you have to figure out who is who, but not through ridiculous arguments like “She’s the werewolf because she’s not talking!” or “She’s the werewolf because she keeps talking!” You do it by the actions the other players take. “Okay, she said yes to This, no to That, and she ‘traded’ with The Other… so she’s probably Dracula!” Luckily for me, someone else went through the effort to make the game and it’s really well done. Very clever! So much so, that our brains were pretty frazzled after the first few games! But I would also strongly recommend playing your first games with a maximum of 5 players!! With the base characters. It’s a very subtle game that takes a few plays to get used to the characters, but it’s one that gives a ton of satisfaction through its deduction aspect, but that also leaves room for intuition.
It’s excellent. It’s smart, it’s mean, it’s demanding. Everyone has already said everything there is to say about this game. I don’t have anything to add, but I couldn’t not mention this one!
I know very well that you are only here for the crunchy financial details. This is why I put this at the end. I hope that you have taken the time to read the rest of the article. It’s at least as instructive as what is to follow, and it also takes a long time to write. So, here are some anecdotes with numbers:
The final sales figures for 2020 were around $3,484,000 CAD ($2,725,000 USD). This represents an approximate increase of 36% on 2019. This is an extraordinary result, considering the challenges we all faced this year. Sorry for my flair for the dramatic, but this is why I began this piece by underlining the difficulties we faced this year: to showcase our success in the end. What can I say?! I’m a die-hard fan of Rocky Balboa!
I’ll share another numbers story with you: At the beginning of September, I had a little moment of worry, because the accumulated profits didn’t reflect our excellent sales. We were going through many more games, but Quickbooks (our accounting software) told me that we were generating less profit than at the same date in the previous year. It took me a while to understand this, to analyze it properly. First of all, our factory sent us a big invoice in mid-January, which dragged down our first-quarter numbers. A good deal of those expenses should have been accounted for in 2019. On top of that we also produced well over 350,000 games last year, a record for us, which required significant upstream investments. We increased our reserves of Zombie Kidz to better last between print-runs (adding at least 10,000 units to our stock, for French-language games alone). We also ordered a first print run of 12,000 Master Word in French, and 28,000 Zombie Teenz (English and French). Finally I discovered that we hadn’t invoiced a shipment of Decrypto to the US… In short, 2020 was a record year for sales and profit margin, but we generated about half of these profits only in the last two months of the year. This made for a year full of tension, and required an amount of confidence and calm that I don’t always possess (yes, I do have mini-nervous breakdowns every now and then). Thanks again to my team for tolerating the roller-coaster that is my emotional state…
At the beginning of the first lockdown, I made 4 budgetary predictions: an optimistic one (4-6 weeks of closure), a realistic one, a bad one, and a catastrophic one (closure for 6 months). Even if our liquidity allowed us to get through each of these scenarios, this would not be enough. If the game stores themselves didn’t survive, then we would have to quickly change our way of doing things, our business model. I think of those game stores today and wish them all the very best for 2021, because they are the ones who have suffered the most, I believe.
Scorpion Masqué finds itself in an excellent position today. I get the feeling that I repeat myself every year, but I firmly believe that this is the fruit of the labours of a talented team, mixed with a bit of luck, and also everyone we work with: game stores, distributors, designers, illustrators, etc. I tip my hat to you all and thank you all. Thinking of all of this is extremely moving to me.
For a number of years now I have promised that we will slow down a bit. It will finally happen for real in 2021. The team needs a bit of rest after the year that we’ve had, and yes, we have a number of very ambitious projects lined up for 2022! We will only be publishing 2 new games this year, and we will be releasing a new edition of one of our favourite games (I’ll keep the surprise up my sleeve for now), for a total of 3 releases. The first game is already in production, and we’ve just finished work on the 2nd-edition game. This leaves us enough time to catch our breath a bit, and will allow us to hit the ground running in 2022 (did I mention that we have some ambitious projects…?).
Okay, okay, I might as well tell you. Cue the spotlight.. Our first release in 2021 will be… Olé Guacamole! by designer Guillaume Sandance.
A happy-hour game that is both super-simple and super-tricky… just the way we like them (and you do too, as we know!). 8 seconds of rules for 15 minutes of fun (I’m sure there’s a terrible joke hiding in that phrase somewhere…). Here’s the box: It was an instant hit for the whole team, and for everyone who has tried it. It was a pleasant surprise that arrived just before Essen 2019. The idea behind the game? Say words that don’t contain certain letters. It’s as refreshing as a nice cold cerveza, funny, and explodes like a popcorn kernel! Bursts of laughter and facepalms galore!
Now, before you get too excited… this game won’t be releasing in English right away. This is something we are working on to determine exactly how to put this into the marketplace for best effect.
The 2nd Edition game I mentioned earlier will only be in French as well, but will be in the Decrypto - Stay Cool - Master Word line.
And finally, at the end of the year we will unveil a game that takes place in the Zombie Kidz universe, but with a completely different kind of gameplay… the much-rumoured racing game with the sightless driver… stay tuned!!
Thank you all for reading, and especially for supporting us over the year. Without you, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Once a month Scorpion Masqué's Grand Poobah shares his thoughts with you. From how the market has evolved, to writing rules that make sense, with detours into game mechanisms, you will get a glimpse at the board game industry from the point of view of a publisher.
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