The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames


Al Newman

July, 2000

Speak to Jay Tummelson, who runs the game publisher Rio Grande Games, and you get the distinct feeling that a games renaissance is in progress. Tummelson started producing English-language versions of German games a few years ago for Mayfair Games. Mayfair, a "boutique" publisher, retailed the games they imported from Germany for as much as $70 to $80, placing them out of the range of the typical family budget. Tummelson's job was to secure the licenses and approvals, but when Mayfair owner Darwin Bromley decided to quit subsidizing the company, plans to import more games simply evaporated into thin air.

Tummelson soon moved to New Mexico, where his partner lived, and they decided they could do better than Mayfair. His original partner is now out of the picture, but Tummelson has a couple of minor partners who weren't around in March 1998, when the company officially started doing business. At that time Rio Grande had a portfolio of half a dozen titles. Now, on the eve of the millennium, Rio Grande stocks 44 titles!

The secrets to Rio Grande's successful launch have been small print runs—2,000 to 3,000 units—and their ability to recycle cash from rapid turnovers into new additions to the product line. This was made easier by German publishers working with Tummelson to release new games in the U.S. at the same time as in Europe.

Tummelson claims the demand for "good family strategy games" is strong. Most of Mayfair's imports were very complex three- to six-hour games, while most of what passed for board games in the U.S. were simple dice-rolling contests. But the German market produced intelligent games that took only one hour to play—perfect for family use. Ironically, it was the shorter family strategy games that caught on with players who were used to the complex long-winded affairs. Tummelson proudly notes the "high replayability and quality components" of the German board games, citing solid wooden pieces and classy and atmospheric artwork. Within months of Rio Grande's first push, the refrain from customers was, "Send more!"

Jay Tummelson with a few Rio Grande games

According to Tummelson, the chance for a true renaissance now depends upon a growing number of specialty retailers—typically buying outside their niche—to pick up Rio Grande's expanding line. He is very encouraged by orders from small chains of three to six stores and now sees families specifically looking for games such as these—families that had stopped looking years ago.

Is he worried about competition from Hasbro's plans for Avalon Hill to commence publishing a brand-new look for a classic line of proven games? Not at all. He concedes that Avalon Hill's fabulous-looking packages say, "Let's give people good board games with top-notch components and see what happens." In Tummelson's view, the wait might be well worth it. As far as he's concerned, both Hasbro/Avalon Hill and Rio Grande are giving the public exactly what they have been looking for. Family game nights may soon be back in vogue, just in time for the start of a new millennium.

How I Learned to Love Jail

It was not a typical Saturday night in the fraternity house. For some inexplicable reason, our weekend social plans had all exploded, leaving the four of us with absolutely nothing to do. Jaded beyond boredom with the current crop of movies and alternate activities like shooting pool or bowling, my buddy Dave elected to raid the closet of old board games. Monopoly fell out first and so became the game of choice.

We were desperate for a little excitement and someone suggested we play for money. Probably it was Peter, the gambler in the group, who was known to blow as much as $50 (a lot of money in 1961) to win on a single race at Belmont. We each forked over $15, which Richie placed into the pot. Our $15 apiece worked out to $1,500 in Monopoly dollars at a penny per M-buck. Seemed reasonable. If you went bankrupt, you lost your $15. If you bankrupted everyone else, you won the entire pot. The upside and downside were no worse than the all-night poker games we had been in—except that we all knew that poker was a game of skill and Monopoly all luck. Right?

The light didn't go on for me until about a half-hour later, when a nasty set of circumstances vaulted me past the coveted Marvin Gardens by one silly little space and smack onto Officer Krupke on the corner space. I obediently went to Jail.

On the next turn, I landed on St. James Place after rolling double-3 to get out of jail. Something clicked. Jail plus 6 equals St. James. The wheels began to revolve. Jail plus 8 equals Tennessee Avenue. The gears began to mesh. Jail plus 9 equals New York Avenue. The guys probably thought I was crazy, even counting on my fingers to compute that there was a 14-in-36 chance of landing on the Orange monopoly after landing in Jail.

Suddenly, the 39-percent odds shone like a bright light. Add into the mix the potential for double-3 and double-4 on the first and second tries while in Jail, and the odds of landing on the Orange were pretty darn good! And the presence of Officer Krupke further increased the odds that someone would land in Jail in the first place!

Within five minutes I had made what everyone thought were the most absurd deals for St. James Place and Tennessee Avenue. I already had New York Avenue and swapped Connecticut and Oriental to Dave to give him the light Blue for Tennessee. I gave Peter Boardwalk for St. James Place plus his promise to allow me two free landings of my choosing on Boardwalk. I went totally bonkers and swapped Richie two railroads and cash for Kentucky Avenue and bought Virginia Avenue for the ridiculous sum of $300 from Pete.

With every remaining dollar, I bought up as many houses as I could, placed them on my Orange monopoly and sat back and waited.

Officer Krupke caught Richie first and Dave visited Jail the same turn. Soon I was on easy street and raking in enough to build four houses on each property. That led me to my second revelation: you can build only as many houses as there are in the game box! By taking 12 of the 30 out of circulation, I made it difficult for everyone else to establish a foothold. Also, the rules forbid you to build a hotel unless you first build four houses on a property, and you can't build a fourth house on a property unless you have three houses on the other two properties of the same color. See where I'm going with this?

Naturally, I won with ease and in one session learned a lot about this marvelous game. Yes, the luck of the dice plays a significant role, but skill can overcome any deficit of the dice. Bargaining well in Monopoly is no less difficult than the skills required in Diplomacy. Knowing the odds for the board layout, such as which monopolies are most valuable, is at least as important as knowing the odds in poker. In this instance, knowledge of the layout was the key to winning. For once, Jail was a very profitable experience.

- Al Newman

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