Some years ago, I wrote an article about how Hasbro had gobbled up the entire gaming world. It’s ten years later and Hasbro is not just sitting pretty atop their piles of toys and games, but considering a merger to turn them into a truly terrifying megacorp. Hasbro’s games division is just a quarter of their entire business, but in recent years it’s managed to scrape by with $1.2 or $1.3 billion in sales. I think it’s safe to assume that they still own the vast majority of the gaming market, with everything from Monopoly to Magic: The Gathering in their portfolio. And, I think their massive size continues to damage their less popular brands, including my beloved Dungeons & Dragons, which is being starved to death, one product-less month at a time.
But what about the other elephant in the room? What about Asmodee? What about the company who was one called Asmodée Editions and before that Idéojeux before they gave up the Francophilian accent. What about the publisher that began life as Siroz (cirrhosis) Productions, best known in the US as the original creator of the In Nomine RPG? Since their 2013 sale to Eurozao, they’ve gone on an impressive shopping spree, picking up publishing houses throughout the United States and beyond.
Do we have the next Hasbro on our hands, the next company to eat the gaming world?
As a whole, Asmodee’s growth is entirely impressive. It started out in 1986 as a roleplaying publisher named Siroz; like many roleplaying companies, Siroz was created by friends in college who decided to make some of the games that they loved. It’s easy to forget now, but Asmodee was still publishing their own roleplaying titles like Bloodlust and In Nomine into the late ’90s.
However, as they grew, Asmodee followed a similar trajectory to American roleplaying publishers like Steve Jackson Games and even Wizards of the Coast — transforming their initial roleplaying success into even bigger success in the larger board and card game field. Still,they were small potatoes. When they first pushed into the North American board gaming market in the mid ’00s, they had a pitifully tiny list of six or so titles. But that was just the trunk of the elephant in the room; there was already more going on back in their homeland of France.
That more began with Pokémon, a game with an accent of its own. Asmodee picked up the French license in 2003 and was able to sell about 10 million copies of the game. Cue ever-growing success. Cue a purchase of Jeux Descartes in 2004. Cue a rapid evolution of that scant American catalog.
In 2005, founder Marc Nunés started looking for additional funding to continue bootstrapping his company. This led to a 2007 investment by Montefiore Investment, which led to a series of mergers that is only summarized in the chart above because it included game distributors and jobbers (republishers of foreign games) rather than creators. In 2007 Asmodee bought the Belgian distributor Hodin, followed by the Spanish developer Cromola and the German publisher and distributor Proludo in 2008. Then in 2010 they bought majority interest in English distributor Esdevium. More recently their purchase of Asterion Press was likely directed at Italian distribution and publication.
Whereas Hasbro has mainly created a horizontal rollup of gaming creators, Asmodee has created a vertical rollup, combining international publication and distribution in 8 different territories with their private game catalog. To some extent Asmdoee’s monopoly has more potential, because they can create games, publish games, and bring them to market.
Asmodee changed hands in 2013, going from Montefiore Investment to Eurozao Accuiel. This seems to be what fueled the latest round of purchases — the buys of Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight, and Pearl Games and the creation of the Catan Studio. But it’s part of a long, steady ramp-up that’s been going on for 10 years and it’s just a capstone; this new collection of intellectual properties will allow Asmodee to make full use of the international distribution they pieced together in the late ’00s.
So how successful has Asmodee been so far? Montefiore was happy to tout the growth of their investment when they were in charge. It was grossing about €28 million in 2007, 80% of that in the French market. By 2009, they were bringing in €72 million — though admittedly that was after the purchase of several distributors that had income streams of their own.
Asmodee’s growth in the French market up to the modern day is the more impressive and obvious market of their success. The French gaming market has recently been estimated at €250 or €300 million — which is perhaps 15%-20% of the estimated US market, but still isn’t small potatoes. By 2013, Asmodee has risen up to control that market, edging out Hasbro with their home field advantage. Mind you, as of a few years ago that control only amounted to about 25% of France’s market, so it’s still pretty fractured.
The fact that Asmodee was earning somewhere between €62.5 and €75 million in the French market in 2013 tells us a little bit about how they were doing overall. Estimates at the time say they were earning about half of their revenue from France. In other words, they were very roughly grossing somewhere between €125 and €150 million worldwide in 2013.
That’s still literally an order of magnitude less than Hasbro’s $1.2 or $1.3 billion in gaming sales … but it also represents a four- or five-fold increase in nine years. And an even more impressive increase from their start as a small roleplaying interest thirty years ago. And that was all before the recent acquisitions of Days of Wonder andFantasy Flight and the creation of Catan Studio. An investor report in November 2014 confirmed they’d reached€201 million. I wouldn’t be surprised if Asmodee is reaching toward €300 million in 2016.
They aren’t the creature that ate the gaming world yet.
But the market leaders better watch out.
The Asmodee Portfolio
As the chart above shows, Asmodee has combined the properties of four major publishing houses: Asmodee themselves, Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Jeux Descartes, and Pearl Games. They also own the smaller Abalone Games and Pearl Games, have formed Catan Studio, and have some ownership of Ystari Games. They further have distribution deals with Latapelit.fi, Libellud, and Repos Production Then there’s their own spin-off Space Cowboys, created to once more give the owners of Asmodee the opportunity to produce small-press games.
That’s a lucky 13 publishing houses! Probably more! It’s an impressive collection of publishing power that links up to an impressive set of games. Asmodee is still missing out on many top games, such as Carcassonne and Dominion, but their portfolio nonetheless includes a number of BoardGameGeek’s most popular offerings (measured by total number of votes at BGG):
- Catan (#1)
- 7 Wonders (#7)
- Ticket to Ride (#8)
- Small World (#10)
- Citadels (#11)
- Ticket to Ride: Europe (#13)
- Arkham Horror (#16)
- Dixit (#19)
- Battlestar Galactica (#23)
- Caylus (#28)
When you go through BGG’s top-votes list, it’s obvious that Asmodee only has one major rival among these games of our: Z-Man Games (F2Z Entertainment). If you hear word of an Asmodee / Z-Man merger (A to Z!), that’ll be the sign of the eurogame apocalypse, but for now there’s still some healthy competition.
If I had to guess, I’d say it’s much more likely that Asmodee will snatch up Rio Grande and/or Dominion next, but time will tell.
The Asmodee Potential
The big question is of course what Asmodee will do with their corpocratic control. I’m on the record as not being a fan of roleplaying rollups of this type, because it’s usually been bad for roleplaying games — even big dog Dungeons & Dragons — which can’t compete in the more rarified markets that they’re introduced to.
As for how that translates to the eurogame market? Certainly, Asmodee is going to keep offering great support for Catan, 7 Wonders, Ticket to Ride, and other high fliers. We’ve Hasbro do the same with Risk and Axis & Allies — both of which are now supplemented and varianted on a weekly basis. But we’ve also seen Hasbro neglect games like … well everything else in the Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast portfolio, including classics and award-winners alike. Is Asmodee going to have the time for a Memoir ’44 or an Android: Netrunner when it’s not as popular as Ticket to Ride? That’s another situation where time will tell, but the history of similar corporate rollups hasn’t been good for smaller titles.
Fortunately, the small-press euro market is robust enough that the Asmodee singularity is unlikely to hurt overall innovation in the field. It’s easy enough for Martin Wallace or Andrea Meyer to release a fully-professional release, especially in the modern-day of Kickstarter. So it’s mainly a question of whether existing games will ever see the light of day again (and whether those great small-press games will gain the greater recognition that they deserve).
Meanwhile, the Asmodee roll-up is also making waves in distribution and retail. Asmodee North America is only supporting five of the US distributors — which is a step up for Days of Wonder, who had an exclusive with Alliance, but is anew limit for Asmodee and Fantasy Flight titles.
Asmodee is also using their new strength as somewhat scary leverage against game sellers, requiring them to be Asmodee Specialty Retailers. It’s shades of how Games Workshop does business in the US, which has resulted in an unhealthy level of control of the miniatures industry. Maybe Asmodee will use their power for good, but once again I’ll say that would go against the record-to-date of corporate roll-ups of this type.
I’ve heard some complaints from retailers about Asmodee’s new percentages. Retailers are getting a 48% discount, where some used to get a 50% discount for Catan products. However, overall the most interesting element of Asmodee’s Specialty Retailer agreement has to be the fact that they forbid online sales (except for specially approved retailers). This has created great upset at BGG, which unsurprisingly has a high percentage of online buyers. However, it also offers brick-and-mortar retailers a new weapon against competition that undercuts the benefits that physical stores can offer — benefits that are probably important for the long-term growth of the industry as a whole. But from what I hear designated online retailers just have to pay a few extra points, getting a 45% discount instead of 48%. 3% ain’t enough to run a brick-and-mortar store, but maybe Asmodee is also contractually limiting sale prices. Yet another thing that we’ll have to see. (The full Specialty Retailer agreement goes into place on April 1.)
Bottom line: Asmodee’s new contracts are showing they have a lot of heft and power, even if they’re still just a fraction of Hasbro’s size.
With that heft maybe they are becoming a creature that can eat the gaming industry after all.
A lot of the history of Asmodee tracks with the history of the roleplaying industry that I wrote about in Designers & Dragons. Here are the highlights, in alphabetical order:
- AEG got their start in the roleplaying business, but has moved over to board game production in recent years. They divested themselves of their last RPG products in 2015 when they sold Legend of the 5 Rings to Fantasy Flight Games and 7th Sea to John Wick. They’re discussed in Designers & Dragons: The ’90s.
- The predecessors of Asmodee produced a number of roleplaying games, with In Nomine being the most important to the US market, thanks to a translation by Steve Jackson Games, who appears in Designers & Dragons: The ’80s.
- Asterion Press is one of the publishers who worked with Mongoose Publishing as part of their Flaming Cobra program. They tried to publish some third-party 4e books, but that market cratered almost immediately. They’re mentioned in the Mongoose Publishing article in Designers & Dragons: The ’00s.
- Chaosium is an old-school RPG publisher who is important here mainly because Fantasy Flight Games continues to go back to the Cthulhu well. They appear in Designers & Dragons: The ’70s.
- Casus Belli is a French role-playing magazine that was founded by François Marcela-Froideval. He quickly left it behind because he moved to the US to be one of the right-hand men for Gary Gygax in the early ’80s. He appears in TSR in Designers & Dragoners: The ’70s.
- Fantasy Flight Games got its start it comic books, but then moved over to RPGs and board games. Alongside their very successful board games, they’re currently publishing Warhammer 40k and Star Wars RPGs … but they’re the only Asmodee company that’s still doing RPG production that I know of, so we’ll see how long that lasts. (At least Star Wars seems like it should be pretty darned viable at the moment.) Fantasy Flight appears in Designers & Dragons: The ’90s.
- Games Workshop is another old-school RPG publisher who’s important here for their licenses to Fantasy Flight. They also appear in Designers & Dragons: The ’70s.
- ICE is mentioned here only because they took over Mayfair Games between a 1997 bailout and the 2000 bankruptcy of their own company. ICE and its roleplaying products still exist, in a third incarnation. However the people that ran the original company moved over to Mayfair, and since then a few of ICE’s founders, Peter Fenlon and S. Coleman Charlton, have founded Catan Studio. Whew! The original company and its modern successors all appear in Designers & Dragons: The ’80s.
- Mayfair Games used to produce roleplaying games like DC Heroes and the Role Aids series in the ’80s, but by the time ICE reformed the company, they already had Catan rights, so they’ve been a eurogame company ever since. They also appear in Designers & Dragons: The ’80s.
With so many interconnections, it seems like I need to write a companion volume about board game publishers some year!
Author’s Notes: I added Pearl Games, Ystari, and Space Cowboys and better documented the licensing deals. Both the chart and text were updated. —SA, 2/9/16
In July, Asmodee started negotiating to buy Z-Man. Wuh Oh! —SA, 10/26/16