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Friday, March 1, 2024

Bailey Brewer’s End of Year Extravaganza! Part Three: Publisher of the Year

by | published Tuesday, December 12, 2023

As the board gaming hobby has matured and developed, so have the publishers. The diversity of titles being put out to the general masses each and every week has reached critical mass, all because publishers of all sizes exist and flourish in our weird little hobby.

For now, though, I want to spotlight two different publishers that deserve the extra recognition. Ones whose titles are polished and revered, ones whose actions need to be noticed by the rest of the hobby. These publishers are ones that every gamer should be aware of if they want to see a quick snapshot of what the hobby is up to these days.

Runner-Up: Renegade Game Studios

They released the first high-quality and accurate version of Acquire in over two decades. Period. That’s it.

Ok, but for real. 

In October of 2022, Renegade announced that they were “expand[ing] their licensing relationship with Hasbro, a global branded entertainment company, to include best-selling games Axis & Allies, Diplomacy, Squad Leader, and Robo Rally.” Additionally, in early 2023, it was confirmed this did in fact include Acquire as well. Finally some company was saving Hasbro from themselves and actually working with these treasured IPs in a meaningful way. I was instantly excited to see what this brought into the scene, but hesitant because even though I trusted Renegade, the option was certainly on the table to simply churn out low-quality products to cash in on nostalgia, or run overpriced crowdfunding campaigns to rake in the extra cash. 

It didn’t take long for the hesitation to leave, as in January of 2023 Renegade started the Officer’s Club, an online community focused entirely around Axis & Allies content. Then, just a month later, they started their “You Pick the Battle!” series where players literally got to choose which Axis & Allies titles would be reprinted. Instead of just choosing random titles to do without any feedback, they asked the audience which titles they wanted to see. This was on top of them already setting to reprint tried-and-true classics in the series that had been out of print for years.

In June of this year, they finally opened pre-orders for their new version of Acquire. After the 2008 and 2016 releases being, frankly, pure garbage, I had low expectations. I thought this reprint would be cardboard tiles and renamed hotels just like the 2008 release. However, hope started to fill the black void of my soul when Dan Bojanowski, Sr. Producer at Renegade Game Studios stated this in the BGG forums for the game: “We are looking through fan feedback on previous versions and talking to some fans directly. We hope this new version is well received by long-time Acquire fans as well as new gamers!”

Also in June, those mad men announced that they had acquired the rights to sell Heroscape. HEROSCAPE! They are bringing back what can only be described as the pre-Kickstarter deluxified wargame. Is this game good? I don’t know. What I do know is, I had this game on my Christmas list for like, four years in a row, so you can bet I will be buying this day one.

(This game rules! I mean, look at it! Hello?!)

In August they announced some expansion content for Robo Rally, which didn’t seem too odd. What is odd, though, is their announcement in September: “Renegade Game Studios Welcomes Nexus Ops, Vegas Showdown, Risk 2210, and Risk Godstorm.” Now, unless you’re a dweeb of a particular age, or a huge fan of board gaming, you’ve probably not heard of these games. I do not have time to unpack how absolutely bonkers these title choices are, but I implore you to check the BGG pages for these games, because I feel like I’m living in a dream.

These are all great announcements, but how did these products turn out? As I’ve alluded to several times already, the new version of Acquire is now my preferred version. High quality production without being massive, and I have a clear and concise rulebook that’s not written into the cover of the game box. Robo Rally and Diplomacy are also great productions. To be clear here, this is not Restoration Games doing Fireball Island: these are simply solid, high quality, retail productions that are raising the bar for retail releases with exceptional components, not making the most deluxe versions possible. And I love that.

I am not one to think that the hobby needs to hold onto its past. I don’t think that a game like Metro needs to stay in print because it was a one-time popular title; however, I think perennial classics need to be in print and to be taken care of by these publishers. If we as a community want this hobby to grow, to spread, then we need to get new people into the hobby, and the best way to do that is to get people to engage with titles they’re familiar with. There are of course the breakout titles like Wingspan that do have some crossover and can generate new fans on their own, but by having publishers release new releases of games people are familiar with, it makes it much easier for people to re-engage. It reminds people games are fun. It reminds people why they played games in the first place. 

So thank you, Renegade, for taking the time and effort to dig through the dumpsters of Hasbro to bring back the classics. For restoring these perennials. For extending a hand to these aging yet well-loved titles we all cherish. Just a small note for the future, Renegade: If you knock Squad Leader out of the park, then you’re my #1 publisher next year.

Publisher of the Year: Devir Games

I believe that Devir Games might be the best mass-market publisher on the market right now. Renegade is doing a phenomenal restoration job, but their hand-chosen new titles are lopsided to me. Several living deck-building titles and a Search for Planet X spin-off does not make a solid line-up. Devir, on the other hand, pulled off a hat trick by cornering three distinct markets of the eurogame space this year: Old-school, thematic, and efficiency. 

But before we talk about the amazing year they had this year, let’s talk about the last couple years they’ve had to put into perspective how meteoric this rise has been. 

From 2018 through to 2021, Devir had one breakout release each year. 2018 brought us Silk, 2019 brought us Paris: La Cité de la Lumière, 2020 was Red Cathedral’s year, and 2021 was Bitoku. Each one of these years was more popular than the last. People started to take notice of Devir’s original titles, but they weren’t quite a household name yet, despite the popularity of Red Cathedral and Bitoku. In 2022 they released Lacrimosa and an expansion to Red Cathedral. In my opinion, this is where the brand power first accumulated. Lacrimosa seemed to be a pretty obscure game that hit the scene running. It found its success, and more. But, that success is relative. Its weight and price didn’t let it break out of its medium euro market.

(Arguably their breakout release, The Red Cathedral is a spicy affair I hope people don’t forget any time soon.)

And in the start of 2023, it felt like Devir was just going to continue to thrive in its niche. Ierusalem: Anno Domini came out and while it didn’t have the success of Lacrimosa, it did find some new audience members because of its historical telling of Jesus’ Last Supper up through his crucifixion. For me, as much as I absolutely adore the theme, the game just felt bloated. A bit too many ideas, a bit too loose in execution, and physically too large for what it was trying to produce. This feels like a narrow-minded comment, but a game like that should be in an Agricola sized box, not a Great Western Trail box. 

(While definitely not art I always want to see, wow does this art fit here.)

But their next big release helped contextualize everything. Bamboo is one of the best thematic euros I’ve played in a long time. From BoardGameGeek: “For generations, harvesting bamboo has brought prosperity to your home. Work, perseverance, balance and prayer have made a small town flourish that has grown at the expense of the cane fields. Today, various clans live in harmony with nature. In Bamboo, players take on the role of clans that grow bamboo and use the fruits of their labor to take care of their family and thus add happiness points.” The game walks the perfect balance between nonsense lever pulling and resource collecting, and thematic drippings to make it all make sense, without bloating the game. 

(Absolutely charming beyond belief!)

And the absolute best part about Bamboo, and this is something I’m going to keep coming back to with Devir, is that the game is focused. It is simple. It is refined. These games come in tiny boxes with no room to spare. The icons are perfectly clear and distinguishable from one another, even a table-side away. The components are perfect and unique to the game they’re in, and make the game easier to play. The “action bamboo sticks” in Bamboo are little pieces of wood shaped like bamboo! That’s just charming. And, and, these titles run about $30-$40 in the US, about half the price of bigger euros, but with twice the gameplay. And if we compare to the Queen Games releases of Feld’s titles, that’s a third of the price with triple the gameplay!

After Bamboo came 3 Ring Circus, one of the best old-school euros I’ve played in a long time, and on my shortlist for Game of the Year. Come one, come all! Gather ‘round to beat up your friends, cut them out of crucial cities, and hate-draft a card that can prevent your opponents from scoring 9+ points! In 3 Ring Circus, you do one of two things on your turn: lay a card into your Circus (tableau), or Perform (run/score your tableau). When you Perform, you can do so in cities of three different sizes, which can either gain you money, VPs, or a mixture. But act fast, as each Perform action causes the timer of the game to tick down, and it’ll be the end of the game before you know it!

(Awfully pretty wargame you got there.)

I miss when eurogames were designed with hate. I know these games are still getting made, don’t get me wrong, but it is not the standard ethos. So when one comes along, I’m instantly excited. And, when they can be played in a short time span and are enjoyable at all player counts, I’m definitely in. I have heard some people complain about the card markets locking people out of scoring due to sheer dumb luck. However, I disagree because A.) I have come within a few points of an opponent when I couldn’t perform in a key location, and B.) even if that’s the case I don’t care when the game moves this quickly. I’m sure I’ll talk more about this game, but wow, if you take nothing else away from this piece, 3 Ring Circus knocks it out of the park.

Devir’s final big game of the year is The White Castle. To me, this feels like how a Vital Lacerda “mega euro” would feel if he, y’know, had an editor. This is the crunchiest efficiency eurogame I’ve ever played. 3 rounds, 3 turns. Bonus actions here, free resources there. It’s everything you could ever want, squeezed down into a tiny box. With cardboard bridges, too! However, for me personally, this felt like a fine wine: I’m not as into these efficiency euros as I used to be, so my palate isn’t refined enough to properly explain its beauty. I’m going to rely on LadyBug Meeple’s Review if anyone wants to read more about this game’s absolute brilliance.

So there you have it. A relatively new publisher whose first year with more than one major title had a breakout year with three phenomenal games that cover all corners of the eurogame market space. I believe that their work this year has more than demonstrated that they are fantastic at curating designers, streamlining designs, and creating the optimal end-product for us all to share in. And, if you’re interested in seeing their 2024 catalog, there was an article on BGG about it a few weeks ago. 

It saddens me to say it, but I think Capstone has shifted away from being my default go-to mass market publisher. Devir is here, and I couldn’t be happier.

So who do you think had the best 2024? Am I a fool for liking Devir so much? Let me know in the comments!

Author

  • Bailey D

    Bailey is a long-time board gamer, short-time writer. She’s been playing board games all her life, “hobby” board games for a decade, and “crusty grognard cardboard war simulators” for the last two or three years. When she’s not obsessing over the next indie 18xx release, she can often be found refreshing online games stores and publishers’ sites for new releases. Her top games include Age of Steam, Power Grid, the COIN Series, and Camel Up.

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One thought on “Bailey Brewer’s End of Year Extravaganza! Part Three: Publisher of the Year

  1. […] play it again, whereas games above it I wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Either way, check out my Publisher of the Year article for more Devir titles way better than […]

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