Interview with Albrecht Werstein CEO of Zoch Verlag

Albrecht Werstein
We have had untold hours of fun playing the many Zoch games in our collection (Bausack, Hick Hack in-gackelwack, Furchs and Fertig and Safranito to name just a few) and I felt it would be interesting to interview their CEO, Albrecht Werstein and find out a little more about the company and its history.

1. For those who know little about games publishers and Zoch in particular could you say a little bit about your company and how you got involved in it?
My friend Klaus Zoch and I had played and designed games since we were little boys, our early efforts included a German version of Civilisation. So when, as an adult in 1987, Klaus created Bausack and it was shortlisted for the Spiel des Jahres it was inevitable that we would work together and so it has continued to today.
Bausack - The box and playing pieces
This hugely successful first game nominated for the prestigious prize was being produced out of Klaus’s 5th floor flat with wooden pieces everywhere and the need to walk up and down the 5 flights of stairs a number of times each day with heavy packages of games going far and wide.

The success of the game quickly led to a licensing arrangement with Milton Bradley in the US and saw us selling more than 100,000 copies of Bausack in the first year. We thought we were onto a winner with a supplier in the US and money rolling in. Sadly after 3 years the games was dropped from their range. Nevertheless this early success provided the funds and inspiration for the founding of Zoch GmbH.

In 1993 a Porsche driving British-Egyptian entrepreneur bought 3,000 copies of Bausack for distribution as “Sack o’ Bricks – the After-dinner Game from Lord Carter” in the UK, sadly for all concerned this foray into the UK was disappointing. This has been followed by only occasional supplies of our games to the UK; under our name or that of our English language partner Rio Grande, through the main wholesaler Esdivium or direct to the various games retailers as with a package of games to GamesLore just before Christmas.

1995 was a turning point for our small company, at this point we had significant debts but we received new funding following the sad death of my mother and father and were able to restructure ourselves and put everything on a more business like footing.
Zicke Zacke Huhnerkacke - The box cover artwork
The following years saw releases of now classic games Bamboleo (designed by Klaus), Chicken Cha Cha Cha (Zick Zacke Huehnerkacke (which won the Kinderspiel des Jahres and the “Deutscher Spielpreis: Bestes Kinderspiel” in 1998, again designed by Klaus), Villa Paletti (winning the 2002 Spiel des Jahres), Niagara (winning the 2005 Spiel des Jahres), and also in 2005 Pickomino (known as Heckmeck am Bratwurmeck) designed by another famous designer Reiner Knizia. Da ist der Wurm drin ("There is a worm in there" a German saying for something that doesn't work or is broken) was released in 2011 and won the Kinderspiel des Jahres. With our games being nominated for many other prizes over the years we believe we have established a name for quality family games with a distinctive style.
Da ist der Wurm drin - Children playing the 2011 Kinderspiel des Jahres winner
In 2010 the company was bought by the Simba Dickie Group who with their greater size bring significant weight when it comes to distributing our games. The development of our Games is still independently conducted by Zoch. This division of tasks already yields increased revenue for Zoch.

Whilst our focus has always been on family friendly games you cannot be involved in this market and not want to produce a gamers game, however as yet we haven’t seen the right opportunity, however whilst the nature of our games have generally seen them being nominated for the Kinderspiel we have been pleased when on a couple of occasions we have seen games we expected to be nominated for the Kinderspiel being nominated for the more prestigious Spiel des Jahres e.g. Dicke Luft in der Gruft (roughly translates to "stink in the crypt"; Rio Grande published the game by the title “Dawn under”) and Zapp Zerapp.
Dicke Luft in der Gruft - Something magical has happened to the players of this game!
As an aside given the success of Zicke Zacke Huehnerkacke it is perhaps unsurprising that Zoch have produced 4 million wooden chickens!
Zicke Zacke Huhnerkacke - Three of the 4 million chickens created for this award winning game
2. How do you select which games to publish?
Do you commission games or is it a matter of sifting through submissions / are you looking for themes or particular mechanisms?

We have the design talent that is Klaus Zoch obviously and he continues to design some of our games plus we have strong links with a number of the well known designers. I have already mentioned Reiner Knizia who has designed a number of our games. However as well as these well known designers we also work with new and up and coming designers and so spend much of our time sifting through the hundreds of ideas that are submitted each year.

We are looking for original new ideas and strange new mechanisms rather than re-working old ideas - not surprisingly we see many more weak ideas than pearls.

Since the acquisition by Simba Dickie Group we focus on the creative and analytical element of the process, sifting through the ideas, play testing, re-working ideas and working with freelance artists to create the finished games. As much as possible we seek to work with German manufacturers and with increasing prices for production in China it is becoming more and more attractive to produce in Europe again.
Alles Tomate!  - The box and playing cards
Obviously we are always looking to make outstanding games and games that will therefore be contenders for the various awards and competitions across Europe but we are not trying to design educational games so when we won the Deutscher Lernspielpreis in 2008 for one of Reiner Knizia’s games Alles Tomate! (rough translation "everything tomato") we were pleased and a little surprised. Other games that, like Alles Tomate! are part of our "Welt der Regelspiele" (world of rule games) and have a strong educational leaning are Pig 10 and Wer wohnt wo? (which roughly translates to "Who lives where?") .

3. How do you see the market for board and card games?
Germany was one of the biggest markets for board games in the 80s and 90s and so having a games company over that time has been a wonderful experience. However the rest of the world has woken up to this so there is a bit of a crisis in Germany. Everybody is seeking to sell their games into the German market with some great games coming out of the Czeck Republic, Italy, Korea, and Brazil amongst other countries and the number of games being produced is just not sustainable given the current levels of demand.
Spiel des Jahres 2005 - Designer of Niagara Thomas Liesching (middle) and Albrecht Werstein CEO of Zoch GmbH (on right)
Over the years the German games publishers have had a convivial rivalry with it being like a big family where everybody is doing there own thing but we all know each other. Increasingly though the smaller retail outlets are not taking games and whilst the big chain stores do they don’t have staff that understand the games and can demonstrate them. We are also increasingly seeing companies coming into our market with games very similar to ours and or with very similar artwork but ultimately nothing new, other than at a lower price point!

As other publishers turn their eyes to Germany we are increasingly selling more of our games overseas than in our home market. We have partnerships now in almost 20 countries with some of our most recent sales interestingly being in more exotic countries like Iran, Malaysia, Brazil and the Ukraine. Zicke Zacke Huehnerkacke has been published under more than 20 different titles for various countries. However, we are most successful when we partner with a local publisher and they produce our games under licence as in this way the games are given a local name and are more appealing.

The importance of playing games is well understood within German families. It is seen as helping develop children’s conversational ability, social interaction, learning to lose well as well as enjoy winning, with no tears or tantrums at one end of the scale and no crowing at the other end. Families and friends enjoy sitting around the table having fun with a glass of wine or a coffee, some food and some good games. It is very social.

4. To what degree have the developments in digital technologies impacted Zoch so far and do you see this changing in any way?
I don’t think computer games have particularly affected the German board games market although we like other publishers are exploring creating apps for the iPhone and iPad for some of our more popular games. We hope to release versions of Pickomino, Zicke Zacke Hühnerkacke and Niagara later this year with more to follow if these are successful. However we see these as complimentary to the board and card games rather than competing with them.
Niagara - The box artwork and playing pieces
5. What plans do you have for distributing your games overseas?
We are already working with partners in Russia, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Korea, Belgium, Czech Republik, Slovakia, Poland, Scandinavia, the US and hope to see this grow further. Interestingly the UK is not on the list and this continues to be a mystery to us. Whilst we sell some of our games there via internet retailers in both our own brand name and that of Rio Grande (our US partner) in game terms it is a black hole with it accounting for between 3% and 5% of the exports to UK’s near neighbours France and the Netherlands.

As I have already mentioned we have recently started selling games in Iran and Malaysia as well as South Korea. In a society where it is not always easy for the sexes to meet Seoul has seen a lot of internet cafés convert to board game cafés because of the strong social dynamic that is inherent in playing board and card games.

6. Do you have any information on the demographics of the people that buy your games that you could share?
Sadly we are not large enough to commission surveys, but our sense is that it is mainly women buying games for the family. 60% of our business is transacted in the months of October, November and December, with another peak around Easter.

We would estimate that most German families have between 10 and 20 games. A statistic that we do sadly know is that the German households on average have more than 1 Monopoly - a game that is rather owned than played.

Whilst the German culture is to play games this behaviour does not appear to be being adopted by immigrants such as the Turkish community and whilst we have tried to find ways of opening up this opportunity we have had little success.

We have also tried working with schools but there is no central program and Germany’s federalist structure means everybody does things differently. The German games publishers have been working together to address this area but so far it has proven to be an expensive exercise that has yielded little real progress / engagement with educationalists.

7. What was Zoch’s best game of 2011 and what is the story behind its development and success?
Da ist der Wurm drin designed by first time designer Carmen Kleinert and her daughter underwent some significant changes during the design stage before it reached a point that Zoch could commission Heidemarie Ruettinger to illustrate it.
Da ist der Wurm drin - The author Carmen Kleinert with the Kinderspiel des Jahres award

We felt that it would be a game that children could engage with as they see a colourful little pet grow whilst at the same time racing towards the end of the board. The mechanism rewards children’s observation encouraging them to work out the impact of differences in length, distance and speed.

Winning the Kinderspiel des Jahres always has a positive impact on sales and this game sold over 200,000 units last year. However one year’s success comes after the disappointment of earlier years where we felt that Tobago had a good chance in the Spiel des Jahres category a few years ago but didn’t win and in the end sold fewer units than we had hoped. It is always nice to win but as you can see the difference in sales for award winning games is significant!

8. Lastly at a more personal level do you play many games and what are your favourites?
Whilst I enjoy playing games over the last 20 years most of them have been prototypes. If time allows then I still enjoy playing Bausack a game that caused a career change, as I was formally a solicitor. Other games I really enjoy are Kremlin a gamer’s game about the political intrigues within the Soviet government that came out in the late 80’s, Liars Dice and Skat, and Doppelkopf (traditional German card games). I have recently got into some games on the iPad like Carcassonne where you can play with friends via the internet or just sitting around the table.

Thank you Albrecht for taking the time to talk to me.

If you would like to find out more about the German games market and the other companies large and small producing games then you might find this article on OpinionatedGamers.Com of interest.

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