As previously mentioned in the beginning, 1996 was the first great CCG market crash. The market had been flooded and was reacting.
But let’s step back.
Let’s start with how expensive it is to launch a CCG. There is, of course, the time necessary to build the game, but our team was working for almost nothing and Shadis and Ryan’s company were covering those expenses. Then there is the art. We picked an extremely art-heavy game. Over 300 pieces of art for the base game; not a small task or a small bill. And then finally, there was the printing. L5R had a lot of press sheets and the printing bill for Imperial was going to be huge. But we had orders (or so we thought) for the entire print run, so we headed to Dallas to meet with Yaquinto Printing.
Ryan and I will never forget that day. We met Mr. Robert Yaquinto and his daughter, Katie. We got a full tour of the facility and ended up in a big conference room. Just the four of us. Ryan and I pitched our vision for L5R and our future games to the patient Yaquinto, Sr., who I am guessing could have cared less about the big dreams we were pitching but was polite and smiled as we pitched. We did get the idea that he was measuring us up, and after one pause in our pitch he looked at his daughter and said, “I think we will print these boys’ game.” And that was it. He gave us more credit than either of us had ever thought about, and a great partnership was formed. Like so many others people I speak about in this blog, without the amazing partnership of the Yaquinto family and the quiet approval from Mr. Yaquinto, Sr., none of this would be possible. Katie Yaquinto-Karl remained our printing partner and friend for years. I occasionally still drink a shot of Liquor 43, introduced to me at one of our meals in Dallas, and thank the gaming gods for great partners like the Yaquinto family.
It’s a fair estimate to say that as the product was delayed and printing costs mounted up, we were a good $500,000 in debt before L5R shipped. It is a lot, but the expected income from the first print run was about one million dollars. High risk, but high reward. No wonder everyone was printing a CCG. We sold 40% of that print run. $400,000 paid for the art and the main print bill, but it did not get back loans to parents and partners and we had no more cash to operate.
We were sitting on $600K in L5R stock. We thought this is okay. We have sold enough to keep going, we can continue selling it, and once the Shadowlands expansion hits we will be fine. That was before Ryan’s partners tapped out and said no more cash. We needed to find investment to continue, and at the same time the stress of that debt was cracking the AEG partnership like a walnut.
Even with all of that going on, we still felt like we had something. We got a small reorder in the weeks after the release and I was all over the distributors about not buying more, and I remember one of them saying. “Z, L5R is the only new game that has gotten a reorder this quarter. At least it is selling.”
Something about L5R had clicked with players that had adopted it, and the storyline hook had connected on a deep level. We had players wanting to play, wanting to teach new players, so we decided to go big. We had no other choice.
We offered retailers “The Guaranteed Demo Program”. Buy a box of Imperial starters and boosters and we will do a demo in your store, no matter where your store is, or we will refund your purchase price.
This is as crazy as it sounds. And our smarter older selves would not make this promise again, but we were young and true believers.
We set up Mindy “Mouse” Sherwood-Lewis in a cube in Seattle. (We called her Mouse, but she was a Lion.) She attacked the plan to get a demo into every store that carried L5R. She connected with players all over the world. And when she could not get a player to do a promised demo, someone from AEG or Ryan’s company would make the trip. Many times Ryan would load up his trunk with product and drive for 4 – 5 days visiting stores in the Northwest. I would fly into Iowa City and drive from city to city doing demos. Our team at AEG did the same, when necessary.
This created a strange sales pattern for L5R. Stores in the middle of nowhere would buy the deal and then we would get someone to that store. No one else was doing this, so we connected on a human level and communities of L5R players would blossom in the most remote places.
We were selling just enough L5R every month to keep the doors open.
It took us seven months to find investment and get Shadowlands to press. I often think that if we had shipped Shadowlands on schedule we would not have had as much ground swell as we did. That delay meant many more demos happened and more customers were created. The legend of L5R had grown, and it was obvious that our grassroots effort was starting to pay-off.
Next week, Five Rings Publishing Group is formed, Wizards offers magazines an exclusive Magic card insert, and the team heads to Reno armed with a stapler and some flyers.