Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Mara Johannes-Graham
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Mara Johannes-Graham, the VP of Sales & Marketing for Alderac Entertainment Group, also known as AEG. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
You've worked in the board game business for a while now, but before we discuss work, what kind of games do you like to play? Anything recent that you've played that caught your eye?
I have very diverse taste when it comes to games, much like my musical tastes. One of my all time favorite games is Tokaido; however, I play everything from D&D, Lords of Waterdeep to casual games. I especially love abstract strategic games, so when War Chest released, I was an instant fan.
You were the VP of Sales & Marketing at Greater Than Games for a long time. What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time there?
The successful launch and subsequent success of Spirit Island.
What made you decide to move on? What was it like moving to a similar position at AEG?
When AEG approached me I was a bit apprehensive as I loved working with GTG; however, in the end, the appeal of working remotely won me over.
What is a day in the life like as a VP of Sales & Marketing at AEG?
Busy, busy, busy. Did I mention busy? Seriously though, each year the industry seems to get busier and busier. I am blessed to have an excellent team of folks to help spread the word. Since we all work remotely we spend much of our time chatting via Slack and working through our tasks in Trello.
One of the more innovative things AEG has published are the games that use the card-crafting system, starting with Mystic Vale in 2016. How do you market something so new and unique differently than more traditional games?
We tend to use a very focused marketing approach at AEG; however, innovative products give us the opportunity to create big splash events that highlight the product's uniqueness.
Can you give me an example of how AEG's focused market approach works?
We have quite a few steps to get to a successful product launch.
1) We use traditional research strategies such as A/B testing, polls, focus groups etc.
2) Influencer Marketing
3) Social Channels
4) Third-Party Paid Advertising
5) Co-Op Marketing
Does AEG have any plans for any new card-crafting games in the future?
That might be something we look at for a future project.
Further expansions for Mystic Vale? Any plans to expand Custom Heroes?
For Mystic Vale, yes. For Custom Heroes, not at this time.
How is production going for Edge of Darkness?
Production is on-track for Edge of Darkness. We recently finalized files for production. Our next update will include visuals of pre-production items.
Tell us a bit about the 'Big In Japan' line. How did it come about? What are your future plans for this line?
Many years ago we found Love Letter, by Seiji Kanai. It was, of course, a mega-hit for us and launched an entirely new genre in boardgame design making microgames a hot commodity for a time. We followed that quickly with games such as Card of the Dead by Motohiro Nakamura and Sail to India by Hisashi Hayashi. As our connection with Japanese designers grew, we began to market the line of games as Big in Japan, which we later started to tag on the actual packaging with a special icon.
One of AEG's best-known games is Smash Up. What's the latest content coming out for the game? Do you believe there is still a lot of design space to explore in the Smash Up universe after so many expansions?
Smash Up World Tour International Incident is slated to release March 22, 2019. We are currently working on plans for the future of Smash Up.
Can you tell us more about Smash Up: International Incident? What are the factions, and what makes them unique?
The new factions in International Incident are the Sumo of Japan, the Musketeers of France, the Luchadores of Mexico, and the Mounties of Canada. Each faction brings a new tactic to the game, which as usual with Smash Up will combine with another faction for really cool combos. The Sumo is powerful, able to knock opponents off of bases while standing stoutly in place. The Mounties always get their man, and they will hunt down the opponents from base to base. The Luchadores introduce unique Set Up moves that when played on opposing characters, prepare you for massive effects (from the top rope of course!). Finally, the Musketeers bring intense swashbuckling, chaining action effects for bigger results, and of course, doing it all for one and one for all!
War Chest was a big hit for you in 2018. What about the game do you think has resonated so much with players? There are already calls on the BoardGameGeek forum for expansion material with new factions.
War Chest is one of those games that feels like an instant classic, much like Chess. War Chest is an easy-to-learn, tricky-to-master, classic battlefield strategy game. Gameplay is simple and available to even non-gamers, while at the same time presenting depth of play and replayability.
Thematically it feels like a battle and once folks try the game they discover how much depth and strategery goes into establishing control of the battlefield. It has tons of replayability and keeps you coming back to the table again and again. We are indeed planning expansions.
You have a new game coming out this spring called Tiny Towns that is getting a lot of buzz. Tell us a bit about how it plays.
Tiny Towns is a competitive game about building a well-designed township from a shared pool of resources. It uses an innovative mechanism of resource selection where each player receives the same resources in the same order. It is a fast-playing game of low rules complexity but substantial strategic depth.
Tiny Towns is designer Peter McPherson's first published design. Do you find it harder to market a game from an unknown designer?
We have not faced any hurdles from this being his first design, he started off with a hit!
What are AEG's plans for AEG Big Game Night in 2019?
We have some amazing games to share this year. Instead of games being a "secret" as they have been in the past, we will begin promoting the titles this month. Keep an eye out for announcements.
[Editor’s Note: After this interview was conducted, but before it was published, AEG released a ‘Special Big Game Night Announcement’ that reads: "This year we have a fantastic line-up of three new games, and here is a sneak peek at the first game we are premiering at the event. Walking in Burano: This beautiful game from our new partners EmperorS4 was a huge hit at Essen 2018 and we are excited to be publishing and distributing the English edition of this game. Burano, Italy is famous for its colorful houses. In this game, you are tasked with refurbishing one of these beautiful canal streets to attract as many locals and tourists as possible... This release of Walking in Burano also includes a mini-expansion of three locals that was released in Taiwan."]
Are there any plans to bring back the AEG Black Friday Black Box in the future?
None at this time.
Thanks again for joining me! Is there anything else you'd like to share with us before we wrap this up?
We are incredibly excited to share the titles coming out this year, we hope folks love them as much as we do!