This is the last of my five updates produced for the German edition of Designers & Dragons, which was crowdfunded by Feder & Schwert this fall.
As it turned out, I did a lot of revision of Fantasy Flight Games’ history, in part because Christian Petersen has been doing some great interviews in the late ’10s, which gave me new insight into why things occurred, and in part because we now know the final story of a lot of their roleplaying lines from the early ’10s.
To read the complete story of Fantasy Flight games, read pages 294-304 in Designers & Dragons: The ’90s. Then hop over here, after we leave d20 behind at the very top of page 304. (And if you prefer to just read the totally new stuff in this article, scroll down to “Enter the Asmodee Mega-Goliath”.)
Board Gaming Classics & Innovations: 2004-2008
Over the course of twenty years, the story of Fantasy Flight Games has largely been a story of very successful board game and card game production. There have certainly been a few attempts to get into the comic business, and there have certainly been multiple eras when roleplaying production has been both extensive and successful, but board games and card games have almost always been their main act. This history focuses less on FFG’s board game production than it might otherwise deserve only because it’s further removed from roleplaying history.
Since we started our games publication with Twilight Imperium back in 1997, our roots have really been in board games.Christian Petersen, fairplaygames.com (2003)
That’s particularly true for FFG’s eurogame production, which slowed during this period as the company found its own voice. However, FFG still published notable eurogame releases such as Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello’s War of the Ring (2004), Andrea Chiarvesio & Luca Iennaco’s Kingsburg (2008) and Reiner Knizia’s Ingenious (2004), Blue Moon City (2006) and Beowulf: The Movie Board Game (2007) — the latter a redevelopment of an older FFG title.
As for FFG’s unique voice: that came from new publications in several categories of board and card games whose origins intertwine with the roleplaying field. Together, these RPG-adjacent strategy games became FFG’s core brand in the ’00s.
First, FFG innovated their CCG development. Though FFG negotiated a license from Chaosium to produce the Call of Cthulhu CCG (2004), within a few years the CCG market was faltering. Fantasy Flight was seeing the problem most strongly in Europe, where fans just weren’t interested in collectible cards: FFG could demo one of their CCGs at the Essen Game Fair, have fans love the mechanics … and then walk away when they learned it was a CCG.
FFG ended their Call of Cthulhu CCG production in 2006 following the Forgotten Cities (2006) booster, but in order to support their fans, they began saving space on their Games of Thrones CCG printing sheets and used those to produce non-randomized sets of cards for the Call of Cthulhu CCG. These “Asylum Packs” began with the original Spawn of Madness Asylum Pack (2006), a set of 40 fixed cards.
Fans enjoyed the Asylum Packs, and FFG realized that they could develop the idea into an alternative to the CCG format. After the Games of Thrones CCG also came to an end, following the Five Kings Edition (2007), FFG promptly resurrected the game using a new “Living Card Game” model, which released cards through fixed sets. FFG began their production with a large core set, packaged as a big box, and then supplemented it with monthly “chapter packs”, allowing them to sell their Living Card Games using a subscription model. Changing from CCGs to LCGs also permitted FFG to reduce costs of packing and collation and eliminated the problems caused by a huge cluster of cards being released all at once — something that required a huge expenditure of both time and money. The LCG format debuted with A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (2008) early in the year, then Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game (2008) appropriately released in October.
Other publishers have since mimicked FFG’s Living Card Games model, including Plaid Hat Games with their Summoner Wars (2011) and Arcane Wonders with their Mage Wars (2012). FFG would also produce many more LCGs of their own, proving the strength of idea.
You can actually support an LCG with a much smaller fanbase of people.Christian T. Petersen, Team Covenant Interview (2014)
Second, FFG began producing adventure games. This was the field of strategic games that had originated with TSR’s Dungeon! (1975), which attempted to mimic roleplaying tropes in board gaming form. FFG entered the field with Runebound (2004), a game created by British eurogame designer Martin Wallace and redeveloped by Fantasy Flight’s own Darrell Hardy. It was very much in the tone of Games Workshop’s classic Talisman (1983), but a much more modern design. Runebound also developed the world of Terrinoth, which FFG had lightly introduced in Battlemist (1998) and Disk Wars, and which would increasingly become a core element of their fantasy board game production. More generally, Runebound was an excellent representation of the sort of game that would make Fantasy Flight so successful: it was a big box, containing tons of beautiful pieces and equally intricate game systems.
Runebound did well for Fantasy Flight, and that was doubtless a major factor in the company’s decision to push further into the adventuring gaming space in the years that followed. Two more releases solidified FFG’s position as the new adventure game producer of the ’00s.
- The second edition of Arkham Horror (2005) was a well-polished and expanded revision of Richard Launius’ cooperative adventure game; like the Call of Cthulhu CCG, it was licensed from Chaosium.
- Descent: Journeys into Darkness (2006) was a Terrinoth-based fantasy game that revised the gaming system created for Wilson’s Doom: The Board Game (2004). Descent was an evocative and tactical dungeon crawl game where the players fought against a game master. As such, it filled the same niche once held by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop’s HeroQuest (1989).
Together, these two adventure games also solidified FFG’s position as an innovator of cooperative games, a field that they had helped to resurrect with the US publication of Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. Over the coming years, they’d produce many of the most notable co-op games in industry, including Corey Konieczka’s Battlestar Galactica: The Game (2008), the game that solidified the “traitor” co-op mechanic that had first appeared in Days of Wonder’s Shadows over Camelot by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget.
Third, FFG was seeking out other classics from the hobbyist field. Arkham Horror obviously fit into that category, as did their fifth edition of Eon Games’ Cosmic Encounter (2008). However, two licenses from Games Workshop may have been more notable: Warrior Knights (2006) and Fury of Dracula (2006). The latter has been one of FFG’s more successful games. Meanwhile, the connections that FFG created with Games Workshop foreshadowed its dramatic return to the world of roleplaying …
The Warhammer 40k Years: 2008-2015
On January 26, 2008 Games Workshop’s Black Industries published a brand-new roleplaying game. Dark Heresy (2008) was a game that fans had waited twenty years for. Set in the gothic future of Warhammer 40k it offered the first chance to roleplay in that realm since the miniatures release Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (1987) had flirted with roleplaying ideas — before the game shifted entirely toward wargaming with its second edition (1993).
However, Dark Heresy wasn’t a general Warhammer 40k RPG. Instead, it zeroed in on a very specific aspect of the world: players took on the roles of Acolytes of the Inquisition, rooting out heresies. Some fans of Warhammer 40k were disappointed by the limited scope, which didn’t allow them to play the space marines or the xenos (such as orks and eldar) that defined the setting. However, many others were quickly won over by the grimly beautiful and richly evocative background of the game, as well as its uniquely investigative nature — for Dark Heresy pushed into a subgenre of gaming usually dominated by Call of Cthulhu and other horror games and almost unheard of in the science-fiction realm.
Beyond that, players were happy enough with the game system, which was a further revision of the system previously used by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986, 2005). Players could no longer change between careers in Dark Heresy, as they could in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but a branching system helped to keep each character unique. Other than that, the Dark Heresy game system was pretty familiar to old fans.
Two days later, on January 28, 2008, Games Workshop canceled the Dark Heresy line … and all the rest of their RPGs. That’s where Fantasy Flight Games entered the picture. Within a month they inked a deal with Games Workshop that gave them access to GW’s entire library of RPG and board game material. (They also at the time largely absorbed Sabertooth Games, a Games Workshop subsidiary, a fact that would be quite critical to FFG’s future.)
Of course, if FFG wanted to continue with Dark Heresy, they needed a roleplaying department again. They started it in May by moving Michael Hurley — a Senior Editor for FFG who been working on Anima — over to become the company’s new Managing RPG Director. By June, they’d also hired two new staff members, Ross Watson and Jay Little, who were brought in as Senior RPG Developers. Ironically, Watson had originally applied to FFG as a D&D 4E developer, but FFG had killed their plans for that line when the failure of Wizards’ GSL became obvious.
With new RPG staff in-house and a license from Games Workshop in-hand, FFG was now in the driver’s seat of a whole new RPG line: Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay. That started out with support for Dark Heresy. By this time, Black Industries had produced five products for the game, books that FFG was now reprinting in more prestigious hardcovers. Meanwhile, FFG was also working on releases of their own products, beginning with a book of antagonists called Disciples of the Dark God (2008). Editorial work on that book was done by FFG’s Ross Watson and by new editor Sam Stewart. Watson, who had previously freelanced for GW and had good knowledge of the Warhammer IPs, soon took over the Warhammer 40,000 RPG line.
Meanwhile, FFG had bigger plans than just publishing Dark Heresy. GW had planned to release a trilogy of 40k RPGs, each of which would highlight a different aspect of the 40k universe. When it became increasingly obvious that FFG had a hit on their hands, they opted to continue with that plan.
When it comes to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Games Workshop always has the final say. It’s their IP, after all! That having been said, the Calixis Sector is pretty much open to go in almost any direction.Ross Watson, Interview, darkreign40k.com (2008)
FFG’s second Warhammer 40k RPG was Rogue Trader (2009). Here players entered a world of ancient, enormous spaceships licensed to explore the frontier. One character would take the role of the “rogue trader” who ran the ship, while others became members of his crew: the few who stood out among thousands.
New “character origin paths” in character creation allowed for narrative and interconnecting histories, bringing the Warhammer 40k games into the world of more “indie” game design. Rogue Trader also introduced plenty of rules for spaceships as well as rules for acquisition (which kept traders from dealing with the minutia of coin counting) and even a mass-combat system. Despite these additions, Rogue Trader was still entirely compatible with Dark Heresy — though the power level, the scope, and the locations of the games were quite different. This caused some GMs to encourage their players’ acolytes from Dark Heresy to become explorers for the Inquisition following the release of the second game.
If anything, Rogue Trader was even better received than Dark Heresy. It gave FFG its highest volume of sales for the year and probably was what propelled FFG into the upper ranks of RPG producers, trailing only Wizards and Paizo. Following the release of Rogue Trader, Sam Stewart was brought over to line edit the game as a new Senior RPG Producer — showing how FFG was continuing to expand their RPG focus.
Deathwatch (2010), the third Warhammer 40k game, finally gave players the opportunity to play Space Marines, who could kill and kill and kill. Mechanically the game followed the core of Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay, with the biggest addition being “demeanors” — another indie-like addition to the game, which allowed characters to get bonuses for following their character’s core nature. Beyond that, characters were much more powerful than those in either of the previous games, with starting Space Marines being about the same power-level as the most potent acolytes from Dark Heresy. Some players expressed concerns over the limited roleplay opportunities of a game so focused on killing, but like the other Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay releases, Deathwatch appealed most to those players looking for that sort of play. And, it was another big hit, grossing more for FFG in 2010 than anything else.
By putting out three games, each focused on different characters in the same universe, Fantasy Flight Games had resurrected the old model that White Wolf had created in the ’90s. But, they were making it their own. Because they didn’t try to balance the games in any way, each of them was able to independently shine, with its power level and its scope being entirely appropriate for the respective game. What’s most impressive was not necessarily how the games could be brought together, but instead how unique each was. One game was about investigation, another was about exploration, and a third about combat. Together, they allowed for a lot more variability than other linked RPGs.
Though that brought GW’s original plans to an end, the Warhammer 40,000 RPG line continued to expand. Black Crusade (2011) allowed players to play chaos foes, while Only War (2012) let players take on the roles of soldiers of the Imperial Guard. But that was it: five gaming lines was apparently enough.
As the 40k lines expanded, FFG’s RPG staff expanded as well. Mack Martin took over Dark Heresy in 2010 and Andrew Fischer became the lead for Deathwatch in 2011. Overall, a team of none in 2007 became three in 2008 and six in 2011.
FFG supported the original 40k RPGs through 2014. By then they were beginning a second wave: Dark Heresy Second Edition (2014) followed an extended public beta release (2013-2014) that resulted in “significant changes”. The new game was set in a new sector and drew heavily from the Only War rules. It was seen as the newest and best iteration of the Warhammer 40,000 and would be supported through 2015.
By then yet another RPG brought over from Games Workshop had come … and gone: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
The Warhammer Fantasy Years: 2008-2013
Following their acquisition of the Games Workshop RPG licenses, Fantasy Flight Games put out a few final supplements for Green Ronin’s second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, they had much bigger plans for the line, as they revealed when they released Warhammer Fantasy RoleplayThird Edition (2009) a year later.
Designer Jay Little rebuilt the game from scratch, preserving only the grim and gritty background and some of the most general ideas, such as the “careers” that have always been so central to WFRP. Almost everything else changed, and the result was one of the more controversial new editions in the industry’s history, probably eclipsed only by Dungeons & Dragons 4E (2008), Champions: New Millennium (1997) and Cyberpunk v3 (2005).
The first big difference was the price of the core rules, which came in a huge box retailing for $100. That made it one of the most expensive RPGs ever, with only Dungeons & Dragons really coming close, and only then if you added up the price of the three $35 core books that have been the norm for the last decade. If anything, the price point was seen as a feature by FFG: they wanted to be able to produce a higher quality product and, in the process, prove that roleplaying products could sell at a higher price point — making them more popular at the retailer level, allowing for the hiring of high-quality authors and artists, and generally enabling the hobby to flourish.
The expectations of what something should cost in roleplaying games have been so low for so long that it really constrains … how many resources that a company can put into these things. And we’re sort of trying to break the back of that a little bit.Christian T. Petersen, Team Covenant Interview (2014)
Much of the higher production quality of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition (WFRP3) came from the fact that the box was full of gaming components, including cardboard markers, cards, and special dice — the sort of things that you’d expect to find in one of FFG’s board games, not one of their RPGs. This inevitably led to claims from detractors that WFRP3 actually was a board game — claims with no actual substance. The core of WFRP3 was still roleplaying, but Fantasy Flight included special components to complement the roleplay. Players had cards that specified their current career and the feat-like talents that they could call upon. Wounds and insanities were rather cleverly drawn from decks of their own, allowing for a mass of differing results with no need to consult a random table. Other cards detailed conditions, making it easy for players to remember what it meant when their character was frightened or demoralized.
Altogether, it was quite similar to what Wizards did with Dungeons & Dragons 4E, which had Power Cards and Dungeon Tiles available from Wizards of the Coast as well as a variety of condition tokens and other components from third-party licensee Gala Force Nine. The difference was that Fantasy Flight carefully coordinated all of its components from the start and packaged them into their core rules box.
The dice were the most interesting component in WFRP3. A character’s attributes, skills, and stance all placed dice in a dice pool, to be rolled when a character attempted a task. Instead of numbers, the dice showed a variety of symbols. Some of these symbols supported the occurrence of rare special cases; for example, when a character took an aggressive stance, he might tire himself based on the result of his red “aggressive” die, resulting in an entirely intuitive fatigue system. However, the core resolution centered on good successes, bad failures, good banes, and bad banes. The result was laid out in a rather unique two-dimensional result grid. Successes and failures canceled out to tell players if the task succeeded at all, while boons and banes canceled out to tell them if there were good or bad side effects. So not only could players succeed at a task, but they can also succeed while putting themself at severe disadvantage or fail but still get something positive out of it.
Overall, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition could have been a pivotal game in the roleplaying industry. FFG built upon twelve years of board gaming experience that showed them how to create game components that make a game easier to play, and they applied those lessons to WFRP3. The product was not only quite intuitive but at times — as in the task resolution system — it gave results that would be impossible to design with “normal” components.
However, it seems unlikely that WFRP3 actually will be pivotal. It’s not just that companies like Wizards and the Coast and Cubicle 7 have stepped back from component-heavy designs like D&D 4E and WFRP3, but also that very few companies in the industry have the expertise or means to do what FFG did with WFRP3. Further, there was considerable fan resistance to the format, something that even FFG acknowledged when they published the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Player’s Guide (2010), a hardcover book that offered an alternative way to play the game, without the components. A Game Master’s Guide (2010) and The Creature Vault (2011) completed a much more conventional trilogy of RPG core books.
Following WFRP3’s release, Fantasy Flight supported it with a number of different supplements, most of which were sold in boxes that included more neat (and useful) components for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay games. They also continued to push the envelope by innovating WFRP3 supplements in interesting ways. Sigmar’s Wrath (2012) was an attempt to sell WFRP3’s fancy components in smaller quantities, sort of like FFG’s Living Card Games. The Enemy Within (2012) was a “reimagining” of Warhammer’s best-received campaign. It was authored by Dave Allen and Graeme Davis, the latter one of the authors of the original campaign.
Unfortunately, WFRP3 wasn’t as successful as the Warhammer 40,000 RPG games. Production quickly decreased, with The Enemy Within being the last mass-market release in December 2012. A few POD releases carried the product into 2013, when it ended altogether. Recognizing the schism created by the release of WFRP3, FFG began to make Warhammer Fantasy Second Edition PDFs available through DTRPG in late 2012, but they were otherwise done with the system and moving on to other things.
More GW Influence & Other Board Games: 2008-2014
The GW licenses allowed FFG to return to the roleplaying field because of the question of comparative costs. It was only with a really high-flying line like GW’s beloved Warhammer games (or the d20 boom before it) that Fantasy Flight could make an argument for doing roleplaying development. However, Fantasy Flight licensed more than just GW’s RPGs. They also had the right to produce GW-licensed board and card games. New production began with Talisman, one of the oldest adventure games around, which FFG produced in a revised edition (2008) — cleaning up the fourth edition (2007) put out by GW’s Black Industries just before their shutdown.
FFG was also designing their own Warhammer games. Many of them played to the company’s growing strengths as a card game producer: Warhammer: Invasion (2009) and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest (2014) were Living Card Games, with the latter being FFG’s most successful LCG release to date; while Space Hulk: Death Angel — The Card Game (2010) was a new card-based cooperative. FFG even doubled-down on their card production in 2010 when they brought high-quality print-on-demand hardware in-house to produce two “POD expansion” for Death Angel: Mission Pack 1 (2010) and Space Marine Pack 1 (2010). FFG would use their POD hardware for many other purposes in the coming years; it was yet another thing that allowed them to remain agile in their game production.
FFG’s GW-licensed strategy games weren’t restricted to cards: they also produced Warhammer-related big-box games such as Chaos in the Old World (2009) and Horus Heresy (2010), the latter a huge box full of beautiful components. Relic (2013) was also of particular interest because it brought Talisman’s gameplay to the Warhammer 40k universe, effectively merging two of GW’s top properties.
However, FFG didn’t let the GW products entirely take over their schedule. By now they were becoming a big producer of board games and a lot of that production was still roleplaying adjacent.
The key to Fantasy Flight’s success is its ability to diversify, having started with board games and branched off into book-based products, playing cards and now even iPhone applications.Christian Petersen, paraphrased in “Fantasy Flight Games Beats Downturn by Sticking to Core Business”, Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal (July, 2010)
The LCGs continued to thrive, including new lines like The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (2011) and Android: Netrunner (2012 — the latter a thematic revamp of the old Netrunner (1996) CCG from Wizards of the Coast, now married to the hard science-fiction universe that FFG had debuted in the Android (2008) board game.
Cthulhu games became an entire category. As the Arkham Horror and Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game continued to expand, FFG also introduced the dice-based co-op Elder Sign (2011), the adventure game co-op Mansions of Madness (2011), and the somewhat simplified Arkham Horror-like co-op Eldritch Horror (2013).
Terrinoth similarly continued to proliferate in board games such as the classic DungeonQuest (2010) adventure game, the Runewars (2010) wargame, the Rune Age (2011) deckbuilding game, and a second edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2012). This continued concentration on Terrinoth made it obvious that FFG knew how to develop its IPs.
As ever, there were also plenty of licensed products. Classic updates included Tom Jolly’s eighth edition Wiz-War (2012), a second edition of Avalon Hill’s Merchant of Venice (2012), and Rex: Final Days of Empire (2012), which updated Eon’s old Dune (1979) board game for use in the Twilight Imperium universe. FFG was also picking and choosing media licenses, one of which resulted in Middle-earth Quest (2009). Another was even more notable: a Lucasfilm license allowed FFG to produce the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (2012) and the Star Wars: The Card Game (2012). But, the license wasn’t just for miniatures and card games; it would soon point the way to FFG’s next resurgence of roleplaying production.
In 2010, the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal highlighted Fantasy Flight’s $10 million-dollar-a-year business as one of the few able to remain successful in the deep recession that hit the United States following George W. Bush’s years as president. In the story, Petersen said: “It’s a mixture of stubbornness, a willingness to listen and a willingness to adapt.” From comics to roleplaying games, from Twilight Imperium to Terrinoth, and now from Warhammer to Star Wars, Fantasy Flight had long proven that’s exactly what they would do.
The Star Wars Years: 2011-Present
FFG began walking their path toward a Star Wars license back in 2008, with their de facto acquisition of Sabertooth Games. Sabertooth CEO Steve Horvath, who was brought on as FFG’s new VP of Marketing and Communication, had previously had contact with Lucasfilm. This put him in a position to initiate negotiations in 2011, when Wizards of the Coast decided not to renew their license for Star Wars miniatures and roleplaying games. FFG was thus able to successfully acquire licenses for Star Wars card games, miniatures games, and roleplaying games (but not board games, as that license was still held by Hasbro). In doing so, they’re known to have beat out Mongoose Publishing, who was hoping to license Star Wars for their own A Call toArms miniature system (2004, 2011).
Fantasy Flight announced their acquisition of the Star Wars license for tabletop gaming at Gen Con Indy 2011, a year before the publication of the X-Wing Miniatures Game and the Star Wars: The Card Game. At the time, they idly mentioned the license also included the rights to roleplaying games, but they didn’t currently have anything planned. Another year passed before FFG confirmed they’d be doing Star Wars RPGs, this time at Gen Con Indy 2012.
To build on the initial excitement of their announcement, FFG produced two early releases of their first game, Star Wars: Edge of Empire Beta (2012) and Star Wars: Edge of Empire Beginner Game (2012). This led the way to Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (2013), a roleplaying game with a focus on “the scoundrels, the smugglers, the pirates, the bounty hunters, [and the] colonists” of the Star Wars universe.
If future Chris was to tell 1998 Chris, ‘Hey guess what!? In about ten years, you’re going to get Star Wars. Hang in there,’ I would probably have … maybe less gray hair in getting to that point.Christian T. Petersen, “The State of Tabletop in 2015” (2016)
Edge of Empire contained some familiar features that harked back to Jay Little’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e design. It didn’t use the cards and tokens that had earned WFRP3 somewhat mixed review, and its character creation system was very different. However, the new Star Wars games did adapt the “narrative dice system” from WFRP3. A variety of dice types (ability, boost, challenge, difficulty, force, proficiency, and setbacks) offered a variety of results (success, triumph, advantage, failure, despair, and threat) that could produce orthogonal gaming results — such as a successful result that could have negative side effects, or vice versa. Though Warhammer Fantasy 3e was full of innovative components, the dice caused the least … upset, and so it’s not surprising that they’re what survived into a new game. The rest of the game was perhaps the lightest and most indie-like of the Star Wars RPGs to date. Mechanics like character “obligations” further pushed in this direction.
Edge of Empire received good reviews, once more demonstrating FFG’s impressive ability to move from one category of publication to another. Fantasy Flight than published two more game systems over the next two years. Star Wars: Age of Rebellion (2014) was game about rebels, while Star Wars: Force and Destiny (2015) focused on Force users. In other words, FFG used the same design that Games Workshop planned for the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs half-a-decade before. Unlike the 40k games, however, FFG’s Star Wars games were intended to be fully mixed together if players desired.
FFG resisted the urge to continue publishing games past these initial three, but they supplemented their Star Wars games with a very carefully considered and ordered set of supplements, focused on a set of exactly six career splatbooks for each line (but also including limited adventures and sourcebooks). Afterward, they began to branch out into more far-flung publications, such as: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Beginner Game (2016), an attempt to build on the popularity of the new movies; and Dawn of Rebellion (2017), the first sourcebook for use in all three games.
FFG also returned to the past by publishing a collector’s slipcase of the old West End Game, Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game 30th Anniversary Edition (2018), though they missed the anniversary by several months due to printing delays — unfortunately, a frequent problem with FFG’s Chinese printing in those years.
Though FFG’s publication of West End’s Star Wars might seem like a minor thing, it’s the highest profile example of a new trend in the gaming industry. Traditionally, old licensed products such as West End’s Star Wars have been lost to the industry following the lapse of their license. FFG releasing a new print copy of a lost licensed books like this is all but unprecedented. However, old licensed books have occasionally been released as electronic products in the ’10s — as FFG did themselves with their Warhammer Fantasy Second Edition PDFs. With POD printing of PDFs improving year by year, it’s just a matter of time before all those lost books also come back into print again. There are entire libraries of roleplaying games based on Conan, DC Heroes, Lankhmar, Marvel Superheroes, Middle-earth, and many others, all waiting to see the light of day.
Enter the Asmodee Mega-Goliath: 1984-Present
Now, the story of Fantasy Flight Games takes a somewhat surprising turn as it becomes intertwined with a French company that would eventually become known as Asmodee.
The story of Asmodee begins in 1984 in the commune of Viroflay, on the outskirts of Paris. That year a group of friends including Eric Bouchaud, Christophe (“Croc”) Réaux, Nicolas Théry, and Laurent Trémal formed a gaming club called “20 naturel”. The group was full of aspiring RPG designers and would soon be the origin of two companies that would eventually form the heart of Asmodee. Croc began self-publishing under his own “Futur Proche” label, where he released his postapocalyptic Bitume RPG (1986) and the “romantic fantasy” Animonde (1988), a medieval RPG with animal-based technology. Meanwhile Théry and Bouchaud were getting into business as Théry-Bouchaud et Cie (whose et cie included not just Laurent Trémal but also Marc Nunès), which quickly became Siroz Productions, named as a homonym for “cirrhosis”.
Siroz published roleplaying games that reflected on social issues, beginning with Zone (1988) by Bouchard, Nunès, and Théry, a game of teenagers in the suburbs. They followed that with a trilogy of “Univorsom” RPGs by Bouchard, Théry, Trémal, and others. The first three Universom games, all released as sets of small booklets, used an early universal system to detail the science-fiction planets of Koros (1988) and Sirlin (1988) and the tv-influenced cyberpunk world of Berlin XVIII (1988). Later, the fourth game to use that system, the controversial space opera Whog Shrog (1988), moved away from Universom’s small form factor, as did a second edition of Berlin XVIII (1988), which became the company’s first hit.
Though Siroz was clearly prolific, it wasn’t profitable. Nunès, who’d been brought into Siroz to help sell the games explained it, saying: “Eric [Bouchaud] was a very good GM, but not necessarily a good administrator.” Siroz accumulated piles of debt, and soon went bankrupt. But, that wasn’t the end of the story. A friend of the family helped to pay off those debts and resurrected the company as Idéojeux. Nunès was asked to run Idéojeux, but without Bouchard, Théry, and Trémal he needed a new designer. Fortunately, Nunès had been selling Croc’s Future Proche games alongside the Siroz offerings, leaving him in a position to convince Croc to join him as Idéojeux’s new designer.
Croc’s next roleplaying game, In Nomine Satanis / Magna Veritas (1990), or INS/MV, was Idéojeux’s first new game. Nunés felt it exemplified the company’s new spirit: rock ‘n roll games that were fun and somewhat outside of the norm. This tongue-in-cheek urban fantasy game became Siroz’s second hit. In later years, Idéojeux would keep classic Siroz games and Futur Proche games in print, but would also publish an increasing number of new RPGs by Croc including the Stormbringer-influenced Bloodlust (1991), the dystopian science-fiction Heavy Metal (1991), the secret urban fantasy Scales (1994), and the outlaw fantasy Nightprowler (1995).
By today’s definitions, we’d call Siroz/Idéojeux an indie publisher — or at least the closest thing in the ’80s and the ’90s, before the mechanically innovative side of indie design matured. They were publishing their own games: games that might be socially interesting or “rock ‘n roll” but which were definitely outside of the industry’s norms. This was in contrast to French publishers like Descartes, Hexagonal, and Oriflam, who were more focused on translating English-language RPGs into French. Idéojeux even famously rejected a chance to translate Vampire: The Masquerade (1991), telling the designer to get out of their office: “Non, monsieur, il faut me laisser, il faut partir maintenant“. The sole exception arose from a relationship with Steve Jackson Games, that led Idéojeux to publish a French edition of Car Wars in 1990, then GURPS in 1994. (In turn Steve Jackson Games would translate INS/MV for the English-language world as as In Nomine in 1997.)
Meanwhile, something else was happening to the French gaming scene: Magic: The Gathering (1993) appeared, causing French shops to lose interest in RPGs. Idéojeux was forced to react with card games of their own such as Elixir (1993), but they’d soon gain a deeper connection to Magic. At the time, Idéojeux was working with a Paris gaming company called Halloween Concept, who started life as the publisher of Plasma (1992), an Idéojeux-focused fanzine. Idéojeux also helped the small Parisian company with distribution, so when Halloween Concept published a Magic: The Gathering magazine called Lotus Noir (1994-2010) and a CCG of their own, Croc’s INS/MV-based Divine Intervention (1994), Idéojeux distributed those too.
In March 1995, Idéojeux president Nunés changed the company one more time, turning it into Asmodée Éditions, named after the prince de jeu demon Asmodeus from INS/MV. The new company also had a new focus, presaged by games like Elixir and their work with Halloween Concept: they were concentrating more on board games, which would soon lead the company to much greater success. Nunès credits the party game Jungle Speed (1997) with getting the company into specialty stores like Toys ‘R Us. Then, when the Pokémon Company took the Pokémon TCG (1996) back from Wizards of the Coast in 2003, Asmodee was able to license a French edition of the game and expanded even further, into supermarkets and big-box stores.
Asmodee continued to produce roleplaying games in these early days of their board game strategy, including some new entrants like the Berlin XVIII replacement, COPS (2003). However, the company’s roleplaying production was increasingly turning toward the translations that the company had avoided in its past lives, with new lines including Dungeons & Dragons 3e, Legend of the Five Rings (published as The Book of Five Rings), and 7th Sea (published as Secrets of the 7th Sea). By the late ’00s, COPS, In Nomine Satanis / Magna Veritas, and Prophecy (2000, 2002) were Asmodee’s final remaining original RPGs — the last a BRP-based fantasy roleplaying game that they’d previously distributed for Halloween Concept and had inherited after the company’s demise. Within another year, Asmodee’s roleplaying lines would be almost entirely subsumed by their board game production — a familiar pattern, as Fantasy Flight Games experienced the same back and forth in the ’00s.
Meanwhile, Asmodee’s success was multiplying. They were grossing 25€ million a year by 2007 but they needed to expand beyond the French market, as their introduction into the US a few years earlier had been fairly minimal. That’s what led to an investment that year by Montefiore Investment. It also marked the beginning of a multi-year spending spree, where Asmodee increased its reach through acquisitions. Asmodee’s first purchases were a multitude of European distributors, most notably the UK’s Esdevium. They also began investing in or purchasing smaller board-game publishers like Descartes, Pearl Games, and Ystari. Within a few years, they were grossing 125€ million or more: still a tenth of Hasbro’s games department, but five times Fantasy Flight’s (though Fantasy Flight and Asmodee were much more comparable if comparing profit instead revenue). In 2013, Asmodee’s ownership transferred from Montefiore to Eurazao, another investment company. The next year, another flurry of purchases began, starting with Days of Wonder, the publishers of the very popular Ticket to Ride (2004) board game and a much larger company than Asmodee’s previous acquisitions.
We’re never happy where we are. We always want to improve.Christian T. Petersen, “The State of Tabletop in 2015” (2016)
Which at last brings Fantasy Flight Games back into the story. By 2014, they were quite successful, and trying to figure out what their next step should be. How could they expand and grow? They’d tried moving into the family games category with releases like Hey! That’s My Fish! (2011), but had been somewhat discouraged to find that fans felt games of that sort didn’t match FFG’s brand. Which left them at an impasse … but one that Asmodee (who had offered to buy them way back in March 2010,)could resolve. If FFG merged with Asmodee, they would have access to new resources, particularly on the international stage, but they could also double down on their core competencies: the complicated, component-heavy adventure games, co-op games, miniatures games, licensed games, and roleplaying games that they were known for.
On November 17, 2014, Fantasy Flight and Asmodee announced that they were merging. A month later, Christian T. Petersen stepped up as the CEO of the newly founded Asmodee North America, which contained Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, and Asmodee’s American publications. In 2016, he would also step away from the day-to-day operations of Fantasy Flight, and instead begin working directly with Asmodee Group CEO Stephane Carville.
As FFG joined the ranks of publishers like White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast who had leveled up in the corporate world, Petersen assured fans that FFG’s production was to continue unchanged.
Business as Usual: 2015-Present
In actuality, there were three big changes in the next few years: two game-related changes of note to fans and one business-related change that was less obvious to the average player.
The first big change was revealed in an announcement made on September 11, 2015: Fantasy Flight Games purchased the Legends of the Five Rings property from AEG. Petersen had long been a fan of the CCG and its evocative universe, and the Asmodee merger had given him the means to make an acquisition of this sort.
The second big change was a sales-term modification that became effective on April 1, 2016. The new rules limited sales of Asmodee North America products under the company’s standard terms to only those retailers who made face-to-face sales, either at their physical stores or at conventions. In other words, online sales were now forbidden under the company’s standard terms.
On the face, this looked similar to Games Workshop’s assaults on discounting in 2000-2003, which also forbade online sales. However, Christian Petersen’s goals were entirely different. He was highlighting the importance of physical stores in the ecology of gaming — recognizing that their services were what helped to regenerate his user base as players naturally moved in and out of the hobby. He was essentially paying for those services by providing physical stores with better terms than online stores. (FFG partially walked back these terms about a year later, in August 2017, when they began allowing their “flagship” accounts to make up to 50% of sales online.)
Games need local engagement and personal engagement and they need to be sold and expressed in many different ways: online, retail, mass, conventions, etc.Christian T. Petersen, “The State of Tabletop in 2016” (2017)
The third big change came later that year, when FFG announced that their relationship with Games Workshop was coming to an end on February 28, 2017. The termination of this license was very likely a GW decision, not an FFG one: though the Warhammer RPGs had mostly ended their runs by this point, FFG was experimenting with Dark Heresy Second Edition and more notably the bestselling Warhammer 40,000: Conquest LCG was still in its early days. However, the reason for the termination of this license have never been made public. The Asmodee merger certainly could have been a factor, but one insider source suggests that the real complication that led to divorce was that GW wanted to prevent its licensees from producing miniatures games such as FFG’s successful X-Wing Miniatures Game.
Since the end of this relationship, GW’s properties have scattered, with both of the roleplaying lines finding new homes. Cubicle 7 produced Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in a fourth edition (2018) that does not use FFG’s narrative dice system; while Ulisses North America created Warhammer: Wrath & Glory (2018), a new Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay game with a new game system and a wider scope.
FFG also lost their license from Wizards of the Coast for the Android: Netrunner card game as of October 22, 2018, but in the scope of things that was a much smaller blow.
Otherwise, Fantasy Flight Games has been business as usual in the Asmodee era — though at FFG that’s always meant innovation and change.
The Living Card Games have continued, with the biggest change being the conclusion of the original run of the Game of Thrones LCG and the release of A Game of Thrones: The Card Game Second Edition (2015). FFG was leery of closing down a line that at the time included about 70 evergreen products, but they were afraid that it was growing unwieldly due to legacy mechanics that dated back to the game’s publication as a CCG and because of its enormous and expanding card pool.
Petersen and others were willing to take a chance in rebooting the game because they felt a close affection for the property: they’d nurtured it when A Game of Thrones was not yet a massive cultural sensation, and it had been with the company for almost its whole life. By revamping the game with a simplified game system and a smaller card base, they felt that they could help it to survive another decade or more, where otherwise it might burn out. Sticking with the narrative structure that was the foundation of the LCG format, FFG provided closure to the old game before kicking off the new one.
FFG similarly closed down the Call of Cthulhu LCG but replaced it with a co-op alternative, Arkham Horror: The Card Game (2016) — which also had the benefit of being a brand that they more completely controlled. Of course, FFG produce a Legend of the Rings: The Card Game LCG (2017) too, in the fullness of time.
Rather surprisingly, FFG stepped back into the collectible field with Star Wars: Destiny (2017). FFG published the new collectible game because they’d discovered a method for producing dice with high-resolution full-color art baked into the dice, a real innovation for the field. This sort of innovation was, of course, the most reliable thing at FFG.
FFG also continues to produce RPG-adjacent adventure games and co-op games. A pair of co-op games with computer integration, XCOM: The Board Game (2015) and Mansions of Madness Second Edition (2016), are two of the most notable. XCOM uses an app to control its entire challenge system, while the new Mansions of Madness replaces its human overlord with app-based challenges. FFG used a similar technique with the Road to Legend app (2016) for Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition. This trend of computer integration is now continuing through Fantasy Flight Interactive, a Wisconsin-based computer company founded by Fantasy Flight Games in October 2017.
Many of FFG’s releases concentrate upon the settings that they’ve created over the years. They now have almost a half-dozen: the Android universe; Mecatol Rex and the rest of the Twilight Imperium universe; the fantasy realms of Terrinoth; Arkham and its environs; and Rokugan, the empire of Legend of the Five Rings. Besides games, FFG has also produced a variety of novels and novellas for these settings, but their most interesting release was probably The Worlds of Android (2016), a beautiful hardcover art and setting book. Fantasy Flight was at least somewhat selfish in creating this book: they wanted to help lay out the foundation of the settings for themselves!
FFG’s roleplaying lines seemed the most likely to fall in the new Asmodee era, because of the question of comparatives, now being measured against an even larger, more high-flying entity, but that hasn’t been the case at all. The Star Wars RPGs have continued, but FFG has also embraced smaller scale productions that feel like passion projects.
Two European game systems got new editions under FFG. James Wallis’ famous The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1998) got a third edition (2017) from FFG and spoke the most to FFG’s willingness to publish well-received indie games. FFG also produced English translations of four “End of the World” games (2015-2016), beginning with The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse (2015). All had appeared previously from Spanish publisher Edge Entertainment.
FFG’s most interesting recent roleplaying release was probably Genesys (2017), a brand-new generic game system that used their narrative dice system. FFG immediately used it to produce Realms of Terrinoth (2018), a fantasy roleplaying game that gave FFG yet another way to detail and reveal its settings. FFG is also using parts of Genesys in their fifth edition Legend of the Five Rings Beta (2017), which combines narrative dice with the game’s original roll and keep system.
However, there may be a bigger change coming. Christian Petersen is stepping down from his position as CEO of Asmodee North America at the end of 2018 and the company is splitting itself in two: Asmodee North America Publishing (which will contain FFG and other U.S. studios) will be led by Steve Horvath and Asmodee North America Distribution by Andre Kieren. Ironically, both of the new leaders have their origins with Games Workshop, the company with which FFG recently ended its relationship.
What does this all mean for Fantasy Flight Games? Perhaps nothing. FFG already has a new studio head: Andrew Navaro, who worked his way up through the ranks over the course of 13 years. So, administrative changes at Asmodee North America don’t necessarily mean much for FFG proper. In fact, if Petersen’s original theory holds, they’ll be able to continue doing what they do best: produce great games.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #23 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.
Expanded Bibliography & Thanks
Appelcline, Shannon. 2016. “Asmodee: The Other Creature that Ate the (Gaming) World”. https://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2016/02/08/asmodee-the-other-creature-that-ate-the-gaming-world/
Appelcline, Shannon. 2006. “Hasbro: The Creature that Ate the (Gaming) World”. Mechanics & Meeples. http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2006/06/08/the-creature-that-ate-the-gaming-world/
Mourlot, Nathalie. 2012. “Asmodée, the good pick with real games”. L’express. https://lentreprise.lexpress.fr/creation-entreprise/idees-business/asmodee-la-bonne-pioche-avec-des-jeux-bien-reels_1512975.html
Team Covenant. 2014. “Christian T. Petersen – Founder/CEO Fantasy Flight Games – Extended Interview”. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9e4NeNgTDso
Team Covenant. 2014. “The State of Tabletop In 2014 | A Discussion With Christian T. Petersen”. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIBgS2-QgeA
Team Covenant. 2016. “The State of Tabletop In 2015 | A Discussion With Christian T. Petersen”. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCelCL49lR0
Team Covenant. 2017. “The State of Tabletop In 2016 | A Discussion With Christian T. Petersen”. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlBFLyxikvY
Uncredited. Retrieved 2018. GROG: Guide du Rôliste Galactique. http://www.legrog.org/
Uncredited. November/December 2014. “Interview: Marc Nunès”. Casus Belli V4 #12.