Asmodee Entertainment’s Alexander Thieme on creativity, fandom and having a brand for every licensee
Alexander, it’s always great to catch up! To get the ball rolling, how did you come to be working in licensing?
Prior to joining Asmodee, I worked at Games Workshop for 20 years, doing lots of different things; publishing, translations, web development, PR, events, retail… The list is endless! At some stage, I started working with the licensing department there. That team wanted me to write a paper about the German market, and the potential to strike licensing deals in Germany. So that was my start in licensing!
Do you think having worked in so many different areas of that business proved useful when moving into licensing?
Absolutely. Licensing was a brilliant combination of everything I’d done before, and it gave me the opportunity to speak with lots of really interesting people about their wonderful businesses. It’s what I’m doing now with Asmodee, day-in day-out.
It’s one of the busiest jobs I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s also one of the most exciting. Every call is interesting – different people, markets, industries… I’ll speak to someone about licensed coffee one minute, and the next call will be about a graphic novel for kids. I really, really love it.
I can imagine that variety keeps things interesting – and the Asmodee portfolio of brands is just as diverse. It spans gaming icons like CATAN, to fast-paced card games like Dobble, to the vast worlds of Twilight Imperium. That must lead to all sorts of unique licensing opportunities?
It really does. One of the slogans at Asmodee is ‘A game for every gamer’. We can expand that now to ‘A brand for every licensee’. We have an incredibly wide catalogue of brands, and each has a different fanbase. We have kids, families, casual gamers, hardcore gamers – it’s fantastic.
You have something like Ticket to Ride on one side – a game with wide appeal; you can find it everywhere. Then there’s a brand like Arkham Horror, which has a lot of superfans and is very big. And then, for example, there is Twilight Imperium – one of the best games in the world, with a fantastic universe that has a hobby gamer following, or Legend of the Five Rings, which has a small but rabid fanbase. There are about 300 brands in Asmodee’s catalogue, so it’s a full spectrum!
And having that spectrum can help blow categories wide open for you guys, right? In apparel, Dobble might lend itself to kidswear while Twilight Imperium could be a nice fit for something more high-end…
It always depends on the partner’s abilities and needs. When I have conversations with potential licensees, I always want to find out what they want to do because our brands need to marry up with their needs. This exploration is an exciting and creative process.
I’m interested in Asmodee’s first few steps into licensing. How many of your games were ‘brand-ready’ and how many did you have to build up licensable assets for?
They were all ready for licensing, but like any company that’s starting a licensing programme for its brands, we had to do some work. That said, I’m not sure any brand is ever fully ‘brand-ready’ – they’re always evolving.
Also, what you need to be brand-ready differs from brand-to-brand. For example, if we explored Dobble plush, what needs to be in place for that deal to happen is different to what needs to be there for something centred around the deeper world of Arkham Horror.
The good thing is that we don’t just give our licensees a style guide and say “off you go!” We talk to them, give them additional inspirational material to spark their creativity and help them develop ideas. A successful licensing project needs both the creativity of the licensee and the proper support of the brand owner.
I always say to partners “No matter how silly an idea is, don’t censor yourselves – just ask us and see if we say no.” There have been some left-field creative ideas that we’ve absolutely loved.
Yes, and we’ll dive into some of those in a moment. You mentioned fans earlier. How passionate are the fanbases around your brands?
Our fans are very connected – emotionally and socially – to our brands. And that even goes for a simple game like Dobble. The experiences around the table involving our brands form part of these fans’ identity. These games are a big part of people’s social circles and family lives; it’s a deep, emotional connection. They want merchandise that speaks to them and reflects the experiences they hold so dear. This means our products need to come from a creative place.
Speaking of creativity, can you give me a few examples of recent product lines that highlight how creative licensees can be with your brands?
Rollacrit’s CATAN ranges are a great example. They have three lines… One focuses on in-world organisations like The Bricklayers Union of Catan. Another centres around the ‘Greetings from Catan’ range that imagines terrains from the island like a tourist destination. And finally, there’s the ‘Catan Seaside Resort’ series, which is inspired by the beaches of the game.
Then you have something like Ata-Boy’s CATAN collection. They have a clear focus on things like fridge magnets, buttons and keyrings, working with classic imagery and insider jokes from the game, like ‘No One Wants Your Sheep’. It’s a clever way to show off your fandom.
And then you have a partner like Just Funky, who sit somewhere between the two. They have a very unique style, that I love. Each partner has taken a different creative spin on the brand, and every kind of CATAN fan can find something for them across these collections.
Absolutely – and that will extend to cookbooks too, right?
Yes, we have a CATAN cookbook on the way from Ulysses Press! It’s all about different dishes inspired by the different landscapes seen in the game. We also have a cookbook coming out based on Ticket to Ride, and that’s about taking consumers on a culinary journey.
It sounds left field, but when you dive into them, they make total sense. If something doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t happen. We only sign deals that make sense and feel right. It should never feel like too much of a stretch.
CATAN cookbooks, CATAN beer… What’s the value of doing brand extensions that surprise people?
There are different types of fans, and fandom itself follows the psychological principle of symbolic self-completion. You want to surround yourself with things that are part of your identity. It needs to speak to you, and also speak to those around you. In merch terms, that means there’s ‘in-your-face’ product and the more subtle ‘guerrilla’ style of product. Either way, it needs to speak to fans and these irreverent, playful products fit the bill for some consumers looking to be surprised and entertained.
A good example of this is the Welbeck puzzle books for CATAN, Unlock! and Ticket to Ride. They also have puzzle books in the works for Pandemic and Dobble. It’s easy to think ‘How could you do a puzzle book for Dobble?’ but it’s fantastic. I saw a sample chapter recently and was gripped! When you find a partner who knows what they’re doing, you can create some really engaging content.
Do the studios behind the games get involved in this creative process with your licensees?
Well, what’s great is that the studios have strong connections with the gaming community. Asmodee, at its core, is at the heart of the boardgame community as most of us a board gamers. The people that make our games do so with a lot of passion, and board game players are passionate too. So, style guides are great, but they’re not the be all and end all. Licensees also engage with us, our studios and our gaming community – and that often leads to a flurry of ideas that resonate with fans.
For any licensees reading, what areas are of interest to Asmodee Entertainment at the moment?
We’re looking for partners in graphic novels for two of our biggest brands, Arkham Horror and Terrinoth Legends. We’ve had some great experiences in that segment already and know how powerful that style of storytelling can be, so we think it’s time for these two brands to find a home in the graphic novel space.
I’m also looking at collectible plush, be it aimed at families around Dobble or geeky plush for something like Arkham Horror. We think there’s some really cool things we could do in plush. Also, I’m always looking at publishing formats, because they marry up wonderfully with games.
Generally though, we are open to talk about any product or product category, be it CATAN coffee or Dobble stationary – there are many opportunities! My colleagues are also working on some really exciting media projects and in video games. The sky’s the limit.
We’re covering lots of live brand experiences at the moment. Is that area of interest too?
Absolutely. It’s a small market still, but there’s lots of potential there. And we have already launched some great things in this area. For example, if you live in Seattle, you can go to Hourglass Escapes and try out the Arkham Horror escape room. It’s really, really cool.
Alexander, this has been great! I have one last question – how do you fuel your creativity?
My biggest source of inspiration is in talking to people. The back and forth with licensees is fertile ground for creativity. People bring their experiences, their backgrounds and their needs, and that comes together with our experiences and our needs for a unique mix that fires up creativity.
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