SPI By the Numbers

Print Runs and Problems

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Chapter 10: Quantities and Consequences

All discussions of SPI eventually turns to the question of 'how many copies of an individual game did SPI print?'

The answer is, "It depends." 

In the early days, the Test Series Games likely had initial runs of 50, and then were re-copied (none were originally offset printed.  Only the maps were the result of a professional printer.) It is suspected that at best, before the later addition of mounted counters, Barbarossa, likely had sold between 100 and 200 copies.

And we do mean copies!  These were typed pages, copied. 'Tables and charts used rulers to create lines, and hand drawn pictures dominated the terrain charts and the counter examples.

Thus, the resulting sales numbers shocked the nascent game producers.

 "Our first ad was in S&T 18. That only went to 740 subscribers. On the basis of that alone we received over 700 game orders. That was about 500 more than we had expected and about 100 more than we could handle. It wasn't until sometime in February 1970 (six months, and 800 additional game orders later) that we finally caught up."  (From S&T issue 21.)

Meaning, they sold 1500 copies of games they had produced as a 'test' - games with counters printed on colored construction paper, and rules typed on a typewriter and copied 'as is.' Despite the made made tables and charts.

It would launch the company, but it would also set the table for the future: They would always be struggling to find the balance between demand and supply.

We can guess from the statement that at best they had 400 TOTAL games prepared - at best. I would have thought they might have invested $3 to $4 per game - not each printing, in each game title! Thus, 50 copies each would argue a total investment of $1000 in this trial run.  (Something like 300 total games printed at $3.30 a game). Now before you scoff - realize, that would have been ... close to a year's take home wages for many people after paying rent and utilities in 1970. I suspect they had, if lucky, 50 of each game on hand when they placed the first advertisement. Even at a nickel a page in copies, they had bucks on the line with that!

How Many Copies are printed? Part 1 - Test Series Era

So the earliest print run? Let's say 50 copies each, perhaps 200 of Barbarossa. I guess the really heavily 'copied' look of most of these, I am betting all those additional 800 games just got a quick copy job and sent out 'as is.'

Add in the later reprints - perhaps as many as 200 copies of the mounted counter version of Barbarossa? I doubt that. It is hard to say - but betting fewer than 100 of mounted copies of the other TSG games!

The SPI Era Begins - Z-Pack and White Box

In an issue of S&T well on the way to the good times - May/ June 1974 - Dunnigan and Simonsen state "Whereas most other game companies manufacture in runs of 10,000 or more units, our initial run is between 2[000] and 5000."

A few points - Jim Dunnigan [JFD] loved to throw numbers around in his Strategy & Tactics [S&T] column. Clearly a numbers analyst, and a believer in total transparency, facts were JFD's goal and numbers to him represented the ultimate facts of a discussion. His column was frequently a business dissertation, and telling it as he saw it from the point of view of hard facts. He also was clearly vexed by reality, in that the higher the print run, the lower the cost per unit - and 5000 was a great price break, but 10,000 was a far better one. And it is clear from his analysis that extra break 10,000 is really good over 5,000 - but it is huge compared to the cost per unit at a 2000 print run. He wanted that price break. However, reality (and cash) limited that potential.

Realize, though, this is after FOUR years in business. Redmond Simonsen [RAS], ever the SYSTEMS Analyst, as opposed to JFD, the pure numbers analyst, drives home the point that the initial run is the projected sales of the game in the first year. So one has to assume the games of the first years were likely print runs far below 2000 copies! S&T had a circulation of 28,100 in 1974. That's 400 times the number of issues for S&T in 1969!

How Many Copies are printed? Part 2 - Pre Flat Pack Era

So one assumes pre 1972, the production rate is far LESS than 2000 units. Perhaps as low as 500 or 1000?

This of course, is offset by the reality that most SPI games are reprinted a number of times. Not only if they run out, as the customer base expands, these games are 'new' to many of new customers. This also helps with the release of new 'box' formats - some people are going to re-buy some games simply because there is an improvement in the quality of the game components.  For example, the move from the 'White Box Era' to the 'Flat Pack' sees many of the early SPI games move into the new format, giving them a new run of games in print if they were low - or a new reason to buy them.  Thus the early SPI games see 'a new life' as first flat packs become the method of delivery to customers. Doubtlessly, the flat packs, which are really created to facilitate the move into stores, meant new print runs for many games to feed the wholesaler's requirements.

The same holds true for the move to boxes and especially, the mounted maps of the 'Designer Edition" games. Plus the flat packs were NEVER a good fit for monsters, so the change to the 4" box meant added sales. Example: Terrible Swift Sword, a popular game, but never the top ten in sales. It would, however, go out of stock when released in the 4" box format in 1978, two years after it's initial release. It would quickly be restocked. We don't know the print run on the second printing, but we know it at least out sold its initial print run!  And since it was two years later, that could have been the third print run for TSS. We don't really know.

But TSS is not the only monster to 'go out of print' temporarily on the change to boxes. And you can be certain, all the parties involved felt the pain when you could not fill orders because your initial print run was too low. Assume the different was 40 to 50 cents on a game where your entire profit margin might be $1.50 to $2.00. Burning that 50 cents you COULD have made - a 25% difference - was money you LOST, in the mind of Jim Dunnigan.  You can understand why he pushes hard in many of his columns for higher print runs.

Other games though, might have all the contents they need, so the shift from flat packs to boxes only required a face page printing. Descent on Crete seems to be a great example of this. There are very rare sightings of  2" box copies - but the flat pack was ubiquitous. One suspects they simply folded the maps to fit the box version.


 In the issue 44 discussion already mentioned, JFD and RAS lay out the costs for doing a game. They say the average cost is "$10,000" - though it becomes clear that is front loading everything - not simply the actual development. In general, it appears the real cost to create the 'base' unit is about $4500. One assumes that includes ALL the labor of the designer, developer, and the art department, divided by the number of game titles in process. And knowing JFD, that is $1500 to the research and design hours, $1000 to the development hours, and $2000 to the art development of the counters, tables, and typesetting for the rules. Another $3000 is in marketing - which is two advertisements in S&T. (ie, an internal recoup of the costs - with no check written for that 'cost.')

In S&T 53, Nov/Dec 1975, JFD brags, "Our minimum press run is now 5,000." That's 18 months later, real time.

How Many Copies are printed? Part 3 - Flat Pack Era

So where is the rest of the money? They allocate $2500 for the cost of maintaining the inventory. Well, THERE is an ANSWER: The average run in the Flat Pack era is likely 5000 units in the initial run (non-S&T) and 2000 in additional print runs if needed.

Thus we can assume at best, many non-S&T games prior to 1977-78 are in the 2000 and under category of initial print runs, with only a few reaching 4000 or higher. S&T games of this time are likely 20,000 or more, though.

But assume they kept 2000 to 4000 on hand for store sales, meaning boxed in a Flat Pack, and later, a 2" box.  So Cobra, for example, might reach 20,000 in magazine games, and the print run included an added 3000 for Flat Pack, and a 1000 to 2000 boxed copies. But it  is impossible to figure out the real breakdown of each format - this is only a guess. But the SPI Cobra 2" box is comparatively rare.

Empirical Proof?

But now let's reverse engineer these numbers, as we see the changes in 1975 going forward:

1975-1977 Quads. Folios, Boxes with mounted Maps, and more!

May, 1976 to April 1977:

Net Sales: $1.8 million
Gross Profit:$506,000.
Games published in 1976: 34
Games published in 1975: 38

One has to assume that is at least 300,000 units, perhaps closer to 375,000.
Assuming that they now have 125 titles in print, that would be an average of 3000 units per title. As older titles would likely fall, and newer rise, that certainly fits in our 2000 to 5000 print run concept. But we can also see how feeding the store shelf, as opposed to a mail order, is driving added costs. We can also assume print runs are increasing, but the profit margin by store sales is abysmal. And every unit on the shelf at the SPI warehouse is a sunk cost, in business terms. Plus each year, as inventory grows, the cost of maintaining that inventory is an added cost. Not a good feeling. 

Likely as 1977 hits, it appears print runs are increasing.  Pushing toward 10,000? No facts - but have to assume they were getting deeper into the market, and that meant a need for more inventory to ship to the wholesalers.

But the postponed costs of this would arrive someday....

Some facts to consider:

In the Jan/Feb 1978 issue of S&T, JFD shared these numbers, PLUS the date of the original printing of the games in question:

Strategy & Tactics 66, page 18. 

ALL TIME SPI Bestsellers as of October 31, 1977

Title                                      Published Date          Copies Sold
StarForce                          9/74 32,860
Sinai    12/73 23,607
Red Star / White Star 2/73 21,046
World War Three 6/73 19,117
Foxbat & Phantom 1/75 18,838
Sorcerer 10/75 17,323
Sniper! 9/73 17,296
NATO 7/73 16,278
Mech War '77 4/75 14,662
World War II 11/73 14,035

JFD goes on to declare "AH's PanzerBlitz, which was released In October, 1970, has sold 177,347 copies as of the end of July 1977 and is still selling around 20,000 copies a year."

PanzerBlitz was not the first SPI game sold to TAHGC, nor would it be the last. Considering by the mid 1970s, PanzerBlitz had sold close to 200,000 copies by 1977, JFD knew that it was possible to have a breakout hit. But it can also be considered a curse of success: knowing you could be hitting the high numbers, you continue to 'play the wheel' looking for lightning to strike again.

How Many Copies are printed? Part 4 - The Box Era

By 1977, you see only a handful of games reaching 5 digits in sales. It took StarForce three years to reach that lofty number, so it clearly had a few 5 digit sales years! Sinai was an instant hit, coming on the heels of the real battle exploding, it sold big fast. But note, the slots 2-4 are taken up by games from 1973. The top 10 games do not average 20,000 in sales per game, and that means they barely average 5000 in sales a year. Remember, the rule of thumb is to print the projected sales in the first year.

Out of roughly 24 to 36 new games a year, ignoring the 6 which are S&T games, the average sales per year are likely in the 1000 to 2000 range, based on these numbers. Perhaps 10 or 12% are in the 5000 games sold per year. 

The trick is to correctly predict which ones.

The Game Changer - SF and Fantasy

Everything starts to change with the advent of SF and Fantasy games dominating the market.

We see the beginnings in JFD's chart above, with the SF and Fantasy titles already high on the list. These numbers bring RAS to the fore, with the creation of Ares magazine.

The big change - a new champ in the best seller market: SPI, after literally YEARS of negotiation, license the rights to publish a game based on Tolkien's books for The Lord of the Rings. It would change every expectation in game sales.

I had assumed 50K to 75K would be tops for the sale of such a game.

I was wrong.

It appears SPI sold well more than 100,000 copies of this game, between the many different versions: War of the Ring Middle Earth, and Middle Earth  flat pack trilogy, and the 2" box with Deluxe box version (with mounted maps), and the 2" white box with the famous artist cover. (at left).
But -- how does that change things when you finally do hit the big win a second time? To be approaching the sales of the coveted PanzerBlitz again - this time with your company, and in far less sales time? 

Of course, we also don't know what the license cost them. We also don't have an estimate on the legal fees for this drawn out effort. All these would apply as true negatives on that profit.

But the bottom line is what you do after this happens. And we see....

Expectations are now very different.

As Eric Goldberg writes, consider the two changes the success caused. "War of the Ring (WotR)  total sales were in the ballpark of 25 times (!) of the print run for an expected good-selling historical wargame." He adds, "After WotR, the science fiction and fantasy line consistently was expected to sell two times the number of copies that a historical wargame" would generate.

Those are lofty expectations! Could it be done?

By his statement, we can again extrapolate that a good selling historical wargame at best is at 6,000 in sales, and perhaps more likely 5,000. Those are high numbers if defined by SPI's sales history prior to War of the Ring.

Eric Goldberg's first year run for Swords & Sorcery (published June 1978) hit 18,000 in the blue box release.

I guess that certainly qualifies.

Consider - that puts Swords & Sorcery, in little over a year, ahead of ALL the best sellers mentioned the year before in JFD's table above.

But don't think that was the top of the sales for S&S - I have no idea how well it sold in the next two years in the newer red box version, but I would bet it doubled.

Lofty heights indeed. And since there is no licensing fee as an in house effort, the profits are far higher per sale. Nice!

But the buried bombs of the market are coming to the foreground as sales zoom, but the costs rise.

Back to the original question of print run numbers:

The answer remains, "It depends." 

My guess:
The print runs on the end of the era are likely still maxed at 10,000, and that is a cumulative idea. Honestly, the more I work these numbers, that is a high end number coming only toward the last 2 to 3 years of SPI, and mostly for SF&F games.

Only a very few good selling sets will hit 10,000 or more total sales, and total print. And most of those will be SF/F titles.

There are too few facts, but I think you can see outside the S&T games, there are few. S&T games have high print runs to satisfy the sub count of over 30K, plus a bumper of an additional 5K likely for inventory purposes. Other than S&T and perhaps Ares, there are not too many games that topped 20K in total print runs.

Obviously, we have War of the Ring / Middle Earth, Swords & Sorcery, StarForce, Sorcerer,  DragonQuest, Universe, other RPG stuff.

I am willing to guess that Terrible Swift Sword climbed slowly to that level of 20K total, and perhaps past it. But I would not bet my house on that. And I am having a hard time coming up with non-S&T games and non SF&F games that approach the level of acceptance.

The original question of print run numbers, 1979 on: my guess:

I suspect part of the crunch in costs is from 1978 or 1979 on, SPI increased the print runs to 10,000 on some games. I am guessing they were realists: If it cost $6, 10K. $10, I am betting it was still a 5000 print run. Meaning,  less investment to print it since the cheaper games were folio games with 100 counters.

If the higher end game sold out of the 5000 print run,, they reprinted another 5000.   Thus, Pea Ridge is out there with two slightly different cover pictures. And it is easily found.

Clearly a different color face printing occurred for the box cover of Pea Ridge.  The key here is with the publication of Jackson at the Crossroads / Battle of Corinth box, the 4 boxed GBACW games were color coordinated.

But the GBACW basic rules themselves speak to later print runs.



Many games got reprinted when they went out of stock. Were they actually CHANGED in that process? Little evidence of that happening exists. In most cases, the change was a new insert for any accumulated errata. Example - the changes to TSS between the flatpack original and the 4" box.

Back to the numbers game:  Hof Gap, with a full sized map and 400 counters likely got a slightly higher print run initially because Fifth Corps, the first Central Front (CFS) game in the series was in S&T, and the subsequent volume, BAOR would also debut there. But Hof Gap did not sell out - or due to the original expectation that SPI would 'update' the CFS as new changes in OBs occurred. So no second print run for Hof Gap. But with 30,000 copies of the initial Fifth Corps, even 10,000 as a print run would not meet the demand, would it? Thus Hof Gap can be hard to find today.

The late additions of boxed non S&T games with only a folio map and 100 counters - eg, the $6 games - are all over the place. So I am guessing they have at least a 10 K print run.  Across Suez, The Alamo, Bulge / The Big Red One come to mind.

Time Tripper,
 Dawn of the Dead are still hard to find, but betting they had at least a 10K print run - if not higher, as by 1978, SF&F games were now expected to outsell any wargame, and likely got a higher initial run.  But I suspect they also had better sales. Either way the rarity factor for these two games is very high - and so are the aftermarket prices. Dawn of the Dead  might have gotten a higher print run number.

Unfortunately, SPI soon finds their costs associated with the 1" box is more than the profits on the games themselves.

The decision to take S&T games, Ares games, and others, and sell them in a 1" box for $5.95 (to $8.95 if full sized game, such as Pea Ridge) will be a costly one. History would show the last years of the 1970s early 1980s would see runaway inflation, the highest the USA has ever known.  But in the pre-small computer age, sales info and costs were always after the fact.  It would later be realized the 1" box alone cost $5.73, without cover or materials inside it. This, at a time when, "over 80% of the number of games being sold were $5.95 games." (Reported in S&T 86). I suspect this is an oversimplification, and actually reflects the subtraction of discounts given distributors in bulk sales. But the bottom line is truly, there is no profit on the retail sales of a $5.95 game. And by this time, much of the sales have shifted from direct (mail order) to retail. And it is literally killing SPI to do so. 

Thus, after issue 83, S&T Games will no longer be released in 1" boxes. But, all the other games will continue to be released in 1" boxes. What choice is there? Only to raise prices. Yet the rise of other companies means there is competition. How far could you raise prices even if you want to?

Profits, clearly, are gone.

Worse - maintaining inventory costs real money, too.

Print Run Generalization

Except for S&T games, and a few Science Fiction and Fantasy titles, I suspect only a handful of historical titles released before 1978 EVER reached that 10,000 number in the total print run over the accumulated time. Terrible Swift Sword, I suspect - but not in the initial printing. It was likely an accumulated total.

Which leads us directly to the other issue of great interest - Monsters.

How many copies of the monsters exist?

There is  question that started me on this pursuit of the numbers lo those many years ago: How many copies of some of these monsters are there?

JFD tells us monsters like War in the East cost $25,000 to produce when a normal game cost $10,000. But before you get too excited by those numbers, recognize some of that is a 'real cost' but not actually a cost for that specific game. We know that number includes the production print run, but the 'allocated' in-kind marketing 'pre-costs.' (The 'cost of two advertisements in S&T, which yes had a value, but they did not have to write a check for it. So I also suspect JFD would allocate the 'design cost' as a 'total company overhead for people and paper' divided by total games created. JDF was into kpi's before the rest of the business world.)

All of that is to say we can assume the real cost during the monster run was likely closer to $10,000 to $15,000 in real cost outlays before print runs.

In the cases of the early monsters, if the fan base PLAYS them and loves them, sales go up. So War in the East, and Terrible Swift Sword clearly point the way toward monsters. as a business product. Do not listen to people who were not around in those days who act like monsters killed SPI. But they certainly had an impact - though I argue, a positive one.

But you can bet the costs for the later monsters is higher, as they are not the 'big but dumb' game of the early monsters. You can also bet that only a few hit anywhere close to their hoped for sales.

Only a few get good print runs, and a very few get reprints. Certainly Bloody April did not hit any of their projected numbers. What about Atlantic Wall, Operation Typhoon, or Campaign for North Africa? Perhaps CNA hit their projected numbers - the excitement around this game was - and continues to be - unreal. And I believe the initial print runs of later monsters sell out as expectations drop. But it did not generate the runaway sales that the original War in the East led the company to expect of monsters. 

But imagine the cost on the print run of a monster?

4 times the map cost of a quad - if not much much more!

10 times the costs for the book and charts? (Certainly books are far cheaper to print, but there is a cost. )

And enough counters to outfit 5 quads?

So technically, if your Quad sells for $10, but your monster sells for $40, you are still ahead on the monster. If you sell at least one for every four quads sold.

There is certainly an investment in bringing a monster to market.

But if you look at the best seller lists, there is also a silver lining to monsters: Many, many monsters sold in the pre-production phase. Meaning - the price was lower - but much more of the money goes into SPI's pocket, not the middle men at the store or the shop.

More importantly, and not insignificantly - the majority of it is money coming in BEFORE the costs are actually incurred. 

More over pre-orders then acted like today's P500 lists, giving the company a VERY good idea based on the pre-sales what they can expect in future acceptance and sales. We see that reflected clearly all over the best seller lists of the time. Thus they can judge their print runs on monsters a bit better. What they can't predict is the follow up sales. If the game is judged a bomb in the print media once released, added sales go out the window.

Couple with the higher print cost investment for a larger amount of material, all this argues for a smaller print run for a monster than a typical game. 

Perhaps over the life of  Terrible Swift Sword, War in the East, and War in the West, these big names and big games reached the lofty 20K to 25K in print. Maybe as much 30K by the end. 

I would not bet on that, but I suspect there are certainly more copies of these games in existence than other monsters in the run.

But if they did hit those numbers, they started with smaller print runs just the same.

The follow up sales make the difference. And the loss of potential sales due to problems - like the poor rules of the first edition Highway to the Reich, or poor reviews, can be a killer, literally. 

I suspect when a Drive on Stalingrad, Highway to the Reich, or Descent on Crete got bad reviews based on cursory examinations at best, and when Bloody April does not provoke the excitement it's predecessor did, it hurts the sales. The string of not-that-well-received monsters, along with skyrocketing inflationary costs, eventually killed the monster market.

Summing It Up:

I would think some monsters might have made it to 10,000 in sales  - but not many. War in the Europe seems like a possible one, and as I said, TSS. Or perhaps The War Between the States.









Wacht Am Rhein? Maybe. But I would suspect 2500 to 7500 for both those previous games  is a more likely.

I originally started all this research years ago, trying to answer "How many War in the Pacific games were printed?"

I am not sure I would bet on 2500. Surely not more than 5000. The perfect example is the price: The pre-sales justified a certain print run. Let's guess 1000 in sales, and another 1000 in speculation? Assume there were an average of 5 game stores in every state. That's 250. Double that for the heck of it, and you are at 500.

Will all 500 stores go out on a limb for that game? And how many copies? Of more importance are the wholesalers. They get games in bulk, estimating the interest from the retailer. I am not certain if there were all that many retailers in the 1970s. When I was in the business in the 1980s, I had 5 to choose from - and many went belly up in the Reagan Recession, leaving me with maybe two wholesalers to order from.

Remember, the price of War in the Pacific rose from $25 in pre-pub, and $30 estimated post-pub, to a reality of $50, then $60. That's an investment even at the store cost. And will they average even one game sold per store? Perhaps. That's still under 1000 games.

Realize also that many retailers - and more importantly wholesalers -  were irked that SPI was very likely their main competitor. If SPI presales, offered at a lower price,  got the lion's share of the would-be buyers that really wanted the monster, only those sitting on the fence were left for the store as potential buyers. And convincing that hold out to buy would now come from the experiences of the early buyers. So a bad review - like the hack job most of the later monsters got - were undoubtedly a major factor in the side in sales of later monster games.

Face it - most of these were not going to be played at least competitively. Simonsen speaks to this in one of his columns. If played at all, it might be solo, for a few turns. Thus, all that is driving the sale is the potential internal thrill of owning the biggest game ever on a certain topic. You have to feel positive excitement when buying it, as that is about the total reward.

But price points still matter. Consider, at the time of War in the Pacific and the inflation-driven price rise, the new tag on the shelf was $60. Point of reference for me - that was half my no overtime weekly take home pay in 1978. It was about my car payment. It was a good chunk of cash. 

I suspect my answer to how many War in the Pacific were printed might be as low as 2000 to 2500 games. Perhaps there were 5000 printed - but I would be surprised. I would not be surprised to find the real print run was only 1000. Sad to say.

Due to the poor reception of the later games, and the rapidly escalating inflation that doubled the price of a monster due to the longer time required to bring it from design to sales, monsters disappeared from the production schedule of SPI after the June 1979 offerings.

But here the law of unintended consequences kicks in: that also means pre-sales payments with no real cost associated with them disappeared as well.  Like subscription pre-payments, those were 'interest free loans' to SPI by convinced buyers. This upfront loss of cash with the mistaken desire of the need to increase print runs to feed the maw of the retail sales chain would lead to a significant problem - lack of cash flowing in.

And SPI had always lived on cash flow, from the very beginning. Thus the usual SPI cash issues will escalate to a real problem very quickly. First they will turn to venture capitalists, but those people will want their money returned when the great new profits do not appear.

This will lead to a scramble for cash, and the question of 'how many to print?' will no longer be a debate for SPI. 

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