EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes at Ravensburger

Having kicked off 2022 with a raft of new games and a €4 million investment in crowdfunding platform Gamefound, Ravensburger is on a mission to become “the most trusted gaming brand” on a global scale. ToyNews sat down with Filip Francke and Thomas Bleyer to find out about the company’s next moves

“Humans have a need to tell stories and to experience stories, and board games fulfil that need,” says Filip Francke, CEO of Ravensburger North America and the company’s global head of games. “Living a story, with people coming together around whatever activity it is, gives a sense of belonging, and that is as attractive as it’s ever been.”

It’s fair to say that the German company with a storied history, instantly recognisable by its blue triangle logo, takes a more holistic approach to board games than most. Founder Otto Robert Maier, who published the first Ravensburger board game in 1884, reportedly declared, “We’re going to make games and activities for the hand, the head and the heart,” and as Francke explains, that is still very much Ravensburger’s legacy today.

“We’re in it for the long run, and we’re doing it for a purpose,” he says. “In a way, we’re the anti-Metaverse. We see that consumers are looking for moments to be in the present, for moments that really matter. You might want, as an individual, to play a single-player logic game or to do a puzzle, and immerse yourself so you can forget the crazy world around you. But really, we’re trying to make products that bring people together.”

The popularity of board games rocketed during 2020–21, the pandemic heightening the very human need for connectedness as well as the uncomfortable feeling that we were all spending too much time on screens. “Lockdown was a big driver [back to physical games], but we were seeing it happen before then,” asserts Francke. “Our puzzles and games business has been growing in double digits for half a decade now.”

Today, Ravensburger is in robust health; net revenue for 2021 was EUR 636 million. In the same year, the company opened branches in China and Poland, and saw employee numbers rise by 109 to 2,413. This year kicked off with a EUR 4 million investment in Polish company Gamefound, a crowdfunding platform specifically for the games industry (more on that later), which will, Francke hopes, allow “more games that fit a smaller audience” to come onto the market.

“The next big thing for us is to make sure that we create more opportunities for people to enter gaming,” says Francke. “There are ‘gamer gamers’, who want deep mechanics, but then there are all these people who are a bit scared of games, and so we try to use fan-driven stories, as in our Jurassic Park and Jaws games, and our Disney lines, to help people access the experience and the storytelling.”

Licensed games are huge sellers for the company, but in typical Ravensburger fashion, “it’s not about just slapping an IP onto an existing gameplay”. Francke explains: “I think we’ve tried to redefine what licensing is, to really make sure that when we do something with a licence, be it Harry Potter for Labyrinth or Disney for Villainous or Paw Patrol for memory games, we actually try to make it an immersive experience, so we’re not just bringing the IP holder X per cent of royalties, we’re building the equity of their IP.

“We call it the ‘play the story’ approach. If you feel, when you’re playing Jurassic Park, that you’re actually co-operating to escape the dinosaurs – and we do get customer feedback where people say, ‘I really felt like I was going to get eaten if I couldn’t get off the island’ – then that’s a much more engaging and authentic experience than just watching the movie on Netflix. And I think that’s what people are looking for.”

Ravensburger takes care to consider each IP’s existing fan base when devising a branded game. “Our new Star Wars Villainous is an excellent example. We spent so much time making sure that we understood the very different views of the fans of Star Wars; it was far easier to do Disney and Marvel versions of Villainous because the fans are much more aligned. We also spent a huge amount of time figuring out the gameplay, asking ourselves, ‘What are the iconic moments for this IP? How do we replicate that in the game mechanics? What’s the story that we’re trying to tell?’”

In the end, everything comes back to storytelling. The first game Ravensburger ever produced, nearly 140 years ago, was Journey Around the World – based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Today, with the fourth generation of the Maier family at the helm, Ravensburger is continuing its literary legacy, having just launched its second Adventure Book Game, based on The Wizard of Oz, following on from 2020’s The Princess Bride. Beautifully designed, the game takes players from sepia-toned Kansas through Munchkin land to the Emerald City, competing challenges along the way using playing cards representing Courage, Heart, Brains, Magic and Wonder.

Again, the game offers players unfamiliar with immersive games a “way in”.

“Chapter one teaches you a little bit of the game mechanic, but even if you’re not a gamer you can easily get into it,” Francke explains. “Then you add on a little bit more in the second chapter. And then you have a really rich experience in the third. And you learn the game by playing, rather than reading an instruction manual.”

The book/game hybrid model also lends itself to new retail opportunities. “It fits perfectly into book stores, like Waterstones, which are a growing channel for games. Where we’re seeing growth is among young adults; they might not necessarily visit a toy store, but they do love to go to book stores.”

Another successful sector for Ravensburger is what Francke calls “children-led family games.” The Upside Down Challenge, which brings the family together to complete tasks while wearing goggles that turn everything topsy-turvy, is proving a huge success at retail. “We love it when the kids can win, and when parents fail,” Francke says. Licensed memory games are also enormously popular – so popular, in fact, that Ravensburger is just about to launch an adult version, based on the furniture designs of Charles Eames.

All the games in Ravensburger’s children’s portfolio have an educational element of some kind. “We don’t mind games without a higher purpose, they can be exciting, but they’re a little bit like pancakes: empty calories,” Francke says. “At Ravensburger, we like our pancakes with added little bits of spinach. You’re still going to love that pancake as a kid, but you’re getting something deeper from it.”

The ‘good for you’ approach is epitomised by ThinkFun, which joined the Ravensburger family in 2017, and which specialises in educational games for kids aged 8 and up. Its falling-marble logic game Gravity Maze is a Toy of the Year Award winner, and, according to Francke, “the definition of the pancake with spinach in it. ThinkFun games are great fun, but they have a purpose. Gravity Maze has been phenomenally successful in the US over the past five years, and now we’re seeing the same trend in the UK. It’s going to be the next big thing. It’s amazing because it encourages problem solving, collaboration and logic, and offers open-ended play – there’s no winner. The reward is the feeling that you’ve solved something. Plus, it’s very hands-on.”

Technology, however, can’t be avoided altogether. “We realise the importance of connecting with our consumers where they spend most of their time, which is the digital world,” Francke says. “We want to be good at using digital channels to invite people to come and play physical games”. Ravensburger’s interactive marble run GraviTrax, in particular, has taken off on TikTok in a big way, with users posting their elaborate designs and generating thousands of likes. “We support user-generated content of that kind, of someone having a great experience that they’re sharing with their neighbour or their niece or their grandpa,” insists Francke – creating happy memories, after all, is very much part of Ravensburger’s DNA. “We believe that everyone in their life has had at least one fantastic game experience, whether it was playing Rummy with their grandparents, or Labyrinth with friends; everyone has that seed in them. And if we can get a little bit of water on that seed, and help it to grow…

“There are so many ways to get into games. You can start with Labyrinth, then move into Eldorado, which is the first type of deck-building game, and then all of a sudden you can play Villainous.” What ties all those experiences together, Francke believes, is the iconic blue triangle. “We have an ambition to be the most trusted game brand. We want that blue triangle to reflect what our games stand for, their quality of immersiveness and their accessibility. If you choose the blue triangle for a game for a three-year-old, you’re very likely to turn to Ravensburger again, and if you keep on having good experiences, you might play with your teenagers, and your neighbours, or during a dinner party…”

The public thirst for novelty means new games are constantly in development, but until now, even though Ravensburger might see “a few thousand” games a year, only a handful end up being published. That might, however, be about to change.

Thomas Bleyer, Group Director Corporate Development & New Business, is responsible for the Ravensburger Next Ventures programme, a new wing of the company set up primarily to identify and invest in product ideas and services that fit thematically to Ravensburger business sectors.

“There’s a strong internal innovation tradition within Ravensburger already but we thought, what can we do more proactively to leverage all the innovation and entrepreneurial potential that’s out there?” explains Bleyer. “There are so many smart, creative and passionate people that we could work with, but in a traditional publisher set-up, you have limited capacity. So we said, let’s give ourselves a tool to tap into that creativity.”

Next Venture’s first partner, announced in February this year, is Gamefound, a spin-off of the successful board game publisher and crowdfunding expert Awaken Realms. Gamefound aims to help board game developers interact with their community and transform ideas into games; following a soft launch in 2021, the company has already hosted more than 30 campaigns, which raised over US$22 million in total funding.

What made them the perfect fit for Ravensburger?

“They have really strong founders, they have a compelling vision, and for us, it’s a great opportunity to broaden our reach and our connection to the games creator community, to gain even better and earlier insight into new trends and topics, and extend our network to reach up-and-coming designers that we might want to work with,” says Bleyer. “It was also good timing. Gamefound was in beta phase, they had done the first couple of campaigns, you could see it worked, and how a combination of capital and industrial expertise could help lift the company to the next level.”

Next Ventures, Bleyer asserts, is more than an investment fund. “Many large corporations set up a venture capital fund as a means to invest capital and maybe get some strategic gains, but we thought for us, it would be more fitting to have a business-building approach that includes an element of investing in startups, but only in those cases where we can offer some kind of strategic and operational benefit to those companies.

“Hopefully, with Gamefound, we can contribute some industry expertise, and help to broaden their scope. Being a recognised industry player, we can add some credibility and stability to a very young venture and convince other large players to work with them, too.”

Other Next Ventures partners have yet to be announced, but investments could, in theory, be made across any of Ravensburger’s core sectors: publishing, toys, games, edutainment and children’s books. “When choosing a partner, we’re looking for great product innovation and a clear strategy,” Bleyer explains. “Also, do we have a shared mission? Do we align on the way we want to run business and contribute to kids’ and families’ lives? Partners need to have a fundamental understanding of why we are in the toy industry and do what we do.”

There is no cap on funding when it comes to Next Ventures. Money will be allocated from each year’s budget, Bleyer says, with the company expecting to make two or three investments a year for several years to come.

“There’s a broader multi-year investment plan that goes into the tens of millions behind this,” he explains. “Next Ventures is only part of it, because in addition to internal and external innovation we are investing quite strongly building our business internationally.

“It’s a benefit of being part of a family-owned business that’s almost 140 years old – it gives you a different perspective of what it means to make a long-term strategic investment. We’re not just focused on our quarterly results; of course, we want to be successful every year, but with an initiative like Next Ventures we can credibly say, this has a five- to 10-year horizon and beyond in terms of innovation and effort. And that is a strategically really privileged place to work from.

“If you look at Ravensburger from the outside I don’t know how much you can see,” Bleyer concludes. “But there’s a lot happening in our company behind the scenes, in terms of cultural change, technology, processes, and making a big step up to become a much more international, even more innovation-driven, more modern company. And I think we’re proving successful on that track.”

This feature appears in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of ToyNews. Read the issue here