Zev Shlasinger loved the collectible card game (CCG) Shadowfist when it first came out in 1995. “It was a fun, lighthearted game. It was inspired by Hong Kong action movies, which I’m a big fan of. So it hit a lot of buttons for me,” he says. Unfortunately, the game went out of print the following year. “There was always talk about bringing it back,” says the longtime gaming enthusiast; when nothing came of it, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He raised the money, bought the rights to the game, and in 2000, triumphantly put Shadowfist back on the market. Eight years later, Z-Man Games, based out of Shlasinger’s Mahopac home, has become one of the premier niche-game publishers in the country. “I wasn’t thinking about starting a company, and I had no business sense whatsoever,” he says. “It was baptism by fire, but I knew what I wanted to do.”
Originally, Shlasinger had wanted to do something else: screenwriting. Born in Tel Aviv in 1966, he came to the U.S. as an infant and grew up in Brooklyn, earning degrees in English and creative writing from Brooklyn College. But he has always maintained his interest in games: “As a kid I loved Stratego, and then I graduated to Risk,” he remembers. In the mid-1990s, Shlasinger joined the growing ranks of those caught up in the CCG phenomenon, which was spearheaded by the publication of Magic: The Gathering.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, CCGs are card games that depend on the acquisition, maintenance, and utilization of a set of special cards. These cards are collected, bought, and traded among players. You buy what’s known as a “starter” set of cards, and additional sets are made available periodically. Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon are two of the best-known CCG games.
Soon after republishing Shadowfist, Shlasinger began receiving game submissions from around the country. One year later, he released Grave Robbers from Outer Space, which sold out almost immediately. It became the first in a Z-Man series called B-Movie Games, with subsequent titles like Bushwhackin’ Varmints Out of Sergio’s Butte, Scurvy Musketeers of the Spanish Main, and Cannibal Pygmies in the Jungle of Doom.
By communicating with gamers all over the country at various conventions and on Web sites, Shlasinger began to notice that the CCG craze, while remaining popular, was being eclipsed by a new generation of traditional, tabletop board games. In response, Shlasinger took a stab at this more conventional world of gaming, issuing Ideology: The War of Ideas in 2003. He followed up with Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean, which earned the company a “Board Game of the Year” award at the 2005 Origins gaming convention. “At first I was introducing one or two games a year, but in 2006 the business just exploded. I released something like 15 or 16 games,” says Shlasinger.
These days, the gaming entrepreneur is kept busy moving his games through various stages of production and marketing them at conventions around the world. “I usually go to about eight or 10 a year,” he says. “It takes about six to eight months to bring a game to market from the time I get a prototype.” Shlasinger does not design games, but “I’m good at testing them and polishing them.” His family also offers their two cents (Shlasinger and his wife have six kids between them), although “my teenage son is really more into video games,” he says.
Shlasinger — who remains, at least for now, the company’s only full-time employee — admits that “given my druthers, I’d rather be screenwriting.” Nonetheless, he’s thrilled to have found a way to turn a hobby into a successful business. Although Z-Man’s niche games are most often found in local specialty toy stores and comic book shops, “sometimes they will turn up at Barnes & Noble or Target. But I’m growing as a company, we’re expanding all the time.”
1960: The Making of the President This is a two-player, card-driven game. One player is Kennedy, one is Nixon, and you’re striving for votes in order to be named president. “It’s a meaty game, it takes about 90 minutes to play,” says Shlasinger. “It’s very historical, and obviously, this has been a good year for it.”
Agricola One to five players can take part in this creative game, which took over the number one spot on Boardgamegeek.com this past summer (the former top game, Puerto Rico, had held the spot for six years). “Each person has a farm and you’re trying to maximize the efficiency of your farmyard,” explains Shlasinger. “You’re adding family members, you’re raising cattle and sheep, you’re building stables, you’re planting grains and vegetables. It’s a very well-designed game.”
Wasabi! The object of this game, which comes out this month, is to prepare sushi by laying ingredients on the board; you earn points by matching your recipes and meeting challenges.