Asmodee’s parent company, the Swedish-based Embracer Group, recently received a $1 billion investment from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund used one of its wholly-owned entities, Savvy Gaming Group, to purchase enough of the company to become its second-largest owner.
Embracer Group acquired the tabletop game publishing giant responsible for some of the biggest non-Monopoly board games - Catan, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride, among others - last year to the tune of $3.1 billion. The company has spent the last five years on a veritable buying spree, acquiring numerous mostly digital gaming companies such as Borderlands maker Gearbox Studios and Tomb Raider’s Crystal Dynamics but also branching into other forms of popular media - it recently acquired comics maker Dark Horse Media.
As reported by Polygon, the PIF’s move is part of a larger push to diversify a Saudi Arabian economy that remains dependent on fossil fuels. The kingdom purchased 5.01% of Japanese video game publisher Nintendo last month and has been eyeing several other pieces of the broader pop culture media landscape, Disney included. Given that, a significant but non-controlling stake in the constantly expanding Embracer umbrella makes sense from a business standpoint.
Many tabletop players and studios owned by Asmodee will likely find the connection to Saudi Arabia problematic and unwanted. The country has a long and well documented history of human rights violations that still exist today. The kingdom is alleged to regularly torture and imprison women’s right activists, political dissidents and outspoken critics. It reportedly bombed schools, hospitals and civilians during the ongoing Yemeni Civil War, and a US CIA report names Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as personally approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Embracer Group’s CEO Lars Wingefors responded to very few of these concerns in a June 10th comment on PIF’s investment in his company, according to Yahoo! Finance. Instead, Wingefors used the letter to assure investors and stockholders that Savvy Gaming Group would not control the company - though the possibility of a board seat for SGG’s CEO Brian Ward remains an open door.
“Embracer is built on the principles of freedom, inclusion, humanity and openness. The transaction with SGG will not change this in any way,” Wingefors said in the letter. “Embracer is still controlled by the people working in our Group.”
He said any company member who would question Embracer’s economic ties to a “non-democratic” country should “look ourselves in the mirror” and consider the other MENA countries and individuals with whom they already do business. Further, Wingefors cites the increasing popularity of games in MENA countries, including Saudi Arabia, as a chance for Embracer Group to enact positive change.
“I truly believe in inclusion and the change that can be affected by opening our content to new markets,” he said. “By bringing more of our products to the MENA region, we have the opportunity to build local connections, support entrepreneurs, employ a diverse group people (sic) in our whole ecosystem, promote growth and bring the world closer together through gaming.”
Asmodee has been on its own buying spree in the last few years, adding Azul publisher Plan B Games and the play-in-browser website Board Game Arena in 2021. It also made a “strategic investment” in Exploding Kittens in the same year, just as the publisher doubled down on its model of approachable and distinctively-designed party games - though it came at the cost of wonderfully fish-shaped bags.