Suddenly, Board Games Are Cool Enough to Crowdfund


The artfully-designed dice and wooden whale tokens from Moby Dick. Photo: King Post.

The artfully-designed dice and wooden whale tokens are an important part of the allure of Moby Dick, the game. Photo: King Post.

When video game producer Tavit Geudelekian decided to make a card game based on his favorite novel, he started a Kickstarter campaign to finance development. He thought he could reach the project’s $25,000 funding goal, but he didn’t expect to exceed it.

“All the Kickstarter notices come to my email inbox,” said the New York native as he ate an everything bagel with cream cheese at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters in lower Manhattan. “The first few hours it’s like, ‘Oh, my mom donated. Oh, my brother. These 30 friends from college. These 50 friends from high school.’ And then around the fifth hour, it was just a flood of people’s names I’ve never seen before. That’s when the unreality set in. Like, ‘This is really happening. How is this happening?’”

The game, titled Moby Dick after Herman Melville’s whaling classic, met its goal in just a few days on Kickstarter, Geudelekian said, and by its end date on May 30, the campaign had raised over $102,000. Geudelekian’s company, King Post, a venture he started with four fellow Moby Dick enthusiasts, turned to Kickstarter because it didn’t have the startup funds to go it alone, and Geudelekian knew he was connecting with a dedicated community.

“We noticed that there were thousands and thousands of people who would get on Kickstarter once a month to spend between $25 to $50 dollars on a game, and usually a table-top card game or board game,” he said. “There’s this very articulated and well-loved table-top card game and board game section.”

Moby Dick is one of the more than 250 table-top games that were successfully funded on Kickstarter over the past three months.

Lauren Bilanko, co-owner of game shop Twenty Sided Store in Williamsburg, said the outpouring of online support for new table-top games speaks to the size and commitment of the grown-up gaming community.

“I think what is happening is people are using Kickstarter as a way to preorder a game, it’s not really that they’re funding games,” Bilanko said. “Here are some hard-core gamers who are like, ‘This game sounds awesome, and I want to preorder it.’”

Twenty Sided Store hosts regular board game nights on Thursdays and Sundays for novices and experts alike to play any of the games the store carries, from the popular German board game Settlers of Catan to Net Runner, a collectible card game developed by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering.  The store also hosts competitive weekly Magic and Dungeons and Dragons nights. Bilanko has fostered a culture similar to a coffee shop or café.

“We basically built our store with the idea that there’s not enough places in NYC to play games,” Bilanko said. “There are party games, and there are super heavy table-top strategy games that might take hours just to figure out how to set the board up before you even start playing. So we tend to provide a way where people can meet other people, learn how to play these games and not feel intimidated if you’ve never heard of the game or you don’t know what’s happening.”

Players navigate the character cards while testing out Story War. Photo: Cantrip Games

Players navigate character cards while testing out Story War. Photo: Cantrip Games

The gaming community on Kickstarter was instrumental to Geudelekian’s success, but he also tapped into a fervent Melvillian audience with his bid. Initially, Geudelekian and his King Post co-founder and game designer Andy Kopas imagined a video game based on the travails of the Pequod, but they realized that the fan base for the classic novel might appreciate a more traditional format.

“Not only do the sort of concentric circles of nerdiness for like, super hard-core literature and card games and table-top board games seem to inhabit the same space, but there’s also been this really, really, really big resurgence in popularity for table-top games on Kickstarter,” he said.

This popularity helped new media artist and game designer Zach Gage fund his board game Guts of Glory, in which players participate in a post-apocalyptic eating contest.

He knew that the local gaming community was interested even before launching a Kickstarter campaign a year ago. Gage developed the game as an exhibition for NYU’s annual event No Quarter, where commissioned artists create and exhibit original games in a gallery-style format. Post-event, Gage was overwhelmed with requests for the game and partnered with friends Jesse Fuchs and illustrator Jess Warby to launch a Kickstarter campaign.

“The downside to doing a physical game is it’s really hard to manufacture,” Gage said. He revised the manual nearly a dozen times, and production has taken close to a year, but his priority is the quality of the finished game, not speed and ease of production. “I’m not really doing this to make money,” he explained. “It would be great if it did make money, but a really polished, excellent product is really important, and that’s really expensive.”

Before Guts of Glory, Gage developed successful iPhone apps and digital games, including Spell Tower and SynthPond. To create a more traditional, physical game required a different creative mindset.

“I had done a series of sort of arcade games, and I was getting a little bit sick of working with time pressure,” Gage said. “So I had a couple bizarre constraints in making Guts of Glory. I wanted to make a game that didn’t have time pressure. I wanted to make a game that had no hidden information–like one player had hidden information that the other player didn’t have–no hands. And I wanted to make a game that you could learn very easily. Which is really hard to do with a board game because, unlike a video game where somebody else is enforcing the rules, with a board game, you have to enforce them yourself.”

Some table-game developers are going after the Kickstarter audience and gaming enthusiasts in an even more targeted way. Brad O’Farrell drew upon his savvy as a former online marketer and tapped both board-game fanatics and video internet communities to fund his new game, Story War,  which combines the conversational logic of Apples to Apples with art-based character narratives like Pokemon and Dungeons and Dragons. He was confident that he would exceed his $20,000 funding goal, since he focused on marketing strategy while also working on game mechanics and aesthetics with his collaborators, Tom McLean and illustrator Vondell Swain, under the company name Cantrip Games.

O’Farrell connected with other gaming communities for cross-promotional efforts. He partnered with the VlogBrothers, John and Hank Green, whose YouTube channel features random video musings and has over 1.2 million subscribers (affectionately called “nerdfighters“), to play-test the game, which helped bring in more than $10,000 in donations the first day of the campaign, O’Farrell said.

They also cross-promoted with other Kickstarter projects, including Machine of Death, a party game which earned over $500,000 in its own campaign this winter. This partnership drove an already strong Kickstarter gaming fan base to Story War and helped the game reach $200,000. After that milestone, O’Farrell launched a Reddit campaign that pushed the funding over $300,000, with the headline: “I just quit my day job and put my first game (Story War) on Kickstarter, and it raised over $220,000. Ask me anything.”

Kickstarter isn’t the only vehicle for new game designers, however. Food writer and editor Karen Hudes designed her first game, Menu Mash-Up, a social card game, around her love for food. She realized early in the game’s development that she wanted to work with an independent publisher to license the game, similar to how a writer might publish a novel, and found a partner in Chronicle Books.

“I was very protective of my idea,” Hudes said in an email. “ I don’t think I would have done a Kickstarter campaign even if it had occurred to me. I was really averse to sharing the idea with people I didn’t know–I play-tested the game with lots of friends and I did have a consultant look at it because I was a complete novice, but that was the limit for me. Also, I’m not very active on social media, which would have been a big obstacle to crowdsourcing.”

The game was released in August, a process that took two years, and Twenty Sided Store, Word bookstore in Greenpoint and Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene will carry it. Hudes will also celebrate with a release party at Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village on Sept. 26, from 6-9pm, featuring food, drink and some friendly matches of Menu Mash-Up.

The cards and menu envelops in Menu Mash-Up come inside a compact , portable box. Photo: Gabrielle Alfiero

The cards and menu envelopes in Menu Mash-Up come inside a compact, portable box. Photo: Gabrielle Alfiero

Whether crowdfunded or licensed through a publisher, the game itself still matters as much as how it’s developed.

O’Farrell drew on existing digital communities to fund his project, but he spent as much time considering the appeal of Story War as he did coming up with a sophisticated marketing strategy. Creating a game that would be accessible and fun for players of all stripes was the most important element of his venture, he said.

“We designed the game you could play if you’re not a nerd,” he said. While exhibiting at the gaming expo PAX East, O’Farrell walked from booth to booth and realized that none of the intense strategy games appealed to him. “Nobody seems to be having fun as they’re playing and they’re just playing to win, which isn’t the same as having fun. Our game you’re just having fun the entire time. You don’t really care about winning, but there’s enough sense of winning and accomplishment to motivate you to want to try to do something but the actual process of playing itself is fun.”

Meanwhile, Geudelekian hopes to create a convergence between the gaming and literary communities.

Moby Dick hinges on the novel, certainly, but the game also relies on the beauty of the cards (thanks to illustrator Havarah Zawoluk)–detailed depictions of black and white sperm whales and fishing vessels, and portraits of sailors and other salty characters were plucked directly from the pages of the novel. Through a series of turns and card draws, players live out the voyage of the fictional Pequod in its search for the enigmatic whale, while slaying other sea creatures to collect oil, the game’s currency. While testing the game, Guedelekian said it was common to catch players eyeing one another’s hands.

“It’s just a lot of fun to look over at another person’s sailors and be like ‘Oh! You’ve got Balkington! Oh! You’ve got Ishmael!’'” he said. “So it’s a part of making this very divisive book accessible. We hope people play it and enjoy it, but we also meta hope that you play this game and you’re somewhat interested in checking out this book.”

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