Monopoly no longer has a monopoly on board games. Today’s games are more unconventional. There’s Potion Explosion, Ponzi Scheme, Bears vs Babies. In that last one, players draw cards to build a bear army that attacks babies. This may not sound like your typical board game but it raised more than 3 million dollars on Kickstarter. Board game sales have been rising for the last few years. Reporter Sushmita Pathak goes behind the scenes of this growing industry.
Tucked between an Indian restaurant and a permanently closed grocery store in Park Slope, is a small storefront with a bright purple sign – Brooklyn Game Lab.
It’s Saturday and board game enthusiasts are gathering to test new games. Game designer Henry-Mike Brown has brought his new game for testing.
Let me give you a quick thing on the iconography. The top right corner of the characters is your defense points…(7s)
The game has cards with pictures of fantasy characters. There are a lot of weird symbols. Brown’s arranging the cards in columns of 5 by 5. He starts explaining the rules to his two players Dan Newman and Zintis May-Krumins.
…And the little letter here on the icon is the alignment. You have good, evil, lawful, chaotic and neutral. (7s)
Brown continues explaining the game for more than 20 minutes. Newman’s eyes are glazing over.
Scene 1 (5s)
Zintis: Are you following Dan?
Dan: Phew…yeah. [Laughing]
The game begins. May-Krumins goes first. After 10 minutes, May-Krumins is still trying to figure out what’s his best move. His opponent Newman is not having fun.
Scene 2 (23s)
Dan: Right now, if I’m just trying to analyze what’s in front of me, I’ve got characters have different alignments, universes have different alignments, universes have different abilities, universes can have even more different abilities if I change the universe. I can move the characters from one universe to another to activate different abilities depending on their alignments. And just, it’s way too much.
Zintis: So it might sound like we’re being mean to Mike’s game but this is basically how every game is born.
This is the 17th test for Brown’s game. It sounds like a lot but it’s still the early stages. Every game usually goes through more than 100 playtests before designers can pitch it to publishers. Playtests are where the work happens. That’s also where designers learn. Game design is similar to coding, but tougher, says May-Krumins.
You can’t just like read a book and know how to make games. You have to like watch people play games and watch different people play games. (7s)
All the people I met at the Brooklyn game lab are relatively new to game design. They’re still learning. They told me, if I really wanted to know about game design, there’s one person I needed to meet. A guy named… Gil Hova. Hova is a mini celebrity in the board game biz, a board game guru. So, I decide to make a pilgrimage to his apartment in Jersey City.
–Start ambi ‘apartment entry’ at “at his apartment in Jersey City”(3s)
Gil Hova is a tall middle-aged man with a salt and pepper beard. He’s been designing games for more than 20 years. He runs Formal Ferret Games, a publishing company which he’s named after his two pet ferrets. When I enter his apartment, the first thing I see is a huge shelf stacked with board games.
I’ve got age of industry, age of steam, potion explosion, Stockpile o’ fear, Puerto Rico, princess of Florence, new Bedford, fresh fish, galaxy trucker..[fade out] (11s)
There are more than 300 games.
[Fade up again], Burmese, Terraforming mars, the pursuit of happiness, Notre dame, Ponzi scheme. (5s)
Gradually fade out under Pathak 9
Hova says all of board game design comes down to one thing: Creative incentivization — figuring out a way to creatively make someone do something.
Coz you look what a board game is, you’re getting a bunch of people to sit at a table for an hour and push cardboard around. If you did your job right, they’ll want to do it again. (7s)
Hova says, there’s a lot of trial and error in game design. Take his game Bad Medicines, for example, where players are pharmaceutical companies making drugs with awful side effects.
When I playtested the game at first I had stuff like turrets and prostate cancer but that wasn’t funny coz that’s all real stuff. Whereas, you know, tiny alien emerges from your nose and sings Ave Maria, that’s good. I met a bunch of chronically ill people who loved the game coz it gave them some form of like agency. (20s)
Hova says, game design has taught him to embrace failure. He gets philosophical when he’s talking about game design. He describes it using a line from a Samuel Beckett play.
Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better. (4s)
Hova began designing games in the early nineties when the board game industry started changing. He says it all began with one German game: Die siedler von Catan… Settlers of Catan.
It spearheaded a movement that people call the Euros. Eurogame is a board game that has less conflict than a ‘traditional’ board game. Is less reliant on luck. There’s generally very little direct interaction. There’s very few ways that I can attack you or you can attack me. (20s)
With eurogames there was more strategy involved, like, players were settlers in a colony or traders trying to sell opium in China. No one expected that games like that would become so popular.
That opened up a lot of people’s eyes, mine included, to be like, wait, this can be a game? You don’t have to backstab, you don’t have to lie, you don’t have to betray, you don’t have to attack. You can just build, and that’s a game? Sign me up, I’m interested, you know. (14s)
Since then, the industry has been growing. Last year, board game sales in the US and Canada increased by 20% compared to 2015. And attendance at Gen Con, the largest board game convention in North America, has been rising for seven years straight. Board games are no longer seen as something for kids. They’re becoming a way for adults to socialize, says Hova.
When you turn 30, when you turn 40, it’s hard to make friends, you know. And when you have a hobby like this, you fall into this community. (9s)
Back at the Brooklyn Game Lab, Henry-Mike Brown wraps up his game. Now, it’s time for Dan Newman’s game: Enemy Anemone, as in the colorful sea creature. All the players in the game are from the deep ocean – fish, whale, squid, shark. The board is made of of 4 hexagonal tiles on which players move eating food and blocking opponents. The twist is, every round one player gets to move the tiles. Newman invited me to play too. And I was darn good.
Faded down Ambi begins at “to PLAY TOO..”
Scene 4 (11s)
Dan:I had three, you had five, you had two, you had one.
Sushmita: SO I win?
Dan: You win.
Dan: Winning in a playtest isn’t always the most important thing. But it feels good.
It feels great. I had fun. And knowing how to make people have fun is a game designer’s job description in a nutshell. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Figuring out what’s fun takes hard work and game designers spend hundreds of hours trying to do exactly that. Sushmita Pathak, Columbia Radio News.