Getting On Board 

Tabletop games enjoy a renaissance

A troupe of adolescents slipped into All About Games' Eighth Street location, followed by a young couple with an infant. The kids were looking for an upscale backgammon board; the young couple was in search of a two-player learning game for a dyslexic nephew. Debbie Kessler, who works at AAG, directed the couple to a puzzle game designed to cultivate creativity.

Kessler said AAG sees a staggering variety of visitors because "they want to have fun with each other," pegging AAG's success--a growing customer base and steady profits through three otherwise economically tumultuous years--to the broad appeal of board- and tabletop games as counterpoints to the television, computer and phone screens that have taken a cut out of many people's social lives.

"I think people are looking to lure kids away from these screens," Kessler said.

Low-tech games have been undergoing a renaissance for at least the past decade. In that time, worldwide sales have grown 10-20 percent each year, according to game review site Shut Up & Sit Down. Riding the tide of that phenomenon have been numerous Idaho game and game-accessory designers, most of whom produce games in small batches of fewer than 10,000 units.

One of those designers is Mark Hanny of Joe Magic Games in Idaho Falls. He has been designing games since the 1990s and his most recent production is UFO Hunter, in which players compete for evidence of extraterrestrial life while avoiding pitfalls like unsubstantiated rumors and alien abduction.

Hanny has pitched games to name-brand firms like Mattel and Parker Brothers, but for many designers, the path of least resistance is funding games themselves--usually through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo--and letting potential customers decide what kinds of games they'd like to play. That has affected the variety and complexity of games that are being produced.

"Boutique gamers are going to sell games that have a few more things going on; that have a few more choices to make [like] strategy, things to think about," Hanny said.

Changing attitudes toward player involvement, play length, complexity and chance-versus-skill are products of the rise of so-called Euro-games like Settlers of Catan and deck-building games like Magic: The Gathering, both of which boast millions of players and were introduced in the 1990s. With a new generation of trailblazing games, designers started to see alternatives to winning a game based on driving the other players off the board.

"I don't want a guy to sit there at the table and say, 'I'm not in this game and I'm not having fun anymore,'" Hanny said.

As expected, entertainment and inclusion are important to game creators like Hanny, who is an avid player himself, as are many game designers.

"When I put a game down [on the table], I'm looking for how smooth it goes and how much fun my friends are having," he said.

Fun and play are central to the growing small-batch game industry in Idaho, since striking it rich on a game idea is rare. As fledgling designer Patrick Runyan of Boise is learning, getting a small-batch game to market requires business research, a love of gaming and few expectations of the economic outcome of bringing a game to market.

"If you want to make money, don't publish a board game; you won't," Runyan wrote in an email.

His as-yet-untitled game is based on reversing the dungeon crawl model typified by Dungeons & Dragons: Players take on the roles of evil forces that must populate dungeons with monsters, hoard treasure and compete for domination of the world outside the dungeons. Runyan has conferred with producers of published games and play-tested his game 40 to 50 times, but his research into getting his game published and distributed has taken him well beyond his computer desk and game table.

When it comes to production, most small-batch board games are manufactured in China, in part because American factories have a high minimum-order quantity. Runyan said one American manufacturer "basically told me to piss off" when his MOQ was lower than 5,000 units. Publishers and distributors can be easier to find at game expos like Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, and GenCon in Indianapolis, Ind.

During the process of developing, testing, manufacturing and distributing a game, interested parties try to change designers' products, and Runyan is learning to adhere to his vision for the game without being inflexible.

"Honestly, development is a tug-of-war," he wrote. "You have to remember to make the game you want to make, but not be so stubborn that you aren't able to make clear improvements."

Scott Morton of Silver Arrow Audio Works in Boise has adopted a different strategy for his role-playing and board-game accessory. Instead of tailoring his product to its market, he intends to show gamers a product that will add an unanticipated dimension to play.

Silver Arrow's first release will be Ambient Soundscapes Vol. I: The Wilderness--a 17-track album of 10-minute-long, loopable ambient soundscapes to be played in conjunction with tabletop role-playing games. The tracks have generic but appropriate titles, like "Deep Forest," "Snowy Mountains," "Eerie Dungeon" and "Adventurers Tavern."

Morton has plenty of experience designing audio for games. After graduating from Boise State University with a degree in music composition, Morton spent five years with Canadian videogame developer BioWare, where he worked in sound design on hugely popular titles like Mass Effect and Star Wars: The Old Republic. He returned to Boise in 2013 to start Silver Arrow Audio Works.

Morton said that the audio is always secondary to the play experience; nevertheless, as the thematic content of games has expanded--they're set in locales as disparate as deserted islands, 8-bit dungeons and outer space--so has the desire among players to make gaming a more immersive experience, and sound is a big part of that experience.

"The audio helps to amplify the imaginative process," he said.

Gamers have long been lifting sound effects and scores from movies and videogame sound files, mixing them into compelling backgrounds for their board- and role-playing game sessions, and The Wilderness gives those players a professionally assembled audio backdrop in 5.1 surround sound.

Audio-visual media like films and videogames have been trending away from musical soundtracks and toward ambient and atmospheric sound, and Morton is following that trend; but The Wilderness isn't chasing a well-defined market demographic.

"It's that Steve Jobs mentality: People don't know what they want until you give it to them," Morton said.


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