Developing new board games can have more ups and downs than Snakes and Ladders, but creators can be in for big rewards if they pass go. Ed Power meets the Irish designers getting the world of tabletop gaming in a spin
Ed Power May 22 2016, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
Knot bad: West Cork-based Heasman, with his Celtic design inspired Tara, ‘a simple connection game’ which has done well internationally CLARE KEOGH
It was a phone-call from a rock god that set Murray Heasman on the path to becoming a board game designer. “Out of the blue one day, I was contacted by Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin,” the West Cork-based Englishman recalls with a chuckle. Heasman was at the time a cabinet-maker who also made leather fretwork mandolin and guitar straps inspired by the interlocking Celtic knot design. They had caught the guitarist’s eye. “He told me he loved them. I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell — this Celtic knot thing might have potential’.”
Heasman’s days of fraternising with rock stars may be over, but the intricate weave with which Page was smitten continues to inspire him. Based in Clonakilty, Heasman now runs award-winning board game design company Tailten Games, whose showcase product is Tara, a two player affair inspired by Celtic knotwork and incorporating elements of chess, the traditional Chinese game Go, and 1970s rainy afternoon staple Connect Four. “It looks complicated but it’s really very simple,” he says. “It’s basically a connection game: you connect the squares and the knotwork magically appears.”
Tara has done well internationally, winning praise from big players in the gaming market such as US retailer Barnes & Noble. Heasman plans on unveiling his next project, a 3D sculpture puzzle called Knotiverse, later in the year.
Board games are booming. A recent crowd-funding campaign for a board game based on the popular Dark Souls role-playing video game raised more than $5m (€4.46m). Web series TableTop, in which blogger and former Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton plays favourite board games with celebrity guests, draws hundreds of thousands of viewers. Ticket To Ride, a multi-award-winning cross-country train adventure with several versions, including “routes” across Europe and America, has sold 3m copies in the past decade. A movie adaption of Dungeons & Dragons, the original fantasy tabletop role-playing game, is on the way. Board games are no longer seen as the preserve of social recluses or the terminally nerdy — though they remain popular with both.
“Sales of board games have been on the rise every year for the past decade.” says Heasman. “There is so much more that a real face-to-face board game has over its digital counterpart. Board games are becoming cool again.”
Ireland is home to a small but vibrant gaming sector. Designers are passionate about the hobby while acknowledging that we remain on the gaming periphery.
Dice work: Foxes and Chickens designer Henry, above with son Ethan, 9, was inspired by a real life incident at his brother’s farm
“Traditionally, gaming has been promoted as helping social cohesion in countries such as Germany,” says Rory O’Connor, co-creator, with wife Anita Murphy, of Rory’s Story Cubes, one of Irish board gaming’s rare international breakthroughs. “There’s an old joke that on holidays you will see a German family playing board games with their kids while the Irish and British will be in the pub. There is a tradition on the Continent of board games taking place in a social space.”
O’Connor and Murphy became a success almost by accident. In the early 2000s, O’Connor, a creative thinking consultant, was researching new ways of inspiring imaginative role-play among business clients. He came up with the idea of using cubes — which he embossed with pictures of animals, weather events, and objects such as books and and paper planes — as a tool to unlock creativity. Players roll the cubes and then, inspired by the pictures, weave a narrative. O’Connor describes the cubes as a “creative story generator” and, though not a “game” in the Snakes and Ladders sense, their product has been embraced by the tabletop community.
“In 2004, the same month my daughter was born, I started hand-making and selling them,” he recalls. “People kept coming back asking for more. I thought, “Wow — this has real potential.”
O’Connor and Murphy, now based in Belfast, saw the game as a powerful educational tool. But for all their idealism, with a young family and a mortgage, they realised they had to make a living. Hard-headed financial decisions were made. The smartest way to profit from their creation, they realised, was to publish Rory’s Story Cubes themselves rather than have a third party manufacture it. That way they would earn income as small business owners rather than as creatives living off royalties.
O’Connor developed Rory’s Story Cubes to unlock children’s creativity
“In 2008 we decided to publish the product and find distributors,” says O’Connor. “Because the concept was quite easy to copy, we needed someone who would act as a heavyweight and protect our copyright. So we licensed the game in the US to a big company called Gamewright, which has had success with a game called Forbidden Island.”
When Gamewright outlined its ambitions for the product, O’Connor was astonished. It envisaged popularity on a scale he could barely conceive of.
“They agreed to take it as long as they could sell 10,000 sets per annum. As an Irish person, that seemed a really big number. It was like, ‘Ten thousand, where are we going to find that many people?’ Then you go to China and America and realise that, wow, there really are a lot of people in the world.
“We have now sold 5m and are doing a million a year.”
Such has been the popularity of Rory’s Story Cubes, O’Connor and Murphy have introduced licensed tie-in versions featuring Batman and Scandinavian cartoon characters the Moomins, while Dr Who-themed story cubes will be unveiled at this year’s Comic-Con convention in San Diego. A virtual edition launched for smartphones and tablets has already been downloaded tens of thousands of times. “The cubes tick a number of boxes,” says O’Connor. “The concept is really simple to explain, and it is essentially language free, so you can sell the same thing to an audience in France, Korea, Japan or America.”
You will see a German family playing with their kids while the Irish are in the pub. There is a tradition on the Continent of games in a social space
But while O’Connor and Murphy have had success, board gaming in Ireland has yet to grow up. It can cost up to €10,000 to develop and manufacture a product, and state support is essentially non-existent. The result is a high barrier to entry, says Kieran Henry, designer and publisher of board game Foxes and Chickens. The irony is that Hasbro, the world’s largest games company, has its European manufacturing base in Waterford. Every copy of Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Guess Who sold in Europe is made in Ireland.
“To get a game on the shelf is expensive,” says Henry. “You have to manufacture several thousand, at least. Companies that produce the board games for you won’t be interested in your order if it is only for a few hundred.”
In Foxes and Chickens, players take on the roles of foxes competing to raid a henhouse. The idea came to Henry, a landscaper from Mayo, after an unfortunate incident at his brother’s farm. “He keeps a few chickens and was telling me how a fox had called during the day and stolen them. Normally, foxes come at night. It was one hell of a cheeky fox. I thought, ‘Wow, we should make a board game out of that’.”
The game has done well and has been carried by Smyths Toys and Toymaster. As with O’Connor and his story cubes, Henry sees his game as more than just a time-killer. “There is an educational aspect,” he says. “Kids learn numeracy skills — how to count forward and backward, multiplication.
“I’ve had three or four other ideas for board games I’d like to get off the ground. The money thing is the problem. When you are doing it on your own, it can be difficult.”
Heasman agrees. “I found there was no support anywhere when we needed to expand the business abroad,” he says. “I found myself challenged to the core.”
Heasman hopes to pay for the development and manufacturing costs of Knotiverse through a crowdfunding campaign. “There is no significant board games industry in Ireland, so when dealing with banks and institutions, I was up against it.”
Gamers can be sniffy about older “classics” such as Monopoly and Ludo, dismissing them as simplistic. O’Connor is more generous in his assessment. He thinks there is room for games of all types — whether that be his creative story-telling game, something traditional like Cluedo, or a current bestseller such as zombie-themed Dead of Winter.
“It’s as if you only listen to the Beatles when there’s all this great music that has come out since,” he says. “There have never been so many great games out there to enjoy.”
Source: The Sunday Times Online