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How Seattle Board Game Designers Are Helping Fuel A Boom In Non-Electronic Games

Ashley Gross
A group of tabletop game designers meets every other week at Uncle's Games in Bellevue to try out each other’s ideas. ";

The "Pokémon Go" craze has lots of people glued to their screens these days. But a low-tech form of entertainment – board games – has also been growing in popularity. Sales of what the industry calls hobby games grew about 20 percent last year, and the Seattle region is a major hub for board game design.

When you play a game, you have to learn some rules. The same goes for designing a game. For example: No idea is too wacky.

James Ernest created a game called "Unexploded Cow."

“That’s a game where you’ve discovered two problems with a common solution – there’s mad cows in England and unexploded bombs in the French countryside, and you’re going to bring them together and solve everybody’s problems by blowing up a bunch of cows,” said Ernest, who runs a Seattle-based game design company called Cheapass Games.  

For most people, the idea of using cows with a debilitating brain disease to get rid of leftover bombs is just an absurd joke, but Ernest designs board games for a living.

“For me, that goes into my notebook,” he said.

He and his colleague Paul Peterson took that weird idea and came up with a card game. Each player manages a herd of sick cows and tries to make money blowing them up, and that game, "Unexploded Cow," has become one of the most popular they’ve created.

Game-Testers Meetup

But it’s not easy to go from that first idea to a successful tabletop game.

Here’s another rule of board game design: You need people to test out your ideas.

Every other week, Ernest, Peterson and other game designers meet at a board game store called Uncle’s Games in Bellevue. It’s a crowd of mostly guys — casual dress, ample facial hair. Many have day jobs in the video game industry.

On a recent night, Peterson asked the group to test out a card game he’s developing.

“Everybody is going to get their hand and then everybody’s going to get one special card that you can play on your turn,” said Peterson as he dealt out cards from a standard deck.

The guys focused on two questions – whether the game is fun and what can be changed to make it more fun. Ernest told Peterson he should incorporate a little gambling.

“If you could put a dollar value on the quality of your hand, this game would be much more interesting,” Ernest said.

The Seattle area is an important region for board game design. "Dungeons & Dragons"
is made here. "Pictionary" and "Cranium" were both invented here.

Crowdfunding Boom

These days, game designers have learned a new rule: The crowdfunding site Kickstarter is your friend. Ernest just raised more than $1.3 million for a strategy game called "Tak."

“It’s easier for me to sell direct to a customer now,” he said. “But Kickstarter makes it even more easy because now I don’t even take the financial risk on the print run.”

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Jeremy Holcomb and James Ernest at the game-testing group at Uncle's Games.

Ernest lines up buyers and then produces the game. People have pledged half a billion dollars for games on Kickstarter, including the wildly popular "Cards Against Humanity."

At Digipen Institute of Technology in Redmond, on a recent evening, instructor Jeremy Holcomb gave a lecture about how to create board games with random elements and then gave his students time to test out their own games.

Digipen is known for video game design, but in this class, students create non-electronic games. Shiloh Liedtke tested out a game she’s been working on called "Server Sabotage" in which restaurant servers steal each other’s tables and vie for the most tips.

Liedtke said she loves board games and played a lot of "Dungeons & Dragons" growing up.

“It’s so gratifying to sit across from somebody when they make a really smart move or a good choice or something and you’re like, "No! That gets in the way of everything I’ve been trying to do here,’” she said. “And if they’re facing another screen 1,000 miles away you don’t really get that interaction as much.”

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Shiloh Liedtke (center) created a restaurant-themed game called "Server Sabotage" that she had other students try out in a class at Digipen Institute of Technology in Redmond.

But Liedtke’s also learning another rule: Even though the board game industry is growing, it’s dwarfed by the video game industry, so she said she thinks that’s where she’ll probably wind up.

Still, if she does, Liedtke could join other designers who moonlight making good old-fashioned board games. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.