When asked what business we're in at Days of Wonder, we tend to simply reply: "we do games".
"No, board games."
"Ah... You mean like Monopoly?"
(This question is usually followed by an embarrassed silence on the asker's part.)
"They still make those?"
"Well, we do both actually -- cardboard and digital board games. We make games that are just plain fun to play on any platform."
When we first embarked on this adventure some 10 years ago, launching Days of Wonder as a traditional board game publisher, what attracted us to the industry was its staid and steady pace.
Far from the boom-and-bust, hockey-stick cycles of video games and the rat race of Silicon Valley, this was an industry where the CEO of the dominant player (Hasbro) was a grandson of the company's founder, and where the top selling product, Monopoly, was the very same board game that was on top some 70 years ago!
The term "disruption" has become something of a buzzword in technology recently but, if there was ever a perfect target for disruption, we saw no better industry to train our sights on than the world of board games.
As the founders of a 3D graphics software publishing company called Ray Dream, we were guilty participants in the 3D graphics arms race that dominated the mid-1990s and contributed to the ruin of many a good video game. At the time, the hyper-focus of game developers on fancy graphics and the technology behind the games often caused industry participants to lose sight of the fact that it is often the simplest things that make a game a great game.
In an effort to atone for our sins, we set out to work on game designs that were simple enough to be played and adjudicated in the minds of mere mortal beings, not in the tricked-out silicon chips of their über-PCs.
When you design a board game, you have nowhere to hide: no dramatic sound track, no heart-thumping frame rate, no insanely cool particle system...nothing to distract you from the game's fundamental mechanics. What makes or breaks your game in the world of cardboard is the basic interaction of a simple, but not necessarily simplistic, set of rules with the minds of a few human beings sitting around a table.
As a result, the challenges of designing, publishing, and marketing a board game are of a different nature than any seen in the digital world. For example:
This last question -- How can you successfully market a board game, in this day and age? -- was foremost on our mind when we started the company in May 2002. From the onset, it was clear that we could not outdo or outspend our multinational competitors that had been at the top of their game for the past hundred years. We needed to leverage our experience from the high-tech space and simply build a company that ran faster, cheaper, and smarter than the big guys.
When it came to marketing, that meant leveraging the internet - not just to spread the word, but to help spread the game itself. How else could you teach an entirely new game to the largest possible group of people, in the shortest possible amount of time, at the lowest possible cost, than letting them try their hand online first? As a result, on day one we split our efforts down the middle, with half the company working nonstop to figure out how to publish and distribute amazing game experiences on cardboard, while the other half was busy crafting digital versions of these same games.
Then we got lucky...
Two short years after starting the company, we published Ticket to Ride, a rail adventure game where up to 5 players compete to claim railway routes throughout North America by collecting and playing matching train cards. In the year it launched, Ticket to Ride won the German Spiel des Jahres, the world's most prominent board game award. It was the equivalent on an indie studio winning the Oscar for Best Motion Picture.
Within minutes of winning, we had orders for 50,000 games sent to our cell phones via SMS from eager mass merchants. That year, our sales exceeded $6 million. Our original sales prediction had been $700,000. To say we were shocked -- but happy! -- would be a tremendous understatement.
In 2005, to help further fuel the fire, we released Ticket to Ride Online, a browser-based, multi-player, digital adaptation of the game. Then, a funny thing happened...
People who had never before heard of this new Ticket to Ride game began playing... a lot. In some cases, a whole lot. At last count, at least one dedicated Ticket to Ride "rail baron" has logged in over 60,000 games of Ticket to Ride Online; at an average 10 minutes per game, that's 10,000 hours in the conductor's seat. Many others have played well past the 20,000 games mark.
Ticket to Ride Online
Fans of the board game had provided the initial critical mass of players crucial to the success of Ticket to Ride Online. New online players then provided a steady stream of new buyers of the board game; and the cycle repeated, with sales of Ticket to Ride eventually sailing past the 2 million copies mark in 2011. But the best was yet to come...