Board games are back. According to tracking firm ICV2, sales at retail stores jumped 15 to 20 percent during each of the last three years. Amazon saw similar increases, and Kickstarter projects for board games raised $52.1 million in a year—almost $7 million more than video games did. Heck, there's even at least one person making a living by editing board game rulebooks. Tabletop games are more popular than they ever have been during the Internet age, and the momentum shows no sign of slowing down.
Which is how I ended up in a Bushwick, Brooklyn, loft, talking to two dudes about a poem from the Middle Ages, while their third partner happily carved runes into a piece of wood.
I knew Joel Clark and Tavit Geudelekian from talking to them about their previous effort, Moby Dick, or, The Card Game. Last May, they raised $102,730 on Kickstarter—more than four times their goal—to bring their work into the world. At the time, I was impressed by the care and thought put into creating the game. While it wasn't the most fun thing in the world to play (something the duo will gladly admit), it stayed remarkably true to Herman Melville's epic, sprawling novel. In other words, death occurs constantly and everyone dies at the end, but it's possible to learn about the time period and the book by playing. Clark, especially, was a Moby Dick fanatic, and the attention to detail was astonishing. The novel's community responded well to the seriousness with which they set about staying consistent to the text.
"The thing everyone responded to with Moby Dick was the depth and the quality of the intention behind it. No art means nothing."
Of course, this led to a good question: What was next for their fledgling board game company, King Post Interactive?
"We had a big community of people asking what we were going to do for the next literary game," Geudelekian told me over the phone from California, where he was attending a wedding, while I sipped a whiskey on Clark's couch. "To me, it was like how garage bands take 20 years to make a record and then the label wants them to follow up immediately. How do we ever reach that level of depth and understanding so quickly?"
The answer: Beowulf.
The 3,182-line work is the oldest surviving epic poem in Old English. It tells the story of Beowulf, who battles monsters, becomes king, slays a dragon, and dies. While it was initially dismissed as pulp, the Us Weekly of Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf gained the respect of the literary community over the past century. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, can take partial credit for this because to his influential 1936 paper arguing for the poem's merits. Earlier this month, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published his translation of the work. The point being: The boys who did Moby Dick justice could do the same for Beowulf.
The game, Beowulf: A Board Game, wasn't Clark and Geudelekian's idea. The founders of Highline Games, two veterans of Rockstar Games, where they worked on Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, came up with the concept and the game system, and they approached King Post for help. They jumped into Beowulf's world, happy to oblige.
"As soon as we got this, John [Kauderer] started carving Runes," Clark said, referring to their art director and "resident Viking,” who was indeed standing at a table carving runes. "We are teasing out the fullness of it. That's what we're trying to go with for a King Post product. The thing everyone responded to with Moby Dick was the depth and the quality of the intention behind it. No art means nothing."
According to Clark, "Moby Dick was an art object as well as a game. We never want to back down from that. Even if you're not playing it, it's like, 'That is cool.'"
I think that's the key to the success of their first game, their second (assuming it does succeed), and the rise of board games in general: They aren't just things you play, but objects you'd be happy to let your friends see on your shelf. A card game based on Moby Dick, a board game about Beowulf, even Settlers of Catan, the German game most associated with the current board game boom, serve as status symbols, an expression of intellectual belonging. In today's long-tail world, that cache is enough to create a minor hit, or, at least, a funded Kickstarter.
"These are products that aren't aimed at mass market audiences,” Geudelekian said, before excusing himself to attend the wedding across the Bay Bridge. “It's a very specific and passionate audience."