In part three of a series celebrating entrepreneurial success, Gill South talks to two gamers who have found a way to live their dream.
For many of us, Christmas holidays are a time of family getting together at the bach with the laptop left behind, the BlackBerry turned off. We get back to the basics like toasting marshmallows on the fire and playing some favourite board games.
Well, there is a clique of people who play board games all year round. And they don't waste their time playing Monopoly. Their games of choice are Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan, competitive games of strategy and calculation. They meet up in groups to play regularly.
Globally, this is no small group. Their favourite networking website, boardgamegeek.com has attracted around 31 million hits in the last year. Board game designers, who are treated like approachable rock stars, are asked for tips on making plays.
Two Wellington board game designers, Carl de Visser and Jarratt Gray, have just launched their first game, Endeavor, to this waiting audience and it has had remarkable success, selling 6000 copies in three months, taking it to an impressive 37 on boardgamegeek's top 100. Published by Z-man Games, it is currently sold in English and German and publishers are signed up for editions in French, Dutch and Chinese.
The game, for a 12-plus age group, is set in the 18th century. "You are European nations in the 18th century trying to expand your colony throughout the world. This is about building trade," says Gray.
There are a set seven turns and things started to get very heated by the time you get to the fifth and sixth turn.
Launched in September 2009, each shipment to New Zealand has disappeared as soon as it's arrived because of the build up, according to Pixelpark distributor Tim Tripp. And demand doesn't tend to fade if it "has legs" like Endeavor does, he says.
David Taylor, co-director of online retailer seriouslyboard.co.nz, says Endeavor is now his top seller, overtaking the usual favourites, Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. Endeavor's 37th place on the boardgamegeek top 100 is not only fantastic for New Zealand creators, but excellent by the standards of any first- game creators, he says.
"Jarratt and Carl have really broken new ground for New Zealand."
There are some clever twists in Endeavor which gamers have responded to, he says. I think that Jarratt and Carl are not afraid to think outside the square," he says. They have used some Kiwi ingenuity.
One of the great things is that there is no predictable way of winning, which gamers love, he says.
While the response in New Zealand has been enthusiastic, it is internationally that Endeavor is making the vast bulk of its sales. The launch of an international board game is like no other product launch. The online community is equipped with a lot of information before the game is available - the rules and graphics for instance.
According to publisher Zev Schlasinger, president of Z-man Games Inc in the US: "I am very pleased with the response," he adds. "It appealed to me because it was different, played easily and relatively quickly and I liked how the game started out very simple and got more 'difficult' as the turns went on."
Schlasinger is highly respected in board game circles - he is the man behind other big board game hits Agricola and Pandemic, which have sold in the tens of thousands. He was intent on Endeavor being launched in time for the four big board game conventions this year. Germany is the key place for these; Essen is where the big Spiel convention is held every year. Playing board games is a favourite pastime in Germany.
De Visser and Gray, both in their 30s, don't seem to have let the early success go to their heads. And they will continue in their day jobs.
De Visser is a systems engineer in IT at Eagle Technology, the GIS and business applications specialist, while Gray is a freelance director editor for television. The initial idea for Endeavor was de Visser's, but they then worked together on the game's mechanics and it was Gray's creative graphic designs which brought the game to life and sold it to Z-man Games.
"We both had tried designing games by ourselves, and after discussing our various ideas we decided it would be worthwhile to work on one together," says de Visser.
Both he and Gray were living in Upper Hutt when they were working on Endeavor, and the two would meet for lunch regularly. They would also have play testing evenings with the game to make sure there weren't any obvious errors.
The launch in September was an interesting ride. "Those that got pre-release copies at the first of the conventions, Gencon, were impressed by it, and we got a whole lot of positive feedback online. That fed the interest, and that led to more sales, and more interest at the next convention. It is the interaction between the online community and the more traditional conventions and trade fairs that helped the game," says de Visser.
What's next? The extension or expansion of the game is a strong possibility if Endeavor continues to sell well. Z-man is hoping more game ideas are going to come from the two creators. At the moment, the Pacific is not in the game so that's an obvious expansion.
Gray says the whole process took two-and-a-half years, but the delay didn't bother him. "If you put the rules online it can be easy to make your own game but it's not that easy with Endeavor."
At heart he thinks people do like opening up a fresh board game, it's like getting a new book. "Playing a board game is a way of extending the evening - I like the strategy of it - I can use my mind," says Gray. The age group of Endeavor, says Gray, is not unlike that of SingStar - people in their 20 and 30s. "They do it socially, but are competitive with themselves."
There are signs board gaming is becoming more popular among a broader range of the population, as they seek something more social than staring at a screen together.
Andrew Rae, a well-respected gamer in Wellington, ran event Wellycon in August 2009, seeking to bring together large communities of board game groups from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Gray and de Visser attended, bringing an early copy of Endeavour.
At the core of these groups are the 30-40 male but Wellycon was trying to break into the family arena, says Rae, the father of 1-year-old twins. As far as he's concerned, his 6-year-old niece and his 70-year-old parents are all perfect for board game playing. "Playing a board game is like having a good glass of wine," he says.