Madison board game makers are dealing cards and moving tokens in new ways

Kickstarter helps fund game development in Madison
Madison board game makers are dealing cards and moving tokens in new ways
Photo by Timothy Hughes
Kane Klenko

With imagination, collaboration and crowd-sourced funding, Madison’s board game makers are on a roll — of the dice.

First, there are weekly meetups and twice annual Protospiel (in Madison and Milwaukee) that bring game makers together to play and critique each other’s games. Second, Madison is home to The Game Crafter, which makes game boards and components on demand and distributes self-published games affordably.

Third, locally designed and manufactured games can be reliably found on the shelves of independent stores like Pegasus Games on the west side and I’m Board! Games & Family Fun in Middleton.

Board game sales are booming — witness the wild success of irreverent adult party games Cards Against Humanity and Exploding Kittens — even as video games remain as popular as ever among kids and adults.

“I think people are realizing that they are in front of a screen all the time and are looking for ways to reconnect with people around them,” says Kane Klenko, arguably Madison’s most prolific board game designer with seven published games to his name, including Dead Men Tell No Tales and Flip Ships. “Board games are a great way to unplug, sit around a table face to face and have fun together.”

Local game makers frequently get together, not only to “play test” each other’s games, but to share knowledge.

“I’m one of the few designers that also publishes their own games,” says Keith Matejka, whose games Bullfrogs and Roll Player have sold well. “I often offer advice to aspiring designers and publishers in the area. I’m known for my brutal honesty when giving feedback. New designers often need that criticism of their darlings, which in the end make their games much better.”

Indeed, several other local game developers cite Matejka — a video game producer at Raven Software in Middleton and co-host of “The Board Game Show” podcast — as a valuable mentor. Klenko is another, as are Kirk Dennison of PieceKeeper Games (Flag Dash, Rurik: Dawn of Kiev) and Dan Cunningham of Iron Kitten Games (Lunarchitects).

Matejka and Klenko, in particular, “have had amazing games come out over the last few years and are really showing how creative and innovative the board game scene can be,” says Mike Wokasch, a Madison game designer for the past five years.

Wokasch, a lawyer and father, says his taste in games is similar to that of other time-strapped adults and parents. “Some of the best games are ones that are easy to teach new players, easy to set up and can be neatly finished up in around an hour,” he says.

Matt Quock says he received valuable advice at board game maker meetups before launching a Kickstarter campaign in mid March for The Primary, his election-themed game. He raised more than $8,000 of the $15,000 goal in the first 10 days on the crowdsourcing platform.

“Games” is the largest category of projects seeking funding through Kickstarter. More than 37,000 games have collected more than $715 million in pledges, according to the site’s statistics.

“Kickstarter has been extremely important to the board game industry. Without it, so many self-publishers like myself would not be able to raise the capital or be willing to risk the debt to print 1,000 copies of a game in order to reasonably sell it,” Quock says.

Wokasch found success on Kickstarter, too.

He says he came across a design contest for a survival game. “I figured most games would be about surviving in space or making it through an attack of killer bees or a zombie horde. I jokingly asked myself, ‘I wonder if I can make a game about artists trying to sell their paintings for food.'”

Two years ago, Wokasch designed Starving Artists, a game concept that raised more than $50,000 on Kickstarter “and is now in the hands of thousands of gamers,” he says. That included nearly 1,700 people who preordered it when they pledged money to get it made. He had to ship the games himself. “I had orders from more than 50 different countries,” Wakasch says.

Since 2014, Matejka has raised via Kickstarter $12,500 for Blend Off!, a dice game, $30,000 for Bullfrogs, $50,000 for the original edition of Roll Player and nearly $353,000 for a Roll Player expansion. More than 36,000 copies of his games are now in circulation, he says. “Kickstarter makes making these games possible.”

Other game makers, like Klenko, have taken a different route. “I sign my games with different publishers around the world, and they are responsible for marketing and promoting the game,” he says. “Personally I prefer to use larger publishers who have the capital to produce games and go straight to market, so I haven’t ever run my own Kickstarter campaign.”

Selling a game to people before they’ve played it isn’t easy. So demoing new games at conventions and stores is key. “But that only works if your game is both good looking and brings something new or different to the table,” Wokasch says. “If you’re making just another Cards Against Humanity game, Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon, it will be an uphill battle.”

As a co-founder of Out of the Box Games (which had enormous success with Apples to Apples in the late 1990s) and the illustrator of more than 6,000 Munchkin game cards over the past 16 years, John Kovalic is one of the few in the Madison area making a full-time living in the industry. He works with game publishers all over the world, but he also collaborates with local hobby-level game developers.

“Good games tend to rise to the top, but that’s not guaranteed, not anymore,” Kovalic says. “Finding the right company that’s a good fit for your game is more important than ever. Having a reputation in the industry for great games, as Kane Klenko seems to be gathering, is more important now than ever before.”

Kovalic says he’s working on a game with fellow Madisonian Brett Myers, developer of Rome: City of Marble, Nanuk and The Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game. Myers also organizes “Madison Board Games and Beer,” a group that meets biweekly.

“His expertise really complements mine well,” Kovalic says. “He has a breadth of knowledge in tactical games that complements my experience in party games. What we’re working on at the moment needs that. Brainstorming with him is also a blast.”

You never know what will inspire the creation of a game.

“Honestly, I just never stop thinking about game design. Everyday interactions, TV shows, articles I read, comments people make can all lead to my next game idea,” Klenko says. “I have hundreds of pages of unused ideas, with new ones added every day.”

But Klenko adds, “Getting from an idea and crossing that bridge to an exciting game is challenging every single time.”

The game makers agree that the real payoff is seeing people having fun playing their games.

“I’m motivated by the fun of it all,” Kovalic says. “I get to travel around the world, and see the joy that games bring people. I’ve been to Australia, Brazil, Poland, all over the place, and people are pretty much all the same once you get them around a gaming table. What we get to do — bring some happiness and escapism to others — is a great privilege.”

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.