Darren Gendron sees an opportunity — a niche, really — that he thinks he can seize. It involves board games. It involves Gendron becoming a part of your Wednesday game night, entering the collective cultural consciousness through the living room. It involves pirates.
“We had seen a few games involving pirates before,” explains Gendron, who lives in Columbia. He twirls, as one does, his handlebar mustache. “WizKids had come out with this ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ game, and it was fun, but you had to build these ships out of punch cards and they really didn’t hold up well. And we found some games that upheld the sea-attacking aspect of pirates but didn’t touch nearly enough on the land-attacking aspects.” He pauses. “That, of course, was really just a huge problem.”
Gendron, who had never designed a board game, has just designed Scurvy Dogs: Pirates and Privateers Sail the Seas.
The board game lexicon is already quite full. There are Monopoly and Risk, Scrabble and Sorry! Someone is always sketching a sock that looks like a hockey stick in Pictionary; Miss Scarlet is always roaming the conservatory, wielding a lead pipe. Old favorites seep into our collective consciousness that way. (If the idea of millions of Americans curling up in front of a game called Scurvy Dogs sounds unlikely, consider how weird it is that we have spent the past 60-odd years metaphorically prowling around an old English manor, carrying plumbing.)
Once the purview of larger game companies, such as Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, game design is opening itself up to passionate, niche hobbyists.
Gendron wants to self-publish his game, and he estimates that he’ll need $20,000 to get it off the ground, through a microinvesting site called Kickstarter.
He has one week left to raise the money that might allow him to achieve the dream.
“What are you at, plus three?” Gendron asks Alex Chambers, his friend and Scurvy Dog guinea pig.
“Plus four,” Chambers says. He’s so smug about that four. “I have all of these cannons, and the grapeshot.”
“Just remember, you can only go so high, or else the Spanish Armada will come and get you.”
Gendron holds up a piece of notebook paper that has “Spanish Armada” written on it. He waggles it threateningly in Chambers’s face. In this prototype of the game, gold coins are represented by pennies. The sea is a piece of painted whiteboard. The pirates, however, are hand-painted miniatures of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and others. An aspiring designer of pirate games must have standards.
To Chambers’s right, Ralph Pripstein is not focusing on cannons because he has just acquired two Secret Treasure Maps. Nobody knows this. That’s why they’re secret. If Pripstein can get to an island and roll successfully for treasure, the move will win him 40 gold pieces and end the game.
It is the geeking hour. It’s a Wednesday evening, and Gendron, Chambers and Pripstein are huddled around Gendron’s dining room table. For months they have been meeting here, once a week, stress testing the game like those mechanical butts in Ikea that stress test the Poang chair. Their goal is to take the game through every possible permutation — to account for events that could end it too fast, or drag it on too long, and to figure out what would happen if two people landed on the same island.
The goal is to stay alive and get gold. Strength is amassed by acquiring faster boats, more cannons, better crew members, smarter cargo. Limes prevent scurvy. Rum prevents mutiny.
Gendron is the kind of person who likes to set goals. Ten years ago, he decided he wanted to make a Web comic, and he did — he now makes a living selling books, comics and other paraphernalia on the site for that comic, “Hello With Cheese.” One year, he decided he wanted to write a book. One year, he wanted to get a patent. For anything. The invention didn’t matter as much as the attempt.
He’s trying to get Scurvy Dogs off the ground using Kickstarter, an investment site by which prospective backers make micro pledges to support a project but are charged only if the project is fully funded. (Kickstarter features several aspiring game-designers chasing similar dreams: Funders could sign on for Carnival: A Deck and Dice Game or, perhaps, Eaten by Zombies!, which replicates the experience of a zombie movie.)
In August, Gendron put up a request for $20,000 to accomplish a print run of his game and begin to distribute it. Near the end of the month-long fundraising push, Scurvy Dogs has about 100 backers, pledging a total of more than $11,000.
“What theoretically happens,” Pripstein asks, too casually, if someone has multiple Secret Treasure Maps?
Chambers and Gendron exchange glances, then position their pirates to attack.
“It was a theoretical question,” Pripstein says.
“Theoretical my butt.”
Pripstein takes a turn that allows him to acquire a new crew member. He chooses a card from the facedown pile.
“Oh, man,” he says, despondent. “Cabin boy.”
There are changes afoot in the world of board games.
The big sellers are still the big names produced by big companies — Monopoly has reportedly sold more than 250 million copies in its 76-year history — but in the past decade, imports from Germany have begun to cross the pond, following the success of a few independently produced games. (Germany’s Essen game fair is a required pilgrimage for anyone with a fetish for tokens, play money or rule handbooks.)
In these games, strategy outweighs luck; complicated outweighs simple. There are endless permutations; no two games will look the same. Now chicly called “designer games” or “Eurogames,” most of them are published by smaller companies in Europe and North America. While some have become successes — Ticket to Ride is closing in on 2 million sales; Settlers of Catan has more than 15 million — it’s still a niche market, filled with hundreds of obscure games trying to land on top.
Scurvy Dogs belongs in this market.
It all depends on how good the game is — or how much people love pirates.
“My first Web comic had an advice column called ‘Dear Pirate,’ ” Gendron offers. “It was like Dear Abby. People would write in and ask what to do on a date or an anniversary.” But it was written by a pirate.
Gendron has built-in incentives to encourage Kickstarters to invest. People who pledge at high-enough levels will get free copies of the game. People who pledge at even higher levels get to be in the game — their likenesses appearing as errant crew members.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Phil Orbanes predicts. Orbanes, a former senior vice president for research and development at Parker Brothers, runs his own game company. “See, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ has so saturated the market for what the pirate experience should look like.”
He has a few questions about Scurvy Dogs. Can it be learned quickly? Does it have a good blend of luck and skill? The best games, the ones that people buy, and keep, and play again, have surprise factors — mechanisms by which the underdogs and the overlooked can come from behind, make a surprise leap, win it all.
So can a game boy in Columbia who spends Wednesday nights playing with pennies and notebook paper on a dining room table become the next big thing in the board game universe?
Gendron’s phone pings. He has new messages from Kickstarter. During the two hours that they have been playing, three more investors have kicked in a total of $200.