A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gather around the table for a tabletop game: NKY’s Flatworks Gaming is fueling the renaissance

 Game designers Charlie Sinning, Craig Blythe and Mike Warth

Game designers Charlie Sinning, Craig Blythe and Mike Warth

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

Mike Warth was 16-years-old when he created his first game.

Warth and his friend Rich Caldwell flipped over two ping pong tables, drew a map with markers — outlining land and sea areas — gathered up game pieces, used a ruler for weapon ranges and typed up rules.

“This was over 30 years ago and we didn’t understand what we were doing, but it’s what thousands of people do today — table top war gaming,” says Warth. “At the time, Rich and I were just having fun.”

Today, Warth, is still having fun playing games, but he and his team at Flatworks Gaming, LLC, in Alexandria, are designing and selling them too. Since 2014, Flatworks creates and publishes board, card and dice games for the tabletop gaming industry. And based on the market, they’re on to something.

Tabletop games are having quite the renaissance — and a profitable one at that.

Popular table top games

Popular table top games

In 2014, the hobby game market totaled $880 million in retail. Break that down and the collectible games category is by far the largest, at $550 million. Miniatures and hobby board games were tied for second at $125 million each. Hobby card and dice games were $55 million, and role-playing games (RPGs) at $25 million. The collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, brought in an estimated $200 million in 2014.

Actor Wil Wheaton ramped up the interest with his web series on the Geek & Sundry network called “TableTop.” The show features Wheaton and other celebrities playing board games. The popular production is on its fourth season.

The next move in the game

About five years ago, Warth had the idea of using hex tiles for a game board. He would use the space between the tiles to build things, and, where the hexes came together were to be roads. The hex tiles were to be resources.

With the growth of the Internet, and a little research, he found resources that listed other games. It didn’t take him long to find a game that was similar to the one he wanted to do. It was called Catan. As of 2015, Catan (or, Settlers of Catan in older versions) has sold more than 22 million copies in 30 languages.

“It was at this point I told myself, I need to follow this dream of mine to become a game designer and publisher,” says Warth.

Kings Tournament

Kings Tournament

So, he called up his friend Charlie Sinning and said, “Let’s start a business making games.” Longtime friend Craig Blythe was on board too.

“Charlie, Craig and I have been friends since high school,” says Warth. “We have played Dungeons and Dragons since high school and are now teaching our kids.”

Friends that play together, make games together

“It wasn’t until Mike approached me with the idea of starting Flatworks Gaming that I began to think of traditional table top game design for myself,” says Sinning.

But game design, says Sinning, is a little different for everyone. He doesn’t follow the same design path that Warth and Blythe use.

“I generally get a basic concept printed out on my computer and present it to the others,” says Sinning. “We play through it a time or two then discuss what was working and what wasn’t.”

Squadron Dice

Squadron Dice

After the first play through, he says, it’s just a matter of going through the iteration process until you find you have a fun, balanced game. At the halfway mark the game is usually good enough to start getting other play testers involved. This, he says, is important feedback and can indicate if the game is really good enough to spend money on the artwork or not worth further development.

“The final step is to get the game ready to publish,” says Sinning. “We get the artwork finalized and have the rules document written up and edited. Our current games are published through a print on demand company, the Game Crafter, and can be ordered from their website.”

Mind games

Blythe, who says he has always loved games believe they can provide important means to spur the imagination and creativity.

The NewDwarven Smithy game

The New Dwarven Smithy game

“Games drive you to think, to read other people, to craft a strategy,” says Blythe. “You may not be gifted with athletic prowess, or an IQ above 160, but in gaming that doesn’t matter because gaming forces you to use a whole new set of skills. It expands your imagination and your creativity. It is an equalizer because everyone can play, young old, athlete or couch potato. It brings people together and builds relationships and friendships, and healthy competition.”

Warth says Flatworks wanted to start with easy, simple to understand games that can be played with families.

“Charlie, Craig and I want to come up with games that are unique and we want to set a trend, to be leaders and not followers of any particular trend,” says Warth.

While they watch and understand what is going on in the hobby market industry, they’re not inclined to jump on board with a fad.

Their games include Squadron Dice, where players command squadrons of bi-planes in a head-to-head dice game; Pedwar, where players compete using cards to collect sequences and sets of object card to gain points; and King’s Tournament, a light card game where two players “joust” and “melee” as knights, were showcased at their first convention, CincyCon 2016, in March. The Flatworks team attended CincyCon 2016 at the Butler County Fair Grounds. More than 800 people attended the convention.

Pandemic

Pandemic

A culture of ‘gamers’

Warth points out that ‘gaming culture,’ is a very broad term. After all, he says, people have been inventing games for thousands of years with mainstream games such as, Monopoly, Operation, Twister, Candy Land, Risk, Apples to Apples and Pictionary.

Mainstream games, says Warth, tend to be less complex and focused to the casual gamer, while the hobby games – games like Catan and Pandemic – are just as fun but have more depth of play.

“In the past few years, we have seen some hobby games cross over to mainstream,” says Warth. “You can notice this crossover the next time you are in WalMart, Barnes and Nobles or Target and look at the game selections. Twenty years ago people would have go to their local comic book store to get some of these games. Now, some of the best hobby games are selling over a million a year.”

Gather and game

Another interesting thing that’s happening, says Warth, are board game cafes.

“Two years ago, while I was visiting Washington and Gettysburg with my dad, we stumbled across a board game café named, “The Board and Brew” in College Park, Maryland,” says Warth. “This summer, in Cincinnati, a board game café is coming to Over the Rhine called “The Rook.”

Similar bars and cafes, he says, have seen success in Toronto, New York City, Beijing and Berlin.

Campbell County Public Library's Dina Pina assists with the Cold Spring Branch's tabletop program

Campbell County Public Library’s Deanna Pina, adult and teen services programmer, assists with the Cold Spring Branch’s tabletop program

 

Local libraries are also becoming a gathering spot for gamers.

Clara Gerner, adult and teen services librarian for the Cold Spring Branch of the Campbell County Public Library, and adult and teen programmer, Deanna Pina, organize the library’s table top game program and are well aware of the growing interest in board games.

The library hosts regular tabletop game nights for teens, adults and families. Gerner says the monthly tabletop night that’s geared toward teenagers can have between 20 and 40 people in attendance.

Gerner and Pina keep the shelves well stocked with favorites that include games such as Red Dragon Inn, Pandemic and Catan.

“We have a game where you’re going up against Sherlock Holmes,” says Gerner. “It has a phone directory, and newspapers, so you’re reading the case together and decide who you want to interview next. You get points based on if you have certain evidence.”

Pina says she’s noticed that teens increasingly prefer to play the board games over video or digital games.

“I guess now there are so many different games and I think they’re more creative. They get to have a lot of input on what happens,” says Pina.

Simon Boschert prepares to play Catan

The big news about the tabletop gaming renaissance may well be that people – children, teenagers and adults – are gathering around tables, talking and strategizing together to come up with solutions to win the game.

For 17-year-old Simon Boschert, the strategy has strong appeal.

“Basically, my parents always had board games as a kids. We would play a lot – once a week or so,” says Boschert.

He says he stopped playing for a while when he was in elementary school but resumed playing when he was 11-years-old and attended library game nights.

“That’s where I picked up The Settlers of Catan game. I really enjoyed it so much that I actually bought it as soon as I got home,” says Boschert. “I like the strategy part of it, I’m a really big strategic person.”

For Blythe, a longtime game-player, and now, game-maker, a good game is one that stays with you and leaves you waiting for the next round.

“To me a great game is one that even if you lose you can smile about it and start planning how next time you’re going to do things differently, and you can’t wait until you get your next shot at it,” he says. “I am not happy that I lost or didn’t win, but I had fun playing and want to again, that’s a good game.”

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