Board games can lift boredom, but it doesn’t need to be Monopoly says award-winning NI game maker

GRAEME COUSINS talks to an NI board game manufacturer who believes Monopoly shouldn’t have the monopoly on family fun

By Graeme Cousins
Monday, 1st February 2021, 9:00 am
Lucador! Mexican wrestling dice game
Lucador! Mexican wrestling dice game

Just over halfway through my interview with David Brashaw from Backspindle Games I discovered that I may be sitting on a goldmine.

Not a goldmine in the sense that I may never have to work again, but enough to cover a big shop during the current lockdown.

As we chatted about board games and the positive effect they can have on mental health, David mentioned HeroQuest, a game I’d owned in my early teens which has found its way into the ‘Should it stay or should it go’ corner of the roofspace.

David Brashaw from Backspindle Games

It turns out it should definitely go, but not without my palm being crossed with large amounts of gold and silver (or the Paypal equivalent).

I’ll get to that in good time, but first, the main purpose of the interview. I contacted the Ards-based game creator to get a local insight into the world of board games – a source of entertainment that many people have turned to in order to quicken the evenings during lockdown.

To begin with David made it abundantly clear that the world of board games goes way beyond Monopoly: “I have a T-shirt that says ‘No, Not Like Monopoly’ because the modern gaming industry globally is massive, so much more than Monopoly.

“Northern Ireland is an untapped market, but it’s also an uneducated market. In terms of board games, tastes are extremely traditional or old fashioned.”

Thousands queuing to get into Gen Con in Indianapolis

David said he was heartened that board game cafes had been on the rise in Northern Ireland, but unfortunately lockdown had forced some of the fledgling businesses to shut permanently.

He said: “We don’t really sell much in Northern Ireland. Most of our sales are to the UK, Germany and America. We also sell in Canada and Australia. We’re trying to break into the French market which is big.”

He said: “I was somebody who was well travelled up until last year. We were at the four-day board game convention in Essen in Germany in October 2019 – there were 160,000 people there. In America Gen Con has 80,000 attendees, the UK Games Expo in Birmingham attracts some 60,000 visitors.”

He commented: “In Essen in 2019 I think there were 1,700 or more new games released. All those games were not like Monopoly or Connect 4.

Enjoying MourneQuest at a board game convention

“The only reason people play Monopoly is because their granny knows how to play it – and you don’t have to read the rules.”

He admitted that pages and pages of rules that have to be read and understood could be off-putting for someone attempting to play a new game. But it’s well worth it as modern games offer so much more than older ones.

David, who runs Backspindle Games along with business partner Leonard Boyd from Bangor, said: “Subsequently, one of the most challenging things about designing a board game is writing rule books. You have to make sure they are easy to understand.”

“What I’ve found is there’s any amount of videos on YouTube that teach you the rules much quicker than flicking back and forwards through a book.”

“There’s also online tools such as the Dized App, whereby you set up your tablet beside the board and the simulation talks you through the game as you play it. Those sort of things are very helpful.”

Backspindle Games was established in 2010. Their first game ‘Guards! Guards!’ was based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Their Luchador! wrestling dice game received the Best New Family Game Award at the UK Games Expo 2014.

Strategy game Codinca is sold in 550 Barnes & Noble stores in the USA while MourneQuest picked up an award for innovation from the Department for the Economy.

David encouraged people looking at modern board games to embrace the world of ‘co-operative’ board games firstly, rather than everyone being in competition with each other: “In co-operative games everyone is working together against the game mechanic. We’ve made two or three games where you can play co-operatively.

“It’s an easier way for children or new people to be brought into the game as it’s not competitive.

“The co-op games might take a bit more effort to read the rules, but when you are working together to achieve a common goal, that’s quite empowering. Everyone is included in the thought process.

“We have found people coming out as the leader in a game, who have never been a leader in their life.”

He explained how he got hooked on board games as a teenager: “I would have played games like Mysteries of Old Peking, Totopoly, Subbuteo, Escape From Colditz.

“HeroQuest was the game that inspired the role-playing for us.”

This is when I told him my attic contained a HeroQuest set in very good condition, still in its original box from 1989.

Then came the key question: “Did you paint the miniatures?”

I told him I’d never got round to it, to be honest I’d hardly played the game as my young mind couldn’t grasp the rules.

“Brilliant,” was his reply. “That’s the best way. I painted all mine which devalued them. Yours is going to be worth a fortune. I’m looking on eBay now and Hero Quest is going for anything from £90 up to £140, probably more. Some of the specialist sets are on at £850.”

It remains to be seen whether I benefit from my combination of apathy and my compulsion to hoard, but if I’m stuck there’s a good chance David will take it off my hands. He admits to be something of a hoarder himself.

Of his earlier years he said: “We would have had weekly gaming meet-ups in one of our houses. We built scenery for the miniatures and wrote quests. I once created the Giant’s Causeway out of egg boxes as a prop.

“I found it very social, but people were very quick to label you a geek back then. In recent years much has changed, with TV shows like Stranger Things making gaming more widely accepted.”

David described Backspindle Games as “a small company that’s achieved big things”.

He said: “We’ve published two Discworld licenced games, we’ve won major awards for a couple of our games.

“Some of our games we have designed totally by ourselves from the ground up, like the Terry Pratchett (Discworld) games. Other ideas we have accepted from designers, and refined and polished to make them quality products.”

So how long do the games take to play: “A game like MourneQuest, if you know what you’re doing, would take an hour and half to two hours. There are much shorter, faster 15-minute games like Luchador! – a dice game based on Mexican wrestling.”

He added: “Anyone can play a board game. There is such a wide range of different types for all ages available. Surveys have provided lots of evidence that playing board games is healthy socially, mentally and can also add to work productivity. So yes, we at Backspindle believe that more of us should make time for board games.”

As with a lot of industries, David said lockdown has prompted online growth: “Three of our games have been uploaded to an online platform called Tabletopia.

“It looks exactly like a board game – you can zoom in, out, look at the top or side of the table, you can hold cards in your hand. You can use it with Zoom or Skype to talk to people in the game.”

He said the market for board games, which was already worth billions, has grown from people having to stay at home, but he said it was huge companies like Hasbro and Mattel who likely benefited the most.

He said the inclusion of solo play options in many games was in response to lockdown.

According to David, NI games stores – Robin’s Hobby Cafe in Belfast and Replay Games in Bangor – have both reported an increase in female gamers over the last few years: “Many of them are playing Anime, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh collectible card games. This could be as much as a 70/30% split towards female social players, as opposed to the 80/20% split of male players in tournaments.

“Even at local conventions, such as Q-Con in Belfast, there appear to be more and more families attending annually to play games.”

Whether playing solo or in a co-operative, online or at a table, David said inclusivity was key: “What I’ve realised from going to conventions and gaming clubs is that people feel included where they previously felt excluded from society. From a mental health perspective for like-minded people to be able to sit down and play games together I think it’s critical.”

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