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From TCGs to TRPGs, Aotearoa New Zealand’s tabletop creators are finding their spotlight on the global stage

“We want to help each other out a lot more because we are so isolated.”

Image credit: Henk Rolleman

When it comes to Aotearoa New Zealand, you might think “Lord of the Rings” or “Haka and rugby”. But the humble island nation of five million is making its mark in another scene: the tabletop gaming industry.

In 2022, Auckland-based trading card game company Legend Story Studios, creators of Flesh and Blood, a heavy-hitting TCG competing with Magic: The Gathering, topped Deloitte’s Fast 50 Index with a stunning revenue growth of 6,416% over the preceding three years. Last year, Wellycon, the largest board game convention in the country, held annually in its capital of Wellington, witnessed a doubling of its pre-COVID attendance numbers.

Board games, RPGs and TCGs have exploded in the country, and at the centre of that scene are creators who are growing New Zealand’s gaming industry and reaching publishers and fans overseas.

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One of those creators is Shem Phillips, founder of Garphill Games and designer behind a series of award-winning board games including Hadrian’s Wall and Architects of the West Kingdom. Before his smash successes, though, he started out making family titles in the late 2000s.

“At that point, if you wanted to get your game published as a New Zealand designer, you had to go to conventions and pitch the games in person,” Phillips tells Dicebreaker.

“I knew Carl [de Visser] and Jarratt [Gray], who did Endeavour. They had their game signed by [Pandemic and Carcassonne publisher] Z-Man. They were the only people I knew at that time that had actually achieved that. The idea of getting my game to a publisher just was like... that's not going to happen.”

There was over three years of me trying to make these better-quality games, bigger games each year, and eventually going-full time.

A literal game-changer came in the form of Kickstarter, which Phillips used to launch Shipwrights of the North Sea in 2014, successfully funded to the tune of about $45,000. Raiders of the North Sea, Phillip’s next Kickstarted game in 2017, more than doubled that figure, at over $95,000.

“That's when it started to balloon and I realised this can actually turn into a business, potentially,” Phillips says. “There was over three years of me trying to make these better-quality games, bigger games each year, and eventually going-full time.”

A family plays Cheeky Parrot Games' Hoard during Wellington board game convention Wellycon. | Image credit: Julia Schiller

He’s not the only one who’s built a tabletop business in Aotearoa New Zealand. For Julia Schiller, co-founder of SchilMil Games, success came through the smaller, local market, and a smaller box.

Auckland-based SchilMil was created by Schiller and Amanda Milne. The two were fans of classic games like backgammon and rummy, and designed games with an eye to easy learning and family gameplay. Their first game, Komodo, drew inspiration from their surroundings, with players in the role of zoologists trying to preserve Australasian wildlife. Their second game, Raid the Pantry, was Schiller’s “baby, design-wise,” she says, and was also the impetus for them to begin publishing and distributing games.

“We talked to a distributor here in New Zealand, but they were lukewarm about selling them for us and we kind of realised there's a little bit more margin in it for us if we do our own distribution. That was one of my primary roles at SchilMil - building our retailer network - which is something I've had to continue with Cheeky Parrot.”

It's getting a little easier to bring on new retailers. I'm not chasing as hard to make sales. The business is self-sustaining.

Cheeky Parrot Games is the company Schiller founded in May 2014 when she amicably parted from SchilMil. Since then, Cheeky Parrot has grown to what she now says is Aotearoa New Zealand’s premier publisher of small box games. Its catalogue now spans eight titles, including Hoard and Ulterior Design.

“It's almost like when I decided to call myself New Zealand's premier small-box publisher, something sort of shifted,” Schiller says. “It's getting a little easier to bring on new retailers. I'm not chasing as hard to make sales. […] The business is self-sustaining.”

With that foundation, Cheeky Parrot could grow beyond the boundaries of Australasia, Schiller says, but she’s a little unclear about what her best business move would be.

Battle royale RPG Deathmatch Island, inspired by the likes of Squid Game and Severance, is the latest game from Kiwi designer Tim Denee. | Image credit: Old Dog Games/Evil Hat Productions

One group making moves is KiwiRPG, a collaboration among Aotearoa New Zealand TTRPG designers, podcasters and streamers that started using the hashtag #KiwiRPG in 2021 before evolving into a formal association in 2023.

KiwiRPG, as their website states, works “to spotlight our work on the global stage, support emerging talent, and speak out when needed,” and is rooted in Indigenous Maori values, following Kaupapa (“principles”) that include respect for Te Tiriti o Waitangi - the Treaty of Waitangi, a foundational document for Maori rights. Indeed, Maori culture is found in some Aotearoa New Zealand games like Tākaro, a game that teaches players Te Reo Maori. The culture of New Zealand community support is central to KiwiRPG as well.

The interesting thing of the KiwiRPG community for me is discovering just who's out there and what they're doing, because a lot of these things sprouted up in isolation.

“There's always been that identity,” says Tim Denee, who designed KiwiRPG’s logo. “The interesting thing of the KiwiRPG community for me is discovering just who's out there and what they're doing, because a lot of these things sprouted up in isolation. To find all those bits and then connect them up into one coherent community has been really fun.”

Denee designs games under the label Old Dog Games, including his most recent title, Deathmatch Island, which uses the Paragon system from the Agon RPG. He and fellow Kiwi creator Mike Sands, who is best known for creating Monster of the Week under his label Generic Games, have both played tabletop RPGs for decades, but they say that Aotearoa New Zealand RPGs exploded in more recent years.

“It was really the 2000s, when the internet and print-on-demand technology allowed more publishing to happen that the game design scene here really took off,” says Sands.

KiwiRPG brought together local designers and players across Aotearoa New Zealand, including the cast of actual play series Dice Legenz. | Image credit: Dice Legenz

Another global event helped spur the creation of KiwiRPG. When California-based tabletop convention Big Bad Con moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand designers, including Sands and Denee, were invited to do panels on what roleplaying was like in their country. That led to the genesis of the KiwiRPG online community.

“There’s a Latin RPG group as well,” says Sands. “We’re kind of doing the same thing, being a place for people from a region that's a bit underrepresented in the general culture of roleplaying to work together and help each other out.”

It’s that community spirit that seems unique to Aotearoa New Zealand. Phillips says that game designers in general are fairly collaborative, but in Kiwi country, it gets a little extra push.

“Probably the smaller the country, the stronger that probably gets, because you've got to help each other out,” he says. “New Zealand just in general has that culture. We want to help each other out a lot more, I think, because we are so isolated.”

In 2024, that isolation is ending, as New Zealand games start to burst onto the international stage.

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In this article

Architects of the West Kingdom

Tabletop Game

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Deathmatch Island

Tabletop Game

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Flesh and Blood

Tabletop Game

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Monster of the Week

Tabletop Game

About the Author
Tim Ford avatar

Tim Ford

Contributor

Tim is a freelance writer and journalist based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He has been collecting and painting models for 20 years from a range of games like Rivet Wars, Warhammer, Warmachine, Malifaux and more.
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