“To an outsider we were success incarnate, but inside we were hollow”: How my dream job at a board game startup became a nightmare
What appeared to be a Kickstarter darling and fast-growing company was a carefully projected illusion.
On paper working at a board game company is a dream come true. I imagine many readers will picture something like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but with more dice. “That’s so cool”, “I can’t believe you get paid for that” and “Just like Monopoly?” are some of the most common responses you’ll hear.
It was quite late in life that I became a full-fledged board gamer. In my twenties I quit drinking, and wanted a social space that wasn’t dominated by alcohol. I tried Magic: The Gathering but quickly grew tired of losing to 12-year-olds. Almost immediately after I first awkwardly shuffled into my local game night I was hooked. It wasn’t long - just a couple of years in fact - before I went from a hobbyist to an industry insider.
Long before I joined the startup my boss was making a name for themselves as an early crowdfunding success. Their first Kickstarter was a passion project that gained what would now be considered modest success, but when a journalist heard about a young student making thousands of pounds from a board game they made it into the local paper.
Kickstarter is not a meritocracy. It isn’t the best ideas or most innovative products that succeed but often the sparkliest turds that float to the top.
Rather than sit back and enjoy their success this upstart set their sights on loftier goals. They delivered their first game and with the leftover money began building the illusion on which the business would thrive for years.
“We’re building something new,” The Boss said to me from across a newly-furnished breakout space in their recently acquired office. “It isn’t just about board games. Not really.”
Despite what many will argue, Kickstarter is not a meritocracy. It isn’t the best ideas or most innovative products that succeed but often the sparkliest turds that float to the top. The quality of someone’s idea, their competence as a designer or their track record with previous projects is rarely taken into consideration. Savvy designers and companies know this, and the way in which games are designed and marketed has completely shifted the industry towards the Kickstarter-hyper model.
Far more worrying than the ways in which Kickstarter has shaped the industry’s marketing approach is the way in which it has fostered a new generation of unaccountable businesses.
Of the thousands of pounds raised by the startup’s second game only a portion went into making the actual game. Of course, not every single penny needs to go directly into production and workers should be paid fairly for their labour. There is nothing wrong with making a profit from a campaign - but in many cases there is absolutely nothing preventing a successful campaign from diverting funds to wherever it pleases.
Without investors or a board breathing down our necks the startup became a business in which only a handful of angry comments made up the majority of our accountability. Far beyond simply spending without explanation, money often flowed freely at the whims of a boss who held ultimate power. Logos were designed, an expensive office was rented and staff were hired - all of this to help form the illusion of a company that was going from success to success.
The boss viewed us like Pixar or Nintendo - that given enough time and creative freedom we would eventually discover the next amazing invention.
My first few months at The Startup were a dream. The work was easy - and with a bloated staff we were rarely busy. We enjoyed snacks and drinks, had ample toys and gadgets to entertain us, and were actively encouraged to spend time on a range of creative endeavours.
Every few days the staff would sit around a big table and talk new ideas. Could this be a new game? Perhaps a new mechanic for Game 3? Maybe an interesting new project for the company? Nothing was off the table. It was clear that the boss viewed us like Pixar or Nintendo - that given enough time and creative freedom we would eventually discover the next amazing invention.
Towards the end of my first year there Game 3 was no closer to being made. A new hire, our very own events intern, asked innocently about the business structure: “Isn’t the money from the crowdfunding meant to only go toward the game?”
“It isn’t just about making games,” replied the boss. The intern worked with us for three months. We never held any events. I still see them on LinkedIn sometimes.
A year into my dream job I was miserable. Every creative person has an urge to create, but the constant cycle of working on projects that went nowhere was grinding. My colleagues and I found ourselves increasingly working around the boss’ whims in order to keep the company running as best we could. It became obvious from those we interacted with outside of the company that something was wrong.
The Boss was all-powerful, spending the startup’s money (and time) however they felt. If something bored them or seemed unimportant they’d simply put it off, or sometimes ignore it completely. While The Startup continued to busy itself on projects with no end we were failing on some of our basic promises. What did it matter, after all, if one backer complained about delays? There were thousands of them. We couldn’t possibly outrage them all. As our fantasy roles faded into reality I found myself hoping without hope that a sudden shift would put us back on the right track. The feeling of powerlessness was tremendous.
When the money eventually ran out it hardly seemed to matter. The Boss disappeared one afternoon, and a few days later announced proudly that they’d received a business loan. With all the aesthetic trappings of a successful business they’d convinced a bank that we were worthy of thousands of pounds to fund a game we had already received funding for.
If the hobby is to move forward it must welcome fresh ideas and innovation, but that openness mustn’t also leave the door open for those who can wield its benefits without scrutiny or oversight.
Before Game 3 had arrived in people’s homes Game 4 had already been launched. We never delivered on many of the overhyped promises we’d made but it didn’t matter - we were already looking ahead. At UK Games Expo that year we’d run a behemoth of a stall, filled with tables to play a game which still only existed as a prototype. As the weekend went on dozens of designers came with prototypes in hand, eager to pitch to us. It broke my heart to see people filled with passion that had fallen for the illusion. To an outsider we were success incarnate - but inside we were hollow.
Sites like Dicebreaker and others have helped hobbyists have difficult but important conversations about what we expect of our creators. Board gamers have begun to talk openly about race, gender and exploitation - and this is a welcome development. But in thinking about what we demand of our industry we must think too about the financial models that underpin everything we enjoy. We must recognise the systems that allow some to fail upwards, and must ask questions over who they are really benefiting. If the hobby is to move forward it must welcome fresh ideas and innovation, but that openness mustn’t also leave the door open for those who can wield its benefits without scrutiny or oversight.
On paper working at a board game company is a dream come true. But there was a dishonesty in everything I did that still sits uncomfortably in me. It was a dream, but it was not mine.
This comment piece is based on the real-life experiences of the author, but many details have been changed so as not to identify any individuals and any perceived identification of real-life individuals from the details in this comment piece is merely incidental.