“We play the free parking rule”, says Carmela Soprano, pointing to her husband, Tony, across the Monopoly board. “Technically it isn’t in the rules, but a lot of people play it that way.”
“You know,” replies Bobby, their brother-in-law, “The Parker Brothers took time to think this all out. I think we should respect that.”
There are two types of people in the world: those who obey the rules and those who break them. Peter Blenkharn, CEO of innovative board game company Inside the Box, delights in rules. He makes his own for a living.
“It’s ridiculously complicated. The rulebook is this big”, says Blenkharn enthusiastically, gesturing to his Warhammer rulebook - thick as an encyclopaedia - which he has to hand. There is a sizeable Warhammer collection behind him in his flat-cum-office, along with an industrial-scale printer, leafy plant and, yes, some exposed brickwork. Blenkharn is wearing a grey sweatshirt and a nice pair of round tortoiseshell glasses. It is all perfectly on-brand.
That kind of personal experience makes it so much more powerful when you’re trying to discuss an idea.
For Blenkharn, Warhammer - and Pokémon cards - transformed games from a “standard part of growing up” to a source of real excitement. Paid in Pokémon cards for helping in his parents’ Post Office in Carlisle, a seven-year-old Blenkharn soon began designing his own. “I started organising them in folders and categorising them […] I actually made my own shiny ones with this holographic paper that I got for Christmas.”
An enduring Warhammer obsession followed, with Blenkharn drawn to its creativity and, of course, the complexity of the rules: “There’s so much to figure out […] It’s like this unending puzzle.”
This love of puzzling - the need to set and solve them - fuels Blenkharn’s approach to game design. Crypt X, for example, is a 10-hour game comprised of 51 separate puzzles, solving the mystery of a missing archaeological professor in Egypt. The team were put onto their own “design puzzle”, which their three-month “super in-depth research period” set out to crack. Blenkharn explains eagerly: “We’d never made anything remotely like it, so we were going to have to learn everything from the ground up.”
As well as buying “a copy of every puzzle game we could find”, the team spoke to an Egyptologist - “He’s like a doctor of Egyptian magic, which is just the coolest thing” - in Oxford. “We found out all these interesting things about how hieroglyphic language works, and codes and ciphers that were actually used by priests in the Lower Kingdom in 2500 BC, and then wove that into the game.”
Fundamentally, ITB’s games are about exploration – of journeys, themes and ideas (its motto is ‘play with ideas’). “The pinnacle of what we’re trying to achieve is to communicate something interesting or unusual in game format that allows people to explore something without lecturing them.” Blenkharn points to two bold sources of inspiration: Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr, where players nurse terminally ill patients, and Consentacle, exploring the complexities of sexual consent. Games force people to make decisions, says Blenkharn, and “to genuinely feel the difference between the choices [...] that kind of personal experience makes it so much more powerful when you’re trying to discuss an idea”.
Therefore, in the Black Mirror-inspired NewSpeak - “Charlie Brooker is my idol”, says Blenkharn - players work against a security app selling data to corporations. There’s an emphasis on how the game’s augmented reality and jarring tone make players feel. Blenkharn explains the challenge: “Can we make people feel really uncomfortable, but also enjoy the experience at the same time?” In the co-operative, horror-themed Sub Terra, decision-making is also key; players are trapped underground and must work together to survive.
ITB’s apt beginnings came at Oxford board game café Thirsty Meeples in 2015. Blenkharn was in the final year of his Engineering Science degree at Oxford University. “Me and my mate [Matthew Usher] got dared to make a game by the manager […] we put it on Kickstarter to see what would happen.”
To Blenkharn’s surprise, the game - Molecular - started to make money. Encouraged, the pair created another, Statecraft, which quickly gained £40,000 on Kickstarter. “I was like: that’s not a side project anymore. That’s a lot of money.”
I decided to take the plunge and risk everything I had to see if I could run a business.
With his projects growing, Blenkharn was eventually forced to make a choice. He was offered “a proper job that Mum would be proud of”: a place on the Civil Service graduate programme. Instead, “I decided to take the plunge and risk everything I had to see if I could run a business, because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do”.
It began, he says, as “unbridled chaos” but is now, thankfully, a “pretty slick operation [...] I’m still pinching myself a bit”. Crucially: what does his mum think? “She absolutely loves it and has been central to the operation.”
ITB’s six-person team in Bethnal Green has published ten games with seven - and an adventure book - on the go. Unusually, the company handles all aspects of the games’ design in-house. And their creativity has been rewarded: Sub Terra is one of the most-backed UK games on Kickstarter. Along with Statecraft, both have won UK Games Expo awards.
We’ve been quite experimental with some of the projects we’ve done. The pandemic has accelerated the degree of success that those projects have had.
During the pandemic, traditional board games and puzzles have had a resurgence, with sales rising by 240% in the first week of lockdown. Did ITB get a piece of the pie? “If we were a big board game company, we’d be absolutely raking it in right now […] For smaller ones, it’s a different story.”
Smaller companies, Blenkharn explains, do not have the stock or logistics to “really take advantage” of the rush in demand. But there have still been benefits: “On the flip side, we’ve been quite experimental with some of the projects we’ve done. The pandemic has accelerated the degree of success that those projects have had.”
Blenkharn is talking about illustrated gamebook Alba, through which readers can trace their own adventure. At 1,200 pages with 19 possible endings, it’s claimed to be the world’s biggest gamebook – and one of the largest-ever crowdfunding projects for a book. Launched on January 12th, Alba was a pioneering venture: “It was the first time we’ve done anything like that.”
Like the rest of the company’s projects, Alba is financed through Kickstarter. The project raised almost £275,000 from over 10,000 backers, far exceeding its £5,000 target. “I was expecting a fraction of that,” says Blenkharn. “It’s testament to the incredible hard work that the team have put into this project.”
Blenkharn is quick to praise Kickstarter: “Kickstarter is great,” he says. It “eliminates the core [financial] risk” in launching a project. More widely, it has fuelled a “shift in design thinking towards more unusual ideas and more challenging design problems”.
When we speak, Blenkharn tells me that he stayed up late the night before completing a five-year financial plan (“basically a really, really, really complicated formula”). Naturally, I am curious about his ambitions for ITB. “Do we want to be the next Hasbro? I’ve never thought that was an attractive prospect,” he says. “We want to be the brand that […] make the most interesting games.”
We want to be the brand that makes the most interesting games.
In the Sopranos’ Monopoly game, the players’ attitudes to rules reflect their approach to life. For Blenkharn too, games are not about escapism: they are a powerful means of exploring reality. “If you want people to understand an idea that they didn't understand before, then give them something to play with.”
Blenkharn has a day of work on his spreadsheet ahead (note: it’s a Saturday) and a stack of library books to read as research for his next game. And so, when I eventually end the meeting, I leave Blenkharn engaged in his unending puzzle: how to stretch the possibilities of what games can achieve, turning over every stone along the way.