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Return to Dark Tower studio owner discusses unions, expensive towers and the Heroquest that got away

Restoration Games' Justin Jacobson reflects on six years of pumping new life into old titles.

Justin Jacobson, the president and co-founder of Restoration Games, prefers the much less dry title given to him by a friend - board game necromancer. It’s apt, given the company’s proven track record of bringing lapsed titles such as Fireball Island, Downforce and Conspiracy back into vogue - and often updating their design for modern sensibilities.

After vacating a law career that left him burned out and miserable, Jacobson presented designer Rob Daviau what he considered an unimpeachable offer to join him in starting Restoration Games in 2016. The pair found success and popularity among tabletop players almost immediately, allowing them to expand the team and even partner with Gloomhaven designer Isaac Childres on the upcoming Return to Dark Tower.

Dicebreaker caught up with Jacobson at PAX Unplugged 2021, where the president/necromancer discussed the canceled and relaunched Kickstarter for their latest title, the eventual end of the company, and where unions fit into the model of the tabletop industry.

Restoration Games does a lot of work on Kickstarter. You recently canceled and relaunched Thunder Road’s campaign, due partially to the public response. Have you noticed a change in backer expectations since the company began in 2016?

It's interesting. I'm not sure that it's changed that much. There's really two kinds of board game Kickstarters. One’s all these great games from new or smaller publishers. This is their game for the year, and they need to squeeze every last drop of juice out of that orange to make the whole thing work. The other is sort of like the difference between an indie film and a Hollywood blockbuster. You need the full marketing push, you need all the big, special effects. You need the big name actors, and all that stuff to make it a big opening to justify all that.

It's funny, some of these companies’ gut reactions are to try and fight the union. I really think that's a mistake.sc

When we did Stop Thief! we didn't have all that. We literally had one actual play video, and we did fine - $100,000, which we were super excited about. Obviously, Fireball Island had much bigger goals. I think for those you've always needed more. There’s always outliers, right? Gloomhaven is lightning in a bottle - you can’t count on that. But once you've had one or two of those - and we’re going into our third big one - you can't start at that top level and then come in a little bit lower. Backers are coming in with certain expectations when we launch a Kickstarter, and if we're not meeting that, it's gonna seem maybe bigger than the actual gap. It's more noticeable because it's being compared to the other stuff.

Will Restoration continue to do both indie and Hollywood kinds of games in the future?

I think it's an open question, honestly. I was the one who was always pushing for a small game each year. That's why we hunted down [the original] Buried Treasure and really pushed for it even though it wasn’t going to make us any money, really. It certainly wasn’t going to pay the bills. That's not even the right way to look at it, but when you’re doing $6 million on Dark Tower through the full load there is no amount of Berried Treasure I could sell that would make a relative difference.

I always thought it was good to have some of these other games that introduce people to our brand. Our big thing is the bandwidth on the team, like getting the stuff done. We have this sort of running joke about how [games] are always harder than you think it's gonna be, whether it's the big thing or the little thing. Berried Treasure is just a card game, but we decided to print this one domestically. I was interested in why people don’t print domestically - you hear this a lot. The shorter answer is we just could not do a game like Dark Tower or Return to Fireball Island domestically. It’s just literally not possible.

Dicebreaker had a chance to cause some vehicular mayhem with Thunder Road at PAX Unplugged 2021.

I like the idea of doing a small game and getting it out there, and I think people like seeing some of those. I'll always keep an eye out for it, but it's still a ton of work for the team. In some ways, it's hard to justify doing that kind of game when they could be working on Thunder Road. If we hadn't had to work on Berried Treasure, would we have gotten Thunder Road Kickstarted on time? Maybe? Probably, honestly.

Do you ask yourself that question?

Oh, I have literally asked myself that question. The funny thing, of course, is we were supposed to get Berried Treasure out for Gen Con. It didn't even get done in time because Dark Tower took so much time. The big projects are super fun, and I would never want to just do regular games. I think we have built a reputation for having these over-the-top games with all these weird components. I think that's a lot of what people remember about those old games - Fireball Island, the big 3D tower, the big electronics Island or the big electronic tower. Novelty. We just build a cool game around the novelty.

We’ll keep doing that, and every once in a while when something interesting happens by - Epic Duels, Unmatched. We need to keep an eye out for those games. We might also find lightning in a bottle there, too.

My gut tells me that Hasbro decided to do Heroquest because they saw how successful we had been with Fireball Island.

Would you consider Unmatched your lightning in a bottle?

It's weird. I don't feel like calling any of them Lightning in a Bottle only because that implies we created something. We’re discoverers, not inventors.

I’d like to talk about the increase in Dark Tower’s retail cost. How were those discussions with the team?

You never want a game 100% done going into a Kickstarter because you can't respond to that feedback. I’m a huge fan of Kickstarter - obviously, some of their recent decisions I’m not happy about - but I think it's a great platform that has the ability to connect fans in a very specific way to a very specific project. Thunder Road had the other problem - you don’t want to go into it at 50%, right? Dark Tower started funding at about the 90% mark. We started working on that game almost from the moment we started the company.

We had all these iterative ideas for the tower. The first thing was a phone stand, but then we realized at some point people are just going to leave it there and just pass the phone around. That’s not gonna work - we had to make the actual tower integral. But if it’s just physical or even mechanical, that doesn’t capture the spirit of the original. The final model is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery. The unit cost for the tower - just the tower - is more than the unit cost of Scythe.

It didn't start there but was like death by 1,000 cuts. It's like the LEDs are too focused and come out too bright. Specifically, we need to add a diffuser to the back of the doors. That's an extra 12 cents. And we need to do this, and that's an extra 17 cents. I don't know if I've mentioned this in an interview or not, but we have a million dollars in just development costs for Dark Tower. By the time we finished, our MSRP was going to be $150 - the backers got it for $125. We'll make money but the margin is not where it needs to be considering what the unit cost that game is. So that's when we decided to raise it.

Titles such as Descent: Legends of the Dark are creating something of a market for larger price tags, though.

I agree. I have a very big game collection, maybe a few hundred games. I might have a problem. But once you've done that for a little while, do you really need the sixth really good midweight Eurogame? So, I think there's still a market for these higher priced games if they're offering something that you can't get somewhere else. That's the thing that obviously works for Dark Tower and something like Descent - they are unique experiences, and people seem to be digging it.

Return to Dark Tower board game gameplay
Return to Dark Tower is currently shipping to Kickstarter backers, but the retail version will cost more than initially expected.

Will Restoration Games tackle a project of Dark Tower’s size with that sort of development budget again?

Like that? No, I don’t – no. No. When we finished Fireball Island with its 3D plastic, vacuform board I said we are never doing something that bananas again. That was too much. Then, we rolled straight into Dark Tower, which was like that plus an app, plus a Bluetooth tower. So, I could be wrong, but I don’t think you could do anything bigger than that. Maybe if we did something with VR or AR. [laughs]

Do you have a white whale of a license?

My big project was going to be HeroQuest, And then Hasbro ninja’d us on that. We were really close. We were talking to people, and I think we were close. The one I've been working on forever and ever and just can't seem to land is Glory to Rome. Now, that’s not a big project, but I think it’s a great game, and I have an idea for it. I literally don't think that will ever happen. I just think that the powers that be - for whatever reason - don't have any interest in doing anything.

Do you wonder if you have made your job more difficult by starting - and popularizing - the trend of revitalizing old games so much that other companies are joining in?

I do. [laughs] My gut tells me that Hasbro decided to do Heroquest because they saw how successful we had been with Fireball Island. It’s good for gamers, but it’s hard. Heroquest is a good example. They went this direction of a total fresh coat of paint, but the game is 99% the same. It might even be 100%. I have a copy. I got a copy. I haven't played it yet, though. So, I can't speak to the details, but I know it's pretty close.

If we hadn't had to work on Berried Treasure, would we have gotten Thunder Road Kickstarted on time?

Some people were like, ‘Oh, this is great. They took this great game that I loved, and they made it look really cool.’ But some people are like, ‘Oh, I wish they had updated a little bit because there's a few clunky things.’ That's obviously our approach in general, and that's what we would have done. I don't say there's a right answer, but when I see that I wish we had gotten a chance to do it because it would have been fun to figure out what we would have done.

Is there a point where you taper off? Where you slow down or sunset the whole Restoration Games endeavor?

I think there has to be. Rob and I are not going to do this forever, but we're not ending tomorrow or anything, either. Maybe it will coincide roughly with when we can't find another good project. Stop Thief is not anybody’s number one title, but it’s been a great seller for us. I think there's plenty of really good games out there that we'd be happy to do. The longer we're at it, the more titles that come in on the back end. That game that wasn't an old, out-of-print title back when we started might be five years from now.

As someone who runs a company, what are your feelings on unions within the tabletop space?

I'm pro union in general, and certainly these days there’s no question. There might have been times where unions were too strong, too powerful and - not coincidentally - too corrupt. Certainly, that's not the issue today. Good unions have been gutted. It shows in the working conditions, the pay, and all this stuff that's been declining for years and years and years. I don't want to speak for the whole team, but I know my team pretty well. It's a consensus or general opinion, at least. I think the idea of unionizing is good. In a five-person company, though, it may not make a lot of sense.

I do think there's also room for - I'm not using the right term - but these trade unions, if you will. What if there was a game designers union, right? You're not going to collectively bargain with a company, per se. But you can put out guidelines. For example, here's a pro forma contract that freelance designers can use that you're not going to get screwed on. Rather than the companies who – a lot of companies don't know what they're doing with contracts.

The final model is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery. The unit cost for the game's tower - just the tower - is more than the unit cost of Scythe.

I know some of the people at Paizo, and I'm glad that finally worked out. It's funny, some of these companies’ gut reactions are to try and fight the union. I really think that's a mistake. I think you're much better off trying to meet them halfway and work with them. It can be a tool to help the company as much as the workers if you have a cohesive unit that you can work with to make sure that these people are being treated fairly, and therefore doing a good job. I don't know, it just seems like a lot of companies are fairly wrongheaded about this and worried about something that they don't necessarily need to be worried about.

Given your legal background, Is a trade guild something you could see yourself contributing to?

Absolutely, 100%. I'd be happy to. In fact, I've looked into it. Contributing to the industry in general is something that I've always wanted to do. I mean, that's where I got my roots. I have looked into taking a sort of a larger role at [the Game Manufacturers Association]. I think that might be another way to approach things. GAMA’s had some rocky times but I feel like they're sort of turning the corner - It's like steering a cruise ship.

What can fans of Restoration Games expect to see from you and the team in the near future?

We do have some exciting stuff coming up for Unmatched. Battle Legends Volume Two was released at the show today, and we have our roster for battle legends volume three set, already. It will feature three more of the design contest runners-up, and one of them is not a human.

Update: The names of the original Buried Treasure and Restoration Games' remake - Berried Treasure - have been corrected and clarified.
About the Author
Chase Carter avatar

Chase Carter

Contributor

Chase is a freelance journalist and media critic. He enjoys the company of his two cats and always wants to hear more about that thing you love. Follow him on Twitter for photos of said cats and retweeted opinions from smarter folks.

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