Thousands of people pass by the Oddfellows Building on Capitol Hill every day without a clue to the fun that’s being made inside.
That’s the home of Ravensburger North America, a publisher of board games, puzzles and more that has made a name for itself by harnessing the creative power of Seattle. Our city has an international reputation for music, coffee, salmon and scenic beauty.
Ravensburger North America CEO Filip Francke thinks you can add board and role-playing games to that list.
“Seattleites don’t know that this exists,” Francke said. “There is some cool stuff going on here on the fifth floor of the Oddfellows Building. And over in Redmond is Paizo [Publishing], which is creating the Pathfinder and Starfinder worlds. And you have Wizards of the Coast in Renton, which is where the Dungeons & Dragons world is being built up. Funko is here and they do games now. And now you have all these independent entrepreneurs.”
Shanon Lyon and Marisa Pena are two of those independent entrepreneurs. They met at board game company Cranium back in 2004, formed a consulting partnership when that company was absorbed by Hasbro and launched their award-winning design company, Department of Recreation, in 2012.
It was a lonely endeavor when they first started, Lyon said. Now she thinks it’s a verifiable phenomenon.
“Nowadays there are so many sources around town for game designers,” Lyon said. “There’s play-testing groups and online Facebook groups that are specifically Seattle game-designer groups. There’s people supporting each other on Twitter. There’s a Women in Toys chapter. All these different things are available. And I’ll say, when we were starting out in 2012, none of that existed.”
When Ravensburger, based in Germany, looked to increase its footprint in North America, it was attracted to Seattle by the work of preschool- and family-games maker Wonder Forge. Company officials liked Wonder Forge’s model of licensing popular properties and making quality, immersive games, so they decided to acquire the company. They also found a town ready-made for a business built on whimsy and innovation.
“Why here? This is a little bit of the epicenter of geekiness, whatever aspect you’re coming from,” Francke said. “The geekiness and the inclusiveness is not something you find everywhere. We love it in that sense. The people who work here are from all walks of life. And we need that. And that inclusiveness ends up in the gameplay. It’s your escape. Who do I want to be now?”
Ravensburger North America has been thriving in Seattle since the 2017 acquisition of Wonder Forge. The Ravensburger parent company was founded in 1883 in Ravensburg, Germany, with the release of a game based on “Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne — “in essence, it was maybe licensing before there was licensing,” Francke joked.
The Seattle arm of the company is largely continuing that tradition. It releases roughly 25 games a year, mining some of entertainment’s most recognizable names. It has put out games based on Dr. Seuss, “Sesame Street,” “Jaws,” the Universal Studios monsters, Minecraft and many other pop-culture mainstays. A “Back to the Future” game is due soon.
Ravensburger NA sold about 3 million copies of games developed in the Seattle office in 2018. Its biggest recent success has been Disney Villainous, a game that draws on the Mouse’s rich history of baddies.
Disney Villainous was named Game of the Year at The Toy Foundation’s 2019 Toy of the Year Awards. Disney Villainous has sold more than 500,000 copies since its August 2018 release at Gen Con in Indianapolis, the tabletop gaming industry’s largest convention.
That’s as close as you can get to a smash hit in the board game world, and the excited reaction to the game was evident the moment the doors opened at Gen Con.
“The fans went crazy,” said Florian Baldenhofer, Ravensburger NA’s executive vice president and head of games. “There were stampedes every morning running to the booth. And we didn’t know where to put the people. The lines were running all over the place. We got in trouble with the convention.”
“When you as a company have to learn better line management, you’re onto something,” Francke joked.
Villainous scored the company’s sixth nomination for Game of the Year and its first win. Like many of Ravensburger’s games, Villainous was made with a mostly Seattle-based workforce.
Ravensburger has about 20 full-time employees working out of the Oddfellows’ former concert hall space (out of about 2,000 employees total in the company). There’s also a long list of independent contractors at work on Ravensburger projects. And the company’s largest business unit is the games business — managed out of Seattle.
“They’ve been winning all sorts of awards for years now, and I really don’t think they picked up that steam until they moved to Seattle,” said Mary Couzin, CEO and founder of Chicago Toy & Game Group, producers of ChiTAG Week, a major convention in the toy industry. “That’s when they really grew, and they got aggressive and creative and started winning more and more awards.”
Ravensburger’s not the only company keen on Seattle. Everett-based Funko, best known for creating pop-culture collectibles, is moving into the board game space and recently purchased independent game developers Prospero Hall and Forrest-Pruzan Creative. Belgium-based board- and card-game maker Cartamundi recently opened a design center here. And the big boys – companies like Hasbro and Mattel – regularly mine Seattle’s growing legion of independent designers.
“And I can just tell you from my own database — I’ve got a big database of like 70,000 — a very large percentage is Seattle-based,” Couzin said. “That area around Seattle, it’s just a hotbed of innovation. I mean, Cranium started there. You’ve got Microsoft. You’ve got all kinds of companies. And the thing about game inventors, a lot of them create other things. Generally, when you’re creative, you’re not just creative in one thing, right?”
That’s true, and Seattle’s developers and designers come from all walks of life. Software engineers and lawyers can be found shoulder-to-shoulder with your garden-variety geek at places like Mox Boarding House, Blue Highway Games and Raygun Lounge, where scads of gamers gather every weekend to square off over favorite games, old and new.
“It’s kind of like book publishing in this way — people have day jobs,” Lyon said. “Nobody’s getting rich off designing board games. I mean, somebody is down the line, but people have a huge passion for it, that’s the thing. It’s driven by passion, and a lot of people who are designing these games are the ones playing these games. They’re playing games and they say, ‘Hey, I have an idea.’”
“And as you can imagine, making a board game prototype, anybody can do,” Pena added. “It’s paper and stickers and scissors. It’s the most simple materials and I think that’s what makes it so inviting. There’s a low barrier for entry. Anybody can make a game.”
Lyon and Pena draw inspiration from their young children. Games like their multi-award-winning Outfoxed! are more cooperative than competitive, helping children get over the difficulties of learning about winning and losing. Their latest, Greetings from Grandville, is more complex, aimed at a demographic that’s a little older.
“As our kids are getting older, we find ourselves more interested in growing with them in terms of our design, so we’re branching out into the older age groups and longer games,” Pena said.
Connecting with the right audience is the key. Ravensburger uses play-test groups to help develop the game and the internet to try to build anticipation with trailers that tease the game without revealing too many details. They aim to make games that are easy to access, but complex once you enter.
“There’s so many good new games out there,” Francke said. “There are more than 3,000 games released every year in the U.S. So if you don’t make a great experience, if you don’t tell something that’s a little new, unique and surprising, then nobody’s going to know about it. There’s a graveyard of good games, and it’s growing fast.”