How Do You Sell an Artsy Board Game?

Part of the pleasure of relocating to the University of Southern California has been the chance to meet a whole new cast of characters, to discover just how intellectually diverse and interesting the students are here -- especially when you factor in that my classes attract students from across the two schools, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and the School of Cinematic Art --- where I have an appointment. It has always been my pleasure to help introduce some of my students to my readers and give you a glimpse of the kind of conversations that take place in my classroom. A few weeks ago, James Taylor, a student in my Transmedia Entertainment class, booked time during my office hours and came in bearing a beautifully crafted box, proceeded to unpack a game board and pieces, and asked if I wanted to play. We had a great conversation about his project -- The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands -- and the thinking behind his design. What I got a glimpse into was someone who was turning the oft-neglected and modest craft of designing board games into an expressive artform. The game was one which encouraged us to reflect on the nature of play, of representation, and of gender. It was a delightful and engaging provocation, and I wanted to share it with you now. I got even more interested when I asked him what he planned to do with his game and he described the process by which he was putting the game onto the market via a microfinancing website. I thought even those of you who are not into games might enjoy learning more about the new kinds of entrepreneurship which are emerging within a networked culture.

Microfinance and the Market for Independent Board Games

by James Taylor

The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands is a fantastical board game with a rich history, an unusual narrative, and surreal Victorian-style artwork. It is a board game that sits comfortably at the intersection of art, logic and literature. It pushes boundaries and opens critical discussions in each of these realms: the board art needs to stand on it's own, but also remain subservient to the game play; the story provokes questions of gender, desire, master-servant relationships, reliable narration, and the permutations of the game over a questionable 200 year history; and the game itself has a rule set that structures a peculiar mode of courtship.

Yet, can a small, provocative game ever make it in the (somewhat stalled) American board game industry? Is there a market for small, art-house board games?

How the Game Works -

"The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands (TGSSI) is an absurd logic puzzle about crossing bridges. The bridges determine how many people can cross. The gentlemen are each trying to strain the group in order to converse with Lady Ashley alone."

It is worth noting that the game is based on an old riddle. In the riddle, a farmer is trying to cross a river in a canoe with a fox, a chicken and a sack of corn. He can only take one at a time so he has to carefully plan his trips back and forth, without ever leaving the fox with the chicken, or the chicken with the sack of corn. TGSSI is a two-player game with a similar feel. Each of the gentlemen characters is trying to speak with the lady Ashley alone, and must use the bridges to constantly separate and recombine the group. A mathematician friend of ours calculated about 300,000 possible arrangements for the pieces on the board.


Matters of Academic Interest -

Art & the Dilemma of Perspective -

After refining the rules for several months, I met with the board artist, Dan Gray. We knew we wanted a top-down view of the islands, because that's what's best for the game-play. But we quickly found that a matter-of-fact, top-down view of the islands wasn't visually interesting - we were losing a lot of the detail and character of the locations by only showing them from above. After some thought, we decided it would be best to take a lesson from the cubists, and crack the perspective in order to accommodate the top-down play-view, while also managing to include the buildings, monuments, and ruins of the islands at mixed angles. The scale of the locations is also mixed. (For example, the octopus is bigger than the cathedral and the boat is larger than the volcano.) The result is a gameboard with a rather warped perspective. It is a top-down vantage point of the islands as though seen through a piece of wavy, distorted glass, and this distortion for the board would later serve as the inspiration for the themes of distortion that run throughout the narrative.


Making the Game British -

There were two reasons for making the game British. Looking back, it now seems like an obvious choice because of the high level of politeness built into the rule structure (the group typically moves together as a matter of decorum because it would be impolite for a character to walk off in a different direction), but there was another reason as well that had more to do with the objective. The core mechanic of the game is about stepping aside with a lady - and this is an objective that can be read the wrong way, to say the least. In light of this complication, we insisted on the word "Gentlemen" in the title, to squash any accusations of underhanded intentions. Given the high-level of social decorum, and the word "Gentlemen" in the title, the game just seemed British, so we decided to run with it.

Questions of Gender and the Focus of Desire -

At first glance, the game appears to be a simple, perhaps ridiculous, love story in which two men are competing for the attentions of Lady Ashley. Simple enough. But questions of sexism are distributed, alleviated and then further compounded throughout all of the materials of the game. The representations of gender are contradictory because these questions are mixed with questions of the reliability of the character descriptions and the permutations of the game over it's 200 year history. Whether the game is played in a male-centric universe is a fertile ground for debate.

Soon after opening the box, a player will discover that no one controls the female characters. The rules state: "the Ladies move on their own turn and move independently of the group." The phrasing (deliberately) implies that the girls are aloof and disinterested, that they do not care about this and have other places to be. But the problem of gender is unavoidable: if no one controls the Lady characters, then they do not have creative agency. Instead, they move along a set path. The question of gender in the rules sends the players outwards to explore the character booklet.

According to the narrative materials of the game, it was invented by two wealthy (and perhaps mildly insane) gentlemen living on an island. They devised the rule set. This means that we are not looking at the "official rules" of a courtship, by any means, but rather we are looking at what two gentlemen, in their paired delusion, imagined those rules to be. The gentlemen characters are ridiculous enough that it's hard to take them seriously. If they weren't getting gender right, then, well, nor were they very adept at anything else. Jules is a manufacturer of distorted glass and Hodge's "maps might find their best place in a childrens' coloring book." Again, the theme of distortion (originating with the game board art) runs deep throughout the narrative and the game.

A more nuanced look at gender and desire reveals even more. At the end of the character booklet, Jules suggests to Hodge that they should save themselves the "legwork" of chasing after her. He suggests that Hodge "draw up a map of these islands" so that they may resume in the "cool shade of representation." The implication here is that Hodge (the cartographer) drew up a map to serve as the game board, and that Jules (the manufacturer of distorted glass) provided the melted marbles for the pieces. The final image in the character booklet shows them playing the board game. At this stage, Lady Ashley is nowhere to be found. She has been pushed out of the frame and nearly out of the scope of the game. In the image, it is as if the two gentlemen are content to compete with each other over her as an imagined trophy and this might have been the case all along. Is Lady Ashley simply a cipher in order for the 2 gentlemen to keep score with each other? Or rather, is she a canvas on which to paint their affections for one another? Once they reach the stage of playing out the courtship as a board game, one gets the sense that the game is less and less about her.

To determine if the game is in fact sexist - if the world is in fact a male-centric universe - we can find more information in the descriptions of the characters. As we know, Lady Ashley is described as an absent-minded wanderer. This is not a particularly empowering, or redemptive view of the female character, but it's hard to say whether the narrator's description is at all reliable. On a page of direct quotations, Lady Ashley states: "I simply find it odd, that not one person on these islands has asked me even a single question ... Yet clearly I am in the middle of something..." So if we can trust this quotation, and if no one has asked her a single question, then how can we possibly believe the narrator's three-paragraph description? Especially when there is evidence that contradicts even his basic description. A publisher's footnote from a 1925 version of the game reads:

According to the partial memoirs of J.T. Trotwood, there was indeed a Lady Ashley who briefly visited these isles. In reality she was a naturalist commissioned by the British Royal Society to collect flower specimens.

This is a more empowering view of her, but without a firm grounding in truth, one can simply not say who (between the narrator and the gentlemen and the multiple editors) is providing trustworthy information. If in fact there was a Lady Ashley to visit these islands, her true identity might be lost forever under a history of unreliable male narration. While gender remains an issue, perhaps it is easiest to allay the concerns of sexism by discounting the men. The epitaph introducing the game seems to speak on Lady Ashley's behalf. It reads,

"When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."

The Layers of Story -

Owing to the loose "facts" of the game, it is quite difficult to determine the exact history, or even to count the number of diegetic layers. However, a rough estimate turns up between six and eight layers of story. We start with the original competition on these islands that was played (on foot ) by crossing bridges to speak with the lady. Because it is hard to say if there was ever a woman on these islands, the second diegetic layer is possibly what Jules and Hodge imagined in order to occupy their time. We know that at some point, the gentlemen decided to sit down and create a representation of the game, at which point Hodge drew up a map of the islands and Jules provided the pieces. Later on, the game and several historical documents from these islands were discovered, and the game was brought back to England and published by Edward B. Tickert. 100 years later I myself played a beat-up, depleted copy of the game in a pub in England and decided to seek out more information (which makes me perhaps the 4th or 5th diegetic layer.) Long-story short, I acquired the rights to republish the game. The players who buy the game are acting out the roles of Jules and Hodge as they play, well, the characters Jules and Hodge in the game. Finally, if I pass the game to a larger publisher, they will create yet a seventh layer of editorial commentary; and if we include essays and comments about the game to be included in the box...then the public discourse becomes yet another layer.

The game's history relies on an elaborate, interlocking web of historical documentation surrounding different episodes in the game's discovery and development. The layers of the game create the following epistemological paradox: one can only sort through the facts of the game's history by referring to other questionable facts of the game's history.

Much like Freud's dreams, every element followed will lead to another significant element in a vast web of significance.

Going Transmedia -

There is a nice array of transmedia elements surrounding the game. Perhaps most noteworthy is the upcoming documentary, in which several historians and professors discuss the origins of the game and it's 200 year history. We wanted to build up a rich environment of critical discourse surrounding the game. We wanted to tease out the details of this absurd British colony in the midst of which the game was created. In essence, we wanted to take a simple game and discuss it not only as a historical artifact, but also as a game based on a real events. The fun in the short documentary is in taking a fantastical game and discussing it as a very real representation of an antiquated courtship. It's an anthropological approach to a strange, fictional culture.

The documentary about the islands gestures toward the game, while the game raises questions that demand further exploration in the documentary. Both of them point to other media properties. Kim Moses (co-producer of The Ghost-Whisperer TV series on CBS) describes this type of cross-referencing media as an Infinity Loop.

Marketing, Micro-funding & -

Basically, on our financial budget, it doesn't make sense to print 500 copies of the game unless we know we have 500 buyers.

We have chosen to assess the level of public and investor interest in The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands by posting it to a microfunding site called On this site, people can preorder the game, or become benefactors. If there is enough interest in the game from the public, then we will move forward and print the first 500 copies.

According to the website, "Kickstarter is a funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, explorers..." They advertise their website as a way for project creators to "pool" their social networks and turn them into an micro-investment community. It is highly encouraged on the site to offer incentives for different levels of investment.

Another unique aspect of kickstarter is that it is all or nothing. People who post projects set a funding goal for the project. If the goal is met in the two-month time period, everyone who contributed is charged the amount that they pledged. But f the goal is not met, no one is charged, and the project receives no money to move forward. The website offers three reasons for it's sink or swim approach:

1. It's less risk for everyone this way. If you need $5,000, it can suck to have $2,000 and a bunch of people who expect you to be able to complete a $5,000 project.

2. It allows people to test concepts (or conditionally sell stuff) without risk. If you don't receive the support you want, you're not compelled to follow through.

3. It motivates. If you want to see a project come to life, it helps to spread the word.

The site encourages creative marketing, and necessitates spreading the link to the site as far as possible. Here are the things they encourage potential project creators to consider:

1. How will you tell people about your project? The key to a successful project is asking your networks, audience, friends and family for help. Kickstarter is a tool that can turn your networks into your patrons; it is not a source of funding on its own.

2. Rewards are very important. Offer something of real value for a fair price. And more experiential rewards, things that loop backers into the story, are incredibly powerful. Most of the successful projects include them -- take a look around the site and you'll see some great examples. PS: Three or four reasonably priced rewards seems to work quite well (think of it as S, M, L, XL).

3. Include a video. It's more personal.

4. Be clear and specific about your project's goal.

5. And finally, when it comes to your funding goal, raise as little as you'll need to move forward. Projects can raise more, but never less.

In order to preserve the integrity (and strangeness) of The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands (TGSSI), we have found this micro-investment site to be the best approach. We are selling a fantastical board game with a deep, rich story across multiple platforms. Moreover we are selling it in a country that has slim-to-no independent market for board games.

It seems that the game could find it's home in high-school or college classrooms, but one can't help but notice that studying games is not a common practice in our education system. But why is that? Perhaps this last question is better left to someone more qualified to answer it.

James Taylor is graduate student in Interactive Media at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Resisting the current of digital media, he has chosen to work primarily with board games. You can order the game here.