Eric Frome thinks you should try a new board game. He can even tell you which one.
If you like Monopoly, play Power Grid, a German board game that has similar market elements but relies more on strategy than on luck.
For Scrabble lovers, Frome recommends Word on the Street, a “competitive and interactive” word-forming game that can be played in teams.
And Jenga players? Upgrade to Villa Paletti, a colorful tower construction game that demands the dexterity of Jenga, but with more depth and complexity.
Frome can recommend a board game for every taste, age and interest because he owns them all. Or at least a whole lot of them. His Lakeville house has a room that resembles a board game store: floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with nearly 1,000 games, to which he adds about five games a month. His goal is to play 100 new games a year.
“I’m as much a collector as a player,” he said. “If I had a preference, I’d play something new every time.”
Frome is in the right place to find the next great game: The Twin Cities is where a lot of board games are born.
“We’re literally one of the premier places to make board games in the world,” said Seppy Yoon, chief game designer and co-owner of Fight in a Box, a Minneapolis board game company.
Some of the biggest game developers and publishers call the Twin Cities home. There’s a growing cluster of independent game studios as well as freelance game designers. And there are players like Frome, a board game evangelist, who plays in four different gaming groups, gets neighbors together to play and regularly loses a game or two to his 9-year-old daughter.
Frome, a 43-year-old software architect, plays because board games require actual face time.
“Board games are a nice reprieve from screens and a way to reconnect with people,” he said.
For Yoon, board games are a 2-D way for adults to make friends and interact in the 3-D world that has nothing to do with dating, alcohol or work.
And Minnesota seems to have the right climate to grow new games.
“We’re indoors half the year,” said Charlie McCarron, a Minneapolis composer and freelance video producer who recently added board game design to his résumé.
McCarron, a lifelong game fan, did an internship at Fantasy Flight Games, a major game publishing company based in Roseville, where he worked on a Star Wars card game. But for the past three years, he’s been developing his own game called Four Humours, involving medieval pharmacists and the bodily fluids that are supposed to control our natures.
McCarron, 33, created a prototype of the bluffing and backstabbing game and took it to a weekend-long event last January in the Twin Cities called Protospiel Minnesota, where game designers and volunteer testers get together to try out promising games. Then, he entered Four Humours in an international competition for unpublished board games and placed third out of more than 200 submissions.
The game also caught the attention of Adam Rehberg, owner of Adam’s Apple Games, a small Twin Cities game studio that has published a handful of games including Brewin’ USA, a board game about craft beer breweries, and Truck Off, a card game pitting food truck owners against each other to snag the best parking spot.
Rehberg plans to publish Four Humours after a Kickstarter campaign next year. Crowdsourced fundraising, it turns out, has led to a boom in independent game publication.
“It lowers the risk on the front end for production and funding,” Rehberg said. “This industry really opened up with Kickstarter becoming a thing.”
The cutest war game
At the St. Paul offices of Leder Games, the tables are covered with a jumble of dice, poker chips, colored cubes, miniature figures, maps and cards. The employees here turn play into work, sweating the details of the rules, playability and visual appeal of game prototypes.
“When we’re in a hot development stage here, we can play a game three or four times a day for weeks,” said Cole Wehrle, a Leder game designer and developer.
Leder was started by Patrick Leder, a 44-year-old database programmer who quit his day job in 2016 to work full time on games. His small but growing studio already has scored some top-ranked hits, including Vast: The Crystal Caverns. In this “asymmetric” game, a knight tries to slay a dragon in a cave, and players can choose to be the knight, the dragon or even the cave, each with a different goal and way of winning.
In 2015, Leder launched a Kickstarter effort hoping to raise $40,000 to develop the game. Instead, they raised $150,000. The game sold out at conventions and a second printing raised $500,000.
Leder followed that by publishing a game called Root, in which cartoon animals battle for control of a forest.
Root was an even bigger hit than Vast, raising more than $600,000 in its first Kickstarter and bagging a bunch of awards, including the 2018 Golden Geek Board Game of the Year and the 2019 South by Southwest Tabletop Game of the Year Award. Smithsonian.com put Root on its Top 10 board game list of 2018, calling it “just about the cutest war game you can imagine.”
Leder said more than 100,000 copies of Root have been sold. Those numbers may not compare with the hundreds of millions of copies of Monopoly or the tens of millions copies of Catan that have been sold, but Root is a critical and commercial success in the hobby board-game world.
Leder has about four games in development now. Coming soon: Oath, a game about generational power struggles, and Blood, a horror game about teens trapped in a dungeon.
Frome will be waiting to play them.
He’s been keeping records of every game he’s played since 2008 and recently hit 2,902 games played, spread over 737 different game titles. Despite his wide-ranging knowledge of hundreds of games, Frome isn’t all that competitive.
“I rarely win, to be honest.”
But that’s not the reason he’s playing.
“Maybe you are working together to solve a mystery or escaping from a jungle temple. Maybe you are playing a team game where you need to come up with the perfect word or how you will defeat the zombies,” he said. “But in all those games you are interacting with other people directly.”