For many, the thought of playing board games evokes childhood memories of rainy-day Monopoly marathons or Scrabble showdowns. But board games are undergoing a modern renaissance. Players are seeking out a rare form of entertainment that doesn't involve staring at digital pixels, while game creators are tapping into online crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter to finance their work. While the market remains minuscule compared to the $23.5 billion video game industry, sales of "hobby games" are up approximately 20% in 2015, according to one estimate.
Among the foremost beneficiaries of the board gaming boom is Matthew Leacock. Two years ago, Leacock, 45, left a longtime career as a user experience designer for Silicon Valley firms like AOL and Yahoo to go into game design full-time. One of his creations, Pandemic, remains one of the best-selling board games on Amazon after being released in 2009. Unlike many classic board games, Pandemic requires cooperation, tasking two to four players to work together to halt the spread of deadly diseases.
TIME spoke with Leacock to learn more about the board game explosion and what it's like to design them for a living. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TIME: How did you get involved with making board games?
Leacock: I've been trying to crack into it since I was a little kid. Really, making games all along as a hobby, with a dream of someday publishing a game. I did it all through high school and college, self-published and stuff. The first breakthrough I had was when I self-published a game and brought it to the German game show SPIEL in 2000, and I made a lot of connections there. That got me invited to conventions, which ultimately led to the development of Pandemic. That turned out to be a breakout hit. That wasn't expected at all, but it allowed me to do more designs.
How did you self-fund Pandemic?
When I did my own publishing, it was just like 200 copies off my laser printer, and the quality was very terrible. But it was enough to meet people. I set up a little booth with a friend of mine in Germany and we started making connections. One of them them was Alan Moon, the author of Ticket to Ride, and I got invited to his conference, The Gathering of Friends, and that's where I met a lot of people who really helped me develop games.
But this was all before Kickstarter really existed, so I did it the traditional way, where I came up with a prototype and pitched it to publishers.
How have sites like Kickstarter helped independent game makers find an audience to back their projects?
The barrier to entry is much, much lower than it was. Kickstarter gives you a whole marketing vehicle and a way to shift risk from yourself onto your consumers, right? And there's an easier way to find all these niche audiences. So yeah, I think it's had a big impact, first and foremost the number of titles coming out each year has really ballooned.
To me, the interest in board games feels like a natural response to, so many forms of entertainment these days are based on screens and pixels. This is a rare example of something that you can sit down and play with friends that doesn't involve staring at a screen. Do you think that's part of the appeal?
Yeah, exactly. I spend hours and hours of the day staring at a computer screen, so the last thing I want to do to relax is look at it some more. I think this is a nice way to gather around the table and see each other face-to-face.
I think cooperative games in particular are good for that because you're all working together on the same team with the same goals. It's a nice way to casually connect with people. It's not about screwing each other over, you're working together.
With Pandemic as an example, how long does it take to go from really rough, early concept to the game being available for sale?
I'm getting a lot faster. My first game, a racing game I brought to SPIEL took about six years, because I didn't really know what I was doing. Pandemic took about three years. Now, it typically takes me about six months to 12 months to develop a game, and then the publisher takes another 6 to 12 months to produce it and manufacture it.
I assume it's like making a video game, where there's beta testing and refinement and balancing?
That's right, I do a lot of beta testing and usability testing, play testing, whatever you want to call it, prior to publication. That's what takes the bulk of the time. With some of these newer games, Pandemic Legacy specifically, it requires tremendous amounts of testing in order to get that balanced game, because the play length is just so long. So that's a big part of the process, and a big part of what I do day-to-day.
Is there a lot of excitement in the board game world right now?
People have described it as a golden age. There's a lot of innovation happening, a lot of people stretching the space. It's easy to get funding. There's a lot of innovation happening in manufacturing, it's pretty cheap coming out of China, you've got 3D printing, you've got all the different innovations coming in from electronic devices, different people trying to do different things. Trying to get iPads or tablets to complement board gaming. So there's a lot of experimentation, and I think the technology involved in trying to come up with a better game has really come a long way in the last 10 to 15 years.
How hard is it to make a full-time living as a board game designer?
It's really hard. I think it's similar to trying to make a living as a writer. There's a number of writers who do quite well, but then there's a long tail of writers who have a hard time cracking in, paying the bills. Or an artist or a musician. So I've been lucky in that I had a hit with Pandemic, and it allowed me to build up a royalty stream and make a living at it for the last couple years now. But it's pretty difficult to do.
I imagine it's similar to writing or music where you've got a lot of people who do it on the side.
Yeah, I did that for years, just did it nights and weekends. And then started to build up a catalog of designs. Fortunately for me, the games continued to sell. Many of them, the games will sell one run and they're done. And your return on investment is really rough there, because you spend a year developing it and you sell four or five thousand copies and that's it. So the return is quite bad unless you can get recurring sales.
Aside from your own games, what's your favorite board game of all time?
That's pretty hard to nail down. I think the most influential one for me was Avalon Hill's Civilization. It had so many interesting, interlocking mechanisms, it really opened my eyes to what a game could be. At the time, I had really only been exposed to Monopoly and a lot of mass-market games coming out of the states.
Is there a sentiment among independent board game designers that mass-market games are inferior?
I don't know how much people pay attention to them from a design point of view. I think games are changing as well. You go into Target right now, and you see they've got a wall set up for "nostalgic" games. You see a lot of the games that were mass market when I was younger. And so I wonder to some extent if consumers are getting more savvy, growing up with video games and having a higher appetite for games that maybe are a little more in-depth or have more complexity or people are just willing to try something new.