Setting aside broader, blander New Year’s resolutions like “eat healthy” or “be a better person,” Tom Deschenes’ list of yearly goals for 2011 was topped by “invent a board game.”
The Lewiston native — a 35-year-old college administrator now living in Portland — couldn’t have picked a better time. Board games were on their way to becoming a billion-dollar business in the U.S., fueled by a fast-growing crop of games with adventure or fantasy back stories and millions of people who consider board games a hobby rather than a rainy-day time killer.
Deschenes had not made an economic study of the industry, he just knew he liked board games, the strategy-based ones so popular now, and wanted to create one he’d have fun playing with friends and family. He didn’t want it to be hard to learn and time-intensive, like Dungeons & Dragons, nor super easy and based on chance, like Chutes and Ladders.
Deschenes tested and tweaked his game for five years, while studying for a master’s degree in English at Harvard and working as business development director for Kaplan Higher Education. He spent thousands of dollars on artwork and prototypes.
This summer, he was finally able to check “invent a board game” off his to-do list, when card and game company Upper Deck debuted his game, Quest for the Antidote, on the gaming convention circuit. It’s currently available from national retailers like Walmart and Amazon.com, as well as at local hobby and game stores.
The game challenges players who have been poisoned by mad King Mithradates (a real king who fought the Roman Empire) to find ingredients for an antidote as they battle monsters, each other and their own fading health on a fictional island. Upper Deck sees it as a so-called gateway game – a bridge for people between the simpler board games of the past and the more complicated strategy-based games fueling today’s board game craze, known as hobby games. The game sells for $39.99.
“It’s definitely geared to families and people just starting to get involved with the hobby. But it’s very competitive, because as people run out of breath (with each roll of the dice), they get more and more desperate,” said Bubby Johanson, senior product manager at Upper Deck, based in Carlsbad, California.
From start to finish
Deschenes grew up in Lewiston playing mainstream board games like Balderdash and Clue, and didn’t really get into today’s strategy-based board games until around 2007 while attending Stonehill College in Massachusetts.
His “gateway game” was Dominion, where players are monarchs trying to expand their kingdoms, acquiring land from various owners and trying to civilize the inhabitants as they go. He’s a self-described “fantasy nerd” and fan of “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings,” but found some fantasy board games too complex.
So, he made his to-do list in 2011 and set about creating a game that would be right for him: some fantasy, some strategy, not too hard to learn. He got the core idea for the game when he read “Dracula” for one of his Harvard classes. The idea of people searching in graveyards for a vampire, racing against the clock to stop the evil, inspired him. He thought about it some more, and decided to make the players people who were poisoned, racing against the clock to fight the evil in their own bodies. But he needed a villain, and his Harvard studies helped again.
While researching a project, the topic of which he has forgotten, he read about a king of Greek ancestry, Mithradates VI of Pontus, who ruled an area of what is now Turkey around 100 BC. Historians say he saw his father, also a king, poisoned to death and long had a fear of being poisoned himself. He took various toxins to build up immunities and was said to experiment with poisons on prisoners.
There are 50 characters in Tom Deschenes’ new board game, Quest for the Antidote, with the impressive art coming from Bangor’s Scott Sherman. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup
Bingo, Deschenes thought. In his game, King Mithradates poisons the players – prisoners – who then escape and search for their antidote. Players roll dice and move around the board (an uncharted island) trying to find the ingredients they need for their antidote, which is different for everyone, while having to stop to defeat monsters like Riled Gorilla and Savage Succubus (also by rolling dice). Players start with 50 breaths left in their poisoned bodies and lose breaths whenever they take a turn.
Deschenes tested the game, for years, with friends. He hired Bangor-based artist Scott Sherman to draw up artwork and printed out boards and sets of cards so he could send the game out to various game companies, including Hasbro. He also hired a lawyer to get federal trademarks on the game’s name, characters and plot. He spent two years pitching it to companies and also brought it to gaming conventions to show it off.
In early 2016, he sent the game to Upper Deck, where executives agreed to look at it. Two months later, Upper Deck called Deschenes and said they wanted to produce the game, with very few changes. The game that’s in stores now, he said, is the same as the one he drew up on his kitchen table.
Deschenes said his agreement with Upper Deck allows the company to “take the fantasy world I’ve created and expand it across the globe and across various products” while keeping him “at the forefront of creative decisions.” He will only say that he spent “thousands” developing his game and that he expects to make back his investment fairly easily.
Board game explosion
The board game boom started slowly, maybe 20 years ago, when games like The Settlers of Catan came out of Europe and began creating demand for strategy-based board games, said Matt Leacock, inventor of several best-selling board games, including Pandemic. But the board game hobby has really taken off over the past 10 years or so.
Game and puzzle sales in the U.S. grew 13 percent from 2014 to 2015 and 18 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to data compiled by the market research firm NPD Group. Board game sales in the U.S. were $1.1 billion for the 12 months ending August 2017, according to NPD. That dollar amount included preschool and children’s games, family games and adult games. Hobby board games sales for 2015, in the U.S. and Canada combined, were about $250 million, according to ICV2, an online publication covering “geek culture” business.
Leacock and other game players say there is no easy answer to why board games are booming. Most say the social aspect – playing games sitting elbow to elbow with other people, rather than interacting with a screen – is a big part of it. And there’s the strategy element, helping to give people some brain stimulation away from their computers. Families looking for hobbies and pastimes that cut through generational divides are also fueling the increased interest, which has led to board game cafes in some cities and board game events at libraries.
Johanson said sales for Quest for the Antidote were strong for a new game, though he wouldn’t provide specific numbers. He said about 20 to 30 new strategy-based board games come out every week. As Christmas season approaches, he said, Upper Deck will likely sponsor more gaming events to promote Quest for the Antidote.
Hobby games range from $40 to $60 or more. There are so many choices that some stores let people play the games for free, to try them out. One such store is Diversions Puzzles & Games, near the Maine Mall in South Portland. Quest for the Antidote is selling well there, but reaction among customers is mixed, said manager Matthew Trudeau. He said people looking for a family game like it a lot, while people who concentrate their hobby on strategy-intense games like Axis & Allies or any of a number of European-designed games are not as impressed.
“It is a good mix of strategy and luck.” Tom Deschenes says of Quest for the Antidote.
Johanson said one of the things that made the game stand out in Upper Deck’s eyes was the artwork for it. Sherman, the Bangor artist, designed everything from the Medieval-looking buildings on the island to ingredients like “tooth of beaver” and “eye of cyclops” to monsters like Vile Kitten and Raving Lunatic. Sherman, 29, said that a lot of the text Deschenes wrote for the game, including an in-game comic book that tells the story of the mad king who poisoned the players, seemed “pretty cheeky” to him, sort of like a Monty Python skit, so he aimed his creations at a mix between “fantasy” and “mildly irreverent British humor.”
Josh McGuire, who rates board games online at The McGuire Review, said Quest for the Antidote’s ending is almost always tense. He said that’s an important element of any good strategy game.
Players are either racing each other or racing Mother Nature, trying to find a poison antidote before drawing their last breath.
“It’s fun to play, the characters are fun,” said Johanson at Upper Deck. “They’re constantly dying, but it’s lighthearted.”
Tom Deschenes sets up the board game he invented, Quest for the Antidote, at his apartment in Portland. It took him five years to create and design the game. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald Photo)
“It is a good mix of strategy and luck.” Tom Deschenes says of Quest for the Antidote. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald Photo)
Quest for the Antidote
What: A new strategy-based board game created by Tom Deschenes of Portland and distributed by Upper Deck
What It’s About: Players have been poisoned by King Mithradates (an actual king, circa 100 BC) and imprisoned on an uncharted island. They escape and are now battling each other, monsters (Vile Kitten, Riled Gorilla) and their failing health as they try to gather the ingredients (including tooth of beaver, eye of cyclops) they need for a successful cure.
Format: Up to six players roll die and move around roads on the board, picking up various cards to determine which ingredients they need, which monsters they will battle and how they can meddle with other players. Besides moving a piece on the board’s roads, players also move a piece around the board’s perimeter, counting down each of the 50 breaths they have left in their poisoned bodies.
Object: Be the first to get all the ingredients for your antidote and make it back to the apothecary’s hut. Winning is not guaranteed. It’s possible for all the players to run out of breath before concocting the antidote.
Time: About 45 to 90 minutes to play.
How Much: $39.99
Where: Walmart, Amazon and Maine stores like Diversions Puzzles & Games and Bull Moose Music