From around the 2000s onward, the concept of the reboot has been no stranger to the world of pop culture – movies and TV have been bursting with them, with no signs of slowing down. So what does it mean when board games are going beyond the simple reprint to reboots – or really, a refresh, revamp and revitalization in the case of the first run of titles coming out from Restoration Games? The concept of rebooting board games a fascinating one, and ultimately it feels a little different to me than a movie/TV approach – so I sat down to chat briefly about Restoration and their angle at Origins this June with Chief Restoration Officer Rob Daviau.
While pop culture reboots and straight up board game reprints seem to be generally driven by their previous popularity as well as the opportunity for profit, I had a suspicion that Restoration’s philosophy would be a little different. The key, it seems, is to find something a little older but well-loved, “games that haven’t aged well but were great at their time, or were a diamond in the rough that wasn’t quite developed right the first time or didn’t find its audience.” Rather than basic reprints like many other older titles have had, Restoration aim to pick older games and take some time with them – “maybe there’s a game from the 1970s that’s really great, but that doesn’t fit today’s gaming philosophy. Maybe it’s too long, maybe it has player elimination, maybe it’s roll and move; something that if you were putting it out now, you wouldn’t be putting it out exactly that way.” Like the great dining room table that your grandmother has passed onto your parents, who will pass it onto you – it might be solid, but it could do with some new joints, sanding, and a coat of varnish to make it as good as it ever was – and different. Something in between vintage and new, that is just right.
Just how vintage or retro is old enough for Restoration? The team tries to take on games that are 15+ years old – which seems like a while ago for the minimum (“which is still 2002 which is the weird thing”, a point with which I wholeheartedly concur), but they’re reaching further back as well. Right now, the first year wave for Restoration is before 2000. Indulgence is best known as the 1981 release Dragonmaster, but it’s got older roots in a public domain game known as Barbu. A little more recent is Stop Thief! from 1979. The newest of them all, Downforce, is a reworking of a Wolfgang Kramer game which “came out under a number of different names: Top Race, Daytona 500, Daytona Grand Prix; and those were out largely in the 90s.” It might seem odd to have selected the last one as it exists under a variety of guises already, but the key with Restoration Games is approaching it a little differently – “it can’t be a straight reprint, and it can’t be a straight redesign, it has to be somewhere in between” – so Downforce has gotten a really nice reworking rather than just a new coat of paint.
The search for titles to restore has been a fairly mixed approach. For this first year of releases, this wave was all selected before Restoration had even gone public. Once their website was up and the team started reaching out to the board game community, there was an option for people to submit titles of games they’d love to see get the Restoration treatment. Restoration is using this list partly as a bit of a “gut check” to see if they’re on the right track with year 1, but also, the “list is really helping us as we do year 2, year 3… a lot of our decisions are based on is it fun would we wanna continue playing it does it need some work? Could we figure out what we could do to give it a fresh coat of paint – make it feel new? Can we get the rights, can we get the rights to the name?”
The last part can be a sticky part in the process of selecting games for the catalogue: “Sometimes [finding the rights] is murky, other times a designer has passed away, sometimes it goes back – like in the case of Indulgence – to public domain.” It’s not always that easy – discovering something has a public domain thing is more of a bonus because it takes away a lot of the work. Luckily, Restoration’s president (Justin Jacobson) is a lawyer and dives into the work when it’s needed. “I don’t think anyone else could run this company unless you had some passion to dig into these things;” the challenge has so far not stopped Restoration, with Jacobson even having “a private eye track down people [to find out] does this have a contract, what’s the status, etc?” It’s interesting to note that as much as some titles may have been requested by fans of older games, and the significant effort put into finding rights and the status of those games, it may just not be possible for Restoration to take on certain projects.
What mattered a lot for the starting period of Restoration Games was for a familiarity and fondness for these titles. Of course while “everything has to go through a business filter to some extent – do we think there’s a market here, do we think the price point works, do we think the audience will like it etc – we have to really want to bring them back and that’s really true in this first year.” Downforce (Daytona 500 etc) was a game Rob had played a great deal with his kids when they were younger and during his early days at Hasbro, so there are some positive memories attached to it as well as knowing it was a “good, solid lightweight somewhere between racing and betting game.” Indulgence is one that stands out even more: “I had Dragonmaster when I was kid. When I was 11, anything that had a Dungeon and/or a Dragon was coming into my possession. It was my first trick taking game – I didn’t even really know how to play it but I was fascinated. I would play the basic game, and it moved me from just playing RPGs to more complicated games. When I went 17 years later to interview at Hasbro I mentioned that as a defining game in my past – and the person I was interviewing with was the internal Hasbro designer and it’s what got me the job. This is just bad mojo if this game isn’t in our starting line – it turned me into a gamer and then into a professional gamer and if this isn’t in our first line I don’t wanna anger the gods that way.”
Beyond the availability of projects, personal favourites and requests for titles from the public, I was curious how the overall catalogue of Restoration was going to be approached – perhaps, how would I describe it without leaning on a particular genre of games (family, Euro strategy) because even out of the gate the lineup is diverse? Beyond something that’s older and has the possibility of revamping into something great, it seems like the bulk of Restoration Games look to have a broad appeal: “Stop Thief plays in about 30 minutes, Downforce is about 30-40 minutes and Indulgence is about 45 – so we’re doing lighter, we’re doing shorter, we’re doing something that probably has some table appeal.” But Restoration aren’t just doing something as simple as “vintage” – “Winning Games does that for Hasbro. There’s a lot of appeal to retro. We’re definitely not doing that – all our games will have new art. It’s almost like if a designer came to us with a game right now and [we realize] there’s something really cool here but we’re doing in house development … so it’s almost like we find a game that we’ve been pitched and do in-house development to make it work for our line.” Rob is joined by his wife Lindsay, whose role with Restoration (Production Superhero) makes the venture a family affair. Stop Thief is a great example of the work Restoration are doing on games – something that originally had roll and move and a giant bit of plastic. It’s now streamlined with movement cards and a snazzy app to do all the electronic work.
And Stop Thief is the one game that Restoration took to Kickstarter out of their three releases this year. Rather than doing all three this way back to back on Kickstarter, “we did Stop Thief because it’s a flagship game, and it’s the only one where we have the original name and so it’s the most recognized one.” This was a sort of testing the water for them, to see how people would respond to the overall idea and to allow for planning of future print runs for titles. One thing they have learned in this first year, having a game’s original name is more important than they thought – so while Stop Thief hasn’t been a challenge, it’s been a little tougher marketing-wise, for example having to explain Indulgence was Dragonmaster. The hope is, no matter what, “3 to 4 years from now if you hear of a game Restoration Games are putting out and haven’t played it, but have played a number of the games – or even haven’t heard of it – [you would] buy it as you’d know they do good work.” For the meantime, it means in the early days there’s a push on the individual games to build that awareness and trust with people.
Given that Restoration are working hard to make something new out of the old, how can people expect the games to look? There’s an aspect of refreshing gameplay at the core of everything, but (as you can see from the images accompanying the interview) there is a definite modernization of all of the games to bring them up to what the market expects right now – “we have no interest in looking classic, no interest in retro graphics.” This means some imagery could be inspired by colour schemes in some ways, but there is all new art and graphic design – and some of the flourishes like the UV coated footsteps in Stop Thief and the bright colours and chunky coins of Indulgence will stand on their own. Not to mention the addition of an app to assist with play of Stop Thief (including retro sounds and gameplay) – which may also be developed down the line as a one-stop Restoration Games shop for other games that can benefit from an app. If you’re interested in reading more about the Restoration Games approach and game lineup, head to their website here – plus, the team will be holding a panel at GenCon to discuss their upcoming plans and hopefully we’ll hear of some titles on the way!
Restoration Games will be at GenCon in August, make sure to drop by their booth if you’re going. Keep an eye on this space closer to Gen Con as we review their first three titles. Thanks to Rob for his time at Origins!