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Tabletop Commissioning and Speculation: Calliope’s Titans of Gaming Series

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You may or may not have heard that Calliope Games is in the midst of an extended Kickstarter campaign to fund their Titans of Gaming Series.  Calliope prides itself on publishing gateway games – simple and accessible designs that introduce the hobby to non-gamers.  The company’s philosophy espouses more than just mere game play, but creating experiences, making memories and bringing people together.  Their current Titans project aims to continue this trend on a more ambitious scale.  It includes nine games designed by some of the industry’s biggest names that will arrive at your doorstep over the next three years.  Oh, one more thing: none of these games have yet to be made, and the campaign wraps up at the end of May!

Titans of Gaming

Now let me state clearly: I am not disparaging or being critical of the Titans project.  Although some of my language may at first brush appear so.  I fully realize and celebrate the fact that everyone is free to spend their hard-earned – or earned otherwise – money on what they choose.  I will not personally back Titans, but not necessarily out of dislike for the project.  I choose not to get involved in any Kickstarter.  However, I keep abreast of the crowd-funding platform because of its presence in and influence on our hobby.  I find I am of two minds about this particular one, both equal parts fascinated and leery.  This is definitely one very intriguing project.  And these are some of my thoughts.

The concept is brilliant.  I applaud Calliope’s creativity and business plan, and generally respect any kind of new blood in the hobby.  It sorely needs it.  There has been some innovation, of course, and most of it interesting.  I’m reminded of one particularly creative move with Titanic Games’ anthology Stonehenge (2007).  This title gathered five big name designers (including a couple in Calliope’s Titans Series) to create five very different games using all the same components.  While certainly a cool idea, it didn’t prove popular or successful.  Friedemann Friese, a titan not involved in this series, is releasing 504 later this year, a game with nine disparate modules from which you mix and match three per gaming session, however you like.  The possible number of permutations from this cardboard algebra is, you guessed it, 504.  This is intriguing, but also sounds quite unwieldy!  Other than that, there have been other innovations from introducing sound tracks, real-time, cooperative play, team play, and recently digital apps.  But the hobby could always use more – especially in this day and age of 1,000 titles a year.

So kudos to Calliope for thinking, um, outside the box.  Not that it was probably difficult to persuade all of these designers to sign on to the project.  After all, this is essentially commissioning games, something not unheard of in the industry, but certainly not the norm.  Typically designers shop prototypes around to any publisher that will listen – the more complete the better – sometimes begging!  Or they go straight to Kickstarter.  I can appreciate that the guys in this project lead busy lives, but who wouldn’t jump at this opportunity?  Calliope is banking on this group’s collective repute.  And good for them.  It’s a wonderfully novel approach and, if they’re not the first to conceive of it, they’re the first to follow it through.  That’s a feather in their cap.

Then I come back down to earth, and the whole deal strikes me as a little pretentious.  Is this really the Dream Team of Tabletop, “Uniting the World’s Greatest Designers,” as their tagline proclaims?  I can name a dozen designers off-hand with equal or greater clout than some or all of the Fab Nine here.  And most of them reside on another continent.  Sure, some of those in the Titans Series are inarguably giants in the field.  I don’t think you can reasonably protest that men like Garfield, Lang, Elliott and Daviau haven’t had tremendous influence.  However, the games that earned them such renown aren’t along the lines of Calliope’s light, gateway style family games.  That’s not to say they can’t design good examples of the category.  But it seems to me a rather risky bottom to anchor the ship.  Peterson and Selinker definitely have a few commercially successful smash hits, but I don’t think yet attract the same attention.  The final three seem to be mostly Titans by association with the rest of the group or some major publisher.

Then again, perhaps I read too much into the whole “World’s Greatest Designers” bit?  Yet they’re the ones flaunting the byline.  Now to be fair, you don’t have to subscribe for every game.  You can pay $25 per title and choose which designers’ games you’d like.  That requires trust on the buyer’s part, because again, no games yet.  I imagine this option will likely appeal to fanboys and fangirls who passionately follow specific designers.  You can also give $145 to subscribe to the whole shebang, site unseen.  Which to me is a confounding concept, because it’s pure board game speculation.  Then again, maybe I’ve just not got the right adventurous spirit?

The question it seems to me is, “Is it worth a significant investment (to most of us, at least) to back something this ambitious on mere reputation alone?”  While we have some inkling concerning very basic mechanics and genres planned, we have no idea how these games will turn out – or even be.  Yes, most of these designers have smash hits up and down their ludologies.  But they’ve also produced some generic, average and outright forgettable titles.  After all, everyone has there flops.  And again to be fair, Calliope is on record as recognizing that – noting that these titles will hit FLGS shelves in the future for those not wanting to take that risk now.

I’ve gone on longer than I planned, which is no surprise.  The bottom line is, Titans of Gaming is already 84% funded and should comfortably succeed.  Indeed that’s a credit to the designers that Calliope has mustered.  If and when it funds, I can only think the explanation is due to the expectations based on the reputations involved.  Why else would some one back a project that they are only vaguely aware of what they’re getting?  Or is that the true “spirit” of Kickstarter to begin with?  And then does this become a trend?  Like commissioning a great artist to create a centerpiece sculpture, will companies start signing on popular designers for Kickstarter projects yet-to-be-named?  Still, I find it an engaging project with both good and questionable points.

So how about you?  Might the Titans of Gaming set a precedent?  Or do you think it proves a singular exception likely never repeated?  Will it be a complete novelty tarnished as the games release?  Are you willing to invest up front to support the project, based only on its reputation and innovation, without knowing much of what the games will entail?  Or do you buy only one, two, or a few games to lend your support, but only committing to those designers you trust the most?  How many of these succeed?  Which designers should be included?  Opine, praise, complain and/or prognosticate away!

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. This kind of sums up my thoughts. I like many of the designers included, but every designer has made at least one game I didn’t like. The thought of buying a game based on reputation only seems really dumb in my opinion. Good on them for trying something different, but this just feels like a bad idea.

  2. Agreed. Would you back a game solely based on a loose description, with no art, no rulebook, etc? Me? No way? Should I base my backing solely on WHO is designing the game? Not necessarily. There are plenty of games that I dislike from certain designers while other games they have done I do like. It’s kind of a crap shoot. I’d rather kickstart the games after they have been designed, playtested, and give me more information just like any other decent kickstarter campaign.

  3. I was hoping they’d have more details about the first 3 games as the Kickstarter progressed. It’s hard to subscribe to the games without knowing what they’ll be. It’s equally hard to get on board for 9 gateway games. This isn’t saying there’s anything wrong with gateway games, but 9 feels like a lot of gateway games to buy.

    If all 9 are amazing games that everyone wants to play, then $145 is a great deal. But, it’s a bigger gamble than a typical board game Kickstarter (which it’s still possible to get burnt on with a bad/mediocre game). To get the value for $145 at least 5 of the 9 need to be games you would buy at MSRP. Since you’ll likely find them under MSRP, that number is actually 6 of 9. I’d much rather put my $145 towards 3-5 games that I am highly interested in, are available to purchase now, and have mostly positive reviews.

    There’s really no value at the $25 price, since you’re pre-ordering an unknown product that you’ll likely be able to find at that price online.

    I think they’d have had a lot more success with a Kickstarter that’s 3 games in 1 year and detailed information about each game. I think they’ll hit their goal, but I’d be surprised if they unlock more than the first stretch goal.

  4. I’m a backer. I actually read this blog post back when it was posted and before I decided to back. Eventually I decided to make the leap. It’s certainly a gamble, I don’t anyone would deny that — but with the exception of buying a game you’ve actually played yourself, any game purchase is a gamble. There are some very highly rated games on BGG that i’m pretty sure would not appeal to me at all. There are probably a number of games that look interesting on YouTube, but aren’t quite as fun (to me) when I sit down with them. But because I don’t have a lot of chances to play test games before I buy them, many of my game purchases end up being bought (at least somewhat) on faith.

    Now, in this case, the investment is much bigger ($145 instead of $30-60), but it’s also 9 games — not 1. So in reality it’s 9 $16 gambles — not 1 $145 one (assuming all the games are delivered to backers, of course).

    So, is it really that big of a gamble to make 9 $16 bets? Even with my rather limited gaming budget, this seems like a good bet to me. . .

    But I’ll be honest, the games — or even games at a discount is only half my motivation. I’m really intrigued by being part of he development process. Granted, I still don’t know how that will all play out, but I think it will be pretty cool to be able to playtest Eric Lang’s latest game, vote on themes, help refine the rules, etc. That’s pretty awesome to me. Plus, the other perks are not too shabby — custom backer box art, the game design seminars, etc.

    And the other motivation for me is that these are the types of games I like and want to own (light to medium / gateway games). I have an 8 and 2 year old at home — and I have a gaming group at work that often has new players. Having a library of these types of games will be an awesome asset for me. And if a few of them don’t appeal to me, I can give them away as gifts.

    • Jason Meyers

      Thanks for the thoughts, Kenny! Indeed, it is very interesting. Again, kudos to them! Looks like many people felt along the same lines as you – and that’s great. Makes the hobby wonderfully diverse. Here’s to a smooth campaign and production process as they work on these the next 3 years!! 🙂

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