Originally published in 1974 Dungeons and Dragons would go on to change and influence the gaming industry forever. What was once considered a lost relic of the 1980s is now enjoying its greatest popularity ever. Why are games like Dungeons and Dragons more popular than ever?
I recently had the chance to speak with game designer Jon Cohn, the co-founder of Bread and Circuses games. We talked about what makes Dungeons and Dragons so popular to this day and age how we made his hobby his job.
“For me I think it comes from a background of video games,” John begins. “I grew up playing a lot of video games and really enjoyed having that kind of couch experience with my friends where we all hung out together in the same room playing the same game like Goldeneye or Mario Party or one of those kinds of games. And then somewhere around the mid 2000s the video gaming culture landscape changed radically when online gaming became really popular.”
“All of a sudden you stopped having people coming over to each other’s houses and having real face to face experiences to play games. Instead it became, log on to your Xbox account and play with a bunch of 12 year olds that are saying really deeply insulting things about my family.”
“That experience that I think a lot of people, especially in my generation, started to disappear. So I think for a lot of us, the board gaming Renaissance came out of wanting to get back to those days when I could hang out with my friend on my couch or a couple of friends and have an experience. To do something and have a reason to be getting together, playing something, having that shared thing that we’re all doing. I think that that’s really where the new board game renaissance began,” theorises John.
“You’re probably too young to really remember going to Arcade’s a lot as a kid right?” I ask.
“We had an arcade near our high school that people used to hang out at. And I was kind of coming in and the tail end back when all the dancing games really became popular. Stuff like Dance Dance Revolution and some of those Star Wars games where you sit in a big pod.”
“So Dungeons and Dragons. I got. But I got started a little late in life on D and D. It certainly is kind of the big one. I feel like as far as bringing new gamers into the community and being the sort of gateway drug that gets you over that hump.”
“It was in college that I started. And Dungeons Dragons is actually having its most fiscally successful year since it was created back in the 1980s.”
“I think a lot of it is cultural perception back. And the rules have become a lot more accessible to audiences. It’s a lot of math when you come at it and you’ve never played these kinds of games before. There’s a lot of math involved. There’s a lot of it if you’re not already established into gaming. Whether that’s video gaming or board gaming. There are a lot of concepts that get tossed out right from the get go. Like what’s a health point? Or why can’t I cast these spells? Or why do I have to roll this dice to do this thing? It can be overwhelming if you haven’t done it before,” explains Jon.
“So I think the reason why it’s gotten so popular is twofold. First the math and all of the complexity has been scaled way back. The game now is more akin to a I would call a collaborative storytelling experience more than it being a kind of meaty, hefty, mathy type of thing. The other big reason is just culture.”
Jon continues, “Culture has changed things. Concepts like attack, defense, strength dexterity, intelligence – all of these concepts – we’ve played video games, we’ve seen all the movies. These words are kind of in our lexicon now. And it’s not such a hurdle to explain to somebody that you’re going to have to roll a 20 sided die to see it hit and then roll another die to see how much damage you dea. lt might have been something that felt very heavy and weird in the 80s. But now so many games have been influenced by Dungeons and Dragons that it’s sort of become a really shorthand lingo for a lot of people.”
Even modern American cinema has played a hand in tabletop gaming’s newfound popularity. Jon explains, “And then all of a sudden the Marvel movies in particular started coming out and superheroes were cool and comic books were cool. I think people also started to understand that fandom is fandom. Whether you’re a big fan of sports or you’re a big fan of superheroes. It’s kind of the same thing.”
“Some of us go out to Comic Con and we wear crazy costumes of our favorite comic book characters. But I don’t see how that’s any different to somebody going to their favorite sports game and dressing up just like their favorite sports hero and putting on makeup and all that stuff. It’s all the same. As far as fandom goes right so it’s just been a kind of progress to get to where people are open and accepting of whatever it is that you’re into.”
“So when we play something like Dungeons and Dragons, or if you’re doing fantasy football, it’s saying that you’re going to do something and then letting the world or a roll of the dice or the players on the TV screen handle that next phase.”
“There are a lot of ways now that you can have an anxiety free really easy experience to get you and your friends into gaming. And that’s what we’re doing with so that what Bread and Circuses a little bit.”
Jon goes on to explain exactly what Bread and circuses is. “It’s a company that I’ve cofounded with a buddy of mine named Nate Murray. He’s he’s been around the industry for a while in production end of board games. He’s not as big of a game designer as he is more into marketing and distribution and figuring out all of that stuff. We have two goals for our company. The first is that we want to create simple easy entry level games.”
“The other thing that we’re trying to do is try and kind of build brands. Everybody these days is building brands. Technology is always changing everything becomes obsolete within two years three years and I’m always playing catch up.”
“But if I owned a character, if I own a brand that kind of takes on a life of its own and worms its way through every form of media – at this point you know it’s a movie, it’s a TV show, it’s an action figure, it’s a board game, it’s a video game, t’s a music album. That’s our other goal. To create a couple of brands, or foster some brands that are already out there that we have kind of ownership of. So it’s about entertainment not just in tabletop but entertainment in all aspects of your life.”
Pretty ambitious. Jon goes on to say, “We also have such a huge social media landscape nowadays. You are in a sea of other games. It’s rapidly expanded in the last few years. I’ll just give you a little bit of perspective. Back about 10 years ago there were four to five hundred board games that came out a year. Five years ago, there were probably a 800 to 1000 games coming out a year.”
“This is a billion dollar business. Now with the board gaming industry in 2018, there are about 5000 new board games that come out every year. So it’s like the film industry where you have less and less time to pop. It used to be that a board game would get released and you’d have like a year of it sitting on the shelf. And then it kind of has its heyday. Now you’ve got a couple of weeks, maybe a month if you’re really lucky, for your game to hit and make a big splash; make a big presence. Otherwise it’s just like the film industry – the next movie is coming out next week. And you know there’s there’s only so many that people are really willing to shell out money for So you’ve got to do something different.”
Now knowing what inspired Jon’s interest gaming, I was curious to learn more about how he actually started in the business. “I’ve always sort of dabbled in wanting to be a content creator. I always like to say when I watch TV or play video games that it’s “research”. Then I found my real love of board games and reading rule books and kind of trying to understand the mechanics and the theory behind it. Like why did this game make this choice? Or why are we rolling 20 sided dice instead of just a bunch of normal six sided dice?
“So I decided one day screw it I’m just going to make my own game.” Jon chuckles, “I had no idea what I was doing.”
“The other thing I did, which probably is not how most people are supposed to do this, was I went out and I found an artist and a graphic designer and I just paid for all of it. All said and done it was something like close to 200 pieces of art that I had commissioned and from there I took it to a few different publishers. I was really lucky living locally in San Diego where there’s like 20 of the biggest board game companies in the country.”
“They were a lot more willing to take a chance on me because I kind of had done all the work for them it was a really low risk proposition for them at that point. They released the game it did all right. But it got my foot in the door. And so then I spent the next year and a half going to every single convention going to 10 conventions a year just trying to peddle and sell off the other games that I had been building. I built up a repertoire of about five games that I felt good about. I sort of just went off and just got rejected over and over and over and over again for about a year and a half until I finally got some luck.”
But how does a typical game designer get their foot in the door?
“There’s a couple of ways,” offers Jon. “The tried and true method that is most fun is just going to all these conventions, or sending your prototypes to all of these different publishers and you just keep hustling with your idea of a game. The other thing that people have really been doing lately that’s taken off is self publishing through Kickstarter. I’m just going to go on Kickstarter and go directly to the consumers. I mean you’ve got to be lucky no matter what. But with Kickstarter it’s you really got to squeak through and just be that one in a million that for some reason pops and there’s all kinds there’s all levels of designers. You know there are people who make their first game and it makes some 10 million dollars and there are people who are on their 30th game and they still can’t funded.”
To learn more about Bread and Circuses games, and stay current with their latest offerings, head on over to: facebook.com/BreadAndCircusesRocks/ today.