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It may seem like we're all addicted to our screens these days, but more and more people are choosing to sit down face-to-face to play board games. Sales of what the industry calls hobby games grew about 20 percent last year. In Seattle, Ashley Gross of KPLU meets some of the people designing the new games.
ASHLEY GROSS, BYLINE: When you play a game, you have to learn some rules, right? Same goes for designing a game. Here's one rule - no idea is too wacky. James Ernest created a game called Unexploded Cow.
JAMES ERNEST: That's a game where you've discovered two problems with a common solution. There's mad cows in England and unexploded bombs in the French countryside, and you're going to bring them together and solve everybody's problems by blowing up a bunch of cows.
GROSS: Using cows with a debilitating brain disease to get rid of leftover bombs - for most people that's just an absurd joke. But Ernest designs board games for a living.
ERNEST: For me, that goes into my notebook.
GROSS: He and a colleague took that weird idea and came up with a card game. Each player manages a herd of sick cows and tries to make money blowing them up. That game, Unexploded Cow, is now one of the most popular he's created. But it's not easy to go from that first idea to a successful tabletop game.
Here's another rule of board game design - you need people to test out your ideas. Every other week, Ernest and fellow game designers meet at a board game store east of Seattle. It's a crowd of mostly guys, casual dress, ample facial hair. Many have day jobs in the video game industry. On a recent night one of them, Paul Peterson, asks the group to test out a card game he's developing.
PAUL PETERSON: Everybody is going to get their hand and then everybody's going to get one special card that you can play on your terms.
GROSS: The guys are focused on two questions - is this game fun? What can be changed to make it more fun? Ernest tells Peterson he should incorporate a little gambling.
ERNEST: If you could put a dollar value on the quality of your hand this game would be much more interesting.
JEREMY HOLCOMB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: The Seattle area is a hub for tabletop game design. Dungeons and Dragons is made here. Pictionary and Cranium were both invented here. That was decades ago. These days, game designers have learned a new rule - the crowdfunding site Kickstarter is your friend. Ernest just raised $1.3 million for a strategy game he calls Tak.
ERNEST: It's easier for me to sell direct to a customer now. But Kickstarter makes it even more easy because now I don't even take the financial risk on the print run.
GROSS: Ernest lines up buyers and then produces the game. People have pledged half a billion dollars for games on Kickstarter, including the wildly popular Cards Against Humanity.
HOLCOMB: We have next week's lecture, when we're going to talk about hidden information.
GROSS: At DigiPen Institute of Technology outside Seattle, students are learning the fundamentals of board game design. Jeremy Holcomb is their instructor.
HOLCOMB: We have next week's lab, which will be devoted entirely to your project.
GROSS: This school is known for video game design. But in this class, students create non-electronic games. Today they're testing them out.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's roll and see who gets to go first.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLED DICE)
SHILOH LIEDTKE: Why donât you just go? Oh hey.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).
LIEDTKE: All right.
GROSS: Student Shiloh Liedtke loves board games and played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons growing up.
LIEDTKE: It's so gratifying to sit across from somebody when they, you know, make a really smart move or a good choice or something and you're, like no. Like, that, you know, gets in the way of everything I've been trying to do here. And if they're, you know, facing another screen a thousand miles away, you don't really get that interaction as much.
GROSS: But Liedtke's also learning another rule - even though the board game industry is growing, it's dwarfed by the video game industry, so she thinks that's where she'll probably wind up. Still, if she does, Liedtke could join other designers who moonlight making good old-fashioned board games. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Seattle.
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