Games of any variety — video, card, board — have a knack for unlocking people’s true selves. Are you sneakily competitive? Are you a by-the-books rules follower? Are you a skilled negotiator? If you’re unsure, pick a game, any game, and you’ll soon find out.
Shari Spiro, founder of award-winning game publisher and manufacturer Breaking Games, likes to say that “Playing a game with strangers is the safe way to get to know people. The competition brings out interesting things in people.”
According to Breaking Games, board games surged back into popularity a few years ago and interest hasn’t waned since. And for good reason: in an era of constant virtual and mobile inundation, people are starting to turn to activities that require them to put their phones down and physically interact with others. To get a non-tech breath of fresh air, if you will.
Spiro was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 in New Jersey, and for very good reason. She’s incredibly passionate and motivated to help game designers succeed. It’s not enough to slap her publishing sticker on a viral game, she wants to stay true to a designer’s vision and create a product that everyone will be proud of and, hopefully, obsessed with.
Pure Fandom chatted with Spiro about Breaking Games’ mission, the power of grassroots testing, and what continues to inspire Spiro when it comes to gameplay.
Pure Fandom: Breaking Games takes a lot of pride in supporting the game design process at every step, from marketing to manufacturing. On the Breaking Games site, you mention sticking with your game designers for the long haul. What do you do to support your game designers that makes Breaking Games different from other game publishers?
Shari Spiro: The difference between us and other publishers — publishers used to take a game and they would say, “Thank you so much for your idea, sign the contract here” and then they would take over the game and pretty much do whatever they wanted to do with it. It didn’t really matter what the client’s or designer’s vision was, they would just make the game whatever they thought would sell. The designer didn’t have a lot of say as to what the game turned out to be.
It’s kind of like going into the studio with a song and you have a vision for the song, but then you have a producer who makes your rock song into a disco song, for example. It’s not what you envisioned, right? We try to understand what the designer’s vision is and then we try to make the actual vision a reality. That means when we sign a game, we take a few things into consideration: Do we love the game? Do we love the designer? Can we market it? Can we do the game justice?
What we do is take them through the whole process. If the client has a game partially designed, we help them finish it, we take the game into the marketplace, and put it in stores. We take designers to trade shows where they can meet their fans and demo their games. We really make the designers the star of the game. Naturally, people who have a certain kind of personality are a better fit for us because they’re outgoing, they want to play their games and meet their fans and perform their game.
For example, we have a game called RISE OF TRIBES, designed by Brad Brooks. Brad designed a game that is a perfect gateway game for families to get into mild strategy. Once you’re into the game and you know how to play it, you can add deeper levels of strategy. It draws you in, teaches you the basics, and then as everyone gets good at the basics, you can move onto the next step which is deeper game play. It’s really easy to do that.
We put RISE OF TRIBES in Walmart, and it’s sitting in between SETTLERS OF CATAN and TICKET TO RIDE. That was a Kickstarter; we worked on the game from inception, we helped develop it with the designer, and we brought it into Walmart stores nationwide. That’s the first time that that pathway has been accomplished. That’s a big deal. Now it’s in Walmarts everywhere and online; the designer can walk into the store with his family and go “Look, there’s my game, on the shelf.”
RISE OF TRIBES — what makes it so special — the gameplay is impeccable. When I tell you it’s a great game, it’s a great game. I’m not just saying that because it’s a game that I’m behind. I don’t want to be involved with mediocrity. We make games that we think will be around for 20 years.
PF: On Twitter, you post about “this is a cool game, is there any interest?” which is a cool way to crowdsource people’s opinions even before a game is developed and released.
SS: One of the things I’ve always believed in is grassroots testing. So when we’re working on a game, we bring it to trade shows and test it with gamers at the shows and ask, “What do you guys think?” Sometimes we don’t even ask them, we just watch their reactions. If people are flocking to the game table and they’re staying, they’re telling their friends, bringing back crowds, and everyone’s having a good time, we can tell right away — I mean, when you’re at the game table, you can see if something is successful. It’s really obvious to us when we’re play testing what’s working and what’s not working.
PF: Are there personal experiences you’ve had in the game design industry or otherwise that motivated you to set this standard for Breaking Games?
SS: When I was younger, I would play games and I found some of these games very frustrating. You would either be a big loser or when you were a big winner with all the money, you were made to feel like an asshole. You were made to feel unkind even though it was just the roll of the dice. So you were either a big winner in an unhappy way or a big loser certainly in an unhappy way.
That was something that really bothered me, playing those games. There was no happy ending. Specifically with RISE OF TRIBES, but with all the ones that we develop, we try to come up with gameplay that in the end, has a positive feeling with the group. The words I want to hear at the end of the game, no matter who won, and especially from the loser, “That was a great game. You won, wow, you were great, that was amazing.” Not “Oh my god, you’re an asshole for winning.”
We have a new game called WE’RE DOOMED. WE’RE DOOMED is a 15 minute game. You want to try a game but don’t want to commit more than 15 minutes? It’s got a giant sand timer and people love it because people can commit to 15 minutes. It’s a sort of cooperative game: you’re trying to get off the planet but you’re also trying to beat people to get a seat on the rocket. You can work together but be cooperative and competitive at the same time. That makes for a really interesting dynamic. What I really like when you play games with people is that you get a peek inside their personality, especially when you don’t know them.
PF: Has your perception of what makes a game “good” changed?
SS: No, because a game can be any style of game. When you sit down and play and everybody has a good time, you know right away if it’s a “good” game. So my perception of what makes a game “good” hasn’t changed but my perception of how many kinds of games that can be satisfying has changed. I can give you an example of a few of ours.
One of our games is REAL LIFE HOLIDAY BINGO. So you’re riding in the car with the kids or sitting around the dinner table. You try to find things and play bingo. This is a funny version of bingo. I got sick of bingo years ago, but this revitalized bingo gameplay in my eyes.
We have a game called CAN’T CATCH HARRY, which is based on ODD ONES OUT, he’s got the funniest videos and my daughter’s turned me onto him — so when I played the game, it had meaning to me. I knew these characters, so that was a different way to relate to a game.
When I played WE’RE DOOMED for the first time, it was unique to me. Everyone had a common goal but everyone had a selfish goal, and you watch how people screw up their opponents. My goodness, you wouldn’t believe the things people would do, and all they have to do is cooperate, but it’s so funny. I never really played a game like that, where the whole table was laughing because it’s so screwy.
And then we have a game called THE MANDELA EFFECT. Two years ago, I became obsessed with the Mandela Effect, because I remember things that I swear happened differently. But nope. I thought to myself, “You know what? This is great fodder for a game.” So we made a very simple game, which is a way to start a conversation about the Mandela Effect. There are 250 points in the game that are disputed between people so it really strikes up an interesting conversation.
Then we have some things that are timely, like SUDDENLY STONED. Marijuana is becoming legal everywhere so instead of your standard drinking game, you have this game that you can pretty much play with any other game to make it more fun.
The other two party games are SPARKLE KITTY NIGHTS. We had this game, SPARKLE KITTY, and everyone loves it because it has silly words like “Cuddle bug” and “Squishy bug” and all these silly words. Now we have SPARKLE KITTY NIGHTS, we add suggestive words like “slippery.” It’s not dirty at all, just suggestive. It’s not just a gimmick, it’s a game that has substance, but the funny words make it so much more different than other games that we’ve played.
KEEP CALM, you’re in these situations and what do you do? There’s a bunch of funny answers. KEEP CALM puts you in all these crazy situations and you just have to figure out, well, what’s the best answer to get out of it.
Those are the ones that we’re pushing for the holiday season. They run the gamut, every single one of them is fun to play in a different way.
PF: Let’s talk gift giving. What is your go-to gift for:
- Someone who has every other game: RISE OF TRIBES, you want to give it to family or gamers, somebody who wants to get into gaming, or someone who has every other game.
- White elephant: WE’RE DOOMED — because that goes over well in any kind of crowd — or REAL LIFE HOLIDAY BINGO.
- An older family member: MANDELA EFFECT, because they’ll remember stuff from way back.
- A younger family member: CAN’T CATCH HARRY, because that’s a younger kind of demographic.
- Your boss or manager: WE’RE DOOMED, you can’t go wrong with that one. It’s 15 minutes long, it’s safe, it’s not going to offend anybody, it’s a great gift for a group. The larger the group, the better.
- For both gamers and non-gamers? RISE OF TRIBES is a great introduction game because of the way we wrote the rules and because of the way it plays. Even a non-gamer can learn it very quickly and just get right into it. You get to learn a whole type of game that can lead you into deeper strategy later on, yet it’s so easy to learn because there’s four possible moves you can do, it’s very clear how it works and you have specific goals. Out of all of them, RISE OF TRIBES will have to be the one.
What’s your favorite game? Do you have a favorite game format? Comment below!
Good luck and happy holiday shopping!