Role Selection is an interview series in which we chat up folks who work, live, and play board games in a variety of ways to learn about the roles in the hobby they’ve chosen.
Character Name: Justin Jacobson
Role: President of Restoration Games
Location: Southern Flordia
Early Games: Risk, Dungeons & Dragons, The Game of Hurricane
Current Favorites: Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic Legacy, 7 Wonders Duel
Still on the Restoration Wish List: Barbarian Prince
Quote: “Cars are a lot better than they used to be, so why not board games? But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some really cool things about those old cars.”
Character Bio: The idea for Restoration Games – a publisher that would take classic games, modernize the rules and add high-quality components – started with perhaps the grail-iest of out-of-print grail games, Star Wars: the Queen’s Gambit.Note to the easily excitable: Restoration Games is NOT making a new Queen’s Gambit. But their recently-announced inaugural line-up should have something to appeal to most gamers:
- Stop Thief! with an app taking the place of the crime scanner
- Indulgence, a recreation of the card game Dragonmaster
- and Downforce, the latest iteration of Wolfgang Kramer’s enduring Top Race/Daytona 500 series.
But back to Queen’s Gambit. Justin Jacobson, a board gamer and attorney in southern Florida, enjoyed the Star Wars game’s asymmetrical play and how the three ‘mini games’ within the game play out. And though the license was out of reach, he imagined Kickstarting the game with a new theme as a way to bring back a sought-after title.
At the same time, he’d gotten to know Rob Daviau of SeaFall and Pandemic Legacy fame. Daviau was preparing to leave Hasbro and wondered how much of the legacy system he’d used in Risk: Legacy he could take with him, and Jacobson gave him legal advice. “So I always take some percentage of credit for Pandemic Legacy,” Jacobson jokes.
Jacobson and Daviau stayed in touch. In between legal matters, they kept reminiscing about old games such as Dark Tower, with the crazy Orson Welles commercial, and 1974‘s Pathfinder, which Daviau would create variants for. So the idea of updating cool, old games never went away.
With about 10 games under secret consideration, Jacobson and Daviau announced the creation of Restoration Games at Gen Con 2016. On their website, the new publishers invited folks to submit games they’d like to see restored.
Thousands of gamers responded with hundreds of titles…
Justin Jacobson: I was blown away at the response. The number of suggestions we got, and the breadth of suggestions we got was amazing. So we definitely went back and took a second look, and…there were some that we considered.
Ultimately, we are a new company…we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew right at the outset, so we decided to keep things at a manageable scale. There were some bigger things that we thought about – ‘hey, we could try that, but maybe let’s do that for the next wave.’
Matt Golec: Even if it’s not in this release, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to do it.
JJ: So we decided to do three games, which we thought would be safer. If you do one game and it tanks, you’ve got nothing. If you’ve got three, even if one tanks, the other two might be able to prop you up.
We looked at games we thought we could manage in terms of component requirements and built-in appeal. We wanted slightly different styles of games, different weights, different player counts, different mechanisms.
MG: What do you have to do to get rights to an older game? What does that work look like?
JJ: I don’t want to talk about specific circumstances – we have some confidentiality agreements – but every game is totally different, which we came to understand pretty quickly.
We’ve had situations where the rights reverted back to the designer. And by virtue of the fact that the games we’re dealing with are all decades old, in some cases the designers might have passed on, or they might have no idea what the status of the rights are. When rights were owned by companies, it might also have been companies two or three acquisitions ago.
MG: It sounds like detective work.
JJ: Yes, absolutely. In every case, our first step is to go back to the designer…We wanted this to be a celebration of and respectful to the designers. So we work directly with the designer and at least get their blessing, even if we don’t need anything from them legally.
MG: I know you can’t talk about specifics, but what does a dead end look like? What kind of things prevent you from getting a license?
JJ: A few games we wanted to approach, but the designers had assigned the rights to somebody else. I hear people talking about games that have been out of print (and wishing they would come back), and I say, ‘well, you might see them!’…I don’t know when such games are coming out, but there are a couple (in the works).
We still have our fingers crossed about one game, but apparently it’s such a mess that nobody knows who’s got what, and we didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole.
Part of it depends on what we’re going to do with the game as well. For example, Indulgence is a restoration of Dragonmaster, but it’s pretty different, much to some people’s chagrin, as we’ve learned in the past few days. There, however, we just couldn’t get the rights to the art. And we didn’t want to do fantasy. Back then, fantasy was all the rage. Now, generic fantasy has gotten a little worn down…So we said, ‘let’s do something different.’
Once we’re doing that, and we tweak the gameplay, and we’re using a different name because of the different theme – at some point you’re far enough removed that the rights don’t become an issue, and it’s just a matter of working something out to do right by people.
Going Beyond Nostalgia
MG: I know nostalgia is a double-edge sword for you. It’s great because it attracts people, but no matter how faithful you are to the original game, somebody’s going to be upset. I wonder how you balance that nostalgia and updating in making Restoration Games. .
JJ: Really what we want to do is to take these games that have been lost to time, find out what the real soul of the game is – what is it that people liked about that game? – strip out everything else that we don’t need, and build the rest up not just to make it good and play well, but to support the spirit of the game.
Take Dragonmaster. We knew we couldn’t get the art. I’m not even sure what [artist] Bob Pepper’s status is, to be honest. We tried to track him down and couldn’t find him. So it was either going to be new or not done at all.
So we said to ourselves, look, nobody was a huge Bob Pepper fan. There are people who admire his art, but nobody is saying the game was memorable because it’s Bob Pepper’s art. It was the fact that his art was so different at the time, so striking.
We could at least emulate that. So let’s find an artist that’s new to gaming…We wanted to get an outsider, we wanted to treat the subject matter in a way that’s subversive. You’ll see when the art comes out that we tried to take that approach, so the art would become a feature of the game even if it wasn’t the same art.
And on the gameplay, we took this idea of variable contracts and ‘shoot the moon’ mechanics and sort of ramped them up. Instead of five contracts, let’s make 20! We took everything that was cool about (the game) and put it on steroids.
MG: It sounds like you aren’t bringing back games from the past just to have something we had as kids; you’re trying to make good games.
JJ: They’re restorations. They’re not reprints. Take Escape from Colditz. That’s pure nostalgia. I haven’t tried the new version, but it looks great. The gameplay is the same – roll and move, and getting doubles. If you want nostalgia, that’s it. And that’s fine. But it’s just not what we wanted to do.
MG: One thing that caught my eye was the companion app you’re going to use with Stop Thief! I remember when those first started coming out with board games, there was resistance. Now, I haven’t heard any resistance over this one, at least in the brief time since it’s been announced. Help me understand what that app is going to allow the game to become.
JJ: I have mixed emotions, though I think some of the new companion apps are really cool…For us, it was interesting because essentially the original game comes with an app. It’s a smart phone that literally only does one app. So we’re really just emulating that.
We’re going to make a Restoration Games app, so we can fill it with other companion apps for other games as we do them.
As far as gameplay, because it’s an app, we can control the content, modify it, improve it. Some of the things we’re thinking about (for Stop Thief!) are different levels of play, like a beginner, intermediate and advanced level, which might vary on turns in the different sound clues you get, and how easy it is to get tips. We can control all that through the app.
Restoration Games expects to release Stop Thief!, Indulgence, and Downforce at Gen Con 2017 – along with the titles of their next game restoration. In the meantime, they’re strongly considering a Kickstarter campaign for Stop Thief!, both to build a fan base and to gauge interest for the app development.
Some final news: board-game industry veteran Mike Gray will be joining Jacobson, Daviau, and graphic designer Jason Taylor at Restoration Games to help with contacts and identify games to restore. Gray worked at TSR and Hasbro, designed dozens of games including Shogun and Fortress America, and brings a wealth of experience to this new publishing effort.
Matt Golec is game designer with a background in print journalism. Combining these skills, he aims to explore and give voice to the many different jobs within the hobby industry that don’t frequently get reported on. He can be best reached via Twitter.
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