It seems like everyone’s making a fortune these days in tabletop games, right?
After all, games have become the biggest category on Kickstarter, and we’re constantly reading about successful projects that funded in a matter of minutes. Gaming conventions are packed (well, at least when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic) and stores like Walmart and Target have broadened their selections beyond the old standards. (Gloomhaven at Target? I didn’t see that coming.) But that rosy picture hides a lot of the work—and the money!—that goes into making board games, and it also tends to ignore all of the games that don’t get made, whether because the Kickstarter campaign didn’t fund or because publishers turned down the designer.
Gamemaster, a new documentary available now through iTunes and other video-on-demand platforms, follows the journeys of four hopeful designers: Jason Serrato (Thug Life), Nashra Balagamwala (Arranged), Charlie Bink (Trekking the National Parks), and Scott Rogers (Rayguns & Rocketships). They all have different stories—using Kickstarter, pitching to publishers, working with family, and so on.
The documentary also opens a window into the gaming industry as a whole, interviewing various publishers, designers, media, and more. They discuss the difference between crowdfunding a game and making it yourself versus pitching it to a traditional publisher. It provides a glimpse of the manufacturing process (at Ludo Fact), showing how many different suppliers need to be coordinated for even a single game. Klaus Teuber, the designer of Settlers of Catan, talks about what it was like to create a worldwide hit and then run the business with his two sons. Reiner Knizia, who has published over 600 games, reflects on the importance of staying relevant.
There’s a quick overview of some conventions—most notably Gen Con and Essen Spiel—and a look at the Spiel des Jahres awards. That portion was filmed in 2017, so there are interviews with some of the nominees at the time, along with Tom Felber, one of the judges on the SdJ committee.
Gamemaster touches briefly on the demographics of gaming, too. Most of the people in the film are white men, but there’s an optimism that more people are joining the hobby, and that the industry as a whole is becoming more inclusive. I’m glad that Nashra Balagamwala was one of the four designers: her game is about getting out of arranged marriages, and it showed that it was possible to use games not just as entertainment, but also to better the world. I’d seen Thug Life when it was first on Kickstarter and had passed on it because of its theme and art, but I saw Jason Serrato talk about the way that gaming kept him off the streets and his desire to make something for kids like himself was inspiring.
As for making a fortune, the folks in this film make it pretty clear that, although tabletop gaming is big business and a lot of money is involved, it’s hard to get rich making games. Elan Lee, the designer of Exploding Kittens, reflects on how the game became the most-backed Kickstarter project (raising $8.7M from 219,382 backers), and then shows a breakdown of where that money went. As Reiner Knizia puts it, if you’re doing it for the money, you will not become a successful game designer; you need to be “intrinsically motivated” to put in that hard work.
The movie is still a love letter to tabletop games. If you’re a fan of games and you just want to watch an hour and a half of people talking about making games, getting excited when you see a person (or a game) that you recognize on screen, then you can definitely enjoy it that way. But I think if you’re somebody who’s hoping you’ll come up with the next award-winning game, Gamemaster is a sobering (but still enthusiastic) examination of the reality behind making games.
Check out the official trailer here:
Disclosure: I received access to a screener for review purposes.