Blockbuster board games are unusual, but Days of Wonder has one in its Ticket to Ride.
The already-classic cardboard game, in which players strategize over how to build the best railway routes, was released in 2004 and has worldwide sales of several hundred thousand units per year, said Eric Hautemont, co-founder of the Los Altos, Calif., game company.
That places it in the forefront of a blossoming independent game world, in which new titles such as monster bonanza King of Tokyo and kingdom-building game Dominion are fighting to join traditional classics such as Monopoly and Sorry.
Driven by online word of mouth on board game websites such as BoardGameGeek and by the popularity of online digital games, including Days of Wonder's Small World, old-fashioned board games have acquired cult status and are growing in popularity.
The American board game thriller Pandemic and imports such as Carcassone and The Settlers of Catan are the titles most often cited as having fueled the table-top renaissance. They have been followed by hits such as the amusement park-themed card game Carnival, the coffee-focused strategy game Viva Java and the old New York game Tammany Hall.
Days of Wonder's Hautemont estimated 900 games are released annually by about 40 active publishers, designed for a small but enthusiastic audience.
Designing and releasing a game is not cheap. Hautemont said Days of Wonder spends about $20,000 simply to develop a game. That's at the high end, but Hautemont's company grossed $7 million the year Ticket to Ride was released.
Most game publishers have more modest budgets. Journalist-turned-game designer/publisher Chris Kirkman budgeted $18,000 to $20,000 to develop, print and publish Carnival, his first game.
Matt Leacock, chief designer at social communications firm Sococo, once attempted to self-release the racing game Lunatix Loop. He unveiled Loop at the international gaming convention Spiel, held in Essen, Germany, which attracts more than 100,000 people.
Each game probably cost me about $10, maybe $15, Leacock said. I sold them for $25. That didn't cover all the incidentals, like the costs of booths and import taxes.
Leacock lost money and said, I wouldn't encourage anyone to go that route. If you don't know what you're doing, you're just flooding the market with more bad product.
As a result, most who design or publish independent board games have supplemental incomes. Alf Seegert is a lecturer at the University of Utah, and last year he released The Road to Canterbury, a game inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, via Gryphon Games. Nathan McNair consults in finance compliance, and his Pandasaurus Games has specialized in re-releasing out-of-print or hard-to-find games such as his Tammany Hall.
The majority of board game designers do this as a hobby, Kirkman said. It's hard for us as a publisher to make a living.