By Erica Yee, news correspondent
Parallel to the rise of virtual reality headsets and people chasing Pokémon in the wild, there is another thriving but lesser known market: Tabletop games.
Michael Epstein, a Northeastern alumnus who graduated in 2016, began his game design career in this opportune market with “Tattoo! A Game of Ink,” a board game he independently developed as a student. He and his publisher, Gaming Paper LLC, will launch the Kickstarter for “Tattoo!” in August with the goal of reaching $35,000 in pledged donations.
In the first half of this year, campaigns for tabletop games on the popular crowdfunding service Kickstarter raised six times as much revenue as video games, and four times as many projects were funded, according to a report from ICO Partners, a company that follows the online games market.
“A lot of board games have been done through Kickstarter lately because it relieves some burden on the designer and publisher and allows them to see if there’s a market,” said Epstein, who majored in English with minors in game design and creative writing.
Celia Pearce, an associate professor of game design at Northeastern and cofounder of a festival for independent games called IndieCade, also noted the expansion of the board games market.
“I’ve seen a huge explosion in non-digital games,” she said. “There’s a board game renaissance right now and Michael’s definitely riding that crest.”
Epstein began working on “Tattoo!” in 2014 after a tattoo artist gave a guest lecture in his 2D art foundations class.
“That was an introduction into a world I knew next to nothing about,” Epstein said. “It was a cool thing to learn about in a class I thought would just be paints and pencils.”
He then formulated an idea of laying out cards with tattoo designs onto a board shaped like an arm.
“The core concept never changed from day one,” Epstein said. “It was always about placing designs on an arm and lasering them off to make room for more.”
The gameplay of “Tattoo!” revolves around a system in which two to four players buy, place and score tattoo designs on individual arm boards. There are only a limited number of tattoos available to buy at a given time, so players must strategize which ones they want and which ones they want their opponents to buy or not buy.
“Tattoo!” will be the first board game by Gaming Paper LLC, Epstein’s publisher. Until this project, Gaming Paper and founder Erik Bauer focused on its titular product: Paper with squares for tabletop roleplaying games.
Epstein met Bauer last year at Gen Con, an annual tabletop games convention in Indianapolis. Epstein had approached Gaming Paper’s booth to express his gratitude for their product. After chatting a bit, Bauer agreed to try the game out.
“We walked away from his booth and played together,” Epstein said. “He almost on the spot offered me a publishing deal. It was unexpected, but really cool.”
Bauer said he was intrigued by Epstein’s intention to showcase the work of real tattoo artists.
“When I played, it was all clipart off of Google,” Bauer said. “The idea of having the artists do the actual art was great.”
The finalized game features cards with a wide variety of designs, from a geisha to an ankh to animals. Epstein only gave each of the 20 participating artists a subject and two “style keywords” – such as bold or monotone – then let the artist develop an original design.
Bauer said he had no issue with Epstein’s stipulation of paying the commissioned artists, which Epstein noted most companies do not do.
“I could’ve found someone [online] to do this very cheaply and quickly, but that wasn’t my goal,” said Epstein. “This is an homage to tattoo artists, their art. People who get tattoos have personal meaning, and I want to laud that through this game.”
Both Bauer and Pearce attested to Epstein’s energy and tenacity. Pearce said Epstein reached a “turning point” in her experimental game design class when he learned what she considers one of the most valuable skills she can teach a student: How to take criticism.
“He was working on the final project, and the first version was very cumbersome with a lot of rules,” Pearce said. “I had [the students] make multiple versions of their games to test with the class. I saw Michael realize, ‘I want this to be fun,’ and each time he brought it back better. He just got really good at taking feedback and responding to comments. I think it contributed to why ‘Tattoo!’ turned out so well.”
Epstein drew on these experiences when he tested the game with the Boston Game Makers Guild. According to Epstein, the meetup group for tabletop gamers has a curation process to approve games, including a “blind” playtest session with people who have never seen the game before.
“You can’t tell them what to do,” Epstein said. “It’s useful to see people play your game without the designer teaching them how. The designer isn’t going to be in your living room with you.”
Epstein and Bauer debuted “Tattoo!” in Boston last April at PAX East, one of the largest gaming conventions in the nation. A year after their first meeting at Gen Con 2015, they will return to Indianapolis to exhibit the game at the convention in August.
The pair also plan to market the game through the artists who participated in the project.
“We want to reach both board gamers and people who appreciate the art form,” said Epstein.
Though he fits both those categories, Epstein said he does not have any tattoos himself.
“I get asked a lot if I have any,” he said. “I live vicariously through my game, mostly because my grandmother disapproves. But I taught her how to play, and she actually did pretty well.”
More information about the game can be found at www.tattoothegame.com. The Kickstarter launches August 2.
Photo courtesy Michael Epstein