- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Mark Swanson’s lifelong love affair with board games seems unlikely considering he grew up in a family that didn’t have the money to go out and buy a new game to keep everyone entertained on rainy days.

Instead, Swanson told the Columbia Daily Tribune (https://bit.ly/2iEVtAm ), his father cut strips of paper to recreate a makeshift Stratego board game and game pieces from memory. And any day - rainy or otherwise - always was a good day for playing.

The cherished memory fostered an affinity for board games and the desire to frequently gather around a table for that eye-to-eye gaming experience.

It also fostered a lifelong dream: to create his own board game.

“I found myself later in life cutting out my own pieces of paper,” Swanson said.

When he was introduced to European-style board games about 25 years ago, he found the solution to the unsatisfying experience of sitting at a table and playing Monopoly or a similar game for one or two hours only to lose on the luck of the draw or roll of the die.

The Euro-style genre introduced new levels of complexity, though nuanced at times, and required skill for an interaction that was, Swanson said, “fulfilling,” even if the outcome was a loss.

Swanson was hooked. His collection of vintage American board games quickly was replaced by a still-growing cadre of games that includes Power Grid, Puerto Rico, Dominant Species, Caverna and the American introduction to German board game wonderment, Settlers of Catan.

“I was always looking for the Holy Grail of games,” he said.

His paper and cardboard eventually evolved to carving small wooden playing pieces and figures as his mind’s-eye creation took form.

Swanson created “Feudum,” a Euro-style game with a Medieval theme and archetypal characters that’s epic in scope with nobles, an alchemist, farmer, knights and others on the social strata, along with fantastical mermaids and leviathans.

The game features a “cyclical economy” with goods and resources going from farmer to merchant to alchemist to knight and eventually to the monk whose Rosary beads are numbers, providing a score to achieve. Then the cycle returns and starts anew with the farmer.

“That took some work coming up with that,” Swanson said.

Swanson, 49, said he combined the complexities of some of his favorites - Terra Mystica, Brass, Caylus, Dominant Species and others - and added meticulous illustrations, an array of paths to victory and an economic ecosystem. The economic “mechanic” - such mechanics set Euro-style games apart from American tabletop games - allows players to produce and buy goods through different guilds while competing for status within those guilds.

Understanding the terminology and unique feature of “mechanics” in Euro games is demonstrated by Settlers of Catan, a multiplayer game first published in 1995 in Germany that now has sold more than 22 million copies in 30 languages.

Players assume the roles of settlers, each attempting to build, trade and acquire resources. There’s an element of competition, of course, and strategy, but the conflict is more indirect - competing for resources - rather than an attack on someone’s property or family.

Feudum is for two to five players, takes 80 minutes to three hours to play and will include rulebooks in German, French and English.

But what had the University of Missouri School of Journalism professor created? Is it something anyone else would want to play -or buy?

Swanson launched a Kickstarter online crowdfunding campaign in the fall, hopeful that his project would catch the growing wave that put game funding at No. 1 on the Kickstarter list, ahead of technology, design, and film and video.

Though not a Euro game, the immensely popular card game “Exploding Kittens” garnered almost $8.8 million through Kickstarter in 2015. One of Swanson’s game author idols, Jamey Stegmaier of St. Louis, raised $1.8 million to get Scythe to market.

Swanson, who teaches advertising at the J-School, promoted himself and the game on social media, put the prototype of Feudum in front of gamers who meet every Tuesday at Valhalla’s Gate, 2525 Bernadette Drive, and poured his passion into the effort.

The result was $263,000 in donations from just more than 3,000 people who essentially pre-ordered Feudum.

Along the way, the game gained critical acclaim and exposure from leading bloggers, vloggers and other reviewers, and even Stegmaier.

Swanson teamed with Jackson, Miss.-based artist Justin Schultz to give the game board and pieces eye-popping color and features. Kickstarter contributors will be rewarded with enhanced game pieces, additional tokens and first-in-line access to game expansions.

Panda Manufacturing in China will produce the game. The company has identified vendors to carve the wooden game pieces - another hallmark unique to Euro games - and initially will print 5,000 to 10,000 copies of the 42-inch-by-16-inch accordion-fold board game.

A Spanish company already has inquired about a tri-lingual game; a company in Brazil wants to distribute games in Portuguese and Latin American Spanish.

A company in China wants 1,000. In April, Swanson said he will tell the manufacturer how many he needs produced. He expects the games will roll off pallets to cargo ships in September, headed for shipping centers in Florida, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Store distribution should follow soon after.

“It’s like I’m taking a crash course in international business,” he said.

The first game-testers - the “beta players” - were among Swanson’s friends who sat with him Tuesday playing Caverna at Valhalla’s Gate.

“What’s really interesting is the explosion of this hobby in the last 10 to 15 years,” said Eric Gerdts. He credited Kickstarter funding for the mushrooming popularity of new games and the ability for creative types like Swanson to bring their dreams to reality.

Glen Greeson gave Feudum a confident thumbs-up and said Swanson was good about accepting the group’s critiques.

“I agonized over all those decisions” to tweak or tighten the game, Swanson said.

“Really, we were being selfish. We just wanted the game to get published,” game-tester Tim Maylander said.

In keeping with the best Euro board games, Greeson said Feudum offers “several good options” for winning and playing.

As he talked about the unique social and intellectual components of Euro-style games, he cautioned that most groups have an “AP player” - someone who might slow the progress with “analysis paralysis.”

Asked if his group had an “AP player,” all fingers immediately pointed to Gerdts, who smiled as he munched on a Jimmy John’s sandwich.

“He will beat you at just about everything,” Greeson said as Gerdts shrugged.

Swanson added, “If you beat him, you feel great.”

More than 40 people - about three-quarters male - at 10 tables took part in board games, Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games Tuesday at Valhalla’s Gate. Most were surrounding tables playing the card game Magic: The Gathering.

Charlie Ward, 78, a retired nuclear physicist living in Columbia since 1998, joined up with the Mid-Missouri Strategy Gamers Society when the group began having every other Saturday gatherings at the Columbia Public Library.

The group still keeps that schedule, playing longer games at the library and coming to Valhalla’s Gate on Tuesdays for more leisurely games.

Ward sat with a small group at another table playing Thurn and Taxis, one of the handful of games he brought from his home collection. He nodded that Swanson’s “Feudum” was “innovative.”

“It’s very much unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Ward said, adding that he enjoyed playing it.

Whether the game will achieve continued financial success, “it’s hard to say,” Ward added. “It’s a rather big business.”

Swanson graduated from MU in 1992 after attending Fairview Elementary School and Hickman High School. He later lived in Chicago and New York but gravitated back to Columbia in 2003. He’s a divorced dad with three daughters who calls himself “a corn-fed bred, crawdad-huntin’ Missouri boy.”

He also fancies himself as an ambassador for the Euro-style genre of board games and can easily recite a list of game creators he still can’t quite believe he’s joined.

Watching the beta players was “surreal,” he said.

“To see people enjoying it - there’s no better feeling,” Swanson said. “I’m facilitating leisure time, the kind of time that I had with my dad growing up.”

He added marketing smarts to his passion to secure what he thinks could be solid financial footing.

“What gets peoples’ attention is authenticity, transparency and passion. And a good product,” he said. “But things of true value have a way of finding their way to the surface.”

Make no mistake about Swanson’s perception of the road to success.

“It has been a lot of work. But it’s a dream,” he said. “It’s been my obsession. And now it’s being unveiled.”

While Feudum awaits printing, shipping and distribution, Swanson already is thinking ahead to his next steps.

“Another game,” he said. “I’m already cutting up cardboard and creating my next game.”


Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, https://www.columbiatribune.com

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