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A hot branding iron, 130 pounds of molten tin and a golden ticket

How a gaming startup from New Orleans made it big at Gen Con

Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in the U.S., featured more than 500 individual vendors this year. Even after expanding into the neighboring Lucas Oil Stadium, that left dozens of game companies on the waiting list. But way in the back of the Indianapolis Convention Center was Entrepreneurs Alley, an invite-only section dedicated to gaming start-ups. It’s a curated section, where vendors are hand-picked by Gen Con itself. That’s where I found Exiles by Mindworm Games, and it just might be the most beautiful new product that I found on the floor of the convention this year.

Exiles is a miniatures skirmish game wrapped up with a bit of a role-playing game. But it’s also a labor of love, hand crafted by a small team in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"We try to do everything we can in house," Benson Green, owner and manager of Mindworm Games, told me via telephone last week. "I like building stuff and making things, and we wanted to create a product we could make with our own hands."

The Exiles starter set is a plain wooden box branded with a hot iron on two sides. Opening it up there’s four compartments. Inside one is a pile of hand made wooden status tokens, also branded with a hot iron. There’s a few piles of cards, some character sheets printed on heavy card stock and a few slim game manuals printed in the style of a Western dime novel. There’s also a hand made bag filled with bright blue dice and about a dozen intricately crafted tin cowboys fixin’ for a fight.

The $100 kit smells like fire and ash, and the minis are just begging for a good paint job. And nearly all of it was hand-made by Benson and his friends in the small shop just a few feet from his home in Louisiana. Inside and out, Exiles positively drips with passion. It’s an artifact that you can’t wait to bring down off the shelf and present to new players.

Exiles is a Weird West game, blending the occult with classic Wild West mythology, to create something entirely unique. Turns out it’s based on a homebrew rules system and campaign setting that Benson and his friends have been playing since they were kids.

"Exiles has been around for a while," Green said. "It was written by [my business partners] back in the day as an RPG that I played with them in high school. I took it with me to Ohio when I went to Ohio State and I ran it there for a long time. Other people picked it up and they ran it for their friends. So, Exiles has been around in one form or another for a long time.

"It was always a tabletop game. It’s rooted in RPGs, but I turned it into a quicker-playing tabletop miniatures game so it didn’t need all the setup and bullcrap you have with an RPG."

What makes Exiles so fast and fluid is its simultaneous turn structure. Since it’s a miniatures game played on model terrain, players use rulers and dice to determine what happens during a turn. But they only have 20 seconds to measure for movement, call out their targets and let loose with a volley from their sixguns.

It’s loud, it’s frantic and watching it played at Gen Con it sure seemed like a lot of fun.

"We wanted a game that runs fast and furious," Green said. "My big concern was that we were gonna make a shitty miniatures game and a shitty RPG. ... For a year and a half, I was skeptical about the game. I was waiting for the moment when everything would come crashing down. There was gonna be some critical flaw we didn’t find yet and the whole thing would come tumbling down like a house of cards. But we never found it.

"My big concern was that we were gonna make a shitty miniatures game and a shitty RPG."

"We did playtests before, but running games for a bunch of new people at Gen Con, that’s when I really became entirely comfortable with the game. We usually say to people when we’re running Exiles, quick is better than correct. You wanna keep the tempo of the game going and if you fuck something up don’t worry about it, just start a new turn or whatever, you missed your turn. Whereas in Warhammer 40,000, you’re playing a three-hour game and might get six turns in. Whereas in Exiles, ‘Eh, whatever. I lost this turn, but I got 19 more turns to go. No big deal.’"

Getting his new game to Gen Con was never a sure thing. In order to get a booth, Benson and his partners had to submit an application. Out of more than 300 entries, only 36 were accepted. Once they got their golden ticket, the small team had to spool up production and manufacturing in their spare time. You can see the whole story, shared in short video snippets, on their Facebook page.

"It happened pretty quick," Benson said. "About a year and a half ago we started getting fairly serious about it, I went to my wife and said, ‘Hey I’m thinking about starting a business. It’s gonna be really expensive and it’s gonna take up a lot of our time.’ I was hoping she would say ‘That’s crazy! You can’t do that, we have kids!’ Instead she said, ‘That’s a great idea!’ So it’s really all her fault, being very supportive through the entire thing."

Exiles cosplay in full effect! #gencon2016

A photo posted by Mindworm Games (@mindwormgames) on

They didn’t sell through their entire run of starter sets, let alone the expansion packs they brought along. New miniatures games are a hard sell, even under the best circumstances. By the end of the convention there was a sign on the booth promoting a $10 discount. But Green says it was still a successful event, and a milestone for his fledgeling company.

"We did pretty good in sales," Green said. "We sold a lot of product, but that’s not why we were there. We were there to meet people and put our product into a highly competitive environment to see how it does. I think Exiles and our booth stood up, I think people reacted incredibly well.

"I wanted to do Gen Con because I knew that if we could be successful there that would not only show the market that we would be a real company, that would make products for a while, but it would also be convincing to me. I figured if we could do Gen Con we could do anything. So we survived Gen Con, we’ve got a lot of product we’re gonna get up on our web store just as soon as I figure out shipping."

You can find all of Polygon's coverage from Gen Con 2016 right here. For more tabletop gaming coverage, see our dedicated section here.

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