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Digital board games are booming, and one company is holding an awful lot of cards

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Tabletop giant is making a big push into digital in 2017

Mysterium, which debuted in North America at Gen Con in 2015.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Tabletop publisher Asmodee has a hot hand going into 2017. This year, it hopes to further fortify their brand in the digital space. Philippe Dao, chief marketing officer for Asmodee Digital, told us that his team could have as many as 20 new games on iOS and Android this year.

In the past few years, Asmodee has made aggressive moves to acquire several large publishers and developers. That includes Minneapolis-based Fantasy Flight Games, known for licensed titles such as A Game of Thrones The Board Game and Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game. In October, Asmodee also acquired F2Z Entertainment, which owns the Pandemic and Dead of Winter line of board games. It even snatched up North American rights to the Catan brand, making it a one-stop-shop for some of the industry’s biggest franchises.

Now, Dao says, it has its sights set on spreading those franchises far and wide on iOS and Android.

Internal numbers from Fantasy Flight seem to support that move. When that developer’s internal studios released a new version of the classic game Descent: Journeys in the Dark with a free, internally-developed companion app it saw sales of the physical game triple. But Dao isn’t pushing hard on companion apps. This year is all about bringing existing franchises into the digital realm wholesale, with a series of complete ports and adaptations.

First on the docket is Mysterium, a European board game released in North America in 2015. That game launched this month on iOS, Android and PC via Steam.

It was quickly followed by another popular new title called Potion Explosion.

Dao comes to Asmodee by way of the music industry, and he told us that working with board game developers was a lot like working with musicians.

“My relationships working with recording artists are similar to my relationship with board game authors,” Dao told Polygon, not far from his office in Paris, France. “With the board game creators, you have to gain their trust to convince them that digital is not the enemy and that it won't cannibalize the sales of their board games.

“Then we work with them to adapt and to work with us to find a new game design, a new gameplay, or to adapt it to make it with a team that is digital savvy.”

Dao says the secret to Asmodee’s success is a suite of tools developed by another acquisition, developer Days of Wonder. Originally designed for the digital version of Ticket to Ride more than five years ago, that toolset has gone on to become an integral part of recent releases like Mysterium and Potion Explosion.

Asmodee’s apps aren’t freemium games, however. They are premium titles. Mysterium, for instance, costs $6.99 on mobile and $9.99 on Steam. For Dao, the reason behind the premium price is simple: Digital board games simply cost more to make than analogue ones, and that risk needs to be offset by creating excellent digital versions of popular physical titles.

Traditional board games, which Asmodee has published since 1995, traditionally begin with a single, hand-made prototype and then an initial run of 1,000 copies or less. Only if it’s successful is a second printing made, and then only with around 10,000 more copies get produced. If you’re lucky, he said, it grows from there.

By contrast, a single digital board game could cost Asmodee hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“On the digital side, you have to take risks because you have to make more than just a prototype,” Dao said. “You have to put more money on the table. But because we know that with some games, the community of players is so strong and so engaged, they will buy your games for that price.

“With freemium games, it's all about monetization and in-game economy. To me, the freemium games are like a shop. The players are your clients. You need your clients coming back to your shop, and you need the clients to buy stuff. So, it's different. While on the premium side, if you have titles like Colt Express and Ticket to Ride, it's a different business product.”

Many traditional tabletop gamers have scoffed at digital adaptations and even digital companion apps. One common argument is that physical games go into a collector’s library, where they can be brought out and enjoyed for decades. Digital games are more ephemeral, and often fall into disrepair as technology moves on. Dao says Asmodee is committed to its titles for the long term. It’s the company’s unified back-end toolset, and premium price, that make it possible.

“We launched the iOS version of Ticket to Ride in late 2010,” Dao said, “and we're still supporting it. It's even more necessary for us to do so, because we have games that are long-standing franchises. We're still making significant revenue on Ticket to Ride, and probably the same on Catan, after all these years. And it's just not possible with a freemium game.”

In total, Dao said there are as many as 27 titles in development right now. He hopes that at least 20 will find their way to market in 2017, including a much anticipated digital version of Cool Mini Or Not’s Zombicide franchise, a game that was only hinted at during last year’s Gen Con.