There’s a new tabletop game on the way that’s set in the universe of Vampire: The Masquerade, but if you don’t shell out money for it now, you might never get the chance to buy it at a store.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Chapters is a campaign-in-a-box in the style of Gloomhaven, a role-playing game that doesn’t require a game master to run. As with many other high-concept tabletop games right now, Chapters’ developers say it’s simply too big and too expensive to ever come to retail. We sat down with Flyos Games to learn more, and to tease apart the economic realities that are changing the landscape for high-concept board games.
Chapters is the third game by Thomas Filippi and Gary Paitre, two French designers who live in Montreal. Their first two board games — a fast-paced family title called Kiwetin and a card-based zombie game called Until Daylight — were both modestly successful on Kickstarter. The crowdfunding platform has been the engine behind a resurgence in tabletop games over the last decade, but for Canadian game maker Flyos, the rubber really met the road when Until Daylight got picked up by a proper publisher.
“We were able to get Asmodee as a distributor and they drop-shipped everything for Gen Con 2018,” Filippi told Polygon during a Zoom call. “We actually saw our game — a tower of games — disappear in less than 24 hours. So it’s kind of an amazing feeling.”
Despite that success, Flyos decided to go in a different direction when it pitched its latest project to Paradox Interactive, which bought the Vampire: The Masquerade license in 2015.
The board game industry has a fairly traditional model when it comes to the product pipeline. Developers pitch a game to publishers, who then help fund development. Games are manufactured overseas, for the most part. When they’re ready to ship, players can order them directly from a U.S. warehouse or pick them up from their retailer of choice. That might be Amazon, or it might be a local game shop. Either way, some portion of the profit of selling board games goes to the developer, to the publisher, to the retailer, and to a middleman called the distributor, who holds the inventory and handles some of the shipping.
Filippi told Polygon it’s a simple question of margins. Say that the retail price for a board game is $100. Flyos — in this instance acting as both the developer and the publisher — would have to sell that $100 game to a distributor for $40, who marks it up to $50 and sells it to a retailer. Then the retailer turns around and gets the $50 profit — or whatever fraction of that they’re willing to take after in-store discounts. Vampire: The Masquerade - Chapters starts at CA$179 (about $140), and there’s an awful lot crammed into that box. There’s simply no way to accommodate the traditional path from publisher to distributor to retailer at that price.
Flyos isn’t alone in this model. Many tabletop games, especially large, miniatures-heavy board games, are adopting a similar model. That has led to the emergence of a Kickstarter competitor called Gamefound, which handles both the initial crowdfunding campaign and the after-campaign sales — “late pledges” in the parlance. But once these extended campaigns are over, there won’t be any copies available in stores.
That leaves it up to developers like Flyos to drive home the value of the products that it’s creating, and Filipi and Paitre have a pretty good story to tell.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Chapters is designed for one to four players. Everyone at the table takes on the role of a vampire secretly trying to live their lives in modern-day Montreal. The storyline is run out of a single spiral-bound book with smaller pamphlets for each of the more than 60 encounters. Those pamphlets, combined with individual character sheets, manage the game’s many dialogue trees, investigations, and combat encounters.
“It’s closer to a video game than a TTRPG, actually,” Paitre said.
When the final product begins shipping in July 2021, it will include more than 300,000 words of narrative, 20 double-sided tiles depicting real-world areas around Montreal, and miniatures to represent the playable vampire clans. There are tiles for nonplayer characters, cards for combat — it’s a lot, the pair says. In fact, the entire box is roughly twice the size of the famously large Gloomhaven. At 25 pounds, it’s quite a bit heavier as well.
There are plenty of upgrades and expansions available for the base game. The all-in package runs CA$499, but again, the only way to get any of it right now is via pre-order. Delivery of the first wave of product is set for July, and Flyos says it’s tracking to that date fairly well.
Aside from the economics of making something so large and ambitious, the entire project has been running in the shadow of the ongoing pandemic. As with many other games, playtesting of Chapters moved from in-person to virtual, using Tabletop Simulator. Flyos made the game’s in-development scenarios available to potential backers during a Kickstarter campaign that ran in 2020. You can download them right now to demo for free: the first full scenario, and prologues for the Malkavian, Venture, and Gangrel factions.
The Vampire license has had a tough time over the last few years. In 2018, the 5th edition of the Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop role-playing game had a launch plagued by unforced errors in tone and content, which ultimately led to a reorganization of its development team within Paradox. The Swedish developer and publisher also made the unusual move to sideline the studio behind its highly anticipated video game set in the franchise, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2. That project is now delayed indefinitely.
Luckily for Flyos and its backers, no such issues have cropped up in the development of the new board game. Chapters is still on target to launch in July, and Filippi and Paitre say the content of the game itself is sound.
“We have a very close relationship with Paradox,” Paitre said, “who are reading everything that we make to make sure that we’ve not broken the lore, that everything makes sense, and that it’s feeding the overall vision of products from Paradox and from ourselves.”
Consumers can expect Vampire: The Masquerade - Chapters to be a thoroughly 18-and-over experience, the pair said. Themes of sexual violence, which some games in the franchise have historically enabled, will not be a part of the final game.
“It’s mature in all other ways,” Paitre said, “but everything related to sexual assaults, or anything that can be impactful in terms of a division of, you know, how sexuality is related to violence, we avoid it at this time of the campaign, just because it’s something that does not resonate with us.”
The final push for Vampire: The Masquerade - Chapters is taking place on crowdfunding website Crowd Ox. The campaign has so far earned more than CA$2.15 million, and runs through March 10.