One of the biggest genres in modern board gaming — cooperative games — effectively didn’t exist two decades ago. Even just 15 years ago, tabletop gaming was in a bit of a rut. On the one side were traditional, family-friendly board games that Americans had been storing in their hallway closets for generations. On the other side were elaborate strategy wargames and niche miniatures games that appealed only to the devoted few. Regardless, in all cases players sat around the table looking for a confrontation, whether by chutes and ladders or slightly more violent means. Then, in the early 2000s, everything changed.
Fireside Games co-founder Justin De Witt, creator of the hit cooperative board game Castle Panic, remembers the moment things changed for him.
“I want to say it was 1999 or 2000,” De Witt told Polygon during a recent video call. “A friend pulled out a copy of Settlers of Catan, and I was blown away. What has happened to board games? They’re fun now! And you don’t have to beat the other guy down!”
Now known as Catan, Klaus Tueber’s internationally best-selling board game brought “European-style” tabletop games into the spotlight. Eurogames, as they came to be called, don’t rely on randomized dice rolls. They also downplay open confrontation, electing instead to encourage players to compete against each other while pursuing parallel goals. But Eurogames also have another feature that, initially at least, made them a tough sell on the American market: They often lack a strong theme. That makes them hard to describe, hard to market, and, well, kind of boring.
“I didn’t really feel like I was building a village,” De Witt said, recalling that first time playing Catan. “I was scoring points by buying things, and by trading things. But I wanted something where you felt like you were going to die. I wanted to have the players have that, ‘Oh, my God! We work together or we’re doomed!’ moment.”
That inspired De Witt to invent Castle Panic, a game in which 1-6 players work together to defend their castle against a rampaging horde of enemies. It takes the simplicity and satisfaction of the tower defense genre and marries it to Tolkien-style high fantasy. The result is a satisfying experience for players of all ages. Today, more than a decade after it was first conceived, Castle Panic Second Edition arrives at retail.
But the best-selling board game almost didn’t get made at all. De Witt’s educational background was as an artist, and he always dreamed of one day working for Disney. After working a series of jobs in the technology sector — and also experiencing some nasty layoffs — he eventually came to work at Steve Jackson Games, a company best known for its Munchkin line of novelty card games.
“That’s when I started working on the idea of an actual cooperative game,” De Witt said, “before anything big like that was out there. I had different ideas of like, Well, maybe we’re on a pirate ship, or maybe we’re on a spaceship. This is about the same time that The Lord of the Rings movies were out. I was like, Oh! We should do a castle one!”
The concept, inspired by the Battle of Helm’s Deep, stuck. Soon De Witt had a prototype and a few samples of the final game. He and his wife, Anne-Marie De Witt, spent time driving around the American South demoing the game to independent retailers, running their nascent company more or less out of the trunk of their car while on vacation. The process taught them a lot about consumer expectations.
“One of the things we had to do to make Castle Panic work very early on was to take the players out of the game physically,” De Witt said. “Instead of having a piece on the board, you became the castle, which is a weird abstract jump that, to this day, I still see people when they’re new to gaming go like, ‘Wait, what? I’m not that tower?’ Nope. ‘Am I the red side of the board?’ Nope. You are the castle.”
In a time before crowdfunding was common, and in a time before investment in tabletop gaming was even on Silicon Valley’s radar, the De Witts funded the development of Castle Panic themselves. Justin De Witt even did all the art, saving the company a bunch of money. Then they wagered a tidy sum on that first experimental print run of the final game.
“There’s a great moment where Anne-Marie is literally writing the check,” De Witt said, “and I’m like, Stop. Do we really want to do this? We could still cancel at this point. But no, no... we gotta do this. We gotta do this. So we take the big check and we send it off. The game gets manufactured, it arrives, and our 3,500 copies sell out in just 10 weeks. We are just stunned.”
Castle Panic is now the cornerstone of the Fireside Games catalog. Theirs is a successful small business with a handful of other popular titles on the market. Castle Panic Second Edition is a chance to modernize the look of the game which, De Witt admitted sheepishly, “looked 10 years old.” The gameplay remains almost entirely unchanged. That same art went into Castle Panic: Big Box Second Edition, which bundles up all of the most popular expansions for the game into a single package. Both stand ready to welcome the next generation of board gamers to the table.
“We built it to be a gateway,” De Witt said. “So many people come up to us and tell us it was their first game, or it’s the one their kids still love to play the most. [...] I think we’re still on the right track.”