Rolling the dice: Winnipeggers try their luck at designing board games in competitive market

Lorne Kletke tweaked and polished his game for months, spending as many as 14 hours a day fine-tuning his prototype. The product he's satisfied with isn't the first or second version of the game, but rather "version 10.5."

Board games increasing in popularity, but creators say detailed planning needed to stand out in the crowd

Winnipeg's Lorne Kletke, right, plays Borders of Kanta, the game he created. He spent months tweaking and polishing the game, which will enter a crowded board game market. 'Your first game is totally a learning opportunity — an exercise in humility,' he says. (Travis Golby/CBC)

In a crowd of other wannabe board game creators, Lorne Kletke had the germ of an idea sketched on paper and glued to pieces of cardboard.  

The Winnipegger thought fellow designers at an event in Edmonton last March wouldn't think much of his creation.

"I thoroughly expected to be kind of torn apart," he remembers.

"Instead, I found a very supportive community where people were willing to chat with me and give feedback, even though, looking back, it was laughable the state at which the game was."

He's proud of what he eventually created: Borders of Kanta, a tile-laying, empire-building game where players try to control the balance of power in their world. It will be released later this year.

And although board games are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, thanks in no small part to people seeking out experiences with their family and friends that aren't reliant on screens and the rise of board game cafés, Borders of Kanta will face a challenge in a crowded market. 

One analysis suggests as many as 5,000 new games were published in 2018, says Brian Mitchell, co-owner of Amuse N Games in Winnipeg. (Travis Golby/CBC)

One analysis suggests as many as 5,000 new games were published last year, says the owner of a Winnipeg board game store.

But the appetite for games is out there, and creators like Kletke work to rise above the pack with a refined product. 

He tweaked and polished his game for months, spending as much as 12 to 14 hours a day fine-tuning his prototype.

The product he's satisfied with isn't the first or second version of the game, but rather "version 10.5," he said.

"Your first game is totally a learning opportunity — an exercise in humility."

Thousands of new games in 2018

It's important to get the mechanics right because ensuring your game stands out among the clutter is harder than ever.

Brian Mitchell, who owns the board game store A Muse N Games in St. James with his partner, saw this first-hand when he attended the largest board game convention of its kind in Germany.

Brian Mitchell, co-owner of Amuse N Games, says it's vital that new board game creators play-test their products. (Travis Golby/CBC)

He was expecting a staggering 1,000 new board games to debut on the convention floor.

"When I sat down for dinner with one of my suppliers on Saturday night, they revealed that their tally was 1,700 new games were released."

He considers it his duty to unearth the games worthy of his customers' time.

"There's obviously some guesswork and there's almost a little bit of magic in it, where you just have to guess correctly."

The days of games like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride selling millions of copies are long gone. Most creators, he says, will fail.

The days of games like Ticket to Ride selling millions of copies are long gone, says Mitchell. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"If a game sells 2,000 units, it's considered a blockbuster success."

Yet board games are experiencing a renaissance, and the market is expected to keep growing.

A market research report released last year predicts the global board game industry will grow to become a $12-billion business by 2023, with a compound annual growth rate of more than nine per cent.

"The high disposable income of millennial[s] will help generate high revenues in the global board games market," says the Research and Markets report, which says more than 5,000 board-game cafés opened in the U.S. alone in 2016.

Crowdfunding spurs on game creators

And when the sector is thriving, people take notice.

Almost weekly, Mitchell says, he's talking to someone about a board game proposal they're kicking around. They feel emboldened by online crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, which can help them raise money in exchange for rewards.

He says Kickstarter has done for board games what computers and the internet did for musicians wanting to make songs.

Borders of Kanta, a tile-laying, empire-building game, was thoroughly play-tested by Kletke, says Mitchell. 'He has done every ounce of due diligence.' (Travis Golby/CBC)

To make it as a board game creator, though, you must leave as little to chance as possible.

Mitchell appreciates an approach like Kletke's — getting his game tested extensively by other designers, as well as experienced and new gamers.

"Lorne has come to market with a complete game," Mitchell said. "He has play-tested it thoroughly. He has a marketing vision for it. It looks good. It plays well.… He has done every ounce of due diligence."

You just have to keep plugging away and make something that's so darn good it grabs their attention.- Will O'Donnell, Surplus of Popes co-creator 

Kletke isn't the only Winnipegger trying game design for themselves.

Will O'Donnell, along with longtime collaborator Bart Rucinski, released a card game called Surplus of Popes in 2016.

The pitch is simple: each player tries to prove they're the coolest pope of them all. Other than its name, it has little to do with the actual papacy.

"There's cards that say things like, 'I make devastatingly good omelettes,' and that's worth about six pride points," in the game, O'Donnell explains.

First impressions matter: O'Donnell

But before anyone plays his game, he has to convince them his deck of cards is worth picking up in an oversaturated gaming market.

"You just have to keep plugging away and make something that's so darn good it grabs their attention."

For him, the name of the game helped. It turned people's heads at game conventions, and got the creators meetings with publishers.

Surplus of Popes creators Will O'Donnell, left, and Bart Rucinski created a silly card game that strives to answer the question of who is the coolest of the popes. (Submitted by Will O'Donnell)

An opportunity arose recently after an Alberta publisher mentioned they'd like to try their hand at a sillier game.

A half-hour later, O'Donnell came back with scribbles that piqued the publisher's interest and now they're planning to collaborate on a game.

"That wouldn't have happened if we weren't touring it around, shopping it around, showing people what we have and seeing if it's worthwhile in other people's eyes."

It won't make him rich, he knows — but he won't stop.

Bringing gamers together gratifying

He finds satisfaction coming across other people playing his games. He's seen that a few times at board game cafés.

"I see them laughing and enjoying it and they have no idea the creator is there watching them do this, and that's incredibly rewarding."

Kletke is not deterred by the risks in entering the board game sector. He compares it to the Manitoba book author who may not garner massive sales nationwide, but can thrive in a niche market.

Buoyed by the early success of his Kickstarter campaign, he's planning to make a second game.

"I finally found that thing that I love and I'm trying to make it work," Kletke said.

About the Author

Ian Froese


Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email:


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