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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Vintage Board Games Are Getting a Modern Revival

There is a feeling, among millennials, that the tabletop scene was in the stone age until 1996. That's the year that Settlers of Catan made landfall in the United States, as lunch halls, dorm lounges, and kitchen tables around the country fell head over heels for Klaus Teuber's miraculous contraption. 

Catan remains the most successful boutique board game in human history; its tight milieu of roads, resources, and thoughtful decisions has firmly overwritten the Monopolies and Candylands that used to reign unrivaled within the public consciousness. But Restoration Games believes that modernity has its limits. No matter how big the tabletop industry gets—no matter how much money we shell out for distant Kickstarters promising vibrant new frontiers in cardboard—the distant past still holds some buried treasures.

Of course, in this case, "distant past" refers to that darkened, enigmatic era before 1996.

Restoration Games is the brainchild of attorney and avid board gamer Justin Jacobson and legendary designer Rob Daviau. Jacobson had made a hobby of doing pro bono legal work for indie tabletop companies, which dovetailed into a conversation with Daviau about one of his lost classics: Star Wars: Queen's Gambit. Queen's Gambit is a textbook white whale in the board game community: a wooly, colorful, well-hewn war game based on The Phantom Menace that has unfortunately been out of print for eons. (If you want to play it, your best bet is to drop $500 on Ebay.) Jacobson floated the idea of re-releasing Queen's Gambit without the Star Wars theme, eschewing some of the Disney-poisoned legal waters in order to reintroduce the design to the general public. Daviau demurred. He wasn't interested in cracking open Queen's Gambit again, but he did spend a few moments thinking about the many, many great games that weren't lucky enough to be released in our ongoing tabletop renaissance.


"We started talking about the games that we played as kids, and some of the ones we'd like to see brought back," says Jacobson. "I was getting pretty miserable practicing law. My firm had changed pretty drastically since I started. So I went to lunch with some friends from high school, and they told me to give up my legal career and go into board games. I made Rob [Daviau] an offer he couldn't refuse, and we immediately started thinking about what games we'd want to revive."

Restoration Games officially launched in 2017, and its catalog speaks for itself. Jacobson and Daviau reached back to 1979 and resuscitated Stop Thief, a long-abandoned Parker Brothers heirloom that was famously packaged with an electronic device players would use to track down burglars on the streets. (Restoration retrofitted that gimmick with a smartphone app.) There's Downforce, a wonderful game of bluffing and bidding on a sun-drenched racetrack, which has bounced through various different publishers for the past 40 years. Unmatched is the sole 21st-century relic in the inventory—it's a two-player tactics module based on a Daviau game called Star Wars: Epic Duels from 2002. Restoration Games strips out all of the prequel characters in favor of public-access heroes; you might not be able to play as Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Robin Hood and King Arthur fit the bill perfectly.

But Jacobson and Daviau's most popular product might be their rekindling of the 1986 tour de force Fireball Island. That is the game that put the company on the map, and it is where I was first introduced to a very specific sort of bygone euphoria that only Restoration could manifest. My third-grade classroom was equipped with a copy of the original Fireball Island, which became the focal point of all of my after-school revelry. It's a very silly game—intrepid adventures scale a rugged plastic mountain, only to be knocked back down the summit by rolling orange marbles—and I had completely forgotten about it as the years passed by. But as soon as I saw Restoration's Fireball Island packaging, a remote tripwire ruptured in my brain. Suddenly I was inundated by all of these buried childhood memories, crystal clear once again, as if this board game served as the password to my own limbic system. According to Jacobson, the company gets those reactions all the time.

"People have these little visceral memories of playing certain games when they were kids. You don't think about them until something triggers it," he says. "We know we're on the right track in development when we get those kinds of responses."

None of this would be possible without a lot of juridical spelunking. That's one of the advantages of having an attorney on staff at a tabletop company—there's at least someone in the room who can parse the arcane language of licensing, authorship, and royalties when dredging up a board game from the abyss. The first thing Jacobson does when taking on a new project at Restoration is to try and contact the original designer. "Even if we don't have a legal obligation to compensate some of these designers, we do it anyway, because it's the right thing to do," he says. Once Restoration is in touch, these veteran board game architects are usually overjoyed that a publisher wants to breathe new life into their work. But that only goes so far. Sometimes, says Jacobson, those designers have died in the intervening decades. That was the case with Indulgence, a trick-taking game invented by Jerry D'Arcey in 1966, which Restoration republished in 2017. Jacobson had a difficult time reaching D'Arcey's inheritors, so he set aside a royalty fund in his family's name, just in case. After Indulgence was published, one of D'Arcey's sons got in touch with Restoration. "We sorted it out then," says Jacobson. "And it worked out fine." The handover was complete, and the legacy was secure.

Once all of those contractual bona fides are in place, Restoration breaks ground on their remaster. Jacobson and Daviau are nostalgists, but they aren't purists. This isn't a company that exclusively releases old board games in their native form, with all of the sticky inefficiencies and outmoded oversights one would expect out of a vintage, pre-Catan tabletop ecosystem. No, Restoration is happy to rip some mechanics out by the studs, and drizzle in lots of cosmopolitan thinking around the margins. Jacobson notes that Stop Thief was a roll-and-move game—à la Monopoly—when it was released in the ’70s. That simply wasn't going to fly in a realm of Power Grid, Dominion, and Scythe. So, with a few smart updates, this Parker Brothers antique was ready for the hobbyists.

"We try to find the soul of the game. What are the touchstones? What do people remember when they say, 'Oh, I love that game!' They're thinking about some core aspect. When people remember Stop Thief, they're not focused on rolling and moving," says Jacobson, who implemented a far more modern card-driven locomotive system. "We say, 'Let's make a modern board game using those touchstones.'"

You can find those contemporary trappings all over the Restoration archive. Fireball Island now has three different expansions; Downforce counters with two of its own. Restoration's latest target, a sequel to the legendary 1981 Milton Bradley game Dark Tower, will undoubtedly spark an ongoing wave of content, as Restoration spindles off each of their heavy-hitters into their own bespoke universes. Jacobson adored Dark Tower when it was first released, and now he gets to usher in a generation who came of age during this unprecedented tabletop awakening about how people like him gamed in the analog days. A time before quaint board game cafés and an explosion of D&D podcasts, when the unapologetically geeky hid out in steaming basements to roll their dice in peace.

"New players get the opportunity to see some of these games that were out before they were born. Some of these games have really cool elements that haven't been tried again," says Jacobson. "It's an opportunity to show people that stuff in a modern and fresh way."

That's the beauty of Restoration's praxis. With just a dash of modern engineering, and a deep, enveloping love for the full breadth of board game history, they're proving that 1996 is just the tip of the iceberg.

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