Building a Board Game Empire on Disney’s Shoulders
On a large, reclaimed-metal conference table in the lofty, brightly painted Seattle offices of Wonder Forge—among roaming dogs, treadmill desks, a surfboard, and Snoopy and Darth Vader figurines—the company’s latest board game is ready for play. Flight of the Jaquins, which is scheduled to be released in May, is based on the Disney Channel’s Elena of Avalor; Elena, as anyone with young kids knows, is a Latina princess with magic powers. The game’s cardboard playing surface and other components will look familiar to adults who grew up with Monopoly, Sorry!, and the Game of Life: illustrated instructions in English (and Spanish); colored dice that correspond to treasure cards; a stack of spell-casting cards; and four plastic Jaquins, which are mythical flying jungle cats. The centerpiece is a pop-up Mission-style castle where Elena and her friends live, and it presents Wonder Forge Chief Executive Officer Jacobe Chrisman, 43, with a challenge. “How do we do something big and real but also make it safe for kids and resilient enough that it won’t break if your brother steps on it?” he asks, examining the prototype. “All of which has to fit into a $15 package.”
It’s not the first time Chrisman has had to ask this question. Potential smushings by rambunctious siblings are a habitual concern for the company, which, since its founding a decade ago, has become the dominant maker of licensed children’s board games. Many in the toy industry assume that the way to win a kid’s heart is via apps and other technological gewgaws, but Wonder Forge has carved out a lucrative niche in the board game market. You might not recognize the name, but chances are you’ve come across a Wonder Forge invention: The company sells 8 million games annually, for age 3 and up, at retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Toys “R” Us. Its 120 titles feature characters including Peppa Pig, Curious George, and Mickey Mouse, as well as those from the Frozen film and the Marvel universe.
Spurred by hits such as Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity, the overall U.S. board game market grew from $794 million in 2008 to $1.6 billion in 2015, or more than 100 percent, according to NPD Group’s retail tracking service. The service doesn’t break out figures for preschool and children’s sales. But in a separate report from November, NPD found that in the first three quarters of 2016, children’s and preschool game sales took in $400 million, a 20 percent increase over the same period in 2015.
“Wonder Forge is able to reach beyond that niche of progressive parents” who worry about the havoc wreaked on their toddlers’ brains by too much screen time, says Jon-Paul Dyson, a director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. Like smoothies blended with spinach, Wonder Forge games are designed to sneak healthy stuff into something kids enjoy. None of it’s something a boy or girl would notice while playing Disney Princess Enchanted Cupcake Party, but it’s the velvet rope separating Wonder Forge’s games from its competitors’. Its licensing deals allow beloved characters such as, say, Frozen’s Elsa, to teach skills both social (negotiation, empathy, cooperation) and cognitive (pattern recognition, strategy, balance). “Playing a game, you learn simple things like how to take turns, how to be part of a team, how to bluff, how to win or lose without being a jerk,” says Stephen Conway, a board game designer who runs the blog Major Fun. “But you also get to know the people you’re playing with. You learn about them, and they learn about you by how you play.”
Ironically, Chrisman turned cardboard evangelist during the late-’90s dot-com boom. In 1999, after selling for an undisclosed amount a data-mining software company he founded, he intended to go into the video game business. Instead, Chrisman was recruited to work at a new board game company two former Microsoft employees had started the previous year. It was called Cranium. The Trivial Pursuit-Pictionary-charades hybrid game of the same name that it designed for age 12 and up sold 15 million copies before Hasbro bought it and the rest of Cranium’s catalog in 2008 for $77.5 million.
Although Chrisman left Cranium in 2004, he remained, he says, a “significant shareholder.” (He won’t disclose his takeaway from the sale.) After returning from a 2005 surfing sabbatical, he realized there was a gap in the board game market, which skewed toward innovative adult strategy games or uninspired games for children. “What people were used to 10 or 12 years ago were licensed games that were either so simple you’d throw them away or something you’d played before,” like a Disney version of Monopoly, Chrisman says. His idea was to combine the originality of adult game design with the popular characters youngsters love.
Wonder Forge began by licensing popular preschool book franchises—Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town—and inventing games that brought these stories to life. Rather than base each one on the predictable “roll and move” formula most competitors rely on, Wonder Forge makes products that reward different styles of play—tabletop-based strategizing, performing physical challenges, and simple memory matching. (Wonder Forge works with Seattle design firm Forrest-Pruzan Creative to shape the look of its merchandise; the principals were colleagues at Cranium.) The Cat in the Hat’s I Can Do That! requires players to crawl backward under a foam stick with a plastic boat between their knees. All props are included.
The company’s games are imagined for the youngest of the young but geared no less to parents. “A great kid’s game is great because it’s a great game” regardless of what age range it’s intended for, says Steve Tassie, chief curator of Snakes & Lattes, a popular game cafe and store in Toronto. (Put another way: “Any preschool game worth its salt is a fabulous drinking game,” Chrisman jokes.) This whole-family approach isn’t easy. The younger the players, the more limited a toy’s ability to engage kids who are even slightly older. Wonder Forge games have won industry awards for their cross-generational appeal—the instructions for I Can Do That! explicitly recommend adjusting or ignoring rules depending on the players, which isn’t the industry norm. And Flight of the Jaquins will be one of the company’s first attempts at growing with its fans: The rules will change depending on which of three challenge levels are accepted; in each one, a player adds additional cards, characters, and pieces in what Chrisman calls a “graceful graduation of difficulty.”
Wonder Forge and Disney began working together in 2012 after an executive played I Can Do That! with his daughter and was impressed enough to reach out to Chrisman. Since then, the entertainment company has been Wonder Forge’s biggest source of licensing revenue growth. Disney’s Eye Found It! is evidence of how Wonder Forge envelops kids in all things Disney. The board is 6 feet long, and players have to work together to get their favorite character to Cinderella’s castle before midnight. To advance, participants dive into a Where’s Waldo?-style treasure hunt—or, depending on your perspective, branding buffet—for items from dozens of Disney movies: the orange pylons from the Cars auto repair yard and roses from the little French town in Beauty and the Beast, for example. The game, introduced in 2013, has sold more than 750,000 units, encouraging other versions with Disney properties such as Star Wars. The sequels aren’t just re-skins either. Instead of a 6-foot-long rectangle, the Star Wars rendition is made up of seven planets, including the Death Star; elements of game play change, too.
Sales of Wonder Forge games have increased more than 30 percent annually over the past four years, and Chrisman says yearly revenue is in the “double digit millions.” This month the company will formally merge with Ravensburger, a German game and puzzle giant that’s been around since the 19th century and has had a controlling stake since 2011. The arrangement promises to help Wonder Forge leverage its licensing relationships to enter the puzzle market. Wonder Forge is also making nonlicensed games skewed to an older audience. Last summer it rolled out three exclusively at Target, including a Clue-like jewel thief game called Suspicion.
Wonder Forge spends nothing on advertising. It markets, in part, through parent and toy blogs; the company has a database of 3,000 tester families across the country who receive reviewer copies. Ultimately, Chrisman says, good games sell themselves. His fiercest critics remain his daughter, 7, and son, 5, who make the slightly unreasonable demand that he bring home a new game every night. “When I didn’t have kids, I always second-guessed myself,” Chrisman says. “Now, if I see them getting into a game, I say, ‘We have something here.’ ”