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Game Plan: Local IT firm takes board games global

J.T. Smith, Jamie Vrbsky, and Tavis Parker in a rare moment together. Cog, their self-built company icon, stands 8 feet 3 inches tall, weighs 630 pounds, and impresses crowds at trade events.

J.T. Smith, Jamie Vrbsky, and Tavis Parker in a rare moment together. Cog, their self-built company icon, stands 8 feet 3 inches tall, weighs 630 pounds, and impresses crowds at trade events.

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When J.T. Smith, 40, first pitched his new business idea to his business partners, he had some convincing to do. Tavis Parker, 34, remembers that day clearly. “We do website software for very large corporate settings,” Parker said. “Then J.T. proposed we start a company that makes board games. I thought, ‘Are you serious? Is this a real meeting?’”

Indeed it was.

Smith, Parker, and Jamie Vrbsky launched The Game Crafter (TGC) in 2009. The company, Parker says, is on track to top $1.5 million in revenue this year.

The Game Crafter, a finalist in this year’s Governor’s Business Plan Contest, is an Internet-software company. “Everything we do, until it gets to the plant, is completely automated with software I wrote,” says Smith, the company’s CEO. An accomplished entrepreneur, Smith has started 14 businesses thus far. Five are currently operating, and a sixth is being launched.

“J.T. was a game designer,” notes Parker, “and it was painful to get a prototype made. You’d either have to spend a bunch of money for one copy of a game, or you’d have to pay people for large quantities of games, like 500, 1,500, or 15,000. Then you’d have a bunch of products you wouldn’t sell. With us, people can order one game, one deck of cards, or even just one card.”

The threesome launched the business with a combination of their own money and proceeds from Plain Black, another of their successful software companies, knowing they needed to produce 100 games a month for the venture to be successful.

The orders streamed in: 150 the first month, 300 the second ... Within 10 days of launching, the site was mentioned on popular gaming blogs, and word quickly spread from coast to coast. “It was exhilarating and scary,” admitted Smith. “We had no idea there was such a demand.”

The Game Crafter does not design games; it manufactures them at its Madison plant (or “machine”). It is the only company in the world that features a one-stop-shop design, Smith notes.
Board game enthusiasts with game ideas (suitable for ages 12 and up) can go to the TGC website, choose from various game board and component templates, upload artwork to TGC specifications, and within two weeks receive their game in the mail, complete with a box, game pieces, custom-made money, dice, or other components. Cost? Between $20 and $45 per game, depending on size and complexity.

“You don’t have to pay anything until you’re ready to buy a game,” Smith adds. Designers can also opt to sell their games on the TGC website.
The local company makes game boxes, cards, mats, and foldable game boards (a la Trivial Pursuit). “We even make tiles for tile-placing games,” Smith adds. A custom-made deck of cards costs just $6. “We just provide a blank strip. Customers provide the art that goes on it.”

(Continued)

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