Game Plan: Local IT firm takes board games global

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.”



TGC does not manufacture game board pieces — or bits. “We are constantly searching the world to find places that produce [bits],” Smith notes. “We will buy 5,000 of this or 5,000 of that so people can add them to their game.” Some pieces are vintage — such as Monopoly or Clue game pieces.

Currently, TGC boasts 51,000 worldwide users and has an inventory of 48,000 game titles in its Web library. Last year, the company produced 36,000 copies of 8,000 games, and 2014 will surpass that. The company serves a worldwide market with 30% of shipments traveling internationally.

“We’re focused globally, not locally,” Smith says. “Madison is just one more city in the world. We have to be that way. There are 7 billion people in the world, but only a million potential clients.”

The company is in year five of a 10-year plan to reach all of those potential million. In the next five years, it may open a trial machine in Europe — perhaps in Germany, Poland, or Holland.

The longtime friends and owners live in separate markets — Smith in Madison; Parker, marketing, in Michigan; and Vrbsky, logistics, in LaCrosse — so they collaborate regularly through email or Skype. The company employs — and pays — 29 mostly full-time workers.

“In the greater scheme of the $11 billion board game market, we’re a fly on the wall,” Smith admits. “But this is successful in that it exceeded our initial expectations, it’s paying my salary, and we’ve created 30 jobs, essentially, from thin air.”

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