It was a hot June night in San Luis Obispo, Calif. At about 1 a.m., after a marathon session of The Settlers of Catan, two friends decided to solve a problem that has plagued players since the game's release in the mid-1990s -- the flimsy cardboard playing surface.
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Feeling frustrated, Bill Trammel posed a simple question to Nate Veldkamp: "Why don’t we just solve this whole Catan board problem?"
Even though it was past the witching hour, Trammel and Veldkamp got right to work designing a sturdier playing surface. They posted their work on Facebook, and when their friends reacted positively to the idea, they decided to take it a step further.
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Here's the original rendering they posted to Facebook after that marathon design session:
“We were sort of inspired by those hacker nights they have in Silicon Valley,” Trammel says. “We just wanted to be able to sit down and build something."
The two would continue by applying business models and startup concepts to improve on the age-old institution of board gaming.
Identifying the Problem
The Settlers of Catan is a popular strategy board game designed for three to four players, or up to six, with a board expansion. The board itself is an especially important component because it changes each new game. It consists of six-sided cardboard resource "hexes" arranged in the shape of an island inside a six-sided frame, colored to look like water. The 19 hexes are randomly arranged before each game, which ensures that no two games of Catan play out the same.
The board's frame links like a jigsaw puzzle, and the resource hexes fig snugly inside the frame. But more commonly, the frame pieces don't fit perfectly, which causes the hexes to shift or overlap, setting off a chain reaction of broken roads, tipping settlements and crumbling cities. This is what the cardboard Catan island looks like (notice the cracks and overlap):
Many have attempted to solve this problem over the years, but no design ever earned an official endorsement from the game's producers -- that is, until Trammel and Veldkamp came along.
"We had dozens of submissions over the years for various Catan board prototypes; however, none of them were able to strike the delicate balance of solid construction, appropriate cost and proper business model," Guido Teuber tells Mashable. "We always knew there needed to be a Catan board, but it wasn't until Bill and Nate approached us that we felt confident that it could be done."
Not only did his father, Klaus Teuber, invent The Settlers of Catan, but Guido Teuber is also the managing director of Catan GmbH/LLC. He plays an important role in curating and continuing development of his father's game, which is why it was important to win his endorsement.
"The key was getting the support of Catan and Mayfair," Trammel says, referring to the two companies that oversee the game -- Catan, GmbH/LLC and Mayfair Games.
The Trammel and Veldkamp duo had already been working on the project for two months when they pitched it to the Catan brass. Not only did they generate a 3D prototype of the playing surface, but they had also lined up a manufacturing company to produce the boards, should the deal be approved. This the prototype they pitched:
When the time came to submit the pitch, Veldkamp, a 20-year-old business student at California Polytechnic, sent an email saying they were willing to pay a royalty for each board sold, in exchange for being able to use Catan's official branding. The two upstarts sealed the deal when they said the magic word: "Kickstarter."
Crowdfunding the Project
Trammel and Veldkamp brought their Catan-sanctioned idea to Kickstarter on Oct. 5, with an initial goal of raising $25,000.
"That was the minimum threshold to create the plastic injection molds for the initial run," Veldkamp tells Mashable.
The backers lined up, and within six hours, they surpassed the goal. At the end of the first day of the Kickstarter campaign, the project raised more than $30,000.
“It kind of got the viral effect; it hit all the top charts on the Kickstarter page -- for a few sections and staff picks,” Veldkamp says.
From there, they began working on stretch goals, which included other boards and accessories to improve the gaming experience. The project is a plastic base with perfectly shaped depressions where the hexes and roads rest. The board dissembles into two pieces (three pieces with the expansion) for storage and portability. Some of the stretch projects include one-piece wood playing surfaces made out of walnut and beech wood, a custom-engraved aluminum surface and a resource card holder.
Here's a look at the designs:
The plastic pieces of the playing surface snap into to place. The two outer pieces fit together for the regular 3-4 player version, and the elongated center piece makes room for the 5-6 player expansion.
In about a month's time, and with under two weeks remaining, the Kickstarter project has raised over $250,000.
Using the Tech Startup Business Model
Throughout the process, Trammel and Veldkamp have treated this Catan project like a tech startup would tackle software development. Aside from the all-night "hackathon" and Kickstarter success, the product was optimized with "patches" and "updates" using a short feedback loop.
"With hardware products, traditionally you’re really limited," Veldkamp says. "Normally you wouldn’t receive feedback until you’ve already released the product."
“We were sort of inspired by those hacker nights they have in silicon valley; we just wanted to be able to sit down and build something.”
Kickstarter has created what Veldkamp calls a “beta stage” for board design, “where [they] can refine the product and make updates to it, based on the feedback we receive before the mold is even made.” The duo accepted feedback on products they were designing -- as they were designing the products. Backers provided insight through polls and comments on Facebook and Kickstarter.
Just like early adopters of beta software, Veldkamp said he believes backers of the Catan playing surface are willing to front money well in advance because they are enthusiastic about taking part in the design period.
"They feel like being involved in the process and the creation of the product is a rewarding experience," he says.
Trammel took this concept to the extreme by launching a livestream while designing one of the wooden playing surfaces in SolidWorks. Commenting in real time, viewers helped him make key decisions about the product's design.
"It was really cool from a design standpoint, to be able to have a live feedback loop," Trammel says.
Rolling Out the Product
Demand has exceeded their expectations, but Trammel and Veldkamp say they expect to deliver the new products to early birds and other backers starting in April 2013. All backers should receive their products by the following June.
Although the contract between the designers and Catan, the company, only extends through the end of the Kickstarter project, both sides seem confident they will form a lasting partnership. This means the new Catan products should be on sale to the general public starting some time in the summer of 2013.
"The plan for the future is to continue on with the Catan board product line, working with Bill and Nate," Teuber says. "After the Kickstarter closes and the first batches of boards ship out to backers, the boards and other products will be added to our webstore, Catan Shop."
The basic two-piece plastic Catan playing surface will sell for $29.99, and the expansion piece will cost another $14.99. The two sides have not yet set retail pricing for the other products, which can still be reserved through Nov. 19 by pledging support on the project's Kickstarter page.
At long last, it seems the duo will "settle" Catan's board problem, and without causing any seismic shifts in the iconic island's foundation. Your sheep, wheat, brick, wood and ore are safe for now -- but as always, beware of the robber.
Do you plan on buying the new playing surface? What other types of products could benefit from this type of business model? Give us all your Catan insights in the comments below.
Old Catan board image courtesy of Flickr, ben.chaney.archive
BONUS: LEGO Settlers of Catan: The Nerdiest Thing Ever
1. LEGO Settlers of Catan Full Board
LEGO Cuuscoo is a forum where fans can upload mocks of new LEGO ideas and other members can vote for them. User Michael created his version of LEGO Settlers of Catan board game.
This story originally published on Mashable here.