One of the greatest genres of modern board games – cooperative games – effectively didn’t exist two decades ago. Just 15 years ago, tabletop games were a bit of a dead end. On one side were traditional, family-friendly board games that Americans had kept in their closets for generations. On the other side were elaborate strategy wargames and niche miniatures games that only appealed to a few enthusiasts. Either way, in any case, players sat around the table looking for a confrontation, whether through drops and ladders or slightly more violent means. Then, in the early 2000s, everything changed.
Fireside Games co-founder Justin De Witt, creator of the hit co-op board game Castle Panicremembers when things changed for him.
“I mean it was 1999 or 2000,” De Witt told Polygon in a recent video call. “A friend pulled out a copy of Settlers of Catan, and I was blown away. What happened to board games? They are fun now! And you don’t have to beat the other guy!
Now known as Catania, the world’s best-selling board game by Klaus Tueber, has put “European-style” tabletop games in the limelight. Eurogames, as they have been called, are not based on random dice rolls. They also minimize open confrontation, opting instead to encourage players to compete while pursuing parallel goals. But Eurogames also have another feature that, initially at least, made them a tough sell in the US market: they often lack a strong theme. That makes them hard to describe, hard to market, and, well, kinda boring.
“I didn’t really feel like I was building a village,” said De Witt, recalling his first time playing Catania. “I was scoring points by buying things and trading things. But I wanted something where you felt like you were going to die. I wanted players to have that, ‘Oh, my God! We work together or we are doomed!’ moment.”
This inspired De Witt to invent Castle Panic, a game in which 1 to 6 players work together to defend their castle against a horde of rampaging enemies. It takes the simplicity and satisfaction of the tower defense genre and combines it with Tolkien-style high fantasy. The result is a satisfying experience for gamers of all ages. Today, more than a decade after its conception, Castle Panic Second Edition comes to detail.
But the best-selling board game almost didn’t get made at all. De Witt’s training was as an artist and he always dreamed of one day working for Disney. After working a series of tech jobs – and also suffering some nasty layoffs – he finally came to work at Steve Jackson Games, a company best known for its line of Munchkin card games.
“That’s when I started working on the idea of a real cooperative game,” De Witt said, “before something that big was out there. I had different genre ideas, Well maybe we’re on a pirate shipWhere maybe we’re on a spaceship. It was around the same time that the Lord of the Rings movies were released. I was like, Oh! We should make a castle out of it!”
The concept, inspired by the Battle of Helm’s Deep, stuck. Soon De Witt had a prototype and some samples of the final game. He and his wife, Anne-Marie De Witt, spent time driving around the American South demonstrating the game to independent retailers, running their fledgling business more or less out of the trunk of their car during their holidays. The process taught them a lot about consumer expectations.
“One of the things we had to do to make Castle Panic the job very early on was to physically get the players out of the game,” De Witt said. “Instead of having a piece on the board, you became the castle, which is a weird abstract leap that to this day I still see people when they’re new to the game say, ‘Wait, what? I am not this tower?’ No. “Am I the red side of the board? ” Nope. You are the castle.
In a time before crowdfunding was mainstream, and in a time before investing in tabletop games was even on Silicon Valley’s radar, the De Witts funded the development of Castle Panic themselves. Justin De Witt even did all the art, which saved the company a lot of money. Then they bet a pretty penny on that first experimental final game draw.
“There’s a big moment when Anne-Marie literally writes the cheque,” De Witt said, “and I’m like, Stop. Do we really want to do this? We can still cancel at this point. But no, no… we have to do this. We must do this. So we take the big check and send it. The game is made, it arrives, and our 3,500 copies sell out in just 10 weeks. We are just amazed.
Castle Panic is now the cornerstone of the Fireside Games catalog. It’s a successful small business with a handful of other popular titles on the market. Castle Panic Second Edition is a chance to modernize the look of the game which, De Witt sheepishly admitted, “looked like it was 10 years old.” The gameplay remains almost entirely unchanged. This same art entered into Castle Panic: Big Box second edition, which bundles all of the game’s most popular expansions into one package. Both are ready to welcome the next generation of board gamers to the table.
“We built it to be a gateway,” De Witt said. “So many people come up to us and tell us it was their first game, or the one their kids still enjoy playing the most. […] I think we are still on the right track.