Inside the Secret Board Game Maker: Meet the unknown team behind Pandemic, Terra Mystica and Scythe
If you’re at least a passing fan of board games (a likely guess given you’re reading this), you can doubtless name a dozen designers whose work you enjoy – Matt Leacock, Rob Daviau, Richard Garfield, Jamey Stegmaier, Corey Konieczka, Vlaada Chvátil, Uwe Rosenberg… the list goes on. What’s more, you can probably rattle off at least a handful of your favourite publishers: Z-Man, Bezier, Plaid Hat, Portal and maybe even niche start-ups discovered through Kickstarter or in the corner of conventions. Yet, even if you’re a more studious follower of the industry, you’re unlikely to have come into contact with the company that actually turns many of these creators’ ideas into the printed wood and card that ends up on your table.
In a business still populated by supercentenarian game makers such as Ravensburger, Kosmos and Hasbro (alright, Hasbro’s ‘only’ 94 years old, we’ll admit), Panda Game Manufacturing is a relative infant, having first appeared a decade ago as the result of now-CEO Michael Lee engineering a single project he discovered on BoardGameGeek in 2007. Lee quickly brought on his brother, COO Richard, and committed to Panda full-time. The very next year, in 2008, Panda was responsible for producing two titles whose popularity and influence endures today: Ultimate Werewolf and Pandemic.
“The game that we have probably produced the most of in terms of quantity, and that is most well-known, is Pandemic,” Panda’s vice president of business development Brent Kinney tells me. “Pandemic has become a crossover hit and has landed in big box stores.”
In the years since, Panda has grown to a team of over 50, split between offices in North America, Canada and Germany and its factories in China. The company now manufactures hundreds of games every year, with 2016 landing it contracts for such success stories as Scythe, The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, Pandemic Iberia, Tiny Epic Western and Islebound, to name just a few.
"Every game is unique, like a snowflake."
Many of the games go on to be lauded by critics and players alike, with Panda-made projects placing among the best of BoardGameGeek’s hallowed rankings. Component and printing quality often play a major role in the overall experience and acclaim of a title, yet players are quick to shower publishers, rather than manufacturers, with praise – and no wonder, with publisher badges gaining more and more prominence on the front of packaging and knowledge of game authorship increasingly reaching outside of exclusively enthusiast crowds. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell whether a specific game you own was made by Panda at all, if you didn’t know where to look.
“On the back of every game that we make, we put a small lot number on the barcode space of the box,” Kinney reveals. “This lot code allows us to track the print run in case we need to look it up for any reason. Along with that small lot number we put a tiny Panda logo next to it. So if you want to know if you are playing a Panda-produced game, just look at the barcode and check for a cute panda bear.”
You could make the case that designers, artists and publishers deserve more credit for coming up with the inspiration for a game’s idea and aesthetic in the first place. But just as the iconic curves of the contoured Coca-Cola bottle wouldn’t have happened without the smart thinking of the Root Glass Company in 1915, Kinney insists that there are many aspects of tabletop games that wouldn’t be produced with quite as much as pizzazz without Panda’s involvement beyond simply putting out pieces and sticking them in a box.
“We look at our relationships with publishers as partnerships,” he asserts. “It is not just a transactional customer relationship because we are just as passionate about tabletop games as our publisher clients are and want to see their game be the best it can be and succeed. The relationships we have with publishers involve constant communication and discussion over different game components and printing elements; we make sure that everyone is invested in making the projects the best they can be.
“The publisher will give us the specifications that they have for a certain game and we will quote out the game to them based on those specs, but we will also discuss how the game plays and what type of theme it has so we can better know the product and make manufacturing suggestions that could enhance that product. For example, if I am talking with a publisher about a sci-fi game they want to make and they have listed wooden cubes as some of their components, I would probably suggest that they could use acrylic cubes instead to lend to the futuristic feel of the game.
“Mostly our publisher clients have a clear idea of what they want to do for their game, but we work in a consultative fashion to help bring up suggestions and lend our expertise where necessary.”
Pandemic boards in production.
The diversity and innovation of games designers remains one of the tabletop industry’s greatest strengths, producing everything from epic strategy titles with hundreds of miniatures and custom components to pocket-sized social games with minimum quantity but maximum quality. This means that, unlike industries where products tend to be minor variations on a roughly universal design, Panda must be able to adjust to manufacturing vastly different shapes, sizes, weights and materials – sometimes all within the same box.
“It is truly the case that the production of each game differs,” Kinney affirms. “Every game is unique, like a snowflake, so we need to take the time to get to know what the publisher’s vision is for the game and then share our manufacturing expertise with them to come up with the best possible version of that game.
“The basic production steps are the same for all games – pre-production, mass production and then shipping, but the way that the game takes shape is a little bit different for each title, which makes it very exciting.”
With so many projects passing along the factory line and out the door every month, I ask him what makes a particular title stand out.
“Projects can be interesting to manufacture for a variety of reasons – and those reasons usually are the same as the reasons that a game player would be interested in a particular game,” Kinney replies. “A project can be intriguing because it has a cool theme or deals with interesting subject matter. We may really enjoy a project because of its innovative art direction and graphic design.
“Personally, I love working on a project that has a new and exciting component in it because we get to help that client bring out something that is very original and it helps us expand our production capabilities.”
Another complication presented by the multiplicitous requirements of tabletop titles is quality assurance. With so many different pieces to manufacture – often demanding fine detail at a micro scale, as with the growing trend to include miniatures in conventional board games – and players who invest up to hundreds of pounds in a single title expecting a certain standard of finish, the pressure is on to not only deliver every single piece, but ensure every element is perfectly formed.
“We have a very deliberate process when it comes to making games that includes a lot of checkpoints to ensure all components are accounted for and present in the games,” Kinney reassures. “We have a checkpoint at the point of sale where the account manager goes over the specifications of the product with the client. We have another checkpoint in our project management kick-off call with the client to make sure that all of the client’s needs are addressed in the production. We use a component spec sheet that is filled out by the publisher and checked by our team that specifies what needs to be in each box. We then send samples of the pieces and printing to the client to check over before going into mass production. Lastly, before we send all of the games out to the client we send them a single game to check on the assembly and make sure everything is there. These are just the major checkpoints in our process, but there are many more built in to make sure everything is accounted for.”
“If you look at games made 10 years ago and games that are made now it is clear complexity has gone up across the board.”
Kinney adds that the need for flawless execution is growing as the tabletop industry continues to experience a gold rush of bigger and better projects – which in turn results in rising ambitions when it comes to manufacturing.
“The complexity has gone up across the board – if you look at games that were made 10 years ago and games that are made now it is clear to see that the amount of items and effort that go into each box has increased considerably,” he observes.
“The board game industry is definitely one where appearances matter, so component and printing quality is always improving and we strive to be on the leading edge of that. One of the cornerstones of our business is to make games that speak for themselves in regards to quality, so that is always something that is at the top of our mind.”
One such example of the tabletop’s growing aspirations is the recent tabletop spin-off of video game League of Legends, Mechs vs Minions. Developer Riot Games opted to shoot for the stars in terms of production quality, requesting pre-painted hero figurines, more than 100 enemy miniatures, custom dice, a sand timer and sealed envelopes reminiscent of Pandemic Legacy’s innovative structure alongside the regular scattering of cards, boards and tokens – all wrapped up in a $75 (£60) package. Who did Riot turn to in order to hit the ambitious goal for its debut? Panda, of course.
“Like any business, we want to stay on top of current trends and know what is going on around us, so knowing what type of game experiences that players want is very important to us,” Kinney says. “We have a team that comes from all sorts of backgrounds – consulting, insurance, finance, theology, technology – but the tie that binds us is that we are all passionate gamers, so having a team that already has their finger on the pulse of the gaming world is a huge help.
“In recent years we have seen that there have been a lot of games that have plastic miniatures and even painted miniatures and we have worked very hard to beef up our capabilities in that area to keep pace with the type of goodies gamers want to see inside their boxes.
“The biggest trends we have seen in the manufacturing have been at opposite ends of the spectrum. One thing that has become prevalent is plastic miniatures and sometimes pre-painted plastics – just look at the biggest funding games on Kickstarter. So levelling up our plastics manufacturing has been a big priority for projects like that. The other trend we have seen is micro games – Love Letter really led the way on this and there have been a ton of other small-footprint games to come out since then, so finding ways to pack a lot of gameplay into a small amount of components and getting multiple uses out of those components has been something we have worked on quite a bit, too.”
The call for more ostentatious production of board games stands in contrast to the cheap-and-cheerful stereotype of Chinese manufacturers often expressed by those in the West, but Kinney is quick to strike back at the accusation that ‘Made in China’ is synonymous with low-grade merchandise.
“High quality and quality control have always been big priorities for [us],” he retorts. “In fact, we chose our company name for the specific reason as to not shy away from the fact that our business is based in China – what is more Chinese than a panda?”
Panda's factory floor.
Panda’s work on a game doesn’t stop once the boxes pass through its doors and onto the shelves of retailers around the globe. With games produced in bursts rather than continually, the most successful titles end up being reprinted in order to satiate demand from players, returning their design to the rollers and cutters of the Panda factory floor.
“Reprints themselves do not represent too much of a challenge logistically, because all of the pre-production work has been done from the first print run and if there are no major changes, we can go directly into mass production of that game,” Kinney explains.
As any fervent fan of a smaller sleeper hit will tell you, however, it can often take years for a second print run of even a sell-out success to be approved, with players taking to online communities and forums to hunt down sought-after copies (at a premium price) and news of another batch. If the logistical barriers to another print run are so low, why is getting a reprint such a difficult task?
“There are a few reasons,” Kinney says. “First, the board game business is not one with large margins, so publishers often do a smaller print run initially for a new game because there is no guarantee if it is going to be well-received or not. The vast majority of games that are produced are single print run productions, so selling through a print run and being able to do a reprint is a big deal. Usually the indicators that the publisher gets for how well a game is doing are ‘lagging’ indicators – sales numbers, restocks – and when they do find out that their game would do well to be reprinted, the game may already be out of stock.
“The production process for a reprint will be faster than the first print run because all the files and pieces are already approved and they can go straight to production, but it still takes five to nine weeks depending on what the project is and the quantity ordered to have the games printed. Also, since the games get produced overseas – with us or other manufacturers – it takes time for those games to reach the shores of where they are being sold. It is also a matter of cash flow for the publishers why they don’t print their games in perpetuity; they want to be able to evaluate how a game is doing before committing those resources.”
“It is the highest compliment when a player or a publisher comes to us and says, ‘I played X game that you manufactured, it’s so well-made.’"
A similar challenge exists for designers taking their idea to crowdfunding platforms, with the economics of professional manufacturing presenting hard realities to creators regularly working in terms of hundreds or thousands, instead of tens or even hundreds of thousands.
“Our minimum order quantity is 1,500 games,” Kinney clarifies. “Anything below that really doesn’t make sense for us or the publisher based on the way our manufacturing is set up.”
Despite this impassable hurdle for many first-timers funding passion projects, Kinney adds that the exponential growth of crowdfunding’s wider popularity and accessibility has led to Panda needing to adjust to a scale of a different magnitude.
“We work on a lot of Kickstarter projects,” he says. “The biggest challenge that we have encountered with Kickstarter projects is the sheer number of projects that there are. When Kickstarter really exploded, we needed to hire on more account managers to keep up with the amount of requests we were getting from independent publishers about their Kickstarter games.”
While it’s a markedly different landscape to the state of the tabletop industry as recently as five years ago, Kinney maintains that having to adjust to the newly-open floodgates has ultimately been for the best.
“It has been a boon to our business for sure,” he effuses. “Kickstarter took down a lot of the barriers of entry that were present for producing board games – specifically the funding element – and knocked them right down.
“It has been really awesome that all these independent creators now have a means of getting their games to the public outside of traditional channels and a lot of innovative components and game designs have come from this Kickstarter crowd. It is definitely a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ type of situation for manufacturers and gamers.”
Games on display in Panda's production facility showroom.
The ability to follow the gestation of a tabletop title from idea to box on a shelf through designers’ online blogs, Kickstarter updates and Twitter accounts (once you dig through the obligatory snaps of cute animals and politically-charged opinions) has allowed players to understand the trials of making a game better than ever before. Although the level of consideration has never been higher, there remains a shroud between the efforts of creators and the reception of their audience.
“All of the time, effort and people that go into making that game,” Kinney responds when asked what players still fail to appreciate. “A game design may be worked on by the designer for a year or two. Then they may pitch it to publishers, which can take a lot of effort and weeks to months. Then the art needs to be made by the artists and the rules need to be laid out by their proofreaders. At that point, the game plan finally gets to the manufacturer, where it can take a few months to produce, and then the game will go into transit before it hits store shelves. So, literally, it can take years of work with the involvement of hundreds of people to produce the game that you are playing at your table.”
While the curtain continues to lift on the inner workings of the industry and the renown of designers, publishers and artists flourishes, Panda remains out of sight. In 2017, the manufacturer has already announced plans to produce the reprint of Colosseum for Tasty Minstrel, Gamelyn’s Tiny Epic Quest, and Charterstone, the promising competitive legacy game from Scythe author and critical darling Jamey Stegmaier – without naming the doubtless dozens or even hundreds of titles due for reveal and release at major shows such as Gen Con and Essen. Yet the sole credit received for its contribution to some of the industry’s next potential masterpieces will remain a minuscule logo hidden away on the back of each box, missed by those who don’t know where to look for it. It may seem disheartening, but Kinney is sanguine about the company’s legacy.
“We enjoy being behind the scenes in the game industry,” he stresses. “We think it is the highest compliment when a game player or a publisher comes to us and says, ‘I played X game that you manufactured, it’s so well-made.’
“The designers and publishers get their recognition – and rightfully so. We are just happy to help them realise their vision for these games.”
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.