In a small, downtown Vancouver workspace fringed with pop-culture sci-fi posters, figurines and plants with hanging vines, a local group of board game designers kick back on a leather sofa and reflect on a recent major milestone of their business.
Last month, the company, Orange Nebula, ended the largest Kickstarter campaign to come out of Vancouver; it raised $1,136,587 for its newest, highly anticipated board game called Unsettled.
“We’re overjoyed,” said Marc Neidlinger, owner and founder of Orange Nebula.
The board game isn’t your typical Monopoly-type game, and it’s not exactly targeted toward the average person. But the Kickstarter success shows the popularity of Orange Nebula in the board-game industry, which is rapidly growing worldwide as more complex and visually stunning games like Unsettled enter the market.
The game will cost between $100 and $200, Neidlinger said, although the final price hasn’t been set. This month, Orange Nebula will open a pre-order store, and Neidlinger expects the game to ship by October.
Orange Nebula is hiring more workers and expanding into its workspace as the company preps for the release of Unsettled, Neidlinger said.
Unsettled brings players into a deep-space setting, where characters are sucked through a wormhole and lost with a damaged spaceship. Players have to work together as they land on different planets, scour for resources and try to survive as a team.
“They’re either going to die or they’re going to live by coming together,” said Tom Mattson, vice president of Orange Nebula. “They have to find food. They have to repair their ship’s ability to restore their oxygen. They have to get water — very basic survival things.”
Trust is a central theme that game designers embedded into every move. If a player uses one resource for personal, short-term gain, then a physical trust meter decreases, having a ripple effect across other aspects of the game.
“The concept is group cohesion,” said Neidlinger. “We wanted to make a game that was cooperative.”
The game also harnesses different kinds of science to spark interest.
“As they’re discovering (planets), they’re gaining expertise in formal, applied and natural science,” Neidlinger said. “They use them for scientific breakthroughs, which will allow them to make concoctions and do advance programming for their robots, and the robot can help them do things. There’s a lot of deep science behind those things.”
Unsettled’s prototypes are in testing phase, he said.
Each planet is a different experience, and each serves as an expansion of the game. You can buy planets as Orange Nebula releases them in the future. Each expansion planet will cost about $15.
The planet Wenora, for example, is a fungal-based planet, where giant mushrooms cover the ground. Players risk exposure to spores and becoming a fungal host, but the effects aren’t all negative: it gives them good abilities “because then the planet trusts them and treats them as a friend,” Mattson said.
Unsettled involves deeper strategy than most board games, so the team at Orange Nebula wouldn’t recommend it to casual gamer who plays Monopoly every once in awhile.
“This is targeted toward people who have board gaming as part of their lifestyle,” Neidlinger said. “That’s not to say it’s exclusive to that group. This is not a party game. This isn’t a game where you’re going to have a bunch of drinks over and you’re going to go really light. This is a game where you’re going to set it up, go through rules, and spend an hour learning the game.”
Their targeted audience, people who they say are “hobby gamers,” are a rapidly growing market. Technavio, a market-research company, said that the board games market is expected to increase by $5.81 billion from 2020 to 2024. Part of the reason is the increasing quality of design and gameplay of board games.
“This is a very popular segment in entertainment,” Mattson said. “A lot of people do this. It’s a very large market.”
Orange Nebula started as a side business to Neidlinger’s graphic design company, Blue Blazes. Both businesses work in the same space at 219 W. Fourth St. and share employees and resources.
Neidlinger graduated from Western Oregon University in 1994 and founded Blue Blazes in Portland in 2000 before moving it to Vancouver.
About five years ago, as Blue Blazes trucked on, Neidlinger was feeling sad and depressed, he said.
“I needed to unlock something inside myself,” he said.
On the side, he started making a board game and involving employees in the design and mechanics of the game.
“We love building world,” he said. “We come from a writing, design background. We’re super qualified to do this.”
So he founded Orange Nebula, met Mattson through the Kickstarter platform, hired Mattson and launched a Kickstarter campaign for his first game, Vindication. It earned $211,643 on Kickstarter.
“We just took a swing and went for it, and look what happened,” he said.
In April 2018, he moved the companies back to Portland to put Blue Blazes into a bigger market. Orange Nebula “really started to boom,” he said. Vindication had started winning industry awards and a Kickstarter for a reprint garnered more than $180,000.
But it wasn’t all good. The traffic was bad, the space was too small, and one of their employees died. So after a year, it felt right to move back to Vancouver, he said.
After arriving back in Vancouver, Blue Blazes has been gaining steam. Its fingerprints are all around downtown Vancouver; it’s done design work for Relevant Coffee, the Hurley building, LSW Architects, the Grant Street Pier and The Community Foundation, Neidlinger said.
Orange Nebula and Blue Blazes will employ 12 to 15 people within the next few years, he said.
“We all feel better here,” he said. “This is where our roots are.”
Neidlinger plans on launching another Kickstarter campaign before the year ends, he said. It’s an expansion of Vindication, and the product will be “something unique.”