Rats to Riches is a finance strategy board game. It featured in the London Toy Fair, caused a mini-viral sensation in the UK’s board game community, and it was invented by a guy I met in my first year. Eugene and I met at a society social, and throughout my course, I witnessed his game grow from a modest student beta test into a huge startup success all on my Facebook feed. In the past two years, I began growing a fascination with how a normal, full-time university student could create something so… complete. From conceptualising and designing a game, making the tokens and cards, and actually having people who want to buy and play it. How did Eugene do it? What had happened in between the time we met at the single social to when he was suddenly giving Ted talks about his game?
I sat down with Eugene at the Bright Building. It’s an open space floor plan and professionals with lanyards are brainstorming over coffee, and it’s all very impressive. “It’s actually not part of the University. It’s just a random building for start-ups. My office is actually just around there,” he points around a bend while we’re walking to a table. I learned that Eugene actually earned his office space through an accelerated start-up program provided by the Entrepreneurship Society at the University. But by that the time he applied for the program, he had already begun work on a board game.
The story starts when Eugene is volunteering with Enactors, teaching secondary school students in Manchester about economics. But early in, Eugene noticed that there were often consistency problems. During the exam season, volunteers could not commit to the hours, leaving Enactors short-staffed. “I wanted to make a board game that could teach economics even if we weren’t there.” It made sense; Eugene already found that volunteers needed to make games out of complex concepts like interest rates, lending, trading.
With just a humble idea began the steep learning curve at the beginning of Eugene’s second year. Youtube videos of board game reviews and of game design were a must for someone who had never played much more than Monopoly. Eugene also became invested in gaining knowledge through the board game community. He would show up to board game events he found on meetup.com with scraps of paper so people could test his proto-game, catalysing incremental steps of feedback and the product design of Rats to Riches.
Whilst talking to him, it was clear a lot of this feedback wasn’t always easy to hear. Criticisms of an early version of Rats to Riches at a game developer meeting was particularly harsh, “Yeah, they just ripped my game apart. ‘It’s too convoluted. There’s no element of luck or skill. The game plays the player etc. etc. They basically told me my game was shit…But that just made me want to prove them wrong.”
Rats to Riches was already in the throes of intense development when Eugene was chosen by the start-up program. With that, he suddenly had £1500, an office, and a mentor network program to support him. “I had no idea what to spend the money on. This board game takes like, what, £2 to produce? It’s just cards and tokens.” So, rationally, Eugene decided to make 1000 sets of Rats to Riches Beta (yes, he prints the word ‘BETA’ on the box).
He uses these sets to test the game with students and friends, but even late iterations of it were heavily criticised. 10 minutes of gameplay with one of his lecturers ended with a damning face-to-face review. “It was true. He told me that my game was too confusing, that it should be simple like chess, which only has six pieces but can interact in really complex ways. But it was hard. I realised that to incorporate his advice, Rats to Riches would look completely different to what I already had made.” In a move that speaks volumes about Eugene’s devotion to improvement, he did end up scrapping main elements of his game to design it from the ground up.
“But it wasn’t easy. I know when I’m telling it to you, it just sounds really fast. But it really wasn’t.” Early on, Eugene was putting in 13-15 hours of work a day, and his mental health began to deteriorate. “You just try so hard to make something out of nothing. And you’re just so aware all the time that it could so easily go back into nothing.” But something was born out of nothing. Using the remaining sets of Rats to Riches Beta, Eugene and one of his course mates began launching huge social media campaigns, asking board game savvy influencers to test their game and say their thoughts. Soon, Rats to Riches was a mini-sensation on Instagram.
Eugene was eventually invited to a meeting in Liverpool with Accentuate, a company that stocks board games in huge distributors like John Lewis and is backed by Dragons’ Den investor Peter Jones. “I just thought they wanted to talk. But I arrived and everyone was wearing suits while I just had a t-shirt and jeans on.” Accentuate had booked out the entire floor of a restaurant, and as Eugene sat down to dinner, they revealed that they wanted to buy the licenses to sell Rats to Riches. “I just remember listening to all of this and going, ‘No.’”
But eventually, with some more time to process their offer and iron out the exact terms, Eugene decided to partner with Accentuate. His board game will be sold all across the country.