Fabulous Beasts takes tabletop gaming into the 21st century

Fabulous Beasts is digital, physical, animal, crossover game with tall ambitions. On the surface it looks like Jenga played with the inhabitants of London Zoo. Go deeper and you’ll find bears, eagles and hippos fighting for fabulousness in an ecologically unstable world. Take that, chess.

Existing on both an iPad and the surface of a table, Fabulous Beasts aims to combine traditional tabletop fun with app-based gaming. It’s an interesting proposition; one that taps into the appetite for tactility seen in digital games like Disney InfinityTo mark the launch of the game’s Kickstarter campaign we spoke to Alex Fleetwood, co-founder of Sensible Object – the company behind Fabulous Beasts. He outlined the game’s production plan, as well as what his company learnt from manufacturing in China.

Alex Fleetwood: We make games in hardware and software, combining the best of tabletop and digital play. Our first game, Fabulous Beasts, has just launched over at Kickstarter. The game uses sensors to track objects as they are balanced in a tower, transforming a stacking game into a magical experience of gods and creation.

With Fabulous Beasts we wanted to make a game that takes the best from physical games, which are intuitive to play and tactile, and the best from digital, which are reactive and dynamic. So it’s a mixture of both, where you’re building a tower on your tabletop out of beast-shaped pieces, then seeing them pop into a fabulous world on the screen of a connected tablet or smartphone.

It’s about balancing building a strong tower with making careful tactical decisions over when you place each piece, and the object is to build the most fabulous world you can before your tower falls.

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We see Fabulous Beasts as the next generation of ‘toys to life’ games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity. I think these games, which are made by massive multinational companies, only scratched at the surface of what you can do when you introduce a physical dimension to a videogame, and so Fabulous Beasts is our step to expanding the concept.

Thinking globally

Kickstarter is a rapidly maturing platform for independent creators like us who want to realise their grand ideas. Backers are alert to projects that promise the earth but can’t show how they will deliver, and (very reasonably) want to be reassured that we are capable of manufacturing the rewards and sending them out. So our year of development has been roughly divided into two tracks: making a game that’s fun and enjoyable, and making a production plan that’s solid and reliable. This is the story of how we got to the production plan. 

The first thing we had to learn was the important distinction between a prototype and a product. It’s comparatively straightforward to make single things. 3D printing, Arduino and hiring a bunch of people smarter than I am got us that far. But making thousands of something requires an entirely different skill-set.alexfleetwood

(Above: Alex Fleetwood)

In order to access that we had to think globally. Over the last year, we’ve researched many different kinds of high-volume manufacturing processes and taken advice from experts. Our first visit to Shenzhen, China was a huge eye-opener: manufacturing is the lifeblood of the city, a teeming ecosytem of factories specialising in every single kind of making process.

“We spent an enlightening and quite embarrassing day at a prototyping factory with some plastics engineers”

Our prototype, as it was at the time, would have cost us about $200,000 dollars just for the injection moulding tools necessary to set up the plastic part manufacturing process. We spent an enlightening and quite embarrassing day at a prototyping factory (amusingly, the volumes that they consider prototyping in China are the volumes we were thinking were high volume manufacture), with some plastics engineers peering at our game pieces and explaining the reality of what happens when you shoot molten plastic at a steel mould.

We came back armed with two things: what we needed to do to change our game to make it manufacturable, and a cold certainty that we needed a lot of help to get through the process. 

The journey of making

Fortunately, we were invited to join Hardware Club, a community of hardware startups from around the world that share knowledge and support one another on the journey of making and scaling new products. Thanks to that network, we got to know a Hong Kong-based company called JDH Sourcing. JDH have over 25 years’ experience in making toys and games. They have forgotten more about how to make stuff at scale than we’ll ever know, and that makes them a brilliant partner for us.

Tim and Chris, our product designer and engineer, visited them at the end of last year. Here’s a video about what they discovered and what they saw in China’s factories.

So where are we now, and why should people be willing to invest their hard-earned money in a copy of our game? Our latest prototype is now very close (in terms of the physical form factor of all the plastic stuff, and the design of the electronics) to the final version. We know the factory we’ll be working with to make the game. We know the components list, the cost of each part, and we have a pretty good idea of how the assembly and testing process. We know the deadlines and milestone for the remaining production elements, and have published it on our page. We’ve spoken with a number of logistics partners, and understand how the games get from factory floor to warehouse to local country distributor to your door. And we know that we mostly don’t know stuff but we know the people who do.

“I get to be an idiot and have things explained to me by smart people pretty much every day”

One of my favourite things about being a CEO is that fact I get to be an idiot and have things explained to me by smart people pretty much every day. It’s a great privilege to learn stuff, and learning how toys and electronics get made has been particularly chewy and interesting.

If you’d like to learn more, I really recommend the Hardware Club Directory. And feel free to ask me anything (well, I say me, I mean those smart people I was just referring to).

One of the developers behind Fabulous Beasts is also a creator and curator of Twitterbots. We spoke to him about the ethics behind making semi-autonomous twitter creations.

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