Kill deer, get into Walmart: How ditching zombies allowed a dice game to find mainstream recognition

Kill deer, get into Walmart: How ditching zombies allowed a dice game to find mainstream recognition

The yearly report from Steve Jackson Games is a wealth of information about the board game industry, but one of the most interesting bits in the report is the news of a game called Trophy Buck making it into Walmart Stores. The game is number 12 on the company’s top 40 products by dollar volume, and it goes after a market you may not expect to be into when it comes to board and dice games.

Namely, people who are into hunting and shop at Walmart. These customers don’t know who Steve Jackson is, they likely aren’t aware of Munchkin, but a game where you get to try to kill as many deer as possible that is easy to throw in a bag and take with you? Yeah, they’ll look at that.

Here’s the fun bit, Trophy Buck is simply a reskinned version of Zombie Dice, a simple but enjoyable game most us in the geek community have been happily playing for years. Change the branding and the theme, change the audience. You don’t have to change the rules.

The power of aesthetics

This is part of Jackon’s push to get games into mainstream retail outlets, a move that seems to be going well. “In January 2012, our test of Munchkin in Target stores went system-wide,” the yearly report stated. “Almost every Target store now stocks Munchkin. And some are testing Munchkin Zombies! Later in the year, Trophy Buck passed its sales trial at Walmart and is now in most Walmart stores.” They later say it was specifically targeted at the mass market, and is enjoying solid sales.

Zombie Dice is a fun, easy to carry game where you roll dice, try to outscore your opponent, and press your luck as far as it will go. The game itself is neutral, it’s just a set of rules. The images on the dice and what they represent can be anything you want. This isn’t even the first time Steve Jackson has tried to increase the appeal of the game to a wider audience, there is also a version of the game that uses dinosaurs instead of zombies.

Dinosaurs and zombies still speak to a somewhat specific audience, however, and moving into hunting and Walmart stores gives Steve Jackson Games access to an audience they have never encountered. It’s a brilliant move, and the game is fun no matter what images are on the box. The game even ditches the tube of its predecessors for a nice camouflage bag for your dice.

The interesting bit is how much this tells us about why we pick up the games we play, and why we love them. If we’re browsing in a store, what does it take to get us to pick up a game and look it over? The image of the zombie will bring in one group, the dinosaurs another, and the hunting aesthetics yet a third.

There is nothing stopping further versions of the game. Why not create a version that directly appeals to young gamers who like to play with princesses and place it near the dolls? One could imagine stores like Walmart stock four versions of the game in different portions of the store, selling them to different demographic groups, and no one realizing that everyone is playing the same game.

This sort of thing is popular in mainstream board games, and I’ve lost count of the variations of Operation I’ve seen on the shelves of toy stores, but hunting, zombies, and dinosaurs are themes, not properties. There are no licensing fees. No need to create a new game. Just a way of getting that same game into the hands of players who may not be interested in walking into a comic book or game store and picking up a package with a zombie on it.

It’s also interesting how much a simple change of aesthetics completely messes with the feel of the game. In Zombie Dice you were a zombie trying to avoid shotguns and eating brains. You could tell each other little stories about what happened in each roll; there was a metagame in there if you wanted to find it. In Trophy Buck you’re a hunter trying to shoot deer while avoiding spooking your prey. The game is exactly the same, but the movie playing in your head is completely different.

The fun bit is that, in digital versions of games, you can have your cake and eat it too. Imagine a digital version of a game like Zombie Dice, or Trophy Buck, that was designed for multiplayer. One player is enjoying eating brains, the other is trying to hunt deer, and they're both playing the same game against each other but on different screens. My kids aren't fighting over what game they want to play with each other due to mechanics, they want to play a game with certain characters or themes. Reskinning each game, and showing that version of the game's reality to each player is a powerful way to bring people together.

Hell, you could even change the violence level of a game. Let's say you're playing a game where you have to bring two pieces together to remove them from the board. My screen could show a space marine shooting an alien in the head. My kid's screen could show the prince and princess kissing, and then running off together to the castle. We're playing the same game, and the end result is exactly the same, but the story is different. We're both telling ourselves different stories in our head, while interacting on the same game board.

Again, this usually happens with licensing agreements with physical products, but the idea of creating games that are fun but removed from a core aesthetic and then laying different themes on top is powerful, and we've yet to really explore the idea and bring it to an interesting conclusion.

For now though? I'm going to hunt some bucks. I only wish I could have released a version of this story with an image of a zombie instead of a deer at the top, and then test how many of you clicked on it. I bet I know how that would have turned out.