“I almost lost my lunch when I saw the invoice that came along with that order,” Inside Up Games founder Conor McGoey tells me, describing his decision to “bet it all on black” and print an enormous 25,000 English language copies of plant-themed tableau builder Earth.
That decision might not seem so high-risk at this point – Earth has been a mainstay near the top of the BoardGameGeek Hotness since, and upon its release on April 22 this year – Earth Day – immediately sold out its initial run.
But for McGoey, it was a huge choice to make. Earth’s storming Kickstarter had seen it notch up several thousand backers for the English language version alone, but as a small Canadian board games publisher, getting the numbers wrong and overordering stock could have proved fatal to the firm.
McGoey said, “I was recommended to probably stay to 10,000 or 12,000, maybe 15,000 for that first [English language] print run, because we needed about six or seven thousand for the original Kickstarter. But I have a lot of friends in the industry, and we meet regularly to chat about different things, and learning from some of their past experiences and expectations I really didn’t want to be caught with the idea that the game does explode, and then I have this five-to-six-month window of no stock, and angry distribution partners or angry retail partners or customers unable to get the product.
“So I bet it all on black, as they say, ordered 25,000 copies, English copies, for the first print run, which is massive for us – it’s not an inexpensive game to make.”
He added, “Everything was basically sold out before it was even released, which is a really good feeling… now we have a good number of our localisation partners doing reprints as well, and they’re just flabbergasted because of how fast the game has sold for them – faster than almost anything that they’ve carried.”
McGoey has already ordered another “mini-print” run of 10,000 copies and is prepping for another order based on number submitted from retailers – and is now in the position of having to think in terms of ordering in numbers of shipping containers rather than numbers of individual copies.
“What I could see happening, and being more likely for us, is trying to keep the order quantity on the lower end, which is still high, but not ordering 40,000, but maybe 20,000, but just have it on a much more common reprint… then we don’t have a large amount of games sitting anywhere, and if something went sideways for us, we also aren’t stuck sitting on 40,000 games that nobody wants.”
So what’s been the basis of Earth’s appeal? I know from personal experience that the game’s art style is a huge draw, with people at my local board game café in south London constantly drifting across to check out the game when someone gets it to the table. But good looks alone can’t account for Earth’s phenomenal success.
McGoey, who founded Inside Up in 2016 said, “We’ve been lucky enough that all of our campaigns have successfully funded and over-funded, and some of them quite well for us. But none of them have truly exploded in the way Earth exploded for us.
“There were a bunch of things that worked in our favour for that Kickstarter campaign, and a bunch of things you couldn’t really qualify or quantify until after it was done. The simplest of which ended being the fact that during the prep process for the Kickstarter, we usually reach out to our localization partners to see who’s interested in signing the games. And we’d shipped off a prototype of Earth into the EU, but as usual, whenever we’re in a rush, the damn thing gets held up in, usually German, customs. It ended up just being stuck there for weeks on end, and as the date loomed closer, and I needed to get that same copy shipped around to multiple partners, I knew we were running out of time. So I brought in a gentlemen to script and develop the TableTop Simulator mod for Earth, and that allowed me to show the game to these partners online and have people actually play and experience the game.”
He continued, “Because that was available, we also included it as a free playable link before and during the campaign, then all the excitement and hype for the game just kind of grew naturally at a grass roots level.”
The roots of Earth’s eventual blossoming as an Inside Up game go back to 2017, when McGoey was publishing his debut – and self-designed – game Summit. Earth designer Maxime Tardif had just created his own debut game, BrilliAnts, and the pair “hit it off” when they met at GenCon as designers going through their first experience of getting a game manufactured. The pair remained friends and kept in touch over the years, and when Maxime’s girlfriend asked him to create a game about plants just before the pandemic, the seeds were sown for an opportunity for the pair to work together for the first time.
McGoey said, “Once he’d gotten fairly far along, I’d say it was nearly complete when he approached me and a couple other publishing companies to have a look at Earth and see what we thought. And I had the prototype sent up, and I played it. And as soon as I played it, I saw that there was definitely something special about the game. And my gut told me it was gonna do very well, because my initial reaction was, even upon playing his homemade prototype, I was more interested in playing it than my copy of terraforming Mars. So that would seem like a pretty good sign.
“The funny part was, not a lot of people know that it was actually brought it to my testers to play. And we tested it out, and they were lukewarm about it, which was super surprising to me as I thought it would be right up their alley. So I actually just made them play it, like, ‘I think you guys missed something here. Let’s go’. I made them play it all again, at which point something changed, and they clearly all fell in love with it.”
Maxime’s diligence to Earth’s theme, and his commitment to creating a fast, entertaining strategy game was apparent in an extensive designer’s diary he shared to BoardGameGeek early last year. Key elements of his design included a huge effort balancing the hundreds of plant cards, while keeping them thematically on-point – fungus cards triggering composting actions, for example.
Finding and creating Earth’s much lauded art to go with those hundreds of plants cards was a “massive task”, McGoey said, with no one photographer being physically able to capture all the images they needed. Purchasing individual photos for the art was the only solution, with the downside being the team spent months working solely on photoshop treatments to give the huge variety of images a sense of consistency – a process that didn’t actually provide the results they were looking for.
McGoey said, “The issue that we ran into is with so much of the natural world having green in it, especially long, thin green, as soon as you put any sort of filter or effect on them that reduced the image quality in any way… then you would lose what it actually was – you just have a bunch of cards that looked like they had green lines on them.”
Ultimately the team had to change tack, doing as little editing of images to keep them as authentic and real as possible – and that meant spending much more time carefully sourcing photos which seemed like they were all part of the same set.
McGoey said, “It was little things such as – which no one I don’t think has noticed or commented on – making sure that there is no manmade apparatus or changes to those landscapes, to make sure there’s no houses, powerlines, roads. And I know of two images on which I failed – you’d have to look to find those two things. But I was trying my best to make sure that it was just natural world, without any sort of human influence.”
Earth’s success has naturally meant big changes at Inside Up. McGoey said the business had a good first couple of years when he was also running a construction company, which helped keep the business ticking over, before hitting a lean couple of years just before the pandemic. After Summit the company put out Vault Assault and Gorus Maximus, as well as several expansions – including the well regarded Teams co-op expansion for Summit, which created a boost of interest for the game when South Park creator Trey Parker unveiled it as his top board game of all time on The Dice Tower. Block and Key, released in 2022, also sold well, giving the company a bit of breathing space to what was then a two-person team.
McGoey said one of the hardest adjustments to Earth’s popularity had been the sheer amount of time the game is demanding as a successful project. Inside Up has now expanded to six team members, in order to cope with the reprint of Earth in addition to its two other games currently in the manufacturing process, another about to enter manufacturing and two more Kickstarters to run this year – as well as the inevitable Earth expansion which he says is “in the works”.
He said, “When you have a massive hit like Earth, the amount of work that comes along with it – I mean, it makes sense, it’s logical, but still – it’s an insane amount of work. One of our workers is basically just not able to do his other tasks. He’s basically just a full time customer service rep, responding to, you know, Kickstarter comments, direct messages, comments through different social media forums, just trying to keep backers happy and explain to them any issues, or getting them spare parts or fixing problems or finding shipping errors. Basically it has our entire team occupied just trying to run this one game.
“One of the hires last year and one upcoming hire is due to some Canadian government grants to help out with small businesses. So that allowed us to bring in one full-time employee last year, and then we’re in the process of the application, waiting for approval to bring in another full-time employee as well.
“So I could see us probably bringing in another one to two employees, and then hopefully that will stabilize our ship for a little while. Because I don’t have some worldwide goal of running a company with 400 employees, I still want to have all of our enjoyment and all of our touch on these projects. Because we enjoy what we do.”