When Darwin’s Journey launched onto Kickstarter at the beginning of 2021, the world was beginning to show small signs of optimism that the Covid-19 pandemic that had gripped the globe for the previous 12 months was starting to lose ground.
But despite a vaccine rollout across many countries in December 2020, a post-Christmas surge saw cases reach a record high of 3.8 million by late January – and it became clear that the virus which had shut down large parts of the world was far from done impacting people’s lives.
That spelled terrible news for Darwin’s Journey – the first worker placement Eurogame from Spain-based publisher Thundergryph Games – despite a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign that funded on day one, and ended with more than €1m from almost 17,000 backers.
Thundergryph had initially projected a 10-month production, assembly and shipping process for the game, but five months later it was clear the ongoing Covid-19 disruption was taking its toll on the timeline.
By January of 2022, production times at Thundergryph’s Chinese manufacturing partner Panda had doubled compared to pre-pandemic – and shipping prices were now also rocketing, as supply chain bottlenecks caused container ships to be stranded off the coasts of countries waiting to unload their cargo.
Gonzalo Aguirre Bisi, the founder of Darwin’s Journey publisher Thundergryph Games, told BoardGameWire, “Covid was already there… but it kicked so strong that prices rose a lot, for freight and production.
“That was the main challenge we had, and I had to take a decision – and I communicated to the community that ‘we’re just holding on a little bit for the prices to lower’.
“That little bit became a lot. But that saved the company, because we didn’t spend that much on freight, but [instead] normal prices that we were almost expecting.
“[Those] were definitely higher than my calculations when I did the business plan for this game, but were not like something that could just destroy completely all the margins we had.”
Bisi put a stop to every one of the company’s reprints, every new production and all freight forwarding that was not already in transit, and put his working-as-usual team into “a huge creative sprint”, focusing heavily on the Darwin’s Journey rulebook and on developing new games.
That push came with a promise to his team and the Darwin’s Journey backers that Thundergryph would “never ask for a dime” of extra money in order to get the game over the line – “If I have to take a loan, I will get a loan”, he said.
It’s impossible not to compare Darwin’s Journey’s positive outcome to that of the now hugely controversial board game adaptation of the Rainbow Six: Siege video game, which saw Mythic Games raise over $1m from close to 11,000 backers in mid-2021.
While Thundergryph were battening down the hatches, Mythic overspent on development and brought in extra staff to work on the game for longer than planned – and has now asked backers for up to $249 each in order to receive their copy of the game at all. Customers who agreed to fork out the extra money are not expecting to receive the game until at least November – which would be almost 18 months after the initial estimate.
Bisi’s decision to hunker down and ride out the storm, meanwhile, saw Darwin’s Journey backers begin to receive their Kickstarter copies from late February this year – a year and three months after the expected delivery date, but without any change to the costs for contributors.
Bisi kicked off his own career in video games, briefly working in Mexico before launching his own studio based out of Rome.
But stumbling across a Wil Wheaton video about Small World in 2012 turned him onto modern board games, and by 2016 he had moved on from video games to launch Thundergryph with debut game Overseers, a drafting and bluffing card game.
He said, “When I started, I had never imagined to publish a game this complex.
“I wanted to focus on family plus, which is our comfort zone. But eventually, I started to become a huge Eurogamer – worker placement in general. And at that point, I met [Darwin’s Journey co-designer Simone Luciani] for the first time at a small convention in Italy, which is dedicated just to game designers.”
Luciani, already a growing name in modern board games thanks to Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, The Voyages of Marco Polo and Grand Austria Hotel, was playtesting an expansion for Lorenzo Il Magnifico at the time.
Bisi tried it, the pair hit it off, and after meeting him again a couple of years later Luciani invited Bisi to play games including his new design, Barrage, at his summer vacation address, which happened to be about an hour from Bisi’s home.
While there Bisi pitched the idea of running a crowdfunding campaign for a Simone Luciani design – and was hit with a surprise proposition.
He said, “He requested to develop a game. So he was not just showing me or pitching games that he already did, but instead he wanted to start from scratch.
“This is something you don’t do when you’re a publisher – just saying okay to sign a design that you don’t know what will come through with it.
“But eventually, if you trust a lot the designer as I did with Simone I said, ‘I will be okay with anything you will do for us’.”
Luciani’s co-designer on 2018 game Newton, Nestore Mangone, soon joined the project too, tempted by working with Luciani again and designing a game around another famous scientist – but for the first time starting with the theme, and building the mechanics around it.
That process quickly saw them come up with Darwin’s Journey, about retracing the scientist’s trip through the Galapagos Islands which formed the spark for his groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species.
The game started out as a deckbuilder, but that idea had been scrapped within a month and a half in favour of a worker placement game, which kept the group’s initial desire to build something around combos and specialised workers.
Bisi said, “All the rest, it was just basically a modular work, where you’re just trying to make something interesting and trying to just intertwine between all of the different mechanisms. And that was it.”
Despite Bisi’s long experience of Kickstarter campaigns – which included pulling in several thousand backers each for Tao Long, Spirits of the Forest and Iwari, and more than 10,000 for Tang Garden – he said the surge of interest for Darwin’s Journey caught him off guard.
He said, “You can have excellent pre-marketing, and getting leads, and all of that, then at the end when the product is revealed, if that resonates with the community, it will be a blast. If not, it will be a struggle.
And we never know… so eventually, we expected around 10,000 backers, which is more or less what we did with when we launched Tang garden.
“But basically the only one that really felt that this this could be a hit was Nestore Mangone, because we made a bet before and his was the only one very, very much further down the list. He said 14,000 backers, and I just laughed when he said that.”
Darwin’s Journey drew in about 16,700 backers – more than Thundergryph’s two previous Kickstarter campaigns combined. Bisi has taken the plunge with a hefty initial print run of 40,000 copies for distribution to campaign backers and across North America, Europe and Asia, confident that Darwin’s Journey has struck a chord with board gamers in the same way it sparked his own excitement to keep playing the game.
Bisi said, “In the last three months before launch, I promised my game developer to play a game of Darwin’s journey with a chess clock. And we basically played two player games every night, for three months straight.
“And it was incredible that when we were working in our daily lives, I was always thinking about that match. I was always excited for that match. So that gave me a sense that we had something interesting in our hands.”
He added, “It definitely helps having a very vocal Kickstarter community on our side – they have been very kind, very patient, supportive. And they can be great salesmen, when they like something, they will just say it.
“…One of our missions with our 30 journeys line is that we want to make games that you want to get to know better, the more you play them. And I think there is something about Darwin’s journey that tickles, to just keep going and try to understand the entire range of variables that the game has, and just try different things.
“I’m having fun reading on BGG people that just talk about what is the most effective strategy. And there are people very vocal about the Theory of Evolution, which is partially right. But I’ve won plenty of games without focusing almost anything on delivering specimens, for example, and Simone Luciani kicked us on our live stream during the campaign without almost getting a single wax seal for his workers.
“So there are ways to beat it. But it always depends on what variables come through at the beginning of the game. And that might be something that just pushes our community to keep exploring the game and keep enjoying it.”
Darwin’s Journey’s Kickstarter edition came packaged with the game’s first expansion, Fireland, which is set to be sold separately in retail. And Bisi revealed that another expansion for the game is in the works, albeit not for release until at least next year.
Prior to that, though, is another Simone Luciani design, this time in collaboration with Lorenzo Il Magnifico co-designer Virginio Gigli, as Thundergryph looks to further expand its line in games for experienced players in addition to its family-plus level offerings.
Bisi said, “We have two different audiences now, and it’s an interesting fact that from the almost 17,000 backers we have on Darwin’s journey, 12,000 of them are completely new.
“…so that means that they’re definitely looking forward to see what’s next in the experienced gamer category. And we definitely want to do more of that.”
First up is a game tentatively titled Etherstone, which riffs off of Luciani and Gigli’s love of Magic: The Gathering.
Bisi said, “We’re not doing a collectible game, but it’s definitely very interesting because it breaks a bit what they are used to developing. They are both huge fans of the genre and they wanted to pay homage to that kind of games with a very interesting concept. And we should launch that probably at the beginning of 2024.”
“…The second one, it will continue our scientists line and it will be focused on Galileo Galilei. The most interesting aspect about this this game is that you have the church chasing you.
“They want to burn you for what you’re doing. So everything you do, you are advancing your pawn over that track, which gives you a lot of penalties. And it is so difficult. I think that it’s a little bit of a step up from Darwin’s journey, challenging to develop.
“But we hopefully will release that one too in 2024. We don’t have a name yet – we just started with the execution, so art direction alongside game development.
“There is a lot we have learned for Darwin, and I think we want to apply this on this game.”