Plaid Hat Then and Now
Thoughts from Colby Dauch
Plaid Hat Games is once again an independent tabletop game studio, wholly owned by myself, Colby Dauch, the original founder of the studio. This is a significant event as I know of no other American tabletop game company to have been bought by a larger organization only to later return to independence. And so, seeing as how some attention may now be turned our way, I wanted to briefly tell the story of Plaid Hat Games and share my vision for its future.
I formed Plaid Hat Games in 2009, and I had no background in business and little experience in game design. What I had was a game I believed in, talented friends, and a fire in my belly.
That game was Summoner Wars and the first talented friend I called upon was David Richards, a graphic designer and fellow Heroscape enthusiast. Dave established the visual design of both Plaid Hat as a brand and Summoner Wars.
I have vivid sense memories of the anxiety and adrenaline in those early days of introducing Summoner Wars to the hobby games community. I created a website, articles, a BoardGameGeek.com page, ads. I called upon more friends to help me staff booths at BGG.Con, PAX East, Origins and GenCon. We used to pack games floor to celling into the back of an old burgundy minivan borrowed from my grandparents, and drive them across the country. We stacked people up like cordwood into a single hotel room. Someone slept in a bathtub! We demoed games of Summoner Wars for eight hours straight each day, our breaks lasting just long enough to run to the bathroom.
I had no idea what I was doing. Everything was an adventure and a crisis. Summoner Wars found an audience and in between a day job, fatherhood, creating expansions and hawking my wares I found time to reach out to Jerry Hawthorne. Jerry was another Heroscaper. He and I had been working together on fan creations since 2005 and had gone on to work together in an official capacity for Hasbro on Heroscape and Battleship Galaxies. I wanted to know, if Jerry were to design a game, what would that game be? Later that year at GenCon I sat down with Jerry and played my first game of Mice and Mystics on a painstakingly handcrafted prototype.
It continued on like this, rolling over money earned from one print run to fund another print run and launch new games designed by friends, like Mr. Bistro’s Dungeon Run and Isaac Vega’s City of Remnants. Bistro was yet another creative member of the Heroscape community and Isaac was an aspiring game designer local to me, who I met because his mom (who went to church with me) found out I published board games.
Plaid Hat Games had a strong focus on community. Many of us had found one another through the community we helped build as fans of Heroscape and I wanted to run a game company that contained some of that same magic. So we had community forums, started a podcast, met people at conventions, invited members of the community to help us playtest our games, and generally did our best to be approachable and to let people watch us make the sausage.
Jump forward to 2014. Plaid Hat was experiencing some growing pains. We were struggling to keep up with the immediate success of the Vega/Gilmour hit, Dead of Winter. That’s when the offer came from our French language partner – F2Z Entertainment. F2Z was formed when Filosofia (Canadian distributor and French language game publisher) purchased the publisher Z-Man Games, and they had their eye on their next acquisition, us. I never set out with any intention to sell Plaid Hat Games, but when the offer came in, I agreed to it. I had a variety of reasons for doing so, including a personal life that had its share of turmoil, and the offer was opportune. The fact that I would continue to manage the studio and bring my entire team with me, made it feel like a no-brainer.
Selling a business that you built does something to a person. It has a big impact on your identity. For me, it felt like I had suddenly reached the culmination of my life’s work. I wasn’t able to properly judge just how much different my level of control would become. If it had just been me, I think I would have learned to be comfortable simply doing my best to execute the plans my superiors handed down. To be comfortable taking “no” or “wait” as an answer. But it wasn’t just me. Everyone that worked at Plaid Hat had taken ownership of it. It’s what I encouraged. Everyone knew they could advocate directly for their ideas and that I would often make their vision part of the Plaid Hat vision. At the very least, I’d be able to speak about the obstacles that we would first need to overcome. My team still looked to me to be able to provide that, and when I couldn’t I really felt like I was failing them.
Selling Plaid Hat was not the only blow to my identity. My family life was troubled and I had become depressed. The convention halls that had once been a source of such excitement and energy had become haunted for me. I would look around at the stacks and stack of new games from so many companies and wonder if all any of us were doing was creating white noise. So, yeah, I was pretty fun to be around at parties.
A year later in 2015, the French game company Asmodee acquired F2Z Entertainment and with them, Plaid Hat Games. Plaid Hat, and its staff, remained intact through another major transition. In 2018 Asmodee was acquired by European private equity firm PAI Partners. There are a lot of nice things I could say about our time at Asmodee, but I also want to respect the confidentiality of their internal operations. Suffice to say we learned a lot during our time at Asmodee, met some great, supportive folks, and, after being acquired twice, in February of 2020 I finalized a deal that makes Plaid Hat Games an independent studio under my ownership again.
While I’m very excited about this, it doesn’t come without a share of grief. Some of our most popular titles are off to other Asmodee studios, who I think will do great work with them, but it means our revenue is no longer at a place that it could continue to support our current staff size. It was the first time I had ever had to let go of employees. Each one of them was a talented team member and a fantastic human being. It was agony. I’ve written and deleted so many words here, because I can only talk about how I felt doing this and it just seems like a violation to make that narrative about me. So, I’ll move on to the other big blow. Isaac didn’t want to come with us as we departed Asmodee. I found myself doing mental gymnastics trying to figure out a way to convince him to stay. But after trying angle after angle, I paused and realized this hadn’t been an easy decision for Isaac and that it was painful for him to keep saying no. And so I knew that I needed to relent, a hard thing for me to do, and just support his decision. Isaac has not just forever left his mark on Plaid Hat Games, but on me as well. My life is so much better for knowing him. Our friendship continues and I, not-so-secretly, hope that we will get to work together in some capacity in the future.
But despite the sadness that comes with change, my overwhelming feeling now is one of excitement. That funk I spoke of earlier? A year ago I finally came to the realization that pulled me out of my existential spiral. It is a simple one, though it escaped me for so long. Joy. Life and survival cannot only be about the aversion of suffering. Joy is its counterpart. Joy and Love are life’s great rewards. Now, through that lens, my years spent crafting board games don’t look so meaningless. Creating joy feels like truly important work, and I have a renewed vigor for it. Which is why, when the opportunity came to buy back Plaid Hat, I seized upon it.
This new sense of purpose far outshines my original drives when starting Plaid Hat. People used to ask me, when Plaid Hat was really starting to grow quickly, if I had ever imagined it would get to where it is. My answer was always yes, that from the beginning of starting the company I always had my eye on the top. In fact, I would look at companies like Fantasy Flight Games and envision having that kind of success someday. I was always driven by what was next, and the desire to grow, grow, grow. But that vision has changed. I no longer care about hitting some moving target that I can convince myself equals success. What I want to do now is to create connections, to facilitate joy and to support my family, as well as the families of those who have come alongside me, while doing it. That’s all the success I need.
So what does the future hold for Plaid Hat? My friends, I am bouncing with excitement to tell you. Here’s just a little taste of the projects we are working on right now:
- Forgotten Waters is our first offering as a newly independent studio. It is a Crossroads Game developed by Isaac Vega and other key, long-time, members of our staff – J. Arthur Ellis and Mr. Bistro. It represents the most time and energy we’ve ever poured into single title and it is an absolute riot. Consider visiting preorder.fwcrossroads.com to learn more about it.
- Jerry Hawthorne has been named Chief Creative Officer at our studio and he is already hard at work on a new charming, narrative-driven adventure that we are expecting to be ready for release sometime later next year.
- I am revisiting Summoner Wars (!) and have some big plans around launching a second edition, so be on the lookout for more information coming on that.
- We are reviving the Plaid Hat Podcast as a way to connect with our customers and give them insight into the creative process that goes on behind the scenes at Plaid Hat Games.
So, here’s to new adventures and lasting friendships. I want to give a great big, giant THANK YOU to all of those who have supported us throughout the years. We appreciate the support and love you have given us, and hope to keep earning it for years to come.
- Colby Dauch